Analysis & Opinions - METRO U.N.

Human Rights: A Western Policy Tool?

| Dec. 05, 2018

It was not until after World War II that human rights ceased to be considered the exclusive prerogative of the sovereign state. The horrors of fascism and the holocaust created a slowly growing consensus around human rights as an international norm culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now celebrating its 70th anniversary that enshrines these values. Though legally non-binding it became the foundation of a multitude of global and regional measures that established a body of human rights law.

The tension between realpolitikand human rights has influenced events throughout post war history and continues to be visible today. The adoption of the 1948 Declaration coincided with the beginning of the   Cold War. Communist states, though nominally supportive of the Declaration, grossly violated many of its norms. The West treated the Cold War as a conflict in which it defended the values of democracy and human rights and shamed Communist countries by publicly exposing their violations where possible and by giving support to human rights groups and dissidents.  But at the same time the West had to learn how to deal with the Soviet led Communist bloc for reasons of Realpolitikin order to safeguard shared interests such as avoiding nuclear war, preventing nuclear proliferation or fighting climate change.  The decision on where to draw the line between human rights and realpolitikwas never easy and always controversial in Western domestic politics. In the case of Latin America Western policy often drew that line in favor of dictatorships in the name of shared anti-communism.

Human rights policy evolved in two significant ways, and in both cases the West played a decisive role in bringing this about. First, throughout the 20thcentury the UN refrained from intervening in internal affairs to deal with grave atrocities. That changed with the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect  (R2P) Doctrine in 2005 to protect citizens against abuse by their government. Despite considerable reluctance, to allow military intervention under this doctrine, notably in Southern countries, R2P nevertheless established a standard for growing efforts to affect human rights abuse inside countries. The mistreatment of Uighurs and Kazakhs in China provides a case in point where combined efforts of Western countries is putting pressure on the Xinjiang government to stop the internment camps. 

Second, human rights policy has increasingly focused on holding those individual officials including heads of government, who are responsible for gross violations accountable. The International Criminal Court was established for this very purpose, signaling to dictators that their misdeeds would be punished. Regrettably the US withdrew its signature to the founding treaty under President George W. Bush. President Trump has openly attacked the Court and threatened its judges while all other Western countries continue to firmly support it. The Global Magnitsky Actof the US targeting individuals responsible for human rights violations with sanctions is another method of holding individuals accountable. The European Union is now considering the establishment of a similar instrument on the basis of a Dutch proposal. Such measures have the advantage of pursuing accountability of specific individuals without hurting larger groups or populations with the negative impact of sanctions.

Upholding and defending human rights defines the very essence of what “the West” is about. Preserving and advancing human rights policy remains as important as ever in the present age of rising authoritarian regimes and authoritarian forces inside Western societies. It is to be hoped that in dealing with strategic though authoritarian partners Western governments will never lose sight of their value based foundation, above all the US as the West’s most powerful country.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kaiser, Karl.“Human Rights: A Western Policy Tool?.” METRO U.N., December 5, 2018.

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