October 21, 2005
Human Rights, Revisited

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa

The recent Ibero American summit in Spain (a gathering of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking leaders) has been dominated by discussions about Cuba and, more widely, by the issue of human rights. An official statement was put out condemning the U.S. “blockade” of Cuba. Cuban critics have reacted furiously, denouncing Castro’s human rights violations and the summit’s failure to address this question.

It is not unusual for human rights to polarize opinion and political leaders. The U.N Commission on Human Rights, controlled by exquisite human rights violators, is a case in point. In the Western Hemisphere, we know only too well how the issue of human rights can be caught up in an ideological crossfire that is of little help to those who suffer at the hands of brutal state security apparatuses or even of some democratic governments for whom majoritism is a convenient cover under which they persecute, incarcerate, maim, or kill minorities and critics.

With notable exceptions, the left and the right have tended to espouse a “hemiplegic” notion of human rights (to borrow French writer Jean-Francois Revel’s apt adjective). The left denounced Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, but fails to do the same with Fidel Castro. The right points a finger at Castro’s appalling human rights record but turned a blind eye to the elimination of thousands of people at the hands of the Argentine junta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and backed Alberto Fujimori in Peru while the “Colina” death squad went around killing students and ice-cream vendors for suspected links to Shining Path that turned out to be untrue.

To make matters worse, the issue of human rights usually gets mixed up with the question of foreign policy towards the country suspected of violating them. Again, inconsistency is the norm. On the right, most opinion leaders and politicians back the U.S. embargo against Cuba but supported Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to apply sanctions against apartheid with the argument that capitalism is a better way than isolation to generate those middle classes that will eventually pressure despotic regimes to allow civic and political participation. The left, as we have seen in Spain’s summit, continues to decry the embargo against Cuba and calls it “a blockade”, and yet that same left was at the forefront of the calls for sanctions against Pinochet.

The consequences of all this is the relativization and the blurring of the issue of human rights—and of the truth—to the detriment of people for whom violence at the hands of the state is not an academic matter. However, we should not be surprised that intelligent people cannot agree on the apparently simple question of what constitutes a violation of human rights, regardless of the political colors of the perpetrators. And the reason is that the issue of human rights is no different from the issue of liberty, perhaps the most fundamental and disputed issue of our civilization.

The concept of human rights arose at the time of the French Revolution, and even then it bitterly divided opinion because in many ways that political event substituted one form of authoritarianism for another. The leaders of the Revolution themselves violated human rights, prompting critics like Edmund Burke to decry the “armed doctrine” that was used as a justification for invading countries (a sort of humanitarian interventionism avant la lettre). The German Welfare State (the right) later introduced the idea of “social justice” and Roosevelt’s New Deal (the left) further diluted the idea of individual rights and justice by taking up the banner of “economic” and “social” rights (as opposed to the classical liberal notions of individual rights and justice).

The discussion about human rights, therefore, is a discussion between those, on the left and the right, for whom the end justifies the means and therefore legitimizes the use of state force against peaceful individuals, and those for whom the rights of an individual take precedence over the government’s aims and interests. If you think individual liberty is paramount, you do not justify Castro’s human rights violations on the grounds that U.S. foreign policy against Havana is unjust, and you do not justify Pinochet’s elimination of 3,000 Chileans on the grounds that his free market policies were ultimately beneficial for the country.

One essential problem with the issue of human rights has been the difficulty, on the part of the left, to understand that property rights are at the core of that very notion. Ultimately, the “right” a person has not to be violated is the property he or she exercises over his or her body (by extension, a person should enjoy the “right” not to have his or her possessions expropriated through outright violence or distributive compulsion). And the right has had a hard time understanding that notions such as “free markets” and “free enterprise” are meaningless if the government concentrates power around it to such an extent that society is no longer a “spontaneous order” (in Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s famous phrase) but an autocratic command system in which human rights are conditional on the government’s plans.

Sadly, Ibero American leaders at the summit seemed quite unconcerned with these important truths.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow and director of The Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Liberty for Latin America.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa

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