There’s certainly a lot of signaling going on in human rights talk. People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but rather want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that.
For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. Some allegations by torture victims may not be intended to stop a torture regime, but to signal extremist credentials to like-minded people. Also regarding torture, I’ve written not so long ago about a study suggesting that some governments sign torture conventions, not to rid the world of torture, but to signal ruthlessness: they sign the convention and just continue their torture methods, thereby telling their victims and their population in general that they are so powerful that they can voluntarily submit to laws and then deliberately and openly break them in the face of impotent international opprobrium.
Another example is the ritualistic condemnation of China’s human rights record. Western leaders, when visiting China or playing host to Chinese leaders, are expected to repeat some standard phrases about human rights in China. That’s what their national constituencies expect from them, and they grudgingly comply. It has become part of protocol, like kissing the Pope’s ring. It’s utterly meaningless because real action to pressure China is completely lacking. China knows this, but goes along and issues its equally ritualistic counter-claims of national sovereignty blah blah. The West signals that it cares about human rights; the Chinese leaders that they don’t.
Something similar is happening with universal jurisdiction. Countries engaging in universal jurisdiction often start court cases against foreign dictators, without the slightest hope of actually punishing and imprisoning those dictators, but at least they signal that the “world community” doesn’t silently accept atrocity. And perhaps they also signal their own country’s moral superiority. A lot of human rights talk seems to be about moral superiority.
Karl Marx already identified signaling as a important function of human rights, although he pushed his point a bit too far. Human rights, according to him, are an ideology. An ideology pretends to be a description of the world but in reality it masks certain key aspects of it in order to maintain the economic status quo. It is an instrument in the continuation of the existing social order. Those who may threaten the status quo in a revolutionary way can be convinced by the ideology of human rights to work within the system and struggle for equal rights. However, these equal rights, according to Marx, can only deliver formal equality, not real equality. Only a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can achieve the latter. Human rights signal equality but in reality serve to maintain class rule.
Those who benefit from the existing order and who are therefore part of the ruling class, will tend to produce and propagate ideologies. Religion is another example of an ideology, and one that works in much the same way as the ideology of human rights. Desires that can harm the existing order and the status quo – such as desires for equality – must be neutralized. The idea of the Christian paradise expresses certain desires for a better world but makes it impossible to realize them and to threaten the existing order. By convincing people that these desires can only be realized in the afterlife, the idea or better ideology of paradise pacifies relationships in this life. Why revolt if you know that equality and happiness are there for the taking in a future life? Especially when you will only get paradise if you respect morality in this life and when morality is often and conveniently incompatible with the consequences of revolt.
Religious ideology neutralizes desires by situating them in the afterlife. Religion is opium for the people, a drug that makes them forget the pain of this world, or at least convinces them to accept this pain, because pain can lead to revolt and those in power never like revolt. Something similar is inherent in the ideology of human rights. The use of force or coercion by the state in the defense of the right to capitalist property, for example, is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that property is a human right which is in their interest, rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.
All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights signal freedom and equality, and give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality, but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights, according to Marx, give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.
Human rights, he says, are a set of false ideas that have to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain.
I think that view is far too pessimistic and takes the signaling thing way too serious. It ignores the transformative power of human rights. There is signaling going on in human rights talk, but a lot of other stuff as well. Some talk is really aimed primarily or exclusively at a real transformation of reality toward a higher level of human rights protection. And a lot of that talk really works in the sense that life is changed by speech. Sometimes human rights aren’t about human rights, but often they are.