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Long, withdrawing roar of rights

21 March 2014

Robin Gill remains unconvinced by this author's argument

The Endtimes of Human Rights
Stephen Hopgood
Cornell University Press £18.50
Church Times Bookshop £16.65 (Use code CT477 )

AS ITS title suggests, this is a book with a strong thesis. It argues that the Human Rights Movement became a form of secular, universal religion, first within the Red Cross in the 19th century, and then through the League of Nations and the United Nations in the 20th century. From the 1970s onwards, it has also been aligned firmly to American power, effectively becoming part of American foreign policy (but, ironically, not an instrument substantially to shape its internal policy), whose final enforcement agency is the International Criminal Court.

With, however, the failure of secularism and the resilience of traditional religions outside Europe, the demise of American power and the rise of power in China and the East, and the failure of the International Criminal Court successfully to convict any political leader outside Africa, the Human Rights Movement is now in terminal decline. At most we can expect human rights to survive on the basis, say, of co-operative trading relations, albeit within contexts of divergent local political and religious sovereignties.

Stephen Hopgood (Comment, 14 March) is a Reader in International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He has previously written about Amnesty International, arguing that it has at some point lost its way by aligning itself with those in power. He writes with great passion and conviction, although it is not always easy to detect whether he is analysing or prescribing the "endtimes" of human rights. Using considerably more than 40 acronyms throughout (is this a product of reading too many United Nations documents?), his text can also be hard going.

Was I finally convinced by his strong thesis? Not completely, but then seemingly neither were those writing commendations on the cover of the book. They depict it variously as a "barnstormer", "brilliant", and suited to "grab the reader's attention", but also note that some readers "will object furiously" to its arguments and find it simply "provocative" or "even shocking".

Having worked for a while with the branch of the UN concerned with HIV, I am only half convinced. UN language and structures can appear tiresome and even patronising, but in a context of the deep distortions and even deceptions of some church leaders about HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, the work of the UN has been a vital corrective. The author is strangely silent on this issue, mentioning only the failure of the Human Rights Movement to eliminate female genital mutilation in Africa and Asia.

In a global context of war and oppression, I would still rather have than not have the UN and even the International Criminal Court. Hopgood's sweeping claims fit well with those theologians who decry both the Enlightenment and the benefits of liberal democracy. Buthe and they are free to write as they do precisely because they live in a society that, with all its faults, is shaped by both.

Professor Robin Gill is the editor of Theology.

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