What Putin’s supposed “death” of liberalism means for human rights

Photo: Victoria Borodinova/Pixabay

In an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, the Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said that “the liberal idea” hegemonic in the second half of the 20th century has “outlived its purpose”. The election of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro and, one should assume, his own presidency would support this conclusion. “Liberals cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades”, Putin said.

Putin’s idea of liberalism is a convenient caricature. He appears to label as “liberal” any issue he feels strongly against: the rule of law, LGBTQ rights, the Refugee Convention, gender equality, to name a few.

That the Russian President has his own agenda, and that this agenda does not include the international promotion of human rights, cannot surprise anyone. But this interview raises an important question: What would be the fate of the international human rights regime in a world not guided by liberal parameters?

International human rights emerged and evolved in a world first defined by a cold war and later by what Francis Fukuyama thought would be the definitive ascendancy of liberal democracy. This was a world of Western hegemony where European countries played a very significant role in defining the rules of the international society, as superbly documented by Martti Koskenniemi.

Of course, this does not mean that human rights are necessarily a Western or a European idea, neither does it suggest that European countries have an impeccable record in human rights. Reports from NGOs and international human rights bodies give a persuasive account of the opposite. However, one can say that, geographically and temporarily speaking, the international institutionalisation of human rights is rooted in Europe.

Vladimir Putin is not the first one to posit that the rules of the game are changing or about to change. We are living a historical juncture of shifting tectonic plates with rising nationalism in the global North, ever growing power in the global South and a declining presence of Europe in global affairs. We are entering into a “no-one’s world” (Kupchan), a “multiplex world” (Acharya) of “decentred globalism” (Buzan and Lawson) with no more superpowers. Instead, we have multiple regional powers, a world of increasingly dispersed power and perhaps receding opportunities to forge global consensus.

The conditions under which the international human rights system grew up do not exist anymore. By itself this is neither good nor bad, but unpacking the factors beneath the legal recognition of human rights is essential if we want to maintain and raise the position of humans in future global politics.

History shows that Western European countries played a significant role in promoting international human rights law. But, as I argue in my recent book Politics of International Human Rights Law Promotion: Order versus Justice, this does not mean that they did so because they believed it was the right thing to do for global justice.

Based on the moral unity of humankind and equal deservedness of all human beings, cosmopolitans argue that morality cannot be contained to communities separated by national boundaries. On the other hand, realists are sceptical about international law in general, and about international human rights law in particular, as they believe it is unwise to judge states’ actions from a moral perspective. Between these two disparate views, I formulate an alternative political explanation of the critical role of Western Europe in the evolution of the international human rights legal regime since the 1970s.

I argue that, considering the features and the constraints in the international system, international human rights law has grown in a battle for legitimacy between two poles. On the one hand, we have had a state-centric and order-based European notion of international society with a minimalist conception of human rights, deferential to the general principles of international law, including national sovereignty, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and the idea that inasmuch as possible promises must be kept (pacta sunt servanda). On the other hand, we have a broader conception of human rights, inspired by global justice and advocated by civil society and independent bodies under the umbrella of the UN and other international organisations. While all actors spoke the same language, they contested the meaning of each other’s words.

International human rights law becomes a matter of political contention within certain institutional confines. The international human rights system, with its limitations and contradictions, is what we see when order meets justice, when order clashes with justice.

Understood as such, human rights are not the fruit of passion, but the fruit of tension: tension in the political space of legitimacy. It is a tension not between those who believe in human rights and those who do not, but between those who believe in human rights as a matter of order and those who believe in them as a matter of justice.

Those who do not believe in the idea of human rights in any significant way (order, justice, or a combination of both) are not part of the equation. The question that arises, then, is what we can expect to happen in a world where those who openly reject the idea of human rights in all its acceptations are in the driver’s seat.

Illiberal governments and demagogic politicians have not yet articulated a cohesive and homogenous alternative to the liberal international society. And in itself, the relative decline of Europe in global affairs is neither good nor bad. But those of us who attempt to maximise the power of human rights in global politics would do well to think critically and self-critically about the politics and dialectics of international human rights law promotion in recent decades.

Human rights are not an idea whose times has come. Or just like it came, we have to accept the possibility that the time could go. The defence of human rights can no longer be built exclusively or even principally on some immaterial and superior principles. I think human rights “people” could do more to pay attention to local identities and listen to the values and fears of those who are not yet in our camp, opening up to new ways of constructing the ideas of human rights. Just in case Putin is right, we ought to come up with politically savvy strategies that resonate with individuals’ material interests and non-universal values.