Morality vs order: where next for human rights?

This picture has been taken during a protest against the rape and murder of the 17 years-old Anene Booysen in Cape Town, South Africa. Gender-based violence is an endemic problem in South Africa, also sadly known as the rape capital of the world. The legislation protecting women is very progressive but a lack of political will prevent a real change in this very patriarchal society.

For many people, human rights are absolute. They are trump cards held by individuals that can never be overridden except in the gravest of situations, and then only temporarily. If they are suspended, the only justification is to prevent harm to the individual concerned. Most importantly, they can never be sacrificed for the public good because this is precisely where they are most vulnerable, and valuable, where an individual’s interests clash with the community will. If they are not sacrosanct here – if collective needs can erase an individual’s human rights – then they fail when they’re most necessary.

Yet the Universal Declaration qualifies human rights in ways that can be interpreted as a threat to the individual. In Article 29 (2), for example, the UDHR says, “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society,” and in Article 30, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

In other words, law can constrain rights where those rights are thought to be under attack, and/or where public order and morality demands it. Now imagine human rights defenders who challenge the legitimacy of their governments, whose call for freedom demands that the rights of those whom the state might define as terrorists or criminals are protected. This leaves the state as judge, jury and executioner if it can make a case to the population at large, regardless of the actual truth, that some subset of persons is a threat to the social order. Obvious candidates here might be the Rohingya, the Uighurs, human rights advocates in general or LGBT advocates in particular, or in times gone by the Jews or the Catholics. When national security is cited, majority public support can be found for torture or bans on immigration.

How can a rights-observing community keep itself safe from genuine threats while not sacrificing its core values? In the end, doesn’t this require tolerating a level of risk, danger and even loss in order not to lose the very thing a democratic society is supposed to be defending? How can populations at large be persuaded this is a price worth paying?

Stephen Hopgood is a professor of International Relations at SOAS. His book The Endtimes of Human Rights is available to buy.

António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, will speak on Counter-terrorism and human rights: winning the fight at SOAS University of London on 16 November. The event will be broadcast live from the SOAS Facebook page.  Questions in advance can be submitted on Twitter using #UNatSOAS

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