The Arab Spring and the ongoing conflict in Syria have prompted discussions of authority, democracy and legitimate governance. The many proponents of democratization appeal to human rights as established in international law to further their cause. That is, given that international law affords every person certain inalienable rights, such as freedom of speech and conscience, any regime that infringes upon these rights can be legitimately overthrown. Indeed, Syria’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — whose preamble suggests that a government forfeits its legitimacy if it violates its commitment to the Declaration — appears hypocritical given the regime’s assault on civilian targets. However, there is also a profound risk in adopting the rhetoric of human rights when opposing authority: human rights may equally well lend justification to a complete rejection of all authority, even liberal democracy.
Since the inception of the United Nations and the subsequent ratification of the UN Charter, these inviolable rights were de jure established, at least to the greatest possible extent under international law. The current notion of human rights has much of its historical origin in natural rights, with philosopher John Locke as an early proponent of the latter. Natural rights, however, differ slightly from human rights. Whereas the former holds true regardless of convention or particular legal frameworks, human rights are established by law. Yet the current notion of human rights in some sense purports to transcend law, and it is held as a universal truth that is merely given further protection by international law.
British philosopher Edmund Burke responded to Locke’s argument for natural rights. I believe that his response can shed some light on the dangers of human rights in political contexts. In his treatise, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke explicates his fear of the violent consequences of revolutionary change on the very fabric of society. The uprising in Syria shares some important characteristics with the French Revolution: not only the irrevocable nature of the revolutions and the clashes of the ideological extremes, but also the shared appeal to inherent rights to justify rebellion.
According to Burke, when rights are invoked in a revolution they can be used against every conceivable form of authority, and they constitute grounds for unlimited claims on liberty. Burke writes, “in proportion to how [natural rights] are metaphysically true, they are ethically and morally false.” This argument applies to human rights as well: regardless of the metaphysical status of human rights, dangerous consequences may result from invoking such rights in a political context due to their inherent disposition to justify extremism. It may be objected: do human rights justify this extremism?
In one way, human rights certainly do provide such a justification, as these rights do not necessarily lead to any specific form of government. The rhetoric of human rights advocates can be used to make any form of government appear dictatorial. By appealing to the notion of right to liberty from article three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one could argue that even the most benevolent form of liberal democracy is imposing unjust restraints on the individual’s right to liberty.
Now, it is once again appropriate to ask: in what respect is Burke’s philosophy even remotely applicable to the situation in Syria? To provide a negative response, Burke’s philosophy is not intended to undermine human rights, nor, by extension, is this article intended to delegitimize the efforts of those Syrians opposing Assad’s regime.
To provide a positive answer to the question, unawareness of the dangers of solely relying on human rights to justify the overthrowing of the Assad administration and assuming an uncritical position on universal claims can perpetuate the ongoing conflict. That is to say that the same principles that are readily employed to justify the resistance to authority and the attempts to overthrow the current Syrian government can be used to oppose any post-conflict authority as well. The potential for unlimited claims on liberty can cause a prolonged conflict in which no form of authority can be considered just.
Furthermore, human rights do not lend justification for privileging one form of government over another. Democracy does not in itself confer rights to its citizens other than political participation. For instance, late nineteenth century democracies did not grant basic women’s rights. Yet, there is a desire to privilege democracy, and there are many who believe that such a form of government is the natural and proper progression of the revolution in Syria. Without any qualification, however, it appears difficult to demonstrate why democracy would necessarily follow from human rights. Burke opposed this very element of utopianism that is inherent to both natural and human rights.
What the future has in store for the Syrian uprisings is quite difficult to predict. Much of the discourse on the uprising relies on principled stances, such as the impermissibility of violating human rights and the subsequent justification to resist authority. It is therefore important that the advocates of human rights provide a qualification to justify the next form of government and not just the conceptual tools for overthrowing the current one. The qualification may simply be an acknowledgment of the two discrete natures of human rights and natural rights. Nevertheless, without such a qualification the Burkean worry of unlimited claims to liberty and an indiscriminate rejection of all forms of authority might materialize.