What is the greatest challenge to the future of human rights? We are

There is still widespread support for torture designed to tackle national security threats.
There is still widespread support for torture designed to tackle national security threats.

This blog post is part of a series surrounding the event ‘Challenging Human Rights Leadership‘, in partnership with The Elders and the British Council Future Leaders programme, that will be broadcast at 6pm on Monday 29 October via Facebook Live. Visit the events page and select ‘Going’ to receive a notification when we go live. #humanrightsleaders

Many potential challenges come to mind: climate change, nationalism, inequality, growing authoritarianism, to name just a few. Ultimately, these different threats are linked to each other in complex ways (e.g., inequality has fomented nationalism). But all depend on the answer to a deeper question: ‘How important are the human rights of others for us generally?’ What will see us move away from human rights progress, to the extent such progress is possible, is that for many people these rights are not as important as their advocates would have us believe. When it comes to a trade off with other things people hold dear – their material well-being, their security, their children’s accomplishments – there’s plenty of evidence of reluctance to make sacrifices to realise rights.

Let’s take three obvious examples. In terms of inequality, even in the most rights-observing societies there is often reluctance among middle classes to redistribute income through higher rates of taxation. For many poorer people, nothing would make more of a difference than reliable access to high-quality education and healthcare. But in the US and UK, public funding for both is constantly being squeezed. We know that reliance solely on private sector solutions creates significant inequality. To give everyone the highest possible standard of medical treatment would go a long way to improve the human rights outcomes of people with few resources.

“States don’t much like rights – they’re an annoyance or an embarrassment. The survival, and flourishing of human rights requires people, the citizenry, the populace, to say that these rights are important and to demand their governments observe them.”

Or take the treatment of refugees. As many scholars have recognised, we are never so alone and never more in need of our human rights as when we do not have the protection of a national government. When we are refugees, all we have is our ‘humanity’. But far from this triggering deep concern amongst affluent populations, instead it seems to have triggered a kind of moral panic about immigration in Europe and has led to the rise of right-wing politicians. The courageous decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to open up German borders to a million refugees from Syria has weakened her politically, and has opened up the field of German politics to far-right parties and movements. When we add Islam into the mix, regardless of the importance of the right to one’s religious beliefs, things get even less rights-friendly.

Finally, torture. Nothing would seem to be more of a poster-child for our commitment to human rights than the claim that no-one should be tortured. Yet, when we look at opinion surveys of attitudes to torture, we discover widespread support for torture designed to tackle national security threats. We can also see this punitive logic in death penalty cases in many places, where the fear of executing an innocent person – not the fundamental human right to life – is the only reason that gets traction. And we can see it repeated across a whole range of civil liberties issues about freedom of information, or the press, of speech, or from surveillance. People will actually sacrifice a lot of liberty – the liberty of others but eventually of themselves – to keep what they have safe from harm.

I’ve always been struck by the lack of attention to Article 29 of the Universal Declaration. It talks of our duties to the community, not our rights. Its second paragraph states: “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

“People will actually sacrifice a lot of liberty – the liberty of others but eventually of themselves – to keep what they have safe from harm.”

Authoritarian states can use this article to suppress rights in the name of public morality or to crush dissent and remove (or embed) property rights. But this is not how democratic states, in particular, are supposed to act – they act to meet the demands of some coalition of their citizens. If they lose enough support among key groups within their citizenry, then the government will lose power or the democratic state itself might come under threat of being toppled. We have overlooked Article 29 because, for the most part, wealthy democracies have been ascendant since 1948. Now they’re under pressure, with the basic social contract – the deal that these democracies strike with their citizens – suddenly in question. New threats (like inequality, climate change, or the replacement of manual work by machines) mean those who fear that the old social contract isn’t in their interests any longer are making their voices heard. They say, ‘these are our jobs’, ‘this is our land’, ‘our community has certain shared values,’ and ‘people like us are the only real citizens.’ These sentiments are in direct opposition to human rights.

States don’t much like rights – they’re an annoyance or an embarrassment. The survival, and flourishing of human rights requires people, the citizenry, the populace, to say that these rights are important and to demand their governments observe them. And by that same logic, the people can sink them too. In the end it is us, we, however we define that problematic term, who will make the difference between the failure and success of human rights, whatever the external and internal threats we face.

Stephen Hopgood is a Professor of International Relations and Pro-Director (International) at SOAS University of London. His main area of interest is the international politics of human rights. Follow him on Twitter

This blog was originally published on The Conversation. 

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