Stephen Hopgood is an associate professor of international relations at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of “Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International” and, most recently, “The Endtimes of Human Rights.”

When an icon of the 20th century’s strivings against oppression passes away, it is an appropriate time to take freedom’s audit.

“The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before,” President Obama said in his eulogy of Nelson Mandela last month, “but they are no less important.” And United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the world to be “inspired” by Mandela’s spirit. “His death has awakened in all of us,” he said, “the flame of human rights and the beacon of hope.”

Their message was clear: We have come far, but there is a great deal left to do.

Yet despite this rhetoric of rededication and hope, the ground of human rights is crumbling beneath us. If we seem to have moved beyond “drama and moral clarity,” it is only because we no longer know where we are going. In fact, a 150-year experiment in creating global rules to protect and defend individual human beings is coming to an end.

The evidence is all around us. Authoritarian pushback against human rights in China raises the prospect of a new superpower utterly opposed to the hitherto dominant language of universal rights. And Russia, if anything, outdoes China, with Vladimir Putin manipulating his citizens’ legitimate aspirations for even basic freedoms. From the introduction of sharia law in Brunei to the consolidation of a murderous military regime in Egypt (where the alternative was the ultra-con­servative Muslim Brotherhood), we see examples everywhere of resistance to human rights, in practice and in principle.

In a stupefying act of bravado, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most systematic abusers of human rights, rejected its seat on the Security Council, saying the United Nations fails to prevent “the violation of rights” around the world. African leaders resist the authority of the International Criminal Court. Bashar al-Assad strengthens his grip on power in Syria after his regime uses chemical weapons to murder thousands. We see extreme con­servatism on gay rights throughout Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and now on India’s Supreme Court. And when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) declares, seemingly in earnest, that the exercise of human rights may be limited by “the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society,” that is a mandate for executive power and social conservatism, not for inalienable rights.

A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey highlighted “the global divide” that splits the West from the rest on social acceptance of homosexuality. In a world where eight in 10 people identify with a religious group, and where conservative forms of all major faiths — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism — are increasingly prominent and politically salient, the outlook for radical change in social attitudes outside the West and elite enclaves in developing countries looks bleak. For the seventh consecutive year, Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report found more declines than gains in the number of countries rated “free.” Russia led the way in repression but was hardly unique, as the green shoots of the Arab Spring led to widespread authoritarian retrenchment.

Freedom House called on the United States and Europe to do more. But the United States is worse than an ambivalent onlooker. Its use of torture and rendition against al-Qaeda suspects, its detentions without trial at Guantanamo, its drone program and targeted assassinations, and its rejection of the International Criminal Court all undermine the very idea, let alone the practice, of human rights.

Even the early promise of the Obama administration has dimmed. Political and security realities have reduced the scope of American unilateralism, the president admitted in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September. The future, he said, will be about international and regional partners for peace and prosperity. In an era when containing China is paramount, we know what “partners” means: deals. No ASEAN state should expect a call from the president about human rights anytime soon.

Of course, governments have always been reluctant to tie their hands with human rights considerations, and cultural and religious diversity guarantees that the secular global rights regime will always have detractors and foes. But this is more than a transient change. We have taken the two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of human rights for granted, assuming that the arc of history does indeed bend toward justice. The assumption underlying Obama’s Mandela eulogy is that matters of compliance, not principle, are the main challenge remaining. But the great moral drama of liberal freedoms vs. state and religious repression and discrimination is alive and insistent today, even as we are in a forced retreat from the battlefield.

This isn’t just a change from the 1990s, the 1970s or even the 1950s. It is the end of a historic project that began in Europe in 1863 with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the first permanent, secular, international organization dedicated to the protection of the suffering individual. The export of a liberal-humanist vision of global civilization, first through empire and then via the 20th century’s international institutions, has reached an impasse. Europe’s slow political decline has been disguised for decades by American power. Now the two are diverging, the Asia-Pacific calling Americans to turn East. The world in which global rules were assumed to be secular, universal and nonnegotiable rested on the presumption of a deep worldwide consensus about human rights — but this consensus is illusory.

The first challenge is multipolarity. It’s been more than a century since we’ve lived in a truly multipolar world. Now, as power shifts rapidly to Asia, the influence of Europe, so often the driving force for human rights and international justice, has waned. The United States has proved a fair-weather friend for human rights abroad and is now far more interested in China and its own export markets in Asia and the Pacific. The new and re-emerging powers known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are not uniformly against human rights — although the records of Russia and China are abysmal — but they will increasingly want a say on global rules and who gets to set them. Newly emerging states are challenging settled opinion on transnational justice and humanitarian intervention, which they often interpret as victor’s justice and regime change. And the global rules and principles that organizations such as the United Nations rely on were not written by the vast majority of the world’s peoples, who have long seen powerful states declare exceptions for themselves and their allies. Newly powerful states will challenge this system — and seek exceptions of their own.

A multipolar world means more compromise — as we already see in Syria — more back-scratching and less principled denunciation. America’s notorious skepticism about most human rights treaties has in the past been tempered because international rights seemed to go hand in hand with Washington’s goal of spreading democracy. But opponents can now see U.S. ambivalence about strengthening global liberal institutions — outside the trade and finance realm — and know there will be little pushback when the stakes are high.

Human rights made sense for a secularizing Europe that sought a moral alternative to religious faith. But the world has not followed the secular path. If anything, it is becoming more intense in its religiosity — that is the second challenge. Over the past century, for example, Christianity has seen a massive shift toward the south, with more than 60 percent of Christians now living in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Africa alone, the number of Christians rose from 9 million to 516 million between 1910 and 2010. And we are as aware of the intensity of Islamic faith held by millions in many of the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia as we are of the passionate evangelism shared by millions of Christians in the Americas and Africa particularly.

The language of human rights is a language of protest and resistance, not of authority and discrimination. In a religious world, secular human rights of recent heritage and ambiguous origin increasingly compete with long-standing cultural claims legitimated by traditions and gods. Where strong faith meets human rights, the classic modernizing assumption — that secular rights trump religion — no longer holds.

A more multipolar world, America’s ambivalence, Europe’s decline and more competition from faith-based movements — all these forces put extreme pressure on a human rights model that is heavily Westernized and centralized in funding and organization. And so a paradox emerges. Achieving progress in civil and political rights, for example, might mean ceding ground in other areas such as social justice and women’s rights. All rights are equally important to the global human rights regime with which we are familiar. But for many of those who are poor, or committed to socialist politics, or deeply religious and/or conservative, both inside and outside the West, which rights deserve primacy requires discussion and compromise, not diktats from New York and Geneva.

The classic Human Rights Watch strategy of “naming and shaming” rights abusers is irrelevant in cases where, for example, the imposition of sharia law is considered desirable by those who must be shamed for change to happen. In the multipolar world, justice for acts of egregious violence may mean the death penalty — or it may mean outright forgiveness. This world may be one where women seeking an end to domestic violence and desirous of education for their daughters nevertheless oppose reproductive rights on principle. Or where the idea that children have rights they can claim against their parents, rather than obligations, seems to strike at the heart of the most valued social institution of all, the family.

In this world, religious groups of all kinds have an opportunity to play a greater role in struggles for freedom from hunger and repression than they have done in the decades when secular experts in development and human rights held sway. Pope Francis, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” has insisted that the church is not a nongovernmental organization — meaning it has more to offer than secular activism and advocacy. The church has a deeper, more powerful, more attractive and more important spiritual message to spread, he has said, surely recognizing that the weak grip of conventional Western human rights principles in individual communities is no match for the moral power of the church. The new pope’s seemingly more liberal stances on social issues and his critique of capitalism may make him a better bet for radical change — he can in principle mobilize a billion people — than the rather arid, dry and legalistic claims of secular human rights advocates.

What the classical human rights movement has achieved is the recognition of each human being as the moral equal of all others. This is a massive feat. But the nationalist, authoritarian and conservative-religious backlash against the language and practices of secular human rights opens the need for alternative forms of mobilization, of which conventional human rights — meaning civil and political rights diffused from the West — will be just one part.

We are waking from the European dream of one world under global, secular law. The result may be a reinvigorated universal church. Or it may be parallel and permanent zones of freedom and zones of repression, and a global middle class seeking desperately to move themselves, or at least their children, from one to another.


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