Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times
Mainstream human rights activists typically attribute the signature successes of their movement—anti-slavery, Gandhi, Martin Luther King—to their uncompromisingly principled stance on behalf of the weak and the exploited. “Naming and shaming” and “ending impunity” loom large in their lore. This attitude works well to recruit idealistic activists, but their moralism, legalism, and secular universalism miss the central role of the self-interest of the majority in powering the progress of human rights. A core of idealists defined aspirational goals, but progress depended on support from majority mass movements and reform parties that gained power through expedient compromise.
The human rights enterprise is now facing fierce pushback from illiberal strongmen and populists who counter-shame the liberal order as decadent, degenerate, and threatening to deeply rooted values. Too often contemporary rights rhetoric plays into the hands of these illiberal critics. “Human Rights for Pragmatists” explains how rights-based societies can recover a more accurate narrative of their past pragmatic successes, repair their tactical flaws, and withstand illiberal challenges.
Jack Lewis Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia.
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