The Politics Of Human Rights

The founders of the Freedom Rights Project believe that the proliferation of human rights treaties obscures the public’s ability to understand the very rights being protected, thus reflecting poorly on an overstuffed bureaucracy:

The expanded and diluted notion of human rights allows illiberal states to change the focus from core freedoms to vague and conceptually unclear rights that place no concrete obligations on states. Enabled by such rhetoric, no human rights violation can stand scrutiny on its own merits. Instead, human rights violations are relativized — intellectually dismembered and discarded when it is politically expedient. In this world, cuts in development aid can be labeled human rights violations just like torture in North Korea.

Crucially, this unprincipled politics of human rights helps authoritarian states deflect criticism. In 2007, Cuba, which has one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere, succeeded in persuading a majority of HRC members to axe the specific mandate for monitoring its own human rights record. The praise authoritarian states shower on one another for supposedly upholding new, vague and abstract rights are therefore not just empty rhetoric but can produce real political gains.

Unfortunately, much of the human rights community has not only shied away from expressing qualms about rights proliferation, it has often led the process. But this approach has not helped advance the core freedoms that make the difference between liberal and non-liberal states: According to Freedom House, global respect for basic civil and political rights is in decline for the seventh consecutive year.

Of course, it is exactly those basic rights that non-free states want to neuter. When everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is cheap. To raise the stock and ensure the effectiveness of human rights, their defenders need to acknowledge that less is often more.