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Human-rights agenda ‘can entrench worse evils’
Professor Samuel Moyn and Dr Lea David

07 May 2021 / human rights Print

Human-rights agenda ‘can entrench worse evils’

The unintended effects of a human-rights agenda was the topic of a UCD conference today (7 May).

Yale academic Samuel Moyn (Henry R Luce Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of History) was speaking at a UCD Centre for Human Rights online conference entitled 'Critical Exploration of Human Rights: When Human Rights become Part of the Problem'.

Selective set

Professor Moyn said that when human rights defend a selective set of human interests, this can ignore, or entrench, serious or worse evils.

Moyn said that there was a large set of cases in which we could say that human rights turned out to be ineffective in the aims of their movements.

However, he said that he found dubious the notion that human rights take up too much room, and that if they went away something better would take their place.

“Human rights, conceptually, and in their moral content, sound great. But what if we find situations in which, because of their partiality or selectivity, they either leave other evils unaddressed, or even entrench or worsen those evils?” he asked.

He described historical ‘amelioration strategies’ for less brutal treatment of chattel slavery. These attempted to make slavery more humane, when it was morally necessary to abolish the slavery system altogether, he said, adding that amelioration merely led to the entrenchment of slavery.

“People should have worked on that higher end all along,” Moyn said, pointing out that making slavery humane made it endure for longer than necessary.

The same is true of the project of making war more humane, he said.

Moyn quoted novelist Leo Tolstoy, who said that making violence less cruel could have unintended bad effects, just as making war more humane could lead to endless war.

‘Heavy footprint’ wars with face-to-face engagement may have declined, he noted, but an emergent form of 'great-power' war has come with the rise of drones and teams of special forces who kill with great concern for collateral damage.

We are all 'beneficiaries' of evil practices, Professor Moyn said, but donning the guise of humanitarianism blinds us to our own implication in evil, and makes it more difficult to bring about change for the better.

‘Bad faith’ is when people think [that evil practices] are good but aren’t, he continued, and the beneficiaries of such evil can believe that they are good.

Bad faith

Tolstoy worried that bad faith can make evil worse.

“We use the humanitarian stratagem to distract us from our true moral turpitude,” Professor Moyn said.

Event organiser Dr Lea David of UCD said that she had studied why, in some cases, and under certain conditions, human-rights agendas could actually contribute to new social inequalities and animosities in conflict and post-conflict settings.

“The side effects of human-rights advocacy and implementation, and their impact on the ground, are less explored, and often ignored topics, because they are seen as threatening to the ‘human-rights project’,” she said.


‘Hierarchies of victimhood’ also produce inequalities, and economic rights have been excluded from human-rights discourses and practices, she added.

Dr David said the conference would address the downsides and shortcomings of the promotion and implementation of the human-rights agenda, asking what happens when it becomes counter-productive.

The conference continues tomorrow morning (8 May) and registration is open online.

UCD assistant professor of law Dr Marie-Luce Paris also assisted with organising the conference.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland