The Debasement of Human Rights

Back in May I invited Aaron Rhodes to come over from his home in Hamburg, Germany, to talk about his new book from Encounter Books, The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom. The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto was in town to interview Rhodes, which he did after our forum. The interview appears in today’s Journal. It’s a tour de force, pulling together the many threads of a huge, complex argument and presenting them in a short, readable format.

If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with the UN Human Rights establishment but have never quite been able to put your finger precisely on what it is, this interview will answer many of your questions—and the book will spell out the details. The origins of a world in which dictators sit of the UN Human Rights Council, immune from criticism while condemning free societies, can be found in progressivism’s conflation of natural and positive law, which Franklin Roosevelt mastered with his “Four Freedoms” and his wife Eleanor helped institute in 1948 in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With that foundation, equating rights to liberty with rights to social security, rest and leisure, periodic holidays with pay, job training, and more, it was only a matter of time before tyrants would find their immunity in their purported provision of such services, invariably at the expense of liberty, leading to the debasement of real rights.

During the Reagan administration I served for a time as director of policy for the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs where I saw human rights hypocrisy up close. During the annual meetings in 1987 in Geneva of what was then the UN Commission on Human Rights, for example, we introduced a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record, only to be met with objections from European nations, effectively excusing those abuses by pointing to Cuba’s health care record. With the end of the Cold War, which tended to sharpen the difference between these two kinds of rights, the distinction has become increasingly blurred, as Rhodes explains, drawing on his experience as director of the International Helsinki Federation from 1993 to 2007 and his present position as president of the Forum for Religious Freedom – Europe.

“Can anything be done?” Taranto asks at the end of the interview. “I wish that the Trump administration would talk about human rights once in a while,” Rhodes answers. “They should talk about freedom.”