An Interview with Stephen Hopgood on the Endtimes of Human Rights

An Interview with Stephen Hopgood on the Endtimes of Human Rights


The convention of UN Human Rights has two
or three elements. One is that there’s been a sort of progressive history towards
more individual liberal freedoms. Some people date this back several thousand
years, but mainly the revolutions of the 18th century, French and American revolutions,
the anti-slave trade movement, and then up into the contemporary era with post-Second World War conventions – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
the genocide convention, then a whole series of developments since then. So the
conventional view historically is things have been getting better and there may have been
stutters along the way, but effectively things have been on an upward trend.
More recently, historiographers have started to question this: both its deep
historical links/historical origins, but also that really human rights didn’t
get going until the 1970s. The 1970s onwards picture
is of a world where there’s increasing public support for human rights,
increasing international law on human rights, a whole series of conventions, and
then from the 1990s onwards, and particularly since the end of the
Cold War, some serious institutions to try to enforce those rights. The mechanisms which make this happen
are that largely international law supported by domestic lobby groups, who
link into that law, and international non-governmental organizations. The idea is that eventually we would
live in a world of law within which all power – state power, power at sub-state levels,
private forms of private violence like violence against women – all of these
things would be regulated through a legal framework from the international
level right down to the local level. But I think there are two further, if you like, bigger
structural developments linked together which are happening. The first is what we
might call the relative decline of the West – the United States experiencing a
relative decline. I think there’s no doubt the United States will still be
the most powerful country in 20 or 30 years time, but militarily, politically, it might
not be that much more powerful than China. And then you have another – a whole
array of states – Russia, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey – that
will be very influential. Not as powerful as the United States, but all together, there
you have all these centers of potential power, and they’re going to be very
difficult to coordinate, manage, and discipline in the way that the United
States and the Europeans I would argue have been used to doing for the last 40 or
50 years. So you have that, and that’s also created a space, particularly with
Russian and Chinese support, for a sort of legitimated more
authoritarianism. Russia and China in a sense legitimate this by emphasizing
national projects, state sovereignty. So if those western powers are less powerful and less able to support and embed human rights
institutions politically, and you have China and Russia and then a series of other
states pushing back against this, my bottom line about that is it is unlikely that
any further expansion of the influence or reach of human rights is going to be
possible and that human rights advocates really should focus on trying to embed
the institutions that they already have more effectively and not seek to expand
them further. The second thing would be greater
diversity, and I would stress at the outset that I’m not assuming this will
necessarily be a negative thing. Religion is a factor when it comes particularly
to some of what we might call private human rights abuses to do with gender,
LGBT rights, violence against women, the treatment of children. These are really
stubborn and difficult issues where people aren’t resisting them because they
are just against human rights. It’s because they have deep-seated cultural,
social values and norms, often religiously supported, that they are
committed to in a serious way. We also have renewed nationalism. The national
project would appear to have gone away. The EU gives you the impression it’s
gone away, but now what we see in many countries is a sort of renewed and vigorous
nationalism. And also the ability – and this is a weakness within human rights I
think – of some states and some religious and other groups to define
human rights in a way that is in fact not very supportive of human rights. So
Russia has done this for the traditional values resolution in the Human
Rights Council in Geneva, allied to the Russian Orthodox Church. Here we have
human rights, this is how we understand them, but the way in which they are understood isn’t really very progressive at all. So a sort of relative decline of the west and
western power not backing western institutions, religious and nationalist
diversity, and sort of cultural… you know, a much more diverse world of different
cultural norms, social norms. So the two of those things together means we’re
unlikely to get a world I think where human rights will be further globalized,
much more likely to get a world in which a degree of resistance is felt and we
have to tolerate a degree of diversity and difference amongst states –
that the human rights project has reached its limits effectively. I should say an aspect
of what I want to do is make people… an aspect of that “we” question is is
there a global human rights movement. Because within that there are disparities of
power, influence, and money, and priorities which make it I think at least plausible
to question whether there’s a singular global human rights movement. If I were part of a
movement like that and I had to decide what to do now, there would be two or
three things I would propose. The first would be that trying to embed and make
effective the international law which already exists. I think there’s a sort of
self-fulfilling tendency amongst human rights advocates at the global level to
think that if you stop pushing the train forward, the train will stop. So you must always have a new campaign
or a new proposal, a new convention, a new institution to work with what we
have, to work with the Human Rights Council on one of – probably one of the most effective mechanisms in international human
rights, which is the Universal Periodic Review, which is a sort of peer pressure
where states pressure each other. That does appear to have got some some traction.
But I wouldn’t be looking for a convention on crimes against humanity,
an International Constitutional Court, a World Court of Human Rights – all of
these things are going to put even more strain on something which in my view
already has shaky foundations. So really double down on what you have and try to
make that effective and try to filter that down into societies
rather than moving on to more international law and more international
treaties. So that would be one thing. The second thing would be rather than the
International Criminal Court approach to international justice, I’d suggest that a
much more effective approach is going to be trying to encourage national
prosecutions and national justice processes, and even in some cases local
justice processes. So I think the International Criminal Court is a deeply
problematic institution. It’s largely European funded now. It’s based in The Hague. I
think it’s a sort of… It’s a sunset on a world which has gone rather
than a dawn, which is how some of its supporters see it. So I don’t think it’s a
very relevant institution for the area of the world that may well be the
focus of much international politics in the next 50 years. So focus on trying
to get national justice processes going, which are more owned by the people and
the sort of political constituencies within the country and therefore likely
to have more effectiveness and have a sort of better long-term outcome. I’m
not romanticizing this. There are deep problems with those national justice processes,
and they can be instrumentalized too, but they have a head start in
terms of legitimacy. And then the third thing would be a sort of frank
conversation amongst human rights advocates about the nature of this
global human rights movement and about how international NGOs,
particularly international philanthropic funders give money to
different sorts of human rights movements locally. Do they give money
with strings attached or do they become a conduit for money which local human
rights advocates can use on the issues that are most important for them, which
may not be the priorities of the international human rights regime. So an example might be economic justice or
in India the right to food. This may be what local activists want to work on. It
may not be what international activists want to work on, and it may not be a very
good thing to raise money around in London, New York, Paris, Berlin. Do you
continue to say we think there should be global attention to trafficking, or do
you say okay in this country, issues to do with access to cheap
medicine are far more important than trafficking issues, so we’ll fund access
to affordable medicine in this area or we’ll certainly try to encourage a campaign
around affordable medicine. So my suggestion there is that there’s a
sort of split coming, or there’s a split that exists, and attempts need to be made to
negotiate away over that to try to keep something like the international human
rights movement together. As I’ve said, I’m kind of skeptical. I think some of the issues
around economic inequality manifest themselves within the international
human rights movement – very, very wealthy people, very, very poor people, and many of
those poor people are protesting where they are organized to protest about
economic inequality, the policies of multinational corporations. They’re not
protesting about the classic fights of civil and political rights. They see
their issues as being by the economic and social justice, and my view is that’s
not what the global human rights movement is about. Most of its effort or
large part of its effort goes into global institutions and global laws and
campaigns.

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