Re-evaluating Today’s Human Rights Regime

Everybody favors human rights—the US, the EU, the UN, the leaders of the Church, and indeed all respectable public figures.

But what are they? There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation. They are rights we have simply as human beings, but what does that mean? It might mean that each of us has a right to expect other people to do what they should when their actions affect us, but then the term wouldn’t tell us much. We already know that people should act rightly, and we have an interest in their doing so and a willingness to back it up with compulsion when justice demands it. What does “human rights“ add to that?

Also, the term is expected to provide a practical universal guide for action, but people have different views on how others should act. If you’re a Catholic who accepts Vatican II, for example, you’ll believe that every human being has a right to live in a Catholic society, since the Council reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the Church and the true religion. But if that’s a human right, it’s not one likely to be accepted as a universal guide any time soon, since there are lots of Muslims and liberals who believe that everyone should live in a society organized on the principles they prefer.

So the phrase has to refer to something narrower than a general right to have people do what they should when their actions affect others. The most obvious interpretation is that it refers to actions with a large immediate effect on particular people when there is an international consensus that those actions should or shouldn’t be carried out. That accounts for the obvious examples of human rights that are used to persuade us that we should all support the movement as a whole, like the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution without a trial, and it leaves out rights no one seems inclined to include, like the right to live in a Catholic society.

But there’s still a problem, since it’s not clear what actions the inhabitants of Sweden, Borneo, Alaska, and Saudi Arabia agree should be done or avoided, how the agreement is to be determined, and what the point is of all the conferences, declarations, treaties, and enforcement actions when everybody agrees on what people should do anyway.

To make matters worse, it’s quite evident that the evolving body of standards now promoted as internationally obligatory human rights has nothing to do with actual agreement among the peoples of the world. How many people worldwide agree on the Yogyakarta Principles, which say that everyone has a human right to decide whether he’s male or female? How about the principle that children have a right of free association limited only by concerns like public health and order, so if you tell little Johnny he can’t play with Bobby because whenever he does there’s a problem, then to all appearances you’ve violated a basic human rights norm? (You might claim you’re only guiding Johnny’s exercise of his rights consistent with his evolving capacities, but that seems a weirdly artificial way to look at the situation.)

Not surprisingly, it turns out that what determines human rights is the consensus of the legal and human rights professionals who define them. As such, they articulate the basic principles such people believe ought to govern life in general. Those people do not of course hold their very influential positions in a vacuum. Their views are profoundly affected and indeed formed by the interests and views of even more influential persons and institutions. The result is that international human rights are basically an idealized image of the world that international governing elites would like to bring about. As such, they’re pretty much in line with what (for example) billionaires want.

But what is that? People who want to run things internationally like predictability, uniformity, control, efficiency, and technological rationality. They also want a principle that justifies their rule, and authorizes them to shut skeptics up, and they think they have found it in the claim that their rule promises a uniquely peaceful and orderly society that gives people as much as possible what they want. It will do so, they believe, through a mixture of transnational bureaucracies, which establish an overall administrative structure to monitor and control life in a way that is transparent from the top down, and global markets, since markets have turned out to be necessary for economic efficiency and rationality. (The latter necessity has resolved the former conflict between socialism and capitalism: the two have merged in a way symbolized by Obamacare or the use of eminent domain to help real estate developers with their projects.)

To perfect the system and achieve full transparency and control, all other authoritative ties and institutions have to go. The principles on which they operate make no sense from a bureaucratic or capitalistic point of view. They can’t be managed top down or translated into administrative regulations or market quotations, so they are presumed irrational, disruptive, oppressive, and most likely violent. So family, religion, particular culture, and the very concept of human nature have to be done away with as social authorities, and distinctions related to those principles declared violations of human rights. The world’s people must become a mass of equal individuals distinguished only by wealth and bureaucratic position or certification, devoted to career, consumption, and whatever socially manageable hobbies and indulgences they want to pursue in private, and who periodically vote to approve what their rulers are doing in their name.

And that is the state of affairs human rights are designed to bring about. They want government to act in a rational and orderly way, based on professional standards of evidence and procedure, and look after people in a way that, within limits, takes their desires and interests into account. With that in mind they allow the people to express their opinions and have some say in the choice of officials, as long as what they say, do, and choose lines up with the system and its presuppositions. And they commit government to reducing and eventually eliminating the effects of family, religion, and particular culture from social life. Gender and other boundaries must be abolished, leaving only distinctions based on property ownership and the functioning of supposedly neutral expert bureaucracies. Hence such documents as the convention on the rights of women, which requires governments to root out any cultural notion that the sexes are different, the ever more aggressive interpretations of those documents by committees and agencies, and the growing tendency to treat immigration as a human right.

Because the system that takes human rights as its ideal views itself as uniquely and transparently rational and beneficial, it views its opponents as ignorant, irrational, and malicious. Such people are dangerous to the order envisaged by human rights professionals and their backers, it is thought, because they represent an immense mass of tendencies and traditions that have no real place in it, so they must be suppressed. That is why, for example, the rights and protections proposed by such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not cover opposition to human rights and the institutions that claim to stand for them. In the face of “human rights,” human rights simply vanish.

With all that in mind, it seems clear that Catholics shouldn’t support human rights as the movement and system it actually is. Like sharia, it supports many good things and opposes many bad ones, but ultimately it stands for construction of an inhuman and tyrannical system that claims universal jurisdiction and is radically opposed to Catholic and indeed humane social thought. As always, Catholics will do best following their own way of thinking and speaking—otherwise known as preaching the word in season and out of season—rather than trying to maintain the appearance of public influence by merging the Faith, at least in appearance, into alien ways of thought.

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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