The fall of Western hegemony: What does it mean for the idea of human rights?

According to Robert Gilpin’s ‘theory of hegemonic stability’ (2002), the characteristics of the world economy reflect the will and national interests of the hegemonic power. Immanuel Wallerstein (1983) defines hegemony in the interstate system as “that situation in which the ongoing rivalry between the so-called ‘great powers’ is so unbalanced that one power can largely impose its rules and its wishes (at the very least by effective veto power) in the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and even cultural arenas”. Since World War II, the United States has been the hegemonic power, and since the fall of the Soviet Union its hegemony has been overwhelming and undisputable. Compared to the US, in the second half of the 20th century the power of Western Europe has been, at best, of normative nature, based on the socialisation of ideas like democracy, rule of law and human rights, which some claim to be part of the so-called ‘European identity’.

The extension of the idea of human rights is a relatively new phenomenon that dates back to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, intergovernmental organisations (UN, Council of Europe, Organization of American States, etc.) adopted human rights treaties that were ratified by both democratic and non-democratic governments. At the same time, thousands of international, national and local human rights NGOs mushroomed all over the world.

It is no coincidence that the extension of the idea of human rights occurred in a time of Western hegemony (US-type material or realist hegemony or Europe-type constructivist or normative hegemony). The fact that the internationalisation of human rights took place in a time of Western hegemony does not mean that human rights are necessarily a Western idea and, even less so, that Western countries have an impeccable record on human rights. However, it is important to note that both circumstances, namely, Western hegemony and the rise of human rights, have been coetaneous.

We are now witnessing a shift of global power away from the West. European economies (and, to a lesser extent, the US economy) are going through a time of stagnation, while emerging economies (led by the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) enjoy extraordinary rates of growth. In this context, we need to think critically about the future of human rights in a new world where Europe and the US simply do not matter as much in international relations. It is obvious now (thanks to a US cable of February 2010) that African countries feel more comfortable with Chinese bilateral aid than with the Western insistence on intangible concepts like ‘capacity-building’. A new global political context may alter the relevance of the idea of human rights and its institutions. We can observe a sign of the budding human rights crisis in the continuous criticism against the European and the Inter-American Systems of Human Rights, by Cameron’s UK in the former case and by Chávez’s Venezuela in the latter.

In 1991, Norberto Bobbio thought that we were living in an “age of rights”, and in 1998 Jack Donnelly argued that human rights had become the indicator of States’ legitimacy in international politics. These assertions may very well be disdained as wishful thinking. Being that as it may, the situation has radically changed since the 1990s. In the definition of their foreign policies, the West does not have the same leverage on human rights. It seems reasonable to expect that this has changed for good. The rest does not depend on the West anymore. European countries and the European Union are in desperate need for a human rights strategy for a post-Western world.

Yet, the new scenario does not only demand a change from governments. It also creates a great challenge for human rights activists. Human rights organisations must focus their attention on new global actors (BRICS and others) and their role in the promotion of human rights. Human rights organisations need to lobby the leaders of these countries effectively and will have to carry out locally relevant human rights campaigns, while respecting the inherently global nature of human rights. The repeated references to Russia, China, Brazil, South Africa, India and Turkey in the brilliant analysis of the international response to the Arab Spring in HRW’s 2012 report are a good sign of this new advocacy. European nations must not be left aside, but European leaders should understand that the only way to stop the decline of their power is to apply the highest standards in human rights within their borders. Unfortunately, so far evidence proves that Europe is going through its own human rights crisis.

Koldo Casla



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