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The Debasement of Human Rights

How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 368 pages
ISBN: 9781594039799
AVAILABLE: 3/13/2018

The Debasement of Human Rights
How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom

The idea of human rights began as a call for individual freedom from tyranny, yet today it is exploited to rationalize oppression and promote collectivism. How did this happen? Aaron Rhodes, recognized as “one of the leading human rights activists in the world” by the University of Chicago, reveals how an emancipatory ideal became so debased.

Rhodes identifies the fundamental flaw in the Universal Declaration of Human of Rights, the basis for many international treaties and institutions. It mixes freedom rights rooted in natural law—authentic human rights—with “economic and social rights,” or claims to material support from governments, which are intrinsically political. As a result, the idea of human rights has lost its essential meaning and moral power.

The principles of natural rights, first articulated in antiquity, were compromised in a process of accommodation with the Soviet Union after World War II, and under the influence of progressivism in Western democracies. Geopolitical and ideological forces ripped the concept of human rights from its foundations, opening it up to abuse. Dissidents behind the Iron Curtain saw clearly the difference between freedom rights and state-granted entitlements, but the collapse of the USSR allowed demands for an expanding array of economic and social rights to gain legitimacy without the totalitarian stigma.

The international community and civil society groups now see human rights as being defined by legislation, not by transcendent principles. Freedoms are traded off for the promise of economic benefits, and the notion of collective rights is used to justify restrictions on basic liberties.

We all have a stake in human rights, and few serious observers would deny that the concept has lost clarity. But no one before has provided such a comprehensive analysis of the problem as Rhodes does here, joining philosophy and history with insights from his own extensive work in the field.

About the Author

Aaron Rhodes is a human rights activist and an advocate for the reform of international human rights law and institutions.

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The international community’s concept of human rights lacks intellectual and moral integrity. It is corrupted by political ideas. A debased and contradictory understanding of human rights has allowed the concept to be exploited by authoritarian states to justify their denial of liberties and to denigrate free societies, and has encouraged ideologues to pursue political agendas under the cover of human rights. While the struggle to protect individual freedom is increasingly marginalized, the idea of human rights has been so loosely applied and so distorted that it is now used to justify restrictions on basic individual freedoms and to advocate the global regulation of an immense range of social and economic activity. The concept of human rights is now rarely informed by the ideas and principles that originally gave it meaning. It has become so much associated with ideological agendas and frivolous demands that few take it seriously anymore. The idea of human rights has been emptied of the moral force that once inspired people around the world seeking freedom and democracy.

The result is profoundly deleterious to the way we think about human rights and apply the concept through international law and institutions. To have any hope of addressing the problem, we must identify the source: the falsehood at the heart of the international community’s definition of human rights. It is a definition that mingles protections of basic individual freedoms with guaranteed state entitlements. It mixes natural rights with those established by positive law. It blurs the line between what is and is not a human right; it degrades the idea of natural rights, thus eroding the moral foundation upon which the entire edifice of human rights rests.

In this book, I show why economic and social human rights, so named under international law, are not universal human rights. Economic and social rights such as the “right to social security” and the “right to an adequate standard of living” are not simply different kinds of human rights; they are demonstrably not human rights at all, for they are based on different principles. They are rights granted by states, reflecting particular political values, not intrinsic to human beings; they are collective, not individual rights; they embody political values and goals, and do not accord with the essential nonpolitical and nonpartisan character of authentic, universal human rights. They derive from particular political interests and passions, while authentic human rights are based on our common human nature and on reason, the basis of their universality.

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