The most memorable conversations I had this year were with two women, both human rights defenders who have taken refuge in the United States. The first, in self-exile, left Iran 10 years ago; now a US citizen, she advocates against compulsory veiling in the Islamic Republic. The other is younger and recently arrived after a dramatic escape from Pakistan, where she is wanted on trumped-up charges. She is fighting for the United Nations to recognize and protect the human rights of her indigenous group, which has been badly mistreated by the Pakistani state.
Both women are fearless, intrepid, and steadfast, but neither is likely to be successful in her attempts to use the machinery of international human rights. This is not due to any shortcomings in the women themselves or any lack in the nobility of their causes. The state should not force women to dress in one way or another, nor should avaricious governments ignore the rights of indigenous peoples.
The reason for their almost certain failure is that the legal edifice of human rights, in relying on state compliance, has crumbled. What began with the 1948 ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, initially an unenforceable document that laid out the bare minimum of what every human was owed, grew in the 1970s through the ’90s into a system of treaties and laws that allowed lawyers to file suit against countries that were committing violations. As Yale scholar Samuel Moyn has pointed out, the human rights regime that resulted was the West’s attempt to hold up an ideal of what world order should be.
The two decades of this millennium have only seen a weakening of this system. The UN Security Council, one of the primary venues for sanctioning states that commit human rights violations, has long had problems with some of the members that have veto power. Russia and China, the latter currently implicated in the internment of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims, have been obstacles to achieving consensus that would permit international action. In recent years, these illiberal nations have been joined by the United States, which also seems uninterested in upholding any international standard of human rights. In November the Security Council watched, appalled, as the United States announced that it would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law.
Refusing to follow Security Council resolutions is not the only way the United States is throttling what meager enforcement mechanisms exist for human rights. This year Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, composed of legal and religious scholars. Its job is to consider what human rights are also natural rights, or rights conferred by nature or God. This is a turning away from the secular foundation of the existing international human rights regime, replacing it with whatever individual governments decide they think count as human rights.
There are other consequences to the US uninterest. Currently, the United States is the largest contributor to the United Nations, but a document released by the Congressional Research Service revealed that the Trump administration is seeking budget cuts in 2020 that would decrease UN peacekeeping funding by 27 percent and regular funding by 25 percent. Significant among these are targeted reductions to UN women’s programs that involve reproductive health, which a secular consensus on rights had found unproblematic but a natural rights perspective flowing from evangelical Christianity does not.
Nor is the United States the only one to spurn the Security Council and the idea that rights are granted by government agreement rather than divine fiat. In a recent speech Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has presided over a crackdown on dissenters, writers, and university professors, tried persuading Muslim countries to stop trusting the United Nations. “We need to first believe in ourselves. As the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, we need to recognize our power, comprehend ourselves, and determine our attitude accordingly. The UN, which failed to find solutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Syria, will not find solutions to our problems.”
Beyond the United Nations, the advocacy mechanisms that enable global human rights networks to deploy naming and shaming as a way to hold states to account are broken. The advent of social media initially led to victories for human rights defenders, who were able to use Facebook and Twitter to organize demonstrations and get crucial information out from repressive nations. But in recent years, cooperation between social media companies and these very same states has meant that governments can suppress information and punish dissenters. In addition, governments in places like the Philippines and Russia have used armies of online trolls to shut down protest.
In 2018, the United Nations announced an update to its investigation of the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. At least one UN official leading the fact-finding mission said that Facebook played a “determining role” in fanning the ethnic hatreds that have led to massacres and pogroms and the displacement of over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims. In other cases, the spread of misinformation online has ensured that governments undertaking atrocities can say that the reports are false or made up.
All of this portends the end of an era. With the substance of the human rights consensus eviscerated, the women I met this year will have nothing to appeal to but an empty shell, a husk no longer supported by international agreement. Theirs will be a sad, even tragic ritual, a reminder that such actions once held meaning but are now hollow and ineffectual—an homage to an age that is now over.