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Why human rights are doomed

14 March 2014

The idea of universal rights can no longer be sustained, argues Stephen Hopgood


Speaking out: Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a human-rights activist, outside a court in Moscow last month, during the trial of anti-government protesters

Speaking out: Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a human-rights activist, outside a court in Moscow last month, during the trial of anti-government protesters

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 moral entitlements.

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 dignity.

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 human rights.


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 Christians everywhere.

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, 2013).

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