From Tragedy and Bloodshed, Michael Ignatieff Draws Human-Rights
IdealsIn diverse writings, he challenges those who would
avoid taking responsibility
When Michael Ignatieff talks about
conflict zones around the world in his
seminar on "Human
Rights, State Sovereignty, and Intervention," the main text is his
He has traveled, he wrote in his book The
Warrior's Honor, "through the landscapes of modern ethnic war:
to Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia; to Rwanda, Burundi, Angola; and to
Afghanistan." (He went to Kabul just two days after the Taliban
seized power in 1996.) He has seen the ruins of bombed cities, dead
bodies in a church, and orphans wandering the
Whether as a correspondent for The New
Yorker, a broadcaster for the BBC, a member of an international
commission, or a human-rights scholar, Mr. Ignatieff has been on the
ground in an array of global hot spots. In his classroom at Harvard
University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, he uses his
travels to illustrate intricate points about the balancing act of
democracy, stability, and human rights. Democracy and human rights
are widely seen as essential to one another, but the picture is
often more complicated. In Kosovo, for example, where Mr. Ignatieff
has spent considerable time, democracy means rule by the ethnic
Albanian majority, which introduces human-rights problems for the
region's Serb minority.
As the director of Harvard's Carr
Center for Human Rights Policy, the 54-year-old Mr. Ignatieff is at
the vanguard of something that is at once a worldwide movement and
an emerging field of academic study. He is one of the chief
architects of the view that foreign policy should be guided not only
by strategic self-interest ("realism") but by a commitment to human
rights -- a commitment that, when feasible and when all else
fails, must be backed up with military force. (It would not be
feasible, for example, to intervene in a place like Chechnya, which
could result in a conflict with nuclear-equipped Russia. But in
cases where it is possible to stop atrocities and diplomatic means
have been exhausted, the West has a moral responsibility, Mr.
Ignatieff argues, to intervene.)
Occasionally, a scholar's work finds its way
-- thanks to a confluence of current events, historical
developments, intellectual trends -- from the margins of the
cultural radar screen to the center. That moment has arrived for Mr.
Ignatieff. The issues that form the core of his current research
-- war, intervention, nation-building, the changing global
order -- have occupied center stage in public consciousness
since September 11. But even before the terrorist attacks, a seismic
geopolitical development of the 1990s, the new notion in the West of
"humanitarian intervention," made Mr. Ignatieff's work of particular
import. The cases of Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor
occasioned an outcry for Western governments to take action to stop
human-rights atrocities. With the election of center-left
governments in Britain, Germany, and France, the principle of
humanitarian intervention emerged as a new paradigm, if a
controversial one, in international affairs.
global "rights revolution," the 1990s also saw an explosion of
literature on human rights -- both journalistic and scholarly.
A hybrid field by its nature, with strong ties to the world of
human-rights advocacy, academic human rights draws scholars from a
variety of disciplines: international law, political science,
philosophy, sociology, journalism.
Among the most eloquent,
well-versed, and prolific of those scholars is Mr. Ignatieff. His
output is dizzying. As a snapshot, just in the last three months,
Mr. Ignatieff's writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs,
The New York Times' op-ed page, The New York Review of
Books, Dissent, and The New York Times Book
It's not merely the volume of his writing, but
the range of its audience: diplomats and elite foreign-policy
experts; human-rights activists and political theorists; the
intelligentsia and the general, educated public. Mr. Ignatieff's
presence is being felt far and wide.
In his 2000 book
Virtual War and in a series of essays, he argues forcefully
that Western governments haven't done nearly enough to stop genocide
and human-rights abuses: In Rwanda, the West watched passively as
several-hundred-thousand innocent civilians were slaughtered; and
had international forces entered Bosnia sooner than they did, tens
of thousands of lives could have been saved.
approach to human rights departs from the familiar image of the
1980s letter-writing campaign on behalf of jailed dissidents. "For
too long," he writes in his latest book, Human Rights as Politics
and Idolatry, "human rights has been seen as a form of
apolitical humanitarian rescue for oppressed individuals." Mr.
Ignatieff, in contrast, sees it as a form of political struggle, one
that squarely confronts the often thorny and complicated
entanglements that arise in the attempt to balance state sovereignty
with the rights of individuals in those states. For example, does a
sovereign state have the "right" to oppress members of an ethnic
minority group within its own borders? Do outside parties (the
United Nations, NATO) have the right to intervene in order to stop
idea of universal human rights has become so intuitive, so ingrained
in our political vocabulary as to seem essentially unobjectionable.
In fact, there are many religious, cultural, and political grounds
for opposing the notion. In Human Rights as Politics and
Idolatry, Mr. Ignatieff canvasses a number of those arguments
and attempts to refute them.
One set of objections emanates
from the Islamic world. In the Islamic tradition, there is simply a
different conception of individual rights than in the West
-- in particular with regard to women. Some say no bridge can
be built from Islam to the modern, secular notion of rights. Similar
objections to universal human rights come from Asian traditions,
cultures with beliefs about authority and the relationship of the
individual to society that are irreconcilable with the
individualistic thrust of Western human-rights
Finally, there are objections to universal human
rights from within the Western tradition itself. Communitarian
conservatives are suspicious of the concept of individual rights;
postmodernists argue that there are no "foundations" for human
rights and see universalist conceptions as Eurocentric; and
left-wing, anti-imperialist critics view human rights as "the
rhetoric of empire," a pretense for American hegemony and domination
in the world.
Mr. Ignatieff rejects each of these objections
to universal human rights. He argues that it is precisely its
individualist character that gives human rights its global appeal.
"The language of human rights," he says, "is the only universally
available moral vernacular that validates the claims of women and
children against the oppression they experience in patriarchal and
tribal societies," for example. The argument that freedom is a
Western idea, he says, makes him furious. "It just isn't
As for the anti-imperialist objections, Mr. Ignatieff
says that such views "are prominently held by people with seven- and
six-figure salaries in American institutions." He thinks there is "a
tremendous amount of bad faith" in many of the criticisms of human
rights leveled, for example, by tenured professors "from Asian and
African countries who have made their homes here and done very well.
Their very presence in these institutions," he says, "is a testimony
to the force and power of the ideas that they themselves condemn. We
wouldn't have doctrines of colonial emancipation, doctrines of
self-determination, doctrines of human equality without
international human rights."
Yet unlike advocates who defend
human rights as being above the crude machinations of money and
empire, Mr. Ignatieff sees human rights as an ideology of power
-- even one of imperialism. Human-rights discourse wouldn't
have spread throughout the world, he says, "were it not for American
global hegemony. We would not have a global ascendancy of human
rights and a global language of freedom," he says, "without the
ascendancy of the American empire. I don't care how controversial it
is to say so."
Theory and Practice
Ignatieff deals with such knotty issues with the tools of an
ethicist and a reporter, an intellectual historian and a
geopolitical analyst, weaving nuanced philosophical and historical
arguments together with concrete explications of real-world cases.
Alan Ryan, the warden of New College at the University of Oxford,
says that it is difficult to categorize Mr. Ignatieff.
"Cultural commentator is near the mark," he says, "but
perhaps public moralist would be the proper
That mixture of critical inquiry with
on-the-ground experience, says Mr. Ignatieff, who looks like a
Slavic Daniel Day-Lewis, is the key to his intellectual life. "I
write most convincingly," he says over mushroom soup in the modest
apartment he shares with his wife, Suzanna Zsohar, "about things
I've touched with my own hands, seen with my own eyes, occasionally
been knocked over by physically."
In addition to his
prolific writing, he serves on a number of international panels and
commissions. As a member of the Independent International Commission
on Kosovo, he traveled to Kosovo with a group of human-rights
activists and international-law scholars to observe conditions in
the war-ravaged region.
His participation on the
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty has
taken him to meetings in London, Washington, New Delhi, and Ottawa.
And in January, he attended that über-gathering of the global
power elite, the World Economic Forum, where he led panels on
citizenship and minority rights, Afghanistan, and the future of the
Born in Toronto of
Scottish-Canadian and Russian parents, Mr. Ignatieff's origins are
in a much more stable part of the world than the places he studies.
He brings up that experience in class, as well, in discussing the
importance of states being well-governed, for example. But he has
been living outside his home country for more than three
Mr. Ignatieff completed his Ph.D. in history at
Harvard in 1976, on Enlightenment thought and the creation of the
modern penitentiary. That also happened to be the subject of Michel
Foucault's seminal Discipline and Punish, which was published
while Mr. Ignatieff was at work on his dissertation. Rather than
immerse himself in the feverish theoretical debates occasioned by
Foucault's study, however, Mr. Ignatieff focused his attention
closer to the ground, making weekly visits to a medium-security
Massachusetts prison to participate in discussion groups with
inmates. For a "sheltered Canadian boy," it was both a "formative"
and a "convulsive" experience, he says, his first encounter with
"the bottom of the heap" -- and with the American color
That dissertation became Mr. Ignatieff's first book,
A Just Measure of Pain. A study of British jails and penal
thought, the book would seem to have little to do with the
20th-century American prison at which Mr. Ignatieff conducted much
of his "research." Yet he regards it as his attempt to process his
transformative experience there. And he sees a clear connection to
his later work on human rights. "Without the Enlightenment," he
says, "we wouldn't have human rights. It's all made possible by [the
Enlightenment thinkers'] vision of human
Crossing the Atlantic
After a brief
stint at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Ignatieff landed a
research fellowship at King's College of the University of
Cambridge. His arrival in Britain, where he would make his home for
more than two decades, coincided with Margaret Thatcher's election
as prime minister. He spent the next several years, as he puts it,
watching Mrs. Thatcher "smash the place up," dismantling much of the
public sector and British social democracy.
If his experience
in the American prison system was the first major turning point for
Mr. Ignatieff, this was the second. It drove him, he says, toward a
kind of liberal centrism, an ideological ground he has occupied ever
With the end of the Cambridge fellowship in 1984 and
"no real academic prospects," Mr. Ignatieff did something he calls
"very peculiar": He became the host of a late-night television talk
show on Britain's then-new Channel 4. The show, he says, was
"incredibly highbrow," regularly featuring guests such as Susan
Sontag and the literary theorist George Steiner. Broadcast from
11:00 p.m. until midnight, it received "exceptionally low ratings,"
Mr. Ignatieff says. "I became known in Britain as a kind of windbag.
It was fun."
He thus commenced his career as a journalist. He
began writing a newspaper column, for the London Observer,
while continuing to be the host of a series of intellectual
television shows. In 1991, just as ethnic wars were engulfing
various regions around the globe, he was asked to make a six-part
documentary on nationalism. The filming of the series, Blood and
Belonging, took him and his crew on the road for six months
-- to Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, and other war zones.
the first time in his life, he says, that he saw "real, visceral
ethnic hatred." It was also the first time that he was shot at. In
Vukovar, Croatia, a town on the Danube then occupied by the Serbs,
Serbia and Croatia fought the heaviest artillery battle since World
War II. The town was flattened, and Mr. Ignatieff's film crew went
"prowling around the ruins" in an area patrolled by Serb
paramilitaries. The Serbs took Mr. Ignatieff and his crew hostage.
They were released after several hours, but shots were then fired at
The experience had an enormous impact on him.
"When you have a sheltered, middle-class upbringing, and you're a
liberal who believes in civility, tolerance, blah, blah," he says,
"to then come into a place where people hate each other that
deeply, where they're willing to kill each other and kill you, was a
real eye-opener. I can't even describe how deeply it
Along with the companion volume Mr. Ignatieff wrote
for the series, two subsequent books, The Warrior's Honor and
Virtual War, form a kind of trilogy -- on "ethnic
hatred, ethnic war, and what we do about it," he says.
the book for which he is perhaps best known also took shape over the
course of the 1990s. A biography of his intellectual hero, the
political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, it would seem to be thematic
light years away from the kind of front-lines war reporting Mr.
Ignatieff was doing. Yet, he argues, there is a connection between
Life of the Mind
Berlin, whose family
emigrated from Latvia to Britain during the early days of Bolshevik
rule, became the leading political theorist in postwar Britain. A
champion of the liberal tradition of toleration and rights, he was a
fierce critic of fascism as well as revolutionary socialism
-- indeed, of all forms of tyranny and all utopian systems. In
his most famous formulation, he argued that the aim of political
life should be to protect "negative liberty," which is to say
freedom from tyranny. Political systems with more ambitious designs
-- those, for example, with utopian ideals such as the
"realization" of the human "essence" or the creation of a "new man"
-- were, for Berlin, inherently dangerous, almost certain to be
enforced at gunpoint.
As a Jew in the Russian empire, Berlin
"knew what it was to be persecuted, what it was to be really
frightened," says Mr. Ignatieff. His liberal political philosophy
had "a much darker sense of the possibilities for mutual human
malignity" than do many contemporary theories. It is here, for Mr.
Ignatieff, that the connection between writing about ethnic hatred
and writing a biography of Berlin overlap.
After 20 years as a freelance intellectual,
Mr. Ignatieff began teaching at Harvard's Carr Center in September
2000, and in February 2001 he was named the center's director. (He
shares administrative responsibilities with Samantha Power, the
center's executive director. The division of labor works
wonderfully, he says: "She does all the work.")
life," he says, "can be seen as an attempt to escape institutional
responsibility," and yet "now, in my twilight years, institutional
responsibility has fallen on me like a ton of bricks." While he has
enjoyed having the general audience he cultivated as a writer, "it
wasn't always easy," he says. "I didn't have medical, I didn't have
dental, and I didn't know what I would live on six months
Being in an academic setting brings with it "some
tremendous gains," he says. Academic reflection, "at its best, can
widen the frame and deepen the kind of questions you can ask." But
the downside, he says, is that he's not on the road as much. During
the Afghan war, for example, he's gotten "really itchy at times."
" 'Christ,' I've thought to myself, 'here I am pontificating
about this bloody thing, and I haven't been to Kabul in six years, I
don't know what it's like now.' I feel out of the loop sometimes."
"I temperamentally think better on the road," he says, "with
my laptop jouncing around, and I haven't had enough sleep." It isn't
just empirical insights that he gains from being on the ground, Mr.
Ignatieff says, but conceptual ones. "The distinction between civic
and ethnic nationalism, the dynamics of pluralism -- all these
theoretical issues come to me most saliently when I'm up on a
hillside in Kurdistan."
Thomas Cushman, a professor of
sociology at Wellesley College and editor of The Journal of Human
Rights, says that Mr. Ignatieff's contributions to the field are
marked by his simultaneous "ability to draw from expansive practical
experience and to home in on the most important issues in human
rights." Mr. Ignatieff is also, he adds, "an accomplished and poised
writer," a quality he finds refreshing "in a field so often prone to
legalistic and disciplinary jargon."
Robert Silvers, editor
of The New York Review of Books, for which Mr. Ignatieff has
written for 15 years, says that in the "rather remarkable range of
subjects" Mr. Ignatieff has taken on, he displays a "subtle and
intimate grasp of personal experience," of "the human consequences"
of the topics he addresses, "be it a struggle for power or
long-range historical developments."
Mr. Ignatieff has his
critics, as well. Richard Falk, an emeritus professor of
international law at Princeton who served with the Harvard professor
on the Independent International Commission on Ko-sovo, calls him a
"rigorous thinker" and "skillful wordsmith," but says that Mr.
Ignatieff has a tendency to be "oblivious to the dangers and
excesses" of American power and expresses insufficient concern about
the inhibitions of international law and morality on the use of that
Adam Garfinkle, editor of The National
Interest, says that proponents of humanitarian intervention such
as Mr. Ignatieff tend to regard their approach to foreign policy as
cost-free. "These kinds of interventions are difficult," he says.
"They spread American political capital far and wide, dissipating it
as often as they accrue it." And they have the effect, he says, of
"generating gratuitous resentment against the United
Despite his 30-year-long absence from his native
land, Mr. Ignatieff calls himself a "proud but weird Canadian" and
says he plans to remain a Canadian citizen. "I loved my own
country," he says in a forthcoming Granta article about his
student days, "but I believed in America in a way that Canada never
His move to the United States coincides with his
growing influence on global-policy thinking. Where better to
theorize imperial affairs than in the heart of the empire?
This path was perhaps prefigured in a line from a Judy
Garland song that his mother used to sing to him: "People say don't
stop -- unless you've played the Palace, you haven't played the
top." Playing the Palace, Mr. Ignatieff says, meant playing the
United States or Britain.
He played the British Palace for 20
years. His performance at the American one is just getting under
way. The crowd is gathering and listening intently.
KEY WORKS OF MICHAEL
Michael Ignatieff's wide-ranging
oeuvre includes works on international affairs, intellectual
history, and philosophy. He also has written biography, journalism,
1978 A Just Measure of Pain: The
Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850
1983 Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of
Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment, coeditor
(Cambridge University Press)
1983 The Needs of
Strangers: An Essay on the Philosophy of Human Needs
1987 The Russian Album
1991 Asya: A Novel (Alfred A.
1994 Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the
New Nationalism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Scar Tissue: A Novel (FSG)
Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience
1998 Isaiah Berlin: A Life
2000 Virtual War: Kosovo and
2000 The Rights
Revolution (House of Anansi Press)
Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton University
Section: Research & Publishing