The Limits of Human Rights

I wrote this in November 2010 for The Zahir, the University of York’s culture magazine. It’s about the limitations of the idea of human rights and the dangers of applying them dogmatically. Some of the examples are dated, but their validity stands.

What does every individual deserve? What is every person worth? The idea of fundamental “human rights” is one that invites much debate.  Human rights can be seen as essential values that are a basic entitlement for all or a luxury for a privileged few in stable democracies that are able to enshrine them. A useful definition comes from the United Nations, whose Universal Declaration of Human Rights perhaps provides the most concise but complete overview. They cover most potential sources of conflict and oppression, from the prevention of slavery to the right to free education at an elementary level. We shall take these as our definition, and propose that they should be respected and implemented globally. However, there are moral and political issues raised by our desire to encourage the proliferation of fundamental liberties. Questions are raised: can the use of violence to bring about greater equality and freedom be justified? Is this morally preferable than a peaceful protest that has only symbolic significance and has little impact on the status quo? These are questions we must ask ourselves, and attempt to answer, before we attempt to proselytise our liberal secularism and all the securities it brings. Whilst we recognise the importance of rights and freedoms, we must also guard against using them as justifications for more base actions and ignoring abuses for our own convenience.

The question of violence only arises when there is a significant, hostile threat to an attempt to introduce liberty. This is likely, as a regime or group who are abusing freedoms are likely to hold little regard for those attempting to protect the abused. It is fundamentally difficult to introduce what we regard as basic rights into a region that may see these ideas as alien or dangerously permissive. But if we believe such rights are absolute and will significantly improve the lives of an oppressed minority, can we justify the use of force, and the possibility of flouting the rules we regard as so crucial, in order to do so? This is the crux of the matter and there are numerous examples to show where has it been used. The current conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a classic case of the humanitarian dilemma: if winning the war is crucial to improve the rights of women and others oppressed under Islamic law, can the deaths of civilians – the callous “collateral damage” – be justified? There are historical parallels in other conflicts with similar ambiguous results. The war in Iraq released the country from the dictatorial grip of Saddam Hussein, but resulted in devastating sectarian violence. There were numerous cases in the Cold War, such as the Vietnam or Korean wars, where America prevented socialist governments or guerrillas from taking control, theoretically preventing dictatorship, but at a huge cost to the nations involve.

Ultimately it comes down to nations’ and ideologies’ perceptions of themselves. If America views itself as the “world’s policeman”, it will consider military intervention in undemocratic states to be justified. It believes in a fundamental responsibility to encourage human rights around the world. For a state that sees itself in such a role, the ends justify the means and the introduction of liberties is worth bloodshed. Here we begin to drift into dogma – the idea of human rights as ideology.  This is dangerous, discrediting the notions of fairness and damaging attempts to help the vulnerable. An unsympathetic group is far more likely to accept change to their system if is presented as a practical alternative, rather than as an extension of the neo-liberal “End of History”. A sense of perspective is necessary for effective progress to be made.  Ideas that are preached are discredited, rather than welcomed, and human rights must be suggested rather than forced upon people with significant differences to ourselves.

Similarly, those who claim to be encouraging liberty often use of noble ideas to camouflage more base motives. Numerous recent conflicts have been fought in recent years masquerading as fights for rights. In reality, they have simultaneously had less moral causes. The war in Iraq was allegedly to remove Saddam and liberate the Iraqi people; others have claimed it was about oil, the Bush family’s unfinished business and a frustration about failure to defeat al-Qaida. Attacking Saddam’s record and claiming he was a serious danger to security hid flaws in America’s moral reasoning. Similarly, in Afghanistan, it was claimed that invasion was necessarily to improve rights overthrowing the Taliban, whereas it was more likely that the Bush administration felt they needed to be seen to act in retaliation to the September 11th attacks, as well as a personal desire to do so. Claiming to be defeating those who committed such atrocities gave them an excuse for gaining control of a strategically important nation and progress in the so-called “war against drugs”. But this is not simply a military phenomenon – economic organisations such as the IMF also claim to be spreading rights and democracy, whilst in reality forcing extreme free market ideology on countries that are often to desperate to resist. The American backing of anti-communist groups during the Cold War often had little to do with fear for the rights of the inhabitants of divided nations; instead, it was often simply to preserve the economic interests of American companies benefitting from cheap labour and lax regulation. Under the cover of human rights, many more questionable motives can be achieved.

Equally dubious is the convenient hypocrisy of those who espouse freedoms. The abuses of many governments can be overlooked by those who attempt to prevent them in other regions. A good example would be Israel’s continual disregard for international law regarding settlements in the West Bank, as well as alleged war crimes in a number of conflicts, most recently during the invasion of Gaza in January 2009. If any other country in the region were to behave in such a way, the demand for intervention by Western forces would be huge. However, the complex politics of the region ensure that Israel is not accountable and not equal before the law of the world policeman. Economic interests play a part as well: William Hague recently sought a trade agreement with Sudan, a country whose leader, Omar al-Bashir, is an indicted war criminal, but controls plentiful supplies of untapped natural resources. Such duplicity by those who claim to support liberties only acts to discredit the ideas themselves.

However, there would appear to be another way. Aid agencies, charities and pressure groups such as Amnesty International all seek to improve the lives of millions of people around the world, without the compromises inevitably made by nations and MNCs. There are popular protests – strikes, marches, boycotts – across the globe every day. Perhaps popular and charitable action is the way forward? Whilst it appears virtuous, there are a number of issues we must address. Firstly, there is a limit to what can be achieved by simple protest. Groups such as Amnesty work through moral pressure, but this rarely means much to an oppressive regime. Few actual gains can be made through this technique – whilst there is not the damage of an invasion, there is also little change. To reform a totalitarian regime without active intervention requires reform from within – a rare figure like Mikhail Gorbachev, a member of the system who feels compassion. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev was able to use his power to change the Soviet Union and release the Eastern Bloc, but such incidences cannot be relied upon. Therefore protest and charity often fail to secure the material and social improvements required. Furthermore, they can be criticised as simple vanity projects, as those who are secure and protected attempt to salve their consciences without genuinely helping.

I personally find the idea that charity is a selfish act to be a repugnant myth, generated to help those to cruel to contribute find some consolation. The issue of human rights is a hugely difficult one to tackle: we must recognise their importance without drifting into dogmatic ideology; we must actively tackle the issues facing millions of people without creating misery for others in doing so; we must we must recognise the ends do not always justify the means. We must find a balance, recognising we cannot always hope for a perfect world, but striving to achieve as much as we can through legitimate methods.

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