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Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

by Michael Ignatieff

In his new book on human rights, distinguished author and historian Michael Ignatieff grapples with profound issues of the human rights movement, skillfully mapping its controversies and ambiguities.

Ignatieff probes the political morality of human rights and argues that they cannot be undisputedly universal given the absence of global cultural foundations. The non-Western world, for example, is often inclined to view the idea of intervention as serving the agenda of economic imperialism. Ignatieff examines the dangers of
interventionism and the irreconcilable moral and judicial tension between individual rights, minority rights, and the rights of the state to sovereignty and territorial integrity. He ultimately questions our ability to define a minimal, non-controversial set of human rights.

In his critique of human rights as idolatry, Ignatieff warns against the dogmatic worship of the concept of sacredness of all humans. He would rather build support for human rights on the basis of practical assistance to human beings when the situation demands it. Instead of developing a coherent doctrine, Ignatieff suggests working with the simple idea of moral reciprocity, a “do unto others” approach. The book’s most compelling argument is that the only long-term chance for the advancement of human rights around the globe is the development of deep local roots. The West ought, therefore, to support local cultural and social conditions that nurture the growth of human rights awareness and empower individuals. But although Ignatieff touches upon the antagonistic relationship between human rights and the demands of the global economy, this subject warrants a deeper probe.

Ignatieff creates a compelling framework for thinking about human rights, and his insights are comprehensive and astute. The many complexities and paradoxes of the issue are lit through multiple angles, creating rich, theoretically refined arguments. This important book advances our understanding and passion for human rights by balancing advocacy for the cause with critical inquiry into the practical challenges.