How the West weaponizes human rights

Contemporary mainstream discourse in the West is almost entirely dominated by the concepts of “political correctness” and “inalienable rights”. As such Europeans and Americans are subtly swayed into believing that they are the fundamental force to help the world move closer to its perfect, final state. This provokes a surreal mind state: on a subconscious level the world is split into regions that are either “close to perfection and progressive” or “evil and backward”. For some the logical conclusion therefore is that the zones of Evil need to be liberated from their oppressors.

Such conclusions, even with the best of intentions, have often incited immense violence and chaos. The effect is that globally we might be tending more to regression than progression. Often miscalculations in the West are based on their own social conditioning and the mistaken belief that their tenets of morality are unquestionably universal. However, it is should be clear to everyone that the social foundations in countries like Iraq and Syria are vastly different to those of Norway or Sweden. Central to the Western vision is its emphasis on the individual and its subsequent repudiation of the communal way of life, a way of life that has been predominant for almost the entirety of humanity. It is still debatable (although never in the West) whether individualism should really trump the collective.

More significant in the grand scheme of things is the manner by which the debate on the universality of “human rights” and social progress obfuscates any questioning of the violent global capitalist structural inequalities that are continuing to undermine rights all across the globe. Generally well protected from what the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung would refer to as the extreme “structural violence” inherent in the global economic order, Europeans and Americans have the luck to live in a peculiar zone of virtue, a zone of perceived “rights” and “political correctness”, a zone that in this respect is deemed exceptional. Yet this is a zone above all of profoundly blind hypocrisy, for the morality that seemingly reigns is built on the exploitation of those who dwell in the space beyond the zone we inhabit. Those “others” live in areas which we exploit or to which we export our violence, in those areas where the kids work for our companies in sweat shops to keep production costs low. They have minimal, if any, workers’ rights and certainly no minimum wage.

It is on their backs and thanks to the cheap extraction of resources that our zone of “exceptionality” is able to find its stability and with it, its virtue, not to mention its long standing codification of apparent rights. These realities in a divided world hint at the old adage that morality knows no hunger. Then strife and social turmoil are overwhelmingly apparent in the wastelands where the disadvantaged have been left behind by the rapid march of the modern transnational economic order. As Zygmunt Bauman asserts: “Globalisation essentially is a process of production of human waste of people who have been rendered redundant by the global spread of modernity.”


The cognitive dissonance that has arisen from current global dynamics questions our apparent virtue not solely by means of the barbarity we impose on others, but more fundamentally queries the true nature of our morality. Indeed, if the world was truly an equal playing field, that is one in which, the asymmetrical power relations that exist between the West and the rest were eradicated, how would this impact on our “commitment” to inalienable rights not just in the abstract, but in reality? We are not talking only about wealth and military might, but about the ability to impose sanctions, trade barriers and tariffs, together with other non-tariff barriers, regulations and the dominant position the West enjoys in global governance, including the ability to generate loans for “deserving nations” in need). Perhaps the answer after all is burning brightly right before our very eyes: is the increasing civil unrest in Europe not a sign of moral decay? A moral decay that is accompanied by the importation of global imbalances into our very zone of “exceptionality”? Is this not the tap-root of Europe’s move to the right? Or the energy that drove Trump to power and of the yellow vests that march through the streets of Paris? Not to mention the anti-immigrant sentiments that are clearly increasing. Are all these points not the birth pangs of resentment that have arisen from the turbo capitalism associated with globalisation and a sharp decline in the living standard for the vast majority of workers?


These phenomena have by and large entrenched social stratification with the self-professed intellectual middle classes pointing the finger of blame on one hand at unscrupulous populist demagogues and on the other at the uneducated “ham faced” workers. Despite comprehending paradigms such as rational choice theory, the guardians of morality simply expect those living in America’s Rust Belt to vote for the status quo candidate when their lives have been falling apart around them for the last thirty years. In real terms what distinguishes the disenchanted worker form the middle classes is the insulation the latter enjoy from the modern equivalent of the struggle for resources (a “good” job = money = resources). When living in a protective bubble it is easy to maintain a pretense of superior virtuosity, and at the same time one can feign outrage at growing inequality.

When examining all these points our societies’ values (never truly defined and lacking genuine consensus) look incredibly shaky, simultaneously suggesting that, should our extreme exploitation of the distant “other” (extreme exploitation as opposed to the light exploitation of the domestic working class) cease, so too would our way of life and with it the edifice on which our “rights” are predicated. Morality in such a case would almost certainly exist in an altogether different form. Such notions of course are not new and have proven the basis for Durkheim’s theory of anomie or Merton’s strain theory, theories that show how morality can ebb and flow as a direct consequence of strain and disorientation in society. In a zone deprived of a favourable balance and therefore its exceptionalism, there can be no guarantee of the claims Westerners make on virtuosity. Survival trumps virtue where struggle is a necessity for life.

Against this backdrop it is perhaps no accident therefore that Western power continues to be used abroad, even though it has long been established that the power vacuums the West has helped instigate, above all in the Middle East generate profound chaos. This chaos then impinges once more upon the Western styled notion of “rights”, particularly above all on the right to life. Chaos over there, however, equates to greater cohesion and strength in the grand scheme at home. Then capital flows and investment invariably seek stability, hence liberal hegemony is assured.

Often the chaos we speak of is readily associated with a “failed state”. This highlights the disconcerting truth, that “human rights” as defined by today’s liberals are mere social constructs inherently interlinked with the whims of state. Liberalism’s vision of inalienable rights as experienced in the West therefore are only symptomatic of 1) a well-functioning state and 2) security from imminent danger. Where these two factors are absent the categorical imperative is placed on survival, primarily on the survival of the state and with it the symbiotic survival of the greatest number of people living within the relevant nations’ borders. We see this confirmed as noted above particularly in areas of the world where security comes at a premium. Here we may see individual rights restricted for local interpretations of the common good. The common good for example in Russia or Syria given both geography and demographics cannot be equated with the conditions enjoyed by the United States or Switzerland. This is not to say that we must condone oppressive dictators, but merely to acknowledge that protecting “human rights” by acts of war or by the use of sanctions has without doubt been more detrimental to the cause as a whole. What is more, dislodging tyrants by force or depriving whole populations of the means to an ordinary life is an extremely morally bankrupt way by which to promote human rights.

The methods the West has used so far have when approaching human rights equally has born suspicions, principally by the unequal application of punishment on friends and foe. For instance, demands placed on allied nations with terrible human rights records such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (who are currently engaged in horrific crimes in Yemen) are negligible, while those placed on Iran or Russia can be described as severe. The human rights’ discourse in the international arena therefore is often viewed as mere tool of expedient realpolitik, as a 2017 memo on behalf of the Trump administration makes clear:

Our useful guideline for a realistic and successful foreign policy is that allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies. The classic dilemma of balancing ideals and interestes is with regard to America’s allies. In relation to our competitors, there is far less of a dilemma. We do not look to bolster America’s adversaries overseas; we look to pressure, compete with, and outmaneuver them. For this reason we should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practises inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically.

It is worth reiterating that a dictator’s iron fist can arise as a direct consequence of external threats, implying that threatening war or the support of opposition groups in Iran or Venezuela will undoubtedly provoke crackdowns on the local population. Such crackdowns are initiated in the face of threats (either real or perceived) to preserve the survival of the state and are commonly known as a “state of exception”, which invariably impinge on the rights of the local population. The state of exception, however, is not limited to what Westerners consider pariah states. In fact, the state of exception is a universal phenomenon interlinked with notions of nationhood as embodied in the social contract and the concept of sovereignty which remains fundamental to the Westphalian vision of the state.

“Instead of promoting peace the United States ends up fighting war after war and gets trapped in open-ended occupations. These conflicts have led it to torture prisoners, conduct targeted killings, expand government secrecy, and undertake vast electronic surveillance of US citizens. Ironically, the attempt to spread liberal values abroad has compromised them”

The US, of course, is far from being alone in contravening “inalienable rights”. In Europe in the last couple of years we have witnessed the Spanish state invoke a de-facto “state of exception” following the Catalonian referendum on independence. Here the Spanish denied an entire nation the right to self-determination, while simultaneous deploying police brutality. Additionally, the leaders of the Catalan independence movement were imprisoned. In Lithuania, Romania and Poland the state was complicit in the extraordinary rendition programmes run by the CIA on the war on terror.

The UK equally has infringed legal norms on the rights not only of its own citizens with the GCHQ Prism surveillance programme, but continues to breech a UN high court decision which has instructed the UK to return the Island of Diego Garcia to its former inhabitants that were forcefully removed in the 1970s. Here we do not even touch on how Western states have knowingly contributed to the massacre currently underway in Yemen, not only with weapons sales, but also with intelligence, training and drone strikes.

What these points indicate are that the West, given state interests or perceived threats, is more than willing to violate human rights in order to safeguard its primary strategic objectives. Indeed, in keeping with the sensitive but unclassified letter referred to above, the Transatlantic Liberal order has become a revisionist force by manipulating “human rights” in order to gain a strategic upper hand and by rejecting the long-established Westphalian concepts of statehood that have served as the cornerstone of international law. This revisionism by consequence inevitably creates greater uncertainty and hence will have a detrimental effect on yet more human rights.

This strategic hand is justified to Western audiences by pushing for the universal application of inalienable rights that are seldom questioned. It is a vision where the individual takes centre stage in accordance with the ideals of the enlightenment period. Behavior is not judged or condemned by religious principles, but by the secular application of the law. That other nations may have their own culture, religious views and sociological paradigms that influence the role of the individual in society is irrelevant to policy makers in the West. And yet they have provided no rational explanation which asserts precisely why Muslims or the Chinese should have to subscribe to a Judeo-Christian value set. Of course, seeking to enforce this Liberal Universalist doctrine into societies which are alien to it undermines the very social cohesion which has kept these states together over generations if not for thousands of years.

“Above all we must never be deceived into thinking that by threatening or indeed carrying out regime change or by sanctions we are doing anything to promote human rights.”

In essence a significant number of states in the international arena continue to infringe on human rights, and many in the West are no exception to this. However, Western states are generally more stable than those excluded from what we may call the Transatlantic alliance. This stability is primarily based on Western preponderance both in economic terms as well as militarily and as such Western citizens have not been subjected to the transgressions faced by less fortunate populations. Nonetheless, Western foreign policy has often exported violence either directly through military power, through coercive mechanisms such as sanctions or through its grip on the institutions of global governance, these three factors have impacted negatively on the human rights of those nations generally not referred to as belonging to the first world. Such violence has been employed primarily to maintain Western primacy in the international arena and makes a mockery of the idea of “inalienable rights” as dominant in Western discourse.

Activists must ensure that they are not blinded by a concept of human rights that is used as a smokescreen to further the strategic aims of the dominant powers. They must also consider if all societies are currently conducive to accepting Western social norms and guard against endangering nations and as a consequence human rights by trying to enforce Western values on states formed by different religious, cultural and sociological contexts. We should also question if the Liberal economic model we push is indeed compatible with inalienable rights at all. But above all we must never be deceived into thinking that by threatening or indeed carrying out regime change or by sanctions we are doing anything to promote human rights. As Stephan Walt “In the Hell of Good Intentions” succinctly points out: “Instead of promoting peace the United States ends up fighting war after war and gets trapped in open-ended occupations. These conflicts have led it to torture prisoners, conduct targeted killings, expand government secrecy, and undertake vast electronic surveillance of US citizens. Ironically, the attempt to spread liberal values abroad has compromised them.”

There are alternatives to this, namely working directly in a non-political manner on projects with local populations and states deemed to be authoritarian. By ceasing to impose a liberal value set on countries to which such ideas are foreign we could find that we not only improve human well being, but also make friends of regimes that are currently deemed as hostile. This we must assume is a win-win situation for humanity in general.

Richard Sattler

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