Some philosophers posit that rights must protect legitimate interests and create an inviolable, morally justified cordon around a person. For example, each person has a legitimate interest in receiving due process; it is morally justified. The right to due process creates a protective cordon around each one of us. By contrast, an effort to silence all people who happen to disagree with a particular person is illegitimate. It is not morally justified, and so there is no protective cordon around that person.
Human rights are those that each person possesses by virtue of his or her humanity; for example, the right to life or free expression. By contrast, civil rights are those that some people retain by virtue of being citizens; for example, the right to vote freely in an election. Special rights are ones that we enjoy because of our particular situation in the world; for example, a right to inherit from our particular parents or wear the specific shirt we bought.
The idea of universal human rights that are equally applicable to all human beings without distinction of citizenship, culture, geographical location, or historical context has been philosophically and politically controversial. The Westphalian Order that ended the Thirty Years' War in Europe in 1648 gave extensive powers to sovereign rulers, most notably to determine the state's religion. Modern state sovereignty resolved the religious conflicts in Europe but also removed the legal grounds for the intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another, particularly in the case of human rights abuses.
The Anglo-American tradition of political philosophy connects the legitimacy of the sovereign state with its duty to guarantee rights. Thomas Hobbes suggested that the state is based on a social contract wherein the sovereign state guarantees to its subjects a right to life in return for all their other native natural rights. John Locke assigned to the state the duty of guaranteeing the rights of its citizens. When the American colonists set out to justify their claim for independence, they formulated their arguments in Lockean terms as a reaction to the king's violation of their rights, the same rights that he was supposed to guarantee. Shortly thereafter, the French Revolution codified human rights for the first time in a political document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1793). However, this declaration was issued during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), which witnessed the worst excesses of the French Revolution. For the next century and a half, the concept of human rights hardly played a role in international politics, with the possible exception of certain aspects of the struggle against slavery and the slave trade. Still, the democratic emphasis on rights within the context of the Cold War was a natural development of tradition that did not quite exist in Eastern Europe. World War II brought human rights to the forefront of international politics. On the one hand, the unique wickedness of Nazism made the war against it a moral one rather than just a clash of nations and their interests. The positive content of that moral struggle was couched, especially by Americans, in terms of universal human rights. On the other hand, the tentative and ideologically awkward alliance between Western democracies and the Soviet Union required some positive common denominator—good versus evil—that transcended a common enemy. These two trends were further strengthened after the war, when the true scale of Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust became apparent and World War II acquired its established character as a war of good against evil. This good was interpreted by many as human rights. The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals of 1945–1946, presided over by American, British, French, and Soviet judges, introduced the concept of crimes against humanity into international law. Although formulated and applied after the fact, the construct of crimes against humanity set standards of human rights according to which Nazi leaders could be tried and punished not just for atrocities committed in occupied territories but also for those against German citizens on German territory.
The United Nations (UN) went even further to promote the rhetoric, if not the practice, of human rights in its founding Charter and in the December 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The significance of these documents was declarative rather than normative, because no enforcement mechanisms with appropriate powers were created following these declarations. As noted above, there are no rights for some without duties for others. For humans to have rights, some institution must be entrusted with enforcing them; otherwise, declarations remain just that. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a compromise between communist and democratic representatives, it included economic rights clauses that clearly make no normative sense in a universal context; for example, the right of every human to enjoy a paid vacation.
The onset of the Cold War stifled attempts to enforce a universal regime of human rights because communist totalitarianism was inherently founded on the state's right to violate any right of its subjects, while Western democracies protected its client states that abused human rights in the developing world, from Iran to Haiti to Latin America. The so-called realist approach to international relations promoted by Henry Kissinger, for example, dictates nonintervention in the internal human rights policies of other countries and the determination of U.S. foreign policy based exclusively on its geopolitical interests. For example, in 1973 the United States supported the Chilean military in deposing leftist President Salvador Allende and instituting a regime that exhibited worse human rights violations than its predecessor. For political expediency, it also engaged in an alliance with Maoist China, although China's Cultural Revolution violated human rights on a scale far greater than in the Soviet Union.
A variety of UN-sponsored human rights covenants and agreements from the 1960s further broadened the rhetorical connotations of human rights to encompass social, economic, and ethnic issues but also deepened the divide between the public rhetoric and actual practices of signatory nations to these covenants. Both sides in the Cold War used human rights rhetoric as a tool in their ideological war. The West lambasted communist states for allegedly violating the liberties of their subjects, while the communists harped on the alleged violation of the right to work of the unemployed in free market economies.
The policing of human rights became more effective by the mid-1970s through the introduction of various new methods for enforcement. The United States attempted to use its economic might to pressure human rights violators. In 1973, the U.S. Congress linked foreign aid to the human rights record of recipient countries. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974 attempted to use the Soviets' reliance upon American wheat to pressure the Soviet Union to increase Jewish, Baltic, and Baptist emigration by linking free emigration with a most-favored nation (MFN) trade status. However, the generally low volume of trade between the two blocs limited the effectiveness of this kind of leverage. The Soviets reacted by linking emigration to the state of their negotiations with the United States over disarmament and other political issues.
The 1975 Helsinki Final Act Covenant on Human Rights was probably viewed by the Soviet leadership as yet another declarative statement of little lasting effect. It included safety clauses that precluded intervention in the internal affairs of Soviet-bloc countries. Yet its ratification by Soviet-bloc nations provided international legal grounds for East European dissidents to assist their governments in its implementation. The Helsinki Process provided a legal basis for the resurrection of civil society in Eastern Europe, especially through the Charter 77 dissident movement in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Human Rights Committee of Andrei Sakharov and Sergei Kovaljov. Dissident groups were able to pressure their governments to respect human rights through exposure of their violations in the Western media, which were then broadcast back beyond the Iron Curtain via Radio Liberty. Dissidents pressed on to assert their rights to express their opinions in samizdat publications (typed carbon copies that circulated among friends) and in informal gatherings where banned music and theater could be performed and critical lectures could be delivered. The dissidents were supported most effectively by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the West, which put greater pressure on the Soviet regimes than governments ever could.
A somewhat parallel development took place west of the Iron Curtain, where NGOs such as Amnesty International became significant in enforcing human rights through monitoring and reporting and by embarrassing the perpetrating governments in the forum of world public opinion. When U.S. President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he refocused his nation's foreign policy to promote global human rights, although he continued to support some traditional U.S. allies, such as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, despite their dismal human rights records. Still, the idealistic shift in policy persisted through the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan administration attempted to improve the human rights situation in nations in Latin America, Indonesia, and East Asia, albeit through private channels rather than public diplomacy and sometimes by utilizing illegal means. In 1985, human rights were one of four items on the agenda of Soviet and American negotiators as the Cold War began to wind down.
In 1987 the Soviet Union moved to improve its human rights record by releasing political prisoners and granting freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and travel, which ultimately led to political freedom and, after 1991, to national self-determination. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost policies were in large measure responsible for these momentous turns of events. The problem then, as now, has been the lack of institutional guarantees of human rights in the former Soviet states that would systematically enforce rights.
Gorbachev's attempt to reform communism proved that totalitarian communist regimes could not easily introduce human rights into their system. Totalitarianism is, in essence, an all-or-nothing proposition. Once it allows its people to possess rudimentary human rights, it loses its claim to power; the people demand greater distribution of rights from the rulers to the ruled, and totalitarianism ends. This process had already been predicted by Czech dissident Václav Benda in his 1978 essay "A Parallel Polis."
In the closing years of the Cold War, as international tensions subsided, the U.S. interest in supporting regimes that violated human rights for the sake of political expediency waned. Consequently, a wave of democratization swept Latin America and South Africa. Yet the end of the Cold War also exposed the inability of the international community to enforce human rights even in the most extreme cases of genocide, such as in Rwanda, the Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia.
Falk, Barbara J. The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003.; Falk, Richard. Human Rights and State Sovereignty. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981.; Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and World Politics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.; Liang-Fenton, Debra, ed. Implementing U.S. Human Rights Policy: Agendas, Policies, and Practices. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2004.; Müllerson, Rein. Human Rights Diplomacy. New York: Routledge, 1997.; Tucker, Aviezer. The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patočka to Havel. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000.