David Kennedy: Requiem for Human Rights?

Twenty five years ago on a human-rights mission to Uruguay, David Kennedy fashioned the legal argument that freed five tortured prisoners (mostly medical students) from prison under a military dictatorship. The odd part is that Kennedy (now Brown University’s vice president for international affairs) came away from his own adventure with doubts of all kinds about well-intentioned strangers intervening in faraway places.

I’ve never read an introspection quite like Kennedy’s memoir, The Rights of Spring, about his innocence abroad in Uruguay in 1984. These could be extended notes for a screenplay of a key life moment, questions we all ask ourselves: What am I doing in this picture? Who would play me in my movie? What are the camera angles and points of view here? Why did I say what I said? What did she hear me say? What’s going on below the surface between lawyer and prisoner? Between lawyer and judge? What is the hierarchy of rules in play? And why did Kennedy’s moments of intense connection with the Uruguayan prisoners reaffirm a gulf of estrangement?

On a second reading, I thought: this book would do (for soldiers and civilians) as a “counterinsurgency manual.” I feel some disproportion here. David Kennedy has exhumed more delicate questions about his case against torture than some of our public servants asked about inflicting torture. Why so much anguish about human-rights interventions, and so relatively little about the military kind? Who is pressing David Kennedy’s examination of conscience about our military campaign in Afghanistan?

The argument of this book — and of a parallel book I wrote about the law of war — is to try to awaken within the military command, also among soldiers in the field, a sense of their own moral agency. One more anecdote: there are all these stories of soldiers in Iraq who came back from the field quite troubled that they had killed civilians or children. And then they’re connected back to duty and back to mental health by their mental health professionals, by their pastors, by their military commanders, who say: what you did was proportional. In one way or another, distinctions and norms are used to quiet the very normal sense of ethical jeopardy that goes with violence.

I this book I’m talking about the ethical jeopardy that goes with political action, which I don’t think is any more or less dramatic than the ethical jeopardy that goes with military affairs. But the mechanisms in which it’s shrouded and elided and denied are quite similar.

David Kennedy in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 29, 2009.

The public point of the book is to wonder what’s left of the human rights movement after many of its ideals have been encased in government and big bureaucracies — and many others have been trashed on our side at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Gaza. On elite campuses like Brown, it is almost an undergraduate rite of passage to start your own NGO to attack hunger, disease or an ancient injustice in the back of beyond. But is “human rights” still a viable cause, or career?

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  • nother

    I’m a little confused by Mr. Kennedy’s sentiment. And I’m curious as to where is current passions lie.

    “The heyday of human rights has passed.” Mr. Kennedy states it would be surprising if the definition written down fifty years ago survived. “Time moves on,” he states.

    Here is the definition/declaration I believe he was referring to:


    It doesn’t wear too thin to me, but I’m no expert.

    It sounds as though Mr. Kennedy is asking for a more nuanced approach as opposed to institutional – he mentions “the proliferation of a variety of other diverse modes of pursuing social justice.” That sounds intense, but I’m not clear what it really means, or where and how that could manifest itself.

    The one tangible alternative I heard was “religious movements and religious vocabularies.” But aren’t religious movements as or more institutionalized than anything else?

    I do appreciate the discussion in general though. The fact that these organizations are called “human rights” organizations would seem to free them of any scrutiny at all. Like for instance who wants the to be the one to criticize something called “No child left behind,” or “The Patriot Act.” I’m sure there are specific organizations that need to be shaken up.

    With that said, I’m still not sure what exactly Mr. Kennedy is scrutinizing or presenting as an alternative. For instance, women’s rights (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. What does Mr. Kennedy propose as a strategy to confront this massive crisis?

    Two “institutions” I believe in: