Human rights do not exist. To be more precise, in the year 1998 human rights do not exist and no one can know if they will exist in the future. This ascertainment is inescapable if we wish to strictly define the concept of “right” and “human right” without taking into consideration political-ideological expediencies. A “right” is not something that exists merely as a phantom in the minds of philosophers or that flourishes on the lips of propagandists. The very essence of a right entails by definition that it can be demanded and imposed, and a “human right” can only be one that is enjoyed by all humans purely and simply because they are humans, i.e., without the mediation of ruling authorities and collective subjects (e.g., nations and states), which, from a conceptual and physical viewpoint, are narrower than humanity as a whole.
Moreover, a genuine human right must be one that exists and is enjoyed by humans wherever they live and wherever they wish to settle. So in the final analysis there are no human rights without unrestricted freedom of settlement and movement, and without the automatic legal equalization of all individuals by virtue of the universal force of a single body of legislation. For example, as long as an Albanian does not have in Italy the same rights as an Italian, we may speak stricto sensu about political and civil rights, but not about human rights.
Of course, states may label at least some of the rights they grant to their citizens as “human rights,” but this term would be meaningful only if the state reserved the characterization “human” exclusively for its own citizens, just as some primitive tribes do. For otherwise, no state would be able to guarantee rights considered quintessentially human, such as the right to physical integrity or to free speech, to individuals living beyond its borders. Conversely, no state without dissolving itself can grant to all people without exception certain rights considered to be political or civil rights, e.g., the right to vote and to be elected or the right of free settlement.
The situation in today’s world is clear: it is not permitted for all people, by virtue alone of their being human, to have all rights (whether they are called political and civil or human) regardless of where they were born or where they live. Rights, which would truly deserve to be called human could be granted only by a global state, with which all individuals would be in an equal and direct relation, i.e., they would acquire all their rights directly from that state as representative of all humanity. Only a representative of humanity in its entirety can view every individual solely in their capacity as a human being, irrespective of racial or national predicates, and grant to him or her human rights.
The formation of a global state in the future and consequently the establishment of human rights cannot be ruled out, but this would not automatically bring about harmonization between the moral-normative and the legal concept of human rights, particularly under the auspices of the former. For example, a global state could establish human rights under conditions of high population density and scarcity of commodities, in such a way that these rights would correspond very little to moral-normative views presently held in the West. So, whoever is capable of making conceptual distinctions cannot regard as necessary the relation between the formation of a global state and the moralization of global society, as advocates of moral universalism are wont to do.
The difference between the above two concepts of human rights also becomes clear if we make an optimistic assumption, namely the following: it is possible that a global state will not be formed and despite this that the moral-normative content of what today we call “human rights” will prevail universally, because all states without exception would make this content a yardstick and guide for formulating the political and civil rights they grant to their citizens. This means that moral demands also can be met without resorting to the rhetoric of universal human rights, and whoever considers this rhetoric to be hollow does not necessarily belong to those who are pleased when arbitrary arrests and torture take place, as frequently intimated by advocates of universalistic morality.
Therefore, the statement “human rights do not exist” is self-evident provided we do not confuse it in any way and at any level with the statements “human rights (in the moral-normative sense) should not exist” and “human rights will never exist.” In any case, the statement “human rights do not exist” is confirmed daily by the political, legal, and police practices of the “West” itself, which endeavors to circumvent the painful ultimate consequences of its own propaganda about “human rights” by insisting on the crucial distinction between human and political rights and by giving precedence to the latter, i.e., by refusing to grant all rights to all individuals by virtue alone of the fact that they are human.
The exercise of “human rights” is always subject to (national, “European” or other) sovereign rights. Every sovereign state or sovereign power has the right to arrest people from other countries simply because they enter or reside in its territory without permission, but it does not have, for example, the right to assault them because that same state or power proclaims the human right to physical integrity, as if the arrest itself does not constitute eo ipso abrogation of an individual’s right to do with his or her body as he or she pleases! With this recipe the West believes it “can serve two masters,” but the price it pays is the surreptitious introduction of the principles and practices of the “rule of law” into the domain of human rights.
Illegal immigrants who are deported of course suffer their fate in accord with the (variable) provisions of the “rule of law”; however, they do so not because they are human but because they are not French, Greek, German, etc. In this crucial case, the criterion of nationality proves to be decisive despite the claims of Western rhetoric concerning “human dignity,” etc. The “rule of law” is improperly presented here as a guardian of human rights and behaves just as inconsistently as the advocate of moral universalism, who, when facing difficulties in a foreign country does not telephone humanity for assistance, but rather the embassy of the country that issued his or her passport.
Very often the conceptual confusion is extremely convenient for individuals and states, because it masks glaring contradictions between theory and practice. However, our intention here is not to somehow force active subjects to adopt morally “rational” behavior by clarifying concepts and exposing inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Such endeavors can be left to the many high-minded philosophers, who look to the moment of their triumphal entrance. The conceptual confusion and equivocation will prevail on the global scene as long as the interests lurking behind them prevail. And the political exploitation of “human rights” will first of all be plain to see in their selective invocation and use on the basis of extra-moral criteria.
From as early as the Cold War era, the programmatic mobilization of “human rights” against “totalitarianism” did not prevent the Western camp from allying itself with brutal dictatorships. The very different behavior of the United States, for example, toward Saudi Arabia and Iran, even though both these countries treat “human rights” in the same way, testifies to the fact that the West has no intention of behaving differently in this respect. Instructive examples are too numerous to mention, so let us confine ourselves to a general observation. The political exploitation of “human rights,” i.e., their use as a means for exerting pressure and intervention, is inevitable simply because of the fact that such “rights” can be imposed only by the strongest over the weakest, whereas the reverse cannot happen, nor would it be possible in such a case for there to be any institutional arrangements.
To reiterate: here we are not castigating moral misdeeds, but describing a situation in which moral misdeeds are inevitable. An integral element of this description is, of course, pointing out the contradiction between the idealized image that active subjects have of themselves and their actual makeup and practice. As recently as a few years ago, similar points were often being made by the analytical laboratories of the Marxist “Left,” but this source has since dried up. Following the collapse of the Eastern utopia, the now tamed Western “Left” has embraced the utopia of the West, i.e., the utopia of a global society that tends toward harmony on the basis of “human rights.”
A number of “leftists,” even former communists or communist sympathizers, today engage in various rationalizing acrobatics in order to adapt their “progressive” conscience to the reality shaped since the U.S. victory in the Cold War. The fervent confession of faith in “human rights” enables them to erect bridges of compromise between the past and the present without being openly humiliated, because they conceal this confession of faith in the ideology of the former enemy behind the supposed insistence on the initial “humanitarian ideal” of the “Western Left.” Thus, that same “Left” which even until recently played the role of the “useful idiot” (Lenin) in the Kremlin’s various peace campaigns and could not tolerate the expression “human rights” when coming from the lips of Reagan and Thatcher, has itself now become the “useful idiot” of multinational corporations and of universal Americanism. Its motives are political gains and tangible social benefits, although each time in very different doses and mixes.
Of course, many “leftists” still nurture the delusion that they represent the antithesis to the “system,” simply because they sometimes invoke the ideology of the system against its actual reality. Thus, they acquire the immaculate mantle, which they then wear ostentatiously. But the ideology of the system, i.e., its conscience, constitutes just as much a part of the system as its practice, i.e., its belly, and there are strong indications that here the belly sleeps less than the conscience and directs it.
“Human rights” are a political tool in a global situation, whose density necessitates the use of universalistic ideological stratagems, within which, however, the binding interpretation of these stratagems continues to be contingent on the inclinations and interests of the most powerful nations. “Human rights” are subject to the shifting logic of this situation and reflect the contradictions and tensions that mark global society in a dramatic way. This is why the struggle for their interpretation inevitably will turn into a struggle among individuals over what each person believes at any given moment to be their own inalienable right. This struggle for interpretation already began some time ago between “North” and “South” or “West” and “East” and is intensifying to the extent that billions of people in the “South” and “East” are interpreting “human rights” not formally but materially, demanding a substantial redistribution of global wealth without being interested in the ethics of the well fed. Just as the internal logic of “free trade,” so too the internal logic of “human rights” will soon turn against the West, and then the latter will abandon its current ideological positions. But even then, it is of course highly doubtful whether it will manage to win the tremendous struggles of distribution, which will shake the twenty-first century.
SOURCE: Telos Spring 2014 vol. 2014/166 pp. 161-165. Translated by Stephen Stafford and Raymond Petridis. Edited by Gary Ulmen. Available at: http://phdtree.org/pdf/53497401-human-rights-conceptual-confusion-and-political-exploitation/