In This Review

Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry
Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry
By Michael Ignatieff
Princeton University Press, 2001, 208 pp

An elegant reflection on the foundations of the international human rights revolution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 gave the rights of individuals international legal recognition. But the spread of human rights norms since then has not resolved basic questions about the legal and political grounds for human rights, which transcend both the sovereign state and the legitimacy of coercive intervention to enforce norms. Addressing this quandary, Ignatieff argues that international human rights norms are best defended on pragmatic grounds: when individuals have defensible rights, they are less likely to be abused. But the protection of human agency -- the ability of individuals to resist an unjust state -- is what gives the international human rights movement its potential appeal outside the West. Ignatieff also makes a good argument for establishing limits on the scope of internationally protected human rights, contending that overzealous interventionism can erode the legitimacy of international norms. His learned, nimble analysis traces the fine line between the rights of states and those of citizens, and how the human rights movement should best walk that line.