The doctrine of human rights, as we know it - an invention of the era of liberation from feudal tyrannies - reached its apogee with the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, a declaration that expanded the classical notion of individual, personal, and formal rights to include a measure of social and economic rights. The debates over this declaration, occurring with the onset of the Cold War and largely obscured by the sharp ideological divisions of the time, highlighted the limitations of existing rights doctrines in addressing the socio-economic concerns that emerged with the maturation of capitalism. For most of the world’s people, the individual rights spawned by liberation from absolute, tyrannical rule were fine, but irrelevant to the conditions of desperate poverty, homelessness, insecurity, and social neglect spawned by an exploitive capitalist system and its destructive wars. For most of the world’s people, social and collective rights were at least as important as individual rights. For most of the world’s people, rights to the material means of survival, security, and welfare were at least as important as rights to act without restraint.
As the UN changed its political complexion over the next several decades, new covenants were added to address many of these concerns, though they were largely ignored or dismissed in Western Europe and the US. Instead, western intellectual circles shamefully clung to the classical doctrines of rights, serving, knowingly or naively, to justify these solid pillars of bourgeois rule at the expense of a more generous, robust, and relevant notion of human rights. Early in the Cold War, the celebrated essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” by Isaiah Berlin was established as canonical, dismissing any claims to rights-status for “liberties from…(want, exploitation, domination, etc)” as opposed to “liberties to…(travel freely, speak openly, own property, etc.). In point of fact, all of the classical rights were birthed by “liberties from…” - liberation from religious, traditional, or autocratic intolerance or domination. This artificial distinction was elevated to an unsustainable legitimization of what came to be called “positive rights” at the expense of the demonized “negative rights” associated with collective, social and economic rights.
Like sheep, the Western academic community dutifully fell in line with Berlin’s shallow special pleading for classic bourgeois rights. To this day, there is no mainstream liberal philosophical critique of Berlin’s dogma. Despite the exposure of the incestuous relationship of the CIA with Berlin and many of his colleagues by Frances Stoner Saunders (The Cultural Cold War), the Berlin essay remains a standard entry in political philosophy textbooks.
As the years past, the Berlin dogma became rooted deeply and popularly in the West. Once again, the classical doctrine was enlisted in the Cold War. Human Rights organizations sprung up, capturing the activism of young people and occupying center stage in the ideological battle with the socialist countries. The familiar criticism was that these organizations only aimed their guns at Cold War foes; the US and European branches seldom if ever found human rights violations in the homeland. But deeper than this criticism was the transparent identification of human rights with only the classical bourgeois rights. I could miss a few instances, but I know of no Western human rights organization that ever seriously took up the cause of the collective right to a job, equal pay, favorable conditions of employment, trade union rights (Article 23); rest and leisure (Article 24); or an adequate standard of living (Article 25), all fundamentally collective, social, and economical rights. In truth, Western human rights groups have shown no interest in the minimal social and economic rights guaranteed by the UN Declaration.
In our time, the stripped down human rights agenda – shorn of collective, social and economic rights – remains a centerpiece of ideological struggle, serving as the first line of attack against those countries deemed hostile to EU and US foreign policy objectives. Again and again, matters of human rights in this most narrow sense are offered to justify interventions (the former Yugoslavia), invasions (Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan), interference (Ukraine, Belarus, Lebanon), coups (Venezuela) and a half a century of cold war (Cuba). This is not to diminish the hard-won rights of the US’s and Europe’s revolutionary heritage – they are surely in need of vigorous defense from corporate aggression and abuse as well as domestic political erosion – but to oppose their opportunistic harnessing to the goals of our own ruling elite.
Human rights – understood as those rights enshrined by Western human rights groups, NGO’s and Western liberalism - are bourgeois rights in two senses: firstly, they are the product of historically distant revolutionary movements that liberated the bourgeoisie principally, but other classes as well, from the tyranny and caprice of political and religious lords; and secondly, they are of most use and relevance to those whose socio-economic status makes collective, social, and economic rights of little need or importance. In this regard, they are class-based rights. A successful lawyer may be prepared to fight to the death for his right to travel freely, yet have given no thought to the right to participate in a trade union. Similarly, a landlord sees the right to property as sacrosanct while failing to recognize any tenant right to a safe sanctuary.
One could write a book about human rights hypocrisy. For example, the US offered itself as a paragon of human rights – an example to the world – while maintaining racial segregation well past the mid-century mark of the twentieth century. The 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families is violated daily if not hourly by every country in the EU and the US, yet human rights groups are strangely quiet on this issue. Nor do human rights organizations or NGOs hold the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in any special regard. The declaration opens with the statement: “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights”. Surely the examples of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan violate this right. There is no exemption for cynical crusaders for human rights any more than there was one for the “civilizing” mission of the British Empire.
The same declaration affirms that “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. Presumably that right would exclude the intervention of foreign funded media and NGOs, as well as covert operations, interventions like Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti, the Soros Foundation, the Republican and Democratic Institutes, AID, and the CIA. Yet again, the human rights organizations show no interest in this right.
One might conclude that it is no exaggeration to say that human rights have become a matter of political convenience.
Jeremy Bentham famously called rights “nonsense on stilts”. This harsh conclusion misses the point that they are human inventions and accordingly are what we make of them. Marx, commenting on the rights celebrated in his time, wrote “none of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man … an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community”. Efforts to rescue human rights from this narrow vision are not welcomed by those bent on preserving privilege, power and exploitation.