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An American soldier on patrol talks with a group of Afghan children

U.S. soldier talks to children while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2011. Image: Flickr

Reading List July 18, 2022

Human Rights and Their Discontents

Advocacy of human rights has a long history on the left, but does it have a future?

Thinkers on the left are often ambivalent toward the rhetoric of human rights. On the one hand, human rights have been a venerable part of left discourse since the eighteenth century. More recently, the socioeconomic rights enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflect traditional left-wing aspirations, such as the right to a job, to protection against unemployment, and to join a union. Indeed, as Zachary Manfredi argues, campaigners for economic equality and the expansion of the public sector should not overlook the political and rhetorical potential of human rights principles.

On the other hand, skeptics claim human rights are insufficient to correct major disparities in power and resources. As Mark Goodale explains in his review of two dueling books on the history of human rights, critics of the dominant human rights framework such as historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn lament today’s focus on minimal development standards. According to Moyn, the incremental improvements associated with this approach have come at the expense of a more ambitious vision for global justice.

The potential pitfalls of embracing human rights rhetoric, or at least a certain kind, are visible in the realm of foreign policy, too, where human rights have often been invoked as a justification for imperialist aggression. As Noam Chomsky writes in an archival essay on the possibility of U.S. humanitarian intervention, “Human rights have purely instrumental value in the political culture; they provide a useful tool for propaganda, nothing more.”

The essays collected here highlight the possibilities and limitations of using human rights as a framework for achieving a more just society. They cover a wide range of issues in addition to those mentioned above, including historical struggles for Black civil rights and women’s rights, the rights of refugees, the occupation of Afghanistan, and the self-interested origins of U.S. support for the UN in the aftermath of World War II.


People gathered at the UN Human Rights Council
Zachary Manfredi

Critics say human rights discourse blunts social transformation. It doesn’t have to.

Paul Gowder

The language of universal rights can be a powerful tool for advancing social justice.

Paul Linden-Retek

The UN Convention on Refugees gives form to a humanitarian ideal, but states still judge what counts as harm and who deserves protection.

Anthony Dworkin

Historian Samuel Moyn contends that efforts to conduct war humanely have only perpetuated it. But the solution must lie in politics, not a sacrifice of human rights.

An American soldier on patrol talks with a group of Afghan children
Faisal Devji

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan sacrificed politics—the only viable route to peace—for massive corruption and violence.

UN San Francisco Sam Lebovic Tomorrow the World
Sam Lebovic

A new book tells the history of how U.S. political elites sold the United Nations to the public as a route to global peace, while all along wanting it as a cover for militarization.

Julie C. Suk

This year Virginia became the crucial thirty-eighth state to ratify the ERA. Renewed efforts to quash it stand to wipe out a hundred years of women’s work as constitution-makers.

Mark Goodale

Global justice requires that we look away from Geneva and New York to the outer fringes of global power.

Manisha Sinha

Forum Response: Reviving the Black Radical Tradition

To dismiss human rights is to ignore black liberation struggles.

Samuel Moyn

In the age of human rights, the language of duties has withered.

Noam Chomsky

On the universals of language and rights.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky on the long history of American intervention.

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