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Global Hubris

Hopgood

Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights 

      In The Endtimes of Human Rights, Stephen Hopgood delivers a scathing critique of the practices and institutions associated with present day global human rights. Over the course of two introductory sections and five subsequent chapters, Hopgood argues forcefully that today’s global human rights machinery is unsustainable and on the verge of collapse, as the word “endtimes” in his title suggests.  Hopgood uses initial capital letters, “Human Rights,” to describe this broken system, which he contrasts with “human rights” without initial capital letters.

     Lower case human rights refer to ground level, indigenous movements to be free from human rights abuses, which Hopwood wholeheartedly endorses. The endtimes “can never come for this form of ’human rights,’” he argues, “in the same way that nothing can stop people banding together to demand their own freedom or justice in whatever language they prefer” (p.viii).  Upper case Human Rights, by contrast, consist of a “global structure of laws, courts, norms, and organizations that raise money, write reports, run international campaigns, open local offices, lobby governments, and claim to speak with singular authority in the name of humanity as a whole” (p.ix).

    For Hopgood, upper case Human Rights are based on an elitist, one-size-fits-all approach, “overambitious, unaccountable, alienated and largely ineffectual” (p.182).  In their hubris, Human Rights advocates have sought, and have largely succeeded, in arrogating to themselves and the institutions they represent the authority to define the fundamental global norms that are “applicable always, without discretion” (p.122).  The tension between Human Rights and human rights, he argues, is “exactly” the “tension between top-down fixed authority and bottom up (spontaneous, diverse, and multiple) authorities.” (p,x).  The forthcoming collapse of (upper case) Human Rights means that locally inspired (lower case) human rights movements will have space to flourish.

    Hopgood’s arguments against Human Rights focus primarily upon international criminal justice, the process which seeks to hold accountable those who violate international norms against, for example, torture and arbitrary arrests and killings, occurring in the context of what we often term mass atrocities, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.  International criminal justice institutions of concern to Hopgood include the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and, especially, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, along with non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, gatekeeper organizations dedicated to identifying and publicizing human rights abuses and advocating for accountability for abusers.  Human Rights also embraces humanitarianism — the treatment of military and civilian personnel in wartime and crisis situations — and, more recently, has included efforts to secure equal treatment for women and for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender (LGBT) individuals.  These strains of Human Rights, although mentioned in Endtimes, are of less concern to Hopgood, a professor of international relations at the University of London and the author of Keeper of the Flame, Understanding Amnesty International.

     Readers may be surprised to discover that very little of Hopgood’s work involves a direct critique of the day-to-day practices of Human Rights. Readers need to look elsewhere if, for example, their interest is whether hearsay evidence should be admissible before the ICC.  Hopgood addresses Human Rights from a far broader perspective.  His core argument is that although contemporary international criminal justice seeks to secure accountability for human rights abusers through what purports to be a judicial process, the process is almost entirely political.  Hopgood’s interest is in exposing the political underpinnings of this process. A crucial portion of his argument against contemporary Human Rights lies in his elaboration of its European origins.

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     Today’s Human Rights may be traced to what Hopgood terms 19th century European humanism, when progressive, middle class Europeans created a “secular replacement for the Christian god” (p.x) which borrowed heavily from Christian values and concepts, especially the need to alleviate suffering.  Of particular importance was the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, the “first international church” of secular humanism (p.25). The ICRC, founded in 1863 in very Protestant Geneva, Switzerland, was a neutral organization dedicated to providing assistance to soldiers wounded in war.  The ICRC gave rise to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which established standards for the provision of relief in armed conflicts.

      A decade later, the Geneva-based Institut de Droit International (International Law Institute) came into being as a supplement to the ICRC. The institute, a standing council of international jurists charged with providing expert commentary on the laws of war, served as the first step toward international war crimes tribunals, Hopgood contends.  The League of Nations, created in the aftermath of World War I and also based in Geneva, constituted an “epiphany” for secular humanism, the “first truly international organization authorized explicitly by the idea of humanity, not the Christian god” (p.41).  The League was to be a “permanent, transnational, institutional, and secular regime for understanding and addressing the root causes of suffering” (p.41-42).

      This phase of global secular humanism “came crashing to the ground in 1939. The Holocaust and the Second World War destroyed the moral legitimacy and political power, if not the ideological ambition and cultural arrogance, of Europe” (p.xi).  But the Holocaust and World War II gave rise to a perceived need to create institutions better equipped to preserve and advance secular humanism across the globe.  The creation of new institutions began in 1945 with the United Nations and the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, which served as a model for future war crimes tribunals.  The years 1945-49 were the “last time Europe held such a central place in the design of world order. It was a last moment to embed the humanist dream before the empires were gone” (p.49), Hopgood argues.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Anti-Genocide Convention, both dating from 1948, along with a revised 1949 Geneva Convention, were products of this era and remain key instruments of global Human Rights.

       Echoing a theme which Barbara Keys developed in Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, reviewed here in November 2015, Hopgood goes on to argue that Human Rights gained impetus in the 1970s when the United States began to prioritize human rights abroad as a key consideration in its foreign policy.  More than any other single factor, Hopgood argues, American power turned lower case human rights into upper case Human Rights, with the “secular religiosity” of European humanism giving way to a “more political, openly pro-democratic form of advocacy” that embraced the “logic of money as power” and “made explicit what had been implicit within international humanism: Human Rights and liberal capitalism were allies, not enemies” (p.12-13).  Human Rights thus became “intimately tied to the export of neo-liberal democracy using American state power” (p.xii).

     The apogee of Human Rights was from 1991 to 2008, the “unipolar moment” of American post-war dominance, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of international tribunals to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  During this period, moreover, 120 countries approved the Rome Statute of 1998, the founding charter for the ICC, which Hopgood terms the “apex of international criminal justice” (p.129; the United States was one of just seven states to vote against the Rome statute, along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen).  The ICC began hearing cases in 2002. The period also witnessed the emergence of an international “responsibility to protect” victims of human rights abuses, often shortened to R2P, now a recognized basis for humanitarian interventions authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

     But at the very moment when the notion of Human Rights was at its apogee, the “foundations of universal liberal norms and global governance [were] crumbling” (p.1), Hopgood argues.  The United States no longer retains the power it enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to foist its neo-liberal vision upon the rest of the world.  Nationalism and religious conviction have reasserted themselves throughout the world, and competing world powers, particularly China and Russia, are not proponents of liberal democracy.  Neither the United States nor any other entity is today capable of speaking and acting on behalf of the international community.

     Rather, we are entering what Hopgood terms a “neo-Westphalian world,” a reference to the 1648 peace treaties which ended Europe’s Thirty Years War and established a system of political order in Europe based on state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.  The neo-Westphalian world is one of “renewed sovereignty, resurgent religion, globalized markets, and the stagnation or rollback of universal norms about human rights” (p.166).  The “core modernizing assumption” of Human Rights, Hopgood argues, that “history brings secularism, a sense of oneself as an individual rights holder, and the erosion of collective beliefs and loyalties” is “fracturing alongside the Western power that sustained it” (p.166). Neo-Westphalia means “more politics, less morality, and less Europe,” in which the notion of genuine global solidarity becomes little more than a “conceit of human rights advocates in Geneva, New York, and London” (p.177).

    Hopgood looks with favor at the forthcoming collapse of Human Rights, its “endtimes,” much as many Christians look forward to an eschatological endtimes that culminate with the second coming of Jesus.  As Human Rights declines with declining American power, “local interpretations of what rights are and which rights might be sustainable will be essential if human rights are to flourish” (p.xv).  Once lower case human rights replace upper case Human Rights “other alliances can grow” (p.22), with “more international funding and expertise in areas like public health, disease, communication, and mediation – the Médecins Sans Frontières approach—which is more conducive to longer-lasting and effective change than are the often symbolic efforts of large-scale global institutions” (p.21).

     In the endtimes, only “issues of security, natural resources, and trade will excite multilateral engagement” (p.20), along with “very practical but time-limited relief work in logistics, search and rescue, medicine, disease control, and food and shelter” (p.21).  International Human Rights organizations will “turn increasingly to self-promotion. They will be concerned more than ever with themselves” (p.20). The one area where Human Rights seems likely to retain some clout is sub-Saharan Africa, precisely because this is the globe’s single area where Europe retains at least limited influence. “Africa will remain a laboratory for European moral spectatorship, although given Europe’s’ relative global decline, self reliance and church support will likely be the future for the poor and the suffering south of the Sahara” (p.21).

     Despite his searing rhetorical assault on contemporary Human Rights, Hopgood’s specific criticisms of the ICC and, by extension, international criminal justice, are tepid and hardly unconventional: the ICC’s prosecutions have been primarily against lower level state actors, rather than heads of state; they have focused almost exclusively on Africans, with few actions against persons from other regions; and the United States, having refused to ratify the Rome convention, remains an “embarrassing outlier for claims about liberal global norms” (p.129). The “true tragedy” of the ICC is that it is a court that “cannot conceivably exercise political jurisdiction over great powers, creating a permanent two-tier justice system in which strong states use global institutions to discipline the weak” (p.167).

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     Hopgood’s polemical and passionately argued case against modern Human Rights is problematic in several respects.  He offers maddeningly few specifics to support his broad theme that international Human Rights elites, in their hubris, have foisted “universal” and “secular” norms upon unwilling local populations.  The scattered examples he provides are drawn from efforts to secure greater rights for women and LGBT individuals in certain non-Western cultures, difficult and delicate exercises to be sure but well removed from his primary focus on international criminal justice.  Further, it is facile to argue that “renewed sovereignty” threatens international criminal justice. Nationalism and state sovereignty have always been, and are likely always to be, challenges to the aspirations and objectives of international institutions and organizations across the board, not simply to those of international criminal justice — just ask the mavens in Brussels charged with trying to hold the European Union together.

     Hopgood stops short of explicitly recommending abolition of the ICC and other publicly financed international criminal justice institutions and organizations, but his arguments lead inescapably to this recommendation. His contention that the resources presently applied to these institutions and organizations should be redirected to humanitarian relief means that any process seeking accountability for human rights abusers will have to be locally driven.  Given the weak state of domestic justice systems in much of the world, this means still less accountability for those who commit war crimes and mass atrocities than is the case with today’s admittedly imperfect international criminal justice machinery.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 4, 2016

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