from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Whatever Happened to “Human Rights?”

February 18, 2011

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Lawyers hold a protest march to commemorate Human Rights Day in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 9, 2010.
Lawyers hold a protest march to commemorate Human Rights Day in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 9, 2010. (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters)

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Obama Administration’s reactions to developments in the Middle East is its refusal to talk about human rights. For reasons that are obscure, it has developed the neologism “universal rights.”

The term “human rights” has a long and distinguished history and is used…well, universally. The “rights of man” was an earlier phrase (and was actually used by President Obama in his Inaugural Address) but “human rights” appeared as early as the 1840s; William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator that “human rights is the great question that agitates the age.” The Charter of the United Nations states as a purpose for the organization’s founding in 1945 “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”  The UN adopted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in 1948. The phrase “human rights” is now everywhere: in the United Nations Human Rights Council, NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights, the European Court and Convention on Human Rights….well, one could go on for pages.

Which is what makes the Obama administration’s locution so weird. In the midst of the Egypt crisis Secretary Clinton said “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people,” carefully avoiding the term “human rights.”  Nor is this new: in December 2009, President Obama said about regime violence in Iran that “Along with all free nations, the United States stands with those who seek their universal rights.”

There was one great exception: the President’s Nobel speech mentioned “human rights” repeatedly. But soon thereafter he too abandoned the phrase and now speaks of “universal rights.” When visiting China, he stated that "These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation - we believe they are universal rights.” And when President Hu visited Washington, President Obama told him that "History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being….”

It’s an odd phrase, and what does it add? Unless it is meant to give protection now to as-yet-undiscovered forms of life on distant planets (who would not be covered by mere “human” rights) it sounds mostly like an effort to be different—to leave behind the language of predecessors like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, all of whom spoke about human rights a good deal. The phrase “human rights” tells us that there are inalienable rights to which every human being is entitled, and that may not be stripped away by a government. “Universal rights” communicates  far less and is disconnected from the great history of the human rights movement. The president ought to tell his speechwriters to knock it off.

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