When everything is a Human Right, nothing is

Re-emphasizing 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 organisations 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.

Human rights activists

Even as their ambitions rise, human rights activists have failed to take into account how expansive new programmes 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 organisations, 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 organisations 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, non-individualistic 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.

- Foreign Policy



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