I have not read Eric Posner’s The Twilight of Human Rights Law, though I am familiar enough with his scholarly and popular output on the subject to have a fairly firm idea about the book’s contents. To confirm as much, I recently watched Posner’s talk on the book which he gave before the World Affairs Council. Posner is not the most engaging speaker on the planet, but it’s hard to argue with the substance of his claim that human rights law (or “human rights norm”) which, by and large, is a byproduct of Western liberal democracies, has no global efficacy. This is not to say there are not right and wrong ways for governments to treat people. (Posner denies several times that he’s a relativist, though he’s vague about what he believes and why.) However, no charter of rights is going to stay the sword of the Islamic State or keep the Chinese police from sexually torturing followers of Falun Gong.
Having briefly studied and worked in human rights law, I am inclined to go even further than Posner and say that the discipline as a whole is borderline fraudulent. While there are many well-intentioned individuals who want to practice human rights law, the progenitors of that body of law—a mix of international bodies and academics—rarely have no basis for their claims other than their own socio-political preferences. While some human rights law, like so called just cogens norms, have a deep intellectual and historical pedigree, neither is really germane to ongoing debates concerning the discipline. The thinking behind why pirates were universally condemned centuries ago does little to inform the thinking of why terrorists are, or ought to be, condemned today. In fact, the empty-headed mantra of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fight” is still bandied about in ostensibly respectable academic and political circles. Moral sophistication, to say nothing of conceptual coherence, is not a prevalent feature of the human rights discipline.
Speaking on a more personal note (it’s anecdotal, so take caution), my impression of high human rights lawyers and academics is fairly low. Most that I have met were more interested in generating cheap moral capital for themselves than actually helping other living, breathing human beings. Digging wells in Africa is exponentially more beneficial than writing briefs on how women need to be given the right to vote. Authentic human rights work really needs to be transformed into sustainable humanitarian assistance which focuses on capacity building and development. This is, in fact, something Posner hits on. He is correct, though, that putting together aid packages is never easy, and that history has shown how easy it is for such assistance to either be overtaken by unsavory forces or left unused. There’s no point in building a complex power plant if no knows how to operate it properly.
While some Catholics (including yours truly) have been less-than-thrilled with the human-rights jargon that has crept into Catholic social discourse since the 1960s, it is at least possible to ground that language in a thoroughly Christian anthropology which is drawn from both Scripture and Tradition. In other words, the Catholic Church has the capacity to make human-rights norms meaningful, rather than mere assertions of preference that are little more than reflections of Western liberal values (of an increasingly radical variety). That really hasn’t happened, however. Instead, what we have seen is certain prelates in the Church try to adjust themselves to that discourse, “proving” that the Church can also be “relevant” and “engaged” despite retaining the status as an arcane, backwards, and Medieval institution that spends its time hating homosexuals and oppressing women. (For those interested, I have touched on some of these issues before in an article for Ethika Politika.)
There will be some (actually many) who will actively resist Posner’s pronouncement on the terminally ill status of human rights law. That’s understandable. There are plenty of people out there who have vested economic and political interests in maintaining the human-rights enterprise, and defeat is always a hard thing to swallow. Still, one can hope that those who are genuinely interested in improving the lives of others will invest their talents in capacity building rather than sanctimonious rhetoric. There is and shall always be a need speak clearly and forcefully against evil in the world, but that role belongs first to the Church and then, hopefully, the heads of states which, one hopes, are still functioning with a basic understanding of decency. Sadly, that understanding looks to be on the road to extinction.