I BELIEVE that the seemingly unstoppable momentum of global
human rights is faltering. Confronted by resurgent authoritarian
nationalism, conservative religiosity, and the declining power of
Western states, the idea of human rights will be increasingly
ineffective on a world scale in promoting not only civil and
political rights, but also women's and sexuality rights.
This signals the end of a 150-year odyssey, during which
European-inspired "religionless Christianity" provided the
underpinning for global rules. In the decades ahead, zones of
liberalism, where such rights are more or less well observed, will
alternate with zones of repression and intolerance that prove
resistant to change.
Our future will be about homophobia and lesbian and gay rights,
about abortion bans and non-violent domestic movements led by women
demanding their reproductive rights. The idea of "human rights for
all" will finally be acknowledged as an impossible dream.
The human-rights narrative is familiar to us: after the Second
World War, humanism was embedded in the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UDHR), in conventions on genocide and the laws of
war, in the precedent of an international trial for German and
Japanese war-criminals, in the growth of non-governmental
organisations (NGOs), and in the ubiquitous discourse of individual
This liberal world was legitimated in avowedly secular terms. As
the UDHR puts it in Article 1: "All human beings are born free and
equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and
conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of
brotherhood." Despite a heated discussion at the time, there was no
mention of any god.
A VAST array of secular humanist experts - in human rights,
humanitarianism, development, education, and international justice
- has grown under this secular umbrella, backed by the United
Nations, its agencies, and multiple global laws and norms. Its high
points have been the International Criminal Court, which began
operation in 2002, and the post-2001 intervention doctrine now
known as "the Responsibility to Protect", or R2P.
This doctrine would lead, advocates hoped, to the UN Security
Council's legitimising international interventions to protect human
rights. If Libya was claimed by some as a partial success in this
respect, Syria has been a catastrophic failure.
This world of global human-rights governance was and is, I would
argue, a natural extension of a secularising trend in Europe:
humanist advocates fill the void left by a Christianity seemingly
in interminable public retreat after the 18th century by advocating
a universal secular humanist religion.
Human rights were, from the 1860s onwards, a substitute for a
Christianity that was increasingly cultural, not spiritual. At the
heart of this vision was the newly venerated human being, and his
or her suffering - a secular replacement for the Son of God
facilitated culturally over the centuries by the Protestant
Reformation and ideas such as individual conscience.
But things have changed. Europe is the only region that has
consistently followed the secularising path. Not even the United
States, the engine that has driven a century of post-imperial
modern expansion, has followed the same route. The majority of
Christians and Muslims live outside Europe, often in vibrantly
religious societies. And even in Europe, the influx of immigrants
from more actively religious parts of the world may be reversing
the secularising trend.
The void that secular humanism filled for Europeans as they
modernised might prove to be a historical exception. Where there
are people whose primary source of moral authority remains
religious, not secular, advocates of humanism will find individual
rights a harder sell.
When Pope Francis said recently that the Church was not an NGO,
I believe that he meant that spirituality and sacrifice were
essential features of any social mission. This is in stark contrast
to modern human-rights NGOs, which offer international law and
professional staff rather than vocation.
THE world of global human rights often seems distant and
legalised. Where once, during the Cold War, human rights were one
of the few ways to "light a candle in the darkness", the phrase
made famous by Amnesty International from 1961 onwards, now there
are billions of different voices whose languages of freedom from
oppression are multivocal.
Pope Francis argues that where apostles build "a rich Church and
a Church without the gratuitousness of praise", then the Church
"becomes old, the Church becomes an NGO, the Church becomes
lifeless". Global human-rights NGOs have failed to build a
sustainable mass base for social mobilisation for precisely this
reason - the lack of a motivating ethos such as that shared by
Amnesty's early members.
Secular humanist organisations such as Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
claim to be moral authorities on a specific principle: that they
represent the interests of humanity as a whole, whether in terms of
international laws and norms, or as the ultimate guardians of human
Yet there are other claims to be moral authorities. Secular
humanists will increasingly be forced to deal with myriad cultural
practices that do not fit neatly into human-rights boxes, but which
enjoy widespread popular support. There are people, for example,
who support women's rights, but oppose abortion; who support civil
and political rights, but oppose the notion that children are able
to exercise rights meaningfully at all; people who support an end
to torture, but who support the death penalty for those who have
committed "unforgivable" crimes.
The human-rights regime will have to deal with many people for
whom "the natural family", based on heterosexual marriage, is both
a founding principle of social life, and, for them, compatible with
REINVIGORATED faith as a vehicle for social activism is one
challenge to the world of secular human-rights organisations. A
second challenge comes from the re-emergence of states that were
once firmly in the developing world.
More confident nationalism in many places - particularly in
Asia, but also in Latin America and Eastern Europe - has meant
challenges on principle to the global human-rights regime in
countries such as China, Sri Lanka, Russia, Ukraine, and Cambodia.
Even Brazil has challenged the idea of R2P.
This resurgence in self-confidence among Southern states has
coincided with a shift in strategic focus by the United States.
American foreign policy is moving away from the active promotion of
human rights, and towards containing Chinese power. This reduces
the likelihood that improving human rights will be a priority for
the US in its dealings with many countries, such as those in
south-east Asia, for example.
Alongside this American ambivalence, Europe faces a continued
slow decline in terms of its global importance. For more than 200
years at least, bloody politics in Europe have been the engine of
world history. Now, that past is fading, as the Second World War
recedes from memory.
Even the power of the Holocaust will surely fade, as survivors
die, and the human-rights struggles - let alone the memory of mass
atrocities - in Asia become increasingly more central to any proper
account of current world history and politics. It was the Europeans
who aspired to create one universal system of rules, and it is this
aspiration that can no longer be sustained.
This idea of freedom for all individuals, as individuals, is
deeply ingrained in the ideology of the West, and human rights are
its most prominent expression. The classic liberal vision of a
modernising and rationalising world that sees religious belief as a
private matter, the state as subservient to the interests of its
citizens, and the family as a composite of individuals, has been
the defining feature of international humanism.
This vision, consistent with much Protestantism of the 19th
century, has reached its limits. If the international human-rights
regime genuinely wants to be a global solidarity movement in such a
changed landscape, and not a pyramid-like moral and political
economy, based in New York, Geneva, and London, it must fire the
kind of passion that Pope Francis seeks to fan in the hearts of
It must also understand that the question of which rights are to
be prioritised, and how, must be a matter of deliberation and
compromise, not of top-down international law.
Dr Stephen Hopgood is Reader in International Relations at
the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS,
University of London. He is the author of
The Endtimes of Human Rights (Cornell University Press,