Human Rights minimalism and military intervention

Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, edited by Amy Gutman, University Presses of Princeton, California and Columbia, 2001 (216 pp). ISBN 0-6910-8893-4 (paperback) RRP $44.95.

Tom Campbell, Charles Sturt University

An interesting bifurcation is developing within human rights theory between those who focus on protecting minorities against the discriminations of unenlightened majorities—the ‘majority tyranny’ focus, and those who look to human rights as a basis for legitimating intervention in the affairs of other countries—the ‘evil regime’ focus. The divergence derives partly from the contrast between domestic and foreign policy viewpoints within western democracies. Internally, human rights are seen as to do with improving the lot of relatively disadvantaged groups, guarding democratic process and curbing the power of governments. Externally, human rights are more about responding to gross evils, such as genocide and starvation, and fostering the basics of the rule of law, setting up an international criminal court, and introducing democratic institutions. In consequence, we are increasingly working with two sets of human rights standards: those that apply to the improvement of what are assumed to be basically decent democratic societies, and those that are designed to cope with defective and underdeveloped polities.

This bifurcation of human rights goals may not be of great concern if what is involved is setting higher standards for our own communities than those we set for differently placed societies elsewhere. Commitment to human rights, like other moral duties, should begin at home. But there are worrying features about such double standards. For instance, it may mean taking human deprivations and oppressions that occur elsewhere less seriously than those in our own back yard. What we regard as intolerable for ourselves we are prepared to tolerate for others. Another concern is the mirror image of the first, that by lowering our global standards we indirectly undermine our commitments to human rights in general by winding back what we see as their core content and moral priority.

A further danger in the multiplication of human rights standards is the opportunities it offers for human rights selectivity—picking and choosing what we count as human rights according to what suits us rather than what ought to be the case. This is particularly so when we rate other countries in human rights terms for purposes of overseas aid, trade, sanctions, or even military intervention as in Kosovo or Afghanistan. Human rights are increasingly used for the selective intervention in the affairs of other countries on the basis of rather ad hoc appeals to some human rights norms. This facet of international politics has given rise to many attempts to find a principled basis for such interventions that does not undermine the system of sovereign states that is assumed to be a prerequisite of order and stability. Inevitably the criteria for justifying intervention are less demanding than the human rights standards expected within democratic states. Thus, perhaps in an attempt to meet the criticism that his Theory of Justice (1971) is parochially liberal, in his Rights of Peoples (1999), John Rawls omits from the rights of peoples—whose protection, he assumes, legitimates intervention in the affairs of other sovereign states—any requirement for what westerners would recognise as democratic institutions.

Bifurcation of human rights standards also encourages what is now referred to as ‘exceptionalism’—the practice of endorsing international human rights regimes through entering into treaties designed to bind other countries but failing to ratify them for home consumption or to admit them as effective instruments for criticising our own conduct. American exceptionalism with respect to international human rights law, including the international criminal court, is notorious. Australian rejections of the criticism of the UN Human Rights Committee of its treatment of indigenous people and asylum seekers is comparable.

Commitment to human rights, like other moral duties, should begin at home.

These issues give heightened significance to the Tanner Lectures on Human Values delivered at Princeton University in 2000 by Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Ignatieff argues for a restricted approach to human rights that confines their scope to certain negative rights that concern the protection against serious violations of human ‘agency’. As a roving reporter and eloquent commentator on many of the human rights atrocities that marked the end of the twentieth century, Ignatieff is firmly focussed on the need to curb the resurgence of the Nazi style horrors that gave rise to the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. To this end, he directs our attention to the basic political ideas underlying that Declaration, warns us against placing human rights on a pedestal as some sort of secular religion that makes them master not servant (what he calls idolatry), and recommends that we adopt a minimalist conception of human rights as marking the outer boundaries of acceptable conduct in international society. Ignatieff’s argument is that human rights must be used to prioritise ‘negative liberty’, that is, refraining from and seeking to prevent the infliction of gross suffering and oppression on vulnerable peoples. He believes that even this minimalist approach to human rights may well be beyond our practical reach.

Ignatieff’s pragmatic minimalism may be seen as a version of what is sometimes referred to as ‘prioritarianism’, an approach to justice that directs our remedial action to the worst cases rather than fostering a broad conception of equality. Ignatieff adds a further rationale for eschewing a bolder content for human rights, namely the need to respect cultural variations by not imposing our values on others unless absolutely necessary. Ignatieff points out that it is a negation of human rights themselves to insist that all cultures conform to the ideal of western societies. He does not capitulate entirely to cultural relativism—rejecting, for instance, gender oppression and genital mutilation as incompatible with universally appropriate minimum standards of human conduct. But he advocates a large margin of appreciation in relation to the variety of social arrangements that peoples may adopt when exercising their human right to choose their own way of life.

The minimalist content of human rights on which Ignatieff fastens is a familiar enough version of Kant’s moral philosophy. Humans are agents and individual autonomy must therefore be the fundamental human rights value. Dignity comes in only as a variable into which individuals and groups pour their own conceptions of what constitutes a dignified way of life, hence his notion of ‘agent dignity’ as the universal core of human rights values. This moral bedrock, he argues, can be justified in many ways in different traditions, secular and religious, but should be detached from such backgrounds. Agency is a core value that gives rise to a plurality of culturally localised conceptions of human dignity in accordance with its own commitment to humans as agents whose destiny is to work out their own autonomous salvation.

Ignatieff sees human rights as a kind of political instrument that serves to combat inhumanity.

Ignatieff is deeply opposed to requiring agreement about the justifications for agent dignity. What matters, in his view, is that the value is shared in practice. Nor does he support the sort of human rights ‘idolatry’ that envisions human rights as absolute pristine and unchanging norms with an authoritative incarnation that must be accepted by everyone. Rather he sees human rights as a kind of political instrument that serves to combat inhumanity and legitimate international intervention to prevent gross abuse of humans as agents.

It is hard to be anything but enthusiastic about the prioritisation of such basic political values, especially when it is presented in such delightfully articulate and elegant prose, with memorable catch phrases, such as ‘going global by going local’, which Ignatieff uses to capture his argument that effective human rights protection is possible only when it is rooted in the social and political cultures of the localities. Unsurprisingly, the four commentaries and introduction included in the volume are only mildly critical. Amy Gutman brings in the uncomfortable fact that negative freedom is of little value without the economic and social conditions that make agency possible, and notes that the idea of agency is too limited to encompass all the bases of human dignity. Anthony Appiah, while accepting that it is not desirable to make our allegiance to human rights depend on adopting any particular metaphysical or religious position, doubts whether we can avoid exploring the grounding of human rights. Without some idea of why such rights are justified it is difficult to appreciate their importance, or, he might have argued, their precise content and implications. However, Appiah is unable to fill this justificatory void except by an appeal to a consensus which, as he himself notes, fits uneasily with the role of human rights as instruments for the protection of minorities against majority agreements.

David Hollinger, on the other hand, sees that even the minimalist rights Ignatieff favours have the capacity to undermine cultures that are not individualistic or egalitarian or democratic. Thus, Hollinger argues, Ignatieff’s minimalist rights are a pragmatic strategy behind which, if we are honest, there is a more invasive objective. Hollinger is also in favour of drawing on the deeper sources underpinning Ignatieff’s human rights pragmatism, including the pioneering contribution of Enlightenment thinkers instead of a pot-pourri of cross-cultural ‘values’, a position Diane Orentlicher echoes with respect to the religious foundations of human rights. Thomas Laqueur goes deeper, suggesting that effective reduction of the sort of gross evils Ignatieff has in mind will depend more on promoting the social and cultural conditions that work against the crude social antagonisms leading to genocide than on formulating a set of negative rights whose violation legitimates intervention.

Combined, these are significant points indicating the need for a broader and philosophically deeper conception of human rights than we find in Ignatieff’s minimalism. In so doing, they also reduce the logical space for American and Australian exceptionalism, by making it more difficult for such countries to reject international human rights standards as inapplicable to their domestic human rights regimes.

That still leaves us with the problem, however, of deciding on what basis—if any—we can endorse armed intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. The way forward is not to reduce the scope of human rights but to accept that the degree of human rights violations counts. Respecting human agency must be supplemented by a direct concern for human suffering. Democracy must not be relegated to the status of a lesser human right. This is as much because of the connection between democracy and the reduction of suffering, as because democracy promotes the agency values of deliberation and self-determination. Amartya Sen’s (1984) observation that famines do not occur in electoral democracies with free presses is very much a case in point here.

Only in the most extreme and intransigent cases can human rights violations legitimate military intervention.

That said, the human rights advantages of preserving the order that only sovereign states can provide means that the principal methods of international human rights implementation must be via peaceful devices that themselves respect human rights. Only in the most extreme and intransigent cases can human rights violations legitimate military intervention. Certainly, the need to provide clear justification for intervention in the internal affairs of states should dictate what is to count as the proper content and scope of human rights for other purposes.

The pursuit of global human rights justice does not require us to adopt human rights minimalism as an essential strategy. It is enough to hold that there is a requirement for a much higher degree of human rights violation when what is envisaged is armed intervention in the internal affairs of another state. We can therefore resist Ignatieff’s identification of human rights with the negative protection of agency, just as a previous generation resisted Maurice Cranston’s (1962) rejection of social and economic rights as human rights.

Without suggesting that Michael Ignatieff intends to further the causes of American exceptionalism, or to promote dual standards in relation to human rights abroad, his human rights minimalism does endorse an overly individualistic and unduly limited approach to human rights. This approach ignores the wider range of deprivations, sufferings, and inequalities that have a legitimate place within the scope of human rights values. Broadening the range of our human rights concerns will contribute to the pursuit of international justice, and help counter human rights complacency at home. Ignatieff may be right that the global acceptance of human rights ideology is out-matched by increasing global violation of human rights in practice. But there are greater dangers in retreating to human rights minimalism than in articulating our priority political, economic, and social objectives in more comprehensive and ambitious terms.


Cranston, M. 1962, Human Rights Today, Ampersand, London.

Rawls, J. 1970, A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, Cambridge.

Rawls, J. 1999, The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Sen, A. 1984, Resources, Values, and Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Tom Campbell, a former Dean of the Australian National University, is currently a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University. He is author of Justice (Second Edition, 2001, Palgrave) and co-editor of Sceptical Essays on Human Rights (2001, Oxford University Press).