Are Human Rights in Decline?

My new World War II course — belatedly kicking off this afternoon — fulfills a general education category at Bethel that focuses on the development of Western life and thought in the “modern” era. So as I set up the course today, one theme I need to introduce is the war as a crucible of modernity. For example, WWII can be seen as testing the conviction that human history follows an arc of progress — from violence to peace, from poverty to prosperity, from superstition to reason, from repression to freedom…

That last becomes a crucial measure of modernization in the 20th century: are societies making progressing in realizing the modern beliefs that all human beings have worth and dignity and ought to have the freedom to exercise certain inherent, natural rights as self-governing individuals? (It’s a theme we’ll explore further this spring when I again teach my course on Human Rights in International History, tracing “rights-talk” back to the Enlightenment and French Revolution and then carrying it forward through the aftermath of WWII — UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc.)

More than a decade into the 21st century, how is humanity doing on this count?

Stephen Hopgood
Stephen Hopgood – University of London

Stephen Hopgood, author of the new The Endtimes of Human Rights, offered a rather sobering answer to that question in yesterday’s Washington Post. Starting with the noble sentiments offered in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death (UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon: “His death has awakened in all of us the flame of human rights and the beacon of hope”), Hopgood continued:

…despite this rhetoric of rededication and hope, the ground of human rights is crumbling beneath us. If we seem to have moved beyond “drama and moral clarity,” it is only because we no longer know where we are going. In fact, a 150-year experiment in creating global rules to protect and defend individual human beings is coming to an end.

Now, Hopgood is selling a book here, so it’s hard not to suspect him of deploying hyperbole, but he points to a wide array of evidence. For example, “Authoritarian pushback against human rights in China raises the prospect of a new superpower utterly opposed to the hitherto dominant language of universal rights. And Russia, if anything, outdoes China, with Vladimir Putin manipulating his citizens’ legitimate aspirations for even basic freedoms.” On this theme, see also Uri Friedman’s article (also yesterday) asking if 2014, like 2013, will see the continued “the ascent of authoritarianism.” Both Hopgood and Friedman noted that the last seven annual reports from Freedom House have found more countries experiencing declines rather than increases in freedom.

Hopgood, Endtimes of Human RightsIn part, Hopgood blames the United States, calling it “worse than an ambivalent onlooker” for engaging in practices (drones, torture, Guantanamo) that “all undermine the very idea, let alone the practice, of human rights.” But he also acknowledges that the US must seek partnerships in a multipolar world: “In an era when containing China is paramount, we know what ‘partners’ means: deals. No ASEAN state should expect a call from the president about human rights anytime soon…. A multipolar world means more compromise — as we already see in Syria — more back-scratching and less principled denunciation.”

But he also finds religion a complicating factor, with the world becoming more intensely religious, not less:

In a world where eight in 10 people identify with a religious group, and where conservative forms of all major faiths — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism — are increasingly prominent and politically salient, the outlook for radical change in social attitudes outside the West and elite enclaves in developing countries looks bleak….

People of faith should be the first to lament where their religious convictions lead to repression and violence. As a Christian, for example, it’s troubling to see Christian churches so cozy with authoritarian regimes like Putin’s “postmodern dictatorship,” or to hear that fellow evangelicals have played a role in drafting draconian legislation in Uganda targeted at the country’s gay and lesbian population.

But fortunately, Hopgood doesn’t completely espouse a radical secularism that sees no role for any but the most private faith in a world populated by people freely exercising basic rights. Recognizing that “Where strong faith meets human rights, the classic modernizing assumption — that secular rights trump religion — no longer holds,” Hopgood argues that “religious groups of all kinds have an opportunity to play a greater role in struggles for freedom from hunger and repression than they have done in the decades when secular experts in development and human rights held sway.”

In particular, Hopgood echoes most every other commentator of most every political persuasion in finding Pope Francis a figure of significant promise:

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, May 2013
Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square last May – Creative Commons (Edgar Jiménez)

The church has a deeper, more powerful, more attractive and more important spiritual message to spread, he has said, surely recognizing that the weak grip of conventional Western human rights principles in individual communities is no match for the moral power of the church. The new pope’s seemingly more liberal stances on social issues and his critique of capitalism may make him a better bet for radical change — he can in principle mobilize a billion people — than the rather arid, dry and legalistic claims of secular human rights advocates.

Of course, what Francis represents isn’t really so new. Catholicism and other forms of Christianity have been mobilizing human rights advocacy at least as long as Enlightened political philosophy has; Francis himself is drawing on a Catholic social tradition that goes back at least to the late nineteenth century. Christianity motivated both support for and opposition to the apartheid that Nelson Mandela battled throughout his life.

So I’m glad Hopgood — or his editors — linked there to Elizabeth Tenety’s own Post piece, which made the even more important point that “Without Jesus, there is no Pope Francis. If Francis’s embrace of the disabled, his focus on the poor and his mercy for the sinner sound vaguely familiar, that’s because you’ve heard them before. From that Jesus guy.”

One thought on “Are Human Rights in Decline?

  1. I found this article to be well balanced and quite fair. I hope you continue to blog on this topic as you move through your class. So far, fascinating! Thank you.

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