A Review of Human Rights Futures
Edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder, and Leslie Vinjamuri (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 2344 pages.
Amnesty International declared the world in 2016 "a darker and more unstable place." (1) Not only did existing crises worsen, but the divisive politics of nationalism usually associated with the Global South resurfaced in the West at the very highest levels of office. Existing democracies now appear to be more accommodating of illiberal politics. With authoritarianism and populism once again in vogue, Human Rights Futures asks searching questions about what this means for the future of the human rights movement.
The book reads as a conversation among 15 scholars of political science, history, and anthropology on "the feasibility of making rights a reality." (2) They represent four perspectives: the mainstream, and three critiques centered on political bargaining, localizing and vernacularizing norms, and social welfare alternatives. Drawing on insights from these perspectives, the editors, Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder, and Leslie Vinjamuri, envision four future models of human rights advocacy and outcomes ranging from staying the course, to human rights as a sideshow. All models involve a degree of pragmatic adaptation to our new reality, the subtext being that the glory days of human rights advocacy, if they ever existed, are well and truly past.
I found the book more easily digested in reverse. The last chapter, Stephen Hopgood's "Human Rights on the Road to Nowhere," provides a critical perspective on how human rights came to be conceptualized and universalized. The classic conception of human rights puts the interests of the individual first, he explains, and has been promoted and sustained by post-1945 Western hegemony. (3) As we move away from a unipolar world, Hopgood argues that the inherent elasticity of rights concepts opens up space for alternative norms. (4)
In some instances, this elasticity can help mainstream human rights norms. At the grass-roots level, advocates have found success in adapting norms to fit local conditions. But localization can be perverted by the powerful. This is one form of strategic backlash that Leslie Vinjamuri, Alexander Cooley, and Matthew Schaaf discuss in earlier chapters. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin's defense of traditional values against the West's "moral corruption," and China's emphasis on "civilizational diversity" and...