Human rights are constantly being threatened. In Kim’s North Korea, the news is heavily censored, dissent is punished harshly, and the basic needs of citizens are denied so that the state can maintain a grotesquely outsized military. In Putin’s Russia, human rights NGOs are closed down and investigative journalists are murdered. In Museveni’s Uganda, opposition candidates are arrested and detained while their supporters face police intimidation. In every corner of the world, there are governments that threaten human rights, often as a matter of policy, sometimes as a matter of expediency. Threats to particular rights, however tragic and outrageous, are in some sense normal; without such quotidian threats, there would be no need for human rights treaties, NGOs, UN monitoring bodies, or international tribunals.
The threat to human rights, however, has recently assumed a different character as the global consensus regarding the very concept of human rights has come under challenge. That the challenge is real--and profound--is apparent in the fact that it is being voiced by more and more voters in western democracies. The very societies that have well-established constitutions guaranteeing a range of individual rights have become battlegrounds where illiberal ideologies contend against the concept of human rights. In at least half a dozen democracies including the United States, election results have called into question the commitment to human rights of a substantial percentage of the electorate. Looming elections may widen the zones of concern.
Human rights are foundational commitments. They supersede--or at least ought to supersede--other policy concerns. A government like Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines that seeks to address a serious drug problem by summarily executing suspected drug dealers is violating human rights, regardless of the supposed benefits to society from such a draconian approach to the enforcement of the state’s drug laws. A government like Xi Jinping’s in China that censors the news and impedes citizens’ access to information is violating human rights, regardless of the state’s legitimate interest in promoting harmony within a large and diverse population. A government like George W. Bush’s in the United States that waterboards prisoners in an effort to get information concerning potential terrorist plots is violating human rights, regardless of any security benefits that torture might provide. Put simply, human rights are what they are meant to be only if they establish limits on the authority of the state in the pursuit of its other policy goals.
But perhaps more to the point of the present threat to human rights is this: What makes certain rights human rights is their universality. One cannot, in assigning rights or making policy, draw distinctions between different groups of people on the basis of gender, race, nationality, religion, or other ascriptive characteristics without violating human rights. Policies that discriminate against Muslims, African Americans, Mexicans, or other religious, ethnic, or national groups violate human rights. Those who advocate such policies, whatever their justification, have parted company with those who defend human rights.
The threat to human rights in the United States lies not only in the fact that many racists, including the Ku Klux Klan itself, supported Donald Trump. The threat also lies in the fact that many who do not think of themselves as racists (and some who, in fact, are not) believed Trump’s overt appeals to racism were not a sufficient reason to reject him. It is true that voters in a democracy rarely have the luxury of supporting a candidate who represents their views perfectly. As a consequence, it is always necessary to weigh a candidate’s views on trade or welfare policy, for example, against his or her views on national security or environmental policy. But because human rights are foundational--because they define what government policies are out of bounds--the balancing act that voters normally engage in when selecting a candidate is inappropriate when certain policy preferences are being weighed against respect for human rights. That some Americans, acting out of racism, misogyny, homophobia, or xenophobia, rejected human rights completely while others decided that Donald Trump’s disrespect for humanity was not a deal-breaker indicates that there is a very real threat to human rights in the United States.