Human Rights Imperialism: Leftist Satire or Moral Collapse?
The Guardian recently published a wicked satire of moral relativism, a Swiftian send-up entitled "End human rights imperialism now" with the classic sub-heading "Groups such as Human Rights Watch have lost their way by imposing western, 'universal' standards on developing countries." Brilliant! Hahahahaha! I didn't know the Guardian had branched out into humor.
But about five minutes after my laughter subsided, a horrible suspicion dawned on me: Could it be that the author was serious?
A quick re-read confirmed my fears. This was no joke. This was the modern left finally taking its last inevitable step into the abyss of moral oblivion.
A few quick quotes from this astonishing manifesto will introduce you to a disturbing new way of looking at the world:
Founded by idealists who wanted to make the world a better place, [the human rights movement] has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism.
Want to depose the government of a poor country with resources? Want to bash Muslims? Want to build support for American military interventions around the world? Want to undermine governments that are raising their people up from poverty because they don't conform to the tastes of upper west side intellectuals? Use human rights as your excuse!
Human Rights Watch is hardly the only offender. There are a host of others, ranging from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard and the pitifully misled "anti-genocide" movement. All promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call "universal".
Just as Human Rights Watch led the human rights community as it arose, it is now the poster child for a movement that has become a spear-carrier for the "exceptionalist" belief that the west has a providential right to intervene wherever in the world it wishes.
Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.
Human rights need to be considered in a political context. The question should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights. Instead, it should be whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.
It's not that the essay's author, former New York Times Bureau Chief and current anti-imperialist professor-activist Stephen Kinzer, is wrong about his facts: it's quite true that life under a totalitarian police state is often safer and more secure than living in lawless anarchy. That's why the war-torn masses throughout history sometimes clamor for peace even at the cost of their own freedom. Yet forgotten in Kinzer's approval of oppressive societies is that wannabe dictators always use this excuse to justify their crushing of human rights: We need to remove your freedom in order to guarantee your safety. Never mind that the new regime was usually one of combatants endangering the citizenry in the first place.
No, the issue is that Kinzer seems to have just now woken up to a phenomenon that many of us have known about for quite some time -- that the human rights movement "has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism."
The only error in that statement is the word "recent." The notion of "universal human rights" was formulated in the West and is the basis of Western civilization; and the the notion of bringing these "Western values" to oppressed and backward peoples has been the goal not just of the modern human rights movement but of missionaries, do-gooders and yes, even the American military for quite some time.
Kinzer has freshly arrived at the blinding and quite correct realization that the "human rights movement" and "Western imperialism" are one and the same. And having become aware of this, you'd think that as a human rights activist, he'd have a life-altering epiphany: Perhaps I've been wrong about what I call "imperialism" this whole time. Maybe it is a force for good after all.
But no. Standing on the brink of a psychological breakthrough, Kinzer turned the other way and instead had a breakdown. Pinioned by the idée fixe that America and imperialism and Western values are always and irrevocably wrong, when faced with the fact that human rights are a subset of Western values, Kinzer felt he had no choice but to discard his belief in human rights. Which must have been quite difficult for someone who formerly regarded himself as a human rights activist, but hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
Moral relativism vs. cultural imperialism
What we see in this essay is moral relativism finally taken to its logical conclusion. No longer will the Left be able to claim credit for the "good" aspects of two fundamentally oppositional viewpoints. Either you are for respecting native cultures and native value systems, or you are for bringing "human rights" (i.e. "Western values") to Third World peoples. But you can't do both simultaneously. Yet that is exactly what the Left has been doing for decades -- claiming credit as the world's humanitarians and advocates for universal human rights, while at the same time claiming credit as the defenders of native cultures and opponents of imperialism.