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Copyright (c) 2001 President and Fellows of Harvard College
Harvard International Law Journal

ARTICLE: Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights

Winter, 2001

42 Harv. Int'l L.J. 201


Makau Mutua*



The human rights movement 1 is marked by a damning metaphor. The grand narrative of human rights contains a subtext that depicts an epochal contest pitting savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviors, on the other. 2 The savages-victims-saviors (SVS) 3 construction is a three-dimensional compound metaphor in which each dimension is a metaphor in itself. 4 The main authors of the human rights discourse, 5 including the United Nations, Western states, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), 6 and senior Western academics, constructed this three-dimensional prism. This rendering of the human rights corpus and its discourse is unidirectional and predictable, a black-and-white construction that pits good against evil.

This Article attempts to elicit from the proponents of the human rights movement several admissions, some of them deeply unsettling. It asks that human rights advocates be more self-critical and come to terms with the troubling rhetoric and history that shape, in part, the human rights movement. At the same time, the Article does not only address the biased and arrogant rhetoric and history of the human rights enterprise, but also grapples with the contradictions in the basic nobility and majesty that drive the human rights project--the drive from the unflinching belief that human beings and the political societies they construct can be governed by a higher morality. This first section briefly introduces the three dimensions of the SVS metaphor and how the metaphor exposes the theoretical flaws of the current human rights corpus ...
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