“Human rights,” said the president in his inaugural address, require “human liberty.” It isn’t a complicated message, but it turns the liberal mantra on its head. It tells us why the Democratic party has lost its way, why nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or the so-called representatives of civil society such as Human Rights Watch have alienated their original sponsors, and why the United Nations has lost so much public confidence across America. The leaders of these organizations are united by their common antipathy to President Bush and Republicans in general and their equally enthusiastic affection for “human rights.” But the president has reclaimed the human-rights agenda and hoisted the same flag over a different ship of state, leaving the opposition united mostly by animus instead of hope.
This reversal began with the rise and fall of the Soviet empire. Human rights were divided neatly into civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. Western societies pushed the former, on the premise that liberty was the essential human condition and an entitlement even of the starving and destitute. Soviets and their satellites pushed the latter, claiming that civil rights were on hold until various preconditions were satisfied. This stalemate continued until the defeat of Communism made it obvious that liberty was primal.
The fall of the Berlin Wall led many to proclaim that the collision of human rights and the conflicts over their meaning and application were passé. In 1993, the United Nations convened the second World Conference on Human Rights in U.N. history, the first having taken place under the shah in 1968 in Teheran and none having occurred since. Behind closed doors, for two weeks, U.N. states fought an epic battle for human-rights supremacy.
As a participant in the working group, I watched the negotiations and the making of the outcome: the Vienna Declaration of Human Rights. Although the Vienna World Conference was supposed to mark the late 20th century’s reconfirmation of the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it proved instead to be a pivotal departure from those principles. The Vienna Declaration made two new pronouncements: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.” And “the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind….”
Only a few years after the end of the Soviet empire, the East-West clash had merely metastasized. On the one side were Western democratic states and a few democratic allies from other regions of the world, and on the other side were non-democratic states, Islamic countries, and most developing nations. Universal rights were to be modified by “particularities.” Subsequent U.N. conferences on social development, population, and women went even further. They claimed that progress in global development was conditioned on “full respect for the various religious and ethical values, cultural backgrounds and philosophical convictions of each country’s people” and even on “full respect for…convictions of individuals….”
After all the modifiers were piled on, the rule of thumb was not “universality” or the notion that the same rights applied to human beings in Malaysia as in the United States. The nature and extent of entitlements depended on a lot more than being human. Lip service continued to be paid to common human dignity, but relativism was the standard bearer.
The notion of human rights as “indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” was an excuse to trump civil and political rights, or liberty, by a range of claims–some real, some imagined. The list of human rights now includes, for example, the right to be free of toxic waste.
Over the years, the opponents of liberty have given their project many noble-sounding titles. They claim they are championing “national sovereignty,” “non-interference” in domestic jurisdiction, “cooperation” (instead of serious consequences for poor human-rights records), “non-selectivity” (to avoid identification of particular egregious abuses), and “human duties” owed to governments.
Despite the fact that the anti-liberty agenda was transparent and the moral relativism unabashed, liberals and human-rights advocates in the West were cowed by accusations of colonialism and racism and avarice. They doubted themselves, universalism and their ability to distinguish right from wrong. The enemies of liberty proved to be highly successful chameleons. They adopted the very lingo of human rights to perpetuate repression, the favorite rallying cry being equality and non-discrimination. Communists fooled many some of the time. Islamic fundamentalists fooled more.
So where are we today? In a struggle for the hearts and minds of the givers as well as the receivers, the liberators as well as the liberated. Human rights are the most potent political currency of our time. They apply to every global neighborhood no matter how hard the despots cling to the politics of xenophobia and antisemitism. As President Bush demonstrated in his inaugural message, human rights are not the property of Democrats, NGOs, or the U.N. On the contrary, today the self-proclaimed keepers of human rights and internationalism have been hoisted by their own petard.
–Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting professor at Touro and Metropolitan Colleges in New York..