Wednesday 3 April 2024

Criticisms of International Human Rights


 Criticisms of International Human Rights

This is the text of an entry that I was asked to write last year by a group of people in Europe who proposed an on-line encyclopedia of global affairs, but who never followed through on publication. In consequence, since I retain ownership of the copyright, I’ve decided to post it on my blog, with references and further readings deleted. Warning: it is 2083 words long.

The International Human Rights Regime

The international human rights regime is a system of declarations and treaties that the United Nations began formulating in 1948, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A declaration is a statement of principles that a State can vote for at the UN. Treaties are laws that countries are expected to adhere to once they ratify (legally approve) a treaty. Declarations are often considered “soft law” that countries should adhere to even in the absence of treaties. 

The International Bill of Rights [IBHR] is composed of the UDHR, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, [ICESCR] both of which entered into force in 1976. A covenant or treaty enters into force when a specified number of States has ratified it. 

These documents are statements of principle. It might seem obvious to readers that the principles of human rights should apply universally. However, there is much debate among scholars and activists about whether human rights should be universal. Activists and scholars also point out many other problematic aspects of human rights, as discussed below.

The Debate about Universality

Some critics deny that human rights are universal. They believe that the human rights regime is a colonial creation, reflecting the views and wishes of the Western world, or the global North. In fact, 56 countries collaborated in formulating the UDHR. These included many non-Western countries, for example, Soviet Bloc and Latin American countries, as well as China and India. Both Soviet Bloc and Latin American countries had distinct conceptions of human rights, especially “economic” human rights, which influenced the formulation of the UDHR.

Sub-Saharan African countries did not participate in the formulation of the UDHR, as they were colonies at the time. However, many representatives of African nationalist organizations lobbied the UN for the UDHR. They pushed for Article 2 of the UDHR, in particular, which stated that everyone had human rights, even if they were still inhabitants of colonies. This was especially important as the colonial powers of the time had actually opposed extending human rights to colonial subjects. As former colonies became independent, they participated in formulating the ICCPR and the ICESCR, as well as new treaties such as the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the 1987 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The one group consistently left out of formulating the international human rights regime is Indigenous peoples, who do not have their own countries. All Indigenous peoples are subject to the power of whatever State they reside in. In general, they do not have an independent say in formulating or applying any UN human rights documents. Indigenous peoples did, however, contribute to the formulation of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Critical Perspectives on Human Rights

Some critics argue that human rights reflect Western liberalism, especially its stress on individual freedom. They argue that too much emphasis is placed on civil and political rights such as protection from torture, freedom of speech, and the right to vote. This stress on individual freedom ignores the set of equally or more important economic and social rights, such as the rights to food, health care, and education. This is so even though both sets of rights are included in the IBHR.

Some critics argue that human rights have been overly judicialized. They claim that matters that should be decided by governments, or by discussions among groups or individuals, become legal matters for courts to decide. This, critics argue, is an example of Western judicial imperialism, in which Western norms of justice become universal norms, overpowering local or indigenous legal systems.

 Some feminist commentators argue that human rights are also too male. Human rights stress formal, legal demands against governments or other perpetrators, instead of informal means of dispute resolution, which women supposedly prefer. Moreover, these commentators argue that women are more interested in economic and social rights than civil and political rights. Their chief concern is taking care of their families, not speaking in public or participating in politics.

Two responses can be offered to the criticism that there is too much stress on civil and political rights. The first response argues that these rights have a strategic value. Without them, people cannot act in their own interests against the forces that oppress them. If speaking your mind about a government that steals your food gets you landed in jail and tortured, for example, then your right to food is meaningless. Women, like men, can be persecuted by governments for various reasons, such as their ethnicity or religion. They, therefore, need the right to speak out and take part in politics in order to defend their own interests, even if those interests are mainly to feed and educate their children.

The second response argues that civil and political rights have an intrinsic value. They cover many aspects of human existence that most people want, such as freedom of religion or the right to practice their own culture, a right covered by the ICCPR in Article 27. People also want the right to belong to a community or a nation. This is especially relevant for Stateless people, who officially belong nowhere, and live in a state of uncertainly with no rights and no one to protect them, even though the UDHR in Article 15 says everyone has the right to a nationality.

Community vs. Individualism

Some critics worry that human rights undermine communities. This can happen if human rights contradict local customs, which often arises in cases involving women’s rights, children’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. This can also happen if human rights undermine local belief systems, as in the case of freedom of religion. Currently some African and other governments, including Russia, argue that LGBTQ+ rights violate their own traditional, religious and cultural norms

 It is argued that human rights also focus too much on the individuals’ claims against the state, the community, or even the family, in the case of women’s and children’s rights. That is, they undermine the sense of collective obligation that communities need to survive. They teach people to put their own desires above the collective need, principles, and ethics of the community they live in.

 Thus, it seems to critics that people have rights but no duties. The human rights regime is based upon the principle that States have the duty to uphold human rights. The problem seems to be that individuals do not have similar duties. This is the case even though the UDHR in Article 29 states that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his [sic] personality is possible.” Human rights, in this view, reflect individuals’ desires, rather than their actual needs as expressed in international human rights documents.

 The international human rights regime creates cultural clashes. For example, insisting that a young girl has the right to sex education could be seen to undermine a community’s norms regarding abstinence before marriage. Insisting that gays and lesbians should enjoy human rights could be seen to undermine the entire institution of marriage. Insisting that Indigenous people stop using corporal punishment of members that violate their rules could be seen to undermine their way of making sure individuals obey community norms.

 In general, critics argue that human rights drive a wedge between different sectors of the community who might previously have lived together in harmony.

 Large-Scale International Problems

 Critics also argue that human rights cannot deal with the pressing, large-scale problems of the 21st century.

 Among these problems are the harms created by the global capitalist system. It is argued that human rights cannot help remedy the increasing inequality in the world today. It is not enough to have a regime that stresses minimum economic rights such as the right to food. Yet there is no human right to minimum levels of inequality, or any way to use human rights to prescribe a maximum level. Nor can human rights specify the public policies that are needed to provide an adequate standard of living, as prescribed in Article 25 of the UDHR.

 Either new sets of human rights, or new ways of dealing with large-scale worldwide problems, are needed to face collective threats to all humankind or to specific groups in the world. One such collective right is the right to development, protected by the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development. This right is essentially the right of developing countries to be protected from exploitation by developed countries. If properly implemented, it would require wealthy countries and corporations to modify investment, lending, banking, trade, and aid practices as applied to poorer countries. It would also protect local workers and populations from the harms caused by foreign banks and corporations.

The entire world is now threatened by climate change, yet human rights — grounded as they are in individual claims — cannot deal with this existential threat. Although there have been cases of people suing government entities for not protecting them from climate change, in general individual human rights cannot solve this problem. Nor can a human rights declaration of principles or even a treaty force States to do what is necessary to mitigate climate change and prevent utter disaster.

Similarly, human rights cannot solve the problems of war and peace. Prevention of war and guarantees of peace seem beyond the capabilities of the human rights regime.

 Sovereignty and Human Rights

The biggest obstacle to realizing international human rights is State sovereignty. While countries that have voted for UN human rights declarations or have signed human rights treaties are not supposed to violate the relevant rights of their citizens, many still do. The international system simply does not have the resources to police what countries do.

Short of war, the best that can be done is to impose sanctions on some of the States that violate human rights, such as restricting trade with those countries or restricting the movements of their leaders. Unfortunately, though, it is possible to avoid sanctions which, in any case, often harm local populations more than they harm their rulers. In extremely rare cases, the international community can accuse a state’s leaders of crimes against humanity or genocide and refer them to the International Criminal Court, a UN-created body based in the Netherlands.

“Northern” countries set their own trade policies, as long as they follow the rules of international organizations of which they are members, such as the World Trade Organization. Quite often, these countries will trade with other countries that abuse human rights, as national economic security takes precedence over human rights of foreign individuals. Similarly, both Northern countries and private banks profit by lending to the governments of under-developed countries. Human rights simply do not have the rules or tools to guard against economic exploitation of developing countries by Northern States and corporations.

Many non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, and many private foundations that disburse funds for worthy causes were created, and are still headquartered, in the West. Despite their worthy goals, they are sometimes accused of setting their own priorities, disregarding the priorities of Southern “partners”.

All sovereign States are free to make their own foreign policy decisions. Occasionally, Western countries take the human rights performance of other countries into account in their foreign policies. Some countries such as Canada, the UK and the US sometimes impose human rights conditions on their foreign aid. When they do so, the recipient countries can accuse them of human rights imperialism. In any case, most foreign and aid policy is based on national interests in relation to security, alliances, investment, and trade; there is very little room left over for human rights.


Human rights seem to be irrelevant to the actual problems besetting the vast majority of the world’s people. At best, human rights are one tool in a larger toolbox required to obtain social justice. Perhaps the stress on laws and treaties has obscured the reality of the limited reach of human rights.

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