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Research Paper on Human Rights:
Will Human Rights Improve around the World?
Human rights mean much more than codes of conduct or a set of values. They should be indisputable and binding obligations for governments and individuals, which are to be enforced rigorously. In reality, however, human rights may be in conflict with other interests, whereas the latter usually dictate how things are done. This notion may create a slippery slope, in which tolerance towards violations of human rights necessarily brings about the deterioration in the robustness of these rights in policymaking.
This research paper discusses different aspects of the current state of human rights to determine the extent to which, if at all, human rights will improve on a global scale. It finds a current deterioration of human rights in quite a few regions of the world, whereas human rights proponents seem to show growing ineffectiveness. Facing internal debates and unfavorable power structures, human rights organizations may fail to stop further deterioration of human rights, whereas the latter have lost their universal nature. In conclusion, this paper argues that unless some radical measures to reinstate human rights and their implementation will be taken, it is not likely that the world population will be better protected against systematic violations of human rights.
Human rights may be described as a rather generic term, which underlies an array of social, legal and political constructs. These constructs have developed in parallel, sometimes contradictory arenas and have lead to an abundance of similarly parallel and sometimes contradictory discourses and means of implementation. The result, as argued below, may be a vague and unsustainable platform for human rights, which may bring about some serious doubts as of the trends in global human rights.
Very briefly speaking, the need for a universal set of values that will define the extent to which legal and economic practices may be in conflict with some basic (though developing) moral principles is not a new notion. In fact, this framework and its properties had been a central element of the sociopolitical discourse throughout the second half of the past millennium. This ‘translation’ of moral values into rights (i.e. entitlements with clear political implication) largely underlined some of the most radical developments in political history, including, among others, the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Discussing the nature of human rights as a bridge between morality and law, Donnelly (2003) argues:
Human rights are not just abstract values such as liberty, equality and security. They are rights, particular social practices to realize those values. A human right thus should not be confused with the values or aspirations underlying it or with the enjoyment of the object of the right. (p. 11)
It is usually agreed, however, that the most important step in the evolution of human rights to an instrumental feature of international law is United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). At least two features make the UDHR an extremely unique milestone in the history of human rights, thereby providing a solid anchor for the discussion on the current and future state of international human rights:
First, although it is designed as a declaration rather than a treaty (thus may be interpreted as non-binding), the UDHR proved itself as a robust set of guidelines, which underpinned local and international legislation and human rights policies to this day (Morsink, 2000). Second but equally important, the UDHR defined to a very large extent the scope of universal human rights legislation. That is, while adhering quite a few rights that predominated the discourse on the subjects matter, the UDHR focused the latter by omitting and/or framing outside of the core universal consensus (as in the cases of humanitarian law and capital punishment).
Human Rights 1948-2010
Matters of human rights and related disciplines (such as civil rights and humanitarian laws) have drawn considerable attention throughout the past decades. The UDHR and parallel models have been developed and brought about various forms of implementation and regulation, but also had to face considerable criticism. More (2005) summarizes the debate on the UDHR by arguing that since its inception, the UDHR has been mired in controversy. Theoretical criticism includes reactionary, communist, communitarian and pragmatist criticisms. Criticism that is politically and ideologically motivated includes socialist, Confucianist, African and religious fundamentalist, as well as unaligned criticisms from developing countries. Thematically, these criticisms focus on the internal cohesion of the UDHR; problems with interpreting it because of few precise definitions; cultural relativism; and its sustainability, given globalization and changes on the world stage.
Notwithstanding the importance of the other arenas of debate (as well as their impact on the actual implementation of human rights), it seems that the main problem with contemporary human rights mechanisms are what the latter argument in More’s (2005) analysis. The great number of international, regional and national governmental and non-governmental human rights agencies creates natural disagreements and perhaps too much space for interpretation of human rights. In fact, contemporary leaders’ approach to human rights seems to become an issue of political realism than of plain adherence to the moral standards of the UDHR. Several recent evidences may strongly support this claim:
The first domain concerns the bodies that promote and revise human rights as concepts and practices. A recent piece in The Economist (2010), for example, examines how some NGOs in this field shift their focus from human rights in their classical sense to contemporary economic concern, thereby arguably neglecting the latter. Similarly, even key organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council may be biased to some extent, as it “infuriates its Western members by focusing on Israel, ignoring the sins of its own leading members and bowing to Islamist pressure on religious questions” (2010).
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The implication for governments and policy makers are thus rather clear.
A second domain is a growing ambiguity towards and complexity of the discourse. The case of Israel’s war against Palestinian terrorism and the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are two examples of fairly democratic countries, who adhere to human rights (in their classical form) internally but engage on morally questionable practices elsewhere. One example is the tolerance towards religiously motivated oppression of human rights of the (quasi-) friendly regime:
In 2006 in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. Did he kill anyone, hurt anybody, steal anything, damage anything? No. All he did was change his mind. Internally and privately, he changed his mind. He entertained certain thoughts which were not to the liking of the ruling party of his country. And this, remember, is not the Afghanistan of the Taliban but the ‘liberated’ Afghanistan of Hamid Karzai, set up by the American-led coalition. (Dawkins, 2006, p. 287)
The same political realism is quite clear when one considers the minor role of human rights in the overall attitude towards other regimes. This includes, among others, the rather minor and toothless responses on the west to the systematic violation of human rights in countries such as Russia, China and resource-rich countries. Moreover, the same practice of double standards is quite clear in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), which is sometimes perceived as being swayed by member countries who are rather ‘low performers’ in matters of human rights (such as Libya and Pakistan), whereas European members of the HRC, for example, seem to be quite ineffective (Smith, 2010).
Finally, human rights advocators may have some good grounds to doubt their future. Not only that “the groups and individuals who devote themselves to that cause seem ever more divided” (Economist, 2010) and organizations such as the HRC are fiercely criticized; a growing body of evidence suggests that the engines of human rights advocacy are declining as well. As they compete on public attention and funding with other causes (most notably environmentalists), their overall effectiveness seems to decline. Moreover, human rights activities, groups and organizations are under attack, thereby threatened to act and/or lose key supporters and activists. Roth (2010) reports a sharp increase in the number of such offenses, which include, among many others:
- Abduction of key human rights activists in Russia;
- Murders of activists in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia;
- Outlaws of human rights organizations and arrests of activists in more than a few Arab and South American countries;
- Public investigation of, refusal to cooperate with and directed propaganda against human rights organizations (including UN communities) in several democracies (most notably Israel and India), as well as uncooperative attitude of the African Union (AU) towards international human rights tribunes.
The Unpromising Future of Human Rights
Despite the difficulties discussed above and the weakness of the UN and other international institutions, the human rights community seems to be rather resilient and relatively effective (Donnelly, 2003; Roth, 2010; Smith, 2010). The main question, however, is the sustainability of current human rights authorities and the implications for future affairs. Three major themes may arise to find answers:
First, trends in international politics do not necessarily go towards the kind of policies that usually correlate with high standards of human rights. Democracy, transparency and civil liberties are in decline around the world, as regimes face weakening opposition to violations of human rights from both domestic and international challengers. European governments seem to respond slowly and frailly to undemocratic trends in Hungary and Belarus, for example, where signs of deterioration in the local regimes’ conduct become clearer by the day. A process of religious and/or nationalistic radicalization in the Middle East (e.g. Israel, Lebanon and Iraq), Asia (e.g. China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan) and Africa (e.g. Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda) as well as others may suggest that human rights in quite a few regions of the world may reach a critical mass, after which international criticism will succumb to regional support for oppressive regimes.
Second, the main weapon of human rights proponents, namely international criticism, seems to produce merely short-term and quite limited improvements (Franklin, 2008). By the same time, it seems less likely that Western governments will be keen to interfere against regimes that severely violate human rights using military force as they did during the 1990s in Rwanda and Serbia, for example. Inspired by the complexity of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, growing opposition from home to the use of the military in such instances may leave western leaders only with tools of diplomacy, which may not always work.
Third, the universality of the UDHR and other UN-based initiatives is largely disputed on grounds of cultural relativism and/or changes in power structures. Some might argue that different approaches to human rights must be heard and accounted for in the debate, whereas coercion of (presumably) Western values on other nations may be perceived as immoral in some cases. Furthermore, some nations strongly argue that violations of human rights are necessary and even justified to defend some of their interests. One way or another, however, it is clear that disputes over matters of human rights are stronger than ever, and that universal definitions might be replaced by narrower interests.
In an age when roughly a dozen of countries ban the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to an imprisoned Chinese human rights activist, there is abundant evidence that human rights are in decline, and that current trends are not promising. Economic and national interests have proved themselves as more resilient than human rights protection, whereas possible reliefs (such as powerful nations and international tribunes) more ineffective than ever. Perhaps another international turmoil in the magnitude of the Second World War would be the only trigger for reestablishing human rights as a primary concern in the international arena.