Facing the Human Rights Abyss

Facing the Human Rights Abyss

A report on the state of global human rights.


December 10 marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To many of us in the human rights movement, it feels more like a funeral than a celebration.

What are we mourning? Not only that people’s rights are being violated every minute of every day. This has continued uninterrupted since the beginning of recorded history. What is new is the open attack on the legal and institutional structure of human rights, a system established after two horrific world wars to protect the powerless from the predatory.

Who is leading the assault? Not the scattered bands of terrorists, who rely on fear and chaos to magnify their threat and disguise their essential weakness. It is the world’s sole superpower–the primary architect of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration–that is now shaking off all legal constraints to unleash the most destructive military machine in history.

The Bush Administration seeks nothing less than the open establishment of empire–termed “full-spectrum dominance” in the new Pentagon papers. Since open empire is incompatible with a post-imperialist world order based on human rights and the rule of law, the law must go. This means bypassing the “useless debating society” formerly known as the Security Council, when it refuses to rubber-stamp the unlawful invasion of Iraq.

In the guise of attacking and eliminating evil, our government is attacking and eliminating the full spectrum of rights designed to protect human life and dignity: arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, environmental and labor laws, human rights and the laws of war, even universal jurisdiction for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dick Cheney said it best: “We can no longer operate under twentieth-century standards” in fighting a global war that “may never end, at least not in our lifetime.”

The new world emerging from the rubble of twentieth-century standards joins state repression and terrorism in an increasingly violent embrace. In America, constitutional rights to due process, privacy, free speech and assembly, and bodily integrity are endangered; Guantánamo prisoners are shackled and caged like animals without being charged with any crime; suspected terrorists are transferred to countries where they will be viciously tortured; Arab and Muslim men are singled out for “special” registration, mass detention and arbitrary deportation; and peaceful protesters are assaulted with taser guns by increasingly militarized police.

With dangerous extremists on all sides planning for global war, we should remember that the modern idea of human rights law emerged from the slaughterhouse of World War II. Faced with the public outcry “never again!”, the victorious powers had no choice but to recognize the full range of human rights–not only civil, political and religious freedoms, but also rights to health, education, housing, work, social security and adequate livelihood. If taken seriously, this revolutionary idea had the potential to overturn, through peaceful legal means, the established distribution of political and economic power.

But the world’s new policemen, having already divided the spoils at Yalta according to great-power interests, contained human rights by establishing them as a founding purpose of the UN while insuring their relative impotence in a vertical power structure topped by the antidemocratic Security Council veto. Human rights treaties, developed in the straitjacket of the cold war, added weak monitoring and enforcement measures but also fragmented the supposedly indivisible body of human rights between civil and political rights, which were selectively promoted by the United States and its allies, and economic and social rights, which were generally ignored by all major powers including the Soviet Union.

Still, the genie was let out of the bottle and into the arena of human struggle. Just as Americans have fought successfully for more than two centuries to expand constitutional principles of freedom and democracy beyond the narrow privilege of white men with property, so too a powerful advocacy movement arose to promote human rights beyond their original limitations. In the blink of an eye, historically speaking, the state monopoly on domestic tyranny has been challenged through an established framework of universal values linking the struggles of community activists in Harlem, landless peasants in Brazil and people with AIDS in South Africa.

Freed from the ideological and material constraints of the cold war, the human rights idea spread especially rapidly in the 1990s: Southern voices emerged to challenge and expand the traditionally Western practice; legal advocates brought groundbreaking cases before international and domestic courts; grassroots social movements adopted more militant rights-based strategies; and the UN began “mainstreaming” human rights in policies and operational programs. Most important, the human rights movement began to hold states, corporations and financial actors accountable for violations of economic and social rights, thereby challenging the neoliberal economic model that still imprisons 2 billion people in structural poverty and debt bondage.

The Bush Administration now seeks to kill the human rights idea in its infancy and return the world to the law of naked power. But the funeral may be premature. Freed from the worst double standards of state power and invigorated by new forms of activism and solidarity, a broader and more inclusive human rights movement can join forces with the world’s second superpower: mass opposition to war and occupation, corporate-controlled global trade and the ongoing destruction of our environment.

The established human rights framework still offers the broadest foundation upon which to unite all lawful struggles for a better world. Regardless of who occupies the White House, the responsibility for claiming human rights falls upon each one of us, together.

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