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by Michael Ignatieff

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-691-08893-4
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Cogent analysis of the crusade for human rights—from its origins to its present status as a surprisingly influential movement that sometimes oversteps its bounds.

Prolific novelist, journalist, and historian Ignatieff (Virtual War, 2000, etc.) discerns the beginning of the human-rights movement in the antislavery crusade of the 18th century, after which it languished until galvanized into new life by the barbarism of WWII. Before that war, only states had rights under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 granted individuals the right to challenge unjust laws or oppressive customs. Most states (the USSR included) ratified this and other human-rights treaties, confident they would remain a pious set of clichés that could be ignored. In fact, movements such as Amnesty International wield a modest amount of genuine influence. The US and the UN ignored the subject for decades, dipped a toe into the water by criticizing South Africa in the 1970s, and now devote major, though often ineffective efforts to protecting human rights. Even dictators take notice—a bad human-rights record makes it difficult to get international loans or attract business. Despite its successes, the movement is under increasing attack from Asian and Islamic nations as well as many western intellectuals. The author gives a sympathetic analysis of its problems. Fifty years ago, oppressive governments were the chief human-rights villains. Today, the greatest abuse occurs in places where weak governments cannot maintain order, and anarchy rules: Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia, Lebanon. Ignatieff urges the movement to pay more attention to the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens. His views ring true, and he writes lucidly. Unfortunately, his essays occupy only 100 pages; the volume is doubled by commentaries from four scholars who agree with Ignatieff on all except minor points but whose writing doesn’t match his own.

Outrageously padded, but worth it for Ignatieff's contribution.