The rest and the west

On human rights in times of dwindling Western hegemony and why they need to be decolonised.

By Tsafrir Cohen

It’s worth taking a look at the so-called margins of our world. This is where we see how the US-led Western hegemony, which celebrated its global triumph at the latest with the fall of the Berlin Wall, is crumbling: In the Sahel, Niger is joining Mali and Burkina Faso in putting an end to the detested French presence in the country. At the same time, a war of attrition is being waged at the seam between the EU and Russia, with no end in sight. Whilst many countries in the Global South by no means approve of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, they are hanging back when it comes to supporting Ukraine, in part because they do not want to just be lumped together with the West and because they see the conflict as a proxy rebellion against US and Western hegemony. The West’s significance for the world economy is waning. This goes hand in hand with a decline in political influence and a partly open rebellion.

As such, the “two thirds of the world” are shaking up the global order that was to the West’s advantage until now. Even though the US-led Western hegemony and its global monopoly on power by all means contained a promise of progress, the project was chronically lacking in credibility. Democracy, freedom and human rights were the promises, but at the same time there was no real offer to make these reality for most of the world. On the contrary, the promises were abused to defend and enforce the West’s own imperial way of life.

But the new era emerging is ambivalent, too. The “liberation” from the former colonial power in Niger is not being enacted by an empowering society, but by a military junta. The legitimate endeavours to break the US dollar and in turn Washington’s financial supremacy are now to be shored up by a BRICS group expanded to include the autocratic states of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. Among these states, China in particular, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and moulted into an economic giant with an authoritarian promise of progress, is positioning itself as a global antithesis to the US. But the rivalry between the two major powers is not creating a new order, but rather a new confusion in which a number of regional powers such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia are striving to build horizontal networks aligned with their interests.

Criticising human rights

In this complex situation, human rights are increasingly being openly rejected as a Western tool that serves to secure its own domination and to conceal policies serving its own self-interest. If you look back at the history of the human rights discourse since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made 75 years ago, you see that this suspicion does not come out of nowhere. In the decades immediately following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was the colonised states that pushed the expansion and legalisation of human rights forward and were able to shape the discussion on human rights in the shadow of the Cold War. First and foremost, they championed collective rights, such as those expressed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the right to development or the right of peoples to self-determination. They hoped for a more just world in which post-colonial self-determination then seems possible for the first time.

With the failure of post-colonial and socialist projects and as European welfare states faded in the fog of neoliberal politics, a new reading of human rights gained in significance from the late 1970s in the Anglo-Saxon world and at the latest from 1989 in the West as a whole: completely sidelining social and economic rights and reducing human rights to individual rights and civil rights. “Individual human rights thus gain traction in a world,” says historian Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “characterised by a crisis of the institutions of solidarity and by a new type of financial capitalism that widens the gap between rich and poor.” Human rights thus become the armoury of the free market economy and unbridled globalisation.

But Western policies not only contributed to removing social and economic human rights from the discourse. Individual human rights also lost credibility. The cynical advancement of women’s rights by the Bush administration to whitewash its own policy in Afghanistan is just the grotesque peak of a common practice. Add to this the double standards: The law in human rights law suggests that no one can be above the law. But a quick glance in the newspapers and you know that what allies of the West like Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Israel get away with certainly does not apply to their rivals Iran or Russia.

Expanding human rights

Yet, no matter how much they are currently being undermined, human rights must be defended at all costs, because we “cannot not want them”, as Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak puts it. They are, after all, the framework that empowers us to demand freedom and equality for all, everywhere and at all times. Given the legitimate criticism, though, we need to examine the human rights discourse here in the West and the practice that goes hand in hand with it, to expose the contradictions in the postulates that claim to be universal and yet are based on Eurocentric political, social and economic relations of power and mindsets still shaped by colonialism.

Building on this, we need to readjust our understanding of human rights. Human and civil rights cannot be granted or bombed “from on high”, they are always the result of an open process of self-empowerment that continuously reinterprets, expands and implements the rights of people and citizens. This means it is a democratic, and subsequently a thoroughly political process. This process must not be controlled by the powerful. On the contrary, like in any democratic process, the people affected must be at the table. This is why social and economic rights, the right to development or to health, which the countries of the Global South drove forward, must once again become central human rights reference points. If this does not happen, all human rights lack a material foundation and mean nothing, appearing as rights of the privileged.

So only taken together as a whole do economic and social equality rights and individual freedom rights make it possible to perceive human rights from the different parts of the world as a solidarity-based and emancipatory frame of reference. It makes it difficult for human rights to be co-opted by a “values-based” foreign policy that is nothing more than discursively disguised power politics. At the same time, this whole can serve as a compass for overzealous revolutionaries who may have missed the historical fact that grand projects in the name of progress such as communism or decolonisation have routinely mutated into authoritarian projects. At the same time, it can be used to counter common arguments that abuse anti-colonial discourses to denounce human rights as a Western import in order to deprive their own population of human rights.

Making human rights reality

Writing from Johannesburg, I feel the pride of South Africans in their post-apartheid constitution, the world’s most progressive - which enshrines an abundance of human rights; but at the same time, I hear the utter disappointment towards a reality of growing state power, inconceivable inequality, spreading poverty and despair. There is an huge gap between what the constitution promises and the reality people are living in. The same holds true for human rights overall. So we need to answer the question as to what their point is, and here the degree to which they are reality is what counts.

Our partners from the South African human rights community argue that the legal tools of human rights are the last refuge that the marginalised have against the powerful, against the state and the economy. The solution is not to turn away from human rights, but rather to realise that human rights organisations and lawyers, so the entire guild specialising in human rights, only have as much scope for action as the backing they get from society allows.

Rights are never just handed out, they are always fought for through a process of negotiation, of organising and mobilising activists and broad swathes of the population. So it is a matter of solidarity and resistance. These two fundamental terms have disappeared from our discourse on human rights. They need to be part of it again.

Published: 13. September 2023

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