Human rights – a time for reflection

Anthony Dworkin calls for a moment of reflection in the light of the anniversary of the human rights declaration

This article was published in Spanish in ABC on 10 December 2008.

EU flag and scaleThe declaration of human rights that the countries of the world adopted sixty years ago was important above all because it was universal. An idea that had first been articulated in Europe was now agreed to be the property of everyone, everywhere. Acting on this principle, Europe has aimed in recent years to put human rights at the heart of its foreign policy-through dialogues with other countries, the United Nations, and European support for the International Criminal Court.

However the anniversary of the Universal Declaration should be a moment of reflection. The spread of human rights around the world has faltered, despite Europe’s best efforts to support it. Powerful countries like China and Russia have flourished in recent years even while they repress individual freedom. European countries have not found a way to turn their extensive links with these countries into leverage on issues like freedom of expression or the right to liberty. It is China that punishes Europe when the French president meets with the Dalai Lama-rather than Europe using its influence to nudge China toward recognizing the rights of the Tibetan people.

A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that European countries are losing ground in their attempts to support human rights at the United Nations. Despite some successes on subjects like the death penalty, Europe is less able to build winning coalitions for resolutions on human rights than it was ten years ago. Zimbabwe, Burma and Darfur all show the weakness of the international system.

The global conversation on human rights has become politicized. Regional blocs from the Islamic world, Africa and even Latin America increasingly deny the universal nature of human rights, portraying them as the property of the developed world. The challenge for Europe is to work against this trend without seeming perversely to confirm the argument that human rights are a “European” value. One way to do that is to make sure that European countries do not draw a line between human rights abroad and at home, and that they welcome scrutiny and discussion of other countries’ concerns. The end of the Bush administration, whose “war on terror” has put Europe in a deeply uncomfortable position, should help.

A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would also reduce the level of polarization. Perhaps most important, Europe needs to develop an idea of human rights as a legitimate interest alongside its other foreign policy interests. This would allow European countries to push more openly and consistently for other countries to respect the universal rights of their citizens, and avoid the traps of preaching or lack of commitment that a policy based only on “values” can easily fall into.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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