Making rights ordinary: a reply to Michael Ignatieff.

Author:Newman, Dwight
Position:Article in this issue, p. 1

It is an honour to engage with the fascinating and wide-ranging lecture delivered by Michael Ignatieff on "Human Rights, Global Ethics, and the Ordinary Virtues." Professor Ignatieff has powerfully described his engagement in conversations on rights and virtues with individuals in a number of communities around the world. And he has spoken insightfully of how to think of the ethical concerns that animated the human rights movement in a way that can actually operate at the intersection of law and politics, of theory and real life. One cannot but react in admiration to his simultaneous idealism and thinking about how to make the ideal more real in human life.

However, at the same time, I am going to quibble with what seems to be to be an inadvertent blind spot in Professor Ignatieff's conception of rights and how that missing dimension could lead to mistaken assumptions or even mistaken approaches. Realizing as much starts out with noticing his focus on the human rights instruments adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt's speeches, and so on. What is missing is any focus on later human rights instruments--and one instrument in particular that actually should shake up more of our conceptions than may even first be apparent.

In describing his conversations in different communities about rights issues, it is slightly perplexing that a great Canadian scholar speaking before a Canadian audience at the Munk School would not describe one conversation within one of the communities that raises some of the most profound rights and ethical questions in Canada. And here, I mean that it is surprising that Professor Ignatieff does not mention a single Indigenous community. When fellow Canadians live in communities without running water and in communities experiencing epidemics of youth suicides and they do not warrant a mention in a discussion of whether human rights have altered "our moral instincts and reflexes," perhaps we actually have our answer to that last question in a harsher form than we could have wished.

But saying that and ending matters there would be unduly harsh and would miss something deeper at stake. The deeper questions concern the scope of human rights and whether they were properly cast in stone in the 1940s. And apart from practical issues about the daily tragedies of poverty and historic legacies of colonialism faced in Indigenous communities, one...

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