Faculty Publications
 

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2003

Excerpt

The source of human rights, therefore, as inhering in the transcultural, trans-historical or "deracinated individual human beings," is a particular configuration of the self (or subject) as conceptualized by the Enlightenment philosophers. lt was therefore open to the charge of being culturally specific to that tradition, particularly by those from non-western societies. Cultural relativists argued that the core instruments of international human rights law-the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights-"reflect a liberal individualism prevalent in the West, and ignore the importance of group membership, of duties, and of respect for nature prevalent in many non-western culture

Abstract

International human rights law's claim to universality, at the level of normative formation, has been shaped by conceptions of the self over time. The metaphysical reconfigurations of the self, from the Enlightenment to the present, have marked the human rights narrative in particular ways. This essay will suggest that since World War II, a conception of the self within a narrative of rights has been replaced, or at least countermanded, by a conception of sacral evil, with profound implications for the normative claim to universality of the human rights discourse. The essay begins with a synoptic analysis of the rise of the claim to universality within the international human rights narrative, followed by the critique of universalism from the perspective of cultural relativism. The essay will then briefly outline the complex and interesting history of the rise and fall of the self within the Western metaphysical tradition, in order to situate the self in relation to the human rights discourse. At the end of that history lies the Holocaust, which begins a new story and a new ethical framework for international human rights. I will present two stories, one from the period immediately following the Holocaust, and the other from the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in order to suggest the consequences for the new ethics as an international human rights praxis. I conclude with a call for the return to critical analysis, or a critique of the juridical-rational self, abandoned by a resurgent sacrality of evil at the level of normative formation within the modern international human rights movement.

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