Natural Rights versus Humanitarian Concerns

Via Naheed Mustafa’s Twitter feed, Stephen Kinzer has a really thought provoking column in the Guardian regarding what he calls “human rights imperialism.” He writes:

For many years as a foreign correspondent, I not only worked alongside human rights advocates, but considered myself one of them. To defend the rights of those who have none was the reason I became a journalist in the first place. Now, I see the human rights movement as opposing human rights.

The problem is its narrow, egocentric definition of what human rights are.

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.

This is a symptom, I think, of the static and inflexible notion of “natural rights” bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. The descendants of Locke and Jefferson too often reduce the whole idea of liberty — a thorny concept if there ever was one — to a checklist that has remained basically unchanged for the past few centuries. And as if that weren’t strange enough, we pretend that these rights are self-evidently natural, as if freedom of the press somehow predates the written word.

To make this point is not to reject the importance of the Bill of Rights. I’m as big a fan of the ACLU as you’ll find, and I think my past blogging about civil liberties has pretty firmly established my pro-civil liberties cred. But while Enlightenment-era natural rights were a policy success to the extent that their wide acceptance demonstrably increased the basic freedoms available to the whole Western world, they’re still a mess as a philosophy of freedom. And our blind acceptance of their supposed naturalness has led us into embracing the sort of misguided and potentially catastrophic policies Kinzer describes above.

A truly humane philosophy of freedom must be more organic and receptive to humanitarian concerns. When our preconceived notions of “human rights” sharply diverge with humanitarian interests — or worse, precipitate humanitarian crises — there’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

(By the way: If you want to take this out of the realm of the abstract, I recommend reading Samantha Power’s excellent Sergio (originally published as Chasing the Flame). Its subject is the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, perhaps one of the greatest humanitarians in the history of the United Nations. Although de Mello saved countless lives, the tactics he often employed to do so — including choosing the forceful repatriation of Rwandan refugees in Tanzania as “the least bad option” available, and negotiating with the Khmer Rouge — often earned him the ire of international human rights groups. Even more interesting, he was both an academic philosopher by training and, eventually, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

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