The future of human rights

A new UN Resolution shows that as power moves away from the West, the future of human rights is uncertain.

The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century was a watershed for the West. It laid the philosophical ground for the natural law and individualism that has evolved into modern civil liberties and rights. The ability to openly discuss, and criticize, religion was at the core of the movement, embracing secularism over religious authority. The result was not only the political theory that underpins modern democracies but also that of human rights. The fact that human rights are a predominantly Western construct is widely, if tacitly, understood. The Enlightenment was a decidedly European affair, and its ethical rationale was grounded in Christian morality. Attempts at making human rights a universal norm resulted in international laws with enough loopholes and contradictions to render them worthless. But one of the unsung benefits of U.S. hegemony has been its ability to project its values and expose the rest of the world to the virtue of individual rights. Indeed, while some activist groups have twisted the meaning of rights to include the comforts of advanced societal and economic development âÄî condescending to poor nations at best âÄî the result has been a net positive. But a measure passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council last Friday a potential shift in the global human rights regime. Resolution 62/154 , introduced by Pakistan, made criticism of Islam a criminal offense. Yet human rights law allows no provision for protection of religion, only individuals. And the motivation for the resolution is political. True, Islam is too often associated with the terrorism that has afflicted the West, creating an unfair stereotype for Muslims. But Westerners have every right to be critical when death threats are levied against those accused of offending Islam. Islam is the only religion mentioned by name in the resolution. Cynics point out that the UNHRC contains many members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, many who have less than stellar human rights records. The UN resolution appears little more than a blunt instrument for curbing criticism of the conduct of Islamic governments (some privately worry it will justify repression of dissidents). This is little different from the complaint of anti-Semitism all too often used by IsraelâÄôs dogged apologists, a label that, alas, causes even the toughest of U.S. politicians to recoil. This is not to somehow single out Islam as being a threat to human rights, though the aforementioned example is illustrative. That governments have corrupted the purpose of human rights for political purposes is not new. Arab nations standing behind Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir while condemning Israel is simply geopolitics, neither a rejection nor upholdance of human rights norms. Resolution 62/154 alone may not ultimately signify much, but taken in context it creates questions over the future of human rights. As global power gradually shifts from the U.S. to Asia, how will the human rights regime change? Post-colonial resentment on the part of China has strengthened its jealous protection of sovereignty. The norm has been that states with both power and history as colonizers have pressed human rights on former colonies. As the once colonized become more powerful, and place emphasis on religion or nation over the individual, will human rights survive? St. JamesâÄô Street welcomes comments at [email protected]