Human rights are dead! Long live human rights!

by Rhodri C. Williams

I was struck recently by a commentary I came across by Joshua Kurlantzick in Newsweek entitled “The Downfall of Human Rights“. The thrust of the argument was that the West had stopped lecturing everyone else on human rights and everyone else had stopped listening anyway. All this in a global gentlemen’s agreement reflecting new American post-Bush humility and isolationism, the pragmatic approach to civil liberties accepted as part of the “war on terror”, and the economic clout of rising powers that prefer Sun Tzu to Eleanor Roosevelt. The author draws on diverse authorities ranging from opinion poll results to revealing anecdotes and does not shy away from the odd historical flourish:

The age of global human-rights advocacy has collapsed, giving way to an era of realism unseen since the time of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

He concludes on the pessimistic note that the only way to return to a human rights-driven agenda may be to experience another historic shock on the magnitude of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the 9/11 attacks. Having gone to law school in the ferment of the late 1990s, I was receptive to these arguments – but also a little puzzled by them. For one thing, many observers concede that the human rights ascendancy that sputtered into life at the end of the Cold War was flickering out again within weeks of the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s decision to demand absolute loyalty of its allies and treat terrorism as a purely military rather than a criminal issue presaged a polarization that would undermine the shaky post-Cold War consensus around placing individual rights on any kind of a par with state sovereignty. In this sense, Kurlantzick could have published a variant of this article anytime during the last nine years and been just as right.

A second question that occurs to me is whether it would, in any case, be a healthy development for human rights to continue to be something exclusively purveyed by the global north and received by the global south. In Kurlantzick’s analysis, the grassroots human rights base in the West is too preoccupied with their mortgage payments to keep struggling for human rights abroad, while the masses in developing countries are often satisfied to forgo civil liberties in favor of political stability and economic mobility. However, the answer to this dilemma is phrased not as a worldwide re-invigoration of human rights discourses but such a shock as would be necessary to “to shake Western populations out of their torpor”.

There is an element of truth to the idea that human rights are primarily a Western construct that has been promoted as universal to the rest of the world – usually with the best of intentions and often with a failure to recognize the aspects of recent history and current power dynamics that might lead some in the developing world to be skeptical. However, this approach tends to underplay the extent to which Western powers still remain responsible for human rights violations. Moreover, declaring the human rights movement dead in the world if it is dead in the West does little justice to the courage of the Zimbabwean activists who faced down Mugabe and his torturers, the Iranian democracy protesters, the few but extraordinarily tenacious Chinese dissidents, those struggling for the land rights of Colombia’s three million displaced and many, many more. If the human rights movement is alive anywhere in the world today, it is alive in the developing world.

A third point of contention I had with Kurlantzick relates to the idea that human rights are something divorced from the grubby business of politics. This viewpoint is implied in the author’s critique of Western foreign offices for failing to maintain their commitment to human rights:

Today the lack of interest in human rights has been virtually institutionalized in Washington and other capitals. A decade ago, policymakers could move up the ladder within bureaucracies like the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Office, or Germany’s Foreign Ministry by focusing on human rights, but today advocating for global freedom will get you nowhere. In many Western democracies, increasingly partisan politicians apply far greater scrutiny to every detail of diplomats’ records, and human-rights work requires aggressive, often controversial statements and actions—just the types of activities that could get a promotion blocked by elected legislators.

The author concludes with a telling anecdote about a British diplomat sacked for criticizing not only Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses but Britain’s toleration of them in service of prosecuting the war on terror. However, it is hard to imagine any foreign ministry in the world that would tolerate such direct criticism of any of its policies – human rights, trade, cultural exchange or otherwise – by a diplomat in its service. For governments, human rights are a matter of policy that must be balanced with other interests and that has always been the case, right or wrong. There is little doubt that the atmosphere was more conducive in the 1990s, but even then, for example, NATO bombed Serbia over Kosovo but gave Russia a pass for similar violations in Chechnya. In other words, even at its very best, the human rights policy of liberal democratic states is likely to be selective, favoring campaigns that can most easily be sold to domestic constituencies and won at reasonable cost.

As a system for human rights protection, this is inherently arbitrary and lets the bigger states (China) or those they choose to protect (Burma, North Korea, Sudan) violate with impunity. On the other hand, consider the fact that former heads of state are now almost routinely tried for their previous crimes, or that Europe has become a no-go zone for many of the world’s current thugs, or that the Swiss are now considering legislation to ensure that the ill-gotten gains of dictators will be sent back to the citizens they were stolen from. Until 1949, human rights did not exist as such; now they are an unquestioned article of both domestic and foreign policy in many countries. Until 1989, the idea of humanitarian intervention in states engaged in massive human rights violations was unthinkable; in 2005 it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in the guise of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). Even if we are now looking at a significant step back, it comes in the wake of a few pretty big steps forward.

Perhaps most reassuring, human rights may now increasingly be understood for what they actually are, not what we think they should be. A reading of any of the major international and regional human rights conventions reveal a set of rules laced with exceptions and often subject to derogation in times of emergency. Human rights are a set of norms binding on states but devised by states; they are neither perfect nor absolute. However, the fact that human rights are not unconditional is conducive, by design, to balancing the interests of individual rights-holders against those of society; the city needs to widen the road so the adjoining property holders must settle for compensation.

A better and more realistic understanding of human rights may facilitate their belated incorporation into discourses such as development where they have the potential to make a major impact. The fact that the World Bank long resisted mainstreaming human rights in its policies, but is now committed to doing just this, shows that human rights may be making a healthy transition from the drawing rooms of diplomacy to the more quotidian places where the concrete work of promoting the rights and dignity of individual human beings gets done.

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2 responses to “Human rights are dead! Long live human rights!

  1. Pingback: TN at two months « TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: The Economist reports on restitution – sort of « TerraNullius

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