NELSON INSTITUTE DIRECTOR’S SYMPOSIUM CONTRIBUTION: “THE LIMITS OF ‘NO-LIMITS’”

April 1, 2007

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

Using the essay “Women Come Last in Afghanistan” by Dr. Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, 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; Dr. Randy Kuhn, Director of the Global Health Affairs Certificate Program at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver; and David L.G. Rice, a human rights monitor with the Guatemala Accompaniment Project.

While Dr. Pham notes that “one must acknowledge and even admire the passion that writer and photographer Ann Jones brings to the different causes she embraces as she meanders along the paths of her rather eclectic career,” he adds that “I diverge from both Jones’s search for the ideal ‘other’ abroad and her faith that somehow she or other ‘international humanitarians’ can bring about radical transformation that is both legitimate and self-sustaining.” According to Dr. Pham, the project embraced by Jones and others is “based three questionable propositions”:

First, they presume there are no limits to our understanding of other peoples, cultures, and polities: we comprehend the obstacles and injustices which need to be removed, and the remedies which need to be prescribed… Second, they presume there are no limits to our discourse… Third, they presume there are no limits to our capabilities to affect transformation through interventions, military or otherwise, or the willingness of the objects of concern to absorb the changes brought to them.

Instead, he argues

The United States and other countries with a liberal democratic tradition can and should support the efforts of men and women everywhere to secure for themselves the rights and freedoms we often take for granted. But we should also not be surprised that some societies will push back, sometimes even aggressively. Further, outside advocacy—to say nothing of external intervention—may lead to worsening conditions for those on whose behalf action was undertaken. In the end, the reality which must be recognized is that progress in human rights will be made not so much because outsiders, whether governmental or civil society actors, push it, but because individuals, cultures, and nations appropriate it for themselves.

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 Limits of ‘No-Limit,’” click here.