Where’s the humanity in human rights?

Jon Holbrook

Topics Politics

From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention, David Chandler, Pluto Press, 2002.

When NATO nations bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, UK prime minister Tony Blair declared that it was ‘not for territory, but for values’.

Two-and-a-half years later, President George W Bush described the bombing of Afghanistan as an act of ‘generosity of America and our allies’, for the ‘oppressed people of Afghanistan’. From Kosovo to Kabul (and before that, in Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia) international intervention is being justified in the name of defending human rights.

Many writers champion human rights discourse today, usually focusing on the most barbaric and degraded aspects of human behaviour – from genocide and torture to mass rape and ethnic cleansing. David Chandler, who has written widely on human rights, democracy and international relations, asks a question that most of these writers probably think is too self-evident to be addressed: is the ethical agenda of human rights intervention desirable?

Chandler considers the impact that human rights discourse has had on the growing number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and United Nations (UN) bodies. He argues that the humanitarianism pursued by such bodies has changed: humanitarian intervention no longer seeks to save lives in the short term, but to pursue a long-term ‘greater good’. For example, much humanitarian assistance was denied to Afghans when NGOs refused to cooperate with the illiberal Taliban regime. After 11 September, even the UN World Food Programme suspended its shipments to Afghanistan, despite the growing humanitarian crisis.

The full impact of human rights logic was captured by liberal UK newspaper the Observer on 21 October 2001, when it argued that even if bombing Afghanistan meant that 100,000 children would die of starvation it would still be ‘humanitarian’ militarism because the Afghan people would be better off in the long run (1). According to Chandler, the real losers of humanitarianism are the poor and the hungry, whose needs are seen as secondary to the greater good of human rights.

Today’s undermining of sovereignty is central to the human rights agenda. After the Second World War, international law was based on the principle that nations should not interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state, as enshrined in the United Nations’ Charter. Human rights advocates, however, see sovereignty as the central barrier to peace and justice.

In his subtle critique of this approach, Chandler distinguishes between sovereignty and sovereign equality. In the new world order where human rights are paramount most states will retain their sovereignty. As UK House of Commons leader Robin Cook said, the shortly-to-be-created International Criminal Court ‘is not a court set up to bring to book prime ministers of the United Kingdom or presidents of the United States’. But weaker states will lose their sovereignty – and if some states are ‘more equal’ than others, the basis for international law is undermined. As Chandler observes:

‘[A]s we have seen in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and Afghanistan, the development of new international jurisdictions has heralded a return to the system of open Great Power domination over states which are too weak to prevent external claims against them.’

Chandler says that this approach to international relations resembles the ‘might is right’ approach of the prewar era – but in the twenty-first century it is no longer ‘legitimised by a conservative elite, on the basis of racial superiority and an imperial mission, but by a liberal elite, on the basis of ethical superiority and a human rights mission’.

Chandler’s book is not a critique of human rights – he is as concerned about human rights abuses as most people. Rather, his book is a critique of the human rights approach to international relations. Far from promoting human rights, says Chandler, this approach undermines them. On top of the chapters on NGOs and international law, Chandler develops his argument with chapters on (ethical) foreign policy, human rights theory, approaches to war (‘peace-making’ in human rights speak), and modern-day governance (otherwise known as ’empowering local people’).

Chandler’s concluding chapter asks why a discourse that has so little to commend it has won over so many activists, radicals, academics and mainstream politicians. Bernard Kouchner’s career epitomises the development of the human rights consensus. As a radical French doctor in the late 1960s, Kouchner criticised the apolitical approach of the Red Cross and other NGOs during the Biafran civil war. In 1971, he established Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and now symbolises the new humanitarianism of modern-day NGOs. In 1999, this radical aid worker became a mainstream politician, when he was appointed UN governor of Kosovo.

If there is one value Kouchner has stuck to during his transition from the political fringe to human rights epicentre it is that, in his words, ‘man himself’ is the ‘worst enemy of humanitarianism’. According to Chandler, what underpins the human rights consensus is a degraded view of humanity. The human rights discourse assumes that human beings are not capable of governing themselves. Chandler writes: ‘[I]nstead of the “new humanitarianism” we need a new humanism, a positive approach to problem-solving that makes the most of people’s capacity for autonomy and collective rational decision-making, a capacity denied by the proponents of ethical regulation from above.’

In his foreword, Professor Edward S Herman of the University of Pennsylvania notes that Chandler ‘makes an invaluable contribution in spelling out how the human rights activists have rationalised an abandonment of the rule of law and return to a system in which “might is right”‘.

Chandler’s book is thorough and relentless in its critique of the human rights consensus. It is not just an antidote to the human rights discourse, but is a tonic for all who adhere to a positive view of humanity. It deserves to be read widely.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister based in London. Email

Buy From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

Read on:

Faking democracy in Kosovo, by David Chandler

Ripping up the Charter, by David Chandler

Third time wrong, by David Chandler

Human rights trump democracy

(1) Fighting for a better future, Observer 21 October 2001

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Topics Politics


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