Starting Afresh: What happened the last time we re-thought human rights?
[This article is the third in a series by David D’Auria. Read parts one and two. David is a statistician from Arlington, Virginia. He currently serves as acting president of Rehumanize International’s DC-Maryland-Virginia chapter. All views are his own.]
If our political community had to choose between human rights and legal abortion, which would they choose?
I think the best way to answer this question is by looking through the eyes of the people who first created the modern human rights doctrine… and the ways in which it could have gone differently. Specifically, I want to consider two women who were both living and writing at the time that the phrase “human rights” came into vogue: Eleanor Roosevelt and Hannah Arendt. They brought very different philosophies and life experiences to the human rights question. We can imagine both of them having something serious to say about human rights in the 21st century, given their experience in the darkest years of the 20th.
In my last article, I cautioned readers to consider how a moment of reckoning on abortion could put the entire human rights project in jeopardy. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you most likely wish to preserve human rights. You might not have long considered what an end to human rights would entail, and it might even be hard to imagine reasonable people choosing this.
But the UN only ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948: roughly one human lifetime ago. For a sense of how recent that is, if we turned the calendar back to 75 years after a similarly transformational document – the Declaration of Independence – we would be in the year 1851. The Jackson Era, Missouri Compromise, and Kansas-Nebraska Act would all be in our past, but Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and the sixties would all be in our future.
Many authors have noted that the concept of human rights has been eroded and made unworkable through its overuse; its outright demise is not as big a leap as we might hope. I think the risk is very real – and very grave – but if we caricature the possibility, we actually make it seem less real.
I also chose to look through the eyes of Roosevelt and Arendt because it is not obvious – at least to me – which side of the abortion question they would have taken. (Hannah Arendt was alive when Roe v. Wade was decided; if anyone knows of an interview that she gave on the topic, I’d be interested to know about it.) In other words, we can try to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article by first asking “if Arendt and Roosevelt had been faced with the contradiction I stressed in my previous article, how would they have responded?”
Here is what I found:
- None of the parties to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had what we would consider good human rights records.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in 1948 by the United Nations, with the draft committee and human rights commission both chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Prior to that historical moment, two centuries of Enlightenment and Romanticism had made the Western powers deeply passionate about the “rights of man.” But Western Europe was still composed entirely of empires. And the United States still had Jim Crow.
Although Eleanor Roosevelt appears to have opposed Jim Crow, she had to negotiate a document that would directly undercut the segregationist policy of the government she served. By all accounts, it was awkward.
Furthermore, the path to success for human rights lay not in overthrowing governments, but in transforming them. Previous rights documents – like those written by French, American, and Haitian revolutionaries – had called for the overthrow of governments that violated rights. (Working out the details of the claimed rights required multiple civil wars.) In contrast, the Universal Declaration called on the nations of the world to affirm the rights it described and to hold each other to account. If this approach is successful, human rights will be advanced through cold wars among the major powers, rather than hot wars within them (i.e. civil wars.)
In short, the Universal Declaration required negotiations among actors whose human rights records were, at best, mixed. In her book “A World Made New” on the history of the Universal Declaration, Mary Ann Glendon describes how the typically outspoken Roosevelt had to adapt herself to an uncomfortable level of restraint in order to represent her government in this important negotiation. The resonance with our contemporary situation is quite plain.
- Roosevelt’s bold yet humble leadership set the tone for future human rights victories.
“A World Made New” stresses Roosevelt’s desire to find consensus. A questionnaire that the UN circulated to several nations found wide support for human rights; the committee was determined to state these rights in a way that emphasized the universal human value, apart from any philosophical or religious tradition. For that reason, Roosevelt did not support a lengthy inquiry into the theoretical reasons why rights drew support from so many disparate nations. This prompted one commentator to quip, “Yes, we agree about the rights but on the condition that no one asks why.” (A World Made New, page 77.)
Roosevelt also avoided language that would have caused a confrontation with her own country. The United States had failed to join the League of Nations after World War I, and an international document of human rights was in obvious tension with the racial policies of the period. She knew that she would be more likely to win approval for a norm-setting document with few substantive claims.
Reflecting the focus of Roosevelt and the rest of the committee, the resolution passed each stage of ratification with no dissenting votes and only a few abstentions. If her plan was to popularize the language of human rights and thereby expose the United States under international pressure to comply, I would argue that her plan worked. The work of historian Mary Dudziak shows, through extensive examination of primary sources, that “the fight against communism forced American leaders – embarrassed on the world stage by oppression at home – to support desegregation.”
In sum, Roosevelt was bold but restrained. She was able to seize the opportunity to reset world values without being bogged down in the political quagmires that had stopped her predecessors, but only by accepting the limits of what could be agreed to by a diverse and highly imperfect community of nations.
- Hannah Arendt prudently focused on the need for community-based enforcement of human rights, more so than their enumeration in great detail.
Writing about the same time, Hannah Arendt documented how wishful thinking about rights in the interwar period left large minority communities with theoretical protection under international treaty, but no practical way of protecting themselves from abuses. And so, they were abused.
Arendt understood that agreements among nations did not enforce themselves. There has to be a community of concerned citizens who can detect abuses and pressure the political community to do better. She documents with some disdain the way in which minority communities were supposedly protected by international treaties following the first world war, but did not have a political community responsive to their interests, and writes, “to assume that nation-states could be established by the methods of the Peace Treaties was simply preposterous.”
For Arendt, the most imperative right is that right to a political community in which one can participate and seek protection: “the right to have rights.” This meant being part of a politico-linguistic community, since Arendt was especially sensitive to the plight of individuals who don’t speak the language of their country, or who are excluded from their community through prejudice.
“The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself… [i]t is by no means certain whether this is possible.”from The Origins of Totalitarianism.
I think it is possible. But it is not inevitable.
The Dobbs ruling allows for a key human right – the right to life – to be discussed and debated in American legislatures in a meaningful way. This requires us not just to talk about abstract rights, but about concrete facts that will constrain them: medical realities, problems with enforcement, and the need for trust between doctor, patient, and regulator. It is these practical discussions that engage the political community that will protect human rights (or that will choose not to).
- If they were alive and aligned with us, the early advocates of human rights would see their successors in the pro-life movement as politically over-ambitious.
In their own time, Hannah Arendt and Eleanor Roosevelt stressed the contingency and fragility of human rights. In our time, most of our political rhetoric treats human rights as the uncontroversial starting point of an argument for justice. We declare victory as soon as we’ve shown that our preferred policy follows from human rights. And too often, we rely on the good sense of our audience to conclude that the intrinsic value of the rights is worth the often-high cost of defending them.
This is why I think that Arendt and Roosevelt would not approve of the current direction of the pro-life movement, even if they agree that those who don’t believe in human rights for all humans don’t believe in human rights.
As I have argued previously, we should not assume that our fellow citizens will be able to put aside self-serving logic on such a consequential question. This mistake has been made so many times for so many centuries, there is a Latin phrase to describe it. Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus: “let justice be done, though the world perish.”
We need to demonstrate not only that the rights we advocate are just, but that they are workable and safe, so that a community of citizens with the ability to guarantee them makes the conscious choice to do so. Otherwise, the human rights experiment will end in failure, and it will be our fault. My next article will describe how this might happen.