There was a time when the very phrase "human rights" represented, for a great number of world leaders, an insidious "western," not to say "Zionist," plot to undermine their titanic efforts to build utopia. Some of these leaders were communists, a few were Ba'athists, many more were populists and revolutionaries of one stripe or another, to be found reigning over countries from central America to southern Africa to north-east Asia.
There were important differences between all these colonels and generals and Secretary-Generals. What united them, though, was a contempt for those societies whose political arrangements encourage their citizens to look the state in the eye without fear, rather than nervously gazing up from a respectful distance. Indeed, the use of fear as a political tool by the state is what best distinguishes "closed" societies from -- flaws and all -- "open" ones.
These days, the rulers of closed societies have to think more creatively. Since talk of "human rights" has become too common to be rejected wholesale, they are obliged to co-opt and twist its language and concepts. The sorriest example of where such sophistry can lead is the UN Human Rights Council, whose membership roster includes Cuba and Russia, as well as three Arab states who have recently distinguished themselves by employing varying degrees of deadly violence against opposition movements: most egregiously, Libya, elected less than a year before the Gadhafi regime embarked on its current rampage, along with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis, along with fellow Council member Qatar, have sent troops into Bahrain to quell the protests there. Anyone who stands up in Jeddah and declares the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to be an "occupation" is unlikely to see daylight again for a while. Ghastly as that is for the people who live there, that fact serves as a useful reminder to those of us living in open, liberal societies that the nature of human rights, for all the antics at the UN Human Rights Council, has not changed.
It is with the individual person, and not a nation, or a social class, or a religious faith, that human rights begins. If an individual is denied the political conditions to think, speak, write and act freely, then everything else in the human rights universe -- be it the right to food, or the right to live free from foreign occupation -- is rendered meaningless.
That conviction was what guided western human rights organizations during the Cold War. Arguably, it's needed even more now, as regimes such as Ivory Coast and Yemen engage in target practice against their own people in much the same way that East Germany's Stasi and Romania's Securitate did, while long-established offenders, like the Kim dynasty in North Korea and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, seem as entrenched as ever.
It was a conviction that was manifestly clear in this congressional testimony from 1988, in which the human rights NGO Helsinki Watch criticized the Reagan Administration for having too "narrow a view of democracy," and for missing opportunities to promote the kinds of associations and institutions that free-thinking people create, namely, "an independent judiciary, a free press, functioning trade unions, opposition political parties."
Contrast that with the much-criticized 2009 report on Libya penned by Sarah Leah Whitson, a leading official with Helsinki Watch's successor, Human Rights Watch. Whitson identified the foundation run by Colonel Gadhafi's son, Seif al Islam, amusingly described by her as a "quasi-governmental organization," as the principal channel for reform in Libya. If one was being charitable, that conclusion could be described as misjudged, as Whitson herself recently admitted. Authentic change, as the dissidents of the Cold War period knew only too well, emanates from civil society.
That a significant segment of the human rights community has lost sight of the original purpose of human rights advocacy can be explained, at least in part, by the resurgence of "anti-imperialist" rhetoric in the years since the 9/11 atrocities. No less than John Dugard, a UN Human Rights rapporteur, declared that the three regimes most inimical to human rights were "colonialism, foreign occupation and apartheid." One can just imagine Mugabe and Gadhafi nodding eagerly in agreement.
There is, however, a new organization on the human rights map that might just be capable of resetting the moral compass. Advancing Human Rights, which announced its formation last month, is explicit that its focus will be, in the spirit of Helsinki Watch, upon "authoritarian countries without free speech or corrective mechanisms."
The Helsinki Watch connection is not a coincidence. The founder of Advancing Human Rights is Robert Bernstein, who for many years was the moving force behind Helsinki Watch and then Human Rights Watch. Bernstein very publicly broke with that organization in 2009, objecting to the disproportionate attention paid by Human Rights Watch's Middle East division to Israel, at the expense of research and reporting of the wider region. The current upheavals in the Arab countries are a tragic confirmation of the moral error he identified.
Because Bernstein's dispute with Human Rights Watch was triggered by the matter of Israel, there will doubtless be a chorus of critics who will accuse him of hijacking the human rights agenda to promote Israel's cause. Hyperbole like that, sadly, goes with the territory. What matters is the wider mission: aiding those struggling to convert closed societies into open ones. I can think of few causes more noble.