Righting Our Understanding of Human Rights: A Tough Job

The issue of human rights is less prominent in international affairs today than it once was. Political leaders, even in democratic countries, increasingly tend to downgrade it, if not neglect it altogether.

This presents an especially striking contrast with the last quarter of the 20th century, during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, when issues of human rights were often at the very center of events on the world stage. It was a time when names like Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, filled the headlines. Human rights were formally incorporated into U.S. foreign policy in this period, as the Carter administration established a new State Department Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs whose responsibilities included the annual submission to Congress of reports on the human rights performance of other countries around the world.

The most recent initiative in this sphere is the State Department’s plan, announced in July, to establish a new advisory body, the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” So far, discussion of this plan has generated much more heat than light. The commission, according to an announcement in the Federal Register, is tasked with providing “fresh thinking” about where human rights discourse “has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Not surprisingly, it is opposed by many of the leaders of what is often referred to as the “human rights community.”

Members of this commission will likely be asked to read Aaron Rhodes’s new book, The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom. This volume makes a sometimes persuasive case for the need to rethink human rights, but it also underlines the enormous intellectual and political obstacles that will render this task so difficult.

Rhodes himself is a longtime activist who spent 14 years as executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a coordinating body for national Helsinki Watch groups in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. These nongovernmental organizations sought to monitor and report upon governmental compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Rhodes’s own view of the subject clearly was shaped by his deep admiration for those of his colleagues who bravely raised the banner of human rights while living under communist regimes.

The author stresses the fact that the Soviet Bloc dissidents focused almost exclusively on “individual, civic, political rights” (which had also been emphasized in the Helsinki Accords). This approach was perhaps best explained by Sakharov, the famed Russian nuclear physicist, in 1979:

The human rights movement in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe gives first priority to civil and political rights as a matter of principle, in contrast to the official state propaganda of these countries, which purposefully accentuates economic and social rights. . . . I am convinced that under contemporary conditions it is precisely civil and political rights—the right to freedom of conscience and the dissemination of information, the right to choose one’s country of residence and to live wherever one chooses within that country, freedom of religion, the right to strike, the right to form associations, and the absence of forced labor—which are the guarantees of individual liberty and give life to the social and economic rights of man.

The Original Human Rights Sin

The placement of economic and social rights on an equal plane with civil and political rights is, according to Rhodes, the original sin of the international human rights movement and the source of its subsequent corruption. He argues that the inclusion of economic and social rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948) served to conflate this new class of rights with the “freedom rights” historically considered to be natural and unalienable, and thereby called into question the philosophical foundations of human rights as such.

The Universal Declaration contains a Preamble and 30 Articles. The first 21 of these lay out in fairly traditional language basic civil and political rights, but beginning with Article 22, a quite different category of rights is introduced. Article 22 states:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Subsequent articles include a set of rights that seek to guarantee people many of the services and benefits provided by modern industrial welfare states, including the right not only to an “adequate” standard of living but even to “periodic holidays with pay.”

Rhodes plausibly contends that these are “not simply different kinds of human rights; they are demonstrably not human rights at all, for they are based on different principles.” Such rights can be granted only by the governments of societies that have achieved a certain degree of modernization. Thus it is hard to see how “rights” of this sort can be regarded as individual or universal, much less as natural or unalienable like those described in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Yet the international community, especially within the United Nations system, has steadily expanded the claims of social and economic rights at the expense of political and civil rights through such innovations as the “right to development.” Moreover, in the Vienna Declaration adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the UN proclaimed, “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”

So the priority that the 1948 Universal Declaration arguably still grants to political and civil rights—after all, they are listed first and are allotted a far greater number of articles—has been steadily eroded. Countries that suppress the political rights of their citizens can take refuge in the claim that the way they govern is demanded by the need to fulfill their obligation to deliver economic and social rights.

A Tough Recovery Project

It is very difficult to discern, however, what can be done to restore a more traditional and pristine notion of human rights. In the first place, the United Nations offers extremely unpromising terrain for achieving this goal. It is not just, as Rhodes stresses, that communist and other dictatorial countries have played a key role in building UN doctrine on these matters; it is also that developing countries (organized at the UN as the “Group of 77”) are strongly motivated to prioritize economic and social rights to justify their demands for increased development assistance and other economic benefits.

As the criticism aimed at the new State Department commission shows, there is unlikely to be much support even here in the United States for a return to an older conception of human rights. Rhodes asserts that human rights stem from “the philosophical tradition of natural law and natural rights” (two far from identical terms that he tends to use interchangeably and gives a single joint entry in the book’s index). “Detached from that tradition,” he adds, “the concept of human rights falls apart.” Yet while he briefly recounts this “tradition” (invoking in scattershot fashion Socrates, the Stoics, Cicero, John Locke, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and “the ethical foundation of monotheism”), he has surprisingly little to say about the actual content of natural law or natural rights.

Rhodes is on surer ground when he cites the Declaration of Independence as the culmination of the American Founders’ commitment to natural rights. Yet he himself acknowledges that in subsequent eras, the Jeffersonian language of the Declaration has often been rejected by leading American thinkers and statesmen. Many progressives, most notably Woodrow Wilson, explicitly attacked the idea of natural rights. Franklin D. Roosevelt, though less direct in his criticism, invoked the language of rights and of freedom on behalf of his economic policies. FDR’s famous enumeration of the “four freedoms,” for example, included “freedom from want” (and “freedom from fear”) along with freedom of speech and of worship. And the 1948 Universal Declaration, whose drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, in effect elevated some of the ideals of FDR’s New Deal to the level of human rights. Today, Americans comprising a substantial portion of the U.S. political spectrum probably would accept the idea of treating services such as health care as human rights, even if they were convinced that this was a departure from the views of the Founders.

Apart from the difficulty of rolling back ways of thinking that have now become deeply ingrained in our society, it would be a formidable challenge to try to restore the original understanding of natural rights today. The notion of what is natural that prevailed in the 18th century has largely been abandoned by later thinkers, and even a great philosopher seeking to resuscitate it would be unlikely to persuade most of his contemporaries. Rhodes touches upon these deeper philosophical issues, but only in a rudimentary way. While he provides a useful critique of contemporary conceptions of human rights, he does not come close to offering an intellectual path to reestablishing the Founders’ view of natural rights.

Though I sympathize with a number of aspects of Rhodes’s analysis, there is one point on which I believe he goes badly astray. This is reflected in his book’s subtitle, which suggests that politics is the enemy of freedom. Now, it is surely true that the application of universal principles of human rights should not be politically biased, as it is so frequently within the UN system. At the same time, it strikes me as entirely wrongheaded to try to deny that the case on behalf of human rights is intensely political. There is a fundamental political difference between those regimes dedicated to protecting the civil and political rights of their citizens and those that are not.

Rhodes attacks former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for asserting in a speech to the 1993 Vienna conference that “only democracy . . . can truly guarantee human rights.” His critique of Boutros-Ghali on this point consists of citing the phenomenon of “illiberal democracy” first identified by Fareed Zakaria.[1] It is true, of course, as Zakaria and Rhodes contend, that many regimes with democratically elected governments have turned out to be poor guardians of human rights. But where can one find today a nondemocratic government that can be relied upon to defend individual rights? There is none.

At the present moment the future of civil and political rights around the world in the decades ahead is especially murky. But one thing is clear: Vindicating them will depend not on resolutions adopted at the United Nations, but on the fate of liberal democracy in the world’s most powerful countries.

[1] Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 1997), 22-43.