Some Problems with Universal Human Rights

If you look at the study of international relations, you may encounter the following neat and tidy story about political history:

I. A Common View of World History

In the beginning, there were many bad and backward people, who did many bad things. They did not know any better, but that’s not the point. This lasted thousands of years. Then, a subset of the bad people, Christians, killed a lot of each of each other in the Thirty Years War. This led to the first important event: the Peace of Westphalia. It is said that the peace ushered in the idea of sovereignty. The idea is that you don’t worry about what goes on within the borders of other nations. If the other nation is composed of degenerate Protestants that have fallen from the Way, so be it. Sovereignty does nothing to eliminate war, as Hobbes and others point out. For, all nations are in a state of nature with one another, there being no overarching police man or Leviathan above all nations that can bring down the hammer against miscreants. Nonetheless, sovereignty provides a framework for talking about disputes with other nations. 

Lots of other things happened. 

Then Woodrow Wilson said, “WWI was very bad. What if we got rid of war?” Some people agreed in speech, but almost no one important agreed in deed—not even the United States! 

Then WWII happened. 

What Hitler did (and not Stalin) inside of his borders was the worst thing that anyone has ever done. This leads to the second big important event of international relations: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document is more or less a Progressive version of the US Constitution that claims that all human beings all over the planet have dignity regardless of who they are or what they have done. The source of that dignity is ______. The document does NOT insist that all countries form democracies, but, if you read all 30 articles, you will see that an uber egalitarian democracy is implied. 

II. Some Confusions Emerge

There are now two competing standards of justice in international relations: sovereignty and universal human rights. Remember: the problem that plagued sovereignty is that there is no overarching and overwhelming power which can compel rogue nations to get in line as a police force would compel a criminal. Some will quietly mutter: “but won’t the United Nations sort this out?” No. It will not. As Hans Morgenthau points out repeatedly in his Politics Among Nations, the UN has only as much power as sovereign nations will give it. If it is not in the interest of sovereign nations to respect human rights, they will not, and none but a powerful sovereign nation can compel them to do otherwise.  

Shockingly, Morgenthau’s critique of of the United Nations is admitted by Obama UN Ambassador appointee Samantha Power. Indeed, she actually goes as far as to say that the United Nations is a tool for American interests!! Of course, one might have expected that this was so without her admitting it; but the admission is astonishing in light of the allegedly international character of the UN. If pressed, I am sure that Power would suggest that US interests are perfectly compatible with universal human rights for all. Nonetheless, it is worth noting a Liberal who admits that international organizations are tools for sovereign national interests.

Many “intelligent” observers of international relations have noted that sovereignty is too low of a standard of justice. Incredible observations have been made: in some countries like the United States, men and women can drive cars. In other countries like Saudi Arabia, only men can drive cars. Sovereignty protects the gross injustices of countries like Saudi Arabia. We must abolish it! But, somehow, these shrewd observers have forgotten to ask: WHY does this happen in Saudi Arabia? I have not looked into it. But, I don’t think a group of Saudi men got together to say: “how can we oppress women? I bet they would like to drive cars. Haha. Not this century!!” They probably consulted their holy texts, thought about the differences between men and women and decided that their law should be so. Again, I don’t know the exact reasons—but, I suspect they have reasons for doing what they did. Maybe they are wrong, maybe they are right. If you are among those who wish to change their mind, you are better off asking them why they do what they do than you are bullying them through sanctions to do otherwise.

These intelligent observers are hopeful that sovereignty will fade away into the past so that universal human rights might remain supreme. This is because they really care! 

Consider the view of actor George Clooney, a nuanced analyst of international relations. He made the following observations about the small Southeast Asian, Muslim majority country, Brunei: 

Hollywood actor George Clooney is calling for a boycott of nine luxury hotels with links to Brunei, after the country said gay sex and adultery would soon be punishable by death.

From 3 April, homosexuals could face being whipped or stoned in the tiny South East Asian state.

In 2014, Brunei became the first East Asian country to adopt Islamic Sharia law despite widespread condemnation. Mr Clooney said the new laws amounted to “human rights violations”.                              

 “In the onslaught of news where we see the world backsliding into authoritarianism this stands alone,” the actor wrote in a column for the entertainment website Deadline.

“Brunei is a Monarchy and certainly any boycott would have little effect on changing these laws”, he said. 

“But are we really going to help pay for these human rights violations?

Interesting right? Brunei’s core export is their international luxury hotels. One idiot actor, without much thought, says boycott! How many will suffer because of this utterance? Note this: he didn’t stop for a moment to ask: why does Brunei do this? ALMOST EVERY political community on earth has laws that permit some kinds of romantic relations and prohibit others. International human rights provide a simplistic framework through which we can easily spot so-called injustices. However, they do not help us learn very much. Interestingly, Clooney does not even think his sudden call-out will actually change anything. He just wants himself and his friends to remain morally pure while those in Brunei suffer—and in all likelihood, no one will suffer whom he hopes will suffer.

III. Conclusion

All we have done is raise questions. I mean only to point out that the standard picture of IR history is oversimplified and that universal human rights are a clumsy tool for figuring out what to do. They allow for very simple and ignoble observers to cry out indignantly instead of asking why

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