42 Harv. Int'l L. J. 201 (2001)
Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights

handle is hein.journals/hilj42 and id is 207 raw text is: VOLUME 42, NUMBER 1, WINTER 2001

Savages, Victims, and Saviors:
The Metaphor of Human Rights
Makau Mutua*
The human rights movement1 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-dimension-
* Professor of Law and Director, Human Rights Center, State University of New York at Buffalo
School of Law. SJ.D., Harvard Law School, 1987; LL.M., Harvard Law School, 1985; LL.M., University
of Dar-es-salaam, 1984; LL.B., University of Dar-es-salaam, 1983; Co-Chair, 2000 Annual Meeting of the
American Society of International Law. In March 1999, an early draft of this Article was presented at the
Faculty Workshop Series at Harvard Law School. In November 1999, a later version was presented at
Yale Law School under the auspices of the Orville Schell Center for International Human Rights. I am
greatly indebted to the participants at both fora for their valuable comments. I am also grateful to the
following colleagues who enriched this Article with their insightful conversations: William Alford,
Guyora Binder, Christine Desan, Gerald Frug, Mary Ann Glendon, Paul Kahn, Duncan Kennedy, Ran-
dall Kennedy, Martha Minow, Spencer Overton, Richard Parker, Peter Rosenblum, James Silk, Joel
Singer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Lucie White, and David Wilkins. I wish especially to thank Leila Hilal,
David Kennedy, Frank Michelman, and Henry Steiner for closely reading a draft of this Article and
making critically significant and vital comments and suggestions.
I. For the purposes of this Article, the human rights movement refers to that collection of norms,
processes, and institutions that traces its immediate ancestry to the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A.
Res. 217(111), U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess., 183d mtg. at 71, U.N. Doc. A/810 (1948) [hereinafter UDHR].
The UDHR, the first human rights document adopted by the United Nations, is the textual foundation
of the human rights movement and has been referred to as the spiritual parent of most other human
rights documents. Henry J. Steiner, Political Participation as a Human Right, 1 HARV. HUM. RTs. YB. 77,
79 (1988). Elsewhere, Steiner and Philip Alston call the UDHR the parent document, the initial burst
of idealism and enthusiasm, terser, more general and grander than the treaties, in some sense the consti-
tution of the entire movement ... the single most invoked human rights instrument. HENRY J. STEI-
2. This oppositional duality is central to the logic of Western philosophy and modernity. As described
by David Slater, this binary logic constructs historical imperatives of the superior and the inferior, the
barbarian and the civilized, and the traditional and the modern. Within this logic, history is a linear, uni-
directional progression with the superior and scientific Western civilization leading and paving the way
for others to follow. See generally David Slater, Contesting Occidental Visions of the Global: The Geopolitics of
Theory and North-South Relations, BEYOND LAw, Dec. 1994, at 97, 100-01.
3. This Article hereinafter refers to the savages-victims-saviors metaphor as SVS. The author uses
the term metaphor to suggest a historical figurative analogy within human rights and its rhetoric and

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