In this month’s American Interest, Damar Marusic gives an overview of what he sees as the rise, apogee, and eventual decline of human rights rhetoric in international affairs. The moral overtones of rights language, once deliberately grounded in the natural law tradition and Anglo-Saxon jurisprudential history, were infused with popular ardor in the aftermath of World War II. These days, though, the rhetoric has become so ubiquitous in some quarters that it shades very nearly into formulaic bureaucratic jargon:
[T]he movement from its intellectual roots in natural law doctrine through its struggles against slavery and for universal suffrage. Neier shows how the common law tradition in England and the United States, based as it is in first principles, was more conducive to the development of human rights activism than the statute-based civil law tradition of continental Europe. He presents thumbnail sketches of some important personalities: Henry J. Morgenthau, Sr., the American Ambassador to Turkey who forcefully denounced the Armenian massacre in 1915; and Edmund Morel, the enterprising chronicler of King Leopold’s bloody-minded rape of the Congo and the prototype for many of today’s activists. However successful these early movements may have been, Neier points out, their goals were rarely universal in nature. Indeed, once the proximate goal was achieved (women given the right to vote, the global slave trade ended, King Leopold deprived of his African fiefdom), the movements tended to dissipate.
World War II changed all that. The horrors of the war, both on the battlefield and in the concentration camps, focused global opinion on preventing such enormities from ever happening again.
But in a sense, the movement was a victim of its own success:
“[T]he human rights movement has been more successful than Aryeh Neier dares to imagine: In addition to a pundit class that continues to draw deeply from the well of comforting moral certainties and platitudes that are the movement’s greatest legacy, more than four decades’ worth of politicians and civil servants have come up through the system believing that America’s responsibility in the world is to actively promote and protect human rights everywhere it can, regardless of context.”
So what can be done, particularly by Christians who share many of the concerns of secular activists but differ in their root analysis and ultimate aims? Part of the answer may be to step back from the exquisitely lofty goals of many contemporary secular human rights organizations, which Marusic says helps render their rhetoric empty. Pruning back ambitions and pursuing the “possible,” rather than the ideal, would actually strengthen the case, he argues. Another issue alluded to in his piece is the detachment of this language from its original sources. But is a ressourcement possible? Or need we be wedded to this language, after all? Would giving ”rights talk” a rest for the time being and begin exploring other ways of articulating our concerns?