The Twilight of Human Rights Law by Eric A. Posner is out in November 2014

I came across an article, “Against Human Rights,” by Eric A. Posner in the print version of the October 2014 Harper’s Magazine. The opening paragraph of the article can also be accessed online.  Update: At a Dec. 4, 2014 Guardian article you can read the rest of Eric Posner’s overview regarding human rights law. [End of update]

I found the article of interest.


Posner is concerned with evidence and evidence-based practice.

Evidence, I would note, stands in contrast to truthiness, which describes a situation in which our attempts to make sense of the world do not have a relationship to anything that is real, provable, or factual – that is, based upon empirical evidence. Truthiness is strongly appealing to some individuals and groups. A symbolic interactionist conceptual framework enables a person to understand the dynamics of its appeal.

In his essay in Harper’s Magazine, from The Twilight of Human Rights Law (2014), Posner argues that human rights law has failed to improve the well-being of people and “ought to be abandoned.”

Development economics

Eric A. Posner argues that neither foreign aid nor human rights reinforcement has achieved much success because “neither system can handle the variation and complexity of non-Western countries.”

The author adds that development economics has made a measure of progress in addressing this failing, however, through implementing a range of randomized controlled trials, using rigorous statistical methods. The aim is to determine how to achieve modest, measurable gains in the well-being of people who live in developing countries.

Such academic rigour, he notes, is absent from human rights law. Few papers in the field take an empirical approach: “Lawyers mainly read and discuss judicial opinions – which affect hardly anyone at all – while ignoring the actual behavior of governments, NGOs, and individuals.”

Rule naiveté & well-being

According to Posner, human rights law also is characterized by what he describes as “rule naiveté – the idea that the public good for any country can be described in the form of simple rules.”

The author argues that when foreign-aid donors try to help a country, they recognize that “the goal is to improve the well-being of the recipients.”

When human rights advocates seek to help a country, on the other hand, he adds, their goal is to bring a country into compliance with a set of rules. The latter approach, Posner argues, does not necessarily “advance the well-being of the citizens in the target country.”

Posner concludes that any state, NGO, or group seeking to provide foreign aid to developing countries should do whatever they can, by whatever means are available, to “advance the well-being of the population,” provided there is cooperation from the government of the recipient country.


There is much to be said for simplicity in communications provided that that the message is based on evidence. One can add that, as Posner notes, not all problems are simple. For that reason, policy development in any field benefits from empirical research, and from an understanding that not all of the problems that we seek to address have simple solutions.

The topic of memes and blurbs, and the manner in which we are hardwired for receptivity for certain forms of communications, comes to mind, as well, with regard to simplicity in communications. A meme ot blurb has value to the extent it’s based on evidence, and serves the interests of both the sender of the message and the recipient of it. When only the needs of the sender are served, the discussion concerns scams and scamming. With regard to the latter topic, we are dealing with truthiness, which among other things is characterized by the concept that “People believe what they want to believe.”

As well, I would add that I like this comment about human rights, at an Oct. 6, 2014 CBC article: “”What we are asking for is what we were already promised,” he says. “Democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”


2 replies
  1. Graeme Decarie
    Graeme Decarie says:

    Human rights and foreign aid are almost never expended except for reasons that benefit the donor. Most American foreign aid, for example, comes in terms of weapons ( built by American factories working at a generous profit) or through private contractors who contribute to US election expenses; and much, even most of the aid goes straight into the contractor’s overseas account.

    The west has aided the cause of human rights almost nowhere. In the Atlantic Charter, Churchill and Roosevelt said they were fighting the war to bring freedom and equality to all countries. They were lying. Churchill was a flaming racist who intended to give freedom to nobody. Indeed, Britain fought bitter wars to hold on to its empire. Roosevelt intended no freedom for his empire, much of it in Central America, and run by dictators. Quite the contrary, it has been fighting since 1945 to extend its empire.

    But it’s quite true there is no easy answer to the problem. Once you destroy a society, it’s very, very hard to reconstruct it in any form.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    I was interested to read your comment, Graeme.

    I have a strong interest in the question: “How can I help?”

    As you note in your comment, the topics we are addressing do not have an easy answer. Knowing that fact is a good starting point, I like to think.

    During the past year, the simple matter of choosing which brand of coffee to buy, with the aim of using my purchase of the product to help – in reality as well as from a rhetorical perspective – impoverished coffee farmers living at a great distance from Canada, has become a matter of practical and theoretical interest for me.


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