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Monday, 24 September 2018
 

The Case against Human Rights (3-3)

(Eric Posner) In a very rough sense, the world is a freer place than it was 50 years ago, but is it freer because of the human rights treaties or because of other events, such as economic growth or the collapse of communism?
Many human rights advocates respond that even if human rights law does not function as a normal legal system, it does provide important moral support for oppressed people. When the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which required it to respect human rights, various Helsinki committees sprouted in the eastern bloc, which became important focal points for agitation from dissidents. Women’s rights groups in patriarchal countries have drawn inspiration from the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Advocates for children can point to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International can pressure governments to improve the human rights they care about, even if they can’t get countries to comply with all their treaty obligations. The human rights legal regime, taken as a whole, has made human rights the common moral language of international relations, which has forced governments to take human rights seriously.
But while governments all use the idiom of human rights, they use it to make radically different arguments about how countries should behave. China cites “the right to development” to explain why the Chinese government gives priority to economic growth over political liberalisation. Many countries cite the “right to security,” a catch-all idea that protection from crime justifies harsh enforcement methods. Vladimir Putin cited the rights of ethnic minorities in Ukraine in order to justify his military intervention there, just as the United States cited Saddam Hussein’s suppression of human rights in order to build support for the Iraq war. Certain Islamic countries cite the right to religious freedom in order to explain why women must be subordinated, arguing that women must play the role set out for them in Islamic law. The right of “selfdetermination” can be invoked to convert foreign pressure against a human-rights violating country into a violation of that country’s right to determine its destiny. The language of rights, untethered to specific legal interpretations, is too spongy to prevent governments from committing abuses and can easily be used to clothe illiberal agendas in words soothing to the western ear.
And while NGOs do press countries to improve their behaviour, they cite the human rights they care about and do not try to take an impartial approach to enforcing human rights in general. Sophisticated organisations such as Human Rights Watch understand that poor countries cannot comply with all the human rights listed in the treaties, so they pick and choose, in effect telling governments around the world that they should reorder their priorities so as to coincide with what Human Rights Watch thinks is important, often fixing on practices that outrage uninformed westerners who donate the money that NGOs need to survive. But is there any reason to believe that Human Rights Watch, or its donors, knows better than the people living in Suriname, Laos or Madagascar how their governments should set priorities and implement policy?
Westerners bear a moral responsibility to help poorer people living in foreign countries. The best that can be said about the human rights movement is that it reflects a genuine desire to do so. But if the ends are admirable, the means are faulty. Westerners should abandon their utopian aspirations and learn the lessons of development economics. Animated by the same mix of altruism and concern for geopolitical stability as the human rights movement, development economists have also largely failed to achieve their mission, which is to promote economic growth. Yet their failures have led not to denial, but to incremental improvements and (increasingly) humility.
In his influential book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly argues that much of the foreign-aid establishment is in the grip of an ideology that is a softer-edge version of the civilising mission of 19th-century imperialists. Westerners no longer believe that white people are superior to other people on racial grounds, but they do believe that regulated markets, the rule of law and liberal democracy are superior to the systems that prevail in non-western countries, and they have tried to implement those systems in the developing world. Easterly himself does not oppose regulated markets and liberal democracy, nor does he oppose foreign aid. He instead attacks the ideology of the “planners” – people who believe that the west can impose a political and economic blueprint that will advance wellbeing in other countries.
Since the second world war, western countries contributed trillions of dollars of aid to developing countries. The aid has taken many different forms: unrestricted cash, loans at below-market interest rates, cash that must be used to buy western products, in-kind projects such as dams and plants, technical assistance, education and “rule-of-law” projects designed to improve the quality of legal institutions. For a while, the “Washington consensus” imposed cookie-cutter market-based prescriptions on countries that needed to borrow money. The consensus among economists is that these efforts have failed.
The reasons are varied. Giving cash and loans to a government to build projects such as power plants will not help the country if government officials skim off a large share and give contracts to cronies incapable of implementing those projects. Providing experts to improve the legal infrastructure of the country will not help if local judges refuse to enforce the new laws because of corruption or tradition or incompetence. Pressuring governments to combat corruption will not help if payoffs to mob bosses, clan chiefs, or warlords are needed to maintain social order. Demanding that aid recipients use money in ways that they believe unnecessary can encourage governments to evade the conditions of the donations. The Washington consensus failed because economic reform requires the consent of the public, and populations resented the imposition by foreigners of harsh policies that were not always wise on their own terms.
International human rights law reflects the same top-down mode of implementation, pursued in the same crude manner. But human rights law has its distinctive features as well. Because it is law, it requires the consent of states, creating an illusion of symmetry and even-handedness that is missing from foreign aid. Hence the insistence, wholly absent from discussions about foreign aid, that western countries are subject to international human rights law as other countries are. However, in practice, international human rights law does not require western countries to change their behaviour, while (in principle) it requires massive changes in the behaviour of most non-western countries. Both foreign aid and human rights enforcement can be corrupted or undermined because western countries have strategic interests that are not always aligned with the missions of those institutions. But the major problem, in both cases, is that the systems reflect a vision of good governance rooted in the common historical experiences of western countries and that prevails (albeit only approximately) in countries that enjoy wealth, security and order. There is no reason that this vision – the vision of institutionally enforced human rights – is appropriate for poor countries, with different traditions, and facing a range of challenges that belong, in the view of western countries, to the distant past.
With hindsight, we can see that the human rights treaties were not so much an act of idealism as an act of hubris
Development economics has gone some distance to curing itself of this error. The best development scholars today, such as Esther Duflo, have been experimenting furiously with different ways of improving lives of people living in foreign countries. Rigorous statistical methods are increasingly used, and in recent years economists have implemented a range of randomised controlled trials. Much greater attention is paid to the minutiae of social context, as it has become clear that a vaccination programme that works well in one location may fail in another, for reasons relating to social order that outsiders do not understand. Expectations have been lowered; the goal is no longer to convert poor societies into rich societies, or even to create market institutions and eliminate corruption; it is to help a school encourage children to read in one village, or to simplify lending markets in another.
It is time to start over with an approach to promoting wellbeing in foreign countries that is empirical rather than ideological. Human rights advocates can learn a lot from the experiences of development economists – not only about the flaws of top-down, coercive styles of forcing people living in other countries to be free, but about how one can actually help those people if one really wants to. Wealthy countries can and should provide foreign aid to developing countries, but with the understanding that helping other countries is not the same as forcing them to adopt western institutions, modes of governance, dispute-resolution systems and rights. Helping other countries means giving them cash, technical assistance and credit where there is reason to believe that these forms of aid will raise the living standards of the poorest people. Resources currently used in fruitless efforts to compel foreign countries to comply with the byzantine, amorphous treaty regime would be better used in this way.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the human rights treaties were not so much an act of idealism as an act of hubris, with more than a passing resemblance to the civilising efforts undertaken by western governments and missionary groups in the 19th century, which did little good for native populations while entangling European powers in the affairs of countries they did not understand. A humbler approach is long overdue.