A death foretold? Human rights, responsibility to protect and the persistent politics of power

Published date01 June 2015
Date01 June 2015
Subject MatterReview essay
Cooperation and Conflict
2015, Vol. 50(2) 286 –293
© The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836714545693
A death foretold? Human
rights, responsibility to
protect and the persistent
politics of power
Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (eds), Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military
and Humanitarian Interventions. New York: Zone Books, 2013.
Aidan Hehir and Robert Murray (eds), Libya: The Responsibility to Protect and the Future of
Humanitarian Intervention. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.
These are worrying times for those who believe that progress has been made in
advancing the theory and practice of human protection in the past few decades. That is
one of the central messages of these three new books. But although the prognoses offered
might, at first glance, appear similar they are each, in fact, quite different. Hehir and
Murray believe that for all the exalted talk about Responsibility to Protect (R2P), nothing
very much has actually changed and that morality-talk exerts little influence on the real
world of global politics. Hopgood, meanwhile, acknowledges that something profound
did change in the alliance between traditional humanitarianism and liberal power in the
late 1970s, giving rise to a new muscular vision of ‘Human Rights’, but that the global
transfer of material power from the West to a range of ‘emerging powers’ (among other
things) has brought about the ‘endtimes’ of this vision of rights. There is no such talk of
endings in Fassin and Pandolfi’s collection, focused as it is on the social construction of
the concept of ‘humanitarian emergency’ and the use of this imaginary to advance or
legitimize a certain types of politics: one prefaced on the ‘state of exception’ which
facilitates the suspension of ‘normal’ politics and permits the interference of the power-
ful in the affairs of the weak.
Of the three books, the most thoughtful, challenging and provocative account comes
from Stephen Hopgood, whose Endtimes of Human Rights is aptly described as a ‘barn-
stomer’ of a book that will undoubtedly shape our thinking – and debates – on these
issues for some time to come. Hopgood’s tightly woven thesis is that the contemporary
human rights movement evolved out of nineteenth century humanitarianism, which
rested on the ‘secular religiosity’ of humanism. By ‘secular religiosity’, Hopgood means
that, as a replacement for the Christian god invented by middle-class Europeans, human-
ism evolved into a set of social practices and institution manifested, most obviously, in
the birth and growth of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This ‘secular
religiosity’ derived moral authority from the obvious absence of self-interest in its work,
545693CAC0010.1177/0010836714545693Cooperation and ConflictReview essay
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