It is virtually an article of faith that multilateral approaches are the morally superior way to address human rights problems. Unilateralism is a term of approbation that emerged as support for multilateralism became de rigueur. Promoting human rights unilaterally is associated with national chauvinism and cultural imperialism, something that even contradicts the idea of universal human rights. But deteriorating respect for human rights principles, in particular for fundamental civil and political rights, and the increasing bureaucratization of human rights compel us to question those assumptions.
International human rights standards are essential. They provide civil society groups and political activists at the national level with a framework to measure the performance of their governments, and to demand compliance with the overarching ideal of individual rights and freedoms. The over-emphasis on human rights multilateralism, despite its paltry results (not to mention the expanding range of human rights claims), has undermined faith in those standards and, indeed, faith in the idea of human rights itself.
Since the Second World War and the formation of the United Nations, the number of inter-governmental institutions has mushroomed to about 5,000, and promoting and working within multilateral institutions has become a growth industry promoted by a globalist elite.
International institutions focusing on human rights have brought nations together to agree on common human rights obligations and to contribute to promoting human rights. In the European and North Atlantic area, they form a complex and overlapping human rights “architecture” including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union (EU). High level bureaucratic positions have proliferated: In addition to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and around 40 special UN human rights mandate holders, the Council of Europe, which is purely an intergovernmental human rights organization, has a “Human Rights Commissioner.” EU has a “Special Representative on Human Rights” and just appointed a “Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief.” The OSCE operates a large human rights center in Warsaw, while the EU has the Fundamental Rights Agency in Vienna.
Establishing institutions and “high level” positions provides an illusion of doing something about intractable human rights problems, but it is essentially kicking those problems upstairs, into a region of largely symbolic activity shared by a narrow range of actors far removed from the struggles of women and men facing repression.
International human rights institutions have almost no coercive power. But the proliferation of those institutions has been actively promoted by members of the civil society human rights community, which has developed an obsession with the authority and prestige of the international political world. They often allow mechanisms and processes that have little concrete impact to absorb their energies. At the same time, human rights has been transformed largely into an intergovernmental project, taking the focus off the role of civil society. The number of international civil servants working in international institutions and focusing on human rights numbers in the thousands, and the cost to taxpayers, and potentially to independent groups, is significant. Cash-strapped liberal democracies pay out huge sums to support hungry intergovernmental organizations and have little left over to grant to nongovernmental organizations. While paying frequent lip-service to the importance of local and international NGOs in campaigning for human rights, a tendency toward human rights statism is palpable as the role of multilateral institutions has increased.
What is more, and worse, is that as a result of the nefarious influence of authoritarian states, multilateral institutions often obscure the responsibilities of individual governments for upholding human rights, and create obstacles to calling human rights-violating states to account.
Support for multilateralism is based on a “rules-based” model of the international community, and on the belief in cooperation based on “shared values.” But dictatorships don’t play by the rules, and often subvert them; that is the brutal reality of the world, which no amount of idealism can overcome. Authoritarian states have learned how to game the Universal Periodic Review Process (UPR), under which human rights problems for all UN members are systematically examined; they arrange for like-minded states, and spurious nongovernmental organizations, to praise their “progress.” They run down the clock with examples of upholding economic and social rights, relativizing problems like torture and censorship. Human rights violators thwart the efforts of multilateral institutions from within; they seek membership in such institutions in order to do so. The UN Human Rights Council thus cannot take action about powerful members like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
Cuba and like-minded anti-liberal states have incessantly called for international “solidarity” and “cooperation,” by which they mean an end to criticism about their violations of individual rights and freedom. Multilateralism has become a tool of oppression; the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which claims to be “The Collective Voice of The Muslim World,” is a 56-member bloc driven by governments that do not accept basic human rights principles. Russia is seeking other, multi-lateral formations based on authoritarian principles, and wants to transform the trans-Atlantic OSCE into an organization where it can veto opposition to its aggression.
The rhetoric about “shared values” in international human rights organizations is largely a pretense, and often a brazen insult to citizens living under oppression. At the 71st UN General Assembly, for example, Turkmenistan’s foreign minister intoned: “The current state of global realities […] objectively require increasingly closer and more coordinated interaction of States and major international organizations for the sake of achieving the common goal—ensuring international peace and security and preserving legal and institutional frameworks that form the foundation of today’s world order.” Turkmenistan is a totalitarian state, one with no political freedoms, despite having signed the Helsinki Accords; human rights researchers are barred from entering the country.
States that honor human rights need to resist the bureaucratization of human rights, which buries issues in discussions about structures, processes, and “coordination” in sterile and exhausted language. And they must ensure that their own human rights advocacy is not smothered by bureaucratic multilateral cooperation that balances out their concerns against those of partners that wish to ignore human rights violations and water down standards.
The EU has often been accused of presenting the “lowest common denominator” of its members in its human rights positions; its statements in international forums are typically bland and anodyne, products of cautious negotiations. As a human rights advocate, I welcomed Great Britain’s exit from the European Union because it will free up the UK to take on human rights violations, liberated from the need to agree with 26 other states on specific questions.
We cannot allow a romance with collectivism to get in the way to standing up for human rights. The billions of people struggling for freedom and respect need courage and independence in the international community. With liberal democracy and human rights in retreat in many parts of the world, and indeed undermined by illiberal tendencies within liberal democracies themselves, we need more strong and clear support for basic civil rights and political freedoms.
Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007. Rhodes was made an honorary citizen of Austria for his contributions to human rights. He was educated at Reed College and the Committee on Social Thought at The University of Chicago, where he was awarded a PhD.
Photo Credit: A general view at the Twenty-Seventh session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. 8 September 2014. UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré, via Flickr.