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Against Human Rights

On a code of conduct for the modern world.


Centuries from now, a heroic archeologist may emerge to unlock for his civilization the mysteries of ours. Imagine a future equivalent of the nineteenth-century linguist Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. Suddenly it was possible to understand the belief system of ancient Egypt, and the social system that arose from it. An equivalent discovery for posterity would be one of those “In This House We Believe” lawn signs that appeared in wealthy neighborhoods of America’s coastal cities in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, and four years later spread all around the world when George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. The researcher capable of understanding the sign would unlock the mystery of twenty-first-century human rights.

It took a genius like Champollion to translate the Rosetta Stone because Egyptian hieroglyphics were a mix of phonetic symbols and pictographs. Human rights is a mix, too. An unfamiliar researcher encountering it would wonder whether it consists of commandments (“In this house we believe”) or platitudes (“Black lives matter . . . Women’s rights are human rights . . . Love is love . . .”) before discovering that it is made up of both. That is why, in our time, human rights has provoked as many conflicts as it has resolved.

Those who defend human rights think of it as a code of conduct for the modern world. It is the theological equivalent of “News You Can Use.” Its origins lie with the children of Oedipus. When Sophocles’ Antigone buries her rebel brother Polynices, killed in battle, she violates the law of cruel King Creon. But that is not the highest law, Antigone tells the king:

Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable, unwritten laws of heaven:
They were not born today nor yesterday;
They die not, and none knoweth whence they sprang.

This pagan vision of immutable natural right still made a good deal of sense eighteen centuries into the Christian era. The great English political theorist Maurice Cranston believed a straight line led from Antigone’s complaint to the “American model of a republic having the preservation of men’s natural rights as its raison d’être.

America had a specific way of going about this, laid out in its Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Equality is not controversial as long as the Creator retains His place in the daily life of society, the sense being that people are equal in the sight of God.

But when other ways of looking at society arose, and when people began to be judged by, say, their earning power or their good looks, then equality became what Edmund Burke would call “that monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and imbitter that real inequality, which it never can remove.”

Human rights is the assertion that, no, our equality perdures even if the Creator is not in the picture. It is a rallying cry, advanced stridently by initiates but received dubiously by others, even today. Our own version of it dates from 1948. That was when Eleanor Roosevelt led a committee to draft for the newly established United Nations a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” one that, it was hoped, might vie with other great founding documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen that accompanied the French Revolution. Already that year the young Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey had upstaged the Democratic convention by urging his party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” He was talking about equal rights for blacks in the segregated South—rights that later came to be called “civil rights.” Humphrey’s term was the better one for what he was talking about, but, then as now, there was considerable confusion about matching the vocabulary of rights and the reality of rights.

The U.N. declaration got bogged down in such distinctions almost immediately. The rights it enumerated were of two types. There were a bunch of rights familiar from the constitutions of well-run states in the enlightened West: Freedom of speech. Freedom of movement. No slavery. No torture. But there were other rights that seemed to be contingent aspirations: The right to join a trade union. The right to adequate medical care. The right to “periodic holidays with pay.” What would the meaning of these human rights be in an economy where all humans worked in rice paddies? Cranston argued that, in the context of the Cold War, laying out rights this way was a mistake on the part of the West. The Soviet Union and its loyal East Bloc satellites did not vote for the declaration, but they had received a propaganda bonanza from Eleanor Roosevelt: Sure, they could now argue, maybe we don’t have bourgeois freedoms like freedom of speech. But the West doesn’t have constitutional guarantees of cheap medical care. Nobody’s perfect.

It also resulted in a confusion over what exactly the U.N. was promulgating: was this a set of laws or a set of values? And the confusion grew across the decades as the U.N. established a long list of bodies and boards to refine some rights and discover others: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1969, the Convention Against Torture in 1984, the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers in 1990.

The problems with the declaration’s vision of rights became clearer after 1951, when the U.N. passed its Convention on Refugees. The Convention was a solemn response to the mass human rights abuses of World War II. But it was done after the fact, when those problems were no longer an emergency. The refugees whose cases still had to be adjudicated in the early 1950s amounted to a few dozens or hundreds. International bodies could demand a high degree of solicitude and punctilious accountability from countries that had to process these people. The problem is that today, tens of millions of migrants are on the move in search of a better standard of living, and prosperous countries are constrained by democratic majorities to send these job-seekers home expeditiously. So every citizen of an equatorial country who wishes to wash dishes in Germany or trim lawns in Canada has an interest in presenting himself as a special case—not a job-seeker but a “political refugee.”

The European Union, since 1992 a pan-European government-in-embryo that binds together more than two dozen countries, has always had human rights at its core. The Maastricht Treaty, its founding political document, places “safeguarding the common values, fundamental interests and independence of the Union” at the heart of the project. Understood this way, “Europe” is not a people. It’s not a social contract. It’s what the Germans call a Wertegemeinschaft, or community of values—and in this case the main value is human rights. There are two problems with that. One is that these aren’t European values so much as universal ones, and the job of promulgating them has already been claimed by a body with more plausible claims to universality: the U.N. Meanwhile, the job of defending human rights has already been claimed by a Western country with more cohesion and more military and economic power: the United States.

It was apparent from 1948 that human rights would be more easily pursued in inter-state relations (a jurisdictional no-man’s-land) than in domestic politics (where human rights infringes on the prerogatives of politicians). Human rights tends to advance alongside American capitalism—most energetically in foreign countries—behind tax-exempt non-profits set up by Western billionaires. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations operate “transparency” initiatives across Eastern Europe. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is responsible for advanced health care and vaccination across Africa. To the State Department, this is evidence that free markets build free societies. To any world leader concerned about protecting his country’s sovereignty, it is evidence that human rights is, often as not, a stalking horse for American power.

Certainly human rights provides ample pretexts for American military self-assertion. The doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect,” devised by Canadian diplomats at the turn of this century, brought about the catastrophic Anglo-Franco-American attack on Libya in 2011, which over the past thirteen years has produced nonstop migrant crises in the Mediterranean. Nor has the United States been reluctant to use its economic power, almost always citing human rights violations when it imposes sanctions, as it now does on two dozen countries.

Those who make foreign policy in the name of human rights often behave as if this ensures their country will always be on the side of right rather than might. That is a mistake. Human rights is as liable to serve as a pretext for conquest as religion used to be (and surely will be again). Most of the problems arise from the universalism that is of the essence of human rights. Some don’t like it to begin with. “Universalism is a corruption of objectivity,” warns the French conservative Alain de Benoist in his book on human rights. “To be objective is to start from particulars; universalism defines the particular by starting from an abstract notion.” To impose “universal” rights requires something like universal power. In fact, there are probably fewer checks on an army crusading for the rights of man than on an army crusading for the glory of God. The religious crusader, if he is in good faith, may well fear judgement under the law of the God he proclaims. The human-rights crusader is the promulgator of the law he proclaims. And if you are making your arguments in the name of humanity, then a fellow who doesn’t agree with you is an enemy of humanity, to be treated accordingly.

The late, underappreciated French political theorist Julien Freund used to wonder where people got the idea that a “universal” state would necessarily be a peaceful one that would put an end to war. In 1965, he asked his readers to imagine a globalized society somewhat like our own, ordered by a global state. Politics would still be politics, he said, because human nature would still be human nature. Ultimately all that would change is the vocabulary. Wars would be called civil wars. Enmities would be called heresies.

But it is not just that human rights change our vocabulary for understanding conflict. If not properly understood, they can corrode relations inside a given political system. The intellectual historian Marcel Gauchet, a longtime activist in France’s Socialist Party, has spent the decades since the 1980s studying the way democracy has been transformed by increasingly frequent invocations of human rights. The picture is paradoxical and self-destructive. Classic democracy involves the sovereignty of the people—who are empowered to rule. But human rights has brought a new “liberal” version of democracy that involves the sovereignty of the person—who is entitled to human rights. Securing those rights for the person often means the people’s right to rule must be suspended. It is the courts that must effect this transformation, mostly by imposing rules of non-discrimination. And this turns human rights–based “liberal democracy” into a weapon against democracy as we have understood it for centuries.

In the course of his career, Gauchet has come to pay more attention to religion and sex. That is because the central concern of human communities has generally involved the “imperative of perpetuation”—cultural continuity through religion, biological continuity through sex. It is striking that human rights–focused democracies persistently undermine the longstanding democratic arrangements that once secured these continuities. “The lifting of the taboo that used to weigh on homosexuality as the anti-procreative practice par excellence,” he writes, “is a striking illustration.”

It is striking partly from a social point of view: marriage, an institution that once served the dead-serious purpose of protecting the offspring of love from the fickleness of love, now serves the relatively frivolous purpose of “equalizing” “dignity” among citizens. It is striking in a second way, too: it cuts not only against traditional culture but also against modern culture as it was understood until recently. Regarding sexuality, it seemed throughout the twentieth century that the more we moved away from the “state of nature,” the more necessary it would be to signal traditional gender roles—onerous or unfortunate though some might find that to be.

Apparently, though, there was another dynamic at work, too. Human-rights advocates seemed to be analogizing from the purported efficiencies of the liberal economy, which are alleged to work optimally when guided only by the “invisible hand.” And human-rights ideology wound up promising that we would all be more productive, orderly and happy once all social institutions were destroyed and all traditional values renounced. If one reads Gauchet and other human-rights skeptics correctly, we may be arriving, after a long delay, at the world Rousseau and other eighteenth-century thinkers dreamed of. For centuries, the utopian schemes of the Enlightenment were stymied by the stubborn-looking, stupid-looking resistance of farmers, manual laborers, bandits, and traditional subjects of all kinds. Nowadays society’s traditions have been so eroded and its defenders so demoralized that utopians have been emboldened to return for a second whack.

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books.