Rather than contributing to the common good, today's human rights discourse has become part of the problem. Firstly, it is seriously discredited by its hypocritical, inconsistent and clearly political application, which have made it a very debased currency around the world.
But more than that, it has been recruited into a program that has little to do with protecting people and everything to do with securing global power above that of the sovereign state.
After World War II, membership of the UN went from 51 in 1945 to 189 by the end of the century. According to the UN Charter, each of these states enjoys sovereign equality with every other member state. That means there is no power above the sovereign state. That's the whole point of decolonization.
Since the 1970s, however, and especially after the end of the Cold War, the principle and practice of state sovereignty, especially of these new Third World states, has been subordinated to a higher regime predicated on the protection of universal human rights.
A global bureaucracy of human rights is built over the international system, claiming primacy over state sovereignty. You have the formation of a set of international institutions, nongovernmental organizations and international courts, a globalist apparatus that's theoretically impartial but in reality funded and operated by Western powers. This movement creates a globalist discourse of power, a politics that floats above state sovereignty.
However, human rights and democracy cannot exist without sovereignty. You don't have rights without a power to enforce those rights. You certainly don't have democracy without sovereignty. And yet this is precisely what using human rights as a tool of liberal internationalism gives us.
Today, we have democracy and human rights as floating "values," ready to be forced upon any country that falls out of line with the empire of liberalism. Yes, even in Europe, with Hungary quickly developing "democracy issues" after falling out of line on matters such as the war in Ukraine.
This was done to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, when its 2019 riots were played up as a crisis of democracy and human rights in need of Western cheerleading. From listening to how the Western elite talks about it, you'd imagine Hong Kong had been destroyed, reduced to totalitarian rule. Yet Hong Kong was, and remains, one of the freest, most prosperous places in the world. And now it is also more secure against foreign subversion.
There are, of course, real human rights issues in the world. I am not denying the human reality behind the term. But something is wrong with the global regime of human rights when the wars, sanctions and insurrections carried out in its name, cloaked by its pretense, are themselves the greatest cause of human rights violations in the world.
By now, the human rights regime is a weaponized discourse supported by an ecosystem of international (Western) organizations, national security-sponsored think tanks and para-academic institutions. Their findings and reports go into a feedback loop with Western mainstream media.
So I joke: When a Westerner comes to you talking about democracy and human rights, it's time to run for the hills.
You will notice that it is always only the West that determines who has problems with human rights or democracy and who must be dealt with—and how.
So by now, the discourse, because of what it is attached to, what it represents and how it is institutionalized, is such a joke that we have to find other ways of talking about what it is meant to protect.
You almost forget that, time and again, it has dangled abstractions and falsehoods to justify destroying the sovereignties and the political orders that were the means for securing food, medicine, housing or any rights at all for millions of men, women and children.
So I just can't take people seriously who talk about human rights in abstraction from the political order that must secure them, and in abstraction from the unipolar power that has weaponized it. I want to allow for richer, more honest ways of talking about the wellbeing of particular people in particular places and societies.
There is a very different framework for thinking about human welfare and government, the common good framework, which is universal in a way that respects political diversity, history and culture.
Within this framework that shares so much with classical Chinese thought, we can talk about the actual welfare of people, whether or not they are healthier, happier, more secure, at peace and prosperous—not just as individuals but as societies.
The author is a former Malaysian government official as well as the founding CEO of the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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