[Marxism] How the Human Rights Movement Failed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 24 08:42:28 MDT 2018

NY Times Op-Ed, April 24, 2018
How the Human Rights Movement Failed
By Samuel Moyn

The human rights movement, like the world it monitors, is in crisis: 
After decades of gains, nearly every country seems to be backsliding. 
Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and other 
populist leaders routinely express contempt for human rights and their 

But from the biggest watchdogs to monitors at the United Nations, the 
human rights movement, like the rest of the global elite, seems to be 
drawing the wrong lessons from its difficulties.

Advocates have doubled down on old strategies without reckoning that 
their attempts to name and shame can do more to stoke anger than to 
change behavior. Above all, they have ignored how the grievances of 
newly mobilized majorities have to be addressed if there is to be an 
opening for better treatment of vulnerable minorities.

“The central lesson of the past year is that despite considerable 
headwinds, a vigorous defense of human rights can succeed,” Kenneth 
Roth, the longtime head of Human Rights Watch, contended recently, 
adding that many still “can be convinced to reject the scapegoating of 
unpopular minorities and leaders’ efforts to undermine basic democratic 
checks and balances.”

That seems unlikely. Of course, activism can awaken people to the 
problems with supporting abusive governments. But if lectures about 
moral obligations made an enormous difference, the world would already 
look much better. Instead, those who care about human rights need to 
take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in 
majoritarian strongmen in the first place.

The truth is that the growth of international human rights politics has 
accompanied the very economic phenomena that have led to the rise of 
radical populism and nationalism today. In short, human rights activism 
made itself at home in a plutocratic world.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Universal Declaration of Human 
Rights, which was promulgated in 1948 amid the consolidation of welfare 
states in Europe and North America and which formed the basis of the 
human rights agenda, was supposed to enshrine social protections. But in 
the 1970s, when activists in the United States and Western Europe began 
to take up the cause of “human rights” for the victims of brutal 
regimes, they forgot about that social citizenship. The signature group 
of that era, Amnesty International, focused narrowly on imprisonment and 
torture; similarly, Human Rights Watch rejected advocating economic and 
social rights.

This approach began to change after the Cold War, especially when it 
came to nongovernmental advocacy in post-colonial countries. But even 
then, human rights advocacy did not reassert the goal of economic 
fairness. Even as more activists have come to understand that political 
and civil freedom will struggle to survive in an unfair economic system, 
the focus has often been on subsistence.

In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, both human rights and pro-market 
policies reached the apogee of their prestige. In Eastern Europe, human 
rights activists concentrated on ousting old elites and supporting basic 
liberal principles even as state assets were sold off to oligarchs and 
inequality exploded. In Latin America, the movement focused on putting 
former despots behind bars. But a neoliberal program that had arisen 
under the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet swept the continent along 
with democracy, while the human rights movement did not learn enough of 
a new interest in distributional fairness to keep inequality from spiking.

Now the world is reaping what the period of swelling inequality that 
began in the 1970s through the 1990s sowed.

There have been recent signs of reorientation. The Ford Foundation, 
which in the 1970s provided much of the funding that made global human 
rights activism possible, announced in 2015 that it would start focusing 
on economic fairness. George Soros, a generous funder of human rights 
causes, has recently observed that inequality matters, too.

Some have insisted that the movement can simply take on, without much 
alteration of its traditional idealism and tactics, the challenge of 
inequality that it ignored for so long. This is doubtful.

At the most, activists distance themselves from free-market 
fundamentalism only by making clear how much inequality undermines human 
rights themselves. Minimum entitlements, like decent housing and health 
care, require someone to pay. Without insisting on more than donations 
from the rich, the traditional companionship of human rights movements 
with neoliberal policies will give rise to the allegation that the two 
are in cahoots. No one wants the human rights movement to be remembered 
as a casualty of a justifiable revolt against the rich.

If the movement itself should not squander the chance to reconsider how 
it is going to survive, the same is even truer of its audience — 
policymakers, politicians and the rest of the elite. They must keep 
human rights in perspective: Human rights depend on majority support if 
they are to be taken seriously. A failure to back a broader politics of 
fairness is doubly risky. It leaves rights groups standing for 
principles they cannot see through. And it leaves majorities open to 
persuasion by troubling forces.

It has been tempting for four decades to believe that human rights are 
the primary bulwark against barbarism. But an even more ambitious agenda 
is to provide the necessary alternative to the rising evils of our time.

Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale and the author, 
most recently, of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list