The rise and rise of human rights

A new book finds that those who champion human rights benefit themselves more than their supposed beneficiaries.

Jon Holbrook

Topics Politics

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The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, Kirsten Sellars, Sutton Publishing, 2002

In charting The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, Kirsten Sellars argues that in the decades after the Second World War, human rights have always come to the fore when other ideologies or doctrines were exhausted or ineffective.

For most of the post-war period, human rights were subordinated to the doctrine of anti-communism. It is in the present post-Cold War era that human rights ideals have been in the ascendant. Human rights have been embraced and championed in recent years by a coalition that includes celebrities, politicians and a multitude of foot soldiers in the human rights industry.

‘Who can criticise human rights?’ asks this coalition of human rights idealists. But this secular religion for our apolitical age deserves closer scrutiny and Kirsten Sellars, a London-based journalist, is not afraid to put this ideology under the spotlight. For, contrary to the orthodox view, Sellars finds that those who have championed human rights have done more to benefit themselves than their supposed beneficiaries.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s speech at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Human rights delegates loved her remarks about domestic violence, rape and social inequality, and they cheered her speech for longer than she had actually spoken. Interestingly, America’s conservative and Christian constituencies were equally enthusiastic after the First Lady had condemned forced abortion, opposed religious persecution and made 22 references to the family.

Hillary Clinton demonstrated that human rights is an issue that can interest and unite many shades of political opinion. Clinton managed it not because she said anything profound, but precisely because she said little that would offend anyone. By hitting all the easy targets, Hillary Clinton made a speech that was good for her standing in the USA, but of less obvious benefit for those in broken and war-ravaged nations.

In a chapter wryly titled ‘With God on their side’, Sellars develops her argument by looking at the influence of an American movement against the persecution of Christians, which in 1995 focused on China. Within three years the movement had run out of steam, not because Chinese Christians had been afforded more rights, but because domestic American politics had swung in favour of backing China’s admission to the World Trade Organisation.

After accommodating to domestic political reality on China, some American Christian groups sought a new focus. Sudan was an obvious target, where an Islamic government was waging a brutal civil war. Yet of all the horrors visited upon Sudanese civilians, the Christian human rights groups seized upon slavery.

Slavery is a peripheral issue in Sudan; so from the perspective of wishing to improve the lot of the Sudanese people, this focus was curious. Sellars explains that ‘as is usual with human rights campaigns, this one is driven by concerns that have little to do with the actual situation within the target country. Campaigners have latched on to slavery because it is an emotive issue…and, even more to the point, it is an issue that resonates most powerfully among a very specific constituency – black Americans.’

The strength of Sellars’ book is the material that she has collected, much of it previously unpublished. Her chapter on war crimes trials, ‘the cutting edge of human rights crusades’, shows with hard evidence that the proceedings of such trials today are unjust, and heavily skewed by a Nato perspective.

Take the case of Dusko Tadic, The Hague’s first defendant. Sellars documents how a key prosecution witness in this trial was exposed for telling a pack of lies. By withholding his identity, ‘Witness L’, as he was known, almost got away with telling the court that he had seen Tadic murder and rape inmates at the Trnopolje transit camp in Bosnia. Almost by chance, Tadic’s defence team discovered that Witness L had, in fact, never seen Tadic at the Trnopolje camp and that he had first seen him ‘on a video’ several years after the alleged crimes.

There is no shortage of books on human rights, but most of them view the subject uncritically. Sellars, by contrast, has set out to expose the hypocrisy of a movement that seeks, to use one of the author’s many powerful phrases, ‘to occupy the moral high ground by day and sleep the sleep of the just by night’. Her book will make uncomfortable reading for modern day high priests and practitioners of the secular religion of human rights. And her book will be grist to the mill of those who are prepared to question whether the human rights approach can genuinely promote human rights.

Sellars explains why support for human rights has waxed and waned over the past 60 years. However, she does not consider whether ‘human rights’ means the same today as it meant before the end of the Cold War. The period following the end of the Cold War has ushered in a major change in the popular meaning of human rights, and the campaigns promoted by the self-styled champions.

Until quite recently, most supporters of human rights sought a limited role for their beliefs. Human rights were to be promoted within a framework of sovereign nations. A letter-writing campaign to free political prisoners was one thing, but dropping bombs on a state to end oppression was quite another.

But from the imposition of no-fly zones in Iraq in 1991 through human rights campaigns in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan since then, it has become clear that the sovereignty of nations has little purchase on today’s powerful states. Bombing sovereign states in the name of human rights is no longer the contradiction in terms that it would once have been.

This is exemplified by the contrast with the 1940s. For as Sellars points out, the American establishment after the Second World War assisted in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it made sure there were no provisions that would give it teeth. Consequently, the Declaration called on people and nations to keep human rights ‘constantly in mind’.

By modern day standards of international relations this language is quaint. But it highlights the extent to which human rights have not just been on the rise: they have also been reformulated. Sovereignty used to trump human rights, now human rights trump sovereignty. It is this development that has transformed the human rights approach into the potent and destructive force that it is today.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister in London. Email

Buy The Rise and Rise of Human Rights from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

Human rights trump democracy, by David Chandler

Ripping up the Charter, by David Chandler

Why The Hague is not Nuremberg, by Jon Holbrook

In defence of sovereignty, by Jon Holbrook

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Topics Politics


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