Human rights exist in two overlapping worlds – moral and legal. Nobel Laureate economist and philosopher Amartya Sen observed that from the perspective of traditional economics… “moral rights or freedoms command very little interest; at best they are perceived as purely legal entities of instrumental use only”. Of course, Sen has gone on to secure a reputation as one of the world’s leading voices in advocating for moral rights and freedoms, no doubt confounding many of his colleagues who remain hunkered down in traditional economics.
At USAID, however, the discourse on moral rights and freedoms is vague, low-key, and largely rhetorical. Under USAID’s thinking, the terms “human rights” and “human dignity” share a highly qualified relationship under which human rights are almost exclusively framed with reference to the norms of international human rights treaty law. The effect of this is that USAID discussions on human dignity tend to focus on how these human rights treaties and legal norms are honored or (much more frequently) violated, as measured through human rights analytical frameworks. Such frameworks are derived from the elements of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, augmented by rights that are articulated in labor conventions and in the provisions of various national civil rights legislation.
When approaching human rights through a treaty law lens focused on the performance of nation-states, the emphasis on laws and treaties has considerable traction. Such is the language and work of diplomacy, but is this entirely transferrable as a relevant vocabulary for international relief & development practitioners who work on human well-being one person, group, or village at a time?
The world’s largest bilateral aid donor has aligned itself with this diplomatic emphasis, as USAID continues to engage the relief & development industry on human rights largely through a treaty law discourse. Given the current global context, which has increasingly strayed from reliance on the post-Cold War premise of an ascendent global liberal order under which adherence to human rights norms is an expectation of good governance, USAID’s heavy reliance on that discourse may not serve the interests of the international relief & development industry very well. In his provocative 2013 book The Endtimes of Human Rights, British professor of international relations Stephen Hopgood asserted that the longstanding global project to universalize human rights into an effective body of legal norms shaping the behavior of nation-states has largely failed and is now approaching a total collapse. For Hopgood, the global power shift toward Asia and away from the parts of the world where human rights law has historically had its greatest support – Europe and North America – portends a rapid global decline in the effective influence of human rights law. Michael Ignatieff, formerly at the Kennedy School and now president of the Central European University, sounded a similar alarm in his 2001 book, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Ignatieff has since gone on to criticize the legitimacy of a role for the international community in interventions to mitigate human rights abuses abroad, arguing that these issues are appropriately left to domestic human rights advocates in the affected countries. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, raised similar (if not quite so pessimistic) concerns associated with the rise of populism, as noted in David Rieff’s Foreign Policy article of April 9th, 2018, “The End of Human Rights?” While such human rights activists as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are far from accepting defeat, the question remains: are relief & development practitioners chained to this one approach through which to make the case that human dignity matters?
Hopgood and many others have also criticized the United States for its very inconsistent record as a champion of human rights. That inconsistency was greatly exacerbated under the Trump administration, not only due to former President Trump’s frequent lack of interest in holding foreign governments to account for their poor (and often appalling) human rights performance, but also by his own administration’s questionable domestic policies on religious liberty, reproductive rights, and issues that affect people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and indigenous populations. Near the end of the Trump term, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo sought to move U.S. foreign policy away from its reference to the global evolution of human rights treaty law, substituting an alternative (based on highly questionable interpretations of the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that he labeled as “unalienable rights” under which religious liberty and property rights took precedence. Secretary Pompeo perceived the global human rights culture as being in decline, but his approach did nothing to remedy that perception. Fortunately, the Biden administration wasted no time in reversing Pompeo’s perverse human rights policy revision.
Considered through the treaty law lens, even if the United States does improve the consistency of its support of human rights abroad in accord with changing political and diplomatic priorities, the world has far more to worry about from the weak response of the international community to the disturbing human rights records of China, Egypt, North Korea, Myanmar, the Philippines, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, and a growing list of authoritarian countries around the world. We all have a strong stake in supporting international human rights laws and treaties as important instruments of advocacy, protest, and reform. Ultimately, any government’s legitimacy depends on its human rights performance, and in the international context such matters remain more properly the principal domain of our diplomats and our defense institutions. The relief & development community continues to have an important supportive role, but laws and treaties are not our only tools.
From a relief & development perspective, human rights have their own inherent worth; they also serve as indicators to describe how best to approximate the extent to which the universal human dignity of individuals is being recognized and respected. Approaching human dignity primarily from a human rights treaty law perspective however is problematic, given that there exists no standard definition of human dignity. Arguably, that definitional gap can be considered by relief & development practitioners to be an asset, as each society finds its own most meaningful words to articulate what human dignity means to them. Still, in legal terms that is messy – so in our current relief & development industry’s understanding of legalistic human rights, the foundational concept of human dignity lingers uneasily in the background. Placed in such a way, relief & development practitioners at best wave a rhetorical hand at human dignity, but more often they ignore that concept altogether and consider it of scant utility.
If human rights thinking from a treaty law perspective is losing its power to motivate and sustain meaningful development progress, and if human dignity is now considered to be a rhetorical set-aside for use in introductory paragraphs, then where does USAID turn to find the motivational force needed to drive and sustain positive change?
Surprisingly, the obvious option remains unrecognized and ignored: the immense potential of harnessing a robust moral discourse on human dignity, built on compelling human narratives, established moral theory, and a wide consensus on shared values. Such a discourse, and the policies and programming that would flow from it, holds great promise in energizing popular support for prioritizing the truly human goals of relief & development, and the policies, plans, programs, and evaluations that make relief & development investments effective and meaningful for each beneficiary.
As authoritarianism grows and civil society around the world faces intensifying crackdowns, the resulting generally grim global outlook for sustaining meaningful human rights legal and treaty norms does pose significant questions for the applicability of this approach for achieving relief & development goals. Why is USAID continuing in this direction, placing such emphasis on aligning its development work to indicators linked to the performance of human rights laws and treaties, while simultaneously largely avoiding any engagement in moral frameworks of human rights? Such moral frameworks are neither conceptually arbitrary nor irrelevant to the larger mission of human relief & development, although the dominance of the “development = political-economy + security + national self-interest” mindset that now characterizes so much of the relief & development industry has so far evidenced no interest in attending to matters of moral clarity.
This situation is not due to lack of intellectual resources. Immanuel Kant – hardly an intellectual lightweight – had more to say about human dignity than anyone since Aristotle, and there is a burgeoning literature on human dignity now available from leading moral thinkers such as Yechiel Michael Barilan, Donna Hicks, Michael Ignatieff, George Kateb, Arnd Pollmann, and Michael Rosen. If USAID is reluctant to pull away from its exclusive focus on human rights as the sole pathway to human dignity in international development, the clear and compelling articulation of the moral dimensions of human rights offered by such thinkers as Chris Brown, Peter G. Brown, Jack Donnelly, Tim Dunne, Mary Midgley, James Nickel, Brian Orend, Bhikhu Parekh, Henry Shue, James Weaver, and Nicholas Wheeler would go a great distance in providing a robust platform upon which to strengthen and inform human rights values and commitments around the world.
There are also other moral options beyond human rights – many of them, in fact. The UNDP has moved forward with the Human Development Approach, based on the moral framework of Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s capability approach. That moral theory offers us far more motivational traction in conceptualizing development as human well-being rather than as outcomes associated with compliance with legally mandated rights and duties. The capability approach has its origins in human rights moral concepts, but it is far more versatile and ethically compelling than human rights (law or moral theory) in capturing the essence of human development. When looked at through the capability approach, human dignity no longer floats in the background. Instead, as described by Martha Nussbaum, human dignity is linked to respect (i.e., beings with dignity demand respect from others), agency (i.e., dignity is manifest in what people are able to be and do), and equality (i.e., human dignity is universal).
There is also much to learn from the ethics of care, which connects with the personal sense of mission that, probably, nearly everyone active in international relief & development clings to: the reality that we care deeply about human suffering, lack of freedoms, justice, and equitable opportunities. When we come face-to-face with the reality of human suffering, injustice, and deprivation, we need nothing more to convince us that appropriate and caring action is called for, urgently. Virtue ethics also offers us guidance on what transformational leadership (and the engaged, active followership that is linked to such dynamic leadership) depends upon – leaders of sound moral character and virtue, committed to public service. John Rawls offers very relevant guidance on what justice ought to look like as an organizing principle of society – hardly an irrelevant consideration for relief & development. The longer list of applicable and insightful moral lenses must wait for another essay, but clearly we need not rely exclusively on human rights principles to guide our relief & development industry.
I would encourage my friends at USAID to take a good read of their own February 2012 “Desk Study on the Human Development Approach and Its Potential Applicability to USAID”. This remarkable document, written by the co-founder of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, John Hammock, with help from Ana de Alba, Megan Rounseville, and Ann Barham, offers a very persuasive argument for adopting the Human Development Approach (which UNDP has embraced) which is largely based on a very pragmatic use of the capability approach. Unfortunately, and perhaps tellingly, this desk study has now slipped out of digital existence and is no longer available on USAID’s own website or on the website of the firm which was contracted to carry it out – Management Systems International.
Never mind; the Center for Values will be happy to provide a PDF copy upon request!
Photo: Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster in English. [Exact date unknown]. UN Photo #1292