Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Human Rights and the State

These days we often sum up our highest political ideal in the words "human rights." But this is a recent development; the phrase was not common until the late 1970s, and the idea was little discussed until after World War II. Before then, rights were more often discussed in the context of the state. A good example is the US constitution, which simultaneously lays out a structure of government and guarantees certain rights to the citizen. In a review of Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia, John Gray argues that discussing rights in a sort of international vacuum is a terrible habit that has encouraged our clumsy interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan:
It is partly the loss of the insight that human rights can only be secured by an effective state that explains the failure of the regime-change policies promoted by neoconservatives and liberal hawks over the past decade. If rights are what humans possess in the absence of a repressive regime, all that needs to be done to secure human rights is to remove the despot in question. But if rights are empty without the state to protect them, then the nature of the government that can be reasonably expected to emerge when tyranny has been overthrown becomes of crucial importance. The political ideas that are taught in universities do not often shape political practice in any direct fashion. But there can be little doubt that those who promoted the Iraq War believed the removal of Saddam Hussein would allow something like liberal democracy to flourish in the country, and in believing this, they showed that their thinking had been molded by theories of rights that ignored the crucial role of the state.

A willed ignorance of history was also at work. If rights are universally human, embodying a kind of natural freedom that appears as the accretions of history are wiped away, the past has little significance. But if human rights are artifacts that have been constructed in specific circumstances, as I would argue, history is all-important; and history tells us that when authoritarian regimes are suddenly swept aside, the result is often anarchy or a new form of tyranny—and quite often a mix of the two.

Gray finds the notion of securing human rights particularly inappropriate for Afghanistan:

Afghanistan has never been ruled by a modern state. . . . Afghanistan is not so much a failed state as a pseudostate, in which power rests with tribes, warlords and drug dealers. The belief that human rights can be secured in these conditions is even more delusional than in the case of Iraq. Whatever else happens after the bulk of allied troops withdraw, the Taliban will be a potent presence in any government that is formed. Even if the pretense of democratic institutions is maintained, vital freedoms—not least of all for women, who have already been compromised by the Karzai regime—are likely to be extinguished altogether. Democracy cannot protect human rights when the most powerful political forces in the country reject them as illegitimate.

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