As a human rights activist, I cringed at President Obama’s response when Raul Castro attacked America’s human rights record. It is not that the United States is free from human rights violations. In fact, under the current administration, the government has infringed on press freedoms, and has used the federal bureaucracy to intimidate and persecute civil society groups seen as political opponents. Police violence is widespread.
But Castro wasn’t speaking about those problems. Castro claimed that while Cuba was in compliance with international human rights standards, the United States violated human rights with respect to welfare policies. President Obama replied, “President Castro, I think, has pointed out that in his view making sure that everybody is getting a decent education or health care, has basic security and old age, that those things are human rights as well. I personally would not disagree with him.”
Ever since economic and social rights were implanted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, American diplomats have insisted on a distinction between human rights to basic freedoms, as opposed to rights to government services. In doing so they have sought to defend the sacrosanct character of natural rights — moral rights that are prior to any national law — as opposed to welfare rights, which reflect the politics of different societies and eras, and are protected by positive law.
Obama missed an opportunity to explain and defend that idea of human rights, which animated America’s founders, and which they bequeathed to Americans and to people all over the world in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, Obama “personally” embraced an interpretation of human rights at variance with the philosophy of the U.S. Constitution. What is more, Cuba has arguably done more than any other nation to subvert respect for authentic human rights in the United Nations. With his response, Obama indirectly but clearly endorsed that program. If his words indeed reflect the U.S. approach to human rights, it is bad news for those who defend human rights as natural rights to basic freedoms, and who look to America for support and as an example of the success of freedom.
Cuba has consistently defended the world’s worst human rights abusers, like North Korea, from criticism in international forums, claiming that such criticism is “political” and “biased.” In fact, Cuba is the most vocal member of the United Nations seeking to blunt the UN’s already blunt instruments for investigating grave human rights violations and putting pressure on governments to reform, favoring anodyne, “thematic” issues instead. Cuba has been a leader in proposing bogus human rights mandates in the UN Human Rights Council, like the “Independent Expert” on the “Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order,” which is nothing but a platform for ideological attacks on free societies and free enterprise — in the name of “human rights.”
Thanks in large part to Cuba, the international human rights system has become hopelessly clogged up with such institutions. The language of human rights has become thoroughly polluted with left-wing, politicized rhetoric used to justify restrictions on freedom and to attack other states, while drawing attention away from actual human rights problems. What is more, human rights treaties are being drafted on such issues as “business and human rights,” a topic seen as a top priority by leading UN human rights bureaucrats, and on the human rights of the elderly and peasants. Individual rights have been marginalized, while collective rights reflect an international identity politics.
The idea of human rights has become so expansive and that there is no longer any rational basis for determining what is and what is not a human right. But to preserve their meaning and what enforcement is possible, human rights need to remain clearly defined and apart from politics. What legislatures decide about taxation in order to protect the vulnerable and needy is a matter of politics. Protecting that process itself, and other basic political freedoms, is the challenge of human rights.
A few years ago, at a UN briefing in Geneva, Cuban diplomats bragged about their “free” health care and education systems as proof that their government respected human rights. A Cuban dissident responded, “Our health care system and our education system are not without costs. We have paid for them with our freedom.” Obama’s betrayal of the idea of natural rights was also a betrayal of Cuban human rights campaigners, and indeed people around the world living under dictators who exploit the conflation of human rights and welfare rights in order to defend oppression.
Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007.