The doctrine of human rights is a fascinating concept, and has completely revolutionized how we think about and practice international politics since World War II. The language of human rights permeates our discourse entirely, yet mendaciously, as was brought home for me brilliantly by the book Murder in Samarkand by Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. Murray spends years in conflict with the British Foreign Office because he places almost total emphasis on promoting human rights in Uzbekistan, and can conceive of no other goal for the British government there that should supercede this one. To listen to many of our government spokesmen today, you would think his attitude might be welcomed in the corridors of power. But no: he is forced from his position because the strategic importance of Uzbekistan for the war in Afghanistan is really London's prime concern. This is a warning; woe to thee that take the totalizing discourse of human rights without a grain of salt.
What makes human rights such a revolutionary doctrine is that it is a theory whereby everyone enjoys rights merely by dint of being human, rather than by dint of being a citizen of a particular political community. It is based on our joint awareness of the human predicament, on the cosmic scandal which is the fact that all that separates my cozy position here, discoursing on human rights, from a Congolese pygmy who will never enjoy the protection of her human rights, is the accident of birth. I was born into a well-ordered and peaceful political community, and she was not. The doctrine of human rights says that we can transcend this, at least on a theoretical level; my life has no more value than hers, and her rights are no less valuable than mine. We learnt what happens without a doctrine such as this during the West's practice of imperialism, and then from the Nazis.
But where the doctrine of human rights runs into difficulties is in its practical application. In reality, in the world we live in now, rights are ensured by particular political communities. When it comes to the enforcement of rights - the political power necessary to arrest those who deny others their rights, to try them according to a legal code, and then punish them - there are no rights in the abstract. These processes of crime and punishment only exist in concrete forms. It is one thing to propound a discourse of rights for all humans; it is quite another to enforce it in a concrete way, and to make people fear to cross the authority that does so. This is the fundamental problem of the doctrine of human rights.
There are two basic approaches to this problem. In Europe, we have incorporated human rights laws into our legal codes, and the members of the European Union have signed up to a European Convention on Human Rights which empowers a transnational court to ensure that member-states enforce human rights law. For example, the British government is being forced forced to allow prisoners to vote in general elections, despite the fact a majority of British citizens are opposed to it. But it is futile for the government to protest, because they have chosen to be subject to the European court's decisions, and it would make a mockery of the whole structure if a member-state rejected a decision just because it was unpopular; the reason the court exists is precisely to protect rights which would not otherwise be protected.
The problem is much greater when we face cultures and states who have not chosen to be bound by human rights law, and on whom it hence must be imposed from outside. It is one thing to talk about the human rights of the people in Libya, and quite another to protect these rights. Injecting ourselves into another culture or country under the guise of "protecting human rights" is an uneasy enterprise for most westerners, as we have become suspicious of claims of universal morality. If the doctrine of human rights came, in part, from a reaction against imperialism, how troubled are our consciences bound to be if we resurrect the politics of empire to enforce the protection of human rights? And yet, if we do not intervene, are we not guilty of moral cowardice, and of talking on the sidelines while doing nothing practical to help?
Out of the tension between these two impulses emerges our policy on human rights in the countries that do not accept the doctrine themselves. Even once we have overcome the moral problem of intervention, we are faced with the practical problems: the sheer difficulty and cost of, for instance, physically protecting civilians from an army, or dragging a ruler off to the International Criminal Court, and also the possible impact that these actions might have on our other interests. And so the protection of human rights around the world emerges as an ad hoc and political phenomenon: why protect the human rights of Libyans and not Bahrainis? The answer to this question doesn't lie in the theory itself, but in the practical constraints of the world. But the inconsistency provides ample opportunity for anyone seeking to claim that the doctrine of human rights is merely a cloak with which the West hides its true intentions.
There is no solution to this problem, only the opportunity to chip away at it via various inventions - an International Criminal Court or laws on universal jurisdiction (whereby, for instance, the British legal system can try an individual for war crimes committed in another country). Even given a world government dedicated to the protection of human rights, tensions would remain between the various rights themselves - would it not go against the cultural rights of non-Westerners to impose on them a schema of rights which derives from Western culture? Human rights begin from a recognition of our common humanity, but part of this humanity is our propensity to disagree on fundamentals; there is as much different about us as we hold in common. For all these reasons, the enforcement of the doctrine of human rights will always remain partial, political, and entwined with power.