Human Rights Are Not Universal: They’re Peculiar, Parochial, and Western

The World Cup is done; we did not win, but France and Argentina entertained us mightily in the final.

Meanwhile, Qatar remained entirely unsuited to hosting the tournament, being, as it is, a tiny petrostate with no infrastructure or footballing history, and which only got to host the event thanks to crossing various FIFA palms with silver.

This opened the floodgates to criticism, such that the hapless Qataris were pinned like a butterfly on a collector’s display board, exposed to scrutiny they appear not to have anticipated. 

Much of that scrutiny turned on the country’s treatment of gays and women, coupled with the deaths of many thousands of migrant workers during stadium construction for the competition. Then, on the eve of the opening match, the Qatari government welched on its sponsorship deal with brewer Budweiser and made it illegal to sell alcohol at games—unless, of course, you were posh enough to pay for corporate hospitality, in which case you weren’t restricted to Budweiser, either. 

Qatar found itself at the bottom of a global dogpile, reduced to inducing the foreign press to say nice things about it. Parts of the coverage were both hilarious and toe-curlingly cringeworthy as a result. 

It took time for the decolonisation loonies to swing into action, and, wonder of wonders, when they did, they had a point. When arguing that criticising Qatar for its poor treatment of women, gays, and immigrants is racist and colonialist, they were picking at a contradiction in the modern liberal settlement which people prefer not to think about. 

That contradiction is simple to state: you cannot believe in universal human rights and the right of nations to self-determination at the same time. Or rather, you can, but the would-be country must have liberal aspirations. By this logic, Ukraine gets self-determination, but Afghanistan needs to be ruled by enlightened foreigners. Make no mistake, all those heart-rending videos of Afghan girls being thrown out of school are designed to do one thing: induce enlightened foreigners—the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union—to re-conquer the country. 

The educated girls and their families represent a tiny minority of the Afghan population, which is one reason why Afghanistan’s client government collapsed so quickly when Western powers withdrew. Contrast Ukraine, which is putting Russia through a meat grinder not seen in that part of the world since WWII. Ukrainians really are different, not only from Afghans, but also from Russians. 

However, the moment one argues some countries get self-determination and others don’t, one lands in a cognitive quagmire, because it means dropping liberal claims to universal human rights. For this reason, maybe it’s best we ignore this liberal contradiction, because, whisper it, there is an answer: colonialism.

That is, maybe rich and powerful liberal countries should invade poor and backward countries and change their mores by force. Two colonial powers—two of the most successful, in fact—did precisely this: first the Romans, and then the British. Europeans marry only one wife and don’t marry their cousins because of the Romans, who imposed both behaviours on their imperial subjects at the point of a sword. Indians play cricket and have a democracy because of the British, who, being kindlier imperial masters than the Romans, made themselves worthy of emulation. 

However, changing entire countries in that way takes blood, treasure, and terrifying bloody-mindedness. The province of Judaea was stubbornly anti-Roman, resolutely maintaining territorial ambitions, polygamy, and the stoning of women for adultery despite being conquered by a people who disapproved of all three. A Jewish terrorist group, the Zealots, were the first to engage in the well-known behaviour of hostage-taking—usually a contubernium (squad or section) of Roman troops—and then killing them off one by one until Zealot captives were released in a prisoner exchange. 

The Roman response was to kill Jews until the Jews changed their minds or the Romans ran out of Jews, whichever was sooner. After the Bar Kochba Revolt of 136 AD, Judaism transformed into the peaceful Rabbinical Judaism we are familiar with today. Roman intransigence altered an entire religion.

The Americans and their allies did not have the stomach to do this in Afghanistan, which is why it has been abandoned to its fate. However, if we look beyond Afghanistan to the ‘Stans’ previously in the Soviet sphere of influence before 1991, we can see countries that may be poorly governed or corrupt but which are also relatively developed, not havens for Islamic terrorists, and where women have fairly high status. The reason why is simple: Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin systematically exterminated the Islamic clerisy in each of them. Forget all those stories about how killing terrorists only creates more of them; if you’re a Marxist and in power, it doesn’t. 

I say this to illustrate a wider point. The “universal human rights” Qatar’s critics flung at it throughout the World Cup are no such thing. They are parochial, Western, and, in the context of human history, peculiar. This is because they appear in only two religious traditions: Catholic Christianity and Shi’a Islam. They are attenuated in Protestantism, but Protestants can borrow them readily enough from Catholics (see, for example, the American Founding). They are not present at all in Sunni Islam, and this forms a sticking point between Islam’s two major denominations. 

They are peculiar because those who first argued for them believed rights are something we possess because we are humans made in the image of God. In other words, rights pre-exist states. There is not a shred of evidence for this, mind you, as it is a religious belief. Human rights have religious roots. 

You can argue that Western liberal rights are better than the available alternatives, and that other countries should adopt them—especially if they wish to prosper economically. However, you cannot argue that they are universal and exist independently of states. Or, you can, but only if you are a certain kind of Christian or a certain kind of Muslim, because you’re making a statement of faith.