Defining rather than defending our human rights “moment”

We are in the midst of what can be called a “human rights moment.” The international human rights movement has been marked by a handful of such “moments” that have defined its trajectory. These include the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II; the rise of transnational advocacy groups like Amnesty International in the 1970s; and the expansion of human rights institutions after the end of the Cold War.

While past “moments” have largely led to a progressive strengthening of the human rights movement, the current one creates pressing new challenges for it. A rising tide of authoritarian-minded governments, led by Russia and China, have put human rights on the back foot—as has renewed disengagement by the United States from international institutions. At the same time, key pillars of the human rights framework seem to be faltering, whether it is an International Criminal Court facing withdraw of member-states or the inadequacy of refugee law to deal with today’s historic migrant flows.

These events come as prominent critiques of the human rights movement question the movement’s effectiveness in achieving rights goals as well as whether human rights were just another guise for Western imperialism all along. Indeed, even before the recent wave of populist authoritarianism became so prominent, commentators such as Stephen Hopgood and Eric Posner had called this the “endtimes” of human rights or their “twilight.”

While human rights may be a dominant international moral discourse it is not, nor should it be, the only one...

David Forsythe recently contended in this forum that while many of these recent critiques bring useful insights, they are largely misplaced. He argues much of this scholarship wrongly assumes that human rights are only a Western foreign policy project. Instead, he claims what is necessary to ensure human rights thrive is for states and individuals to stand up for human rights ideals and stop engaging in double standards.Although a defense of core human rights principles is important, particularly now, what is often missing in the current debate is a proactive agenda for the human rights movement going forward. Below are four potential parts of such an agenda. This list is not meant to be prescriptive, as we are still in the early days of what is likely to be a significant shift for the movement. Rather these are areas where the human rights movement might productively, albeit not without controversy, engage in new ways and be reshaped.

1. A multi-polar human rights world. Going forward global leadership on human rights will increasingly need to come from outside the West. It is difficult for many Western-based advocates to accept this reality, not necessarily because they are concerned about ceding power (although there is that). Rather it is because whether such leadership arises or not is largely outside their control. Take, for example, the world’s largest democracy—India. It has a strong civil society and a proud tradition of adapting rights mechanisms to address its needs (such as through public interest litigation). However, it also has a prominent illiberal streak and historically has not been a vocal leader for international human rights. Human rights advocates would do well to study how countries in the global South like India have reshaped the rights tradition and encourage them to take more prominent custodianship over the movement.

2. Governance. Despite its general embrace of democracy, the human rights movement has long shied away from promoting specific forms of governance. Rights implementation though deeply depends on laws that allow for civil society to flourish, community participation in development projects, or administrative rules about the welfare state. If advocates do not promote specific types of governance, rights frequently remain unfulfilled, whether because of a lack of state competence or from willful subversion or neglect. There is danger that in promoting certain types of governance, activists will wrongly claim that there is only one best way to achieve human rights’ goals. Rights advocates, particularly in a multi-polar world, will have to become adept at not just promoting “best practices”, but having a toolkit to help ensure rights implementation. This will include savviness regarding mapping local power relationships, designing institutions, and engaging in inherently political budgeting processes.

2. Inequality and Economic Justice. While the human rights movement has had some limited success in mobilizing against absolute deprivation (such as access to medicines in South Africa), it has been more muted on issues of economic inequality. Addressing both national and global inequality needs to be a central part of the international moral discourse. This may involve focusing on creating fairer global supply chains, taxing international trade to create funds for redistribution, or using public policy to promote the creation of well paying jobs. Since the early 1990s there was a consensus that the future of the global economy lay within a relatively narrow bandwidth of capitalist options. That consensus is no longer with us and it creates opportunities and challenges for the human rights movement to adapt.

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Addressing both national and global inequality needs to be a central part of the international moral discourse.

4. International Human Duties. As Samuel Moyn has recently argued, there is something lopsided, or unnatural, about human rights occupying such a predominant role in the world’s moral imagination. Rights’ focus on individualism is inadequate for many of our challenges—whether climate change, coping with refugee flows, fighting inequality, or promoting good governance—that are frequently better thought of through a duties prism. One could imagine the world coming together to draft a set of universal duties both for individuals and for states. There is a risk that in stressing our inter-connectedness, such a charter would cement illiberal principles, such as unquestioned duty to the state or traditional cultural norms. There is, though, an opportunity to craft a liberal set of duties, including a duty to question, that could be significant in framing a new global political agenda. The United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights already provide one template for how such a “duties” approach might work. These duties may not always be legally enforceable claims, but that does not mean they would not have moral or political force—helping usher in an era more explicitly focused on our shared responsibilities.               

Multiple types of responses will be necessary to address these four areas. At times, human rights advocates may be central—for example, protecting the rights of those fighting against economic inequality. However, at other times rights advocates will likely play a secondary role—such as in some policy debates about how to actually combat inequality. One of the critical challenges ahead will be in determining the appropriate role of human rights actors.  While human rights may be a dominant international moral discourse it is not, nor should it be, the only one—think of environmentalism or humanitarianism, or even broader governance goals like development or security that bring their own ethical salience. In such an environment, advocates will need to smartly position themselves in relation to these other discourses to ensure the continued relevance and authority of human rights.