The Moral Solipsism of Global Ethics Inc

Alex de Waal

  • Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International by Jonathan Power
    Allen Lane, 332 pp, £12.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9319 7
  • Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century by Michael Edwards
    Earthscan, 292 pp, £12.99, September 2000, ISBN 1 85383 740 7
  • East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia by Daniel Bell
    Princeton, 369 pp, £12.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 691 00508 7

‘Uhuru has a new name’, an advertising billboard for mobile phones announces in Dar es Salaam. ‘Uhuru’ – Swahili for ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ – is a sacred word throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is an ideal for which Africans sacrificed much in their collective struggle against colonialism and racism. But almost two years after the death of Tanzania’s former President, Julius Nyerere, in the city that once hosted the OAU Liberation Committee, advertising of this kind passes without comment. In a globalised world, ideals become commodities along with everything else. The manufacture and dissemination of global ethics is a neglected strand of globalisation. We are all familiar with the core values embodied in human rights, democracy, ‘civil society’ and ‘governance’ – an aseptic word that seems to mean government minus politics. We also know the core institutions: the organisations, foundations and institutes that teach the world how to implement democracy and human rights. But do we, or the people who staff them, understand what they are up to?

The global ethical enterprise begins in moral solipsism. Most accounts of the human rights industry – including Jonathan Power’s Like Water on Stone, the history of Amnesty International, timed for its 40th birthday this year – have a whiff of Whig history about them. It is hard for those driven by conviction and concern to imagine what it might be like for those on the receiving end of the moral directives. And the more driven, convinced and concerned they are, the more solipsistic they tend to be. They find it almost impossible to listen to voices originating ‘outside the Anglo-Saxon intellectual fortress that dominates writing on foreign policy and international affairs’. This is Michael Edwards’s formulation, and his book, Future Positive, urges them to do better. Daniel Bell rises to this challenge in East Meets West, a series of fictional dialogues about human rights in East Asia. Bell’s East Asian interlocutors express some of the bewilderment felt by the recipients of America’s moral advice, and they offer a robust critique. ‘It’s not that your arguments are invalid, they just don’t apply in a Singaporean context,’ says the Seni0r Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. (Bell bases Lee’s arguments on his published writings and speeches, which he skilfully edits into a debate with an imaginary American interlocutor.) Lee may have an insalubrious human rights record, but the point he makes needs to be taken seriously. As do the voices of Lee’s victims and critics.

Human rights is an activity as well as a theory; it is an exercise in power. It’s not possible to do more than sketch out this activity or the institutions involved in it. At the centre, there are private organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (the US brand leader), intergovernmental bodies such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a range of intermediaries, such as the International Commission of Jurists. In the last ten years the discourse of human rights has widened considerably and the activity now encompasses not only the old-style campaigns against manifest injustice, torture and political detention, for example, but the promotion of democracy, conflict resolution, ‘good governance’, humanitarian principles and the increasingly fashionable notion of ‘civil society’. This last is a catch-all term, about which Edwards says that ‘among writers and politicians doubly disenchanted with the ideologies of Left and Right, civil society has assumed the status of a “solution” writ large.’ Development agencies of all kinds, from Oxfam to Unicef, from Britain’s Department for International Development to the World Bank, have all embraced programmes that affirm the importance of civil society. Once inspired overwhelmingly by economics, overseas aid departments and multilateral lenders now recognise that ‘development’ is a social concept. Edwards summarises: ‘It’s the polity, stupid.’ Universities teach postgraduate courses on one or another branch of ‘human rights’; research institutes produce reports and analyses; and many of the major foundations, from established giants like Ford and Rockefeller to relative newcomers such as George Soros’s Open Society Institute, have committed themselves to the new agenda. Much of Amnesty’s recent campaigning has focused on international corporations, and it has succeeded in persuading several, including Shell, BP, Rio Tinto Zinc and British Telecom, to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though exactly what that amounts to remains to be seen.

If you belong to the network of private organisations, foundations, institutes and specialised departments in aid agencies and government offices that concern themselves with civil and political liberties worldwide, you will take the virtues of this enterprise for granted. The philosophy of the specialist ethics business is overwhelmingly liberal: opposed to censorship, repression and corruption; in favour of tolerance, pluralism, respect for all. The relevant activities include training lawyers, monitoring elections, supporting citizens’ organisations that campaign for women’s rights or the environment (all these are seen as laying the foundations for a strong civil society), sponsoring reconciliation between warring communities and documenting violations of human rights. In some ways, this activity resembles that of a marketplace; in others, it puts you in mind of an intellectual production line for the liberal imperium – Global Ethics Inc.

In its basic structure, the ethics business is like many global businesses. It has its headquarters in a handful of Western centres, notably New York, Washington and London. It acknowledges no boundaries and aims nowadays at the dismantling of the sovereign privilege of governments to regulate its product. On this issue, the key battle was won decisively a decade ago, when the UN Security Council endorsed the principle that national sovereignty did not entitle governments to abuse the rights of their citizens with impunity. And the human rights movement itself crossed a Rubicon when it endorsed the military-humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in