Magazine article Foreign Policy

The End of Human Rights? Learning from the Failure of the Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The End of Human Rights? Learning from the Failure of the Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court

Article excerpt

THERE IS NO DOUBT that the human rights movement is facing the greatest test it has confronted since its emergence in the 1970s as a major participant in the international order.

A bellwether of this crisis has been the essays that Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has written introducing his organization's annual reports. One I has to go back to 2014 to find Roth writing in a relatively sanguine way about the future of human rights across the globe. That year's report is couched in the positive terms of its title: "Stopping Mass Atrocities, Majority Bullying, and Abusive Counterterrorism." By 2016, he was musing on "how the politics of fear and the crushing of civil society imperil global rights." And the following year, Roth warned Human Rights Watch's supporters that the rise of populism "threatens to reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement."

And though in the 2018 report Roth claims that things may not be as bad as they have been for the previous three years, he leaves no doubt that they remain very bad indeed. Roth concludes that a "fair assessment of global prospects for human rights should induce concern rather than surrender--a call to action rather than a cry of despair."

Strip away the activist language and what emerges is a human rights movement forced to refight and relitigate battles it once thought won. Human Rights Watch is not alone in calling for an all-hands-on-deck response from its supporters. In its own 2017-2018 report, Amnesty International states: "Over the past year, leaders have pushed hate, fought against rights, ignored crimes against humanity, and blithely let inequality and suffering spin out of control." But, like Roth, the authors of the Amnesty report conclude that "while our challenges may never be greater, the will to fight back is just as strong."

The question remains as to why the most prominent international human rights organizations seemed to have missed the gathering storm until, with the rise of populism in Europe, it reached them.

Of course, outside critics and scholars of the human rights movement--such as Stephen Hopgood, Samuel Moyn, and Eric Posner--had already predicted that the legalism of the human rights movement no longer sufficed. Implicit in the liberal human rights narrative is the idea that once binding legal norms are set, realities on the ground will eventually conform to them. It is a legal approach that simply has no place for German scholar Carl Schmitt's idea of the law as inseparable from politics, rather than above it. As far as the human rights movement has been concerned, once what the writer Michael Ignatieff called the post-World War II "revolution of moral concern" got fully underway, it was a matter of when--not if--an international system based on human rights would prevail throughout the world.

But for the moment, at least, Brexit, Donald Trump's presidency, and the steady rise of China have shattered the human rights movement's narrative that progress is inevitable.

Nothing is inevitable in history-except of course, sooner or later, the mortality of every civilization and system--and both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are quite right to refuse to concede defeat. It is possible, though not likely, that the human rights movement will be more effective with its collective back against the wall: an underground dissident church as it was during its beginnings, rather than the secular church of liberal globalism that it was at its apogee. What is clear, however, is that the global balance of power has tilted away from governments committed to human rights norms and toward those indifferent or actively hostile to them. Into the latter camp fall, most obviously, China, Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Venezuela. Roth all but admits as much when, in the 2018 report, he speaks of powers that "have withdrawn" from the struggle for human rights, even if he holds out some hope that small and middle-sized nations will fill the void. …

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