Booklist | A Critique of Human Rights

The idea of human rights is assumed to be universal. Not so fast, says a Yale prof. Samuel Moyn offers a sharp critique of human rights with a particular interest in economic inequality:

…[I]n “Not Enough,” he ex­am­ines how they have been an­swered by in­ternational lawyers, po­lit­i­cal philoso­phers and hu­man-rights ac­tivists since the end of World War II. He con­cludes that, while the hu­man rights move­ment has not de­lib­er­ately sup­ported the growth of ma­te­r­ial in­equal­ity dur­ing this pe­riod, it has also not done enough to com­bat it: “un­wit­tingly, the cur­rent hu­man rights move­ment ap­pears to be help­ing Croe­sus live out his plan,” Mr. Moyn writes. In gen­eral terms, Mr. Moyn’s book cov­ers much the same ground as his 2010 study, “The Last Utopia,” which also treated the mod­ern his­tory of hu­man rights. In­deed, Mr. Moyn de­scribes his new vol­ume as a “re­write” of the ear­lier one: “What can make the study of his­tory ex­cit­ing is that its in­fin­ity of sources and our change in per­spec­tive can al­low two books on the same topic by the same per­son to bear al­most no re­sem­blance to each other.” De­spite this dis­claimer, there is a ba­sic con­sis­tency in Mr. Moyn’s po­si­tion: In both books he writes as a critic of hu­man rights from the left.

Via WSJ, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There,”


Neuroscience and Mapping Empathy in the Brain

In Charles Kupchan’s important book, How Enemies Become Friends, he explores rapprochements involving Brazil and Argentina, Anglo-American negotiations in 2the 1800s as well as breakdowns in the creation of Singapore from Malaysia and crumbling of the Concert of Europe post-1848. Diplomacy is the solution, he concludes.

What if we could better understand the empathic responses necessary to negotiate–rather than flight–by tracking these instincts in the brain? Jeneen Interlandi explores this in an interesting article in the NYT Magazine, looking into the case of Roma in Hungary and how neural focus groups can unlock the key understanding bias and ancient hatreds.

But the picture remains incomplete. We still need to map a host of other empathy-related tasks — like judging the reasonableness of people’s arguments and sympathizing with their mental and emotional states — to specific brain regions. And then we need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? Why is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus?

So far, Bruneau says, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. Many f.M.R.I. studies on empathy involve scanning subjects’ brains while they look at images of hands slammed in doors or of faces poked with needles. Scientists have shown that the same brain regions light up when you watch such things happen to someone else as when you experience them or imagine them happening to you. “To me, that’s not empathy,” Bruneau says. “It’s what you do with that information that determines whether it’s empathy or not.” A psychopath might demonstrate the same neural flashes in response to the same painful images but experience glee instead of distress.

via The Brain’s Empathy Gap – The New York Times.

Violence Against Women across the World

What is the state of women across the globe? At the ongoing #Beijing+20 Conference in NY at the United Nations, the stubborn and perplexing case of violence against women comes to the fore–with useful data analysis from BYU and Texas A&M’s WomanStats project, as reported in this article by Somini Sengupta:

“Overall, as you look at the world, there have been no large victories in eradicating violence against women,” said Valerie M. Hudson, a professor of international affairs at Texas A & M University who has developed world maps that chart the status of women.

In some cases, the laws on the books are the problem, women’s rights advocates say. In some countries, like Nigeria, the law permits a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. But even when laws are technically adequate, victims often do not feel comfortable going to law enforcement, or they are unable to pay the bribes required to file a police report.

via U.N. Reveals ‘Alarmingly High’ Levels of Violence Against Women –

Sometimes Ambassadors Resign

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a foreign service officer disagrees fundamentally with US policy, the option of last resort is to resign.

Ambassador Robert E. White, a noted Latin Americanist, passed away in January 2015. His career was devoted to the principles of human rights and democracy–at a very high personal cost.

“I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally, definitely dismissed by Alexander Haig for opposing a military solution in El Salvador,” Mr. White recalled.

Via NYT Obit

His early diplomatic posts were located in Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Later, he served with the Peace Corp and the OAS before becoming ambassador to Paraguay and then, notably, to El Salvador.

He continued to call himself a diplomat and a democrat, drawing on the “quotient of idealism”, as he called the force that led him into the foreign service.

A “Serious” UN Meeting on anti-Semitism

Call this one a “win” for Israel at the UN (Samantha Power did), a venue that has rarely been favorable to the Jewish State:

The General Assembly has never before held a meeting devoted to anti-Semitism. An Israeli diplomat said Thursday that Israel was prompted to push for one in October after a spate of attacks in Europe, and that it was particularly troubled when the United Nations made no mention of anti-Semitism in condemning the attack on the Jewish Museum.

The United States pushed for the session too, which the American ambassador, Samantha Power, called an important step in an organization that she said had often been “a venue for the de-legitimization of Israel.”

via Modest Victory for Israel in Quest for International Meeting on Anti-Semitism –

Does the ICC Matter?

Some argue that the fuss over Palestine’s efforts to join the Internaitonal Criminal Court show how relevant the institution still is. The move “could open the door to possible investigation and prosecution of war crimes in the Palestinian Territories” according to Marina Barakatt of the American Society of International Law.

But the ICC has proven to be slow-moving and frequently ineffective–as driven by its Security Council member state masters:

Neither China nor Russia nor the United States has signed the treaty that created the court, but as veto-wielding members of the Security Council, all three can exert influence, chiefly by protecting their allies from its reach.

Only recently, the court was dismissed as ineffective, or even irrelevant. It was ambitiously designed to try the gravest offenses: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But the tribunal, based in The Hague, has been hamstrung from the start. It does not have the power to arrest those it indicts, nor to force defiant government authorities to cooperate. It can initiate cases against countries that have signed up — 123 states as of April 1, when the Palestinian accession to the court starts — or if the Security Council refers cases to the tribunal.

via Is the War Crimes Court Still Relevant? –

Grading Samantha Power’s Record

What type of influence does Samantha Power in shaping Obama and US foreign policy? In her nomination we had the youngest US Ambassador to the UN, an idealist, and a fresh take on the perils of avoiding hard choices and messy conflicts. Where is she now?

This is where Power started in public life–as a noted academic speaker on human rights, making assertions such as this:

On the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, she appeared on “Charlie Rose” and said that the history of inaction held lessons for the U.N. and other organizations. “They can’t live by the maxim that they do in Washington, which is that if you make a moral argument you’re not going to get invited to the next meeting. Make the moral argument and see. Leak the fax that warns of the extermination of a thousand. Leak it, and see whether the member states actually can be shamed into acting. Don’t check the weather. Don’t live in the land of the possible. Push.”

via The Samantha Power Doctrine.

Now, she “exhibits a kind of post-gaffe stress disorder” keeping her “fiery and profane” comments to close quarters with public pronouncements bordering on the “mind-numbingly dull” according to Evan Osnos’s New Yorker recent profile.

He ends with a piece that Power wrote about the notable Brazilian diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello–alluding to perhaps her own journey, a leadership ellipse–calling him a “Machiavellian idealist” in contrast to those who can be ‘bureaucratic samurais” … the types that are “especially persuasive in their diplomacy internationally, spend[ing] ore time on those relationships.” Is that what she has become? Is her proximity to Obama proof of the long-term viability of her views, or will her tactical relationship with Hillary Clinton mean that her influence will be ending in the “4th quarter”?