December 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since 1948, the idea embodied in that document helped accelerate the independence movements in the developing world and triggered the civil rights revolution in the Western world. It provided legitimacy for the struggle against tyranny all over the world and played a crucial role in bringing down communism. Not a bad record for one idea. Only the concept of individual liberty at the end of the 18th century and of equality 100 years later have exerted a comparable impact on mankind. And whereas the political application of the original ideas of liberty and equality resulted in more exploitation, dictatorships and bloodshed, the idea of human rights secured for a great part of mankind orderly freedom, equality before the law and more equal opportunities than humanity had ever had before.
And yet a funereal aura hovers about this year's celebrations. For the industrialized West, expanding exports to China seem to be more important than defending the human rights of its citizens. In the post-communist world many former dissidents who entered politics have traded their interest in human rights for support of "law and order" and, quite often, populist, anti-minority positions. Even in the United States a growing number of politicians perceive human rights as a subversive liberal idea fueling too many demands for guaranteed benefits and for toleration of nonconformist behavior at home and resulting in too many costly adventures abroad.
The very idea of human rights is complex. In fact, an international consensus has never formed as to what the concept includes. During the cold war, the West stressed civil liberties and political rights enforceable by courts. Communist regimes emphasized social and economic rights. It seemed for a while that the political definition had emerged victorious, but in the past decade leaders of third world countries have formulated a new variant--the "right to development," which consists of a claim to the transfer of resources, capital and technology from rich Northern countries to poor Southern ones.
The problem is that the right to development not only won't work, the demand for it also serves to blur responsibility for the economic deprivation of nations. In Africa, dictators and military leaders used the idea of traditional supremacy of society over an individual to destroy local communities, to rob their own populations and turn great parts of the continent into never-ending tribal wars zones. But in the communist world it was precisely the lack of civil liberties and political freedoms that was at the root of economic crisis. In the absence of markets, of opposition and of freedom of the press, central planners had no way to assess the effectiveness of their decisions before the entire system collapsed. In all cases it was obvious that without civil liberties and political rights there could be no economic development and that foreign help is stolen by the rich and powerful.
Nonetheless, the right to development has the support of the majority of members of the United Nations, so it is no wonder that many people in the West want to take human rights off the international agenda. The very idea of human rights becomes meaningless when rights are confused with needs, claims with entitlements, judicial processes with the goals of public policy, and individual rights with demands made by state leaders on the international community. Disposing of the idea of human rights would be one way of dealing with confusion. But what to do then about the continued mass violation of human rights in much of the non-Western world? A better approach would be to return to the original meaning of human rights and accept that not every claim that invokes that phrase should come under the purview of an international rights protection regime.
What should be claimed as universal human rights are the minimum standards that can assure personal dignity regardless of cultural differences. Freedom of conscience and expression, freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom from torture, some guarantees of due process, right to assembly and freedom of association are obvious. Once the short list is ready, adherence to it should become the absolute prerequisite of behavior required for membership in the international community of nations and for eligibility for all foreign aid--including assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Victims of abuse should be heard worldwide and receive international help. Sanctions could be imposed in cases of obvious violations. And when violations border on genocide the international community should be able to intervene.