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  • The Trouble with Human Rights
  • Daniel Worden (bio)
A review of Robert Meister, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

In After Evil, Robert Meister provocatively documents the emergence of, the ethics of, and the regrettable lack of political change demanded by our contemporary understanding of human rights. This ambitious and persuasive book charts human rights as an ethical philosophy, a symbolic relation between subjects, and a pervasive ideology of our own relationship to history, as well as a rationale for the deferral of material, economic and political change. Within the contemporary logic of human rights, there is a key contradiction that, for Meister, serves as an unfortunate yet operative logic: genocide is figured as something that happens in a past from which we have had or must have a clean break, yet even though we imagine such a clean break from past genocide, there is still never enough time to properly work through the historical trauma that resonates from human suffering. Because of this impasse—"never again" and "never enough time"—human rights appears to be political when it is, in fact, merely ethical. Human Rights Discourse, for Meister, emerged in its full-blown, global, contemporary form in 1989, and it quickly became the dominant rationale for, especially, U.S. and U.N. intervention in sovereign nations: "The fall of communism in 1989 eliminated the excuse that a humanitarian show of force could provoke nuclear countermeasures and also weakened the constraint on intervention.

By the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, a self-described 'world community' no longer doubted its power to prevail over evil. And after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which outsiders could have easily interrupted, the advocates of human rights intervention shifted from questioning whether 'couldn't implies shouldn't' to arguing that 'could implies should'" (3).

By the 1990s, then, humanitarian intervention became an imperative rather than a question, and concerns about whether intervention in sovereign nations makes the intervening power imperialist seem "at best an anachronism and at worst the same old craven excuse for doing nothing that allowed the horrors of the twentieth century to take place" (3). In After Evil, Meister traces and analyzes the valences of Human Rights Discourse, synthesizing case studies of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Abraham Lincoln's addresses during the Civil War, explications of ethical and political philosophers Alain Badiou and Emmanuel Levinas, interpretations of the Nuremberg trials, and analyses of Human Rights Discourse's roots in theology. Human Rights Discourse, ultimately, functions as a kind of salve in Meister's analysis, a way of obscuring rather than reckoning with past, present, and future injustice. Our contemporary version of human rights—Meister refers to it in the book's preface as "sentimental humanitarianism" (vii)—supersedes earlier conceptions of the Rights of Man. Indeed, Human Rights Discourse is "the self-consciously ethical rejection of previous versions of the Rights of Man that were violently against the power of aristocracies, autocracies, and the like" (8). The actions encouraged by Human Rights Discourse are meant to facilitate security, and they are inherently opposed to the kinds of revolutionary thinking and action that motivated and stemmed from 18th-century constructions of the Rights of Man. As a counterrevolutionary political theology, Human Rights Discourse casts perpetrators of genocide as potential victims of, and victims/survivors of genocide as potential perpetrators of, future genocide. The goal of Human Rights Discourse, then, is to place the perpetrator and the victim in an affective relation where both bear witness to and promise never to participate again in genocide. This affective relation, of course, requires nothing like revolutionary change, and, according to Meister, it ends up reinforcing the unjust distribution of wealth and resources that are often the result of genocide. In Human Rights Discourse, Meister claims, the idealized figure of identification is less the victim than aid workers, "exemplary precursors on a path to redemption that we must all eventually follow . . . Despite (perhaps even because) such saintly figures exist in Human Rights Discourse, I would continue to argue that its real aim is to reassure the compassionate witness of his own redemption" (78).

Human Rights Discourse's counterrevolutionary...

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