Fatalism, Denialism and the Protection of Human Rights

Aidan Hehir joins JiC for this post examine the state of contemporary human rights advocacy and offering a preview of his co-edited volume, Protecting Human Rights in the 21st Century. Aidan is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster. He has previously written for JiC on the new Kosovo hybrid tribunal.

(Photo: Ghrnpostgradcluster)

The evidence is widespread and unequivocal: human rights are under attack across the globe. A 2015 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, pointed to the “rapid acceleration” of “spiraling crises”, evidence of an evolving “paradigm change” characterized by “an unchecked slide” into a new era of violence and human suffering. In his 2016 report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the UN Secretary General admitted that “the frequency and scale of atrocity crimes have increased”. Freedom House’s 2017 annual report recorded the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Amnesty International’s latest report likewise lamented the “unrelenting misery and fear” spreading across the world. The number of major civil wars has increased three-fold in the past decade with an attendant increase in war-related crimes against civilians. For the first time in seventy years, famines are on the increase as a direct consequence of the increase in “war and atrocities”. Add to this the spread of insular, xenophobic populism in Europe, the election of Donald Trump in the US, and the ongoing travails of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the picture looks decidedly bleak. Surely, the proverbial “something” must be done?

Protecting Human Rights in the 21st Century is a response not just to this precipitous decline in respect for human rights, but also to the two dominant responses to this trend, which Robert W. Murray and I have termed fatalism and denialism. Motivated by our belief that both are not just illogical, but ultimately unhelpful, we offer a collection that addresses what has gone wrong since the end of the Cold War, what has worked, and what may work in future.

Remember the “End of History”?

The end of the Cold War inspired many effusive analyses predicting the dawn of a new era for human rights. While these perspectives were far from homogeneous, the widespread optimism then prevalent, coalesced around one central theme: the inevitability of progress. This was a time when people believed in the “End of History”, in the exponential spread of liberalism, democracy and respect for human rights; a time when “global civil society” was touted as a force that would increasingly compel states to act when “something” had to be done; when the UN was, according to the then US President, “poised to fulfil the historic vision of its founders” and usher in, “A world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations”.

The debacle in Somalia, the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide deflated this teleological fervor somewhat. But, by the end of the 1990s, the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the interventions in Kosovo and East Timor restored faith in the “progress” narrative; indicatively, in their 2000 World Report Human Rights Watch celebrated a “new willingness” on the part of the international community to act in defense of the oppressed, and heralded “a new era for the human rights movement”. Suffice to say, this optimism has since vanished.

Fatalism and Denialism

Today, Human Rights Watch’s (not unique) faith in the international community of course looks hopelessly naïve. Clearly the efficacy of “global civil society” was greatly exaggerated as indeed was the inherent benevolence of Western states. Commitments to protect human rights have certainly permeated to the very center of international political discourse but, ultimately, talk is cheap. As Amnesty International noted bitterly in its 2016 report, while governments have increasingly employed the language of human rights, “….the gap between rhetoric and reality, was stark and at times staggering”.

In response to the recent upsurge in human rights violations two dominant narratives have emerged. On the one hand, those purveyors of what Ken Booth described as “doctrinal realism”, have cited these developments as proof that their reading of international relations remains accurate; global decline in respect for human rights is, they argue, a function of the immutable systemic constraints that “force” states to prioritize order over justice. In this sense, the end of the “unipolar moment” is celebrated by those who gleefully exclaim, “I warned you!” as they point to the backlash against liberal internationalism, as particularly evident in the rise of China and Russia.  Purveyors of this worldview invariably dismiss international organizations and their laws, championing instead the sovereign state as the supreme political unit. With their calls for “spheres of influence” and a “balance of power” they talk the language of the Cold War, explicitly negating the importance of human rights, and prescribing instead the prioritization of a narrowly conceived notions of “order”.

Then there are those who appear constitutionally incapable of admitting that R2P has failed; people who in fact claim that R2P “cannot fail”, and continue to herald R2P’s “tremendous progress” despite the weight of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, even when some of its most prominent proponents do accept that R2P has not had the effect predicted when it first emerged, many appear unable to suggest anything beyond “let’s try harder”. Indicatively, in a recent interview the UN Special Adviser on R2P acknowledged that atrocity crimes were increasing, yet his solution was to use R2P to “do more to protect the most vulnerable”; his plan involves mobilizing mass support for the protection of human rights and leveraging this pressure against states so that they change their behavior. Yet, surely the last six years have proved that this strategy of moral advocacy simply does not work. Indicatively, in 2012, Tim Dunne and Alex Bellamy predicted, “In the coming weeks and months, Russia will find it more difficult to stand in the way of concerted international pressure on Syria”. Clearly their faith in the power of societal pressure to “shame” states into behaving in accordance with their pre-existing commitments to human rights has proved misplaced. Surely then, rather than flog a dead horse, it’s time to pursue a different strategy?

The Future of Human Rights Protection?

In the prevailing debate, an unattractive binary between fatalism and denialism has come to dominate. Indeed, in light of the steady stream of bad news and degenerating trends, Alex Bellamy declared that we all face a stark choice; “throw up our hands in despair and retreat to cynicism or try our best to redouble the effort”.

Unhappy with this artificial framing of contemporary events, the authors in this volume have sought to investigate alternative approaches. While this collection is not bound by a ridged theoretical framework, common methodology or shared end-goal, the contributors were asked to think beyond the fatalism/denialism fissure and offer analyses that might point towards a means by which the protection of human rights could have a viable future.

The collection is, therefore, organized around three themes that we hope can collectively help steer the existing debate towards more fruitful discussions. First, the chapters in Part I constitute analyses of the underlying assumptions relating to human rights and humanitarian intervention within the liberal internationalism paradigm dominant since the end of the Cold War. Second, in Part II, the contributors advance an examination of the very idea of “protection” and in particular the emergence of the “Protection of Civilians” concept within UN Peacekeeping. Finally, Part III offers critical reflections on why R2P has failed, what we might learn from this failure, and what alternatives exist that have yet to be explored.

The key question for anyone seeking to navigate between both fatalism and denialism is “what might work better?” While this collection doesn’t purport to have a definitive answer, it seeks to facilitate discussions amongst those who seek to think beyond the existing binary and offer analyses that can help us to move beyond the current malaise. Ultimately, this collection is motivated by the conviction that while faith in “The End of History”, R2P, and the efficacy of moral advocacy can no longer be sustained (rationally at least), we need not allow the very idea of protecting human rights to dissipate along with these transitory phenomena.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Guest Posts, Human Rights, Humanitarian Intervention. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fatalism, Denialism and the Protection of Human Rights

  1. el roam says:

    Thanks for that interesting post , here we have an illustration , how data , facts , occurrences can sometimes confuse us . This is because , the perception presented is too broad , and ignore , contradicting facts and data , and more precise observation of chain of events , and I shall try somehow even , to explain such amazing complication :

    Everything started really , with September the 11th attack ( on twin towers ) . Following that attack , the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan . The major occurrence , is the fact , that Saddam Hussein , brutal dictator , has been taken down , pretty smoothly and quickly by the US ( executed in fact ) . An horrific myth , about limitless and eternal power of dictators , has been very quickly reduced to its real size , and barrier of fear has been fading out . From here and on ( including more events , but falling short ) the ” Arab spring ” got its momentum , and dictators , started to fall , one by one .

    That is how , the world has become crowded with refugees , shaking order and nations , and enhancing terror all over the world . This has caused , tremendous changes in the perception of citizens all over the world .

    In Africa , well , far before , and yet occur , atrocities , are daily routine , has nothing to do with perception of human rights in the western world . There , the lack of central governance culture, implies over and over, the rule of: ” Winner takes it all “.

    The subprime crisis, also contributed to that national protectionism and perception of anti global and regional arrangements (what necessarily hurts the UN, and human rights).

    But all this , has nothing to do really , with erosion of human rights , in theory at least . The models are there, aspiration yet exists, things are improving , far greater than in the past.
    It has only gotten a serious setback , but , due to the ” wrong ” reasons fortunately , not the ” right ” reasons .


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