Do Human Rights Have a Future?

“…the politicisation of human rights has manifested in grave atrocities being committed globally.”

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the modern human rights movement has arrived at a crucial stage; are the post-cold war triumph of neoliberalism and the universalisation of Western ideals, dwindling in the current multi-polar climate where power is constantly shifting? Have liberal democracies won in promoting global peace in an international system where the assertion of national sovereignty, and consequently, local values is on the rise? Where does one draw the line between promoting and imposing global human rights on the Global South? These issues have been contested within the recent scholarship surrounding the future of the human rights movement. In accordance, this essay will deconstruct the overarching question of the future of human rights by analysing the role and efficacy of various stakeholders­ that influence this debate on the global, the state and the civil society level. Overall, it will be argued that the existence of human rights as a universal concept will depend on agendas by different stakeholders seeking to either solidify human rights or to frame it as socially constructed and imperialist. Such agendas are influenced by economic ties, neighbouring relations, and power politics. The following analysis only focuses on the imminent obstacles to human rights in the near future. However, the future ahead brings new questions of post-humanism and the essentialist value of humanity under the technological threat which is beyond the scope of this essay.

The global human rights regime, which can be divided into the spheres of international human rights organisations, institutions and treaties, has come under sustained attacks for being Eurocentric and capitalist in their approach; thus, subverting the so-called global solidarity that it seeks to promote. In this sense, many critics (Hopgood, 2013) have classified these structural failures as the ‘end-times’ of the global human rights campaign. For them, the mechanisms of humanitarian intervention and the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) simply become ‘more elaborate forms of organised hypocrisy’ (Krasner, 1999) where they start to assume power from a moral high ground. The ICC being deemed as “Europe’s court for Africa” for only persecuting African war criminals is a classic example of the Global North using institutional tools to discipline and control the Global South. Indeed, these peacekeeping missions mask a more sinister agenda of captivating weaker states by forcing them into compliance with political and economic conditionality (Moyn, 2018). For instance, the French-led intervention in Mali to stop the Islamist spread in 2013 portrays how Africa is Europe’s “moral laboratory” (Hopgood, 2013). The INGOs such as the ICRC (Red Cross) are only able to survive due to their passivity in speaking out against human rights violations (ibid). Alston (2017) also suggests that the rules governing the use of international force have been repeatedly undermined. Through the CIA and Joint Strategic Operations Command (JSOC), Western countries have been intervening in the matters of Syria, Crimea, Yemen, Russia and China continuously using their veto power in the UNSC; it highlights the fragility of such international institutions. Moreover, it can be argued that the international rule of law is amidst an institutional breakdown. The European Court of Human Rights has been repeatedly ignored by the UK amidst Brexit as well as by Russia and by Turkey. Furthermore, major donor governments are re-evaluating their financial stakes in the ‘traditional’ aims of the human rights project. This is evidenced by the elimination of human rights grant for a fiscal year by the Australian government (Simmons, 2014).

In contrast to this, liberals refute the claim of the West, manipulating the human rights rhetoric to dominate the rest, by proposing that this is a fragmentary analysis of history. Neumayer asserts that commitment to international law encourages a ‘human rights culture’, especially for liberal democracies (2005). Similarly, more than two-thirds of the 84 states between 1979 and 2004 have deployed transitional justice in their countries (Sikkink and Walling, 2007). Furthermore, there are 140 nations that have abolished the death penalty (Amnesty, 2020). However, it can equally be argued that the adoption of international treaties does not always translate into practice. Evidence suggests that as rational decision-makers, repressive regimes ratify such legal commitments for egotistical reasons such as maximising political advantages of membership or bettering economic relationships with stronger states, whilst turning a blind eye to human rights violations within their own countries (Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui, 2007). This trend can be explained by Moravcsik (2000) who suggests that unlike international economic institutions that have repercussions on fiscal and security policies, human rights institutions are not capable of ‘policy externalities’ or government accountability. The lack of enforcement and realist self-interested motivations of states is the underlying cause that elucidates why universal human rights discourse only remain normative in nature. This means that soft laws require more time and capacity-building to be successfully operational. Overall, while there is evidence to suggest the ubiquitous presence of human rights, the institutional collapse of the global human rights regime and its structural inconsistencies act as impediment for the future of human rights.

The passivity of national governments in adopting a universalised edifice of human rights has been accompanied by the reassertion of local values and the rise of populism; thus, creating further barriers for the realisation of the global human rights regime. Kofi Annan said that ‘no single model of human rights’ can be representative of a ‘blueprint for all states’ (Le, 2016). This points towards the idea of cultural relativism which advocates that while universal human rights are flexible enough to be co-opted, they are not morally superior to other versions of fundamental rights that are used across different contexts and settings. National governments are reluctant to ratify international norms that are in juxtaposition to their own social values. For instance, while Western countries such as the US establish the importance of political and civil rights and downplay socioeconomic rights that might infringe on neoliberal policies and speech, East Asian countries value the primacy of the ‘right to development’ over legal rights (ibid). The contradictions within the UDHR also pose as problems to traditional practices in non-Western societies. For example, the ‘right to private ownership’ is sacrificed for the rights to use, but not possess communal land in parts of Asia and Africa (ibid). Similarly, Muslim groups in Saudi Arabia do not promote gender equality or liberal marriage and religious laws which stand in opposition to Westernised conceptions of human rights (ibid). Regional groups such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), ASEAN (Associations of South East Nations) and the Arab League have emerged and established their own charter of rights in opposition to the global human rights regime. Evidently, there is an ideological clash between individualistic cultures and collectivistic norms that are difficult to reconcile. In fact, local human rights organisations in the Global South are seen as ‘counter-hegemonic’ forces rather than allies (Ron and Crow, 2015). Due to the supranational nature of universalised human rights, national governments are unlikely to listen to internationally recognised human rights as they perceive national sovereignty as more supreme than an ambiguous global authority.

In addition to this, the human rights project is also witnessing a populist threat which is undermining many of its principles. In the aftermath of the 9/11 “war on terror”, security concerns have been on the rise and have resulted into ‘constructed fear’ and disdain of minorities and foreigners (Alston, 2017). Increasingly, national governments are engaging in trade-off policies where fundamental human rights such as right to privacy, right to equality and right to freedom of movement are being curtailed in the name of robust security measures and the domestication of state emergencies (ibid). To this end, almost half of world regimes are repressive and authoritarian, indulging in the systematic abuse of humans within their territories (Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui, 2007). Counter-terrorism has now become an excuse of subjecting civilians to the same human rights abuse that it sought to avoid. The rise of China as arguably a superpower has displaced the narratives of human rights. Not only has it denounced the Western mode of humanitarian law, but it has also offered diplomatic and economic aid to authoritarian regimes such as Sudan. Similarly, Russia has joined various Islamic countries that oppose western secularisation. Western countries are also to blame for such transgressions by selectively supporting regimes based on economic ties and power politics (Posner, 2014); a key example is UK’s involvement in Iraq in 2003. Repressive regimes and liberal democracies are equally responsible for utilising the language of human rights in their own favour; thus, subverting them in the process. Putin cites the ‘rights of ethnic minorities’ in Ukraine to rationalise his military intervention while the ‘right to self-determination’ can be arbitrarily invoked by authoritarian governments to justify laws (ibid). Thus, competing claims regarding the definitions of human rights and the rise of populism are other barriers that assert the decline of a global human rights agenda.

While civil societies are prominent players that influence the narratives and legal frameworks surrounding the human rights debate, their effectiveness is reduced by internal and external inconsistencies. This is not to negate the ‘boomerang effect’ that transnational NGOs have had that decreased the propensity of governments committing human rights violations (Risse and Sikkink, 1999). The tactic of shaming governments has been utilised to pressurise repressive regimes in the support of human rights laws. A few instances include the International Commission of Jurists contributing to the 1977 Geneva Convention protocols and Amnesty International drafting policies for the Convention against Torture (ibid). However, NGOs across the world are facing financial obstacles as governments are withdrawing their support to fund research work. For instance, the Ethiopian government has been able to limit the NGO sector by placing restrictions on foreign aid (Simmons, 2014). In Geneva and China, the respective governments have passed laws which financially regulate charities for human rights. Similarly, Egypt has passed a law which bans NGOs from working with international bodies without government consent (Alston, 2017). These regulatory measures on financial control have had an immense impact on NGOs conforming to priorities that are favoured by private stakeholders. There are also issues pertaining to hyper-pluralism due to the diversity of competing interests of NGOs which devalue a shared consensus. This makes it difficult for certain NGOs to voice grievances and concerns of the populations they represent (Vieira and Dupree., 2004). Equally, the pursuit of political neutrality in order to appease the public and state negates the value of critical discussion and debate (ibid). Thus, the progress of the civil society in human rights advocacy has been stunted by various internal and structural limitations. However, the role of technology and media has led to the formation of alternative discursive spaces which are increasingly being used by the public and other organisations to influence policymakers.

In conclusion, the future of human rights is dependent upon the value that different stakeholders at the international, the national and the local level place on it. While debates and normative discussions on human rights are on the rise, international organisations are unable to promote a universal conception of human rights to governments that are resistant to the imposition of ‘neo-imperialistic’ values. Institutions also need to reflect upon their own structural incompetencies that help more powerful countries prevail over weaker ones. On a national or state level, the varying interpretations of human rights has led to greater hostilities between the Eastern and the Western cultures which have been supplemented by the growth in populism. Consequently, the politicisation of human rights has manifested in grave atrocities being committed globally. Furthermore, the civil society’s ability to influence policymakers is counteracted by internal failures, influence of governmental laws, and their tendency to be overly diverse and politically neutral. Through the analysis of these challenges, it is unlikely that the success of the global human rights project remains elusive.


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Samiya Usmani is a Sociology and Social Policy undergraduate student at the University of Bath. Born and raised in New Delhi, Samiya migrated to the UK in 2017, achieving academic success at A level before progressing to university. Having moved around the globe, Samiya understands the importance of multiculturalism. With a keen passion for social research work, Samiya has hopes of influencing policymaking after she graduates – possibly within the civil service sector. Her curiosity for understanding the world in which she lives in is what drives her love for academia. Her research interests include human rights, race relations, social activism and political participation. In her free time, Samiya enjoys listening to podcasts, reading books, and playing the ukulele.

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