Human Rights and the Uses of History: Expanded Second Edition | Author-Samuel Moyn, Verso; Reprint edition, 2017, 208 pp, London: ISBN-13:978-1781689004, Price-₹ 940 (paperback)
Rohith Krishna

When the history of human rights is written, there is a general tendency in scholarship to teleologically derive the concept from antiquity to the enlightenment period and its matured form today (for instance, Lynn Hunt, 2007). In such a framework of understanding, human rights as a concept was formed as an outcome of a millennium or as a culmination of a long-standing intellectual legacy that easily received a ‘universal’ status. This generates a notion that Human Rights has come as a virtue in modernity. Different from that kind of a scholarship, Samuel Moyn from Yale University revisits Human Rights history and questions certain taboos associated with it to challenge the ‘linear school of human rights history’ in his ‘The Last Utopia’. This work is arguably a well-constructed critique of scholars and activists who are schooled to imagine the foundation of the modern Human Rights Regime in the passing of the Universal Declaration in 1948.

After the success of the above-mentioned book, the author published another book, ‘Human rights and the Uses of History’ (2014), which contains a collection of essays on the same lines. Though these essays carry much of the arguments that he had presented in his academic work ‘The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History’ (2010), these essays are more a simplified version and a compilation that is more readable even for a non-academic reader.
He argues that within modern times, there was a break in the trajectory of human rights and particularly it became politically explosive in the late 1970s towards the end of the Cold War. According to him, since then the politics of human rights started to acquire a status of becoming ‘morality of the globe’ and not any more limited politics of the state. His major academic work on
Human Rights, ‘The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History’ (2010) is a detailed account of this phenomenon. It also narrates the impacts of the post-cold-war international power relations and the intervention of the United States in the politics of contemporary Human Rights.

According to Prof. Sam Moyn, the later stage of human rights, which we experience in today’s world, is different from what we saw in the 1940s. He argues that the current idea of human rights is not rooted in Enlightenment, neither was it a common response to the Holocaust (1940s - 1950s), nor the major theme in the decolonization process. In the 1940s, Human Rights were attached with social citizenship, which was more concerned with the idea of a welfare state that provides protection and citizenship entitlements.

Moyn argues that the contemporary form of Human Rights politics reemerges in the late 1970s, and he marks this along with the decline of the Cold War. Moyn’s scholarship in general doesn’t focus on creating an ‘alternate’ history of human rights; rather it is a critique on the traditional historiography of human rights that follows a linear narration. Human rights in the contemporary form were formulated after the 1970s, where it emerged as a social movement transcending government institutions took form (pp, 69-86). He argues it to be true for whether in the United States, Latin America or Europe, or in the transnational partnerships among them. As he puts it, “Human rights arose on the ruins of revolution, not as its descendent’’ (p, 8). Neither it can be then said that the contemporary human rights narrative ‘progressed’ teleologically as an outcome from its beginning stage. Rather, the shift is to be understood along with the fallen utopias in the late 20th c in Western political experience. As the future oriented utopian concepts fall off, turning towards the past instead of the future happens to be the late modern phenomenon. It is in this context that the contemporary human rights discourse gets merged with the chaos of identity politics, history and memory of the past.

This book and Prof. Moyn’s works on Human Rights in general would be helpful even for Indian context and its readers in specific ways. Arguably, there is a lack of awareness among Indian scholarship about the intellectual history of the West. But on the other hand, these intellectual ideas emerging from the churn of political scenarios in the West became ‘universalised’ and in countries like India they were accepted and owned without much critical engagements. Hence, for anyone interested in a critical engagement with the idea of Human Rights, this book might serve the purpose.

The chapter titled ‘Reclaiming the History of Duties’ might grab the attention of the Indian audience. Because there is a general argument, which is often simplified and puts the Indian traditions as mostly concerned with Duties over Rights. It is questionable whether Indian culture identifies the idiom of Duties and Rights discursively as it is ordered in the Western scenario. However, with some reservations in mind we can simplify and say that Indian cultures give emphasis to Duty over grabbing entitlements of Rights.

It could be noted that the history of duty discourse is perhaps much older than that of rights (Sharma, Arvind, 2004). Despite this, the discourse on Duty is less articulated and emphasised in the contemporary right protection discourse. Hence, Prof. Moyn argues that reclaiming the intellectual history of Duty, to ask what the history of Duties would look like, is necessary to re-establish its discourse in the contemporary discussions about right protection. The author is also aware that there would always be debates and discussions as the idea of ‘Duty’ itself would be diverse. Having said that, the author does not philosophically engage much with the concept of duty. In the sense that there could be many ideas and histories of ‘duty’, but to ask why someone must perform a duty to realise others' rights, is totally a different thing. How does the right and duty discourse in the modern West appear discursively? Duties in the modern context are divisible from rights in the sense that though they are correlative to each other but not co-extensive. This means rights can exist without duty. Where does duty appear in the contexts where rights are all about protecting our sovereignties? What is the background in European history and philosophy responsible for this division? This division is perhaps a result of the incapability of our contemporary right-duty discourse of not giving an enduring reason for one to have performed his duty without a selfish reason, or in the case of ‘selfless’ activism, the violation of rights would have already happened.

Following this scholarship, there is room for the classical Indian thought to intellectually engage with the world to express the idea of ‘Duty’, juxtaposing it with the post-enlightenment ideas of the same emerging from the West. Because the Indian discourse of duty, such as in the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā, emphasises not only duties but also removes dilemmas about performing actions. It addresses the fundamental question that seeks an enduring reason to perform a duty.

Interestingly, Prof. Moyn also begins the chapter of the book, which narrates the famous incident of Mahātma Gandhi, who declined Julian Huxley (the then Director General of UNESCO) on his request to contribute an essay on philosophical reflections on Human Rights. Gandhi instead, wrote back to him speaking about Duties. It could be said that if the world gets curious to know the ideas on ‘Duty’ instead of ‘Rights’, then the Indian sources are unavoidable. Hence, there is a need for shifting emphasis from rights to duties not just for articulating India’s thoughts better on the global front but also for the sake of nurturing the genuine right protection demand itself.

In the Epilogue of the book, titled ‘The Future of Human Rights’, the author briefs a list of thesis for Human Rights politics to come out of its utopian stance to the world and to become more responsible and responsive in future.

They are listed as follows:-

  1. Politics of human rights must involve a transformation in steps.
  2. Politics of human rights must acknowledge that it is mobilisational.
  3. Politics of human rights must transcend judges.
  4. Politics of human rights must seek power over the real conditions of enjoyment of formal entitlements.
  5. Politics of human rights will move away from framing norms individualistically and will cease to privilege political and civil liberties.

The thesis mentioned above, in its exploration, probably lacks depth as each of them contains statements that require further explanations that are not provided in the book. It could be understood that the book is made readable for a layperson and is itself a simplification of the author’s previous academic works on Human Rights. However, the author is leaving out certain food for thought for scholarship to critique and advance on those fronts. Such a reflection would then possibly pave the way for driving our attention towards Human Duties (if not to ignore ‘Rights’).

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