Minimalism About Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For?
Joshua Cohen, MIT
At the conclusion of his illuminating book on
, Michael Ignatieff
says that “we could do more than we do to stop unmerited suffering and gross
physical cruelty.” Efforts to halt such suffering and cruelty are, he says, the
“elemental priority of all human rights activism: to stop torture, beatings, killings,
rape, and assault to improve, as best we can, the security of ordinary people.”
Ignatieff describes this focused concern on protecting bodily security as a
outlook on human rights. And he distinguishes human rights
minimalism from more expansive statements about the content of human rights
and more ambitious agendas for their promotion.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights presents one such more
ambitious agenda. Its account of human rights extends well beyond minimalist
assurances of bodily security, to comprise rights associated with the rule of law,
education, culture, work, and political participation. And neither of the 1966
Covenants on human rights (which entered into force in 1976) is a minimalist
charter—certainly not the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, but equally
not the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with its provisions on
self-determination, political participation, equality before the law, and rights of
peaceable assembly. In response to the criticism that minimalism is simply a
I presented earlier versions of this paper at the 50
Anniversary celebration of the MIT
Center for International Studies, and the Center for Ethics and the Professions at Harvard’s
John F. Kennedy School of Government. I am grateful for comments from Charles Beitz,
Patrizia Nanz, and Alyssa Bernstein.
, p. 173.