Seeing the Myth in Human Rights

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Jenna Reinbold
Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , December
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There are a number of recent books that interrogate the philosophical foundations and practice of the modern human rights project. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights (Norton, 2007) shows how art forms such as the novel and portraiture helped to promote Enlightenment ideals of human individuality and social ethics. Jack Donnelly’s Universal Human Rights In Theory And Practice (Cornell University Press, 2013) is the classic introductory textbook, now in its third edition. Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010) argues that human rights emerged out of the ruins of failed political ideologies, and questions the relevance of this quest amidst present missed opportunities. Aryeh Neier’s The International Human Rights Movement (Princeton University Press, 2012) surveys the political interests and the players in various sectors that are involved in human rights struggles and global affairs, and offers an outline of future prospects. In The Endtimes of Human Rights (Cornell University Press, 2013), Stephen Hopgood contends that human rights organizations are weak and unresponsive to the current reality. David N. Stamos’s The Myth of Universal Human Rights (Routledge, 2016) argues that the concept of human rights is fallacious and problematic.

In Seeing the Myth in Human Rights, Jenna Reinbold challenges the stigmatization of “myth” in the field of human rights, and argues that the academic study of religion and mythopoeia offer insights into the logic and authority of human rights standards. A “myth” is commonly conceived as something fanciful, erroneous, and untrue. Reinbold proposes a socio-functional definition of myth as a mode of human labor that serves the broad, enduring function of generating meaning, solidarity, and order within human communities (x). She cites a wide range of intellectual influences—including Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Derrida, Bronislaw Malinowski, Rudolf Bultmann, Bruce Lincoln, Talal Asad, and Diana Eck.

Reinbold insists, “an interrogation of human rights must reach beyond questions of pragmatism, administration, and enforcement” (7). She contends that the United Nations [UN] Universal Declaration of Human Rights does more than: 1) enumerate fundamental rights; and 2)  lay the groundwork for a new international legal regime (118). The Declaration sacralizes human dignity and narrates a moral vision—not by argument—but by assertion. She points out how the framers of the Declaration adopt secular assumptions that depart from traditional theological, philosophical, and historical modes of justification. Reinbold reveals how little formal immediacy exists in international human rights law, which lacks regulatory structures and enforcement instruments. Instead, the Declaration is a political myth, or rhetorical strategy, that aims at character formation and cultural education for social sentiment, allegiance, and commitments. The UN Declaration builds expectations and orients society. It was unanimously approved in 1948, by the UN General Assembly, as a voluntary recognition of rights and the minimum conditions required for freedom.

Though Reinbold effectively describes how mythmakers codified their aspirations for a more humane world of genuine respect, she may be attributing too much political capital to the UN Declaration when she claims, “today, the mere charge of human rights violations … has the power to cow political leaders and rile the international community” (2). Her premise is undermined by recent events such as the state violence against #NoDAPL Water Protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and ongoing atrocity crimes in Yemen and Syria. The international community is facing the worst refugee crisis since 1945, and the global response has been pitiful. American leadership no longer prioritizes human rights among US interests. In March 2017, US President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, skipped the release of the annual report of the State of Human Rights and, in May 2017, he told diplomats that human rights are values, not policy. In the academy, human rights are a contested topic; in the political arena, human rights are now dismissed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jenna Reinbold teaches religion at Colgate University.


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