This year, the world is observing Human Rights Day amidst a global mess of security and economic crises. That makes us wonder about the future of the international movement for defending and supporting human rights, and whether it will be able to survive this huge amount of political and economic uncertainties that have been overwhelming the world stage since 2020.
Europe, where the concept of human rights started millennia ago, is struggling to secure hydrocarbon resources to warm homes this winter. Most of the countries in Africa and the Middle East are suffering from grinding economic crises that are putting a large number of them on the verge of famine. On a wider scale, the entire globe is facing serious security threats, ranging from Russian threats of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine to the unsettling conflicts in Syria and Libya, and the rise of Islamic extremists and terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and its surroundings.
The global standoff between western and eastern powers around the war in Eastern Europe is escalating by the day. Russia and China are taking strides in mobilizing Arab and African countries to their side, while the United States is losing its best allies in the Middle East. Sooner or later, this is going to change the balance of power in our modern-day world.
If the eastern camp wins, which is highly likely given the unexplained confusing policies of the U.S. Administration of President Biden, human rights as a set of universal values are going to suffer. The leaders of the eastern powers, who mostly adopt negative views towards human rights as we know them today, may implicitly try to push the conversation around defending human rights to the back burner. Even worse, they may take measures to avert the gains achieved by the international human rights movement, especially on the set of rights related to individual freedoms.
In a recent meeting with his national organization for human rights, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, publicly attacked human rights doctrine and labeled it as a weapon the West used to mentally occupy the world. “The doctrine of international human rights is being used to justify Western ideological hegemony;” Putin stressed after blaming the international human rights organizations, which he describes as controlled by the west, for “not condemning Ukraine for bombing residential neighborhoods on the territory of Donbas.”
Ironically, Donbas is originally a Ukrainian territory that was occupied by Russia. It is also appalling to see Putin who invaded Ukraine, in February, leading to horrible consequences inside Ukraine and worldwide, using the “human rights” terminology to blame Ukraine for defending itself against his invading troops.
In China, another leading power from the east, the human rights notion is no less hated than it is in Russia and other autocratic countries. In October, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, whose state has been overseeing the ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims for years, told the media that China has its own understanding of human rights that is different from the western concept. Quoting Karl Marx, the philosophical godfather of the communist movement, Xi said that his country adopts Marx’s perception that "right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”
The COVID-19 pandemic offers a context that enhances this autocratic approach to human rights. Under the pandemic, the countries that had centralized – and even repressive – systems of governance were more successful in controlling the pandemic and its economic consequences than the free countries. Also, during this period, governments worldwide heavily suppressed individual freedoms to protect the collective. This strongly resonated with the eastern cultural perception of prioritizing the community over the individual, in comparison to the western culture which glorifies individual freedoms above all else.
In her statement on the COVID-19 pandemic informal briefing to the UN Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, adopted a balanced, but rare, vision of how the UN and similar bodies should handle the pandemic crisis. She noted that “the pandemic is exposing the damaging impact of inequalities, in every society. In developed countries, fault lines in access to health care; in labor rights and social protections; in living space; and in dignity are suddenly very visible.” Then she emphasized the respect for civil and political rights during this crisis, as “difficult decisions are facing many governments. Emergency measures may well be needed to respond to this public health emergency. But an emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations.”
This gloomy scene makes us worried about the future of human rights after the world recovers from the ongoing cluster of crises, regardless of who wins the west-east power competition. Will the people continue to believe in the importance of observing human rights values? Will governments continue to show commitment to protecting human rights? And, the most important question is about the future roles and credibility of international bodies, such as the United Nations, which are responsible for preserving and protecting human rights, worldwide.
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