A couple of years ago, one of my old professors came to McMaster to give a public lecture in the philosophy department’s weekly guest speaker series. She gave a fascinating talk about theories of human rights, and I asked something during question period about which we had a solid conversation both during and after the formal discussion.
|I couldn't say what Venezuelan President|
Nicolas Maduro is doing that's much
worse than what many close political
allies of the United States do.
The question has gnawed at me for a long time before that talk, and ever since. I was reminded of it when I was reading about the new international trade sanctions that the United States has levied at Venezuela. Ostensibly, it’s because of the Venezuelan government’s human rights abuses, particularly violence and police repression of anti-government politicians and activists.
But Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept makes an interesting and disturbing point, writing about the Venezuelan sanctions. The United States counts among its important allies regimes that practice terrible human rights abuses. His main example in that article is Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that uses its police services to torture and suppress dissidents, the most famous example at the moment being Raif Badawi, the liberal blogger who was sentenced to ten years in prison and a total of 1000 lashes. Saudi Arabia also carries out violent suppression of the country’s Shia minority.
Greenwald’s rhetorical point: If the United States government and leaders really cared about human rights above all, they’d be smacking sanctions on Saudi Arabia, instead of considering it a central ally in the Middle East.
As I see it from my own philosophical perspective, it’s hypocritical to talk about the importance of universal human rights when you actually only enforce them against their violators when it doesn’t suit your interest to befriend them. Other examples: Communist China, Sisi’s Egypt, Putin’s Russia when he was invading Georgia (but not Ukraine), Pinochet’s Chile, Pakistan.
Human rights today have a worse rap than even their hypocritically inconsistent standards of enforcement. I asked my old professor whether the entire concept of human rights was even useful politically anymore, now that George W Bush has so publicly used them to justify his invasion of Iraq.
The effect of this war on the global cultural consciousness was so enormous that large swaths of Earth’s population no longer trusted Western leaders when they began military actions against some foreign power in the name of human rights. This was one of the main reasons, to my understanding, why the modern regime of human rights exists.
|The United Nations was once considered the|
international beacon of human progress.
After the Second World War with its industrialized death camps, soul-crushing totalitarianism, mass bombings, and the use of nuclear weapons, the United Nations was formed as a means to settle global conflicts. The centrepiece of international law that emerged with the United Nations was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I grew up from childhood being taught that this was the moral focus of all international politics.
Reading back through some of the important works of Hannah Arendt, a major influence on my old professor, impressed upon me the strength of that concept of human rights. Human rights theory is also a major branch of contemporary Western philosophy. New books and articles on human rights are published all the time. The scholarship on the implications of different human rights, their metaphysical nature, their scope, and hierarchy, is immense.
But that scholarship, to my knowledge at least, isn’t catching up to this latest challenge to the global legitimacy of the concept of human rights at all. Maybe there are some illuminating essays about this latest challenge behind some academic journal paywalls. If there are, I hope some of my readers who still have direct access to the latest top academic philosophy journals will pass me some pdfs.
After the horrors of the Second World War, the leaders of the Earth’s major human powers built the United Nations and the body of international law surrounding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so that there would be a legitimate order to relations among the world’s governments other than blowing each other up. In a world of nuclear weapons, literally nothing else would survive it.
Yet I’m existentially frustrated with the state of global politics, where human rights have become nothing more than an excuse for the same destructive, chaotic realpolitik that has characterized human conflict all our lives.