Much as a Lighthouse warns of dangers and guides travellers towards safety, our Righthouse alerts to risks for human rights and points towards secure protection. Like the Lighthouse of literary fame, our Righthouse symbolises the difference between what is desirable and what is real, with multiple points of views in between, the longing for something both enlightening and difficult to reach: a destination, stability, a solution.
Modern human rights are born out of dark times, struggles, waves. They are a beacon of encouragement to the world. To the Righthouse takes you to a place where we discuss human rights, moving from scepticism to hope, from utopia to empathy, riding (sound) waves but also signalling where the light is.
Engaging with human rights scepticism
A variety of reasons underpin scepticism vs human rights: from ontological questions about the very notion of rights to culture- and religion-based perceptions of rights as an illegitimate source of external interference; from concerns about pragmatic application to doubts about the political neutrality of Human Rights.
Why, then, is it important to engage with different expressions of scepticism?
Voices of scepticism resonate widely with decision-makers and members of the public. How the issues are framed cannot be left to the detractors" says George Ulrich, the podcast host. "Discussing perceived or real weaknesses with antagonists may increase the motivation for further actions. By meaningfully connecting theory to reality, such a mutual exchange of ideas may bring us a step further towards a vision for the future guided by a deep and resilient understanding of the nature and functions of human rights and their application in a contemporary geopolitical setting."
Listen on as he explores these ideas with renowned guests.
Human Rights under pressure: when, why and how to engage with sceptics?
In the current era of rising illiberalism and backlash against hard won human rights standards, there is a pressing need to stand firm, hold governments to their agreed international obligations and adopt a confrontational 'naming and shaming' approach to abuses and critics of Human Rights.
If this is a pertinent reaction in many situations, it should also be recognised that voices of scepticism may express valid concerns. There may be something important to be learnt from carefully listening to critical voices. This said, there are clearly also voices of opposition to human rights and patterns of neglect and abuse that call for resolute resistance.
As it is not clear how best to calibrate and balance the different available approaches, our series starts with the following question: is it possible to determine when to adopt an adversarial 'naming and shaming' approach towards detractors and when to engage in constructive good faith interaction with exponents of scepticism towards human rights?
Whose values? Whose experience? Are human rights inclusive?
Value-based objections to human rights are commonly stated with reference to culture and/or religion. They may further be linked with a claim that human rights are shaped by and express distinctly Western values.
The perception of a certain degree of incompatibility between human rights standards and prevailing cultural norms is widespread and not adequately answered by arguments at the theoretical level. While cultural traditions indeed are dynamic and shaped both by external influences and internal contestations, it must by the same token be acknowledged that value transformations happen slowly and that points of friction between local values and international human rights norms cannot be overcome all at once.
It therefore makes sense for human rights advocates to ask themselves how to react in practical terms to such concerns and focus on preventing the most egregious abuses while seeking to find points of compatibility that bring human rights close to home.
Are human rights an unrealistic luxury?
Pragmatically-oriented expressions of human rights scepticism do not take issue with the concept of human rights as such. Rather, they question the relevance and efficacy of human rights in particular settings. They may acknowledge that human rights express a noble ideal to which one can aspire, but in current circumstances it is a luxury that society cannot afford.
This argument is based on the implicit premise that compliance with human rights inevitably happens at the expense of other societal objectives, notably economic progress and national security and stability, and conversely, that the prioritisation of such objectives sometimes necessitates a disregard for human rights.
An obvious response is to seek to demonstrate that the given societal objectives can be realised in a human rights compliant fashion. However, in order to be convincing, this needs to be demonstrated in concrete terms in the actual situations that people inhabit. The devil here lies in the detail: How to constructively negotiate such tensions?
Are human rights politically neutral? Does proliferation of human rights water down the very concept?
Expressions of political scepticism about human rights may involve an assessment both of how human rights claims feed into and affect political processes and, conversely, the role of politics in facilitating the realisation of human rights. Political sceptics contend that human rights claims are politics in disguise, have a disruptive influence on political processes, or divert attention from urgently needed political action.
A distinct but related form of political scepticism is linked with the idea of a proliferation of human rights, which acknowledges that certain ‘fundamental’ rights constitute valid universal standards, but contends that the notion of universal human rights is being extended much too far in contemporary discourse, thus watering down and potentially compromising the underlying concept.
Should human rights maintain a presumption of political neutrality or should they rather make common cause with particular political agendas, for example related to the redistribution of wealth and affirmative action in relation to public goods and access?
Are human rights real? How do they exist?
Ontological scepticism questions the very being of universal human rights. In its most explicit form, it asserts that human rights do not exist. As famously stated by the British moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in response to the proclamation of rights belonging to all human beings merely on account of being human: ‘there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.’
Contemporary critics have, on a variety of related counts, expressed doubt about the concept of universal human rights for example questioning whether the abstract idea of humanity can ground a comprehensive and inclusive normative framework committed to social justice.
What such expressions of ontological scepticism confront human rights advocates with, above all, is the need to seriously reflect on the concept of human rights. The issue is not in a trivial sense whether human rights exist but rather how they exist, where they derive from, and what renders them normatively compelling.