SOAS University of London

Global human rights advocacy a poor fit for today's realities argues SOAS scholar in latest book

7 November 2013
Stephen Hopgood book pic

Dr Stephen Hopgood, Reader in International Relations at SOAS, University of London argues in his latest book that global human rights advocacy is increasingly overambitious, unresponsive and ill-adapted to current realities.

The Endtimes of Human Rights
presents human rights as the product of a particular worldview, namely Western European and Christian, and of specific historical moments, such as humanitarianism in the nineteenth century and the aftermath of the Holocaust. This formation of universal humanist norms was an antidote to a troubling contradiction; the coexistence of a belief in liberal progress with horrifying violence and growing inequality.

Increasingly, Dr Hopgood argues, institutions created to embed human rights, most recently the International Criminal Court, have become self-perpetuating structures of intermittent power and authority that mask their lack of democratic legitimacy and systematic ineffectiveness. At their best, humanist institutions provide relief in extraordinary situations of great distress; otherwise they serve up a mixture of false hope and unaccountability sustained by “human rights” as a global brand.

According to Dr Hopgood: “The Endtimes of Human Rights has been described as an angry book but I don’t think it is, frustrated perhaps and in places almost melancholic. I see my role as a tenured academic as being to provoke and question rather than to support accepted wisdom: to try to challenge a few myths.

“As I explained it to a group of humanitarian activists in Berlin recently, I want to be convinced by them I am wrong rather than to convince them I am right. In this way, social movements become more grounded, coherent and stronger. Why shouldn’t human rights advocates be answerable for their choices and priorities? Why should they get a moral pass, particularly when they speak in the name of others who have no international voice themselves?

“Within the discussion groups of some human rights organisations there is a deep unease about how the world is changing and this book will, I hope, help focus that debate and refine its arguments in a positive and productive way. As I say very clearly in the book, there are a huge number of human rights advocates doing extraordinary work in very difficult situations. But this is entirely different from globally branded NGOs and the International Criminal Court being built in the Hague. Self-righteous hectoring by global advocates is such a turn off for vast numbers of people in a world that we might describe as increasingly post-Western.”

Dr Hopgood will be a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week at 9am on 25 November 2013 talking about The Endtimes of Human Rights. His book will also be featured in Times Higher Education Supplement on 14 November as Book of the Week. A book talk will also take place in the Khalili Lecture Theatre at SOAS, 6-8pm, on Friday 6 December.