Human Rights Promotion (16): Is the Human Rights Movement a Total Failure?

Let’s start with another, related question: are human rights an ideology? There is indeed an ideology of human rights, at least as long as we use a value-free meaning of the word “ideology”. (Some argue that human rights are an ideology in the value-laden sense of the word, but that’s not what I want to talk about now). Human rights are an ideology because they form a widely shared system of ideas, and these ideas form a comprehensive vision of the world (see here for a definition of the word “ideology”).

Now, some have argued that the ideology of human rights, when compared to some other ideologies, has been a complete failure. Christianity, nationalism and Marxism for instance (one can perhaps add other ideologies such as Islam) have done much better over the course of history (although the role of Marxism is now finished, it seems). Over the course of decades and even centuries, those ideologies have been exported and implemented throughout the world. They have created mass movements, mass mobilization, political institutions, churches, political parties and rituals. They have inspired art, feverish devotion and legal codes. Moreover, they have proven to be able to adapt to local circumstances.

Human rights have achieved nothing of the kind. True, there are some international human rights courts and certain human rights have made their way into treaties and national constitutions, but those courts, treaties and constitutions are terribly ineffective in most parts of the world. No political party anywhere has human rights as its central goal. There are the occasional mass protests when some rights of some people are violated, but there’s always a distinctively ad hoc feeling about those protests and mobilization of this kind pales when compared to the movements inspired by Christianity, nationalism and (until a few decades ago) Marxism.

It’s true that Christianity, Marxism and nationalism were “successful” in one sense of the word. They were popular ideas, popular enough to have real life effects, but one can argue that they were not successful tools for human betterment, at least not overall. The contrary may be the case (see here for examples). And, in the end, human betterment is the only success that counts.

Furthermore, the success of ideologies such as Christianity, nationalism or Marxism was based on the fact that they were adopted by rulers. They became in some sense or other “official” ideologies and could therefore be imposed. Again, that’s not really the kind of “success” that counts. Human rights, although they also can, theoretically, be adopted by rulers, have seldom been an official ideology, and this fact may be indicative of their failure. However, the success of human rights should not be judged by the degree of their official adoption. After all, rulers don’t have an incentive to adopt human rights. They have an incentive to destroy them. The success of human rights should be judged on the basis of real improvements in the lives of real individuals. And in this sense of success, human rights have been anything but a failure, especially when compared to other supposedly more successful ideologies. This doesn’t mean that the success of human rights has been profound or conclusive. We’re not there yet.

More about progress in the field of human rights is here, here and here.

3 thoughts on “Human Rights Promotion (16): Is the Human Rights Movement a Total Failure?”

  1. Hi Dr. Spagnoli. Been a while since I’ve been here, but this post is rather interesting. You say human rights have not been a failure when you look at its impact in the lives of people, and you are correct and this is how one ought to judge the success of the desideratum.

    You say human rights as an ideology has been a failure in other measures, which I first of all don’t think is quite accurate but also not so important in my opinion. When you compare the idea of human rights to other ideas and ideologies, particularly the ones you compare it to (e.g. Islam, Christianity, liberalism, conservatism, Marxism), human rights is rather recent idea. The major religions, for example, have exist for millenniums. The idea of human rights really hasn’t really entered into the mindsets of many people until perhaps a few centuries ago–a relative blink of eye in the span of human thought.

    And already it has made so much progress. Real progress. Just look at the lives of people, as you say. In relative terms, it was not long ago that a great mass of the people lived in pauperdom, beholden to some master, slaves, severely repressed. Yes, this still exists and there is still work to do. But if we are to imagine life now compared to life, say, 600 years ago, we owe a lot to the idea of human rights. This is significant, real progress. When I look at the record of human rights, I see overwhelming success. The idea of human rights has won the ideological battle over the idea of slavery and the idea of people not having rights. Yes, slavery still exists in the world, but we can say this is bad BECAUSE of the idea human rights. We’ve gain an important vocabulary to combat against what is now almost universally recognized as an evil. Not so long ago was slavery seen in this light. That’s a big win. For real people. Human rights is the standard upon which measure the rightness and wrongness of actions. This is hugely important. Who could possibly call human rights a completely failure?

    I don’t think an appropriate measure of how successful human rights has been would be to look at how many politicians have adopted it as their official ideology, how many rulers shower it with accolades, or how many states write about it. In fact, I find many of these sources as contradictions to liberty. But human rights have made progress in these areas; for example, can liberalism or Christianity claim to have a universal deceleration of liberalism or of Christianity? The UDHR is the most translated document to every exist, and that’s for a reason. It is universal. If you look at constitutions that have been created post-1948, you see that the UDHR is the foundation for most of them. It has become the basis from which many international laws and treaties are contrived. This is important, but as I said, not the crowning achievement for which we should measure human rights’ success in the world.

    So we’ve seen those big successes entirely based on the notion of human rights, and we’ve seen small and incremental success, for example the rights for gays. Society is gradually liberalizing and rights are slowly being won (recognized) all across the world. As the human experience continues to grow, the idea of human rights will continue to grow (e.g. rights to the Internet are now being recognized), and societies will continue to move towards these ideals, particularly if we continue to have individuals such as yourself who think about these issues and champion the ideology of human rights. Meaningful change has occurred because of this and meaningful change will continue to happen.


    1. Hi Benjamin. I take your points about the time frame (human rights are relatively young, although not younger than Marxism). I also agree about their success (see some if the links at the very bottom).


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