Do Human Rights Matter?
By Alfred H. Moses
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, one would suppose that we would be meeting here today proclaiming the triumph of universal human rights. Sadly, this is not the case. We are weeping, not celebrating. In these brief remarks I would like to try to answer two questions: How we came to this situation; what we can do about it.
When the Berlin Wall came down and European communism disappeared, Francis Fukuyama famously predicted that, with communism vanquished, liberal democracy would become the final human form of government, marking the end of a phase of history that began (borrowing from the German idealist Friedrich Hegel) with the French Revolution’s call for individual human rights. Fukuyama’s prediction was narrowly focused and unwittingly arrogant. He was writing from the perspective of a Western intellectual who ignored the fact that more than 80 percent of the world’s population did not live in the West.
But even if we stay within Fukuyama’s narrow framework, human rights in the West are not in the ascendency. That time has passed. The halcyon period for the advancement of human rights was right after World War II when the world still reverberated with revelations of the atrocities by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, totalitarian Japan and, one should add, the Soviet Union (although full disclosure of Soviet barbarism did not occur until after Stalin’s death).
Immediately after the war, communism, as the self-proclaimed champion of the working class, chose not to oppose human rights declarations, portraying itself as the liberator, not oppressor of mankind, while at the same time ignoring the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of all opposition to Stalin, real or trumped up.
In the glory days for human rights that followed World War II, the Nobel Peace Laureate, Rene Cassin, authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the United Nations General Assembly. This was at a time when Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Sadly, this was also the year the world lost its great human rights champion, Mahatma Gandhi.
There were human rights achievements in the decades that followed, most notably in the cause of ending apartheid in South Africa. The saint-like image of Nelson Mandela is still fresh in our minds as we recall his stirring words. Unlike leaders of other national movements, President Mandela called for freedom and equality for all mankind, regardless of nationality, race or religion.
Like Rene Cassin, he believed human rights were universal, not particular. The same can be said for the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. He made respect for human rights a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, replacing the Nixon/Kissinger reliance on realpolitik as the underpinning of U.S. foreign policy.
In the decades that followed things started to unravel, “particularity” overtook “universality,” as the clash of civilizations earlier foreseen by Professor Samuel Huntington became an ever more potent force in world events. The conflict Huntington predicted was between Western civilization and Muslim countries, two different cultures with different world views, histories and religions.
Over the preceding centuries religion had diminished as a political force in Western civilization. No so in those parts of the Muslim world where it remained a powerful political force and call to arms. Much of the conflict within the Muslim world has centered on the division between Shia and Sunni that has its origins in differing views of the legitimate successor to the prophet Mohammed.
But Western intervention in that Sunni/Shia conflict and a condemnation of “infidels” (non-Muslims) by Muslim clergy has led to Fatwas proclaiming holy war or Jihad against the West, in general, and against individual countries, including the United States, in particular. None of us can imagine a similar proclamation by the Pope or the Bishop of Canterbury, let alone by the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Adding to the mix is tribalism (with its rigid identity creed and code of conduct); tribalism exalts particularity, i.e., tribal identity over all other identities and rejects the very notion of universality, or the dignity of man. Tribalism, extremist religious sects and their ideological lookalikes in the West, such as the White Supremacist movement, are the most extreme forms of particularity.
The White Supremacist movement in my country and Canada distinguishes people on the basis of color which is a code word for country of origin, a notion roundly rejected by Judeo-Christian teaching. I am not saying that the particularity is absent in Western faiths. Both Judaism and Christianity have too often elevated their particularity above their message of universality.
Even more alarming than the clash of civilizations foreseen by Huntington or, some would argue, because of it, we are presently witnessing a turn to heightened nationalism in the West, including in my country, the United States. When President Trump puts his thumb in the air and says, “America First,” the message is clear. Pull up the drawbridge, keep “others” out, particularly immigrants from Muslim countries whom one close advisor to President Trump defames as a threat to “the civilized world,” and therefore not entitled to the protection or sympathy of the West.
The same sentiments are echoed in Europe by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, and by leaders of far right political parties in the Netherlands and Germany. In the latter country, the Alternative for Germany Party is likely to become the first far right party to enter the German parliament since the fall of Nazi Germany. Far right parties also dominate in Poland and Hungary and are reportedly gaining strength elsewhere in Europe.
The experts tell us that Jihadist attacks in the United States and Europe are likely to increase in coming years as impoverished Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East grow in number with no hope of progress. Some of them, we are told, will fall under the influence of religious extremists urging them to engage in acts of terrorism promising eternal salvation as their reward. How the West reacts to such attacks may alter the course of its history and negatively impact the lives of its citizens.
A call to vigilance and action is needed to prevent this calamity.
Particularism and heightened nationalism are on the rise elsewhere. Last week there was an article in the Financial Times describing the crackdown on English speakers in the African republic of Cameroon, that represents a blatant call to nationalism and denial of the equality of others.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is keenly aware of the contest taking place in the world between particularity and universality and seeks to take advantage of the opportunity to aid the extreme right, seeing it as its ally in the fight against universal values and the rights of man.
History has taught us that a skillful blending of the particular and the universal is not only possible, but desirable. Our everyday lives are consumed with the particular – family, community, jobs – but our reason for being cries out to the universal in us. The present march away from universal values will, if not checked, sound the death knell for human rights.
This is ironic. History has taught us that the absence of individual freedom leads to the decay of political power. In other words, a country is only as strong as its citizens’ enjoyment of their individual liberty which is recognized as the inalienable property of the individual. Those rights are best protected by liberal democracies that provide a way to bring about change without destroying the system or toppling authority and for this reason are likely to be more stable than authoritarian/totalitarian societies. Liberal democracies like a teapot can let off steam without self-destructing.
At this point, you may be asking yourself will the world right itself. If you have confidence in man’s essential goodness, the answer is yes. But this is the time for all of us to act in defense of universal human rights and the dignity of man. The longer we wait the harder the struggle will be.
You are human rights heroes. You have witnessed human rights abuses, some of unthinkable brutality. But witnessing, important as it is, is only the beginning. What more do we need to do? Let me suggest a few things.
1. In condemning human rights abuses in your own country, it is right and proper to speak out on behalf of victims and denounce oppressors. This is your duty and obligation, but in the process you need to remember that human rights are universal. They belong to each and every one of us. The denial of human rights for one is the denial of human rights for all humankind.
2. The Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Roosevelt — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear — are the inalienable property of the individual. They belong to each of us and cannot be particularized.
3. Let’s acknowledge to ourselves that the particular in most forms, whether it be in religious practice, patriotism or community space, is easier to champion than universalism. Let’s face it – most of us derive comfort from our particularism, whether it be in celebrating our religion, nationality, family or other private aspects of our lives. It is comforting, and often more convenient, for us to rejoice in our particularism than to think about abstract notions of universalism and then put them to practice in our daily lives. But without protecting the four freedoms for all, none of us will be truly free.
Yes, universal human rights still matter.
Hundreds of human rights activists, diplomats, and students attended UN Watch’s 9th Geneva Summit for Human Rights, drawing journalists from The Guardian, Le Monde, Reuters, Al Jazeera, and more.