The Magazine

Virtue Rewarded?

The origins of the ‘Human Rights Revolution’ are more complicated than this.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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When President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly last September, he spoke about the importance of removing chemical weapons from Syria and emphasized that President Assad must give way to a more broadly accepted government. He did not mention human rights. He also spoke about his hopes for negotiating a settlement to the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. But he insisted that he had no aim to change Iran’s “regime.” Again, he made no mention of human rights. Even when voicing concerns about transitional governments in the wake of the Arab Spring, he called in vague terms for greater inclusiveness, but did not invoke the term “human rights.” The Obama administration has other priorities.

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Perhaps this is not surprising. When tens of thousands of civilians are killed in Syria, and thousands more are killed or threatened in terrorist attacks or sectarian violence in neighboring countries, it would seem rather out of place to complain that regimes in the region are not providing adequate guarantees for the right to a paid vacation—one of the “human rights” famously proclaimed in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deliberately offers no ranking or priority among the many rights it includes.  

From our current vantage point, Obama’s omissions are much easier to understand than is the very different rhetoric of the late 1970s. Why did leaders at that time imagine that human rights declarations—nice words on paper—could solve real-world challenges? What were they thinking?

Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia, offered one answer in a well-regarded study published four years ago by Harvard University Press. The title sums it up: The Last Utopia. In Moyn’s account, “human rights” emerged as a powerful slogan only in the 1970s, as disappointment engulfed earlier utopian hopes for socialism or Third World liberation movements. The human rights movement was “the god that did not fail while other political ideologies did.” Moyn celebrated the idealism of human rights activists, but acknowledged the core of utopian thinking that existed in their “yearning to transcend politics,” their talking and acting “as if humanity were not still confused and divided about how to bring about individual and collective freedom in a deeply unjust world.” 

Now, Harvard has offered a new account. Barbara J. Keys agrees with Samuel Moyn that talk about human rights had little resonance before the 1970s. Though she teaches at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Keys focuses almost exclusively on developments in America. Where Moyn devoted much attention to the evolving views of prominent legal scholars and other academics, Keys devotes almost all of her attention to political debates in Washington. But her account does restore an important dimension of the story. 

Keys interviewed a number of participants in Washington policy debates of the Ford and Carter years. She has dutifully scoured congressional hearings and archival collections from that era. Her account is somewhat starry-eyed in its depiction of Amnesty International’s American branch and its contribution to larger debates about human rights. But she also offers a sympathetic, or at least respectful, account of the different aims of hawkish Democrats like Senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  

She even provides a respectful recounting of Henry Kissinger’s resistance to the human rights agenda. She quotes his complaints to State Department staffers, which include protesting that the department could not become “a reform school for allies” and wondering how “other countries can in any way deal with us” if we were to indulge in “public humiliation of other countries.”

What is new and valuable in Keys’s account, especially compared with Moyn’s treatment, is her emphasis on the distinct aims of Cold War liberals—advocates like Jackson and Moynihan—and their staff aides, such as Elliott Abrams and Richard Perle, in the late 1970s. For them, emphasis on human rights was a way to maintain ideological pressure on the Soviet Union. They were prepared to criticize dictators elsewhere, even some who were aligned with the United States, for the sake of expanding the coalition prepared to condemn enduring oppression in the Soviet empire. As Moynihan famously put it at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, “We’ll be against the dictators you don’t like the most .  .  . if you’ll be against the dictators we don’t like the most.”