Are 'human rights' becoming old-fashioned?

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Rankin, A. (2000), "Are 'human rights' becoming old-fashioned?", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Are 'human rights' becoming old-fashioned?

Are "human rights" becoming old-fashioned?

Aidan Rankin

Aidan Rankin is Research Officer for the Argentina Programme at the London School of Economics. He would be interested to discuss this article with readers, and can be contacted at the Department of Government, LSE, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE. E-mail:

Keywords: Ecology, Environment, Human rights

Thirty years ago, Edward Goldsmith and a group of environmentalist pioneers produced a little book called Blueprint for Survival. Its critique of economic growth as an end in itself struck a chord with those of conservative and radical disposition alike who worried about the loss of human values in politics and the growing disconnection between man and nature. Amongst other things, the book led to the foundation of the first "eco-centric" political party in Europe, the Ecology Party, to which today's "Greens" are a profoundly inferior successor. Yet the "goal" envisaged by Goldsmith and his friends was at once larger and more basic than a new political movement. It was the refashioning of political culture in the West so that individuals and communities mattered once again, and economics were once more a branch of moral philosophy, serving rather than trampling upon the common good, freeing rather than enslaving the individual:

We have seen that man in our present society has been deprived of a satisfactory social environment. A society made up of decentralised, self-sufficient communities, in which people work near their homes, have the responsibility of governing themselves, of running their schools, hospitals and welfare services, in fact of running their own communities, should, we feel, be a much happier place. Its members, in these conditions, would be likely to develop an identity of their own, which many of us have lost in the mass society we live in. They would tend, once more, to find an aim in life, develop a set of values, and take pride in their achievement as well as in those of their community (Goldsmith et al., 1971, p. 64).

The vision of society presented above is very different from that of today's Greens, who are influenced by vulgar Marxism recycled from the 1960s and "permissive" shibboleths of similar vintage. Blueprint for Survival, by contrast, recognises that true individual freedom is distinct from the satisfaction of selfish preference, that the restoration of ecological balance depends upon the restoration of balanced human communities. These can be enlivened by differences between individuals, including those of political opinion, religious belief, occupation or hobby. They can be enriched by individuals from a variety of ethnic or cultural backgrounds. For such communities to succeed, there must be an overarching framework of shared values connecting the individuals within them. These values should be based upon tolerance, individual creativity, freedom of conscience, speech and thought, and generosity of spirit. An equal emphasis should be placed on reasonable behaviour, good moral conduct, living within limits, respect by the individual for fellow human beings and the natural world. Without these shared values, based on the balance between rights and responsibilities, human-scale politics and environmentally sustainable economics will both remain pipe dreams.

A powerful strand of thought connects the "ecological politics" of Blueprint for Survival with the type city state promoted by Aristotle's Politics. This is because Aristotle also saw a connection between the best most positive aspects of nature and the most benign political systems. He believed that there should be a limit to the size of states, just as there is a limit to the size of plants and animals. He believed in an equitable society, where wealth and political power are distributed on a fair basis, without attempts at socially engineered "equality", where political institutions evolve organically, like natural formations, rather than suffering arbitrary and unsettling change.

Aristotle's model city state and the Blueprint for Survival both require of the individual a sense that he is responsible towards his local community, his family, his friends and acquaintances, his country and - by implication at least - the wider world. Far from repressing him, these moral and political obligations give the individual the background of security he needs to develop his character, interests and strengths. They enable him to function as an intelligent human being. This is how ecological politics could and should have developed, had the Blueprint for Survival not given way to the hate-filled, rights-asserting slogans of single-issue protesters. It is how conservative politics could and should have developed, had it not been captivated by the anti-human ideology of market forces. For the conserver of environments and the conserver of cultures should have found common cause, had green politics fulfilled its original promise:

to borrow from the Conservative tradition the keeping of what is best about the past, namely conserving. This conserving will apply to resources, ancient sites and buildings, forests and habitats, cultures, languages, sports, music and art (Pearce, 1995, p. 13).

Aristotle's Politics has remained a seminal text of European thought. The Blueprint has fared less well, becoming the object of lip-service for a movement that quickly degenerated into a plethora of demands for "rights". Both works regard materialism dangerous and false, stress the importance of community and local allegiance, balanced with individual freedom. Equally, they oppose the pursuit of growth for its own sake, whether in economic or political spheres. Economic growth is supported as an end in itself by orthodox politicians, fearful of disappointing their commercial backers and scared to face advertisement-crazed voters persuaded that material abundance will provide that elusive contentment they crave. This pessimistic, patronising view of ordinary people is challenged by the Blueprint, whilst the idea of economic growth as the solution to human need has been criticised rigorously by men like Herman Daly and Richard Douthwaite (Douthwaite, 1999; Daly, 1977). Daly begins by quoting a wise statement by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, shortly after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974:

Society must cease to look upon "progress" as something desirable. "Eternal Progress" is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is not a "steadily expanding economy", but a zero-growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous (Daly, 1977, p. 2).

Eternal progress was a founding myth of the disastrous Soviet experiment, and belief in economic growth was, if anything, more intense than in any capitalist economy. The fall of the Soviet Union has more or less put paid to the idea of "progress" and "growth" through central planning. Meanwhile, the bread-and-circus consumer society has intense critics, as has the malign role of transnational corporations in corrupting the "First World" and distorting "Third World" development. Discontent with globalisation was demonstrated with great effect last year, with the explosion of protest against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle.

The idea of limits to economic growth is not yet acted upon by politicians in the so-called developed world, but it has entered the intellectual consciousness and the growing culture of environmental protest. By contrast, the idea of "rights" as the underlying principle, indeed the only principle, of modern politics, goes virtually unchallenged in Europe and North America. This is despite the growing evidence that the culture of narrowly defined rights is producing a society of spoilt children, who ask not what they can do for their countries but what their countries can do for them, the opposite of the mature citizenship envisaged by the Blueprint for Survival, or expressed in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)[1]. The emphasis on rights, to the detriment of responsibilities pits individual against individual and group against group. It reduces political debate to the level of consumer demand, to a series of "I wants" and "we must haves", the strident tones of which disguise an underlying passivity, an indifference to the wider human community. In the context of Europe, it makes less likely the emergence of "a society made up of decentralised, self-sufficient communities", for it promotes egocentric rather than eco-centric politics.

Later this year, we shall be marking the fiftieth anniversary of the ECHR. As a founder member of the Council of Europe, Britain was one of the first signatories, and the Convention is about to be fully incorporated in British law. Drawn up in the aftermath of World War II, and the slaughter of millions of Jews and others who fell foul of the Nazi regime, the purpose of the ECHR is to enshrine a set of basic freedoms: freedom of speech, religion and association; freedom to think and freedom to lead a private life. Through the European Court of Human Rights, the Convention upholds democratic values. It is the friend of the little man, protecting him from bullying big government and corporate greed.

That, at least, is the theory. A beautiful theory, too, but like the centralising forms of socialism, so different in practice from the grand design. For the Convention addresses the problems of a post-World War II Europe still divided by the Cold War. In this Europe, the gross abuse of human rights was a reality for one half of the continent (the Eastern bloc) and a memory for the other, where both the memory and threat of war affected every aspect of public policy. Just as these post-War economic planners could not imagine the idea of "too much" growth, politicians failed to predict an over-abundance of rights, or an over-emphasis on rights at the expense of countervailing political forces.

There is, therefore, a spectre haunting Britain and continental Europe: the spectre of "human rights". Or more precisely, the debasement of human rights, their reduction to a wish-list of truculent activist demands. The very phrase human rights, once associated with the heroism of Soviet dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, or Jewish refuseniks like Natan Sharansky, or with the Czech "underground" and the Solidarity union in Poland, is now hijacked by every fashionable and politically correct cause. Human rights are in danger of descending from a noble ideal into an excuse for self-indulgence, a pretext for indiscretion and the rationale for cultural imperialism. This affluent version of human rights would be unrecognisable to the men who framed the European Convention in good faith. Implicitly, it insults those who still struggle in vast areas of the world for such basic intellectual rights as freedom to speak, write and read, or for such basic material rights as food, clothing and shelter. The confusion of human rights with the elitist "liberalism" of the Baby Boom generation presents its own threat to freedom and a new form of social injustice. This is true at both national and global levels. The examples below come from Britain, because as the country where I live and work. Despite close British involvement in the original ECHR, our clashes with the human rights industry have been many and various in recent years. This is largely because our legal system is based less on abstractions, more on accumulated experience than its continental counterparts. If Europe moves away, as I believe it must, from narrow rights-based culture, British empiricism in matters of politics and law could once more come into its own.

There was a time when, in the context of the British class system, the European Court fulfilled its function as the defender of the politically powerless. In 1980, it established the individual's right not to join a trade union and so ensured the abolition of closed shops. This was because a majority of Strasbourg judges decided that the positive right to join a union was, by implication, counterbalanced by the right not to join[2]. That ruling protected working-class people from being forced to conform in ways that the privileged would never accept. For couched though they were in the language of workers' rights, closed shop removed personal liberty from the worker to the benefit of complacent employers and power-hungry union officials. Since then, and in reflection of various shifts of opinion in academia, the legal profession and "progressive" politics, the Court has become increasingly a bastion of bien pensant privilege. Far from protecting ordinary people, many of its judgements now insult the instincts and values which most ordinary people hold dear. Set up to guard against tyranny and torture, the Court is fast becoming an apologist for intolerant lobby groups and an agent of social engineering. Set up to hold in check authoritarian impulses, it now gives comfort to those who would force their opinions and desires on the less articulate, less ruthlessly organised and less wealthy.

Two recent rulings against Britain by the Court have more in common with each other than might first appear. They are the lifting of the ban on open homosexuals in the Armed Forces and the expressed opinion that the children who killed two-year old James Bulger did not receive a fair trial. In both cases, a liberal-elitist view of the world prevailed, and one that favours well-financed lobbies. In the first case, the gay lobby is powerful and rich, rich enough to buy "rights" through assorted political and economic connections. The serviceman who is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of openly homosexual officers and comrades in arms has no access to money or power, and therefore no "rights". In the second instance "children's rights" activists who took up cudgels on behalf of the children who murdered young James Bulger have access to well-connected London lawyers and favoured organisations such as Liberty[3]. James's mother, Denise, by contrast, is a working-class woman who has no such contacts.

If the debate over what constitute universal "human rights" and what should be left to national or local discretion is taken over by lobby groups, there are two dangers. The first is that the debate is reduced to a series of slogans little more sophisticated than graffiti. The second is that rights will be reduced to commodities, brought by the few at the expense of the many. To an extent, that has already happened in the United States of America. There, the emphasis on single-issue rights increasingly exacerbates social divisions and erodes the idea of common citizenship. It has led to backlashes against minority opinions and groups, and has failed to create a more cohesive society or reduce the extreme imbalances of poverty and wealth. Martin Luther King, Jr realised this by the late 1960s, when he was trying to build upon the great achievements of black civil rights by involving poor people of all races in a campaign for social justice. We shall never know what would have happened, had his life not been cut short by the assassin's bullet and his "poor peoples marches" been allowed to evolve into something larger. As it was, racial and other divisions reasserted themselves. Considerations of social justice have given way to interminable debates over "affirmative action", "gay rights", "pro-life" versus "pro-choice" and other issues which highlight difference, rather than finding common ground. The United States remains a great political experiment offering lessons, good and bad, for Europe. From the increasing Balkanisation of their politics, and the unhappiness this causes, we learn that man cannot live on rights alone.

But to return to my two British examples. In both, there was a case to answer. The homosexual servicemen should not have been subject to intrusive interrogations about their personal lives. We know, not least from the experience of World War II, that homosexual fighting men are as courageous and reliable as any other. We can conclude from this that to exclude a serviceman solely because of his homosexuality is irrational and unjust. The Court of Human Rights went further than this, however. It argued that sexual orientation is effectively the equivalent of "race, origin or colour". This approach is an inaccurate one, for the jury is still very much out on whether homosexuality is an inborn quality, as race or colour certainly are, or an acquired trait. It also fails to engage adequately with objections to homosexual behaviour rooted in traditional moral teachings, religious or otherwise. These might be brushed aside by self-styled liberals, but they are a reality for many others, who have as great a right as homosexuals to have their feelings, values and needs considered. To dismiss objections to or squeamishness about homosexual behaviour as bigotry akin to racism is reductionist and insulting. For homosexuals and their critics, it resolves no problems.

The Bulger case, too, raises serious questions about the conditions in which children should be tried, even for heinous crimes, under British law. In particular, it asks us to consider whether they should face the full rigours of an adult court. So far, so good. Where the Court over-reaches itself is where it attempts to strip the Home Secretary of his limited power, vested in him by voters, to affect the sentencing of dangerous criminals. The Court's objection to the Home Secretary's role would seem to be based on the idea that panels of experts are infallible, and that elected representatives of the public should be denied any involvement in issues of great public concern. The Court's approach is symptomatic of a larger failure on its part to engage with the British political system, with its balance between elected politicians and appointed officials.

We have seen already that the ECHR arose, understandably, out of the aftermath of war and the threat of totalitarian collectivism. Fifty years on, perhaps it is time to go back to first principles. For when we think in terms of a balance of human responsibilities, instead of a clash between conflicting rights, the cases cited above look very different. In the first, the case of the servicemen, the responsibility to be tolerant is balanced by the responsibility to be discreet. In the second, responsibility to try child-criminals fairly and humanely is balanced by a responsibility to the families, and to the memory, of their victims. A clash of opposing forces, of benefit to only to a handful of specialist lawyers, is replaced by a system of give-and-take. This shift of emphasis, from right-based to responsibility-based politics and law, is conservative in that it values continuity above conflict and is sceptical about moral absolutes. However it better reflects the complexities of a modern European society grappling with difficult moral problems.

A European Convention of Human Responsibilities would, therefore, be the most positive way to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the ECHR. It would not replace, but complement, the earlier document. For the concept of human responsibilities is far larger than that of human rights. As an alternative to the "rights" to build or to mine, it presents the responsibility to live within limits, the responsibility not to pollute or despoil and the responsibility to protect other species. The "right" to consume gives way to the responsibility to conserve. Human rights create centralised institutions, which evolve into remote centres of power. Human responsibilities can begin at the most local of levels - Goldsmith's "decentralised communities" - but can provide a global ethos nonetheless. And they can work with, rather than against, the grain of local cultures and traditions, unlike the human rights industry which acts increasingly as a new imperialist power. Human rights are a great twentieth century concept, a product of their time. But in the third millennium, we have the right to expect something better.


  1. 1.

    The ECHR's full name is the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It was signed on 4'November 1999.

  2. 2.

    This was a close result, however, for a minority Scandinavian-led jurists disagreed and challenged the idea of "negative liberty".

  3. 3.

    Formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL).


Daly, H.E. (1977), Steady-State Economics, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco, CA.

Goldsmith et al., Blueprint for Survival, Pelican, Hamondsworth.

Douthwaite, R. (1999), The Growth Illusion, Green Books, Totnes.

Pearce, J. (1995), The Little Green Book, Green Leaves, Bradford-upon-Avon.

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