The UN’s Politicized Human Rights Vision
A FOREF-Commentary by Aaron Rhodes
New York / Vienna, 03.08.2016 (American Thinker / FOREF) – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon does not appear to understand human rights as they were formulated in Classical and Enlightenment philosophy, adhering instead to a political notion of human rights, one originating in Socialism and Progressivism. For Ban and the UN, human rights have been reduced to means to achieving broad, generally leftist, global governance goals.
The ancient Stoic philosophers insisted that the laws of governments and legislatures must be constrained by principles consistent with the laws of nature. Eternal moral laws compelling states to respect human nature and freedom are different from laws promulgated to ensure justice, security, and the public welfare, that is, laws reflecting what societies believe is good. The philosophy of John Locke and Emmanuel Kant gave shape to the formation of constitutional and international human rights protections aimed at protecting individuals from tyrannical decrees and laws. Classical human rights, based on natural law, are politically neutral, meant to keep governments from infringing on the demands of our common human nature.
In a 12 July speech before a “High-Level Thematic Debate” in the UN General Assembly, the Secretary General imparted a vision of human rights as inseparable from a political program of global regulation and wealth redistribution.
Ban Ki-moon repeatedly confused human rights with positive legislation to achieve the political goals of societies and the international community, and he even spoke of human rights as subordinate to those goals, as means to other ends.
According to an official UN report, Ban said that human rights must be a “main tool” for “meeting development targets.” He said, “In our deeply connected world, all Member States have a shared best interest in promoting individual and collective human rights as a basis for global peace and prosperity.” He made no distinction between human rights and positive law aimed at achieving social and political goals.
To his credit, Ban referred to grave violations of fundamental rights by governments. Some governments, he mentioned, “are sharply restricting people’s ability to exercise their rights, attacking fundamental freedoms and dismantling judicial institutions that limit executive power. Others are detaining and imprisoning human rights defenders and clamping down on civil society and non-governmental organizations, preventing them from performing their vital work.”
But his main theme was clearly not violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms by tyrannical states, but rather human rights as “the most powerful driver of peace and development,” essential to achieving the UN’s 17 “Sustainable Development Goals.”
No decent person would argue against the value of such objectives, so long as they were not pursued in ways that impinge on human rights and freedoms. But they are not the goals of human rights. Human rights are universal standards to protect individual freedom, without which human beings cannot exercise their reason, and their innate moral agency. They are not meant as utilitarian means to achieve particular political goals; they ensure that political processes do not violate basic rights and freedoms. Freedom is its own goal and reward.
The current president of the UN General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, worried that “we must not allow the culture of human rights that has been created these past 70 years to unravel.”
Speaking as a human rights activist, that “culture” is in serious need of reform and renewal. The basis for the political exploitation of human rights lies at the very core of the international human rights system set up on 1948. At the behest of Progressive politicians and communist dictators, economic and social rights were embedded into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, human rights have become thoroughly conflated, in the public imagination, with welfare state politics; the very concept of human rights is dissolving into welfarist political rhetoric, sometimes veering toward a coercive utopianism. Top UN human rights officials like the former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay have spoken about the challenge of protecting human rights as one of achieving “substantive equality.” The process of twisting the principle of human rights into a legal rationale for redistributionist politics has been joined by cadres of cynical legal-realism human rights lawyers and activist judges.
Authoritarian states have learned to present their policies as those promoting human rights. They can do so because economic and social rights assign huge roles and responsibilities that only strong, intrusive states can fulfill, and because the international community has confused protecting individual freedom with providing government services. Indeed, that has been the true “unraveling” of human rights. We must put it back together again if we are serious about preserving liberty.
Aaron Rhodes was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007, and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe.