Kathryn Sikkink writes about the potential of the movement that has advanced human rights to help generate a force for global, transformational social change. However, the idea that a transformational movement will be based upon human rights (along with the rights of other species and nature) doesn’t appear to be in question, since it’s not clear how to define injustice or justify social change without reference, explicit or implicit, to rights. It seems obvious that a citizen will only rebel when he faces conditions that he cannot tolerate, and while pain and suffering are strong stimuli that can provoke a response, tolerable conditions are to a large extent determined by our understanding of our rights.
The populations living during the Enlightenment had endured the rule of kings and aristocrats for centuries. What’s remarkable is that despite being told for generations that their situation was ordained by God—a stifling propaganda system that may not find an equal today—rebellion eventually did take place. Even more remarkable, revolutions unfolded in several countries against the established hierarchies in quick succession—in the American colonies in 1776, the Dutch Republic in 1780, France in 1789, and Haiti in 1791. Populations had long been accustomed to discrimination, war, and arbitrary use of power. It wasn’t simply their suffering, however, but rather the spread of democratic ideals by radical thinkers of the period that encouraged people to question the nature of their society and their own place in it. Revolutions sprang up when enough people no longer accepted the conditions they experienced or believed them to be inevitable, and recognized that they had rights which were being violated.
The human rights documents we have today, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), get significant inspiration from those produced during the Enlightenment. From that period onward, democracy expanded as movements fought to gain rights spoken about in lofty documents but denied in practice. Concentrated power continued to exist, though as state power was increasingly subject to democratic limits corporate power ascended into a dominant position. However, no longer could concentrated power simply justify itself on the self-referential basis of its own authority, or some origin outside of the population. The people had gained enough power to force elites to justify their actions and their legitimacy in the name of public wellbeing, even as they pursued their own interests. This seems to me to be an advance over the previous situation, where oppression may have gone totally unnoticed, or provoked only an unsure feeling that one’s situation wasn’t right—even if it wasn’t clear why. But as we articulate human rights, we become better able to understand what constitutes oppression. When kings and aristocrats ruled societies, discussion of rights revolved around this select group of rulers. Kings could do what they wanted simply because they were kings, or because God willed it. The emergence of broad discussions of human rights seemed to thrust ordinary people out of the shadows and towards the stage of history, where we all belong.
I don’t think the question is whether a transformational movement will arise with reference to human rights or not, but what rights we actually champion. This movement will need to incorporate both individual and collective rights. In the US, discussions about freedom focus on individual liberty. What is sorely needed is attention to collective freedom, or democracy, which recognizes that many social matters fall outside of the sphere of individual liberty and substantially affect or involve others, and that these matters must be resolved with the meaningful participation of this community.
Tension is an often unavoidable result of asserting rights, as certain rights may come into conflict with others. But we shouldn’t assume that all of these conflicts are of equal merit. The toughest situation is where people of good faith can reasonably disagree, but some conflicts are much less profound. Radical thinkers who pushed for democracy during the Enlightenment were challenged by those asserting that the right to rule was held exclusively by princes and nobilities. Few would find this dispute compelling today.
Currently, many matters that should fall under the category of collective freedom and determination are understood or argued to be matters of individual liberty. If a fossil fuel company plans to build a pipeline that will expand our carbon emissions just as humanity must do everything possible to rapidly reduce them, the public has no direct ability to intervene. This issue is rooted in how we define “property.” The UDHR includes the “right to own property,” and Sikkink notes that human rights documents like the UDHR “prohibit discrimination based on ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property [emphasis added], birth or other status.’” However, if the “right to own property” extends beyond personal objects to include the institutions that make up the economy, then human rights could be said to defend a power system based on private wealth and top-down control. Just as the principle of human equality rejects the view that a minority possesses inherent ruling qualities and thus makes political democracy necessary, the same justification extends towards economic democracy. Arguments against democratic control of the economy are our era’s version of princes and nobilities’ exclusive right to rule.
A premise of this article is the existence of a broad, distinct “human rights movement,” but it’s not clear that such an entity exists. Advances in human rights today tend to be achieved through smaller, issue-specific movements. Sikkink observes, "The idea of human rights has animated campaigns for women’s rights; racial equality, including the opposition to apartheid; and the rights of minorities, such as the disabled and the LGBTQ community. Increasingly, human rights are inspiring demands for social and economic rights to food, water, and housing as well.” Even these efforts are subdivided, with activist groups dedicated to various aspects of an issue. There is no question that issue-specific movements have led to advancements in human rights, but today we are in need of large-scale changes to society. These movements are based on a critique of part of the grand tapestry of social injustice, but it doesn’t seem likely that these narrow critiques can generate a global movement separately. A broad critique based on universal needs may be necessary, formed by gathering together the grievances that together illustrate the deep illegitimacy within many of our social institutions. This far-reaching denunciation would be matched by demands that do not seek small changes, but attempt to undo all illegitimate authority and replace it with egalitarian social relations. Part of what is needed is the ambition to aim for larger changes, but perhaps more important is sustained effort towards creating a federated movement. The more human rights that are incorporated into a movement, the stronger and more compelling it may become. It’s possible that if we can find a way to combine separate movements then this effort could have greater historical impact than the Enlightenment revolutions that originated the trend towards democracy, which were broad but didn’t pay enough attention to thoroughly applying their principles to women’s rights, slavery, colonialism—in other words, to all people and situations. Human rights, if explicitly discussed as the core of a movement, may be a uniting force in a world of siloed activism, as Sikkink observes: “The universal, supranational, emancipatory, and expansive character of human rights is poised to serve as a connective tissue binding disparate movements and awakening a global citizenry in a super-movement capable of accelerating a Great Transition.”
Importantly, Sikkink highlights the international push towards enshrining human rights and addresses claims that documents like the UDHR are an imperialist invention. Inhabitants of countries with colonial history and activists themselves are right to consider the implications of the ideals we hold as human rights, given powerful countries’ constant reference to these rights as rhetorical cover for their oppressive behavior. But we should also consider how claims that human rights are a Western invention affect activism. For those fighting against hierarchical structures, accusations of elitist behavior or ideas can unravel positive efforts or make helpful concepts toxic. If social change efforts are naturally based on the concept of rights, as seems to be the case, then accusations of some form of colonialism could stifle the generation of a transformational movement or limit what it could become—ironically, leaving hierarchy intact for activists’ fear of being seen as elitist.
Regarding the discussion about how the struggle for human rights differs from other “emancipatory” visions, it seems that Sikkink takes the claims made in support of nationalism, communism, and anticommunism at face value. However, these notions aren’t authentic visions of emancipation. Nationalism represents elites’ use of a symbol, the nation, to distract from their own exercise of self-interested power. Communism as an ideal is based on an egalitarian society with workers owning and managing the economy, but in practice, like nationalism, simply represented an idea used to cover dictatorship with a “revolutionary” veneer. And “anticommunism,” or, stated more plainly, capitalism, is simply another form of hierarchy that set out to destroy not communism—because it didn’t actually exist—but any threats of economic development that didn’t cater to the interests of large capitalist states like the US. If we recognize nationalism, communism (as it was historically implemented), and “anticommunism” as various forms of hierarchy, then the destruction of innocent lives in their pursuit is expected. That’s how power systems work. Earnest attempts to advance human rights stand apart from these notions because human rights campaigns are based on a recognition of human equality. No movement based on this principle could fight for freedom by so easily tossing aside the countless lives claimed by these hierarchical visions. Seeking to harmonize the ends and the means is only a problem for movements authentically working for human rights.
During the Enlightenment, as democratic ideals were being spread across populations, those defending monarchy and aristocracy claimed that the people were unfit to govern themselves. In their view, freeing the public from elite rule would lead to “chaos.” As Sikkink observes, human rights are means of “liberating human potential,” reflecting “a worldview in which blending the unique capacities of individuals into an interdependent whole lies at the heart of thriving societies.” It is this vision we seek to realize, disproving elite myths about the inferiority of ordinary people as we take our fate more and more into our own hands. That human rights have expanded over time in the face of relentless attacks by established hierarchies speaks to the power of ordinary people and an innate human desire for dignity and freedom. Facing ecological crises that threaten all life on the planet, we will rely on these parts of our nature to maintain the struggle for sustainability and survival.