The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom
by Aaron Rhodes.
Encounter Books, 2018.
Hardcover, 280 pages, $28.

Addison Del Mastro

The Debasement of Human Rights, by human rights scholar and activist Aaron Rhodes, is really two books: one part a love letter to classical liberalism and individual liberty, and one part a damning takedown of the sprawling United Nations human rights system. The second part is the stronger and more convincing one.

Lest anyone think Rhodes’s conservative approach makes him an opponent of human rights, he was involved in the field as far back as the Cold War years, when he directed the Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. The Federation was quite politically diverse, but always laser-focused on traditional human rights. These included civil and political rights such as free speech, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, due process, and the right to be free from torture. Such rights and similar ones, Rhodes explains, were always the core of human rights discourse, going back anywhere from ancient Greece to Immanuel Kant. Freedom is freedom from coercion. This all changed with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which mixed various “social and economic” rights with traditional political and civil rights, thus, Rhodes argues, diluting and eventually poisoning the very concept of human rights.

This argument, which is repeated and elaborated throughout the book, is more convincing than Rhodes’s critique of nationalism and cultural particularism. He criticizes, for example, the Chinese preference for social order and the Russian preference for an Orthodox Christian traditionalism. He also avoids convincing challenges to classical liberalism, for example the argument that corporate power—couched as freedom—might be incompatible with the meaningful exercise of individual liberties. At times, Rhodes appears to be a supporter of military humanitarian intervention, the results of which have been at best mixed, and often disastrous. The shades of neoconservatism and libertarianism are not as convincing as they might have been in the 1980s, when Rhodes got his start in human rights. Anyone who is following the intellectual debate over classical liberalism, which exploded with Patrick Deneen’s surprise bestseller Why Liberalism Failed, will understand that classical liberalism is not necessarily authoritative.

Nonetheless, Rhodes’s harsh treatment of the UN human rights system is masterful and richly deserved. The core of his argument against this system is the faulty concept of “indivisibility”: the idea that negative liberties—civil and political rights—are dependent on or interdependent with, and in every way equal to positive liberties—government-granted social and economic rights. Specifically, indivisibility has devalued negative rights, which Rhodes casts as natural rights that pre-exist the state, by setting them equal with positive rights that are contingent on a well-funded and efficient state. Since all human rights are supposed to be equal, but positive rights cannot actually be realized without time and resources, this opens the door to governments demanding more aid or time merely to protect natural rights as well implement social and economic rights. (I can confirm that this muddled philosophy is par for the course in UN human rights discourse. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the United Nations and human rights with a leading scholar in the field, since retired. I asked him about the distinction between negative and positive rights, and he did not think the question was very important and moved on quickly.) Essentially, Rhodes concludes, indivisibility allows governments to hold true human rights hostage to foreign aid, as well as to tout their welfare programs—which may well fail to deliver even the vaunted social and economic rights—whenever criticized for repressing civil or political rights.

Why so much focus on social and economic rights in the UN? What do these rights actually mean? One is reminded of Edmund Burke’s wisecrack: “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine?” Burke wrote. “The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.”

Unfortunately, whatever the social and economic rights may mean, they had a very specific and very political purpose from the beginning. Including them in the UDHR and later in the UN human rights treaties was to a great extent a concession to the Soviet Union and its Communist satellite states, whose backing was needed for the emerging human rights system to actually appear universal. By casting welfare programs as the fulfillment of human rights, the framers of the UDHR and later the vast UN system were able to secure that backing. The various human rights committees throughout the UN have long featured tyrannical or authoritarian states, including the more or less lawless theocracy of Saudi Arabia, often on the pretext that such states provide economic stability to their citizens.

The dogma—what else can one call it?—of indivisibility was implied in the UDHR, but not mentioned explicitly. Rhodes identifies the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights as the point at which the UN-backed human rights system, with all of its committees and commissions and tag-along NGOs (many of which are funded by governments) closed the door forever on a philosophically coherent or even legally enforceable concept of human rights. The conference defined the indivisibility doctrine as follows:

All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated [the “all” refers to the entire laundry list of social, economic, and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights]. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The human rights ideology that arose from Vienna, Rhodes suggests, “resembles the ideology of the states that did not survive the Cold War.” But even the Vienna statement does not fully reflect the extent to which the idea of human rights has been mangled. There are the “third-generation rights,” such as various women’s rights or race-based rights, which are objectionable not for protecting those constituencies but for turning human rights into a form of group-based identity politics. And there are the various rights that have been discovered, as it were, embedded in other rights.

Human rights has simply become the language used to conduct ordinary politics.

Rhodes quotes human rights legal scholar Asbjørn Eide: “The stability of the food supply and access to food [referring to the right to adequate food] presupposes environmental sustainability, implying that there is a judicious public and community management of natural resources which have a bearing on the food supply, as well as economic and social sustainability.” In short, human rights has simply become the language used to conduct ordinary politics. There is probably more than a little self-perpetuation going on here as well, a phenomenon I have elsewhere discussed in the context of the “March of Dimes syndrome.”

Yet one can also see something of the religious or mystical frame of mind here. Human rights have developed much the way certain religious doctrines have—over time, new doctrines are developed out of bits of old ones, or found to be somehow embedded in them or implied by them, until the later doctrines bear almost no resemblance to the original source material. Of course, in the religious case, whether we are witnessing the vagaries of divine revelation, or mumbo-jumbo, is a matter of faith.

But in the case of human rights, the nominal justification is not faith, but philosophical rigor or at least pragmatism. Unfortunately, in the bloated and often corrupt UN-managed system of human rights, there remains little of either. It is sad that this system has managed to confuse, fracture, and squander in a few decades the political and philosophical inheritance of so many centuries.  

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets @ad_mastro.