Global Changes Will Put Breaks on a Globalized Human Rights Movement Argues Hopgood

May 15, 2015

In a public lecture on May 14, Stephen Hopgood presented key findings from his recent book, The Endtimes of Human Rights. He asked the audience, “Are human rights still an effective way to pursue liberal ideas of freedom?” Analyzing the political effectiveness of universal human rights in a changing world, he argued that structural changes and greater diversity will impede a truly “global Human Rights movement” from materializing.

Hopgood prefaced his talk by acknowledging the achievements of human rights advocates and institutions since the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1965. Many international treaties and conventions have been signed, and human rights institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been created. Hopgood noted that further expansion is taking place today, citing as examples ICC preliminary examinations into crimes allegedly committed by Israel and Hamas during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, by the U.S. in Afghanistan, and by the U.K. in Iraq as well as the development of a Convention on Crimes Against Humanity within the International Law Commission.

At the same time, Hopgood asked, isn’t there so much diversity that it does not make sense to speak of a global human rights movement? There remain many unanswered questions regarding human rights. What counts as compliance in the human rights world and how do we measure it? While human rights are often best observed in states that need them the least, these very same mechanisms seem to be less effective in “hard cases” where local cultural and social values may differ and state capacity may be weak. How can human rights work in states that need them the most? Is the western monopoly on human rights ending as BRICS countries push to have a seat at the negotiating table on human rights issues like the Responsibility to Protect? Hopgood also highlighted other issues including pushback against the human rights movement in countries like China and Russia, hypocrisy and double standards by western powers, and the politicization of human rights.

Two major global changes are challenging the global human rights movement more generally, according to Hopgood. The first is a trend towards a multipolar world. The U.S.-dominated system is eroding, claimed Hopgood. He argued that while the U.S. may still be the leading global power, its relative political power is declining as the BRICS and MINTS rise in global influence. At the same time there is growing importance for authoritarian countries like China and Russia that are increasingly influential on the global stage. The E.U. seems, in contrast, politically weaker all the time.

The second global change is the strengthening of religion, nationalism, and traditional values in many countries. These elements flourish in a diverse, multipolar world. Many of the “hard cases” for human rights involve countries in which religion and traditional values are strong and at times in conflict with the values of the human rights movement. Hopgood cited the example of the recent executions of drug traffickers in Indonesia, noting that one poll suggests 86% of Indonesians supported these executions.

Hopgood argued that this will herald a lack of consensus about making civil and political rights a condition of good governance. Instead, we are likely to see a much greater interest in issues of social and economic inequality. The world may be shifting towards a new normative framework for human rights, concluded Hopgood. In a 2013 UNDP report, “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World,” “human rights” was mentioned only 14 times while “equity” was mentioned over 40 times. In the future, there may be greater emphasis on equity and fairness rather than civil and political human rights, posited Hopgood. “The language of human rights may need to give way to the language of economic justice,” he said. This shift is likely, unfortunately, to be good news for authoritarian state policies in both the west and the rest.

Watch a short interview with Hopgood about his book below.

Watch his full lecture below.

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