Human Rights is a Western Policy Tool

Human Rights as a concept has roots in American & French Revolutions symbolised by their national flags.
  • Having its roots in the French and American revolutions, human rights is a western policy tool used selectively by the West to beat its opponents with.

Human rights as a concept, with philosophical and political roots in the French and American Revolutions, was inscribed by the West on the international agenda by establishing the UN Human Rights Commission in 1946 and in 1948 by the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly, a document drafted under Western superintendence. This emphasis on human rights encompassing life, liberty, equality, freedom of speech, movement, thought, opinion, and religion was ironic when most Asian and African countries were and remained under colonial rule for years after UDHR and were denied all these rights and freedoms by the West.

From inception, human rights was considered a potential policy tool to maintain the West’s global primacy and moral ascendancy threatened by the emergence of a powerful Soviet Union with its universalist communist ideology and the impending collapse of western colonial empires. The UDHR was rejected by the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia, amongst others. During the Cold War, human rights was effectively used by the democratic West against the Soviet Union to discredit its totalitarian system that suppressed human freedoms. The human rights basket of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act proved potent in ultimately eroding the Soviet Union from without and within. Today, to constrain Putin’s Russia, human rights pressure on it has been steadily intensified by the West.

Human rights as a Western foreign policy tool in the Middle East is manifest. In 1948 itself, Saudi Arabia argued that the UDHR violated the shari’ah, as did Iran’s UN representative in 1982 by terming it “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” In 2000, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) endorsed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as an alternative to UDHR. Human rights as cherished by the West are inseparable from democracy and individualism, but democracy has eluded the Middle East’s Islamic countries where community rights take precedence over individual rights (as in the Sinic world). The West has used human rights and an absence of democracy to justify regime changes in Iraq and Libya, but the Syrian regime could not be dislodged. Iran is now America’s target.

Human rights has become a contentious concept because its selective application by the West has invited accusations of double standards and misuse for geopolitical ends. Saudi Arabia egregiously violates basic human rights but escapes retribution. Pussyfooting around Crown Prince bin Salman’s involvement in the Khashoggi affair and complaisance about Saudi Arabia’s massive human rights violations in Yemen because of economic interests, arms exports, and confrontation with Iran, illustrates the propensity to spare friends and target foes. Israel’s handling of the Palestinian resistance is defended. Economic and power factors explain the West’s reticence over China’s human rights excesses in Tibet and Xinjiang. Pakistan escapes because of geopolitical reasons, as does Turkey. Where major interests are not involved, as in Myanmar’s case and that of several African countries, sanctions are readily imposed.

The Western focus on human rights has greatly improved the international environment for their protection by governments and societies, but the contradiction between robust advocacy of human rights and the massive human misery caused by humanitarian interventions in select countries diminishes the concept’s value. Pressure points on the non-Western world developed by the West through organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and instruments such as the US State Department’s annual reports on human rights violations and religious freedom internationally, reinforce perceptions that defense of human rights is a flexible foreign policy tool of the West.


Article was first published here and titled ‘A contentious concept misused for geo-political ends’. has obtained permission from author to publish article. Article is courtesy and copyright The Economic Times. 

Author is Former Foreign Secretary of India.

Editor – The Indian equivalent of rights is DHARMA. 

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