Human Rights in a Post-Cold War World

By Forsythe, David P. | National Forum, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Human Rights in a Post-Cold War World


Forsythe, David P., National Forum


The idea of human rights is one of the most appealing contributions of Western civilization. Rooted in some aspects of Greco-Roman culture, developed by the Enlightenment philosophes, implemented on a grand scale following the American--and less securely the French--revolutions, the abstract concept of human rights has generated broad support. In the 1990s, from China to Chile, from Kampuchea to Kenya, people are demanding greater attention to human rights. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter, wrote provocatively in 1989 that the notion of human rights was "the single most magnetic political idea of the contemporary time."

Pursuing basic human dignity, or at least minimum social justice, by recognizing entitlements of the person is an idea whose appeal is clearly growing, even if it must compete with nationalism and state interest. The end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States has raised the possibility of creating a new world order in which human rights will be advanced still further. The central thesis of this essay is that international concern with universal human rights will continue to increase, boosted temporarily by events in Central Europe, but in an untidy process involving much attention to competing values as well.

Although events in Europe and elsewhere have created an environment conducive to more international attention to human rights, it may be wrong to think that these developments will bring about a new world order in which human rights are a prominent consideration. The complexities of the subject can be discussed by examining three paradoxes and a possible synthesis.

Consensus and Controversy. Since 1945, and especially since 1970, there has been growing agreement not only on the notion and core definition of universal human rights, but also on the propriety of certain types of international action to push for their implementation. At the same time, the question of human rights remains one of the most controversial issues in world affairs. Increasing consensus is accompanied by considerable contention.

During the first two decades of the existence of the United Nations (UN), internationally recognized human rights were considered "low politics," as opposed to such issues of "high politics" as state security, power, and prestige. The articles of the UN Charter obligating states to promote human rights without discrimination were mostly dormant legal theory. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 met with

the abstention of the Soviet Union and its close allies, as well as Saudi Arabia and South Africa. The only impressive international action for human rights was initiated in Western Europe, where the Council of Europe agreed not only on treaty standards but also, over time, on measures of implementation and enforcement involving both conciliation and supranational adjudication. To a less impressive degree, the Organization of American States took action at the regional level to secure human rights.

Starting in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, a variety of factors altered this situation. The new states of the non-Western world employed the language of human rights to target Portuguese colonialism, South African apartheid, and Israeli seizure of territory. This movement within the UN led Western states to examine other situations under the microscope of actual practice of human rights. The result was broad attention to the matter within states by the UN Human Rights Commission and other UN bodies. On the heels of this development came a U.S. congressional focus on rights in reaction to the perceived amoral or immoral American involvement in Southeast Asia. After the Vietnam War came Jimmy Carter, with his ideas about human rights that materialized into actual policies of rights on a number of questions.

In the meantime the Helsinki Accords of 1975, with their ticking timebomb of human rights and humanitarian principles, were signed by thirty-five industrialized states. …

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