Human Rights

Responding to Kinzer on “human rights imperialism”

Sohrab Ahmari has an excellent response to Stephen Kinzer’s egregious Comment is Free piece about “human rights imperialism.”

[Kinzer] is effectively implying that some people deserve fewer individual rights than others. There is no universal standard. And how dare the poor in underdeveloped and developing countries expect to speak their minds or fulfil their political aspirations – how egocentric of them to abdicate their historical destinies in favour of such narrow ends as reproductive rights and religious liberty.

Kinzer is clearly aware of the fact he is treading on dangerous ground and playing with ideas with toxic pedigrees. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is compelled to attach the predicate “western” to every individual right. Yet one wonders how he accounts for the myriad indigenous movements from the heart of the “east” (whatever that means) calling for freedom of speech and assembly, gender equity, LGBT rights, and so on. Are Iran’s Green and Sudan’s Girifna movements human rights imperialists? And pro-democracy Bahraini bloggers and Tunisian cyberactivists too?

Imagine what Kinzer’s proposals would mean in practical terms. Can human rights activists be expected to ignore the plight of a woman being stoned in Iran for adultery or a journalist tortured in Mubarak’s jails? (“Terribly sorry, but we wouldn’t want to judge your oppressors by the meter of our culturally determined, imperialistic standards – tough!”)

And consider, too, the impact of this brand of relativism on the moral imagination of the left, which, at its very best, stood firm on the principle that people divided by geography, culture and language can empathise with and express solidarity with each other.

That Ahmari feels compelled to use the past tense “stood” in that sentence ought to make some people uncomfortable. And no– the highly selective empathy and solidarity of the “anti-imperialist” Left isn’t good enough.

(Hat tip: Terry Glavin)

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