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Human rights; a new utopianism?

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Human rights; a new utopianism?

Alex Helling's picture
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Samuel Moyn the author of a book called ‘The Last Utopia’ argues that our current conception of human rights is not old at all, it does not go back to religion, or to natural law or even to comparatively recent events such as the holocaust. “Instead, human rights acquired their current prominence for a completely different set of reasons: globally, as an alternative to the failed nationalism and communism the world once found more appealing; and in the United States, as a moral response to the failed liberal internationalism of the early Cold War.” Utopias become much less compelling when it becomes obvious that they will never be realised. There have been attempts at imposing human rights already that have often failed or fallen far short of initial expectations beginning to create disillusionment. At the same time many nations have never accepted the idea of universal human rights beyond the very basics and have been outright hostile to the idea that human rights can be imposed. Such a relatively recent phenomenon therefore has little grounding to it and be essentially considered just the latest craze, is it therefore like other utopian ideas just going to disappear in a few decades time?

http://bosco.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/07/05/is_human_rights_just_the_latest_utopia
http://www.thenation.com/article/153993/human-rights-history
http://www.jstor.org/pss/2264900 potentially useful if you have access

5 years 2 weeks ago
KateDebate's picture
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But nations run by tyrants try to adopt the language and symbolism of democracy and human rights on the international stage. If human rights are something made by a "failing utopia", why do governments use them make their actions seem fairer and more legitimate. And why do some states insist that their people are not "ready" for certain human rights, especially the right to free expression?

4 years 41 weeks ago
Alex Helling's picture
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First of all it is too early to consider human rights to be a 'failed' utopianism (excluding the fact that if it is utopian it is unlikely ever to be reached) as for the moment at least it is still going strong and there are both still advances in human rights and it still provides a reason behind change and movements demanding change.

It is because it is not yet a 'failed' ideology (or is not yet recognised as such) that it is still a necessary cloak to wrap ones intentions in it, this goes for both democratic and nondemocratic governments. For democracies this is necessary for domestic consumption, it makes foreign policy seem like it is all about the good of the other nations rather than about 'national interest' and it can be used to justify interventions without seeming imperialist. For non democracy's it is necessary in order to placate the democracies. Dictators see that if they are not 'in' with the west they tend to be attacked or at the least demonised (as with the 'axis of evil') yet there are many dictators who get away with being dictators simply because they make themselves seem better, which allows the democracy's to say that this dictator is not so bad afterall - Hosni Mubarak before the Arab Spring is a good example of this, he had to sound a good ally to keep the US happy. 

Why some states insist their people are not ready is slightly easier to answer. If human rights are considered to include democracy, freedom of speech and expression then dictators need to find a reason to justify their existence. As a result dictators usually either proclaim that they are a temporary in order to restore order and prevent violence (temporary can be very flexible, remember Egypt's 'emergency' laws lasted for thirty years!) or else that their people are not ready/don't want democracy. This then justifies a period where there can be a dictator while the population is supposedly being made ready. The problem is that if the dictator ever agrees that his people are now ready for democracy then they should hold elections, which if they are fair elections they will probably lose. Of course dictators don't deny all human rights, most would probably agree with the most basic rights; right to eat, have shelter. So it is not always that they are just using the language of human rights, they probably believe some of it. Which leads into one of the main arguments against the idea that human rights is a utopian concept; some of them are pretty universal already and are achievable.

 

p.s. apologies for the slightly cynical tone of this post!

4 years 41 weeks ago
KateDebate's picture
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I don't think that dictators understand the right not to starve or die of exposure in the same way that we do. Surely recognising that someone has a right means that someone else has to recognise that they have a duty. If I deicde that you have a right to life, I also have to accept that I do not have a right to kill you. If I accept that you have a right to privacy, I also have to accept that I may not be able to talk about your business as freely as I want to. Dictators act in a way that indicates that they do not believe they have a duty to their people. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il Sung all allowed North Korean people to die of hunger and disease. They used food aid as a bargaining chip on the international stage. Neither of them acted as if they believed that they owed anything to the people of Korea.

I think that dictators only recognise basic rights in order to hold off massive, Arab Spring style revolts. People are much more likely to rebel if they have nothing to lose.

4 years 41 weeks ago
Alex Helling's picture
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You make the assumption that most dictators and autocrats kill people because they want to kill them, basically on a whim. Yes this is true with some dictators, Idi Amin and Pol pot, but for most dictators people lose their human rights due to being a threat to the state (regardless of whether they really are its the often warped perception that they are) - they loose their right to life due to their treason, those people have lost their rights due to not fulfilling their responsibility to be a loyal subject. Privacy is a totally different kettle of fish as it is not universal; there are some tribes who dont even understand the concept of privacy.

Does accepting the concept of human rights mean that a dictator has a duty to their people? I doubt that they think it does. I am sure that you believe everyone has a right to life, does that mean you personally have a duty to feed all those starving in Africa? While we concieve of the state as being responsible for those within it this does not mean their conception of the state is the same. Basically the duties are flipped so that the people have a duty to the state not the state having a duty to the people and this duty is more important than the individual's rights (they would probably waffle something about the collective being more important than the individual).

4 years 41 weeks ago
KateDebate's picture
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It would be completely ridiculous to claim that I felt duty-bound to feed all of the world's starving, just because I support people's right to be free from hunger. But I am not a government. I am not a Prime Minister or Secretary General of the UN. I did not put myself forward for those positions, I have not tried to build up a career in politics and I have not won any elections. In democracies, it is the duty of public officials, who are meant to be self-less, to see that basic rights are defended and upheld. I would certainly hope that David Cameron felt some sense of duty to ensure that I and my family do not starve.

Sometimes, if I remember my A level politics correctly, we even put our leaders on trial or force them out of office if they fail to take these duties seriously. We are allowed to do so as a kind of safety mechanism, to protect us from corrupt or callous officials.

But there is no official recognitition of the duty that dictators claim they owe to their people. There is no way to hold these individuals to their promises, even if they claim to be as serious about their position as democratically elected western leaders.

4 years 41 weeks ago
Alex Helling's picture
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I think the accountability of dictators is getting rather off topic and should be another forum topic of its own. I would like to draw us back towards the original intent of the topic (or what I think it was, it is long enough ago I am not absolutely certain!). I think that this debate is really about using Human Rights as a justification rather than about whether they exist or whether those espousing them and using them for their own ends really believe in them. Also whether human rights as a concept might eventually dissapear (may want to limit this to just those beyond the most basic rights that all states agree on - with democracy, privacy and freedom of expression being obvious ones that might loose ground in the future).

4 years 41 weeks ago
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1 year 15 weeks ago
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