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


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Human Rights Imperialism


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.