THE HUMAN RIGHTS THAT DICTATORS

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•BY PEDRO PIZANO-FEBRUARY 26, 2014

Watch out. Kobe Bryant may be violating your human rights.
Farida Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on cultural rights, recently announced that
she’s launching a new study aimed at addressing “whether advertising and marketing practices
affect cultural diversity and the right of people to choose their way of life.”
Theannouncement bears a photo of a larger-than-life U.S. basketball advertisement (featuring
star player Kobe Bryant) looming over a Chinese playground.
This is all in a day’s work for the United Nations’ cultural rights office. Just last month, when
Shaheed visited Vietnam, she took a break from discussing concerns about the freedom of
expression to highlight another urgent crisis: the sensitive issue of the Cong drum. In case you
haven’t heard, the Cong drum is a unique cultural artifact used by certain indigenous tribes in
Vietnam’s remote highlands. Now, Shaheed notes, the Cong drum faces a new threat: it is
“being played on demand for tourists in some places, thus clearly losing its original cultural
significance.” She urges the government to protect drum performances against “folklorization”
— apparently a major violation of the indigenous groups’ “cultural rights.”
It’s worth noting that Vietnam is a communist dictatorship that completely ignores the freedom
of religion, routinely imprisons monks and artists for their views, and has been criticized by

countless human rights organizations for its widespread use of torture and routine abuse of
detainees. (In the photo above, policemen prevent a photojournalist from taking pictures
outside a courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City.)
"Vietnam is fast turning into one of Southeast Asia’s largest prisons for human rights defenders
and other activists," Robert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Vietnam researcher, noted. But
these violations are equal, in Shaheed’s eyes, to the ghastly use of cultural artifacts in the
tourism industry. The other, more serious violations merit just a one-paragraph rebuke in her
report; apparently, they don’t fall within the ill-defined spectrum of “cultural rights.” Now,
Vietnam can ignore most of what Shaheed had to say, and brush off her criticisms as a side
effect of tourism.
Over the years, critics have ridiculed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s willingness to heed the
perverse opinions of the world’s worst dictators, who figure prominently among its members.
(These members even triedto ban the word “authoritarian” from council proceedings.) But the
farce of “cultural rights” is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise that some call “human
rights inflation.” Increasingly, groups have called everything they feel entitled to — from spare
bedrooms to foreign aid — a “right.” One special interest group is even clamoring to grant
“access to the Internet" official "rights" status, as if freedom of expression weren’t enough.
Meanwhile, various parties have asserted their "rights" toemployment counseling, paid vacation
leave, free education through college, and a global financial tax to combat the economic crisis.
Today, we have a surplus of human rights — and they’re all claimed to be equally important
and indivisible.
Human rights are going nowhere. They’ve lost their value.
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in 1948, it restricted the
world of human rights to just 30 provisions. Its drafters felt compelled to keep the list short and
punchy. Out of those, 18 were considered rights, provisions that impose immediate obligations
on states at the level of the individual; the 12 social, economic, and cultural provisions were
considered aspirational. The latter were controversial from the start, and this is one of the
reasons that the UDHR is not binding and contains no enforcement mechanism. In 1976, to
address these issues, the rights were correctly divided up into separate binding treaties that
impose obligations on the state through oversight bodies: the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural
Rights (ICESCR).
This was a political compromise borne out of the ideological fight between the United States
and the totalitarian USSR, which advocated for social, economic, and cultural rights at the
expense of civil and political ones. To this day, the United States has not ratified the ICESCR.
The consequences of this ill-fated compromise have gotten quite out of hand. By 2013, there
were 676 provisions that ranged from individual rights, to collective rights, and even to
environmental rights. Some of these don’t even impose immediate obligations on the state instead they’re established through “progressive realization,” whereby the state, to the limit of

its resources and capabilities, promises to fulfill them at some point in the future.
This bizarre proliferation of rights is caused by the fact that human rights are a valuable tool in
the hands of every pressure group that stands to benefit from the expansion of rights — and that
includes illiberal states.
The right to food, for example, was made justiciable at the international level just last year with
the adoption of the optional protocol to the ICESCR. The move received overwhelming support
from, among others, Iran, which reiterated during the working group that “the protocol
provided an opportunity to reiterate the equal status of all human rights.” Meanwhile, the sane
and liberal voice of the United Kingdom was all but drowned out: “The United Kingdom
remained skeptical about the practical benefits of the protocol, considering that economic,
social, and cultural rights did not lend themselves to adjudication in the same way as civil and
political rights.”
Some may argue that states do not typically want to proliferate rights because this imposes
more obligations. Yet, it is precisely because of this proliferation that states can cherry-pick the
rights whose obligations they promise to fulfill sometime in the future — and thus, show off a
“good” human rights record, even as they fail to uphold even the most basic civil and political
rights. Desirable outcomes like housing or health care — better understood as political goals —
were cloaked in rights language to make them seem more legitimate. From there, the right to a
spare bedroom is but a stone’s throw away.
Well-intentioned rights groups have broadened rights legislation to embrace women’s rights
and minority rights for indigenous peoples, LGBT individuals, the elderly, and the disabled.
Women’s groups and human rights groups in Saudi Arabia have, for example, rallied the troops
to consecrate the “right to drive.” Of course, these groups should be respected and their
efforts celebrated — but there is no need to draw up new treaties or craft new rights.
Traditional human rights instruments are enough. The UDHR clearly states that no one should
experience discrimination because of their “race, color, sex, language, religion, political or
other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.”
You don’t have special rights because you’re a lesbian, elderly, disabled woman living in Saudi
Arabia; you have rights because you’re human.
The darker side of rights proliferation is that it allows dictators to level the playing field. The
Human Rights Council is notorious for accommodating the desires of autocratic regimes eager
to whitewash their reputations. In 2007, after refusing visits by U.N. special representatives for
more than 18 years, Cuba welcomedJean Ziegler, the Council’s special rapporteur on the right
to food. Ziegler praised the government for upholding the right to food as a “fundamental
human right,” and proceeded to blame the U.S. embargo for any food shortages. The policies of
the 55-year-old communist dictatorship — which disallows private property, private business,
and the freedoms of movement and expression — were apparently irrelevant to the food
problem. Ziegler viewed the right to food in isolation, ignoring even relevant, non-food-related
rights violations, and ultimately helped the Cuban regime get away with murder. Cuba could

celebrate its success in upholding one right while tactfully glossing over all its many failures.
Chronic rights abusers have an interest in diluting rights to the point where the whole concept
loses its meaning.
"Sadly, this is par for the course these days," says Jacob Mchangama, co-founder and executive
director of the Freedom Rights Project, a group that seeks to restore liberty back to human
rights. Recently, his group held a conference at the Danish Parliament on what has gone wrong
with international human rights and how to fix it.
The conference addressed, among other things, the worrying trend ofrights proliferation. The
speakers challenged the human rights community’s dogmatic consensus on the indivisibility of
rights and the doctrine of proportionality. Emilie Hafner-Burton presented research
that demonstrates that there are few examples of human rights improving an illiberal state even
after its leaders sign a human rights treaty. In most authoritarian states, signing the Convention
Against Torture has had little if any impact on incidents of torture, and has allowed these
regimes to stay in power longer.
"When everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is
cheap," Mchangama told me in Copenhagen. "By presenting themselves as the champions of
these third-generation rights, illiberal states seek to both remove the moral high ground from
civil and political rights and to achieve political legitimacy. Rights proliferation is being abused
by dictatorships to praise each other, and is diminishing the moral clarity that human rights
once enjoyed."
We may be witnessing the slow bursting of the human rights bubble. Had I invested in the
value of rights as a concept in 1966 when the ICCPR was adopted, the value of my
shareholding would have peaked around 1993. This was the year that the Vienna Declaration
and Program of Action of 1993 declared all rights to be equally justiciable and indivisible,
rendering the distinction between civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural
“rights" meaningless.
At least I can always seek comfort in playing my Cong drum — that is, as long as there aren’t
any tourists lurking nearby, right, Ms. Shaheed?

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