Human Rights Imperialism

By Heuer, Uwe-Jens; Schirmer, Gregor | Monthly Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Imperialism


Heuer, Uwe-Jens, Schirmer, Gregor, Monthly Review


"Human Rights" has been for a generation the chosen battlefield of U.S. worldwide propaganda. The United States, which imprisons a much larger percentage of its population than any other country, routinely sets itself up as the universal arbiter of human rights. Its propagandists argue that the sole alternative to the "universality "of human rights as set out by Jesse Helms, Madeleine Albright and George Soros is a relativism that would give a different meaning to human rights depending on whether the humans involved are Western or Chinese, Judeo-Christian or Muslim, and so on. But this is a false dilemma. Despite its pretensions, U.S. interests are not universal interests; its courts are not World Courts; its law is not international law. But there are indeed universal human rights that have emerged in the global struggle to acknowledge our common humanity. As Uwe-Jens Heuer and Gregot Schirmer argue, they are those rights set out in international law by the treaties and declarations that have obtained the concurrence of the states of the world. We must fight for the recognition in practice of these human rights worldwide. And perhaps their greatest enemy is none other than that very "Human Rights" that is no more than a tool of U.S. policy, and is proclaimed to the world ad nauseum by its media, its NGOs, and its diplomats.

- The Editors

I

Human rights were embodied in international law for the first time half a century ago. According to the United Nations Charter, one of the goals of the organization is international cooperation "to advance and strengthen the respect of human rights and basic freedoms for all people, regardless of race, sex, language and religion." The thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 set out in detail the UN Charter's goal of international cooperation for the advancement of human rights and basic freedoms. The Convention on Prevention and Prosecution of Genocide of the same year is a great advance and landmark in the body of international law, binding on the states that have ratified it. These two achievements, which came at the very moment of the inception of the cold war, were due to the continuing democratic-antifascist impetus of the struggle and victory of the Anti-Hitler coalition in the Second World War. In the verdicts at Nuremberg the Nazi leaders were not only convicted of war crimes but also of crimes against humankind. The recognition of human rights in international law is thus a lasting triumph of the great antifascist coalition that split apart with the start of the cold war. But in its aspect as ideology (as opposed to its aspect as an element of international law), "human rights" became an effective weapon of the cold war and remains a heavily used propaganda tool of the new neoliberal global regime. It is on this distinction between human rights in international law and in (neo-imperial) ideology that we focus here.

The next great advance after 1948 came with the adoption of the two International Covenants, on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in 1966. These treaties are legally binding, but there is only an extremely weak mechanism for their implementation. The explicit inclusion of economic, social, and cultural rights as human rights within the scope of international law was a major accomplishment. It stands today as a reproach to orthodox neoliberal ideology, although it is characteristic that social rights are formulated as general goals to be gradually reached. These treaties were made in the context of that advance in human freedoms marked by the breakdown of the colonial system and the growth of the liberation movements. The primary international political actors have not been quick to ratify these treaties, which first took effect in 1976. The United States first joined the treaty on political rights in 1992, and still does not adhere to the treaty on social rights.

The human rights established in these and other universal and regional agreements are certainly not the neplus ultra of the legal regulation of the development of human emancipation.

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