Human rights have lately become the focus of a global debate, but the idea raises profound ideological, cultural and normative issues that the current debate does not sufficiently address itself to. This paper brings to bear on the issues of human rights a world-order viewpoint that is sensitive, not only to the question of state power, but also to economic rights and social justice, as well as the problem of militarization. The paper argues against the tendency to abstract the question of human rights in a manner that makes it irrelevant to the broader, world-order agenda.
Nature of conflict is entrenched in the natural condition of mankind. On account of constant fear procured from this nature for the weaker sections of society, philosophers argued for creation of moral and legal obligations for protecting the interests of human beings. This followed the formulation of human rights in its modern sense. Though human rights are synonymous with every human civilization throughout the history, the nature of these rights were mostly in pursuance of the natural condition of conflict where it was directed in favor of one group over another. The current form of liberal world order based human rights regime was shaped after the World War II and is the most influencing regime ever formed in the human history. There have been no other human rights system as widely acknowledged as the one we are living in. It is based on the principles of mutual respect, human dignity, equality and democratic values.
In the bipolar world of the cold war era, human rights became part of an ideological struggle. The systematization and monitoring of these rights benefitted from the power struggle between Soviet Union and the United States of America [US]. The human rights regime was at its peak after the fall of Berlin Wall. In the following unipolar era dominated by the US hegemony, the regime at times did suffer from backlashes but nothing was that serious to threaten the base of this regime at all. Now when the current world order itself is in departure, the future of this human rights regime is under skepticism.
American hegemony is on a decline, particularly due to their own policies aided with the rise of regional players. The American-dominant world order is set to be replaced by a multi polar order, where numerous developing states will have a share in the global power. These emerging states are mostly authoritarian or illiberal democracies having a poor record on human rights subject. The changing course of global power would adversely impact the current human rights regime. The change is inevitable but the degree of such change could be controlled since the international order is very deeply rooted in the current world order. It is where the role of emerging democracies and traditionalist powers become important to control the course of such change.
Stagnancy coupled with global order is a false concept often intermixed in the international relations. The end of every global order is inevitable and they expire in a prolonged deterioration rather than taking an unexpected collapse. Ever since liberalism became the center of the global order in the 1940s, it has been under constant threat from the actions of dominating state as well as non-state actors. This liberal order that was created in the aftermath of the Second World War produced huge benefits for the people across the planet. The years following this period brought unprecedented growths like prosperity and raise in standards of human rights. In particular, the human rights regime received a boost with the different newly formed human rights order centered on upholding the values of humanism. This order was centered on the principle of mutual respect of sovereignty and it persisted the cold war and American hegemony and the challenges thereafter.
But the liberal world order is now deteriorating and the US is fast losing its superpower status that it gained post-Soviet collapse. Experts argue that this breakdown of US power started with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the present administration policies which seem disinterested in leading the global order is the end point of US hegemony. With this end, there are multiple aspects of world order that is possible and foreseeable. Some argue that the world order will remain unipolar with the classical power swift happening from one great power to another, others argue that the world order will return to pre-1992 bipolar phase while the most convincing argument being the multi polar world order where the global power could be concentrated in small pockets of numerous countries. With the rising economy and military powers, the regional powers will have a share in the concentrated global power in the upcoming order.
With the shift in the world order, the international institutions supporting the order will find it difficult to adapt to the new conditions. The older order was primarily supported by liberal democracies, now there is a constant shift of powers from these democracies to authoritarian and illiberal democratic countries. The liberal world order saw the rise of free countries by at least 36 percent which is now at a constant rate of decline. The new world order is thus set to be dominated by countries with poor human rights record. With these set of countries dominating the world order in the coming times, the liberal order based human rights regime will suffer severe repercussions.
Global human rights came into play only after a long period of power shifts and brutal wars rather than peaceful international relations. Post World War II, the liberal order gave prominence to the United Nations which was seen as a standing global forum which would set uniform guidelines for attaining mutual trust and orchestrate domestic as well as external policies of a state. In the third General Assembly of the United Nations held in 1948, the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights [UDHR] was adopted which could be credited as the principle document of the current human rights regime. Article 28 of the UDHR emphasizes on entitlement to a social and international order which upholds human dignity and liberty. In the following years, numerous national and international human rights organizations were set up which ultimately established an international order based on the principles of Article 28.
The human rights order has been shaped by the actions of state as well as non-state actors. Under the state actors include the nature of states, the domestic laws and the geopolitical interests the state serve to the particular cause. For the non-state actors, there are two broad heads of human rights organizations, the intergovernmental organizations [IGOs] or the international non-governmental organizations [INGOs]. The IGOs are formed by treaties amongst several states. Upon ratification of the same, the states become legally bound by the objectives set out in the treaty. The INGOs on the other hand carry out support services along with pressurizing the states for attaining rights. In the past, INGOs like Amnesty International or Red Cross have been successful in influencing political processes including areas of high politics affecting national sovereignty and the actions of other key players. The human rights order thus created has established deep roots in the current world order.
Western countries played an extraordinarily large role as funders and conveners of human rights organizations, directly or indirectly shaping the mode of working of these organizations. Several states have argued that the organizations have been shaped in such a way to best suit the dominance of the western countries. For instance, there have been criticisms of Responsibility to Protect doctrine which have been time and again usurped by the West to wage wars in other countries. The double standard invasions to bring peace to a region have not gone well with the advocates of human rights. Countries are losing confidence in the established institutions like never before. Many countries have either left or have showed their intentions to leave the International Criminal Court over alleged political bias. Other human rights institutions are also not free from these threats. The principles of democracy as enshrined under UDHR are not feasible in a world ruled by far right or authoritarian states. If the world powers are shifted from the west to the regional players, then it is certain that these organizations in their current form would suffer a backlash. While traditional powers are unwilling to reform the institutions, the emerging states are becoming more assertive in the global politics in the same place. The formation of New Development Bank by BRICS countries show that if the emerging states are not better accommodated in the existing institutions, such as World Bank or UNSC, they will weaken those institutions by creating alternative ones.
The issue of human rights disorder cannot be limited to non-western countries. In recent years, the rise of populism has resulted in deteriorating human rights accord in the western countries as well. Populism is a growing ideology and an anti-establishment movement which share suspicion and hostility towards the established institutions. Studies have indicated that populist governments have eroded individual rights and inflicted serious damage on democratic institutions. In Europe for example, the increasing immigration from the Middle East and the need for preservation of cultural identity per se started the populist tide and now, the far right groups emerging from populism are expressing discontent with the established human rights laws. Several states are even passing protectionist laws aimed at curbing basic rights of refugees as enshrined in the Refugee Convention or the UDHR principles. The rise of populism has not only affected Europe but it has gone past the Atlantic to the US. The protectionist policies coupled with growing human rights abuse of the migrants shows the changing nature of administration to deal with human rights issues. Though the abuse on several counts like Guantanamo Bay have been there in the US but the current administration is very vocal in carrying out these abuses and making it sound like a norm. The multi polar world order will continue to have considerable say of these western countries and they are ought to act as saviors of the established institutions but with the rise of far right groups here they are most likely pursuing the protectionist policies and evade their responsibilities to act.
Populism have gone past all possible barriers to distant countries like Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil and other emerging powers. This is leading to swift transfer of liberal democracy to illiberal ones. For instance, the Philippine government has initiated its war on drugs policy where thousands of extra judicial killings have taken place. Brazil has also shown cumulative numbers of extrajudicial killings. Indonesia is also witnessing the rising tides of populism where the far right opposition is witnessing strongholds in different pockets of the country. Unlike the west where populism is constrained by strongly established democratic institutions, in Asian countries these institutions are generally weak and populism could prove more dangerous to democracy. These countries are the vital regional players who will have significant say in the new world order, the rising populist tide in these countries is thus worrisome for the established human rights order.
The authoritarian states will have a dominant share in the rising multi polar world order. Countries like Turkey, China, North Korea, Russia etc. and regional groups like African Union, Arab League and the like will have a considerable say in the world order. The human rights record of these countries range from poor to very poor. Of these countries, China is likely to have the most important share of the global power but its autocratic government sees human rights as existential threat to the state. The Chinese government has long pushed the current human rights order as an infringement of its sovereignty. Its recent episode with detaining of thousands of Muslims from Xinjiang region clearly shows the poor human rights agreement it would provide for in its capacity. The current human rights order will always have some kind of infringement on the national sovereignty thus one should not expect provision of the authoritarian states in this regard. Further, there are certain provisions in the UDHR which are clearly in contraventions with the foundations of these states. For instance, Article 29 calls out for establishment of democratic societies which is not a feasible alternative under an authoritarian rule.
The rise of these authoritarian states challenges the liberal order built around human rights, democracy and international justice. These states were always skeptical of human rights organizations and will abstain from progressive interpretations of human rights obligations. The attitude of these states is going to make the current human rights regime ineffective per se given the dominance of these states in the current world order. Though one could argue that the current international order has very deep roots in the society and is not easily threatened by these changes, these authoritarian states even during the current regime have successfully crumbled upon the human rights in their own domestic spaces. With the shift in world order in their favor, they could extend their domestic policies to the international sphere and change the course of human rights in the world.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington cited democracy and the subsequent human rights from it as the inevitable consequence of the assertion of US dominance. He said
“Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; non-proliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of democracy.”
The rules-based system under which international relations take place is in flux, providing an opportunity to reshape and redirect the global order. Emerging powers emphasize the importance of democratization both domestically, where they are grappling with their own internal processes of reform, and multilaterally, where they question whether actions of established powers are commensurate with their principles, argue for universal application of rules and norms, and insist on a greater voice at the decision-making table.
They have the opportunity to shape the future of global governance as leaders and are proving themselves important players in global affairs, but this shift has been more marked at the level of regions and neighborhoods. The results of multipolarity in the global sphere have been more ambiguous and it remains to be seen whether the liberal world order persists or a new framework emerges with rising powers at the helm of a more elastic set of norms. While it appears certain that human rights will remain a durable legacy of the era of Western hegemony, the cause of enlarging democracy stands on less solid footing.
“Authoritarian stability has enabled prosperity whereas democracy has brought chaos and increased misery. Should we enforce democracy on people who may not be able to handle it and destroy themselves?”
The advocates for autocracy will undermine the human rights system for shaping up their rule and establishing long term powers in the process. The emerging authoritarian states have from time and again created deadlocks in the existing human rights system for resolving humanitarian conflicts. The deadlock created in the UNSC over Syrian Civil War by Russia and China is the most latest one. Estimated suggest that over half a million people died in this conflict but still a no-vote was given for intervention in Syria. This was partly due to the misuse of humanitarian intervention in Libya by NATO troops earlier where the said intervention failed gloomily. The reasons also ranged to Russian alliance to Syrian government which it sought to protect while the western countries launched an offensive against the government at the same time. This is a perfect example of inefficiency the human right order could turn into.
The current international order has survived decades of violent wars and instability. But the stability was partly due to the fact that the US and its allies were able to maintain their hegemony. With this hegemony set to be broken, an unstable human rights order is just a matter of time. Owing to the protectionist policies, the upcoming major world powers would denounce these set of rights and will look forward to replace these with a new set of rules. The nature of these rules is easily foreseeable from the domestic policies that these countries have been serving in the past. It makes the next generation of human rights regime look bleak and cites our future to be on the verge of being in dystopia.
George Orwell in his famous novel 1984 cited that “power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shape of your own choosing.” This quote is very relevant to the current scenario of the changing world order where the emerging powers will restrict the shape of human rights regime suitable for their own purposes. The new Orwellian world therefore would push us back decades and nullify the efforts that were done for creating this most effective human rights regime in the course of history. The human rights regime is under threat, particularly due to the actions of the parent countries of the regime and also due to the rise of emerging countries elsewhere. The traditionalist countries are presenting little to no interest in upholding the values they created for protection of human rights. If the human rights order is to somehow survive in the changing world order, it would depend on how these emerging states are able to bridge the gaps that exist between traditionalist and conservative powers.
You May Also Like: