Seventy-five years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the birth of the post-war international human rights system, politicians and activists continue to cling to its promise of global moral unity, perhaps revealing displaced religious impulses that have taken the form of progressive, global institutionalism.  Isaiah Berlin observed that, “From the Greeks and the Hebrews to the Christian Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, unity was the great virtue. Truth is one, many is error.”  

The logic of universalism has led to a belief that our common human nature mandates a common set of rules.  The United Nations, and the UDHR, are still seen as the custodians of, and emblematic of “universal values.”  Their legitimacy rests on both the moral appeal of universalism, and on confidence in the efficacy of international law as a civilizing force.  International humanitarian, and later human rights law emerged in an effort to give secular legal force to principles of natural law, and while references to natural law today are often dismissed as archaic invocations of dogmatic orthodoxy, international human rights law weakly marches forward, in the shadow of natural law, under the UN’s tarnished banner.   

At the UN Human Rights Council and other assemblies, national representatives ritually give voice to the exhausted rhetoric of global human rights, speaking of the equality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights.   The concept of individual, inherent natural rights as negative liberty has been merged into a capacious and still proliferating array of other rights that are dependent on the differentiated and arbitrary will of governments, and thus not generalizable or truly universal.  Human rights are increasingly disrespected around the world, but the promotion and implementation of human rights is in the hands of undemocratic majorities in inclusive and democratic institutions.  Could it be that the institutionalized universalism of the UN has itself become an obstacle to the realization of human rights protections?

The UN, though founded with the aim of both ensuring international peace and security and the protection of human rights, has presided over a demoralization and neutralization of the compelling call for freedom and democracy. After 75 years, the system’s internal contradictions have become more than an obstacle to the reform of human-rights violating regimes; today they legitimate those regimes, revealing that the human rights system too often serves the violation of human rights, including by perpetuating hypocrisy and dangerous illusions.   The UN human right system today obscures the truth about violations of liberty and dignity; legitimates regimes responsible for these crimes against human nature; and indirectly suppresses liberal political movements.

Obscuring the truth

The drafters of the UDHR sought a document that was universal in the sense of reflecting the views of all cultures as regards what constitute human rights, but this catholic commitment to inclusion has undermined the idea of human rights as inherent natural rights and freedoms.  With the ambitious project to promulgate moral principles of natural law as codified international law – something Aquinas warned against (Summa Theo. 1-2)  – the principle of natural human rights has been subjected to legal politics and propaganda in the international state of nature.

The devolution of human rights concepts and distinctions has reached a point where they are subject to balancing, relativization and obfuscating legal disputation, no longer capable of being criteria for governance and a north star for political reformers. During the Cold War, totalitarian and autocratic states were on the defensive in the international human rights arena, claiming that economic rights were the most important form of human rights, though this was not believed in Western societies.  Since 1989, the distinction between individual freedom and collectivist domination has gradually dissolved, largely through the process of human rights proliferation and instrumentalization by tyrannies.  

Indeed, tyrannies have learned to game the human rights system, validating the ancient lesson that as moral structures envelop more diverse elements, doctrines are perverted. The Chinese Communist Party introduces its human rights reports with statistics about poverty reduction.  Independent research by Chinese citizen organizations is illegal and harshly punished, and a UN investigation of massive detention camps for Uyghur Muslims was whitewashed under Chinese pressure.  

At the same time, a number of UN special procedures, set up by anti-democratic governments like Cuba, routinely produce propaganda against liberal states.  The UN bureaucracy itself has often deviated from its pledge of neutrality, and is often guilty of promoting socialism, as well as bending to political influences, even turning over the names of activists scheduled to give testimony about Chinese violations to the CCP.  A UN rapporteur assigned to monitor human rights in Gaza and the disputed West Bank territories continues to make blatantly antisemitic statements; she enjoys political support to remain.  After the October 7, 2023 Hamas pogrom in Israel, the UN’s women’s rights agency waited 50 days to condemn horrific sexual violence against Israeli Jewish women, seen as reflecting politically motivated ambivalence.  For decades, the UN has been a petri-dish for breeding toxic germs of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and indeed anti-Western bias.  The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) is facing evidence of complicity in terrorism.  

With the aggregate of states that comprise the UN in charge of global human rights, respect for human rights is not reported accurately, even by many who claiming dedication to the cause of human rights promotion.  While human rights is a growth industry for intergovernmental bureaucracies, autocratic states have used the bureaucracy to squeeze out civil society and silence independent voices;  under the influence of states like China, Russia and Iran, the space for non-partisan, civil society reporting continues to shrink. 

Legitimating Human Rights Abusers

After a brief period in the 1990s, when liberalization “had legs,” oppressive governments have made a comeback on the battlefield of human rights, making an end-run against Western democracies that have grown complacent and increasingly unsteady thanks to the advance of progressive ideologies that undermine confidence in constitutional freedoms.  Using their superior numbers as political leverage, autocratic states have sought to associate themselves with UN human rights institutions and the universal ideals they represent, thus undermining complaints by their citizens.  

With an emphasis on inclusive bureaucratic processes, rather than the integrity of principles and concepts, the human rights community often regards this as a sign of health:  Some years ago, I asked a leader of the Universal Rights Group how he evaluated the work of the UN Human Rights Council.  He praised it on the basis of China’s increasing participation, much of which served to defend violators and neutralize mechanisms for establishing evidence.  Cooperation with UN human rights treaty bodies has been assumed to lead to the progressive reform of human rights violating regimes, but while practices of such regimes have either remained bad or worsened, the UN itself that has been corrupted.  

Exposure of human rights violations is essential toward the de-legitimation of such regimes, but while this function of international human rights organizations has been reduced, abusive governments increasingly derive prestige and bureaucratic power through leadership of human rights mechanisms.   Leadership and visibility in international institutions confers prestige and legitimacy.  A recent example is the appointment of Iran, a state that massively murders peaceful protesters, to chair the Human Rights Council’s Social Forum, the outcome of a normal process in the rules-based international order.   As it did with China, the UN went ahead with a visit to Iran over the protests of the civil society community, a visit that leaves an impression of normalcy in relations with the world’s top human rights agency.  On February 26th, Iran’s Prime Minister prominently addressed the Human Rights Council, using the opportunity to demand an end to the mandate that focuses on human rights in the country.   During a review of human rights in China under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, China was praised by a majority of UN member states for its human rights record, and in turn Chinese diplomats gushed about the “non-selectivity” of the UPR.   

Indeed, a majority of members of the Council itself are grave human rights violators, but under the rules of the UN, and its inclusive institutional approach to honoring the human rights, such regimes have every right to participate in, and lead human rights institutions.  A brazen push-back against the idea of human rights, and institutions meant to offer objective assessments of human rights conditions, is underway.   Liberal democratic governments and the establishment human rights community, committed to multilateralism and progressive institutionalism, and thus locked into support for the UN human rights system, can only protest against specific instances of hypocrisy and political manipulation; they cannot understand, or express, that the system itself makes possible the degradation of human rights principles and their exploitation to ensure regime stability. 

Stifling Movements for Political Freedom 

The oppressive governments dominating the world body obviously have an interest in maintaining the political status quo.  Unfortunately, the human rights system serves their purposes – detaching the idea of human rights from its roots in natural law available to reason; bestowing legitimacy that can help insulate them criticism; and by diverting efforts for reform toward dysfunctional, centralized intergovernmental processes, and away from local political realities.   

The failure of the international human rights system to transform societies through international treaties and other mechanisms is manifest in the continuing decline in the number of free nations documented by Freedom House.  After working in international human rights for over 30 years, I would advise anyone wishing to devote themselves to improving human rights in their society to focus on domestic education and political advocacy rather than on cooperation with international institutions, which dissipates energies, and generally only results in minimalistic, legal concessions.  Human rights monitoring should not be influenced by partisan loyalties, but political rights protections need to be at the center of partisan campaigns, even when such movements are marginalized or made illegal by repressive regimes.  Such regimes would prefer that activists spend time drafting reports and recommendations for UN bodies, rather than on building a human-rights-oriented political culture.  

The international human rights movement has been fragmented by the proliferation of human rights it has promoted; a survey of local protest movements maintained by the Carnegie Endowment shows few explicitly struggling for basic political freedoms.  This can be partly explained by dangers freedom movements now face as a result of improved state surveillance technology, and also diminishing respect for liberal ideals given negative political and cultural trends in advanced democratic societies.  

Nevertheless, it reveals that, with human rights in retreat around the world, movements for basic political freedoms have little vitality, desiccated by a bureaucratized system that has sapped the life out of the principle of natural rights.  Legalistic universalism has undermined moral universalism.  This problem deserves open-minded and sober reflection.