HUMAN RIGHTS AS POLITICS AND IDOLATRY

Michael Ignatieff, Author, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Joint Author, David A. Hollinger, Joint Author , ed. by Amy Gutmann. Princeton Univ. $19.95 (187p) ISBN 978-0-691-08893-8

The strength in this sensible, dense collection of essays about the burgeoning human rights movement lies not in the answers it gives but in the questions it raises. Based on lectures Ignatieff delivered at Princeton in 2000, the book opens with two long essays by the historian, journalist and novelist who directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, followed by comments from four leading scholars, including K. Anthony Appiah, with a final response from Ignatieff (Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond). A philosophical liberal and a strong believer in the power of constitutions, Ignatieff boldly confronts difficult issues. He tries, with some success, to balance the often conflicting needs for human rights and for the sovereignty of nation-states: "the problem in Western human rights policy is that by promoting ethnic self-determination, we may actually endanger the stability" necessary for human rights, because "we can be certain that self-determination for some groups will be purchased with the blood of the minorities in their midst." He also laments rhetoric that casts human rights as what Elie Wiesel called a "secular religion," maintaining that this notion alienates cultures wherein religion dictates governmental policy. Only when these trends are tempered, he contends, will human rights make serious inroads throughout the world, which he believes is more ready for these rights than is generally thought. The respondents cordially critique Ignatieff's practical arguments as watered down and morally relativist. Those looking for specific policy proposals for addressing these difficult issues may be unsatisfied. But Ignatieff illuminates complexities likely to make headlines as the call for intervention regarding worldwide human rights continues to grow. This book will undoubtedly provoke controversy within the human rights community. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 08/27/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
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