NELSON INSTITUTE DIRECTOR’S SYMPOSIUM CONTRIBUTION: “THE RETURN OF MORAL EQUIVALENCE”

May 7, 2007

HARRISONBURG—Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, was an invited to contribute to a roundtable discussion on women’s rights sponsored by the journal Human Rights & Human Welfare.

Using an essay originally published in the London Review of Books, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency” by Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and professor of anthropology at Columbia University and author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, as a common point of departure, Dr. Pham’s comments joined symposium contributions by Dr. Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman, Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University; David L.G. Rice, a human rights monitor with the Guatemala Accompaniment Project; and Colin Thomas-Jensen, Africa Advocacy and Research Manager at the International Crisis Group.

Dr. Pham observes that while “one would have assumed that the collapse of the ‘Iron Curtain’ had consigned this doctrine to history’s dustbin, but it has enjoyed something of a revival in the 21 st century,” throughout Dr. Mamdani’s essay “the inexorable ‘logic’ of moral equivalence resonates as the argument artfully directs attention away from an obvious evil—the catastrophic humanitarian disaster in Darfur which is intended as such, whether one chooses to call it ‘genocide’ or not—in order to refocus it on a series of less obvious supposed evils which the author views as a greater threat to his world view: America, the West, and the normative worldview of which they are the bearers.” As a result:

The argument, thus woven, can barely withstand rigorous scrutiny— rhetorical, ethical, or political. Mamdani claims that because of the failure of the United States and Britain to intervene to stop the massive violence during the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they cannot do so in Darfur. But this type of “reasoning” is one which no parent in his or her right mind countenances. To buttress his argument, Mamdani also invokes the “authority” of the president of Nigeria and the former chief prosecutor of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both of whom declined to qualify the violence in the western region of Sudan as “genocide.” While an international tribunal will ultimately decide if the legal standard for genocide applies, the good professor would do well to remember that adage from classical philosophy that the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments.

Instead, Dr. Pham argues

[While] one ought to be sensitive to “the power relations embedded within the narratives and discourses of global human rights and within the very foundations of international law itself,” one must also acknowledge the growing recognition of the “responsibility to protect” those civilians at risk…Without a doubt the war in Iraq has certainly undermined the political credibility of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies, to invoke the same principle in other theatres like Darfur, much less to construct a consensus for collective action, especially because the war was partially justified as an exercise in humanitarian intervention to free citizens from the abuse they suffered at the hands of a despotic regime. And, of course, the strain on the resources of America and its coalition partners also renders it operationally difficult for them to shoulder any great proportion of the burden for any action should they manage to persuade others of the urgency of the situation. However, these are practical concerns which do not detract from the moral and juridical norm which sanctions the right of third parties to intervene to save strangers.

Dr. Pham concludes:

In the end, the fate of Darfur will, in all likelihood, be determined by whether a sufficient number of powerful states are persuaded both of Sudan’s failure and unwillingness to protect the Darfuris. It is unfortunate that this humanitarian crisis should arise at a historical moment when the credibility of the U.S. and other Western countries is perhaps most diminished, as is their ability to build consensus for robust action against the genocide, mass murder, “complex situation,” or however one wishes to name the mounting casualties and expanding conflict. It is, moreover, downright tragic that still others, whatever their reasons, have chosen to recycle the absurdity of “moral equivalence” in order to avoid holding regimes like the one in Khartoum to account for failing in the responsibility that is, in the final analysis, their only valid raison d’être as members of international society.

Human Rights & Human Welfare is a peer-reviewed journal founded by human rights scholar Dr. Jack Donnelly and currently published by the Graduate School of International Studies of the University of Denver for the International Human Rights Consortium, a group consisting of the Human Rights Center of the University of California-Berkeley; the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex; the Human Rights Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information; the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs of Carleton University; the Faculty of Law of the University of Utrecht; and the Center for Development Research of the Friedrich-Wilhelm University of Bonn. Dr. Pham has been a member of the journal’s Editorial Review Board since 2004.

To read Dr. Pham’s contribution, “The Return of Moral Equivalence,” click here.