Dorian Gray in Europe – The End of Shame and Human Rights

2 June 2015
Dorian Gray and the state of human rights in Europe

Dorian Gray and the state of human rights in Europe

"A few years ago, Europe's most important intergovernmental human-rights institution, the Council of Europe, crossed over to the dark side. Like Dorian Gray, the dandy in Oscar Wilde's story of moral decay, it sold its soul. And as with Dorian Gray, who retained his good looks, the inner decay of the Council of Europe remains hidden from view."

(The End of Shame, Journal of Democracy)

Dear friends of ESI,

The Council of Europe is facing a crisis of credibility today, so deep that it appears to paralyse those in charge of the institution.

One prominent member and funder of the Council of Europe, Russia, suppresses civil liberties, makes a mockery of elections, undermines freedom of association and speech and invades another member state. The prime minister of another member state, Hungary, suggests it might be a good idea to have an open debate about reintroducing the death penalty. Yet another founding member, the United Kingdom, is threatening to ignore judgements from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg that it finds inconvenient. On 1 June, a government spokesman was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

"The UK prime minister's position on what needs to happen on human rights is set out very clearly in the Conservative manifesto. That is the approach that the whole government is behind. That is scrapping the Human Rights Act, breaking the link between the ECHR and here and making the supreme court in the UK the ultimate arbiter of human rights in the UK."

All of this is happening at a moment when the Council of Europe is already weakened by its inability to call a dictatorship a dictatorship and to condemn clearly even the most outrageous and systematic violations of the European Convention in certain member states.

The times call for clear messages and decisive actions, as human rights – and the international instruments protecting them - are challenged across Europe. And yet at the hour when it is needed most, Strasburg appears lost.

A new essay in the summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy puts the crisis of Europe's oldest human rights institution into a larger context:

The End of Shame
(the whole essay is online here)

Today, Europe has more human-rights treaties, employs more human-rights commissioners, awards more human-rights prizes, and is home to more human-rights organizations than at any point in its history. And yet it was no great challenge for the autocratic regime of President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan to paralyze this system. By capturing the Council of Europe, the Azerbaijani government managed to neutralize the core strategy of the international human-rights movement: "naming and shaming."

This crisis affects all European democracies and challenges the international human rights movement as it developed since the early 1960s:

Ilham Aliyev, the son of a Soviet-era KGB general, was born the same year that Amnesty International and the modern international human-rights movement were launched. In May 1961, outraged by the news that two Portuguese students had been jailed for raising a toast to freedom, British human-rights lawyer Peter Benenson published an article in the London Observer. Alongside photos of six people jailed in different countries, he wrote about "forgotten prisoners." Benenson appealed to international norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He put his trust in the power of public opinion: "When world opinion is concentrated on one weak spot, it can sometimes succeed in making a government relent… . Pressure of opinion a hundred years ago brought about the emancipation of the slaves."

Ilham Aliyev Amnesty International

Both born in 1961: Ilham Aliyev and Amnesty International

In August 1975, European democracies, the United States, and Canada joined the leaders of the communist bloc in signing the Helsinki Accords. European democracies had pushed for human rights to be included in these talks. The United States was skeptical; Henry Kissinger famously said that the human-rights provisions of the Helsinki Act could be "written in Swahili for all I care." … As historian Samuel Moyn put it: "It was not until the 1970s, with the emergence of dissident movements in Eastern Europe, that [human rights] entered common parlance. This is the period that historians need to scrutinize most intently—the moment when human rights triumphed as a set of beliefs … "

This legacy and its achievements are now under threat, in Europe and in much of the rest of the world:

Four decades after the signature of the Helsinki Final Act, human-rights discourse has been marginalized across Europe. Most governments have human-rights commissioners, but these are rarely positions of influence. The EU's External Action Service created a special post for human rights, which so far has played no role in shaping policy. When foreign-policy think tanks convene gatherings to discuss the continent's future, the issue of human rights seldom comes up. Academics largely ignore what is happening to pan-European human-rights institutions. There is, of course, a world of human-rights NGOs, but often these organizations end up talking mainly among themselves or to individual government officials tasked to "deal with" human rights.


Human rights, born yesterday

Samuel Moyn's excellent The Last Utopia – Human Rights in History

Samuel Moyn's excellent The Last Utopia – Human Rights in History

Samuel Moyn quoted the human-rights scholar Moses Moskowitz, who wrote in the early 1970s that the human-rights idea had "yet to arouse the curiosity of the intellectual, to stir the imagination of the social and political reformer and to evoke the emotional response of the moralist." Moyn added that "human rights as we understand them were born yesterday," referring to the breakthrough of activism in the late 1970s. And he cautioned: "Few things that are powerful today turn out on inspection to be longstanding and inevitable … this also means that human rights are not so much an inheritance to preserve as an invention to remake."

This is true in Europe today. Neither the Council of Europe's fate nor human-rights organizations' reports about the plight of political prisoners who languish behind bars in countries on Europe's periphery seem able to "arouse the curiosity" of many intellectuals.

Among European intellectuals, a new relativism is emerging, with many arguing in favour of abandoning the aspirations behind the 1990 Paris Charter for a New Europe and the idea that the European Convention on Human Rights should be binding on all the countries that ratified it:

A 2015 paper by the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin, Germany's top think tank, is all too typical. Three leading analysts from this prestigious institution suggest that "the precept of the inviolability of national territory should be broadened to include a political component: the incontestability of the internal political order."

This is a call to turn Europe's back on the legacy of Sakharov and Havel. Western governments "would have to refrain from demanding and actively promoting democratic changes in the political systems of the countries of the post-Soviet region and adjust their conduct accordingly." The SWP analysts go on to claim that "sober pragmatism in economic relations" would also "serve to stabilize energy relations and facilitate a fair balance of interests between the EU and Russia." As far as EU policy on Azerbaijan is concerned, this future is now.

In a March 2015 speech, Ilham Aliyev explained that international treaties are "only a piece of paper that aren't worth anything … We see it and everyone else can see it too. We see this throughout the world—might is right." There are no moral principles or international human-rights obligations. There is no voice for the powerless. There is no room for shaming. Once torturers are treated with respect, even torture will cease to be considered shameful.

An illustration of how marginal human rights have become in European policy is the fact that the European Commission still gives substantial aid to oil-rich Azerbaijan. This is the very moment in which Nils Muiznieks, Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, stated that "in no other Council of Europe country are all my partners in jail." In a 10-minute clip posted on Youtube in May 2015 the EU presents itself as a proud partner to "reform efforts" and the "exchange of best practices" with Azerbaijan. It describes its budget support to Azerbaijan, which amongst other things is being used to modernise the justice and penal systems. Human rights are not mentioned once:


Politics is all about symbols. Can there be a more striking symbol of European indifference to values and norms than the EU helping to fund "modernisation" in Azerbaijani prisons, at a time when they hold dozens of political prisoners? Can there be a more embarrassing symbol of weakness than the way Ilham Aliyev was begged to come to the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga this month, only for him to announce at the last moment that he would not come after all, allegedly because he was annoyed by mild criticism from the European Parliament?

It is time to reclaim the political symbolism in support of human rights. Personalized sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes against specific human rights violators might restore a sense of shame and honour. They might even give hope to those who languish in jail for promoting core European values. It would, however, take some political will for European leaders to put aside short-term political expediency. In Brussels, Strasburg and most European capitals, this will is currently missing. And this is a problem that goes much wider than Azerbaijan, and bodes ill for the future of human rights protection in the twenty-first century.

Many best regards,

Gerald Knaus