“The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before,” President Obama said in his eulogy of Nelson Mandela last month, “but they are no less important.” And United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the world to be “inspired” by Mandela’s spirit. “His death has awakened in all of us,” he said, “the flame of human rights and the beacon of hope.”
Their message was clear: We have come far, but there is a great deal left to do.
Yet despite this rhetoric of rededication and hope, the ground of human rights is crumbling beneath us. If we seem to have moved beyond “drama and moral clarity,” it is only because we no longer know where we are going. In fact, a 150-year experiment in creating global rules to protect and defend individual human beings is coming to an end.
The evidence is all around us. Authoritarian pushback against human rights in China raises the prospect of a new superpower utterly opposed to the hitherto dominant language of universal rights. And Russia, if anything, outdoes China, with Vladimir Putin manipulating his citizens’ legitimate aspirations for even basic freedoms. From the introduction of sharia law in Brunei to the consolidation of a murderous military regime in Egypt (where the alternative was the ultra-conservative Muslim Brotherhood), we see examples everywhere of resistance to human rights, in practice and in principle.
In a stupefying act of bravado, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most systematic abusers of human rights, rejected its seat on the Security Council, saying the United Nations fails to prevent “the violation of rights” around the world. African leaders resist the authority of the International Criminal Court. Bashar al-Assad strengthens his grip on power in Syria after his regime uses chemical weapons to murder thousands. We see extreme conservatism on gay rights throughout Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and now on India’s Supreme Court. And when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) declares, seemingly in earnest, that the exercise of human rights may be limited by “the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society,” that is a mandate for executive power and social conservatism, not for inalienable rights.
A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey highlighted “the global divide” that splits the West from the rest on social acceptance of homosexuality. In a world where eight in 10 people identify with a religious group, and where conservative forms of all major faiths — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism — are increasingly prominent and politically salient, the outlook for radical change in social attitudes outside the West and elite enclaves in developing countries looks bleak. For the seventh consecutive year, Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report found more declines than gains in the number of countries rated “free.” Russia led the way in repression but was hardly unique, as the green shoots of the Arab Spring led to widespread authoritarian retrenchment.
Freedom House called on the United States and Europe to do more. But the United States is worse than an ambivalent onlooker. Its use of torture and rendition against al-Qaeda suspects, its detentions without trial at Guantanamo, its drone program and targeted assassinations, and its rejection of the International Criminal Court all undermine the very idea, let alone the practice, of human rights.
Even the early promise of the Obama administration has dimmed. Political and security realities have reduced the scope of American unilateralism, the president admitted in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September. The future, he said, will be about international and regional partners for peace and prosperity. In an era when containing China is paramount, we know what “partners” means: deals. No ASEAN state should expect a call from the president about human rights anytime soon.
Of course, governments have always been reluctant to tie their hands with human rights considerations, and cultural and religious diversity guarantees that the secular global rights regime will always have detractors and foes. But this is more than a transient change. We have taken the two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of human rights for granted, assuming that the arc of history does indeed bend toward justice. The assumption underlying Obama’s Mandela eulogy is that matters of compliance, not principle, are the main challenge remaining. But the great moral drama of liberal freedoms vs. state and religious repression and discrimination is alive and insistent today, even as we are in a forced retreat from the battlefield.
This isn’t just a change from the 1990s, the 1970s or even the 1950s. It is the end of a historic project that began in Europe in 1863 with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the first permanent, secular, international organization dedicated to the protection of the suffering individual. The export of a liberal-humanist vision of global civilization, first through empire and then via the 20th century’s international institutions, has reached an impasse. Europe’s slow political decline has been disguised for decades by American power. Now the two are diverging, the Asia-Pacific calling Americans to turn East. The world in which global rules were assumed to be secular, universal and nonnegotiable rested on the presumption of a deep worldwide consensus about human rights — but this consensus is illusory.
Excerpt, read: The End of Human Rights –By Stephen Hopgood | WashPost
Stephen Hopgood is an associate professor of international relations at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of “Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International” and, most recently, “The Endtimes of Human Rights.”