The Problem with Human Rights

Daniel Warner | While human rights are now ‘mainstreamed’ within the United Nations system, their regular operationalization on the ground is lacking. What is the point of having lofty principles and legal treaties when they are so often violated?

The International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) is taking place in Geneva until Sunday (March 17), and the United Nations Human Rights Council is currently holding its 55th regular session. But what relevance do human rights have to the two major conflicts taking place today? Official declarations of “grave breaches” and “serious violations” of human rights have not led to a stop in the fighting in either Ukraine and Gaza. For many of us, when it comes to human rights, there are too many pious pronouncements about violations with too few consequences for the violators.

What is the problem with human rights? If the basics of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were written in a non-legal, straightforward manner, I believe most people would agree with the Declaration’s principles. The first sentence of the Preamble could certainly use editing: Beginning “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” it continues for 320 words before arriving at a period.

But besides the obvious semantic difficulties, the central problem is the implementation of human rights principles and treaties. While human rights are now ‘mainstreamed’ within the United Nations system, their regular operationalization on the ground is lacking. What is the point of having lofty principles and legal treaties when they are so often violated?

An example of a lofty principle: Article 1 of the Declaration says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Who guarantees that all human beings “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood?” The “should” is conditionally ambiguous. Who is responsible when people don’t act “in a spirit of brotherhood?” Ought and is are not the same. The United Nations Human Rights Council and its country-examining Universal Peer Review are based on naming and shaming, and little more.

In his 1938 book, The Tyranny of Words, American social theorist Stuart Chase took on the problem of the relationship between words and actions. Chase looked for what he called “referents,” identifiers of the relationship between what is said and what is done. Article 1 of the Declaration, for example, has no referent for who should do what to guarantee that a spirit of brotherhood exists. Chase’s opus was an early foray into semantics. His insistence on referents explains why concepts like human rights may not have had the global impact the Universal Declaration’s authors envisioned. In principle, most people would agree with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR); what comes next is the challenge. Mainstreaming human rights in the UN system is not the same thing as being able to implement human rights on the ground or to punish violations. To use Chase’s terms, the UDHR lacks a referent.

There is no global governance to ensure human rights implementation; there is no global government to punish violators. Since states are still the principal international actors, it is up to states to implement the lofty principles in the Declaration.

A good example of the relevance of human rights with a specific referent is President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address. Without judging the quality of the speech—or Biden’s intention or ability to implement human rights at home and abroad—his frequent indirect reference to human rights is noteworthy.

Biden mentioned several rights: to education, health, decent living. Like many other political figures, the US President believes citizens have rights. And he sees himself as the referent for ensuring that citizens enjoy these rights.

I do not wish to overemphasize the importance of the FIFDH or the meeting of the Human Rights Council this week, but now is an opportune moment to highlight that all people have rights and that a government’s job is to guarantee their respect and implementation. Governments, their policies, and their actions, not Declarations or treaties, are the human rights referent Chase was looking for.