Commentary Magazine


Re: The Moral Rot at the Core of the Human Rights Community

Evelyn’s accurate diagnosis  of the “rot” at the core of the “human rights community,” and her salutary exhortation that “no self-respecting democracy should grant international law any credence,” points to a deeper issue; namely, the notion of a “world community” (of which the human rights community is, ostensibly, a part.)

“World community” has become something of a rhetorical talisman, the mere utterance of which expresses the speaker’s tacit commitment to the institutions
of an imagined global order and which tends to induce in the minds of the politically credulous an image of something that is, at once, grand and magisterial—almost transcendent—yet also intimate and personal, as well as presumptively benign.

With almost predictable regularity, figures of international prominence—whether of renown or infamy—gravely call upon the world community to condemn this or that injustice (real or imagined), or to enforce this or that regimen or sanction, whether just or otherwise. Among all nations, Israel enjoys the distinction of being the disproportionate target of this “community’s” promiscuous and malignant disapprobation.

But here’s the rub: There is, in fact, no such thing as the “world community,” in any meaningful sense of the word “community.” After all, what is a “community”? I propose the following (courtesy of The Merriam-Webster On-Line International Dictionary) as a working definition: “a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests.”

Given this definition, in what sense can the claim rationally be made that the United States, on the one hand, and, say, China or Myanmar, on the other, share common political or social interests? Do these nations share our commitment to human rights, representative democracy, and freedom of religion?

There is, to be sure, a community of democracies—fractious, quarrelsome, often divided on matters of great importance—but a community nonetheless. There are, as well, alliances—both formal and tacit—of oppressive nation-states, sometimes associated with cutthroat trans-national groups such as al-Qaeda, or regional/national organizations such as Hezbollah. These various alliances may be founded on considerations of principle—albeit malign—or of convenience, or of both. However, notwithstanding the nimbus of transcendence surrounding it, belief in the existence of an overarching world community, encompassing and yet somehow transcending such divergent categories of political actors, is a piece of self-deception of breathtaking scope.

Rather than cherish the fiction of a world community to whose moral authority we as a democracy can appeal and to whose “will” we are expected to defer, we should recognize, instead, that our world consists not of members of a single community, but rather of ever-shifting alliances of nations and regimes, divided, roughly, into two groups: those that share our commitment to democratic principles and those that do not. Considerations of Realpolitik require that we engage members of the latter group when and in such manner as it suits our vital interests. But it is only the former whose moral authority we should recognize and to whose demands we should show any deference.


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