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When Everything Is a Human Right, Nothing Is
Reemphasizing fundamental rights is the best way to keep them universal.
The U.S. State Department’s launch of a Commission on Unalienable Rights has stirred up opposition, broadly covered in the media. But given the myriad challenges to human rights today, rethinking some widely accepted human rights assumptions seems timely.
The cause of human rights is imperiled in every region—from negligence, from weakness, from deliberate denial, and from proliferation. The world’s inability to hold states such as Syria, Yemen, and China accountable for gross human rights violations has led many to question the very idea of universal rights. Countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan are allowed to sit on international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council—they are all currently members—and the institutions are losing their authority. Calls to make everything from access to the internet to free employment counseling a human right have cheapened the meaning and multiplied the clashes of rights. The context in which the rights movement operates has changed dramatically since the turn of the millennium. Whereas many emerging states once accepted human rights ideas out of deference to Western accomplishment or power, today they push back when Western-funded organizations use the human rights label to promote ideas that are not widely shared.
Some disagreements over human rights come from repressive regimes or communal leaders, and such complaints are easy to dismiss. But when critiques come from people who are sympathetic to the cause of human rights, they reflect something more fundamentally troubling.
How did an idea once powerful enough to unify a vast range of people in struggles against totalitarianism and apartheid become so impotent? A major factor, ironically, was the overweening dual ambition born of those successes. Human rights advocates have broadened the scope of issues covered by human rights while narrowing the room for differences in bringing those rights to life. In so doing, they misconstrue the original goals of human rights, most clearly embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation for much of the post-1945 rights project.
Even as their ambitions rise, human rights activists have failed to take into account how expansive new programs might aggravate suspicion of human rights in today’s multipolar world. And attempts to enforce a uniform conception of rights might reduce the space for local actors to formulate their own pathways, fueling skepticism about the rights themselves. For example, attempts by Western countries to promote gay rights in Africa triggered deep-rooted resentment about how the West treats Africa; the results are tougher laws, stronger rhetoric, more funding of anti-gay rights organizations, and even greater harassment of activists. As the New York Times reported, “More Africans came to believe that gay rights were a Western imposition.”
Non-Western countries do not necessarily disagree with basic human rights goals. Rather, as the Brazilian academic Oliver Stuenkel argues in his book Post-Western World, they contest the “operationalization of liberal norms” and “the implicit and explicit hierarchies of international institutions” that privilege Western countries. U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East and the rise of authoritarian states like China reduce the effective reach of ideas that are stretched too thin or that are not credibly universal, in the sense of being deeply grounded in all the world’s major philosophical and religious systems. And curtailing overly expansionist and revisionist aspirations, as Jennifer Lind and William C. Wohlforth recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, is essential to preserving the post-World War II liberal international order.
If advocates for human rights wish to overcome the current challenges, they would do well to learn from the course of the human rights project from ideal to reality in the wake of World War II. The framers of the Universal Declaration learned that the best way to build a system of rights with a strong claim to legitimacy across different cultures and ideologies was to stick to basics. Today, only a modest and flexible approach can restore the moral authority that gave the universal human rights idea its greatest successes.
Rising ambitions, shifting priorities
The 1948 Universal Declaration was a product of intense debate, negotiation, and compromise, all done with the understanding that its principles could be brought to life differently in dissimilar parts of the world. Today’s human rights discourse, however, is pervaded by Western normative assumptions that are controversial even in the West. Westerners play an extraordinarily large role as funders and conveners of human rights organizations and scholarly debates, directly and indirectly shaping agendas, frameworks of analysis, and evaluation methods in the process. As a result, human rights have become, as the New York University professor Sally Engle Merry writes in Human Rights and Gender Violence, “part of a distinctive modernist vision of the good and just society that emphasizes autonomy, choice, equality, secularism, and protection of the body,” converting cultural norms from one part of the world into universal rights.
Consequently, nonindividualistic values—such as those promoting communal duties or those tied to religious belief—have been de-emphasized. Arguments that there are other means of promoting and ensuring human dignity are dismissed as unrealistic or ignored. African, Asian, and other non-Western human rights institutions and laws are marginalized.
Meanwhile, the number of rights, and rights claims, has risen steeply as various well-meaning special interest groups have sought to harness the moral authority of the human rights idea to their causes. The international legal infrastructure has been enlarged, producing institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and doctrines such as the “Responsibility to Protect,” but these focus mainly on geopolitically weak or unimportant—10 of the 11 situations under investigation at the ICC are African—countries, while governments such as Syria’s commit atrocities with little fear of prosecution or intervention because Russia, one of its two main international backers, undermines any attempt to hold the country’s leaders accountable.
The human rights field’s ambitions not only have produced unnecessary clashes over human rights, but they have also diminished the core rights that were meant to, above all else, uphold human dignity.
In Europe, for example, advocates for abolishing circumcision have argued that a child’s bodily integrity is a human right while attempting to reduce religious freedom to a mere right to worship. This has led government ombudspersons to call for a ban, pediatric societies to call the practice “mutilation,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to pass a resolution against the practice, political parties to lobby for legislation outlawing the practice, and a court in Germany to rule that the act of circumcision should be considered a prosecutable physical assault. For devout Jews and Muslims, these developments feel like direct attacks on a ritual integral to their faiths.
In Asia, instead of welcoming the 2012 Human Rights Declaration by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as representing some important steps forward, organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the U.S. State Department criticized the document for differing from their preferred emphases. Even though it included all the civil and political rights that similar documents elsewhere have—as well as innovative provisions related to those with AIDS, childbearing mothers, human trafficking, vulnerable groups, and children—these groups objected to the declaration’s emphasis that rights must be balanced with duties and that realization of rights has to take into account the local political and cultural context. But it is precisely the regional flavor that is most likely to increase the ASEAN declaration’s legitimacy—and thus the chance that it will be embraced locally.
In Africa, select issues that concern Western countries are often promoted in ways that pay little heed to local conditions, provoking a backlash. In Kenya, international attempts to prosecute Uhuru Kenyatta for fueling ethnic violence after the 2007 election ignored how this would boost his popularity among his supporters—helping him to eventual victory in the 2013 elections.
The mindset currently prevailing among many human rights actors thus makes it extremely difficult to realize the aim of the Universal Declaration’s framers to promote the implementation of fundamental human rights principles under a variety of circumstances and cultures. The result has been to reduce both the effectiveness and appeal of those principles. Human rights organizations are less able to embed themselves within local cultures and gain legitimacy in the eyes of local people.
Greater flexibility in implementation would enable human rights supporters to focus on the importance of political dynamics and incentives to promoting change within countries. For example, the end of white rule in South Africa was brought about not by threatening apartheid leaders with international justice but by first sanctioning and then offering incentives for leaders to transfer power. Reconciliation and truth commissions played prominent roles; retribution was limited. The country crafted a new, inclusive national identity and developed a constitution around existing institutions, a stark contrast to efforts in Iraq and Libya that tried to replace institutions and exclude members of the previous regime.
Response and renewal
The human rights movement should refocus on the principles of the Universal Declaration—a document more praised than understood. Its drafters developed a framework for human rights that was both universal and flexible. Their aim was to establish a “common standard of achievement,” based on the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
This would entail recognizing that in a world of great cultural and political diversity, human rights cannot be universal unless kept to a small core of rights so fundamental that almost no country would openly oppose them. In the original Universal Declaration, only a handful were drafted in such a way as to leave little room for flexibility in implementation. These include protections for religion and conscience, as well as prohibitions against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; and discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin. Today, many human rights treaties make these rights nonderogable—i.e., there are no circumstances under which they can be lifted or suspended.
Where other rights are concerned, the framers of the Universal Declaration were clear that universality does not mean homogeneity in implementation. They expected states to experiment with different modes of implementation—to allow “different kinds of music” to be “played on the same keyboard,” as the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who supported the U.N. process, put it. Indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt made clear in 1948 during one of the debates over the Universal Declaration that methods for implementing many rights “would necessarily vary from one country to another and such variations should be considered not only inevitable but salutary.” For example, individuals everywhere have the right to be free of torture, but different countries may legitimately come to different conclusions about when private property may be taken for public use.
Moreover, in resolving tensions among rights, no fundamental right should be completely ignored. By specifying that all rights must be exercised with due respect for the rights of others, the framers intended that clashes should be occasions to figure out how to give each right as much protection as possible while never subordinating any right completely to another.
Ultimately, a culture of human rights can only be built from the bottom up. Focusing on the gravest violations of human dignity while understanding that other rights can be protected in a legitimate variety of ways is the best way to achieve this.