On Faults and the Dark Side of the Idea of Universality of (All) Human Rights


Not all human rights are or can be universal. In today’s world, there are societies that differ hugely as to their historical traditions, levels of economic development, religions and culture generally, writes Valdai Club expert Rein Müllerson. 

My approach to the issue of the universality of human rights is determined mainly, though not exclusively, by my personal experience of having worked within the United Nations and also having represented that organisation in countries that are quite different from societies where I have lived most of my life. And I have lived, and not simply visited, by almost equal thirds of my life in three countries with different sizes and histories. This experience, among other things, has confirmed my doubts as to the universality of human rights, and led me to the conclusion that human rights aren’t and even cannot be either universal or natural. Or to qualify a bit such a shocking for some conclusion: not all human rights are or can be universal. If we were to claim that human rights all are universal, immutable, natural and not dependent on time and space, we should conclude that, say, the behaviour of the Yanomami tribe in the Amazonian rainforest straddling Brazil and Venezuela, whose life-style, to a considerable extent, resembles that of our ancestors thousands of years back, should accord if not to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms then at least to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. In that case, human rights would be as laws of nature (the laws of gravitation or quantum physics), waiting for thousands of years for a Newton or an Einstein of social sciences to discover them. 

In today’s world, there are societies that differ hugely as to their historical traditions, levels of economic development, religions and culture generally. Certain of them value highly individuals with their wants and whims; others price communal bonds and stability considerably higher than individual liberties, while some believe that the more we suffer in this world the more surely we end up in the paradise, where the best can expect to be met by seventy two virgins. If individuals from different societies can cross the boundaries of their ethical communities, to step outside of their ‘moral matrix’, or sometimes even be able to straddle and enjoy more than one of them, communities themselves change much more slowly, and changes that are instigated and pressed either from above or from the outside may have lasting negative effects. Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns against moral monists: ‘Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places – particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation’. [1] And I would add: acting upon such a premise that is supported neither by historical experience nor by contemporary practices, trying to make humans belonging to these differing societies more similar, using for that inter alia human rights discourse and the exportation of democracy and liberal values, usually spreads not so much democracy and human rights as chaos and destruction.

I would admit that today some rights are (or rather, have become) universal, some may arguably be universal, i.e. their universal nature is not (not yet) universally recognized, some may become universal in the future, i.e. they are in principle universalisable. But there are also rights that may never become universal, i.e. they may exist in some societies but be absent in others. Also, there were times when there were no human rights at all, though Homo Sapiens already roamed on Earth. And there may even be some rights that exist today but will disappear in the future, either because of the emergence of conditions that make their realization impossible or because a wrong that a specific human right has been called to prevent or remedy has disappeared. It may well be that due to, for example, the effects of globalisation, certain economic and social rights that may have become natural for people, say, in Scandinavian welfare societies will cease to exist. Or, on the contrary, though less plausibly, if certain values or fundamental interests, which today are guaranteed by means of conceptualizing them as human rights, were to be completely and irrevocably satisfied, there would be no need to guarantee these values or interests through human rights mechanisms.

Not only are not all human rights universal, neither are they natural. Or rather, they may be as natural as human wrongs. Human wrongs may have been, historically speaking, even more natural than human rights. Practically all existing societies have for millennia been, using today’s language and mores, xenophobic; fear and mistrust of strangers have deeper roots in human societies than openness or even simple curiosity towards foreigners, and as we can observe today, some of our primordial instincts have not yet disappeared. Whenever life becomes difficult, or something unusual and threatening happens that shakes our quiet and relatively serene flow of life, not only the best, but also the worst in humans comes to the surface. Or rather, in human beings (to different degrees of course) there is something angelic as well as devilish. American philosopher Richard Rorty has insightfully observed (and he did it long before the current migration crisis hit the world and particularly Europe) that one’s own sense of security and sympathy towards those who are not like us and are suffering in far-away places usually go hand in hand. He wrote: ‘By “security” I mean conditions of life sufficiently risk-free as to make one’s difference from others unessential to one’s self-respect, one’s sense of worth. These conditions have been enjoyed by Americans and Europeans – the people who dreamed up the human rights culture – much more than they have been enjoyed by anyone else’.[2] When one’s security is threatened, particularly when those far-away and suffering strangers start approaching us en mass, our sympathy towards them and towards their suffering becomes undermined. Of course, there are always significant exceptions to that, but for many it is much easier to sympathize with victims of human rights violations from the shores of the Lac Leman (where the main UN human rights activities take place) than from being next to them, either in refugee camps in the Middle East or in the streets of some European capitals.  

So, both human rights, expressing the good that exists in humans, and human wrongs, reflecting the evil side existing in us as well as in the world, are both equally human, though not necessarily humane. Human rights are social constructs that are called on to respond to human needs and remedy human wrongs. Harvard professor Alan Dershovitz put it concisely and correctly in the title of his 2009 book Rights from Wrongs.[3] Had not there been human wrongs, injustices that become unacceptable and unjustifiable in the eyes of a sufficient number of people, there would not be human rights; there simply would not be any need for them. Historically the emergence of human rights is related to the advent of centralized nation-states, so called Leviathans in Medieval Europe, where even those belonging to the class of nobles needed something that would have justified their claims against kings becoming all-powerful.

Sometimes certain human rights may even become natural in the sense that people in some societies may start considering them as such; they cannot even imagine how they could have lived without them or how they could live without them in the future. However, even if natural, they are not natural as God-given or stemming from something that could be considered as human nature. Their naturalness results from the long process of evolution of specific human societies. Had human rights been natural, it would not have been necessary to constantly struggle for their observance. The compliance with them would come naturally, automatically and almost effortlessly. Rare breaches would have been aberrations of some deranged psychopaths, whose deeds would not be considered as crimes and whose place therefore would not be behind bars but in the care of medical institutions. Instead of courts and the police there would be medical teams ready to urgently save those erred souls.

The idea of the universality of human rights, notwithstanding the good intentions of most of its advocates and regardless of the positive results these ideas have produced, has its dark side. Whether done purposefully to destroy societies that do not conform, or in the sincere belief that what is good and true for us is (or should be) good and true for all, such a forced homogenisation of the world by way of a heterogenisation of individual societies tears apart many countries, destroying societal bonds that have developed during centuries or even millennia and are not amenable to rapid change. Therefore, one can only welcome the statement of the British Prime Minister Theresa May during her January 2017 US visit that there is no ‘return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’[4] The Prime Minister vowed never to repeat the ‘failed policies of the past’ in reference to Western military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, breaking from the ’liberal intervention’ principle established by her predecessor Tony Blair. And I would add that it is not only military interventions that have all been failures - interventions in the domestic affairs of other countries by means of economic sanctions or political pressure have also usually made things worse rather than better. Therefore, Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, was right in emphasizing that ‘democracy and human rights will progress in future much less through the prescriptions and interference from the outside by the West than depending on the internal dynamics of individual societies’.[5] Exactly. As the so-called ‘Arab spring’, warmly welcomed, widely supported and encouraged by the West, most obviously demonstrates, instead of democracy and human rights the region is on fire, and spreads terror and human misery far beyond its borders. It is usually the case that the less states publicly criticize other states on human rights issues, the better would it be not only for interstate relations but also for human rights.

The pessimistic report prepared for this year’s Munich Security Conference and alarmingly entitled ‘Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order’[6] is full of anxieties that the world may be ‘on the brink of a post-Western age, one in which non-Western actors are shaping international affairs, often in parallel or even to the detriment of precisely those multilateral frameworks that have formed the bedrock of the liberal international order since 1945’. ‘Are we entering a post-order world?’ questions the report. However, there is no need to be so pessimistic. Indeed, the world, and particularly liberal democracies, has certainly benefited from the so-called liberal international order. But no order, be it international or national, is forever. And this liberal international order was not so liberal after all. Rather, it was an order where liberal states ruled the world, attempting to widen the circle of liberal societies (especially after the collapse of the USSR) while ostracizing or even destroying those which did not want to or could not become liberal. An international order that we may be seeing rising – a multi-polar, balance of power and concert of powers world – may indeed not be liberal in that sense, but it would be much more democratic in the sense that these notions – liberalism and democracy – are applicable in international relations. It would accept differences not only within societies, as liberal orders do, but also between societies. In that respect, it could be even more liberal than the post-1945 international order. These would be challenging times for human rights in many parts of the world, and it would probably be even more difficult to speak of the universality of all human rights. However, there is no need to become despondent either. What is needed is the right and frank diagnosis of the current crises. And the remedies needed to face these challenges may differ depending on regions and societies. There is no end of history, or rather the end of history would also mark the end of the humankind, but it is often so that only through a crisis that recovery becomes possible.     

[1] J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin, 2013), p. 116.

[2] R. Rorty, ‘Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality’, in S. Shute and S. Hurley (eds.), On Human Rights. Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, Basic Books, 1993, p. 128.

 [3] A. Dershowitz, Rights from Wrongs: The Origins of Human Rights in the Experience of Injustice, Basic Books, 2004

 [4] Theresa May: US and UK will no longer invade foreign countries “to remake the world in their own image”’, The Independent, 27 January, 2017.

[5] H. Védrine, Le Monde au Défi (Fayard, 2016).

[6] https://www.securityconference.de/en/news/article/post-truth-post-west-post-order-preview-of-the-msc...

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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