By David Pan · Wednesday, July 26, 2023
One of the most disappointing human rights debacles in the last few years was the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. For those who still take an interest, the human rights situation there has become horrendous, with Human Rights Watch documenting the denial of schooling and employment to women, extrajudicial killings, and torture. Moreover, in a severe rebuttal to those who supported the withdrawal, Taliban rule has created the conditions for a renewal of terrorist groups that can now develop and train in Afghanistan with impunity. There is also a good case to be made that the U.S. withdrawal there emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine, calculating that the United States and its allies no longer have the stomach for protracted conflicts in order to prevent human rights abuses. It may be that we have traded a low-grade conflict in Afghanistan for a high-intensity one in Ukraine. The lesson here is that the struggle for human rights, while beginning as a moral problem about our common responsibilities, can only be taken seriously when we consider its political ramifications. What do we owe to our fellow humans, and what sacrifices should we make in order to fulfill those responsibilities?
Responding to this question, the essays in this special issue on human rights originate from a conference held at the University of Notre Dame in November 2021, organized by Paolo Carozza and sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and I wish to thank him for his work in bringing together the speakers and facilitating their contributions to this issue. The crucial problem running through all the essays is the difficulty of establishing a unified foundation for human rights given the variety of cultural, legal, moral, and political perspectives that we find in the world regarding the question of how we relate to each other as humans. Three key themes dominate the discussions: the difficulty of balancing the commitment to the universality of human rights with a respect for cultural diversity, the centrality of individual conscience rather than legal determinations in the development of the habits and conventions of human rights, and the inevitably political nature of the human rights project.