Hurst Hannum wants a “radically moderate approach” to human rights

April 20, 2019

Hurst Hannum in his Fletcher School office
Hurst Hannum. Photo: Alonso Nichols
A piece by Taylor McNeil in TuftsNow of 19 April 2019 is about Hurst Hannum and his latest book Rescuing Human Rights: A Radically Moderate Approach (Cambridge University Press). Disclaimer: he and I are old acquaintances but have not seen each other for decades. I agree with much of what he says.

Hannum, a Fletcher School professor of international law, argues for bringing human rights back to the center of law and politics, while at the same time trying to define their role more carefully. Too often, he says, human rights are linked to just about everything, from punishing international crimes to seeking redress for nefarious corporate behavior and environmental degradation. “Human rights have come to mean almost anything to anyone,” Hannum said. “If something means everything, it means nothing. What we risk losing is a much narrower but more universal approach, focusing on the basic rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—that government should be responsible for.

Since the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was set forth as “a common standard of achievement” every country in the world has ratified at least one human rights treaty, and most have ratified a half-dozen or more. Hannum is aware that implementation leaves much to be desired, but said that “continued emphasis on ensuring those rights that a country has already recognized is most likely to be the best way forward.”

….“While the contemporary world may seem bleak, apartheid is gone, authoritarian regimes have largely disappeared from eastern Europe and Latin America, and rights are more widely respected in countries as different as South Korea, Nepal, Tunisia, Taiwan, and Mongolia,” he said. “Many of these changes can be attributed at least in part to greater awareness of and demands for human rights, even though progress is often slow and difficult.” ..

Beginning with the Carter administration in the late 1970s, human rights became a focal point for U.S. foreign policy, “although they were never the only or most important factor in determining policy,” Hannum said. Since the Clinton presidency, the U.S. has focused increasingly on promoting democracy, not human rights per se. Hannum thinks that’s a mistake. “Obviously, democracy and human rights are related—all of the things that go into making a democracy are human rights,” he said. “But since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been pushing democracy as the solution to all problems, and it turns out that it’s not.” 

Unrealistic expectations of what democracy or a free-market economy can achieve “may help to explain the recent success of nationalists and populists, who often define democracy simply as elections, ignoring the essential human rights components of freedom of assembly, association, and expression that give such elections legitimacy,” Hannum said.

He also takes aim at human rights advocates who claim more for human rights than they can deliver—especially those who “confuse human rights with outsiders intervening in all sorts of way to fix other countries,” he said. “Human rights are about persuading governments to institute reforms within their own countries, not about imposing them from the outside.”

While he fully understands the desire to expand human rights efforts to deal more directly with contemporary problems, “we can achieve more if the goals are modest,” Hannum said. Of course, he knows that “Let’s try to achieve moderate success!” is not going to be a popular rallying cry, but he argues that such an approach seems radical these days “only because it seeks to retain the consensus and universality on which human rights are based.”

https://now.tufts.edu/articles/reviving-human-rights

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