Modernity offers many substitutes for God and for the Christian religion that was the sole foundation of Western civilization and culture for most of two millennia. Some of these substitutes aren’t what they used to be. For instance, racism, according to which men worship their genes and which was very big in the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth, is no longer espoused by anybody respectable.
Communism also used to be big, but it was pronounced “dead” after the fall of the Berlin Wall and implosion of the Soviet Union a generation ago. It was then widely supposed that U.S.-style democracy and its adjunct free-market capitalism would be universally and permanently embraced. Indeed, the “end of history” was proclaimed. However, China’s failure to become democratic as well as capitalist has led many to have second thoughts about that, as have Middle-East developments contrary to the expectations of Arab Springers.
Although democracy and capitalism have not been universally embraced, they remain the principal substitute for God and the West’s historical religion in most parts of the world that used to be Christian, including our own. Most Americans and Europeans believe in them when they believe anything. Further, if in some places political leaders do not yet always come to power by means of popular election, certain democratic notions are potent enough that the desirability of their realization is paid at least lip service everywhere. Foremost among these notions are 1) equality in practically every sense except the one Christians acknowledge: in the eyes of God; and 2) freedom understood as being allowed to do whatever is humanly possible (provided, it is always added but often ignored, that nobody is hurt by it).
The realization of equality and false notion of freedom must necessarily entail that a subset of ideas also be realized, including but not limited to: the kind of tolerance that inevitably amounts to indifference; feminism amounting to dissolution of the differences between the sexes; and freedom of expression as long as any opinions that are expressed do not purport to be grounded in objective truth. (To acknowledge any opinion as true would be to undermine democracy itself inasmuch as the system is based on the “freedom” of individuals to choose for themselves from various opinions, none of which can be in serious conflict because all, if they are to be considered, must be relative.)
Starting in the 1960s, the subset of ideas gradually came to be conglomerated under a single umbrella term: human rights. These human rights are so important that, as we have said, even in places where there are never popular elections, like Beijing, Riyadh and Havana, governments claim to champion them but just not in the same way, or not exactly the same ones, as in Washington, London and Paris. The point is there is not now anywhere on earth a government, and few individuals, that wouldn’t profess devotion to the cause of human rights with the fervor that devotion to God used to be professed. In other words, if modernity offers many substitutes for God and religion, the cause of human rights is certainly a leading one if only because its successes are indispensable to the realization of equality and “freedom” and thus the further spread of democracy.
There is a reason we are speaking here of human rights. It is because of the recent publication of a book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History (Princeton University Press). There are any number of other books that a Catholic could profitably read before bothering with this one, but persons interested in the subject and wishing some insight into the minds of the men who have organized and directed the most important social movement of the age can depend on the authoritativeness of this text on account of the identity of the author. He is Aryeh Neier.
Most persons won’t know the name. Wikipedia gives him all of ten lines. Yet he has probably done as much as any single individual and more than nearly any mere political leader to shape the lives all of us now live in society.
He came to the U.S. with his family from Nazi Germany in 1939. He was two. After time in New York as a law professor, in 1963 he went to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, which until then had concerned itself with issues most persons would recognize as truly having to do with civil rights. Neier changed that when he took over as the ACLU’s executive director in 1970 and made prisoners’ rights and women’s rights part of the organization’s remit.
In 1978 he helped found Human Rights Watch, which he then served as executive director for the twelve years before 1993. Among its other achievements during that time, the organization was instrumental in forging the link between human rights and international humanitarian rights (the laws of war) and did more than any other body to promote the formation of the International Criminal Court.
In 1993, bankrolled by financier George Soros, Neier became founding president of the Open Society Foundations. He remained in that position until his retirement last year. OSF is generally recognized today as the leading organization of the movement whose development Neier chronicles in his book.
The leading one, but only that because along the way, from the ACLU to Human Rights Watch to the OSF, Neier inspired and helped launch many others all over the world. More to the point, such bodies are largely responsible for the hundred conventions, protocols and statutes (different kinds of treaty) now listed on the website of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. They include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court.
The U.S. is not a party to all the treaties listed on the U.N. website, but when many or most countries are, and when the provisions of the treaties are put into practice (as when the former president of some nation is hauled before the International Criminal Court) the treaties achieve the status of what lawyers call “customary international law.” This becomes important when, for example, we hear that the CEDAW requires states “to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women” and this has been interpreted as requiring states to provide access to birth control and abortion and also to protect a wife’s “right” to refuse sex with her husband.
Similarly, the CRC purports to establish that a child has a “right” to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression and association independently of his family.
There is a provision of the 1994 Program of Action of that year’s U.N. Population Conference that codifies all individuals’ right to a “satisfying and safe sex life.”
Famously, the 2005 U.N. World Summit Outcome Document identifies a responsibility of the world community “to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” usually referred to by human rights people and advocates of “humanitarian” military interventions as R2P (“responsibility to protect”).
That I have singled out here, as I have, particular provisions of some international human rights treaties and not others, would be seen by a human rights advocate as evidence that I view the provisions, treaties and his movement itself as inimical to something that matters to me and that I know to matter to some others. He would be correct. It is something that no longer exists and cannot be restored as long as they are regnant: Christian social order.
The success of the human rights movement may be necessary to the realization of equality and the false notion of freedom, and thus the spread of democracy, but insofar as the movement in order to succeed panders to envy when it calls for equality and license when it calls for freedom, and to pride when it calls for both, it seeks what was sought by our first ancestors, the pair called in the Christian tradition Adam and Eve: that men be “as gods”. In a word, human rights and the movement that promotes them, as represented by the likes of Aryeh Neier, are Original Sin become increasingly normative of how society is supposed to be governed, which is to say how we are to live. That makes them wrong.