Human Rights are everywhere. Thought up about 7 decades ago as a nicely idealistic but non-compulsory way of seeming superior to the horrors of World War II, they have become a term that we just cannot stop talking about, particularly in the West. That might, however, not be entirely as positive as it sounds. After all, human rights were never meant to be used in this way, and that might just make them a less-than-ideal way to improve the world and to achieve those “human rights” we strive for.
Some people might be surprised to see the suggestion that human rights were never meant to develop in this way back in the 1940s, so let’s start with a look back. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, it was not ratified by each individual nation. It was adopted by the General Assembly, and they had no power to make international law. Moreover, the rights defined in the document were often rather vague and open to interpretation, so much so that even its leading supporters continued to allow racial segregation (in the case of the US) and had no intention of letting go of their colonial empires (in the case of Europe), despite the obvious contradiction with the agreement.
In practice, not much has changed since then. Countries which have adopted the many subsequent Human Rights agreements continue to ignore them whenever it’s convenient. That goes for countries such as Saudi Arabia, which ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women yet continues to uphold laws that makes discrimination against women no subtle business, but it also goes for countries such as the US, which is just one of 150 countries that still engage in torture (whether legally or in practice), despite this being one of the more basic principles of human rights protection. Human rights, then, are respected only when convenient.
This in itself is not strange. Citizens of many countries have several hundreds of “human rights”, making it incredibly challenging for poor countries to attempt to respect them all. Resources are limited, and since the majority of human rights are violated in practice rather than by actual law, this means that governments have to prioritise some decisions over others. If that means improving health care, education or employment over prosecuting bad police officers who violate human rights, then that might just be something we have to accept.
The problem is that some countries have it easier than others. Partly due to the fact that most agreements over human rights have been dictated by the West, but also for a great part due to wealth and resources, Western countries have to make barely any changes to uphold these human rights agreements. Because of that, a sense of superiority has evolved. Western countries are not only dictating what the rest of the world should do based on its own ideology (liberalisation, democracy, capitalism etc), but it is doing so in an arrogant way, forcing countries to focus on issues they deem important. Even organisations such as Human Rights Watch are very guilty of this, choosing to focus on issues that the Western public (its financial donors) find important while ignoring other “human rights abuses”, and thus taking away the ability for countries to decide for themselves what is the best way to spend their limited resources.
Worse still is that the West has failed to make the few minor changes it should still make to achieve those human rights itself. The US still engages in torture, Guantanamo Bay is still open, innocent civilians are killed by drone strikes on a daily basis, and Europe walks a very fine line between “freedom of expression” and hate speech. Islamic countries, for instance, find freedom of religion a much more important human right than freedom of expression, and while our Western view is different, there is no way of concluding without prejudice that either of those options is superior. We just have different views, but because the West feels superior, it attempts to dictate what other countries should do while shrugging off the criticism.
The problem is that this has a terribly counter-productive effect: non-Western countries recognise the hypocrisy of those Western countries, something we fail to do ourselves due to our bias, and because of that, they react in the opposite direction. They become angry and frustrated, leading some to become only more radical in their traditional views just to avoid succumbing to Western power. This in turn makes the West only more arrogant, and conflict will continue to rise.
Of course, none of this means that the concept of human rights has been useless. It is a great concept, and although it still has much more ideological and populist power than it has actual power in practice, it could be a great tool to improve what we consider “human rights.” The current dialogue, however, is harmful. We need to realise that our conception of human rights is not infallible nor universal, and that other countries are not necessarily inferior just because their human rights record is less ideal. Those countries often know better what is best for them than we do, and even the people of those extremes such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uganda would benefit from a less hostile international arena.
Don’t forget to rate/share/like this post, and if you have any thoughts of your own, please do leave them in the comments! And if you’re new here? Feel free to like the Facebook page for regular updates, or try having a look at the list of most popular posts!
More on related topics by Dean Richards: