Human Rights Pretension

‘The last utopia of human rights is becoming as politicised as its predecessors and this may be its undoing’

The inanities of contemporary human rights provisions regularly furnish comic entertainment. My favourite is the case of Leading Hand Chris Cranmer, the naval technician allowed to practise Satanism on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland. There are now some 500 pagan police officers, with their own Pagan Police Association. And over on the dark side, as it were, pagan prisoners are allowed candles and (hoodless) cowls to practise their rituals at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Criticisms of human rights legislation invariably focus on the absurdities of each proliferating instance of legalised craziness. There is something untoward about granting tree and Old Nick worshippers the same rights as adherents of major religions. In so far as critics venture any deeper, it is to highlight the contemporary culture of human rights lawyers and lobbyists, notably Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti and Baroness Helena Kennedy, ubiquitous presences on any BBC programme presented by the Brothers Dimbleby.

A new book, The Last Utopia (Harvard, £20.95) by the Columbia University historian Samuel Moyn, provides much more considered arguments to those who, heretically nowadays, refuse to take the human rights culture at their preening self-estimation. He shows how phenomena that many people assume to be immemorial lack deep provenance. There was a parodic anticipation of Moyn’s approach in 1968, when the Iranian dictator, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, opened a UN human rights anniversary conference in Tehran by claiming that such rights had been pioneered by his remote predecessor Cyrus the Great.

Moyn dispenses with the idea that human rights have much to do with the slave-owning ancient Greeks, let alone with the “rights of man” of the French Revolution. The latter were a subset of citizenship within state structures, rather than how one might treat those stranded within the interstices of the nation states. There were a growing number of societies and organisations with the title “international”, but none was concerned with international human rights. If anything, such a concern emerged on the Right, in the form of Catholic personalism, in reaction to the statism of the Jacobins and their 20th-century totalitarian successors. The European Convention on Human Rights may have sounded grand in 1950, but it was a dead letter until external developments gave it momentum. 

Similarly, the 1941 Atlantic Charter and the Declaration of the UN the following year included “human rights” as a “throw-away idea”, only for the Allies systematically to deny them to people in Europe’s colonies. They were not concerned with individual rights but with the achievement of national self-determination. Moyn argues that it was the failure of all such political utopias, including the project of national liberation itself, which cleared the way for the emergence of his “last utopia”. In this view, the impact of the Holocaust — through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — was little more than a cul-de-sac, as evidenced by the confused Western responses to post-war genocides, to which solutions were humanitarian rather than legalistic. The end of European empire in the 1960s and America’s defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s enabled the West to argue the human rights case without much hypocrisy.

The 1970s were the crucial initiating decade, with the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, which tied Soviet Jewish emigration to trade with the US. This was followed, in 1975, by the Helsinki Accords, which created mechanisms to hold the Soviet Union and its satellites accountable on fundamental human rights. Although Moyn rightly points to the precedent of Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty — who lived in the US embassy in Budapest for 15 years after being granted asylum — he says that the international celebrity conferred on Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn was a key development, as were the activities of Amnesty International (awarded a Nobel Prize in 1977) in highlighting individual prisoners of conscience. Failed political utopias were replaced by the morality of small steps. The Carter administration then tried to make human rights the basis of US foreign policy, a theme reprised with teeth by the Bush/Blair doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Those misadventures have been accompanied by the mutation of a moral concern with human rights into a structural one with “governance”. In other words, the last utopia is becoming as politicised as its predecessors and this may be its undoing. Juvenal’s question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” is as pertinent to human rights lawyers who wish to rule the world as it was to ancient tyrants. 

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