Professor David Kennedy Discusses Human Rights, Power, and Virtue


The Harvard Law School Human Rights Program presented the second event in its 2007-2008 lecture series, “Critical Perspectives in Human Rights,” on Monday, November 5th. The featured speaker, Manley Hudson Professor of Law and Director of the European Law Research Center, David Kennedy ’80 opened with an introduction of his own scholarly work, focusing on two of his more recent books, The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism and Of War and Law.

The aim of the event was to break down the problem of being virtuous and being effective as a human rights advocate. “There is an enormous group of people with a deep…commitment to the field,” Kennedy said. He framed the evening’s discussion by asking, “What are the costs of well-meaning ventures?”

Kennedy contextualized his lecture within the proposition that human rights advocates have become significant players in the international realm, and he considered how that power might be exercised responsibly. One must account for, he continued, the upsides and downsides to this influence.

In order to fully realize their potential power, Kennedy recommended that human rights advocates become responsible partners in government, with an increased focus on pragmatism. As with any other far reaching decision, the costs and benefits of humanitarian action must be weighed, and virtue cannot be disconnected from practical thinking.

“Drop the outsider posture of naming and shaming,” he said, explaining further that people must understand the consequences of the “naming and shaming” methodology. Kennedy did acknowledge the difficulty of realizing one has become part of an established structure and that many react to this realization with a desire to return to the outside. “This is a personal problem for people who want to do good things on the global stage,” he said.

To further explore this insider-outsider dichotomy, Kennedy used the example of the relationship between the military and human rights communities. He pointed out that the International Committee of the Red Cross has been working with military professionals for sometime, trying to determine practical accountability for warfare, recognizing that war functions as a legal element. The criteria of international humanitarian law have been formulated through conversations between human rights and military professionals, and are now being imbedded in the structure of the use of force. “We make strategic choices, weighing and balancing what one is engaged in,” Kennedy said. Kennedy then posed the provocative question: “What if torture really did work?”

All of this led to asking what it means to be a human rights professional, in a field built around an “ethical moral feeling”, as he phrased it. This means recapturing the idea of political being, along with the moral and ethically responsibility of being oneself. Kennedy said one must find a way to “somehow feel that moral and ethical feeling, while making decisions and being active in the world.”

Human rights advocates are “governing under conditions of uncertainty,” Kennedy said. “Responsibility itself becomes a legal thing.”

After his brief lecture, Kennedy opened the floor to the audience, who directed the majority of discussion toward the concept of virtue as the foundation for the legitimacy of human rights. In response, Kennedy reminded his audience of the distinction between actual virtue and the perception of virtue.

“What happens when the people in human rights drop the pretense of virtue?” he asked. “They might lose some of the power they currently have, but what other kinds of power might they get? What new strategies might emerge?”

One audience member, an anthropologist who does field work in Liberia, pushed back against the idea that human rights derives its power from the perception of virtue. Kennedy responded that virtue is not the sole source of power for human rights and further disputed the negative conception of power. “Being a mechanism of power isn’t a bad thing,” he quipped. “I would like myself to rule the world.”

Other audience members used current world issues to address the content of Kennedy’s lecture, asking about the current situation in Pakistan and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Kennedy closed by saying that we cannot simply frame these questions by looking at ideals and philosophers versus the actual organization of power. “If we had a better picture, we’d have a better conversation,” he said.

HLS Advocates for Human Rights Co-President Meghan Morris arranged the event, which was designed to foster discussion among its participants. Prior to the event, all attendees were directed to read the first two chapters of “The Dark Sides of Virtue”. In addition, rather than taking a podium, Kennedy sat with his audience, who directed comments and questions to him as a peer.

Kennedy will depart HLS early 2008 for his recent appointment as Vice President for International Affairs at Brown University.

Future events in the human rights series will include Naz Modirzadeh from the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University (Feb. 7, 2008); Obiora Okafor from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University (Feb. 28, 2008) and Kerry Rittich from the University of Toronto (March 13, 2008).

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