An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Human Rights That Dictators Love

Does the concept of "human rights" still have meaning in a world where everything qualifies?


Watch out. Kobe Bryant may be violating your human rights.

Watch out. Kobe Bryant may be violating your human rights.

Farida Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on cultural rights, recently announced that she’s launching a new study aimed at addressing "whether advertising and marketing practices affect cultural diversity and the right of people to choose their way of life." The announcement bears a photo of a larger-than-life U.S. basketball advertisement (featuring star player Kobe Bryant) looming over a Chinese playground.

This is all in a day’s work for the United Nations’ cultural rights office. Just last month, when Shaheed visited Vietnam, she took a break from discussing concerns about the freedom of expression to highlight another urgent crisis: the sensitive issue of the Cong drum. In case you haven’t heard, the Cong drum is a unique cultural artifact used by certain indigenous tribes in Vietnam’s remote highlands. Now, Shaheed notes, the Cong drum faces a new threat: it is "being played on demand for tourists in some places, thus clearly losing its original cultural significance." She urges the government to protect drum performances against "folklorization" — apparently a major violation of the indigenous groups’ "cultural rights."

It’s worth noting that Vietnam is a communist dictatorship that completely ignores the freedom of religion, routinely imprisons monks and artists for their views, and has been criticized by countless human rights organizations for its widespread use of torture and routine abuse of detainees. (In the photo above, policemen prevent a photojournalist from taking pictures outside a courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City.)

"Vietnam is fast turning into one of Southeast Asia’s largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists," Robert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Vietnam researcher, noted. But these violations are equal, in Shaheed’s eyes, to the ghastly use of cultural artifacts in the tourism industry. The other, more serious violations merit just a one-paragraph rebuke in her report; apparently, they don’t fall within the ill-defined spectrum of "cultural rights." Now, Vietnam can ignore most of what Shaheed had to say, and brush off her criticisms as a side effect of tourism.

Over the years, critics have ridiculed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s willingness to heed the perverse opinions of the world’s worst dictators, who figure prominently among its members. (These members even tried to ban the word "authoritarian" from council proceedings.) But the farce of "cultural rights" is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise that some call "human rights inflation." Increasingly, groups have called everything they feel entitled to — from spare bedrooms to foreign aid — a "right." One special interest group is even clamoring to grant "access to the Internet" official "rights" status, as if freedom of expression weren’t enough. Meanwhile, various parties have asserted their "rights" to employment counseling, paid vacation leave, free education through college, and a global financial tax to combat the economic crisis.

Today, we have a surplus of human rights — and they’re all claimed to be equally important and indivisible. Human rights are going nowhere. They’ve lost their value.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in 1948, it restricted the world of human rights to just 30 provisions. Its drafters felt compelled to keep the list short and punchy. Out of those, 18 were considered rights, provisions that impose immediate obligations on states at the level of the individual; the 12 social, economic, and cultural provisions were considered aspirational. The latter were controversial from the start, and this is one of the reasons that the UDHR is not binding and contains no enforcement mechanism. In 1976, to address these issues, the rights were correctly divided up into separate binding treaties that impose obligations on the state through oversight bodies: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

This was a political compromise borne out of the ideological fight between the United States and the totalitarian USSR, which advocated for social, economic, and cultural rights at the expense of civil and political ones. To this day, the United States has not ratified the ICESCR.

The consequences of this ill-fated compromise have gotten quite out of hand. By 2013, there were 676 provisions that ranged from individual rights, to collective rights, and even to environmental rights. Some of these don’t even impose immediate obligations on the state – instead they’re established through "progressive realization," whereby the state, to the limit of its resources and capabilities, promises to fulfill them at some point in the future.

This bizarre proliferation of rights is caused by the fact that human rights are a valuable tool in the hands of every pressure group that stands to benefit from the expansion of rights — and that includes illiberal states.

The right to food, for example, was made justiciable at the international level just last year with the adoption of the optional protocol to the ICESCR. The move received overwhelming support from, among others, Iran, which reiterated during the working group that "the protocol provided an opportunity to reiterate the equal status of all human rights." Meanwhile, the sane and liberal voice of the United Kingdom was all but drowned out: "The United Kingdom remained skeptical about the practical benefits of the protocol, considering that economic, social, and cultural rights did not lend themselves to adjudication in the same way as civil and political rights."

Some may argue that states do not typically want to proliferate rights because this imposes more obligations. Yet, it is precisely because of this proliferation that states can cherry-pick the rights whose obligations they promise to fulfill sometime in the future — and thus, show off a "good" human rights record, even as they fail to uphold even the most basic civil and political rights. Desirable outcomes like housing or health care — better understood as political goals — were cloaked in rights language to make them seem more legitimate. From there, the right to a spare bedroom is but a stone’s throw away.

Well-intentioned rights groups have broadened rights legislation to embrace women’s rights and minority rights for indigenous peoples, LGBT individuals, the elderly, and the disabled. Women’s groups and human rights groups in Saudi Arabia have, for example, rallied the troops to consecrate the "right to drive." Of course, these groups should be respected and their efforts celebrated — but there is no need to draw up new treaties or craft new rights. Traditional human rights instruments are enough. The UDHR clearly states that no one should experience discrimination because of their "race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status." You don’t have special rights because you’re a lesbian, elderly, disabled woman living in Saudi Arabia; you have rights because you’re human.

The darker side of rights proliferation is that it allows dictators to level the playing field. The Human Rights Council is notorious for accommodating the desires of autocratic regimes eager to whitewash their reputations. In 2007, after refusing visits by U.N. special representatives for more than 18 years, Cuba welcomed Jean Ziegler, the Council’s special rapporteur on the right to food. Ziegler praised the government for upholding the right to food as a "fundamental human right," and proceeded to blame the U.S. embargo for any food shortages. The policies of the 55-year-old communist dictatorship — which disallows private property, private business, and the freedoms of movement and expression — were apparently irrelevant to the food problem. Ziegler viewed the right to food in isolation, ignoring even relevant, non-food-related rights violations, and ultimately helped the Cuban regime get away with murder. Cuba could celebrate its success in upholding one right while tactfully glossing over all its many failures. Chronic rights abusers have an interest in diluting rights to the point where the whole concept loses its meaning.

"Sadly, this is par for the course these days," says Jacob Mchangama, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom Rights Project, a group that seeks to restore liberty back to human rights. Recently, his group held a conference at the Danish Parliament on what has gone wrong with international human rights and how to fix it.

The conference addressed, among other things, the worrying trend of rights proliferation. The speakers challenged the human rights community’s dogmatic consensus on the indivisibility of rights and the doctrine of proportionality. Emilie Hafner-Burton presented research that demonstrates that there are few examples of human rights improving an illiberal state even after its leaders sign a human rights treaty. In most authoritarian states, signing the Convention Against Torture has had little if any impact on incidents of torture, and has allowed these regimes to stay in power longer.

"When everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is cheap," Mchangama told me in Copenhagen. "By presenting themselves as the champions of these third-generation rights, illiberal states seek to both remove the moral high ground from civil and political rights and to achieve political legitimacy. Rights proliferation is being abused by dictatorships to praise each other, and is diminishing the moral clarity that human rights once enjoyed."

We may be witnessing the slow bursting of the human rights bubble. Had I invested in the value of rights as a concept in 1966 when the ICCPR was adopted, the value of my shareholding would have peaked around 1993. This was the year that the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993 declared all rights to be equally justiciable and indivisible, rendering the distinction between civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural "rights" meaningless.

At least I can always seek comfort in playing my Cong drum — that is, as long as there aren’t any tourists lurking nearby, right, Ms. Shaheed?

Pedro Pizano is the Strategy and Development Associate for the Human Rights Foundation and Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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