DK: As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights how do you assess the progress in implementing its important standards?
RF: The formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50 years ago was an achievement that has produced results far in excess of anything that could reasonably have been anticipated at the time it was adopted. It was originally viewed as an awkward response to vague aspirations and public opinion. There was no real feeling of serious commitment surrounding its adoption. It was a prime example of what is often called “soft law.” It was viewed as something that the governments gave lip service to in this declaratory form that was not even legally obligatory and had no prospect of implementation. Many of the participating countries at the time didn’t practice human rights in their own societies, so there was an element of a hypocrisy built into the endorsement of this declaration from the moment of its inception. One has to ask why did something that started with such low expectations of serious impact on the world turn out to be one of the great normative documents of modern times, perhaps of all times.
The Declaration has been referred to as the most important formulation of international human rights law ever made. I think one of the things that helps explain this rise to prominence was that the citizens associations concerned with human rights found effective ways to take the Declaration seriously, as well, and to exert effective pressure on many governments to take the Declaration or parts of it seriously. This was a very instructive example of the degree to which what states do with respect to normative issues can be very much influenced by the degree of effective pressure brought to bear by civil society, both within particular countries and transnationally. The role of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and other groups, I think, was instrumental in putting the provisions and the impetus of the Declaration onto the political agenda of the world.
DK: You feel that the progress that has been made in human rights since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not have happened without strong pressure from groups in civil society?
RF: Yes, I’m saying that was an indispensable condition for the partial implementation of the Declaration. There were other factors that I think are also important to identify. One of them was the fact that once human rights emerged with this greater visibility, then governments, particularly in the West, found it a useful way to express their identity, their role in the world. It was useful as a means to exert pressure on the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc. It was part of the Cold War, a normative dimension that related the conflict to widely shared values. This was the idea that freedom was definitely linked to the promotion of human rights.
Then came the Helsinki Process in the mid-1970s in which the Soviet bloc was given a kind of stability for the boundaries that emerged in Europe at the end of WWII. In exchange, Moscow accepted a kind of reporting obligation about human rights compliance in their countries at the time. Conservatives in the U.S. criticized the Helsinki Accords harshly because they argued that the agreement was a give-away; they alleged it is legitimizing these improper boundaries and in exchange we get this kind of paper promise that has no meaning at all.
As events turned out, the Helsinki emphasis on human rights was much more important than the stabilization of boundaries. Reliance on human rights was critical for a process of legitimizing and mobilizing the opposition forces that operated in Eastern Europe, particularly groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland and even the Moscow Trust group in the Soviet Union. It became clear that, in terms of struggles of resistance within particular societies against oppressive states, international human rights norms provided important political foundations for their commitment and their activity. I think this interplay between human rights norms and procedures at an international level and resistance politics in societies governed in an oppressive manner. was a second important strand.
The third one that I would mention is the anti-Apartheid campaign, which was based on a worldwide normative consensus that Apartheid represented an unacceptable form of racial persecution that was, in effect, such a systemic violation of human rights that it amounted to a crime against humanity. This was reinforced by grassroots activists in the critical countries of the United Kingdom and the United States that put such pressure on their governments that even Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s U.S. felt obliged to go along with an international sanctioning process that was directed at Apartheid, and probably contributed to the peaceful abandonment by the majority of the white elite of Apartheid. This was something no one could have anticipated a decade before it occurred – people thought either Apartheid was so well established, so much in control of the society, that it was not feasible to challenge it, or that the challenge would come about by a very difficult and bloody civil war. I think that mounting this peaceful challenge was a major triumph in terms of peaceful transformation that was aided by a kind of human rights demand that itself can be traced back to the foundations that one finds in the Universal Declaration.
DK: Do you feel that the successes that have been achieved up to this point can be built upon, and the Universal Declaration will become an even more significant document and guideline for the 21st century?
RF: This is a matter of conjecture that is hard to be very clear about at this stage because you find that both possibilities seem susceptible of pretty strong supportive arguments. My sense is that there is a sufficient constituency committed to human rights that will continue to invoke the Universal Declaration and the authority that it provides as a foundation for carrying on campaigns of one sort or another. One of the things that emerged in the 1990s was the degree to which transnational women’s groups and indigenous peoples had organized themselves around a human rights agenda. Their presence was definitely felt in Vienna at the UN Human Rights Conference in 1993, and elsewhere, evidently believing that their own objectives and movements as capable of being articulated by reference to human rights demands and aspirations.
I think there is a political ground on which post-Cold War world human rights can advance further. There are also the important efforts now, outside the West, expressing different concerns but asking the same question: “What do we want the human rights process to become?” These voices are saying, we didn’t participate in the initial formulations. We think the Declaration and its norms are too individualistic or too permissive in terms of the way it approaches the relationship of the individual to the community. This is a common criticism you find in Islam and Asia. How can the Declaration be extended to represent all the peoples of the world and allow them the sense that it not only substantively is reflective of their values, but also that they’ve had some opportunity to participate in the articulation of the norms. I think it is very important that we recognize the incompleteness of the normative architecture that has flowed from the Declaration, if understood as including the International Covenants that were formulated in 1966, and other more focused treaty instruments.
There is still very important work to be done on creating a more universally acceptable and accepted framework for the implementation of human rights.
DK: One of the human rights treaties that has been created in the aftermath of the Universal Declaration is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s nearly universally adhered to. The only two countries that currently have not ratified this important convention are Somalia and the United States. Somalia apparently doesn’t have its government organized well enough to do so, but the United States doesn’t have any excuse. Why is the United States holding out on making this Convention universal, and why is it refusing to give its support to a Convention so broadly adhered to?
RF: One needs to understand that this pattern of holding out against a nearly universal consensus is not limited to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States has been playing this obstructive role in a number of different settings, including the Landmine Treaty and the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on the Emission of Greenhouse Gases. I’m not sure about the real objections to the Convention on the Right of the Child. I know the Pentagon has mounted pressure because of the recruiting age of soldiers and the feeling that it would not be cost effective for them to give up the right to recruit young people under the age of 18, which I think is the age in the Convention. The present recruiting age of American soldiers includes people who are 17. It seem like a small difference to justify a holdout on a treaty that enjoys such wide backing.
Let me take the opportunity to say that the fact that something is put into treaty form or is in the Universal Declaration is no assurance that it’s going to be taken seriously, either by the human rights part of civil society or by governments. One needs to come to the awareness that when we talk about human rights what we really mean is civil and political rights. Social, economic and cultural rights, which are broadly set forth in the Universal Declaration and are the subject of a separate covenant that was signed in 1966, have received very little implementation over the years. The human rights organizations are by and large devoting all their resources to the promotion of selected items of political and civil rights. For much of the world, particularly the non-Western world, economic and social rights are at least as important, if not more important, than civil and political rights. This is one of the reasons that these organizations are viewed with some suspicion, even the Western human rights organizations that tell governments to be less authoritarian or to increase freedom of participation, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression. I had a conversation a couple of years ago with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, and he was very sensitive to this issue and spoke about it with sincerity and conviction. It’s also, of course, a convenient pretext for not being responsible and accountable in the area of political and civil relations. It is true that for human rights to be broadly accepted as a desirable source of obligation they have to be seriously responsive to the problems of acute poverty and economic and social deprivation as well as to the problems that arise from authoritarian governments and from the absence of democratic practices.
DK: Do you think that the United States and other Western states are failing in that regard? And, for that matter, also civil society? Have they failed to push for economic and social rights sufficiently?
RF: Yes, I think there’s no question, especially in the recent period where the Reagan and Thatcher administrations were very clear that they didn’t even regard economic and social rights as a genuine part of human rights. They felt these claims were an importation of a socialist ethos that was inconsistent with the way in which a market-oriented constitutional democracy should operate, and that was basic to the existence of a legitimate form of government. There is that real question. In civil society it’s been partly the feeling that it was much more manageable to conceive of human rights violations as challenges that involved very basic affronts to human dignity that arose out of abuses of governmental power, like the torture of political prisoners or summary executions and disappearances. These abuses captured the political imagination, and they were discreet policies of governments that were in many ways objectionable. Focusing on them seemed to facilitate access to media coverage. It seemed to raise issues that one could get some sort of results in relation to. It didn’t raise the ideological question of whether economic and social rights were somehow an endorsement of a socialist orientation toward policy.
DK: Of course, preventing torture and disappearances and other abuses of state power is quite important. It’s also a real problem that there is not safety net–that people are continuing to starve to death and to suffer and die from lack of health care and other very basic human rights–the right to be treated with dignity, the most basic right of all. What might we do from this point on to see that those rights are not pushed to the side or neglected entirely?
RF: There’s no question that by affirming economic and social rights, one doesn’t want to undermine the pressure to prevent the acute violations of civil and political rights. I think there are some new initiatives – there’s a new Center for the Promotion of Economic and Social Rights in New York City, started recently by several Harvard Law School graduates, that is trying to do good work in this area to bring a balance into the human rights picture. It’s not only the sense that one needs to focus on economic and social rights, but also one needs to focus on the structures that generate these violations. There’s a group in Malaysia called JUST, headed by Chandra Muzaffer, that has been very active in trying to show that the global market forces are systematically responsible for the polarization of societies throughout the world, essentially making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The dynamics of globalization contribute to an atmosphere in which even governments feel almost helpless to prevent the impoverishment of a portion of their own societies because of the strength of global capital. It’s important that we understand the thinking that is going on around the world about these issues of economic and social rights.
DK: How do you feel about the failure of the international community to adequately respond to situations of genocide that have arisen in Bosnia and Rwanda and other places? Hasn’t there been a terrible failure to uphold the right to life for hundreds of thousands, even millions of people?
RF: Yes, I think it is a revelation of the moral bankruptcy of the organized international community and of a disturbing and recurrent acceptance in this world of sovereign states of the most severe human wrongs being committed as being beyond control or prevention. At the same time, I have some mixed feelings about those who advocate intervention to overcome genocidal behavior without understanding the political and military obstacles that lie on that path. Intervention is a very difficult political process to use effectively as the United States found out in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Cheap, shallow intervention is almost worse than non-intervening. I had many disagreements with friends about the policies that should be pursued with respect to Bosnia during the unfolding of the tragedy there a few years ago. I didn’t see it as beneficial for the United Nations to establish these safe-havens or to make half-hearted gestures because, and I feel in retrospect that this view has been at least vindicated in that setting, that it would create new options for those who were committing the crimes. Unless there was the political will to defend the safe-havens – as the Srebrenica tragedy showed there was not – it would really herd potential victims together in a way that made ethnic cleansing more efficient and more horrible in its execution. One has to be very careful not to embrace a kind of facile interventionism because of our feeling of the utter moral bankruptcy of a world order system that can’t respond to genocide. To jump from inadequacy to futility is to disguise the true nature of the problem and the solution.
DK: We’ve also experienced a failure of sanctions, which has been particularly evident in relation to the sanctions imposed upon Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. This failure has led to the more vulnerable parts of society suffering as a result of the sanctions. What do you see as the answer to this? Do we need to reform the international system? Do we need to have an international security force? If we have problems making sanctions work and problems with intervention, what do we do when we see the worst abuses of human rights occurring?
RF: It’s a difficult challenge for which there’s no quick fix, in my view, because it’s not accidental that we don’t have adequate intervention. We don’t have a Peace Force that is disengaged from geopolitics and able to act independently. Sanctions of the sort that were imposed on Iraq have these devastating effects on civilian society. It comes out of a rather profound dominance of international political life by geopolitical considerations. In the case of the Iraqi sanctions, there was a sense of incompleteness in which the war was waged and ended, leaving Saddam Hussein in control after depicting him as such a brutal, dictatorial leader. Sanctions were a cheap way for the victorious coalition to somehow express their continuing opposition without incurring human or financial costs of any significance. The fact that the real victims of this policy were the Iraqi people was not really taken into account. I’ve seen Madeleine Albright and others confronted by this reality and they brush it aside. They just don’t want to confront that reality, and tend to say “Saddam Hussein is building palaces. If he were using his resources for his people….” The whole point of the critique is that this is a leader that is not connected with the well being of his people. If we know what the effect after seven years of these sanctions is and yet insist on continuing them, we become complicit in the waging of indiscriminate warfare against the people of Iraq.
DK: At this point in time, nearing the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and approaching the new millennium, what advice would you offer to young people with regard to human rights and responsibilities?
RF: The last fifty years shows how much can be done by activists, young people and others, on behalf of making human rights a serious dimension of political life. I think that what needs to be carried forward is a more comprehensive implementation of the human rights that exist, filling in some gaps on behalf of indigenous peoples and the perspectives of non-western society, extending the serious implementation to matters of economic and social rights. We should push hard for this as something that one takes seriously, also for one’s own society. I think Americans particularly are good at lecturing the rest of the world as to what they should be doing, but are generally rather unwilling to look at themselves critically. We could begin the new millennium particularly with that kind of healthy self-criticism, not a kind of destructive negativism, a healthy self-criticism that would allow us to realize that we too are responsible for adherence to these wider norms of human rights; that we really have to rethink the enthusiasm that so many parts of our country have for capital punishment, for instance, in relation to the worldwide trend toward its abolition. I think we have to ask the question, do we really want to endow our state, or any democratic state, with the legal competence to deprive people of life by deliberate design? If we do endow the state with such power, it seems to me we are endorsing a kind of sovereignty-first outlook that has many other wider implications that are not desirable, and that run counter to deeper tendencies toward the emergence of global village realities.