The sight of autocrats who deny freedom of expression marching through the streets of Paris is perhaps a good time to belatedly reflect on Eric Posner’s, “The Case Against Human Rights.” Posner correctly identifies the hypocrisy and lack of integrity of the US and Europe on human rights as a serious problem. However, it is somewhat ironic that his critique of the “top-down” approach of international human rights law is blind to the huge growth and effectiveness of grass-roots human rights activism around the globe.
The weakness of the UN human rights system is an easy target, but there is some truth in the argument that international human rights organizations have invested too much energy in international standard setting and not enough in strategies for practical implementation. But anyone who starts their analysis of human rights in the world at the UN is suffering from the same myopia that they claim to criticise.
Posner rightly identifies the Chinese and Russian Governments as important enemies of human rights:
“In recent years, China has worked assiduously behind the scenes to weaken international human rights institutions and publicly rejected international criticism of the political repression of its citizens… … Along with Russia, it has used its veto in the UN security council to limit western efforts to advance human rights through economic pressure and military intervention. And it has joined with numerous other countries – major emerging powers such as Vietnam, and Islamic countries that fear western secularisation – to deny many of the core values that human rights are supposed to protect.”
So why do Xi Jinping and Putin invest huge energy, resources and political capital to try and silence, marginalise, control or eliminate those who speak for human rights inside their countries? The irony is that it is the autocrats who appreciate the true value of the human rights movement. From Russia to Rwanda, from Belarus to Bahrain, autocrats are desperately trying to close down space for independent civil society. They are introducing restrictive legislation, attacking funding, investing heavily in digital surveillance, media smears, arresting human rights defenders, torturing them, subjecting them to show trials and sentencing them to long prison terms. In too many cases they will still kill those who question their power.
The human rights success story is the mobilisation of people demanding their rights in countries across the globe. The number of protests in China is increasing. The panic with which the authorities are reacting to expressions of solidarity from within the mainland for democracy protesters in Hong Kong is a reflection of the government’s understanding of how potent the human rights message is. Putin’s bellicose militarism is a symptom of weakness not strength.
Posner highlights the backlash against LGBT rights. In countries such as Uganda and Russia this is often a political tactic designed to smear critics of authoritarianism. Human rights defenders are also accused of being un-patriotic, anti-islam and agents of foreign political agendas. But it is also a reaction to the fact that there are more people advocating for LGBT rights in more countries than ever before
Posner writes that:
“The human rights movement shares something in common with the hubris of development economics, which in previous decades tried (and failed) to alleviate poverty by imposing top-down solutions on developing countries.”
I do not want to show a lack of respect for his legal scholarship, but maybe he needs to get out more and meet with the people who are struggling every day for the cause of human rights. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International still do valuable work, not least in exposing torture in the US and Europe, but the people who are making the greatest difference are those who are working on the ground in their own countries.
People like Noorzia Afridi who continues working for women’s rights in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan in spite of the murder of her sister and the bombing of their office. People like Yuri Melini who survived being shot seven times and continues to work for the environment and indigenous peoples’ rights in Guatemala. People like Hu Jia who was imprisoned and is now under strict house arrest but continues to post messages of support for Hong Kong on the internet. People like Alice Nkom who faces threats and defamation because she continues to work for LGBT rights in Cameroon (but was also named as one of the 15 leading human rights defenders in Africa by Jeune Afrique). People like Igor Kalyapin and the human rights defenders of the Joint Mobile Group who continue to work in Chechnya in spite of deadly threats.
It is true that human rights is under attack around the world from those who would protect their power and privilege, but that is a reaction to the robust health of the global human rights movement. Those who speak truth to power and demand accountability have never been stronger. The discourse around international human rights standards is important, because it provides a framework for those pressing for action at the local and national level. If there are people who thought ratifying international standards solved problems they may well be disillusioned, but in the real world, human rights defenders know that real progress comes from the bottom up. It may even eventually reach the University of Chicago Law School.