Posts Tagged ‘universality of human rights’

Rescuing Human Rights – another way of re-assessing human rights

November 17, 2019

I wrote abut Hurst Hannum’s book ‘Rescuing Human Rights’ earlier [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/20/hurst-hannum-wants-a-radically-moderate-approach-to-human-rights/]. On 30 July 2019, Peter Splinter wrote for ISHR a book review “Rescuing Human Rights – Making the case for a reassessment of the scope of human rights advocacy”

 
Hurst Hannum, Rescuing Human Rights: A Radically Moderate Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2019. 223 pp.

Hannum argues the case for a hard-headed reassessment of what human rights are and what they can achieve, done with the aim of preventing unrealistic expansion or overreach that undermines their legitimacy and universal acceptance.

Hannum expresses a firm conviction in the durable value of human rights. He brings to Rescuing Human Rights a lifetime of rich and diverse experiences as an observer, teacher and practitioner of human rights in numerous capacities and settings. While conservative, Hannum’s thesis does not hark back to a golden age of human rights. He recognises that human rights law has evolved and will continue to evolve. He also accepts that “pushing the envelope of human rights norms may sometimes be a legitimate [advocacy] tactic.”

Hannum’s principal concern is with human rights ‘overreach’ – efforts to resolve contentious political issues by trying to make them into technical human rights matters that they are not. He is not a fan of a widespread inclination to advocate for human rights of the next good cause.

“Attempting to regulate ever more narrow slices of life under ever more diverse circumstances through promoting new human rights runs a serious risk of undermining both the legitimacy of human rights and their universality. The result may be to simply expand the number of rights that are routinely ignored rather than to bring real help to those whose rights, no matter how narrowly construed, are already being violated.” (p. 79)

He perceives that human rights activism based on an expansive concept of rights as the primary means to effect domestic social and political change is feeding a global backlash against human rights. He is concerned that this will undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights advocacy to protect universally recognised rights, which “facilitate the development and influence of other socio-economic-political-moral change agents in ways that are likely to respond to the needs of most people of the world.” (p. 10) While acknowledging that human rights are inherently political, as they constrain government behaviour, Hannum suggests that the more that human rights advocacy approximates politics, the less rights will be able to effectively set the boundaries for the open, inclusive, democratic politics required to effectively address major contemporary social, political and economic issues by ensuring that political decision-making takes account of the needs and preferences of all relevant parts of society.

“This book is an appeal for radical moderation, which values and promotes human rights norms without distorting or deifying them. …  Underlying many of the book’s arguments is the belief that human rights cannot provide dispositive answers to all of the world’s problems, although they may be a necessary precondition for resolving many of them.” (p. 157)

Rescuing Human Rights focusses on human rights as universal legal norms embodied in public international law, particularly universal and regional treaties. Hannum assumes a universal consensus over the core content and legitimacy of most human rights. He distinguishes human rights from moral and political standards, while acknowledging their complementarity as forces that shape societies.

While Rescuing Human Rights discusses human rights primarily as they are shaped and invoked at the international level, Hannum emphasises that they are applied in national contexts where the relationship of the State and rights-holders is played out. Human rights promotion and protection are essentially a national project that is shaped and constrained by national governments’ voluntary acceptance of universal legally binding human rights standards. An important chapter is devoted to arguing for flexibility in the application and prioritisation of human rights norms on the grounds that universality is not uniformity. This recognition points to the need for further examination of Hannum’s thesis in specific national contexts. Are the dangers of human rights expansion and overreach at the international level mirrored by developments at the national level in individual countries?

Rescuing Human Rights focusses largely on what human rights are not and should not be made out to be. Hannum’s thesis would also benefit from further exploration of how human rights can be used better to contribute to efforts to address major contemporary social, economic and political issues at the international and national levels. If one accepts that human rights cannot determine the outcomes for issues such as development, climate change and corruption, then what are the contributions that specific rights make in specific contexts to political, economic, cultural, moral and technological efforts to meet those and other challenges? Any recalibrating of human rights promotion and advocacy in accordance with the approach Hannum proposes would benefit from robust exploration of the important contributions that human rights do and can make, such as ensuring that climate change policies are developed in consultation with representatives of all persons whose rights might be affected and have regard to their human rights impacts, including for the most marginalised communities and groups.

Today, while human rights are increasingly invoked in connection with efforts to address a growing range of global and national challenges, they are also increasingly flouted or questioned in many parts of the world. This includes in some countries where until recently human rights appeared largely beyond challenge. Many governments are demonstrating a renewed brazenness in violating their international human rights obligations. In many countries, there is widespread apathy, popular disillusionment and even hostility for human rights. This current state of human rights has led to calls from civil society organisations, academics, governments and inter-governmental organisations for urgent stocktaking about what is to be done to defend and reinforce the post-1945 human rights achievement. Some call into question the human rights project, and others call for its reinvention. Some appeal to humanity’s better angels, and others buckle down on business as usual. Some pursue novel organisational approaches to human rights advocacy, and others look to human rights to provide solutions for ever more matters of concern.

The way forward is not clear. However, Hannum’s lucid argument for greater focus and humility in recourse to human rights and his call for the recalibration of the scope of human rights advocacy should form part of any discussion about the future of human rights. Rescuing Human Rights merits reading and reflection by all who study, defend or promote human rights.

Peter Splinter is an international human rights consultant and was Amnesty International’s Representative in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @pgsplinter.

http://www.ishr.ch/news/book-review-i-rescuing-human-rights-making-case-reassessment-scope-human-rights-advocacy

Universal human rights apply to Ilham Tohti? China and EU: disagree

October 26, 2019

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his EU counterpart Federica Mogherini in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his EU counterpart Federica Mogherini in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua

Keegan Elmer  in the South China Morning Post of 25/26 October 2019 reports that Chinese officials have told their European counterparts that human rights should be measured by the people’s well-being and rejected the EU’s support for the “universal” values enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The statements issued by both sides after a meeting between the EU’s foreign affairs chief and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi underlined their disagreements on human rights by recording their discussions on the topic in markedly different ways. While the Europeans focused on Mogherini’s support for “universality”, the Chinese statement emphasised her call for mutual respect and comments that there were “different approaches” to the issue.

According China, Mogherini had acknowledged that there are “different approaches to safeguarding and promoting human rights” and accepted that there were “problems with the human rights situation in European countries”. It continued that she had agreed to continue cooperation and exchanges with China “on the basis of mutual respect”, adding: “The EU does not intend to act as the ‘teacher’ of other countries on human rights issues.”

But the EU’s account of the meeting did not refer to Wang’s comments and said Mogherini had “underlined to the Chinese leadership that the EU will continue to stand up for the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights based on the UN Charter and standards”.

China extraordinary sensitivity to ‘interference’ of any level into what it considers its domestic affairs is well-known. I touched upon this hot’ topic’ in my own 2011 article “The international human rights movement: not perfect, but a lot better than many governments think” in the book ‘NGOs in China and Europe’ (exceptionally also published in Chinese!): Yuwen Li (ed), Ashgate, 2011, pp 287-304 (ISBN: 978-1-4094-1959-4).

On the same day that the pair met in Beijing, the European Parliament awarded its 2019 Sakharov Human Rights Prize to human rights defender Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence. The statement announcing the award called for his immediate release and said “for over two decades, he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uygurs and other Chinese people”. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/24/lham-tohti-now-also-awarded-the-2019-sakharov-prize/]. Predictably, during a press conference on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said the parliament had “given a prize to a criminal”. “I don’t know how much meaning, value or influence [the prize] has,” said Hua. “I only know Tohti is a criminal that has been sentenced by a Chinese court.

Neither the Chinese nor the EU have said whether Tohti’s case or the situation in Xinjiang – where Beijing is accused of detaining a million mainly Uygur Muslims in re-education camps – had been discussed.

More re-thinking and ‘shrinking’ of the modern human rights concept

September 8, 2019

I have referred to the issue of re-visiting the human rights concept – which keeps popping up especially when there is a sense of malaise – by several strands of thought within the human rights movement. Some think the answer is to broaden the base and the scope even more [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/08/05/amnesty-internationals-global-assembly-2019-deserves-more-attention-big-shifts-coming-up/]; others think a re-think is in order but those range from Trump’s State Department [[https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/trump-marches-on-with-commission-on-unalienable-rights/] to moderate academics [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/20/hurst-hannum-wants-a-radically-moderate-approach-to-human-rights/].

In a opinion piece in Foreign Policy of 6 September 2019 entitled “When Everything Is a Human Right, Nothing Is”  – a Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions – shows he belongs to the latter category albeit with a strong dose of return to basics (return to the UDHR) and a whiff of cultural relativism:

.. given the myriad challenges to human rights today, rethinking some widely accepted human rights assumptions seems timely. …

Some disagreements over human rights come from repressive regimes or communal leaders, and such complaints are easy to dismiss. But when critiques come from people who are sympathetic to the cause of human rights, they reflect something more fundamentally troubling. How did an idea once powerful enough to unify a vast range of people in struggles against totalitarianism and apartheid become so impotent? A major factor, ironically, was the overweening dual ambition born of those successes. Human rights advocates have broadened the scope of issues covered by human rights while narrowing the room for differences in bringing those rights to life. In so doing, they misconstrue the original goals of human rights, most clearly embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation for much of the post-1945 rights project. Even as their ambitions rise, human rights activists have failed to take into account how expansive new programs might aggravate suspicion of human rights in today’s multipolar world. And attempts to enforce a uniform conception of rights might reduce the space for local actors to formulate their own pathways, fueling skepticism about the rights themselves. For example, attempts by Western countries to promote gay rights in Africa triggered deep-rooted resentment about how the West treats Africa; the results are tougher laws, stronger rhetoric, more funding of anti-gay rights organizations, and even greater harassment of activists. As the New York Times reported, “More Africans came to believe that gay rights were a Western imposition.”

Non-Western countries do not necessarily disagree with basic human rights goals. Rather, as the Brazilian academic Oliver Stuenkel argues in his book Post-Western World, they contest the “operationalization of liberal norms” and “the implicit and explicit hierarchies of international institutions” that privilege Western countries. U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East and the rise of authoritarian states like China reduce the effective reach of ideas that are stretched too thin or that are not credibly universal, in the sense of being deeply grounded in all the world’s major philosophical and religious systems. And curtailing overly expansionist and revisionist aspirations, as Jennifer Lind and William C. Wohlforth recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, is essential to preserving the post-World War II liberal international order.

If advocates for human rights wish to overcome the current challenges, they would do well to learn from the course of the human rights project from ideal to reality in the wake of World War II. The framers of the Universal Declaration learned that the best way to build a system of rights with a strong claim to legitimacy across different cultures and ideologies was to stick to basics. Today, only a modest and flexible approach can restore the moral authority that gave the universal human rights idea its greatest successes.

The 1948 Universal Declaration was a product of intense debate, negotiation, and compromise, all done with the understanding that its principles could be brought to life differently in dissimilar parts of the world. Today’s human rights discourse, however, is pervaded by Western normative assumptions that are controversial even in the West. Westerners play an extraordinarily large role as funders and conveners of human rights organizations and scholarly debates, directly and indirectly shaping agendas, frameworks of analysis, and evaluation methods in the process. As a result, human rights have become, as the New York University professor Sally Engle Merry writes in Human Rights and Gender Violence, “part of a distinctive modernist vision of the good and just society that emphasizes autonomy, choice, equality, secularism, and protection of the body,” converting cultural norms from one part of the world into universal rights.

Consequently, nonindividualistic values—such as those promoting communal duties or those tied to religious belief—have been de-emphasized. Arguments that there are other means of promoting and ensuring human dignity are dismissed as unrealistic or ignored. African, Asian, and other non-Western human rights institutions and laws are marginalized.

Meanwhile, the number of rights, and rights claims, has risen steeply as various well-meaning special interest groups have sought to harness the moral authority of the human rights idea to their causes. The international legal infrastructure has been enlarged, producing institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and doctrines such as the “Responsibility to Protect,” but these focus mainly on geopolitically weak or unimportant—10 of the 11 situations under investigation at the ICC are African—countries, while governments such as Syria’s commit atrocities with little fear of prosecution or intervention because Russia, one of its two main international backers, undermines any attempt to hold the country’s leaders accountable.

The human rights field’s ambitions not only have produced unnecessary clashes over human rights, but they have also diminished the core rights that were meant to, above all else, uphold human dignity.

In Europe, for example, advocates for abolishing circumcision have argued that a child’s bodily integrity is a human right while attempting to reduce religious freedom to a mere right to worship. This has led government ombudspersons to call for a ban, pediatric societies to call the practice “mutilation,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to pass a resolution against the practice, political parties to lobby for legislation outlawing the practice, and a court in Germany to rule that the act of circumcision should be considered a prosecutable physical assault. For devout Jews and Muslims, these developments feel like direct attacks on a ritual integral to their faiths.

In Asia, instead of welcoming the 2012 Human Rights Declaration by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as representing some important steps forward, organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the U.S. State Department criticized the document for differing from their preferred emphases. Even though it included all the civil and political rights that similar documents elsewhere have—as well as innovative provisions related to those with AIDS, childbearing mothers, human trafficking, vulnerable groups, and children—these groups objected to the declaration’s emphasis that rights must be balanced with duties and that realization of rights has to take into account the local political and cultural context. But it is precisely the regional flavor that is most likely to increase the ASEAN declaration’s legitimacy—and thus the chance that it will be embraced locally.

In Africa, select issues that concern Western countries are often promoted in ways that pay little heed to local conditions, provoking a backlash. In Kenya, international attempts to prosecute Uhuru Kenyatta for fueling ethnic violence after the 2007 election ignored how this would boost his popularity among his supporters—helping him to eventual victory in the 2013 elections.

The mindset currently prevailing among many human rights actors thus makes it extremely difficult to realize the aim of the Universal Declaration’s framers to promote the implementation of fundamental human rights principles under a variety of circumstances and cultures. The result has been to reduce both the effectiveness and appeal of those principles. Human rights organizations are less able to embed themselves within local cultures and gain legitimacy in the eyes of local people. Greater flexibility in implementation would enable human rights supporters to focus on the importance of political dynamics and incentives to promoting change within countries. For example, the end of white rule in South Africa was brought about not by threatening apartheid leaders with international justice but by first sanctioning and then offering incentives for leaders to transfer power. Reconciliation and truth commissions played prominent roles; retribution was limited. The country crafted a new, inclusive national identity and developed a constitution around existing institutions, a stark contrast to efforts in Iraq and Libya that tried to replace institutions and exclude members of the previous regime.

The human rights movement should refocus on the principles of the Universal Declaration—a document more praised than understood. Its drafters developed a framework for human rights that was both universal and flexible. Their aim was to establish a “common standard of achievement,” based on the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

This would entail recognizing that in a world of great cultural and political diversity, human rights cannot be universal unless kept to a small core of rights so fundamental that almost no country would openly oppose them.

In the original Universal Declaration, only a handful were drafted in such a way as to leave little room for flexibility in implementation. These include protections for religion and conscience, as well as prohibitions against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; and discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin. Today, many human rights treaties make these rights nonderogable—i.e., there are no circumstances under which they can be lifted or suspended. Where other rights are concerned, the framers of the Universal Declaration were clear that universality does not mean homogeneity in implementation. They expected states to experiment with different modes of implementation—to allow “different kinds of music” to be “played on the same keyboard,” as the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who supported the U.N. process, put it. Indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt made clear in 1948 during one of the debates over the Universal Declaration that methods for implementing many rights “would necessarily vary from one country to another and such variations should be considered not only inevitable but salutary.” For example, individuals everywhere have the right to be free of torture, but different countries may legitimately come to different conclusions about when private property may be taken for public use.

Moreover, in resolving tensions among rights, no fundamental right should be completely ignored. By specifying that all rights must be exercised with due respect for the rights of others, the framers intended that clashes should be occasions to figure out how to give each right as much protection as possible while never subordinating any right completely to another. Ultimately, a culture of human rights can only be built from the bottom up. Focusing on the gravest violations of human dignity while understanding that other rights can be protected in a legitimate variety of ways is the best way to achieve this.

https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/06/when-everything-is-a-human-right-nothing-is/

Is the EU still a World Leader in Human Rights?

February 29, 2016

The Graduate Institute, Geneva

The Graduate Institute of Geneva is organizing a potentially interesting Lunch Briefing on Tuesday 1 March 2016, 12h30 – 13h00, in the Maison de la Paix.

Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights, will explore the role of human rights in EU foreign policy and major challenges in ensuring effective human rights promotion around the world, including the question of the universality of human rights, the shrinking space of civil society, and the issues of coherence and effectiveness that the EU faces today.

Stavros LambrinidisStavros Lambrinidis (former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece)

see also: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/short-report-by-eeas-on-the-17th-eu-ngo-human-rights-forum-3-4-december-2015/

For more information and registration: Newsletter The Graduate Institute, Geneva