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Human rights fatigue

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 8 January 2019

70 years on from the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10 1948), there seems to be reduced concern for the international protection of human rights. Indeed, politicians can now win elections by expressingless concern about human rights (such as the asylum seeker issue). So what is going wrong?

A change in mentality

Today's era is very different from the human rights era which began after World War II. In 1945 there was revulsion at both the human rights violations and the failure of the international community to protect human rights in the Inter-War and World War II periods. There was a desire to create international mechanisms to protect human rights.

Hence the UN's "International Bill of Rights", which began with the 1948 Declaration, which was followed up with the two initial Covenants. An even more elaborate system for the protection of civil and political rights was devised by the Council of Europe. Meanwhile, there was a flourishing network of human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at local, national and international levels


Human rights fatigue

I suggest we now have "human rights fatigue". The mentality that was appalled by the human rights violations in the 1930s and 1940s has now been replaced by a different mentality.

"You don't think your way through to a new way of living – you live your way through to a new way of thinking". In other words the trauma of the human rights violations forced people (not least politicians and international lawyers) to rethink old ideas of state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs. Hence we get the post-war movement for the international protection of human rights.

But now there is a new mentality: people are more complacent. The post-war generation of human rights activists are dying off. The generation who can remember the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s have left the scene and have been replaced by a later generation who are no longer so shocked.

Second, there has also been the rise of new right economic rationalism, with its focus on oneself and not the community. We are now more self-absorbed, self-focussed and concerned with getting rich – and far less concerned with broader issues.

Finally, there has been the breakdown in the post-war moral consensus on human rights. The Cold War gave rise to a policy of selective indignation at human rights abuses, with human rights issues attracting different perceptions of political priorities: some violations are seen as important while others are neglected.

Improved understanding of how people think about issues

We have discovered in the last 30 years as much about the operations of the brain as we did in the previous 3,000 years, for example, there is now the ability to scan brains and "see" them at work.


Since at least the European Enlightenment, there has been the assumption that people are "rational". Economic textbooks often assume, for example, that humans are rational actors seeking to maximize self-gain.

But we know now that humans are not entirely "rational". There are limits to "rational" debate. For example, human brains operate at two speeds: an immediate reaction (useful if one is being chased by a tiger) and a more reflective response. Much of the political debate is dominated by the immediate "flight or fight" response, rather than the more reflective one.

Meanwhile, human rights NGOs operate on the basis of "if only people knew the facts" they would think and act differently. How often have human rights activists spoken of the need for "more education"?

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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