Essay - Why is the UN Human Rights agenda so limited?
Although all civilisations and religions have had certain rights and duties, benefits and obligations for their people, the notion of human rights as it is currently understood is a Western model and arguably a rather young idea. The study of human rights is an extremely complicated matter and has been discussed and researched for decades and yet still no general agreement has been reached. This piece is set out to examine human rights and the importance of the UN agenda in the worldwide promotion of human rights. A brief historical overview will be given over the enforcement of human rights in international organisations, although it would go beyond the boundaries of this piece to describe the history of human rights activism in detail. The author will then discuss whether human rights are universal and go on to show the benefits of general and international rights of men. Finally, this piece shall debate why the UN human rights agenda is so limited given human rights are universal and promote international peace and security and it shall be argued that limited UN activism towards human rights is actually benefitting instead of interfering with the global promotion of human rights.
The notion of universal human rights, rights that are inherit in every single person independently of their power and social status, has been developed slowly but steadily since the eighteenth century in the Western world. Especially the Declaration of Independence and later Constitution of the United States that calls for all men to be equal with “certain unalienable rights” (US 1776), and advances made during the French Revolution are often quoted to mark the birth of modern human rights. The works of scholars such as Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant furthered this idea, and in the nineteenth century the first non-governmental organisations were set up to help protecting human rights. The League of Nations did mention certain aspects of human rights in their covenant but failed spectacularly in actually protecting these rights (Murphy, 2014, p.23). Only in 1941, US president Roosevelt proclaimed all men should live in freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear (Gordenker, 2014, p.210), and the Atlantic Charter deepened this thought so that after the creation of the United Nations, a UN Commission on Human Rights was created who set out to draft a Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, in all those years since, for many policy makers human rights have “come to represent a poisoned chalice” (Davies, 2010, p.450) and were always opposed by some. Contrary to popular belief, even the Europeans, who are usually claimed as inventors of the idea of universal human rights, felt somewhat by-passed and left out when drafting the declaration in the 1940s (Sluga, 2010, p.108). The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, although much celebrated at its creation, does not “mention any machineries of inspection and enforcement [of international human rights]” (Best, 1995, p.781). The international law of war was therefore, same as other disciplines, far ahead of the UN in terms of human rights acknowledgment and protection. The declaration itself is legally non-binding and was followed by various legally binding treaties that were though not mandatory to sign and were signed by some but not all UN member states (Mertus, 2014, p.469). The UN Commission on Human rights did have some early successes in developing globally applicable legal human rights frameworks and investigating human rights violations (Davies, 2010, p.450) but was due to certain failures lacking credibility and described as “highly biased, with groups of countries starting to defend themselves against supposedly unfriendly attacks from other groups” (Kjaerum, 2007, p.13). States’ actions in the UNCHR were more “cost-less gestures of appeasement of humanitarian public sentiment” (Best, 1995, p.787) than actual human rights activism. Some scholars even note an “initial reluctance to act on behalf of human rights” (Mertus, 2014, p.467) but since its founding the UN has indeed shifted from simple standard setting to worldwide promotion and even protection of human rights. The UNCHR was no powerful instrument with only one annual meeting and major structural problems, with only a little scope of action or influence and hindered by strong veto powers and its own member states (Rahmani-Ocora, 2006, p.16). So when the UNCHR was taken over from the UN Human Rights Council in 2006, the aim was to “not inherit the lack of commitment and willpower from the old CHR” (Rahmani-Ocora, 2006, p.20). Indeed, certain improvements were made, a smaller assembly and bigger budget, more frequent meetings, more carefully selected member states, resolutions against certain states and peer review (Rahmani-Ocora, 2006, p.17f.). This universal periodic review was set out as a major improvement but can be easily manipulated and furthermore the time and material considered per state are far from being sufficient (Davies, 2010, p.450). Undeniably, politicisation and selectivity were marked as the two main reasons for the failure of the UNCHR (Rahmani-Ocora, 2006, p.15) but the current debate shows that the new Human Right Council still suffers from similar problems (Mertus, 2014, p.471).
One reason for the ongoing struggles of the UN to deal sufficiently with human rights violations is widespread rejection of the idea of human rights in many parts of the world. Yet one has to remark that human rights are shaped by European and American as well as non-Western ideas and it is therefore not simply a Western product (Sluga, 2010, p.123). One example for non-Western influences is the strong notion of anti-colonialism in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights do undeniably show the spirit of their time (Best, 1995, p.788) and as is known, times are changing and the interests of states change as well. Before the Declaration of Human Rights became effective, the American Anthropologists Association submitted several recommendations and rejected the idea of universal human rights as “ethnocentrically Western” (Preis, 1996, p.288). The suggestions were denied and human rights became a legal and rather normative field (Preis, 1996, p.287). And indeed, most “non-Western cultural and political traditions lack not only the practice of human rights but the very concept” (Donnelly, 1982, p.303). Yet the discussion about universality is somewhat misleading since cultures are not fixed and strictly separated from one another, certainly not in our globalised world. And human rights “increasingly form part of a wider network of perspectives which are shared and exchanged between the North and South, centers and peripheries, in multiple, creative, and sometimes conflict-ridden ways” (Preis, 1996, p.290). After all, scholars as well as the general public agree that human dignity should be preserved and protected. There might be different approaches and definitions of human rights but, as Donnelly (1982) points out, they are “rights, not benefits, duties, privileges, or some other perhaps related practice” and having human rights “places one in a protected position” (p.304).