The Battle for Human Rights

The Battle for Human Rights

Which idea of human rights will prevail: Western notions of freedom from fear or poorer nations’ insistence on freedom from want?


MARTIAL TREZZINI/APLouise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking in Geneva

There was a lot of self-congratulation in the United States and Europe in the 1990s over a post-Communist new world order marked by a global stampede to democracy and, by implication, a wide embrace of traditional Western concepts of civil and political rights. There is certainly a new world order. But it is not the one many predicted.

The global majority of governments–those of developing and transitional nations–may have embraced more open elections and other paraphernalia of democracy, but their understanding of human rights continues to diverge from the Western (or, now, Northern) model, which emphasizes political and civil liberties. In much of the global South–and for a mixture of reasons, not all of them noble in Northern eyes–there is a strong argument that top priority should go to development issues, to economic and social rights. The luxury of governance can come later.

On human rights, a bellwether area in international affairs, the opinions and strength of the global South will pose a considerable diplomatic challenge to European and North American governments and human rights organizations in the years ahead–a challenge for which US diplomacy is least prepared. There is no official American participation in recently created institutions that are building new norms in international law and human rights, notably the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

December 10, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a time to take stock and engage in a search for common ground with the twenty-first century’s global majority. It serves no good purpose to trash the UN’s human rights apparatus and the new Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body dominated by blocs of nations often unfriendly to the United States (which is boycotting it). That has been the policy of the Bush administration and pro-Israeli groups, among others. Nor does it make much sense to assume, as many liberals do with a justified sense of chagrin, that the current American human rights record is too embarrassing to allow credible participation in any international human rights body. Solid, persuasive diplomatic work needs to be done and, yes, maybe some philosophical compromises made. Multicultural America should be at the forefront of the debate. Instead, the USA is MIA.

Some history: in 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt went to Congress to propose the lend-lease agreement to aid European allies under siege by Nazi Germany, he said four freedoms must prevail in the world. These he described as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At that moment in history he defined the last of those as a freedom from aggression anywhere in the world.

With the persistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose work shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seven years later, the president’s four freedoms were incorporated into the declaration–and expanded. Freedom from want was fleshed out considerably to cover rights to education and “a standard of living adequate for health and well-being…including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood.”

Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights from 2004 to ’08, took up the story from there in a conversation in June as she was about to leave office. She said that almost from the start a split existed between political and economic rights. It has widened. “Probably one of the existential issues in international human rights currently is the rise of cultural relativism and a pushback against the concept of universality,” Arbour said. “It’s coming loud and clear from the many who claim, not entirely correctly but credibly in their own constituencies, that human rights is a Western concept–not only that it is a Western ideological and political concept but that coincidentally it serves a lot of political and economic interests of the West. Those who put it in the most egregious fashion will say it is a neocolonialism–the West having found another way to impose its sense of superiority.”

Arbour holds the West responsible for “perverting” the concept of universality. “The West, and the United States in particular, has never embraced freedom from want as a right,” Arbour said. “It has been the champion of civil liberties–of freedom from fear–but freedom from want was meant to be achieved by a healthy marketplace…ot a place for governments to play too large a role. The developing countries–and whether they are doing that in bad faith or good faith is not for me to pass judgment–are doing exactly the opposite. They claim at least to be very interested in freedom from want and that freedom from fear would look after itself if their populations were not starving. These are very profound clashes of vision.”

The traditional democracies, rooted in ancient Mediterranean and modern European cultures, are in the minority now, and that minority will continue to shrink during this century. In understanding rights, as in regulating trade or the migration of people, what used to be called the West can only marginalize itself more by failing to listen to the rest. Political and civil rights are obviously worth promoting, but scores of governments need to be persuaded, and beleaguered advocates of civil and political rights in developing nations need support in international forums.

Developing nations intent on promoting the equivalence of economic and social rights have increasing confidence and experience in shaping international debate. They have legitimate arguments about priorities for the poorest countries, and they have been getting support from the new high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay of South Africa. When she took office in September, she said in her first speech to the Human Rights Council that the Universal Declaration’s comprehensive vision of human rights had yet to be achieved. “It contemplates a world with the full realization of civil-political, economic, social and cultural rights without distinction,” she said.

When the Human Rights Council, established in 2006 on the ruins of the discredited Commission on Human Rights, completed its ninth regular session this fall, its decisions reflected the majority agenda. But they also showed that democracies do not necessarily vote together across a North-South divide. India, Indonesia and South Africa, for example, join a pro-South majority consistently. Canada, which rarely gets the credit it deserves for its hard and effective work at the UN, is active in supporting democracy and universal rights, joining the European Union or acting alone in demanding open votes when others want the anonymity of consensus.

Arbour said that when the Human Rights Council was created, she urged democracies of both North and South, and such cosmopolitan groups as the Commonwealth or the Francophone countries, to field strong caucuses in the council to weaken the cohesion of self-serving and often tunnel-visioned regional blocs. Those on the forty-seven-member council often use their seats and regional solidarity cynically, more to cover up atrocities and shield neighbors than to expose them. Her advice was ignored, except by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which she described as “fixated” on the Middle East, and has coalesced solidly around its agenda in that region.

In its final report in September, the council ranked as human rights issues the dumping of toxic waste in developing nations, unfettered rights for migrants, the needs of the African diaspora, the right to development and a vaguely defined “international solidarity” for nations in adversity. Japan, South Korea and the Europeans opposed that last measure, saying that the first responsibility to aid and protect people lay with their own governments, and that this was not the job of an “international community.” China, Chile and India, among others in the majority, voted for it. How it would be applied is anyone’s guess. The report also reaffirmed the right to food in light of the food-price crisis. (Nepal’s supreme court recently cited the right to food when it ordered help for needy rural areas.)

In October, a poll found that Americans support economic and social rights, notably the right to food, healthcare and education, and at least three-quarters of those surveyed (Democrats and Republicans) said that the government should be responsible for meeting those needs among its own citizens. That puts them more in line with developing nations than with the US government. The poll findings also noted that “the American public largely concurs with the principles presented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

On the international stage, getting the US government officially back into play on human rights at the UN, and fielding skilled diplomats to open meaningful dialogue, would seem top priorities of the new US administration. It would be a smart step toward rebuilding American credibility and would also be important in shaping international discussion on human rights as they might be most broadly understood.

“If the Americans are present or absent on any issue anywhere on earth, it makes a difference,” Arbour said. “So their indifference–it ranges from indifference to hostility–to the Human Rights Council of course has tremendous impact. Inside, they would have had a more positive influence.”

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