“Human rights has become a new world ideology, even a kind of secular religion,” writes Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan, reviewing a “superb” history of the international human rights movement. Recent history and current events demonstrate that “continued pursuit of human rights is not idealism, it is realism,” he insists, noting that “the international human rights movement has often been a significant factor in changing the behavior of states.”
A marginal factor in international politics for the 30 years following the Second World War, Aryeh Neier’s new book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, describes how human rights emerged in the 1970s as a critical factor in facilitating the collapse of Communism and challenging right-wing military dictatorships:
Human rights has been mainstreamed into American foreign policy, with each president, to be sure, framing it in a different way (Carter as human rights, Reagan as democracy promotion, George W. Bush as a “Freedom Agenda,” and so on). Human rights became a pillar of European Union foreign policy with the adoption of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 1993. The family of U.N. institutions devoted to human rights has grown—the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was established as recently as 1993. The European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights were established in 1953 and 1979 respectively, but both experienced dramatic increases in their dockets starting in the late 1990s. The African Court of Human and People’s Rights was established in 2004. “Humanitarian intervention”—justified if not necessarily motivated by human rights priorities—has become an increasingly common feature of international politics.
Like many human rights activists, Neier was wary of bi-partisan efforts to go beyond protecting human rights to advancing democracy, initiatives that led to the formation of the National Endowment for Democracy. But the former executive director of Human Rights Watch concedes in his book that the NED’s institutes have “played a significant role in efforts to promote electoral democracy worldwide during the past three decades.”
“What emerges above all from Neier’s account, however, is the importance of politics,” Nathan notes in The New Republic:
Human rights were created under American dominance after World War II in order to consolidate and to extend American influence. Until the mid-1970s their growth was blocked by a Cold War stalemate between the two camps. But Carter revived the American interest in human rights in part to rally the country behind the need to remain engaged in the world after the defeat in Vietnam. Reagan used his democracy initiative to push back against an assertive Soviet Union. Human rights and democracy became a seeming juggernaut with the U.S.-aided “third wave” of democratic transitions that started in Portugal in 1974 and spread through southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, the socialist world, and Africa, bringing the number of democracies from thirty-nine in 1974 to 121 in 2006. Europe also played a role: the EU used human rights as part of a low-cost values diplomacy that sought to reduce turmoil in the zones of instability that abutted it to the south and east.
The new approach to promoting democracy had its “most profound” impact in Reagan’s second term, with breakthroughs in Chile, Haiti and the Philippines, writes Neier, who retires this year as president of the Open Society Foundations. In a marked departure from earlier covert efforts to support U.S. allies, he notes, NED “provides funds openly to organizations” promoting democracy and human rights, including support for efforts that “probably would not have qualified for the kind of aid” given by Cold War-driven covert agencies.
“Yet many of Neier’s own insights are reasons for concern,” writes Nathan:
Abroad, the challengers to human rights include powerful authoritarian governments such as those of China and Russia, which exert increasing influence on the way newly emerging norms are defined for such issues as the proper bounds of freedom of information on the Internet and the right of civil society organizations to receive financial support from abroad. Women’s human rights continue, as always, to be under attack in fundamentalist communities not only in the Muslim world but also in Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and other societies. Advances in communications technology empower not only citizens but also political police. New weapons such as drones raise new challenges to the laws of war. Even the human rights movement’s friends can hurt it, when they stretch the norms too far and reduce the sacrosanct quality of the original idea, which in the end is its most important asset.
As Neier observes, efforts to advance democracy today confront a different and arguably more complicated set of challenges and problems than during the Cold War, including a more adaptive and assertive form of developmental authoritarianism.
“China is willing to throw its weight around in ways that do damage to human rights,” he notes. “China will let a country like Angola or Sudan know that if they sell their oil to China, then China isn’t going to bother them with strictures about human rights or corruption or transparency.”
The Communist regime “makes its silence on those issues a competitive advantage when dealing with those governments.”
Beijing is not only promoting its own soft power, but actively trying to stifle freedom of expression abroad, says Neier.
“China is the first country that I am aware of that engages in active campaigns against those who try to promote human rights and tries to suggest that it will penalize governments or others who are critical of its human rights practices,” Neier says.
The democratic West appears to have lost the confidence, commitment or courage to promote human rights and democracy, Neier fears.
“One of the most serious problems in the human rights field today is that the cause does not have champions among governments or among intergovernmental bodies,” he says. “Europe is focused inwards, the US is not eager to provide leadership internationally on human rights, and intergovernmental bodies like the UN, the EU and the African Union are not willing to provide such leadership.”
As the US and Europe withdraw, Neier argues, “for the foreseeable future, it is the nongovernmental movement that has assumed and must assume leadership as the voice of human rights.”
What is at stake remains what it was in 1948: in the words of the UDHR, “freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and even more importantly, the simple yet brilliant idea that these global goals must be founded on the micro-level “dignity and worth of the human person.” The more nations become interdependent, the more important norms are as a form of power. The continued pursuit of human rights is not idealism, it is realism.