Human Rights: Desacralizing and Deinstrumentalizing to Accelerate Global Development

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Editor’s Note: After the Magna Carta was wrestled from King John in 1215 at Runnymede, limiting the absolute power of a sovereign, the next and last great leap forward was – our Declaration of Independence in 1776, where individuals claimed certain inalienable rights to both freedom and to self-govern, and soon thereafter in 1787, our Constitution which memorialized our distrust of government’s power by separating it into three co-equal parts, and then for good measure, granted individuals the Bill of Rights that the split-powered government could not take away; American Exceptionalism. So, from the Greek’s “Order is beauty, and Beauty is order,” i.e. Order first, the noble American contribution is: we need Order, but absent God, who we trust, it’s power in human beings’ hands we don’t, so we separate it, and then block it with our Bill of Rights.

We are honored to publish this Op-Ed by H. E. Yury Ambrazevich, Belarus’ Deputy Foreign Minister.

Ravi Batra, Co-Publisher & Editor-in-Chief

The last few decades have witnessed human rights becoming one of the most divisive issues in international relations. The so-called liberal democracies assert that their views on human rights are indisputably correct. They further argue that the embrace of human rights by liberal societies predetermines the latter’s successful development. Moreover, liberal democracies contend that politics and practices they regard as flouting  human rights stand in the way of both development and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Debates on whether liberal democracies have a good ground to claim to hold some ultimate truth on human rights have been underway for long.

The concept of human rights, which shapes each and every individual’s legal status, is an embodiment of rules ensuring that an individual’s dignity and freedom are protected from arbitrary action. Notwithstanding, the concept would only be a theory if an individual did not enjoy the most fundamental right of all – the right to a decent life without suffering. Absent this “safeguard”, all other human rights would be meaningless.

Once born, a human being becomes a member of society. His or her rights become intertwined with the rights of others. What is more, those rights become integrated into a complex societal structure. By means of society-led state institutions this structure essentially strikes a balance between selfishness and physical differences inherent in human nature, on the one hand, and perceptions of a common good as taken by a particular society, on the other.

Every society forges its own unique sense of the common good on the basis of its own evolution. The way a particular society views the notion of the common good actually stems from the way it perceives the notion of social justice.

Social justice has always been a hard and contentious choice for a society on how it could support its vulnerable and laggards, and on how it could  provide a level playing field for everyone. What is more, social justice has always been as much about income redistribution as about the relationship between individual and public interests, which often part ways.

Therefore, the common good is always about constraints on individual rights and freedoms voluntarily accepted by the society. A human being enjoys absolute freedom and is legally entitled to unlimited egoism perhaps only at the moment of birth. The further he or she moves from his or her mother’s womb, the greater is the level of constraints that society imposes on this individual.

These reflections bring an obvious conclusion that it is a particular society, represented mainly by state-led institutions, which serves as a donor for an individual’s development as well as a guarantor for the realization of his or her rights to the extent as determined by the common good.

Basically, every country, whether a liberal democracy or an absolute monarchy, is doing its best to protect human rights and freedoms insofar as it has an interest in seeing every individual to develop, in making use of his or her creative energy, in keeping society stable, in ensuring that the common wellbeing grows sustainably through individual success stories.

Yet, every state stands as a structure created by the society with the objective to maintain a dominating notion of the common good and, if necessary, to enforce it. Every day we witness how all states regulate individual and public interests, not lest by resorting to force. There are no exceptions to this pattern.

At the same time, all countries differ in what they include in their dominant concepts of the common good, social justice, balance of individual and public interests, as well as in understanding what acceptable levels of enforcement authorities may exercise.

Attempts to universalize the human rights concept through international treaties has actually failed. Suffice it to recall that the United States, a most ardent defender of universalism, is party to just three of the United Nations’ nine conventions on human rights.

Hence, the second conclusion is that there is no way to arrive at a universal consensus on some ideal or acceptable international standard whereby the human rights concept should be realized.

Proceeding from the truly valid classic question “Who are the judges?”, a third conclusion that comes to mind is that there is no chance whatsoever to establish a universal international arbitrator who would determine the extent to which countries comply with international human rights tools.

These conclusions clearly reveal that the claims by the so-called liberal democracies and by international institutions paid by the former, to have a position of monopoly in gauging human rights activities by other countries have been both groundless and prejudicial.

In this light an alleged “conventional wisdom” that countries finding themselves on the receiving end of the West’s human rights-related criticism do little or no economic and social progress does not stand any criticism. Just look at China, which made an astonishing progress in eradicating absolute poverty over the past 8 years.

The human rights concept as realized in a particular country and as based on its specific features, can and should serve this country’s sustainable development. International cooperation on human rights issues can also serve this end, provided that it complements national efforts and focuses exclusively on how to make national practices better.

Unfortunately, human rights in today’s world are used as a pretext for economic sanctions and even hybrid wars. Human rights’ international dimension not only fails to contribute to the global effort to attain the Sustainable Development Goals, it actually slows this work.

So, what makes sense is to talk about “desacralizing” human rights in international relations as a kind of utopia that cannot be realized in practice. Moreover, what would also seem to be meaningful is to “de-instrumentalize” international relations on human rights, and gradually move it in the format of something like Universal Periodic Reviews conducted by the UN Human Rights Council.

About the author

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Mr.Yury Ambrazevich, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus since March 2022. Prior to the current position, Mr.Ambrazevich has for nearly 7 years been Belarus’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva. During his tenure in Geneva he dealt extensively with human rights.

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