Michael Ignatieff

Human rights are seen as an exercise in the cunning of Western reason: no longer able to dominate the world through direct imperial rule, the West now masks its own will to power in the impartial, universalizing language of human rights and seeks to impose its own narrow agenda on a plethora of world cultures that do not actually share the West’s conception of individuality, selfhood, agency, or freedom.
The members of the drafting committee saw their task not as a simple ratification of Western convictions but as an attempt to delimit a range of moral universals from within their very different religious, political, ethnic, and philosophical backgrounds. This fact helps to explain why the document makes no reference to God in its preamble.

The Attack on Human Rights (PDF file)

2 thoughts on “Michael Ignatieff

  1. shinichi Post author

    The Attack on Human Rights

    by Michael Ignatieff


    Since 1945, human rights language has become a source of power and authority. Inevitably, power invites challenge. Human rights doctrine is now so powerful, but also so unthinkingly imperialist in its claim to universality, that it has exposed itself to serious intellectual attack. These challenges have raised important questions about whether human rights norms deserve the authority they have acquired: whether their claims to universality are justified, or whether they are just another cunning exercise in Western moral imperialism.

  2. shinichi Post author

    Moreover, it is precisely this individualism that renders human rights attractive to non-Western peoples and explains why the fight for those rights has become a global movement. The language of human rights is the only universally available moral vernacular that validates the claims of women and children against the oppression they experience in patriarchal and tribal societies; it is the only vernacular that enables dependent persons to perceive themselves as moral agents and to act against practices — arranged marriages, purdah, civic disenfranchisement, genital mutilation, domestic slavery, and so on — that are ratified by the weight and authority of their cultures. These agents seek out human rights protection precisely because it legitimizes their protests against oppression.

    If this is so, then it is necessary to rethink what it means when one says that rights are universal. Rights doctrines arouse powerful opposition because they challenge powerful religions, family structures, authoritarian states, and tribes. It would be a hopeless task to attempt to persuade these holders of power of the universal validity of rights doctrines, since if these doctrines prevailed, their exercise of authority would necessarily be abridged and constrained. Thus universality cannot imply universal assent, since in a world of unequal power, the only propositions that the powerful and powerless would agree on would be entirely toothless and anodyne. Rights are universal because they define the universal interests of the powerless — namely, that power be exercised over them in ways that respect their autonomy as agents. In this sense, human rights represent a revolutionary creed, since they make a radical demand of all human groups that they serve the interests of the individuals who compose them. This, then, implies that human groups should be, insofar as possible, consensual, or at least that they should respect an individual’s right to exit when the constraints of the group become unbearable.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *