How serious are current threats to the post-war international order of which the protection of human rights is such a central part?
Three potential challenges in particular come immediately to mind.
First there is the outright rejection of the very idea, with states organizing themselves formally around systems of rule in which individuals are allowed to be explicit casualties of passing state interests. Of course not even the worst states put it quite like this, and with the passing of the era of the Cold War no substantial ideology sets its face against human rights in quite this explicit way: indeed not even the Soviet Union did so at its height, preferring a different version of human rights (economic and social rights) to having none at all.
The second challenge is more akin to what the Soviets were doing when they resisted Helsinki with pointed references to the way they looked after the real needs of their citizens: more social protection than Solzhenitsyn. We believe in rights for sure: but here is what we mean by the term and (particularly important) here is how we go about protecting them. It is an exaggeration but only a slight one to say that today no self-respecting authoritarian state is without its media (state-controlled), its elections (fixed), its human rights commissions (tame nominees) and its ‘special’ courts (generalized charges; government-appointed advocates; secret justice). The loudly-proclaimed spectre of terrorism is the means by which such arrangements can be made to secure public and international approval, something on which the United Nations itself has led the way with its (Institutionally self-defensive) turn to a panoply of Security Council anti-terrorism resolutions in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001. In many ways the field of international human rights over the past two decades has been about how to balance liberty and security in light of the changed circumstances wrought by those traumatic events. On the whole human rights has managed to claw back some ground from the anti-terrorism people, aided in particular by strong stands on due process and the rule of law that have been made by lawyers’ associations worldwide and the regional judicial bodies within Europe. Human rights have come to live with the exigencies of the permanent security crisis, not liking what it entails but coping nonetheless.
The third challenge is newer, flowing out of how the world has changed since the collapse of the old order in 1989 and the consequent return of national and religious tropes thought to have been banished for ever in the postwar world of rationalism and (latterly) of global and regional partnerships. It is early days but this may be the most serious crisis yet since it is a growth upon the same system from which human rights is itself derived and all the more subversive for that: representative democracy. There are two versions, each dangerous. First what we might call the Orbán thesis, after the combative and long-serving Prime Minister of Hungary – here is an example of his characteristic engagement with the issue. Human rights are not denied but rather framed as an aspect of a particular (usually Judeo-Christian) culture which is in a struggle for survival with a dangerous Other (usually Muslim, presented either as terrorist or asylum-seeker). The Israelis were among the first of the blocks with this clever sleight-of-hand: human rights are not composed of legally enforceable rules but are rather what we have and those barbarians don’t and how we can win. It was given additional impetus by the ‘battle of civilisations’ which provided cover for the aggressive US militarism that followed the 11 September attacks, and it has found a recent natural home in populism: voters love to be told they are special and the easiest way to do this is by finding an enemy who can never belong.
The second version of our third challenge is similarly rooted in populism but lacks the subtlety of the Orbán manoeuvre. Epitomised in the presidency of Donald Trump, which was in turn anticipated by President Duterte in the Phillipines and seems to be about to be emulated by President Bolsonaro in Brazil, this perspective thrives on a joyous and unselfconscious refutation of human rights constructed off the back of electoral success. People with disabilities are there to be mocked, women to be grabbed at, suspected criminals to be shot, political opponents to be locked up, and so on. The UN and its ridiculous declarations of rights is there to be ignored and hopefully destroyed. It is hard to believe that such an attitude can survive electoral examination, at least in the United States, so it must surely be a passing fad. But if not, if it becomes institutionalized in the global power that seventy years ago constructed the world order that is presently under attack, then human rights do indeed face a bleak future if they survive at all.
So where then do human rights stand, as the UDHR enters its 71st year? We can be sure that further difficulties lie ahead, driven both by the ongoing migration of peoples to places that both need and don’t want them and by the pressure on human rights that is likely to be ever-increasingly imposed by global climate change. Without a powerful global patron it does seem hard to imagine human rights existing in its intended robust shape on the world stage; much more likely is the triumph of the second challenge I identified earlier, the kind of ‘neo-democratic’ system about which I wrote in a recent article. Human-rights-oriented nation states may be able to do good within their borders but with the return of a global social democratic movement seeming a far off dream, there seems little chance of even the best of them being able to do more.
The answer – if there is one – lies in regional cooperation, not only Europe as I argued recently but the Americas and Africa as well, possible even the Asian states as well. The success of human rights protection is indelibly linked to the operation of authentic representative government beyond merely the occasional country, and at this bleak moment for human rights regional may be the best hope we have.