Stand up for your rights
From The Economist print edition
The old stuffy ones, that is: newer ones are distractions
THE past few years have been busy ones for human-rights organisations. In prosecuting the so-called war on terror, many governments in Western countries where freedoms seemed secure have been tempted to nibble away at them. Just as well, you might suppose, that doughty campaigners such as Amnesty International exist to leap to the defence. Yet Amnesty no longer makes the splash it used to in the rich world (see article). This is not for want of speaking out. The organisation is as vocal as it ever was. But some years ago it decided to follow intellectual fashion and dilute a traditional focus on political rights by mixing in a new category of what people now call social and economic rights.
Rights being good things, you might suppose that the more of them you campaign for the better. Why not add pressing social and economic concerns to stuffy old political rights such as free speech, free elections and due process of law? What use is a vote if you are starving? Are not access to jobs, housing, health care and food basic rights too? No: few rights are truly universal, and letting them multiply weakens them.
Food, jobs and housing are certainly necessities. But no useful purpose is served by calling them “rights”. When a government locks someone up without a fair trial, the victim, perpetrator and remedy are pretty clear. This clarity seldom applies to social and economic “rights”. It is hard enough to determine whether such a right has been infringed, let alone who should provide a remedy, or how. Who should be educated in which subjects for how long at what cost in taxpayers' money is a political question best settled at the ballot box. So is how much to spend on what kind of health care. And no economic system known to man guarantees a proper job for everyone all the time: even the Soviet Union's much-boasted full employment was based on the principle “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”.
It is hardly an accident that the countries keenest to use the language of social and economic rights tend to be those that show least respect for rights of the traditional sort. The rulers of Cuba and China habitually depict campaigns concentrating on individual freedoms as a conspiracy by the rich northern hemisphere to do down poor countries. It is mightily convenient, if you deprive your citizens of political liberties, to portray these as a bourgeois luxury.
And it could not be further from the truth. For people in the poor world, as for people everywhere, the most reliable method yet invented to ensure that governments provide people with social and economic necessities is called politics. That is why the rights that make open politics possible—free speech, due process, protection from arbitrary punishment—are so precious. Insisting on their enforcement is worth more than any number of grandiloquent but unenforceable declarations demanding jobs, education and housing for all.
Many do-gooding outfits suffer from having too broad a focus and too narrow a base. Amnesty used to be the other way round, appealing to people of all political persuasions and none, and concentrating on a hard core of well-defined basic liberties. No longer. By trying in recent years to borrow moral authority from the campaigns and leaders of the past and lend it to the woollier cause of social reform, Amnesty has succeeded only in muffling what was once its central message, at the very moment when governments in the West need to hear it again.