Why human rights are wrong

Human rights conflict with the principle of moral autonomy, and form an excuse for oppression. Any harm to others can be justified by claiming that it is intended to respect certain 'rights', even if the victim does not know of their existence. Revised June 2004.

A Serbian or Iraqi child who is shot to enforce human rights, suffers just as much pain, as an American or British child. Yet the US and British governments do not kill or injure their own citizens, to protect their human rights. That fate is reserved for Eastern Europeans, Arabs, Africans, and Asians. The western human rights lobby claims, that it is wrong to deny people human rights. They claim opposition to human rights is based on 'ethical relativism', and that their own 'moral universalism' is superior. Yet they would not bomb their own cities like they bombed Belgrade or Falluja or remote Afghan villages. Clearly, the 'moral universalism' of the human rights lobby is itself relative: it is turned on and off to conform to geopolitical interests. It was never much more than a propaganda slogan anyway.

Increasingly, the doctrine of human rights is itself a cause of suffering, oppression and injustice. Increasingly, the argument that superpowers have a 'moral duty' to enforce human rights, is used in the same way as the doctrine of the 'civilising mission' once was used to justify colonialism. Since this was first written, it appears that the civilising mission - or at least crusades in defence of western civilisation - are not quite dead yet. American reactions to the attacks of 11 September 2001 have re-emphasised the so-called "Clash of Civilizations". In that vision of history and geopolitics, democracy, freedom, and human rights are seen as universally valid, and yet historically specific to western civilisation. They are seen as a gift, which the West must bring to the rest of the world, or at least defend against the rest of the world. The position presented below is a rejection of human rights, without any appeal to cultural relativism or ethical relativism.

Human rights, sovereignty and military intervention

Universal human rights and sovereignty are two separate issues. It is possible to believe in universal human rights, but also in national sovereignty. In fact, until recently, this was the standard view among foreign policy elites.

A justification of intervention does not logically follow from human rights, even if those rights are violated. Interventionists try to suggest that it does, but they never explain the logic on this assertion. The assertion that military intervention is necessary in the face of clear human rights violations, is emotional propaganda. It is often successful, but it is not ethics. If, for instance, children are being tortured to death in Eritrea, then this is wrong. It is not necessary to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to know it is wrong. But whatever grounds you have for finding it wrong, it does not follow that the US Marines can legitimately invade Eritrea. The tactic of interventionists is usually to massively publicise the violations, and to imply that opponents of the intervention are accomplices.

The torture does not automatically produce a moral entitlement to intervention (breach of sovereignty). Even if the torture did create such an entitlement, it does not automatically follow that it must be a military intervention. And even if the torture creates an entitlement to military intervention, it does not automatically follow that the United States 'owns' that entitlement. All of these are separate steps, separate events, which need separate moral justification. With or without human rights, universal or not.

Human-right interventionism is in any case historically recent. For centuries great powers justified their wars, with speaking of human rights. The atrocity story is a traditional part of wartime propaganda, but it is only since the 1950's that it is called a 'human rights violation' - And not every legitimation of intervention is formulated in human-rights terms - the Genocide Convention, for instance, simply prohibits genocide. But in the media and political rhetoric, these formal distinctions are often ignored. (Genocide is referred to as a 'human rights violation', although it is more accurate to call it a crime in international law). Since the emergence of the mass media in 19th-century western states, it is the emotional impact of the atrocity story which counts.

Of course, there are atrocities which exercise a powerful emotional appeal. If a future Eritrean dictator personally tortures children on a live CNN broadcast, the interventionist pressure would be intense. No doubt President Bush would think about sending in the US Marines. But what if Osama bin Ladin offers to rescue the children? Would they get American weapons to do so? When I first wrote that rhetorical question, before the September 11 attacks, my answer was: No: I think President Bush would suddenly feel that the rescue of the children had less priority. So would the majority of the US population. My assessment was, that the national interests of the USA would override any concern for human rights, any revulsion at atrocities. After September 11, that assessment was proved right. Countries such as Pakistan and Tadzikistan were suddenly promoted from 'human-rights abusers' to allies. And conversely the US gives no more aid to Osama bin Ladin - but the US had no problems with him, when he was fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Until September 2001, western powers sought to justify foreign wars by reference to human rights abuses, and other atrocities. That is no longer necessary, at least not for the American public. If the President convinces them than Osama bin Ladin is hiding in Antarctica, they will support a war on Antarctica. No foreign incident, however horrific, could match the impact of a spectacular attack of an American city. In retrospect, this undermines the pretensions of previous western military interventions, which where justified from abuses and atrocities - as in Bosnia. Western public outrage at the siege of Sarajevo was perhaps the most important factor behind that intervention. It is now clear, that such emotions are false and hypocritical. The outrage at atrocities is turned on and off, according to the political and geopolitical reality of the day. It is these realities which determine the interventionist human rights rhetoric: interventionists are insincere.

So where is the moral or cultural relativism? In the example described above, it is President Bush who is the relativist. His desire to rescue the child victims would be strong, if the US Marines do the rescuing - but not if the rescue is a propaganda victory for his worst enemies (Saddam or Osama bin Ladin, for example). I think this is a realistic assessment of how Bush thinks - it's not the atrocities that count, it's the war. The American public appears to share that kind of relativism.

The idea, that any human rights violation automatically legitimises any western military action, obviously has no moral basis. This short-cut is an evasion of the moral and political issues. However, interventionists are often successful in this evasion, partly because of the semi-sacred status of human rights. I will now consider the legitimacy of that status.

Definition and ethics of human rights

A human right is an ethical construction used to justify a harmful act against another person, by claiming that undergoing the harmful act is an absolute moral entitlement, and that accordingly the harmful action can not be judged morally wrong. For instance, a man who wants to rape a woman would say, that women have a 'right to sex', and that his action was beyond moral judgment, because in raping the woman he was respecting a universal right. Rights are not intended to improve the conditions of the person who gets the rights, but to legitimise the actions of the person who declares them. In practice, it is not individuals but states which declare rights, and they are used to justify state policy.

Some people in history have indeed claimed rights - but most have had their rights declared for them by others. They are not allowed to renounce these 'declared rights'. The idea that a person must accept all rights declared for them, clearly contradicts the idea of political freedom. The human-rights tradition includes no element of consent. It is these aspects, which make the doctrine of human rights a license for oppression. Generally, rights have the following characteristics...

Those are far-reaching claims by the rights theorists, and the human rights lobby. It is obvious, even from this summary, that the logic of rights interferes with the principle of moral autonomy.

Formally, what happens when a right is declared? The standard answer is: it creates a moral duty to respect it. But that is not all that happens. A right, once its existence is recognised, effectively divides all possible human actions into three categories: actions which respect that right, violations of the right, and actions which are neutral with respect to that right. Declaring a right is a declaration of a desired course of action, not necessarily action by the holders of the right. Implicitly, the declaration of a right promotes and legitimises actions to enforce that right. The 'right not to be tortured' is at first sight a classic claim right of torture victims. It appears to create en entitlement for the victim, the entitlement that the torture stops. But the present political reality is that it is interpreted as an entitlement to prevent torture. This entitlement is claimed to legitimise a wide variety of acts, usually hostile acts by one state against another state. In other words, although the 'right not to be tortured' appears to be a concession by states to individuals, in reality it is a power claim by states. It is the creation of an entitlement to make war and impose sanctions. The formal declaration may say "right not to be tortured", but the Pentagon reads this as '"right to bomb torturers" - including a right to cause collateral damage.

Within states, the declaration of a right is an act comparable to law-giving, in the way that kings gave law. It is essentially a command or decree: do this, don't do that. Implicitly, the law is intended for enforcement, and is assumed to create an entitlement to enforce it. So declarations of rights are 'rule', in the political science sense. If a king does write the laws for a territory, without any other legislature, then normally the king would be described as the 'ruler' of that territory. If the king has the means to generally enforce those laws, then the king exercises political power, again in the political science sense. A political scientist who arrives in an unknown territory, asks: "Who writes the laws here?", "Who raises taxes here?", "Who commands the army here?" The answers to these questions indicate who rules the territory, and who controls the State (if there is a state). But it is equally possible to ask: "Who declares the rights here?"

Declarations of rights are therefore fundamentally political acts, acts of policy. Anyone who issues and enforces declarations of rights is exercising political power. As you would expect, it is normally governments, and inter-governmental organisations, which issue the declarations. It is not an activity of oppressed individuals, as suggested by the propaganda of claim rights.

As such, human rights are the modern equivalent of the divine right of kings: as long as the populace believed that God appointed the king to rule, his rule was considered legitimate. In the last 200 years 'popular sovereignty' replaced 'divine right' - all nation states now claim to derive their legitimacy from the people. But unnoticed by political scientists, the proliferation of rights has created a parallel system of political legitimacy. Governments can appeal to human rights to justify their actions - without necessarily claiming to act in the name of the people. Rights doctrines have not yet displaced popular sovereignty as political legitimation, but over a generation or more, they might.

Human rights: opposing principles

Another way to illustrate the logic of rights, is to look at how rights could be ethically acceptable. The table below compares the standard view of human rights with a fictional ethic of rights, which would be more acceptable.

Rights are declared without consultation, let alone consent. Rights are voluntary. They can not be imposed on a person without consent.
Declarations of rights impose the same set of rights on everyone. Every person is free to chose their own rights, if any.
International bodies, usually associations of nation states, declare most rights. Specifically, the state or international organisations may not declare rights for persons, unless those persons participated in the formulation of those rights, and expressed their consent.
Every right must be respected, all the time, in all cases. It is not in itself good to respect a right. Every right is itself subject to ethical assessment, to moral judgment. It can be wrong to respect a right, even a right that has been consented to.
Respecting a right is always good: it is never a harm or an injustice. Therefore it is not necessary to ask permission for any action done to a person, if that action constitutes respect of a right. An action done to a person, to respect the rights of that person, can be a harm to that person. Each person is morally autonomous in deciding what constitutes a harm to themselves.
Rights are eternal, and involve no choice for the individual. Rights may be renounced at any time.
No formal procedure to amend rights exists, certainly not for the individual. There should be an impartial procedure of appeal against rights. Obviously this function can not be exercised by pro-rights organisations, such as the United Nations.
My enemies can agree to declare that I have a "right", which in reality is a disadvantage for me. An agreement on rights can not bind persons, who have not entered into the agreement.
Rights, once declared, must simply be accepted without question. Objections of conscience to any right are valid.

This table shows how far the present human rights are from the fictional concept. No supporter of human rights would ever accept anything like these suggested limits, and that illustrates their arrogance toward those affected by their policies.

The UN-declared human rights

The present debate on human rights and sovereignty is largely concerned with a specific set of rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration was approved by the United Nations in December 1948. In this case, the failure of ethical legitimacy is clear. The human rights lobby claims, that this document is morally binding on the whole world, forever. But what basis does that claim have?

The Declaration was certainly not approved by the whole world in any real sense. The text was decided by the diplomatic representatives of UN member states. No other persons or organisations participated in the negotiations on the text. These states were the victorious allied powers of 1945, and their allies, with a few others. They did not even approximate the present membership of the United Nations...

Probably only five governments decided, without outside pressure, their position on the Declaration: the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Mexico. All others were, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on their protecting power (or colonial power). The text was ultimately a compromise, between the United States and the Soviet Union. The USA was the initiator in this process, and the Soviet Union was on the defensive. The Declaration is, without doubt, a primary historical text of the Cold War.

Far from 'claiming' the rights in the Declaration, most of the world population never even saw the text before it was approved. Probably the majority could not even understand the few official languages, in which it was available. The text is still not available in the majority of the languages spoken on earth.

No political process of any kind was available to the population of even the signatory states, concerning the text of the Declaration. It was purely an intergovernmental affair. No election was held in any country, with the text as an election issue. No referendum, or any other form of test, was held to approve the text, in any country. There was no ratification procedure of any kind, since the Universal Declaration is not a Treaty. Despite the rhetoric about individual and inalienable human rights, no individual ever formally consented to the document, as an individual. The United Nations never organised any consent procedure. For the majority of the world population, consent in 1948 was not an option anyway: they were not born yet. I am obliged to accept the contents, even though it was approved before I was born, and any influence on its contents was therefore impossible.

There is no procedure for revision of the Declaration. There is no procedure for periodic review, let alone periodic re-approval. The Declaration is therefore considered to apply indefinitely, beyond the lifetime of those who drafted it, and without any possibility of amending it or annulling it. Their descendants will, apparently, forever be bound by the Declaration. There is no independent appeal against its contents, or against the rights imposed, or against the application of the Declaration by the United Nations. Specifically, there is no independent appeal procedure, against military action to enforce it. If the UN decides tomorrow, that it is necessary to destroy Beijing with a nuclear weapon, to enforce human rights, then no-one can take any legal steps against this decision. Neither the individual residents, nor the Chinese government, nor any organisation, can appeal - certainly not to the International Court. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered beyond appeal, in fact beyond all legal procedure.

The mythology says that I, and other humans, demanded human rights - and the UN graciously consented. The reality is that a geopolitical coalition of great powers drafted a decree, and enforced it militarily and politically.

This is a very weak ethical basis, for what is now regarded as the basic document of the United Nations, overriding the UN Charter (which guarantees national sovereignty). If the United States colonises Africa in 2020, then it will probably refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the legal basis for its actions. And since the United States is now the only superpower capable of doing this, and no other power can successfully oppose it, the temptation will be great. Because of its claimed universal and absolute force, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an emergent license for global conquest, in a unipolar world.

Human rights are clearly political

There is no doubt, that the doctrine of human rights belongs within a specific political tradition: the broad European liberal tradition. Human rights have also become a central element, in recent Anglo-American democratic liberalism (the type of political philosophy represented by John Rawls). But the liberal tradition is only one section of European political thought. Not only are human rights not universal, they are not even 'western' or 'European'. I have completely rejected human rights, but my background is as European as liberalism. My rejection is certainly not African or Asian, in cultural or philosophical terms. Human rights are not culturally specific, they are politically specific. The human rights doctrine is a classic political ideology.

The imposition of human rights on the world, is the imposition of that political ideology. And with it comes the rest of the liberal package. The supporters of human rights are also the supporters of free trade, democracy, an open society and the free market. Two recent military interventions to protect rights, in Timor and Kosovo, have also brought open free-market economies to these regions. In organisations like the NATO or the OSCE, the free market and human rights are always referred to together, as if they were the same thing. And because of that, in practice, they are. The long-term geopolitical reality is of an ideological war of global conquest, by a small number of market-democratic states: human rights form part of the ideology of this conquest.

I renounce my human rights