November 19, 2014 | by Aaron Rhodes Print

During the session "Human rights, a classical liberal agenda" at the 2014 Liberty Forum and Freedom Dinner session, Aaron Rhodes (Freedom Rights Project, Germany), Jacob Mchangama (CEPOS, Denmark), Hanna Song (Liberty in North Korea, United States) and Alex Gladstein, moderator (Human Rights Foundation, United States) presented their thoughts on the topic of human rights. Below are Aaron Rhodes’ full comments. He is a co-founder and principal investigator of the Freedom Rights Project and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, and contributes to the work of several other human rights organizations.

Thank you for this opportunity to take part in the Liberty Forum, and thus to address a group that understands that real human rights are freedom rights—the fundamental rights that should secure our freedom from government coercion—and that freedom rights provide the conditions for bringing out the best in people and giving society access to the creative powers of individuals.

Brad Lips, the CEO of Atlas Network, asked me to speak about “(a) how collectivist and politically correct, or 'P.C.', models of 'human rights' are undermining freedom rights, and (b) how there ought to be much more push-back against the abuses of individual rights in Russia, China, Venezuela and Iran where simple dissent is being (or has been) criminalized.”

I said yes, but having thought about it a bit more, it seemed to me that you probably understand these things already. You know, I am assuming, that human rights has been, to an extent, emptied of its moral power and its utility as a political and legal mechanism. You know, as well, that the human rights system is generally failing people in un-free states. So with your permission I will offer some comments on these issues but then move on to the following question: What are we going to do about it? 

Yes, the international human rights agenda has been hijacked by leftists and utopians who retain their faith in centralized global regulation. The process was enabled by the way Western democracies used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to try to accommodate totalitarian communist regimes. With the enthusiastic support of the Roosevelt Administration, the international community declared that “social and economic rights” were human rights. During the Cold War, some liberal democracies resisted efforts to intrude on basic freedoms in the name of human rights, a tactic that authoritarian regimes were deploying.  But mainly they kept silent about the contradictions of social and economic rights, for fear of appearing not to care about poverty, racial and sexual discrimination, etc.

When many communist regimes collapsed in around 1989, human rights became an all-purpose solution to the world’s problems. At the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, some Western democracies, like the United States, appear to have been out to lunch—don’t forget, Warren Christopher was Secretary of State at the time.

Others transitioned from an appeasement posture to active promotion of leftist political principles in the name of human rights, as if they wanted to give the Cold War losers a consolation prize. 

They embraced the bogus doctrine of the indivisibility of freedom rights and so-called economic and social rights. They embraced the highly questionable notion that non-state actors can violate human rights, which set the stage for the proliferation of human rights at the hands of diplomats and activist judges. The  process has watered down human rights protections, and created huge contradictions between different human rights that lead to a destructive balancing process encroaching on freedoms. They promoted the notion of group rights—ushering in an era of tribal, identity human rights politics—as opposed to the transcendent notion of universal human rights.  And they also, at the Vienna meeting, fully associated human rights with promoting or enforcing “tolerance,” confusing two different things and further making human rights an instrument of what Brad rightly called a “P.C.” agenda. Finally, the Vienna meeting placed human rights in the hands of the UN, creating an expanding bureaucracy, taking the focus off the duty of national governments to guarantee human rights at the constitutional and legislative level, and feeding fantasies of global governance.

The civil society human rights community has uncritically accepted this cloudy, post-modern vision of human rights, a vision based not on reason and principles but on a belief that truth changes along with societies. To label one’s pet concern a human rights issue was seen as an effective strategy to gain attention and even legal leverage. At the end of the Cold War, so-called Peace Activists needed new jobs, and found them in rapidly expanding human rights NGOs. Anti-poverty campaigners identified themselves as human rights activists, promoting a “rights-based” approach.  Human rights lawyers liked the prospect of expanding UN bureaucracies and expanding agendas in international human rights courts. 

The human rights community has never called out the fallacy of social and economic rights.  Instead they have seen social and economic rights and various new human rights as a way to gain constituents, which is crude political behavior. The human rights community has abandoned the distinction between negative liberties and positive, state-provided rights, insisting that there is no difference. Today, the human rights community is a driving force in the proliferation of human rights treaties. For example, the UN Human Rights Council has set in motion a process to promulgate a new treaty on “Human Rights and Business.” The proposal was supported by over 500 human rights NGOs, including the dominant global mega-groups. The regulation of the international business community is seen as a primary goal of human rights in the future. 

When the UN celebrated the anniversary of the Vienna meeting last year, High Commissioner Pillay outlined the principles that should animate a "post -2015" human rights agenda. The principles include "substantive equality of both opportunity and result under the rule of law."  Equality of opportunity is part of the bedrock of fundamental human rights. But by invoking the notion of equality of result, Ms Pillay implied that human rights law should ensure that every person in the world live at the same standard. Madam Pillay allowed as how "poverty itself represents a complex of human rights violations," and the "global climate change crisis is also a human rights crisis for all" threatening realization of "universally guaranteed entitlements."

Brad Lips is right that there is not enough push back to protect liberty; to free around 2 billion people still denied their basic rights. The question is why. The complacent human rights community thinks the reason is bad behavior by dictators and indifference by democracies; they are waiting for human nature to change. Human nature won’t change, but the way we approach human rights, which has devalued freedom, can change. 

More foundations need to assist new, small human rights groups to focus on things they know are essential to human fulfillment—civil and political rights, not just for some, but for all. The global human rights community is today driven by money and increasingly conformist. We should not forget that what is perhaps the most influential human rights group in history, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which had no foundation grants, no salaries, no office or equipment other than a typewriter owned by one of its members, steadfastly insisted that it was not a political organization, that there is a difference between a human rights agenda, devoted to freedom, and a political agenda that defines the what should be done with freedom. Foundations need to realize that the human rights community has been, in the words of a colleague, “de-pluralized,” something like the fast-food industry.

More educational programs need to focus not just on the legal human rights system as it is, but as it should be—they need to help us measure the way it is against the principles enunciated by Kant, Montesqieu and John Locke. They need to teach students to be critical, not to be technocratic robots.

We need to challenge the international community about the proliferation of treaties that replace what should be democratically derived approaches to political problems, and the growth of mechanisms promoted by un-free states that just serve to obfuscate human rights violations. We need to advocate not only for individual human rights, but also for the integrity of the concept of human rights itself.

My friends, human rights is worth saving. Kant said to protect human rights was a duty, an ethical obligation to our common human nature, because all human beings need freedom to realize their potential. More people like yourself, who understand the importance of liberty, need to get into human rights. Don’t leave human rights to those who just use it to promote political agendas. Ultimately, the future of human rights is in our own hands. 

Thank you for your attention.