We are born in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties (there are nine “core” treaties) have been ratified by the vast majority of countries. Yet it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times. Women lack equality, political freedom is getting curtailed, child labour and forced slavery is rampant in much of the world. Socio economic inclusion of persons with disabilities in society is still a distant dream. Further, the heavy weight champions of human rights i.e. United States and Europe have floundered from blunder to blunder authorizing torture, mass surveillance, targeting civilians using drone strikes, funding and fueling religious extremism, protecting authoritarian regimes, and failing to control the xenophobia towards its Muslim communities. Yet still lingers on to the moral authority of launching military interventions based on the premise of human rights violations by states that are unfriendly towards western interests. Governments continue to violate human rights with impunity and silence those who speak against the atrocities. Almost 150 of 193 countries that belong to UN engage in torture and extrajudicial killings. An alarming number indeed. Any kind military intervention as seen recently in cases of Iraq and Syria have backed fire as well.
The sad reality is the western ideology of human rights have failed and there is very little evidence to support that human right treaties have done much to improve the miserable state of human well being. The failure of states in improving well being of people are slowly pushing them towards the Chinese model of development, which combines political repression and economic liberalism. The threat to human rights framework from such models and practices adopted by US such as recourse to torture and targeted killing of civilians is a big threat to international human rights regime.
Many experts argue that the world is a freer place than it was 60 years ago, but an important question to this argument is it freer because of the human rights treaties or because of development evolution, such as economic growth? My answer is more inclined towards the economic growth and happenings in free markets. Any person can formally have up to 400 international human rights including important rights to freedom of expression, privacy, identity, work, leisure and religious freedom among many others but the dilemma for governments is they have no guidance on them. Lack of skills, budgets and understanding of human rights framework at all levels results in preventing the government from protecting them. For example everyone has the right to be protected from torture. Now imagine our police being barred from using torture to solve criminal cases or eradicate polio. This will require to overhaul an entire dysfunctional system from setting up investigation units having high paid police officers, towards making changes in judiciary and even the political system. With limited resources it makes it extremely difficult for government to achieve the objectives. Most NGOs working on developing human rights pick and choose the rights they want to be prioritized in discussions with the government. A NGO working on the right for privacy or freedom of expression will be focusing on prioritizing these two rights only as a requirements from its donors and will not push for rights of person with disabilities though equally important. The ambiguity in human rights makes it more difficult for government to take it seriously.
The international human rights champions have a lot in common with the arrogance of development economists which in previous decades tried and failed to alleviate poverty by imposing western solutions on developing countries like ours. But development economists were clever to have reformed their approach, the human rights movement has yet to acknowledge its failures. It is time for a reckoning.