Published date10 December 2003
Date10 December 2003
AuthorLisa Hajjar
Lisa Hajjar
Utopia, a term first coined by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century,referred to
a place of unattainable social perfection. But the appeal of a concept that embraces
rather than mocks the imagination has broadened its meanings and uses. In the
early twentieth century, Anatole France wrote, “Out of generous dreams come
beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a
better future.” In contemporary vernacular, utopia has come to refer not only to
imagining perfection but cures for imperfection. By this definition, any struggle for
rights could be conceived as utopian to the extent that it represents a desire to make
the world a better place for the would-be beneficiaries. The utopianism of rights
envisions conditions in which human dignity can be ensured and vulnerability
Humanrightsareveryobviouslyutopianbecausetheyenshrine the assumption
and assertion – that all human beings are equal in their humanity,and are entitled to
a common set of rights. Their utopianism lies not only in the promises of equality,
freedoms and protections, but the enduring distance or disjuncture between those
promises and people’s lived realities. According to Richard Wilson,
Notwithstanding disputes overtheir conceptualization and application, human rights are among
thefewutopian ideals left, and thereisstill a remarkable degree ofconsensusby governments on
the principle at least that certain rights be protected under international law (Wilson,1997,p.1).
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society,Volume 31, 3–23
© 2004 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(03)31001-4
Like many utopian projects, human rights are infused with violence. They were
created on a foundation of violence, and legitimized as a rejoinder to violence of
an unprecedented intensity and organization. While history prior to World War II
was replete with genocides and massacres, forced concentrations and “cleansings”
of populations from territories, torture, slavery, systematic rape and so on, the
perpetration of those acts as well-planned policies by modern states inspired a
veritable revolution in international law to make such practices illegal and, more
generally, to forge heretofore non-existent or under-articulated protections and
freedoms for human beings.
However, in the post-war process of international law making and reform, the
original utopian vision of the “moral entrepreneurs” who had shepherded universal
human rights onto the international stage, and who had hoped to put humans’
interests above states’ interests, was eclipsed as state actors commandeered the
idea (see Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Lauren, 1998). Although human beings would be
the ostensible beneficiaries of international human rights, the framework instituted
to establish them did not challenge states’ power and authority over their subjects,
or the state-centrism of the international order. Rather,the creation of human rights
entailedtheelaborationofnew international legal norms of governmenttowhichall
states would be expected to adhere. Consequently while states’ rights were revised
(e.g. they could no longer claim the “right” to exterminate civilians as a sovereign
prerogative), they retained their status as the premiere subjects of international
law. Put simply, human rights obtained their “universalizing” character from the
fact that people are subjects of states, and states are subjects of international law
(see An-Na’im, 1994).
Nevertheless, positive law developments, starting in 1948 with the Genocide
Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, fueled an inter-
nationalized socio-legal imagination, and over time inspired various sorts of
activism to substantiate the human rights idea. Proponents of human rights have
found common cause in the belief that international law can be a resource to aid
the weak and protect the vulnerable. For this reason, human rights discourse and
practice have been framed as “idealist” and counterposed to “realist” discourses
and practices that emphasize the exercise and interests of power. Of course, this
counter-positioning of legal idealism with political realism is misleading; human
rights are constructs of international laws, which are made and modified by
representatives of states and thus are themselves manifestations of power. The
idealist-realist dichotomy has reflected, primarily, a difference in priorities (see
Slaughter, Tulumello & Wood, 1998).
For decades, human rights advocacy was idealistic because it found little
resonance or support in political practice, especially the goals of preventing
or deterring violations and holding violators accountable. The principle of

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT