A Point of View: Two cheers for human rights

Tribute to Mandela in sand

Human rights are important, but they will never be a solution to ending conflict, writes John Gray.

When we hear reports of nightmarish atrocities being committed in Syria, it's easy to respond by thinking these horrors could be prevented if only the country had a government that respected human rights. We've come to believe rights are the answer to many of the world's ills. But rights aren't a cure for human conflict, and I think it's a mistake to treat them as an article of faith.

In an essay published in 1938, the novelist EM Forster gave two cheers for democracy: "One because it admits variety, and two because it permits criticism… Two cheers are quite enough," he wrote. "There is no occasion to give three." Forster thought that no political system - not even democracy - should be turned into an icon. What mattered, he thought, was that individuals should have the chance to live as best they can.

On this Forster was right. While democracy is a good thing, as anyone will tell you who has experienced the alternatives, it isn't something we should worship, and it shouldn't be a creed we try to impose on the world. But what Forster argued about democracy is also true of human rights today. From providing a useful safeguard against the abuse of power, human rights are turning into a comforting dogma through which we try to escape the painful dilemmas of war and politics.

Human rights have two large virtues - they empower us against governments, and anyone can claim them. If we have rights we needn't approach power on our knees, as supplicants begging for favours. We can demand that our freedoms be respected. And it doesn't matter who governs us. Human rights can be invoked wherever they exist.

For many people the universality of rights is their principal attraction, but for me it's also their chief weakness. John Locke, the 17th Century English thinker who founded the modern theory of rights, believed rights were grounded in our duties to God. For him, human freedom was divinely ordained. That's why he believed we didn't have the right to commit suicide, or to sell ourselves into slavery. In Locke's view, we always remained God's creatures.

Nowadays many believers in rights are indifferent or hostile to religion. The fact remains that human rights originated in monotheism - the belief that there's only one God, who creates a single moral law for all human beings. And there's a sense in which human rights still depend on some sort of religious commitment. For unless these rights are grounded in something beyond the human world, they can only be a human invention.

As someone without any religious beliefs that's a conclusion I'm happy to accept, but it has uncomfortable consequences for those who think human rights have universal authority. It's one thing to say there are universal human values (a view I strongly endorse). Some things are bad for everyone - being subject to the threat of torture or persecution, for example. But human beings have devised a variety of ways of fending off these universal evils, and rights haven't always been the most reliable or effective. A highly developed culture of rights in the US didn't stop torture being regarded by some as a legitimate weapon in the so-called "war on terror", for example.

We've forgotten that rights aren't the only way to protect universal values. For several centuries the Ottoman empire was a haven where religious minorities that were persecuted in Christian countries could live together in peace. The Ottoman regime wasn't based on rights. In fact, since it involved separate systems of law for each community, it was incompatible with a system in which everyone had the same rights. Where something like peace between religions has been achieved, it's because the difficult art of toleration has been learnt.

Where it's deeply rooted, the practice of tolerance is a more reliable safeguard against persecution than any code of rights. The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law only in 1998, but Britain, despite all its flaws, has a better historical record of respecting human freedom than many European states. The elaborate system of rights that was embodied in the Weimar Republic didn't stem the rise of Nazism. Human rights can't defend anyone when the state that upholds them is swept away.

Many people seem to think that once tyranny is demolished human rights will emerge naturally from the rubble. But rights are artefacts of civilisation, not a natural human condition. If they protect us against the state, they are also created and enforced by states. Where the state is weak or collapsed, as in many parts of the world today, human rights simply don't exist.

It's consoling to believe that horrendous cruelty in Syria could be stopped by deposing the dictator and ending the war. In fact, if Assad were toppled at this point the most likely result would be a country without any state at all that was stuck in a condition of chronic war. That's pretty much what has happened in Libya, where even the prime minister isn't safe from kidnap by armed gangs.

If a new state could be installed in such conditions, it's not clear it would be one that respected human rights. Rights are like money and the law - they only exist if enough people accept that they exist. But what if large sections of the population, or those that are the most ruthless in imposing their values, don't accept them? What if many people don't want human rights?

For believers in rights, the answer is that everyone really does want them - or if they don't, they can be persuaded to want them. The similarity between this view and that of religious evangelists is obvious and striking. Evangelists are convinced that all that's needed for humankind to see the light is that it should be shown to them. Once they've seen the true faith, everyone will embrace it. If there are some who don't accept the saving gospel (as will surely be the case) the mission must continue until they do. Believers in human rights think the same. Both are engaged in an unending project of conversion.

It's not surprising that human rights movements should exhibit some of the attributes of evangelical religion. Like other secular creeds, they're continuations of proselytising monotheism by other means. The certainty of rights advocates that only one type of state can be legitimate continues the conviction that only one way of life can be good.

In their different ways, evangelical religion and human rights movements express the perennial dream of a life without irreconcilable conflicts. But human life as we know it is made up of conflicts of this kind, and politics is very often a choice among evils. This isn't only because every society is bound to be less than perfect. It's because we lack any coherent idea of what a perfect society would actually be like.

A world in which all rights are protected isn't just impracticable - it's not even conceivable. Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they'll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.

The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality - we'll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can't get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.

Image caption An Egyptian woman holds vigil on International Human Rights Day

This doesn't mean rights should be scrapped. Like the religion from which they sprang, they're a valuable part of the human inheritance. But rather than thinking of rights as a militant creed that can deliver the world from its conflicts, we should recognise rights for what they are - useful devices that quite often don't work. Following EM Forster, we should give human rights a rousing two cheers.

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