The Fruits of Human Rights Hubris

05/15/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Reactions to Prime Minister Cameron's plan to loosen the United Kingdom's relationship to the European Court of Human Rights have been predictably hysterical and infused with partisanship.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called the plan "appalling," adding that "the idea that we take away human rights, I think, is just an awful suggestion, so the Scottish Government will oppose that and work hard to make sure that in Scotland people still get vital human-rights protection." Others have warned that the proposal would send out a terrible signal about the United Kingdom's commitment to human rights, putting it in the same league as Belarus and Kazakhstan. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, called the plan "the gravest threat to freedom in Britain since the Second World War."

The Conservatives are concerned about being forced to comply with rulings seen as disconnected from the intent of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that preempt the law. They propose to get rid of the Human Rights Act, passed under the Labour government in 1998, which makes rulings by public bodies unlawful if they contradict the Convention, and to make British courts the highest authorities on human rights matters. At the same time, the Tories propose a British Bill of Rights, which would incorporate into law all the human rights protected in the original Convention (which was inspired by Winston Churchill), but not "the doctrines accreted and embroidered by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg over the years," according to lawyer Martin Howe, QC.

10 years ago, Conservative leader Michael Howard blamed the Human Rights Act for "the avalanche of political correctness, costly litigation, feeble justice, and culture of compensation running riot in Britain today." In the intervening years, British attempts to reform the European Court have been largely thwarted by other members of the Council of Europe, by the mainstream human rights community, and by resistance from the Court itself.

The dispute reveals a widespread conservative alienation from the way human rights have come to be understood and implemented by international institutions. Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, has complained that "human rights culture... supplants common sense and common law, and erodes individual dignity by encouraging citizens to see themselves as supplicants and victims to be pensioned by the state." Lord Judge, Britain's former chief justice, warned that the European Court disregards democratic processes because it supplants the "sovereignty of Parliament" with rulings by un-elected judges.

In the United States, conservatives have blocked the ratification of most major international human rights legislation, not, as some on the left claim, because they are against human rights, but because they reject what they consider the ideological content of the treaties, which they see as potentially infringing on the individual freedoms of American citizens. Discontent with human rights at the United Nations has led to calls to withdraw from human rights institutions and even to discard the term "human rights" altogether, and to speak of "natural rights" instead. Like the Tories, American conservatives typically do a bad job of affirming their commitment to human rights principles, frequently walking into political ambushes where they are painted as objecting to human rights in order to preserve injustices and protect the privileged.

Political differences are thus dividing and weakening the commitment to human rights in Western societies, a process that has seriously undercut our resolve to promote human rights and freedoms at home and abroad. The fault lies not with the natural tendency toward partisan politics, but in the hubris of those who have dragged international human rights law and institutions in political directions.

What Hungarian political philosopher János Kis called the "indisputable core of human rights" is not a matter of debate between left- and right-wing ideologues. Human rights, when restricted to narrow, clear, and judicable principles, provide common ground for people of all political stripes who believe that when individual rights and freedoms are protected, societies can solve their problems through democratic means. But as the British case shows, they become the focus of political disputes when expansive interpretations of human rights deal not with protecting freedom, but with questions of social policy better left to legislatures, and when proponents of global governance and social transformation schemes try to use human rights law to achieve them.

The resulting backlash against human rights hubris is weakening commitment to the very idea of the international human rights system among heirs to the classical liberal tradition that spawned the concept. If we believe in the universal right of all to enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities, and that tyranny in any part of the world is an assault on the dignity of people everywhere, we must conclude that an international human rights order, which sets out standards and holds sovereign nations to account for their practices, has value for individual citizens, especially those struggling against oppression. The international human rights system, including the European Court, has become a tangled, internally contradictory bureaucracy run by technocrats, where core concepts are distorted by faddish judicial activism. If we truly value the ideals on which it was founded, a reform movement is in order.

Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom--Europe and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007.