######### Card Hero LETTERS #########
Letters to the editors

Vol. 5, NO. 2 / May 2020

To the editors:

I think it is important to historicize Katharine Young’s review of Not Enough, the latest offering from the enfant terrible of human rights scholarship. As was the case with his previous book, The Last Utopia, Samuel Moyn has once again managed to polarize and provoke the diverse global community of human rights critics, advocates, and even agnostics. Young tiptoes around these wider effects of Moyn’s studies in acknowledging, apparently without irony, that he has “demonstrated a great talent for initiating debate.”

As an anthropologist—and, perhaps, a reluctant historian1—of human rights, I have found it useful to view the history of human rights from the end of the Second World War to the present through the lens of Victor Turner’s anthropological theory of liminality.2 In studying rites of passage among tribal peoples in Africa, Turner observed that social, moral, and political hierarchies were suspended during the different rituals, an experience he described as being “betwixt and between.” These periods of liminality were moments in which cultural norms could be questioned, different values could be adopted, and social structures could be refashioned. Yet even as periods of liminality opened up new possibilities, they were always temporary. Such periods of creativity and potential were bookended by the more closed and hierarchical structures that both preceded and necessarily succeeded them.

In this sense, a liminal approach to human rights history is revealing. I would argue that there have been at least two major liminal periods since 1945 and that we are now entering a third. The first period of liminality in human rights history lasted from about mid-1945, when the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco, to December 10, 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly. In “reaffirm[ing] faith in fundamental human rights, [and] in the dignity and worth of the human person,” the UN Charter set in motion a period in which the meaning and implications of this “faith in fundamental human rights” would become a key concern for the leading actors and institutions behind the postwar settlement. As historical works on this period reveal, this was a time of tremendous uncertainty about the wisdom of making human rights the basis for the new world order, even as figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin led the institutional momentum that would culminate in what Roosevelt would describe as the “Magna Carta for all mankind”—the UDHR.3 Yet it was precisely this uncertainty, the doubts, the questions swirling around the idea of human rights, that rendered this brief period so interesting, so liminal.4

If the act of resolving—in law and politics, if not in fact—these uncertainties through the UDHR brought this first period of human rights liminality to an end, the many decades of Cold War realpolitik served as a historical straightjacket that kept the grand ambitions for human rights tightly bound.5 It was the end of the Cold War that unleashed the second major period of liminality for human rights. As part of global development and civil society activism, a “culture of human rights” spread rapidly.6 What I have described elsewhere as “the connotative power of human rights” was harnessed to its full and often emancipatory potential.7 By the end of this extraordinary and lengthy second period of human rights liminality, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan felt confident enough to proclaim in 2000 that the world was living through the “Age of Human Rights.”8

The attacks of September 11, 2001, pushed the “Age of Human Rights” aside for the ages of national security, permanent wars, liberal state-sanctioned torture, and global electronic surveillance, while the financial crisis of 2007–2008 led the global capitalist system to coalescence around newly hegemonic institutions such as the G20. In the end, the halcyon years of post-Cold War human rights liminality gave way to crisis and backlash. One scholar memorably described it as the end times.9 Although human rights lived on as an important legal, political, and social framework, it was confined to the margins of global power. The closing of this second period of human rights liminality was marked by intellectual handwringing by the legions of human rights scholars who had come to see their research as activism.

The critical scholarly backlash against human rights—often led by left-leaning academics whose criticism masked what could only be understood as a sense of betrayal—was met with its own backlash. Equally left-leaning scholars chose to double-down on the promises of human rights even as a lengthening parade of horribles—inequality, right-wing nationalism, Brexit and the weakening of supranational bodies, racial injustice, the pervasive dehumanization of migrants, nearly irreversible climate change—passed by in ominous succession. In the face of these seemingly endless and intractable contemporary problems, scholars such as Kathryn Sikkink argued that not only were human rights effective in lessening some of the worst impacts of these scourges, but that we should continue to make them the dominant—perhaps even the only—framework for global justice.10

The scholarly battle between the critics of human rights like Moyn, and those who see hope in human rights, such as Sikkink, eventually came to a standstill. Does one look at the massive problem of global inequality as the outcome of a catastrophic failure of human rights as the “archetypal language” of justice-seeking and political transition,11 a language that tragically replaced that of redistributive socialism during the “Age of Human Rights”? Or, does one look elsewhere, as Young does in her review of Not Enough? She does not focus on what Moyn rightly describes as the “galloping material inequality” of our late-capitalist times, but instead on the inspiring persistence of the “vigorous [human rights] advocacy” by activists and social leaders laboring heroically under oppressive conditions far from the global metropoles.

My own view is that we are now entering a third period of human rights liminality, one in which the long legacy of criticism will form the broader basis for multiple reformulations of human rights,12 some quite radical.13 Since these reimagined versions of human rights must confront global problems that go well beyond those associated with economic inequality, such as human-induced climate change, this third moment of possibility and creativity cannot come fast enough. I also believe that any reconceptualized account of human rights must begin and end with the central truth that anchors Moyn’s incomplete jeremiad. The political economy of our G20 world is, in fact, both a cause and consequence of structural inequalities. These are the inevitable outcome of what Thomas Piketty called the “central contradiction of capitalism,” which he demonstrated through the chillingly simple equation r > g.14

Mark Goodale

Katharine Young replies:

I do not quibble with Mark Goodale’s sensitive prediction of a new period of human rights liminality. Indeed, I hear its entry screaming at us from the world’s hospital wards, unemployment queues, food banks, prisons and detention centers, and private (if repurposed) homes. Yet unlike Goodale, I do not imagine that the legacy of Samuel Moyn’s and others’ repeated criticisms of human rights, whether fueled by a sense of betrayal or otherwise, will set the scene for future battles for human rights and broader justice. In the duration and aftermath of COVID-19, the defensive crouch of human rights advocacy will be forced to tackle new and accelerated forms of digital surveillance, opportunistic authoritarianism, and ever more extreme intra- and international economic inequality. In this respect, the promoted formulations of rights that I listed in my review—to health, water, and other economic and social means—will no doubt be buoyed. While the influential periods of the 1940s, 1970s, and 1990s are worthy of study, so too are the more disjointed contributions , such as those accompanying the HIV/AIDS pandemic, that spurred important revisions in the ethics of public health and the role of the state. We do well to listen to such movements, rather than take for dormant what neoliberalism had rendered passé.

  1. Mark Goodale, Letters to the Contrary: A Curated History of the UNESCO Human Rights Survey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018); “The Myth of Universality: The UNESCO ‘Philosophers’ Committee’ and the Making of Human Rights,” Law & Social Inquiry 43, no. 3 (2017), doi:10.1111/lsi.12343; “From Human Welfare to Human Rights: Considering Socioeconomic Rights through the 1947–48 UNESCO Human Rights Survey,” in Rewriting the History of Socioeconomic Rights, ed. Charles Walton and Steven Jensen (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). 
  2. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967). 
  3. Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001). Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998). Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). 
  4. See Goodale, Letters to the Contrary
  5. In this, I do not follow Moyn in viewing the mid- to late-1970s as a time of transformational change in the history of human rights. 
  6. Jane Cowan, Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, and Richard Wilson, eds., Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). 
  7. Mark Goodale, “The Power of Right(s): Tracking Empires of Law and New Modes of Social Resistance in Bolivia (and Elsewhere),” in The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law between the Global and the Local, ed. Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 
  8. Kofi Annan, “The Age of Human Rights,” Project Syndicate, September 26, 2000. 
  9. Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013). 
  10. Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). 
  11. Richard Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1. 
  12. And the nuanced challenges to it. See, for example, Steven Jensen’s compelling challenge to the dominant Euro-American centrism in much of the so-called new human rights history, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 
  13. In the interest of full disclosure, I myself am currently working on such a reformulation, Reinventing Human Rights (Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming). 
  14. As he puts it, the “principal destabilizing force [of capitalism] has to do with the fact that the private rate of return on capital, r, can be significantly higher for long periods of time than the rate of growth of income and output, g.” Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 571.  

Mark Goodale is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology and Director of the Laboratory of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Lausanne.

Katharine Young is an Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School.


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