An informal group of states that forthrightly reject criticisms of their denial of basic freedoms, while claiming to respect human rights, is becoming more aggressive, strategic and mutually supportive. With the near certain election of Cuba, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council during the 68th General Assembly, the trend will intensify. At the same time, many have reason to doubt the commitment of liberal democracies to human rights. In previous decades, violations of human rights incurred risks of Western retribution, but the tables have now turned and Western states are now often unwilling to risk defending human rights after subjecting it to a cost-benefit analysis.
But it would be a mistake to interpret the push- back against human rights merely as a defensive reaction or political theater. A coherent, alternative human rights ideology is emerging, enabled by the growing global emphasis on social and economic rights that was legitimated by the international community at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. While championing those rights, members of the anti-liberal rights caucus argue that criticisms about the violation of civil and political rights are disruptive of the international order and fig-leafs for aggressive regime change. In their speeches, they appeal to “international cooperation,” “even-handedness” and “dialogue,” painting themselves as the “party of peace.” As memories of the Gulags fade, Western economies falter and the global community has accepted an expanded human rights agenda, promises of “stability” and social benefits in return for restricted civil and political rights find wider acceptance. The anti-liberal rights caucus speaks to a new human rights community, which increasingly sees human rights in utilitarian and economic terms, as ensuring security rather than individual freedom.
Promoting a version of human rights that is compatible with authoritarian regimes, they are fighting a war of ideas. But liberal democracies are not fighting back, because they seem to have lost the will, or the capacity, to defend the core concept of human rights that is the legacy of the Enlightenment. If they wish to halt the weakening of the international human rights system, they must do more than robotically cite violations. They must better understand and articulate a vision of human rights that cannot be traded off for the paternalistic favors of authoritarian governments. Read the Freedom Rights Project Aaron Rhodes’ recent essay in the German weekly Die Zeit here.