It’s true that there are disagreements about human rights – but that’s nothing new. For many years countries argued economic and social rights should prevail over civil and political rights, and it was widely viewed as a way of negating the value of fundamental human rights altogether. Then the Soviet Union began to accept a formula citing all rights as universal, indivisible and interrelated – and deserving the same emphasis. The Western countries accepted economic and social rights fully and even began creating special experts to monitor them.
China slowly entered the UN’s human rights bodies and moved from rejection and/or ‘cherishing obscurity” to accepting seven human rights treaties and affirming universality of rights. But all this time, they tried to keep the rights field isolated in Geneva (and not permeating the Security Council or other UN work in New York), underfunded and hence, without much effect. They also tried to change the meaning of rights – turning the terms and paradigms upside-down, so to speak.
This struggle continues and it is one of the reasons why having the UK and US remain in the Human Rights Council is so important – rights would be eviscerated and emptied of their longstanding meaning if these were left to some of the deniers. They would become something like states’ rights rather than individual rights. Sovereignty would trump individual freedom, so to speak.
Slowly, case by case, human rights has been recognized as relevant or even central to the resolution of security problems the UN is dealing with. This struggle continues, mostly case by case, notwithstanding the efforts of some countries to call them by derogatory names or dilute the meaning of universality.
Quick question – how can we place human rights at the heart of the UN’s work when many countries disagree with one another as to what constitutes a human right? Is this not just, to quote the China Ambassador, ‘another neo-colonial tool of oppression’?