We must rescue human rights — before it’s too late

Monday marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This should be an occasion for celebration; instead, the human rights cause is widely being criticized as a failing utopia no longer relevant to 21st century problems.

China, Russia and other authoritarian states that have consistently opposed human rights are increasingly influential in international affairs. The tide of repression in the name of the fight against terrorism continues to grow; fear and uncertainty have replaced the hope and confidence that were embraced as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


The relatively solid support for human rights within the West is shaky, as the recession that began in 2008 and the migrant crisis that hit Europe in 2015 have weakened support for international commitments of all kinds. The rise of nationalism in the United States, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Greece, Venezuela, Turkey, India, Brazil and other countries further fuels suspicion of anything that smacks of globalism.

Governments that ignore or violate rights remain the primary culprits, but human rights advocates, governmental and nongovernmental, also are part of the problem. We need to become more realistic idealists who understand the limitations of human rights, as well as the potential. Activists may be disappointed to discover that human rights cannot provide simplistic solutions to every sincerely felt, legitimate grievance — but the human rights cause never intended to provide a solution to all of the world’s problems. Those who present human rights as a panacea for such problems do a disservice to human rights and the people who need protection.

Often strident calls from European and other Western human rights activists for adherence to the contemporary liberal European construct of society are facing a backlash in the rest of the world. This tendency is exacerbated by activists who see expanding the concept of “rights” as the best means to effect domestic social and political change; ironically, the same tactic is used by anti-rights governments who burden human rights with larger geopolitical issues, in order to undermine and delegitimize the entire “rights” approach.

If we want to increase the relevance of human rights for the next 70 years, we must return to the principles of consensus and universality that were at the heart of human rights as the movement gained global political significance in the last quarter of the 20th century. Human rights must be distinguished from related — if equally important — initiatives, such as the prosecution of international criminals, saving the environment, reducing poverty, making business more responsible, and preventing or ending violent conflict.

We also must recognize that universality does not mean uniformity and that local variations in interpreting human rights should not automatically be rejected. Properly understood, human rights articulate a minimum standard for the relationship between individuals and their governments, but they never intended to impose any particular conception of the ideal society in every corner of the world. Overselling human rights only strengthens authoritarian governments and others who challenge the universal application of human rights by hypocritical appeals to cultural relativism over globally shared values.

This approach does not ignore the role of human rights as an inspirational moral framework that has motivated activists and ordinary people around the world. Just as colonialism and slavery no longer are legally or morally acceptable, neither are genocide, torture, unfair trials, despotism, discrimination, unjustified limitations on basic freedoms, or government failure to put the socio-economic rights of a population above the greed of entrenched elites. Without international human rights law, we risk a return to the 19th century, in which war was a legal and often used instrument of policy, and international cooperation was achieved through royal marriages and secret negotiations.

We can neither return to isolationism nor pretend that a benevolent world government guided by human rights norms is a viable option. Human rights and the international law that defines them are not a substitute for the ethical, political and economic debates that are needed to create more equitable and tolerant societies. We must continue to struggle until every government acts in good faith to ensure human rights — because rights are necessary, if not sufficient, tools to solve societal problems. However, if we ask more of human rights than they can ever accomplish, we risk destroying them along the way, and there will be no centenary to celebrate 30 years from now.

Hurst Hannum is a professor of international law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.