13 March 2013

The last utopia

Recently I read “The Last Utopia”, by Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia University. It’s a scholarly work, rich with references (the endnotes take up nearly half the pages). Here are four things which I learned.

1. Human rights did not arise as a deliberative and direct result of the horrors of World War 2.

Rather, human rights entered the world as – at best – a subsidiary vision to tyranny. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR, a non-binding UN document of 1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (a binding Council of Europe treaty of 1950) were “minor byproducts” of the post-war era, and human rights as overarching precepts were doomed to irrelevance. (p. 46). Moyn warns that a focus on human rights in the 1940s “risks missing the main point, which is the marginality and miscarriage of the concept in an era in the ferment of debate about prospective global orders” (p.48).

2. The drafters of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights were the world’s diplomatic elite.

The diplomats who drafted the UDHR were largely Christians from the West, and those from other countries were schooled in Western universities and Christian traditions. Moyn claims that the resultant document could be agreed upon by non-Western states such as Islamic countries and those in Latin America. It is surely correct to observe that “[i]nternational participation of states in diplomatic negotiations in any case, is not a useful proxy for diversity of human culture at this moment or any other.” (p. 67).

Interestingly, Moyn says that the Soviets had no initial problems with the language of the UDHR, as they identified themselves as an anticolonial power (!). Apparently it was the USSR delegation which inserted the language on equality and nondiscrimination.

3. Interdependence was discussed in drafting the UDHR

I was particularly taken back by an off the cuff comment of Moyn’s regarding what was left out of the UDHR. Apparently the Yugoslav delegation, speaking just before the vote on the UDHR, said that the draft document:


simply “codified” long since secured political and civil rights, while not effectively incorporating the collective interdependence of humanity that modern economics made so glaringly necessary. (p. 71)


The Yugoslavs were surely correct in their analysis, not simply because economics makes interdependence necessary, but because it is the way which families, neighbourhoods and communities function. This chimes with an observation which I’ve previously made that the idea of assessing someone else’s functional ability to do something:


is rooted in the idea that legal recognition of an other’s right to legal capacity is dependent on their demonstrating their rationality. “A sound mind in a sound body”, claimed John Locke in 1692, “is a short, but full description of a happy state in this World: he that has these two, has little more to wish for”( John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1692). Twentieth century human rights discourse is faithful to this Enlightenment belief in human reason and rationality. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that men are “endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. From this perspective, the grandparent of modern human rights law frames the individual as a singularly rationalistic entity, standing “as a person before the law”, but not necessarily one who is embedded within it or admittedly dependent on others.

(see my “Advancing legal capacity jurisprudence”, (2011) European Human Rights Law Review, 6, 700-714)


4. The modern human rights movement was born in 1977.

Moyn says that 1977 was the year that human rights became prominent because of two main factors.

First, the Helsinki Process of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) further canonised human rights in 1975. This led various NGOs being formed, including the Moscow Helsinki Group (May 1976) which Moyn describes as a “essential feature of the crystallization of international human rights consciousness in 1976-77” (p. 150).

Second, America’s new President Jimmy Carter is credited with having an “explosive affiliation with the language” of human rights in his inauguration speech in Washington DC on 20 January 1977, making the phrase human rights “a publicly acknowledged buzzword” (p. 155). You can watch the inauguration speech here. I’d love to know why Carter decided to place such a strong emphasis on human rights, but Moyn points out that the genesis seems to come from nowhere, and for sure he’s done more research on this than I have.

But for the CSCE and Carter, Moyn claims that “human rights might have remained the preserve of expanding but still minor advocacy groups and their international members and promoters” (p. 149). The year 1977 culminated in Amnesty International being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, picked up by Thomas Hammarberg, at that time Chairperson of the Swedish Section who became the movement’s Secretary General in 1980.

Moyn (age 40) really drums into the reader that “human rights” as we know it really is quite a recent development and actually (for those of us rapidly approaching his advanced years) have happened during our lifetime.