TWQ: Dusk or Dawn for the Human Rights Movement? - Spring 2009
April 1, 2009
About a month before the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the United States elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama. This historic event, a fitting milestone, brings to life that declaration, which human rights activists and legal scholars regard as the sacred text. Obama’s election fulfills a dream of the U.S. civil rights movement, a struggle that relied as much on the UDHR as on the courage of the men and women who for decades fought to make the United States a ‘‘more perfect union.’’ For human rights defenders around the world, its significance cannot be overstated.
Despite this singular achievement, the mood in the secular temple of human rights these days is generally somber and introspective. Obama’s election comes after eight years of declining U.S. leadership in human rights and international law. In nearly two dozen interviews conducted from September to November 2008 with activists, scholars, and critics of the human rights movement, several contended that the UDHR in 2008 would never have been adopted by 48 states as it was in 1948. Many lamented its still-aspirational quality and the continued marginality of human rights. As one member of the movement put it, ‘‘[W]e are in a period of constriction.’’ Another human rights leader stated simply, ‘‘[W]hat Martin Luther King Jr. called the human rights revolution has, like all revolutions, met its counterrevolution.’’
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, it seemed more than plausible that ‘‘the age of human rights [was] upon us.” Activists could point to ‘‘the collapse of military dictatorships in Latin American and East Asian societies . . .We had the end of apartheid in South Africa and, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism . . .We thought we were winning.’’ In policy journals, pundits wrote about a ‘‘power shift,’’ where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) increasingly set agendas and challenged state action. In academia, scholarship touted the “power of human rights.”
Today, terror, torture, and a backlash against human rights and democracy have replaced triumph. Rightly or wrongly, many of those interviewed define this recent bleak period by the relative ease with which the prohibition against torture was abandoned not by dictators in the far corners of the earth, but by policymakers in the U.S. capital. Some human rights leaders are critical not only of the U.S. government but of the movement itself, arguing it was slow to react to the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks and U.S. counterterrorism policies. They argue that their colleagues were skeptical or disbelieved that what had been built (the presumed consensus that torture was taboo) could be swept away with such stunning ease and rapidity. It was even suggested that some may have felt that the U.S. government’s measures, without knowing what exactly, were necessary for national security. Moreover, U.S. policies are by no means the only serious human rights challenge currently. The departures from international law seem to have been enabled by other states. Evidence suggests that some European states played a role in such U.S. abuses as facilitating the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects from justice. Meanwhile, the long-term prospects for human rights beyond Europe and the United States are dim as younger generations in China and Russia find authoritarian rule appealing.
Now, human rights mandarins argue that ‘‘we need a new strategy.’’ Drawing on interviews with several leaders in the movement as well as with critics and scholars, the sixtieth anniversary of the UDHR is an opportune time to reflect on the movement’s achievements, obstacles, and challenges. What would it take to move human rights from the margins to the mainstream? Although a comprehensive answer and strategy is beyond the scope of this article, below I assess the policy landscape, particularly in the Euro-Atlantic context, and suggest implications for the Obama administration and the nongovernmental community in an effort to provoke debate more widely.