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Abstract

This article considers the ways in which the social sciences can and should be a critical friend to the field of human rights. After surveying a selected number of recent interventions that depict the current status of human rights in quite different, even opposing, ways, the article concludes on a guardedly optimistic note: that well-meaning critiques of human rights can play an important role in reforming the broader human rights enterprise, but only if they are grounded in a realistic assessment of the ultimate limitations of human rights in the face of the most pressing and looming global challenges.
The Picture of Human Rights
Mark Goodale
Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology
University of Lausanne
Series Editor, Stanford Studies in Human Right,r
ABSTRACT
This article considers the ways in which the social sciences can and should be a
critical friend ro rhe f,erd of Éu-un itgiitr. Àii*;;;;;fi;""selecred number of
recenr intervention:.lhat depict,thé?urrent status of h"r.an rights in quite
9iT:Tlt,, even opposing. ways, rhe ariitle ôo"llrîer;;; s";;;;ï;;#Ëiï;
note: that well-meaning critiques or human ,iÀhÀ-ù plJy?n ,*portanr rore in
reforming rhe broader [u'nari .iÀtrts ért.iô.ii8, ùil;;ri'il,i.y ur" grounded in
a realistic assessmenr of the urtifiràie hmiËii;;r';iiïilr"'rigrrts in rhe race of
the most important present;dl;;;i;;Ài;t;i "hil.d;: '
THE PICTURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
ln the invitation lo oarticipate in the Royal Irish Academy conlerence thal forms
rhe basis for rhis *'i..iua;!Ë;i;;;î i;t,h-'s,;;;;;';;T;;;'i,;i;"nar Affairs,ir was
explain^ed that human iightr;;Ë.1à â"0 practitioners were in need of rhe ser-
vices of the sociat sciencËs_ipèàr.àilv, *hài1h; fi;io oiïi,_un rights needed
was a critical friend. This frarning is i'tereirdg f;;;i"àî'."uronr, but what
concerns me here is the idea that wîat the sociar;.i;;"* à;ùest is offer insights
into contemDorarv processes that intËirogate even the most well-inlentioned
claims tor iusrice-" or.equarily, ;; ;î;; tËe NârweÀi;;;;;". schorar Johan
Galrung deicribes as 'p.6sitivË'd;""'.'ï;dl,î0, iii, i,?#irJi"in relarion to our
contemporary cosmopolitan anà liberal veritiés ihàt'"ti*ffi of this kind is nec-
essary, on this view of whal is mosl valuabté à0""i u*il;l sciences. Critioues
of neo-fascist ideorogier, o. tuôirt dog,nà, or r""ir-, toi "ï;-;Ë;iËh;ËiË::
essarv and perfecllv-within the ranfe oi trtè iàïi"r^iuà"Ëài, bur rhe exercise
hardlv. raiseÀ rhe kinds o.r rta[éi ur à-"riirquê ,iï;;;;';iiïis, *r,i"rr rhrearens
to undermine what has become the domiiiârt"itàÀï*àrl'%i grouul justice-a
framewo rk rhat S amu,er tvtoyn lamo".rv à"r"iiu.a; ; ;ïIi utopia,_witho ut
offering anything in return.
Author's e-mail: mark.goodale@unil.ch
Irish S tudies in Internat iottat Affairs, yol. 29 (20 I g), lgg-204
doi: https://doi.org/1 0.33 1 8/ISIA.20 1 8.29.0 I
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200 lrish Studies in International Affairs
At the same time, by asking how the social sciences can be a critical friend
to human rights, the org.aniseriof thii iympôrir,o;;;";ggesting somethins
more than simnrv the identification of ihe-many problemiîrràï u?J"f irË;f;
rights: bad raith 6" ih" t;;ï;iï;;;"ïrl ihîiTilffiâ;;"r.rce human rights
through domestic law;'the ctartt u.irè"r, "o-p.ting interesrs, Ior example.
between human righté and securiitl 'i," warping rôre of rhe uN secuiitv
council, which r"a:uèr potiti";-r-i""dJ.iity^ intoiiiè"vèiy raËri" of the post-war
international svstem; aird the i;biiity ;'f l;i;;;i;àr^iiru' rights law to
regulate the vast inli-q;1iyciur. ài'Ëi6uurcapitarism; among various others.
Rather, it was an inviration to deirov .riiiôu" ln-ïË;;;;rer of the early
Frankfurt School intellectualr, *tto'àg?.ed tdât tr,Àr. ,"r^îcore of endurins
value at the heart of the E;righie;-;ent projecr, on" whiJh-È"d"Ë;à;iË
obscured over the decades u"d".ï;t;;; àr ""ôoà'ÀiJij,]àr"Ëii narionarism and
mass culrure. The task, accordins io tuto* Hàîr.n;iil.;f id;à".;-A.il;;,
was to use critioue in.order to lecover wt ut *â* lniiiuirî progr"ssive about
certain ideas thai rruo rài.irJr";#rlË ,ffi;";i,ïhî;'#i*!y, been reserved
for triumphant thought. If it u"i""tàrily r.u.r u.lino iîr'triti"ut element ro
become a^mere m"uni in ttt. s.iui;;,f ;h;ïir;i"g;;d*,'it"i''l'votuntarlv tends
h?rtlii{iJm the positive cause it has éipous.a inià1ô-L;r,iiËîË'iri; ;iià
;;,
(r,"fÉff;ô5}ÏîffilîlÎrit'odor w Adorno, Diatectic of entishtenment: phitosophicatfragments
or;ii,irîfîi,'k]!rt\" human rights era drawing ro a crose?', European Human Rights Law
tnnoTi.'"d in Eric Hobsbawm, Age of extremes; the short twentieth century, igl4-Iggl (London,
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As both well-establisheda and more recents research demonstrates, the role of
key figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin in the processes that led to
the_eventual adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
in December 1948 only reinforces the point that the push for universal human
rights was a minor, if morally appealing, sideshow from the main attraction: the
re-establishment of the global éConomic system-guided by the institutions of
Bretton-Woods-under the banner of 'economic security'.
The second weakness in the international human rights system, on Gearty's
analysis, is related to the first. Since the most powerful nation-states in the poit-
war settlement were intent on reinforcing the piinciple of national sovereignty-a
principle, one must acknowledge, that was later fully embraced by the new post-
colonial states-it was not surprising that this became a structurâl check on the
potential reach of human rights. International human rights law only became
laq in an important sense, when it was voluntarily adopted by siates and
lmplemented-or not, usually not-within domestic legal and poliiical regimes.
Moreover, human rights law only applied to states, not to individuals or private
corporate actors. So for human rights law to work, states had to adopt its norms
into domestic law and then allow this law to be used against itself, and only
against itself, Later the creation of regional transnational legal bodies like the
European Court of Human Rights and, later still, an international criminal
court did little to alter this basic contradiction at the kind of luniversal' scale at
which human rights were normatively pitched.
And finally, according to Gearty, the international human rights system
confronts an existential threat because of its incapacity to promoté social and
economic rights. at the same level as eivll and pôlitical rights. In the face of
various economic crises, both short and long-term, the relative silence of the
international human rights system has reflected quite badly on its vast discursive
ambitions.
In Gearty's final analysis, the.future.of_human rights, if they have a future of
any consequence in law and politics, will be a European one, as the remaining
countries that have not gone over to anti-cosmopolitànism, savage capitalism oi
nationalism retreat onto an island of 'shared values'in a sea of swirling madness
and 'plebiscitary pique'. This new island order will be ruled by a Franco-German
alliance (somewhere von Bismarck is rolling over in his grave) in an uncertain
world in which 'nothing is any longer taken for granted', Nevertheless, human
rights retain their 'status of a received truth' on this island fortress, perhaps
more out of nostalgia than anything else.
Set against Gearty's framework for analysis, two other recent works of note
offer additional strategies for considering the future of human rights. The polit-
ical scientist Kathryn Sikkink has issued a full-throated defence of the current
international human rights system based on the argument that'empirical'social
science research reveals a very different account from those associated with crit-
ical human rights scholars and historians.6 This argument requires a two-part
move on Sikkink's part: first, to establish that comparative statistics show that
the world is generally becoming a safer, less unequal and healthier place; and
second, to demonstrate that what she calls 'positive human rights trends' are the
oJohannes Morsink, The universal declaration of human rights: origins, drafting, intent
(Philadelphia, 1999).
sMark Goodale (ed.), Letters to the contrary: a curated history of the UNESCO human rights
survey (Stanford, 20 I 8).
6Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for hope: making human rights work in the 2lst century
(Princeton, 201 7).
202 lrish Studies in International Affairs
fq|g|t of human.right! law, institutions and activism. As I've argued elsewhere,
Sikkink's reduction of social science to a particular form of indicators research
is problematic, since it relies on a commitment to what sallv Ensle Merrv
has described as'commensuration'-the methodologically dubi6us trinsforma'-
tion.of high_ly complicated social phenomena intoiategôries that become the
product of the act of measurement itsell.T
Yet Sikkink's work is also a plea from a dedicated human rights activist who
believes that an offence is the be-st defence. To this end, her stud! is also a broad-
side against both the existence of critiques of human rights as Éuch and against
critics (like StephenHopgood and Samuel Moyn) whosàresearch has been"most
closely as.sociated with the so-called backlash against human rights.s ln Sikkink's
vieq criticism of the international human righîs system is trag"ically misguided,
since it uses various missteps and problems-jof thê kind ident"ified"by G6arty-
to question the system itself,, whic-h sikkink believes remains our best hope'for
p.ursuing ju.stice at all scales. She even has stern words for prominent human
rights activists who have been too willine to take the critiquès of scholars like
Iroqgo.o..o and Moyn seriously; on sikkin-k's view, activists should simply return
books like The endtimes of human rights and The last utopia to the ûbrâry and
crack on with their work.
. . In Moyn's latest -offering, however, a radically different vision of human
rights,emergel, gne. that is much closer to Geartyb yet which goes beyond thè
boundaries of the international human rights systein to take îp fundamental
questions about tlre consequences of global ineqûafity in what he'calls the .neo-
liberal maelstrom'.e Moynàrgues thaiwe must draw à distinction between what
he describes as 'sufficiency'and 'equality'in order to understand both the hii-
tgry of human rights to the presenf andihe ultimate limitations of the interna-
tional human rights system. Sufficiency refers to a set of minimum standards of
treatment (mostly associated with civil ând political rishts) and orovision (mostlv
associated with social and.economic righti). To say,Tor êxample, that tÈe staté
cannot use torture against its citizens while it can imprison them for crimes after
due process.is to set a baseline for sufficient treatmeirt. And to say that the state
must provide a minimum level of clean water or education to ifs citizens is to
make a claim for a standard of sufficient provision.
^ . h Moyn's alalvsis, human rights evolved over the decades into a global suf-
fictency system. It is important to.take account of what this system rJplaced: all
those projects-most nôtably socialist, communist and sociaf democràtic-that
were concerned with something quite different: equality, especially material
equality. Mgyn locates a critical tuining point in a sêt of â'ecisions taken in the
l970s.and '80s by leading developmenlèconomists like Mahbub ul Haq and
Amartya Sen to focus international development on material sufficiency thôugh
global anti-.poverty programs. As Moyn shbws, it was during this perioâ thai #t
remaining. interest in material equality was abandoned bf the major interna'-
tional institutions.
. . The one exception to.Moyn's more general analysis is the relationship
between human rights. and. id_qniity, or what he describej as 'status'. Here, in thè
areas of- women's rights, indigenous rights (if we can consider these ûuman
- -'MuÛ- Goodale,'What are human rights good lor?', Bosron Review (Julv 2018): Sallv Ensle
Mer.ry, The seductions of quantif cution: rieasuling humui rights, g"nae, iiàien;e, ;rà't;;;;;ffrii;;
(Chicago, 2016).
sstephen Hopgood. The en.drime.s 9d hulyn lghrs (lthaca 2013); Samuel Moyn, The last
utopia: human rights in history (Cambridge, MA, 20'10).
eSamuel Moyn, Nor "noufhi human ,$tits in ân uneÇuat worrd (cambridge, MA, 201g).
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rights), agd., to a lesser extent, the rights of LGBT people, some progress has
been made in some countries and regions of the world tôward 'statïs àquality'.
The real problem, according to Moyn, is that while the international^humân
rights system has worked toward sufficiency minimums in treatment and provi-
siol,.and equality of status, it has been almost completely silent-normatively,
politically, institutionally-. as global material inequâlity has explodeé.
Theimp^oteqgg o{ humanrights in the face of global inequaliiy has not been the
r.esql! 9f political or institutional failures; rather, the incapacity is structural.
As Philip Alston, the current [rN special rapporteur on eitrenie poverty and
human rights, las acknowledged,.'there is no êxplicitly stated right to eqùahty,
as such, under human rights law'.ro
What this means, in the end, is that the international human rights system,
even at its most expansive, is tragically limited, since it has not-hing io say
about the root cause of so many of-the world's prbblems now and in thË futuni.
As_Thomas P_il5etty has explained, in the chilling conclusion to his magisterial
2014 study.of inequality,_the global capitalist syitem-protected politiéally by
the G7 and the G20-will continue to gorge on naturai resourceô and huinair
lubgg in a nightmare scenario in which 'once constituted, capital reproduces
itself faster than outqut increases. The past devours the future'ltt For fidoyn, to
pakg lruqan rights the centrepiece-or, indeed, the only piece-of our i'ision
forglobal justice is not just misguided, it is immoral. If know global inequal-
ity is the key challenge of our age and we have no plan, especially at the interna-
tional level, for fighting root and branch what p-roducei it, have basically
given up on the future. The best we can hope for is to humanise the decline, anô
perhaps in this human rights have a role to play.
To conceive of the place of human rights in this way is somewhat different
than to adopt what Steven Greer describes as 'human rights realism', although
there certainly are parallels. Perhaps as a realist, Greer wôuld argue that no plàn
for combatting the political economic system that has created bbttr ttre greâtest
wealth ald greatest ilequality the world has ever seen would be without its prob-
lems and contradictions. But it is one thing to acknowledge, as Greer rightly
does, that a realist understanding of human iights helps avoiâ some of the morê
unreasonable critiques of state practices, and quite anôther to acknowledge that
even per&ctly realised human rights would hâve no answer for the undèrlying
structural drivers that are associated with forced migration, ideological radical--
ization and other symptoms of a perversely unequa[world.
. _Rather, in confronting the ultimate limitations of human rights in a post-so-
cial,ist age in which alternatives are confi.ned to quite specific, often màrginal,
national experiments (such as the ongoing 'indigenous'ievolution in Bolivia),'2
what is needed is much more reflexivity about these limitations, as Claire
Hamilton argues in her study of human rights and counter-terrorism. As her
research reveals, even within the boundaries in which human rights have a legit-
imate 1o19 tq play, that is, in establishing treatment minimums àgainst the baék-
ground of what she describes as a generalised'punitive climate', fhere are serious
questions about the capacity of human righti to function effectively as a logic
for undermining'relations of power'. To take Hamilton's call for a 'less disingen-
uous rights discourse' seriously would require, as I've argued, an honest reflec-
tion about the ultimate ends of our collèctive critical ènterprise. What good
'oQuoted in Moyn, Not enough,210.
llTlroryry Piketty, Capital in the twenty-first century (Cambridge, 2014),571.
_ ]'Mu+ Goodale, Revolution in the biaèkets: travèrsing scales-d law,'ideology, and practice in
B o I iv ia (Durham, forthcoming, 20 I 9).
man
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204 Irish Studies in International Affairs
would a 'politically richer'or more realist account of human rights be if the very
struggle for human rights itself is paradoxically part of the long-term problem,
as Moyn insists?
So to return to the questions with which I began this intervention-whether
or not the social sciences can and should be a critical friend to human rights.
The social sciences-as well as other fields, such as history---clearly do have
something important to say to human rights, yet what this message should be
depends on how broader questions about global justice and our willingness to
countenance what Moyn calls 'galloping material inequality' are understood.
Like the portrait in Oscar Wilde's novel, the picture of contemporary human
rights can seem to be one that is decaying before our very eyes. This is particu-
larly true for those who remember what it meant to conceive of global justice as
a redistributive project in which the idea that 62 of the richest people could have
as much wealth as the poorest 50'Â of the global population would have been
absurd, intolerable, socially and morally obscene. In the end, before we can
advance the conversation about the future of human rights-in a spirit of inter-
disciplinary friendship or not-it is facts like this that must be acknowledged
and then put at the centre of our critical reformulatir:ns. In li1
Hr
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