Regis Debray wrote a critique of ‘Human Rights.’ Here’s a summary of Debray’s argument by Jacob Collins in The New Left Review :

In the present televisual age, in which social relations have never been more atomized—laptops, mobile phones and air travel have the paradoxical effect of enlarging the sphere of individual relations on a global scale, while reducing the scope of communal interaction—it seems that [political and social organization] can take its revenge in one of two ways: either it forms an explosive fundamentalist reaction to modernity—irredentist nationalism, millenarian religion—or a vapid simulacrum of religion, such as the West’s current dogma of human rights.

… The videosphere has found its perfect ideology: a faux religion that demands no responsibilities from its adherents, packaged with a fuzzy catch-all creed from which no one could reasonably dissent. This religion manqué works in mellifluous harmony with the reigning economic and political philosophies of the contemporary West to project the image of a serene global village, effectively camouflaging the interests of its principal players. Marx was only mistaken in describing the ‘ice-cold water of egotistical calculation’, when in fact today, ‘finance capital drips with tepid and sugary water, exudes compassion from every pore, while de-localizing the workforce between boom and slump’. The rule of law, elementum of the Religion of the Contemporary West, ‘tends to neutralize the inequalities of force, profit and influence’ secured by the present transatlantic consensus. In contrast to religion proper, this latter-day creed is bereft of historical memory. Its preferred sacred figure, the victim—the harki, the slave, the deportee—is interchangeable, non-specific, ahistorical, a testament to the videosphere’s amnesiac perpetual present. The Religion of the Contemporary West has no congregation, no antagonist, commands no strong attachments; it specializes in erasing borders, where the sacred would insist on drawing them.

The point is not, of course, to invalidate the axial value that ‘man has value as man’, but rather to embed it in the real history of peoples … the sphere of human rights has been inflated, from the modest, national assertions of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, through the more grandiose 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, to the globalized 1948 un version, where the said rights are not just international, but universal. The final stage—the declaration of the West’s right to humanitarian military intervention—came later, the product of a specific historical conjuncture. The morale of the West had been undermined in the 1960s by its dirty compromises and colonial war crimes; the wretched of the earth had inflicted humiliating military and moral defeats. But in the 1970s, ‘Solzhenitsyn and the Vietnamese boat people inverted the axes of good and evil: the villain became the saviour. With the rediscovery of human rights as the remedy for totalitarianism, the happiness of the rich no longer seemed to depend on the misfortune of the poor’. With this came a new international division of labour. Under the new order, ‘the Americans do the heavy lifting, we do the blahblah. Their foundations, consultants and experts take charge of globalizing the new faith (and their own sphere of influence with it).’ The effect is moral degradation for both sides: “That such an Ubu-esque exercise as the invasion and occupation of a refractory Afghanistan can lead our hallucinating elites—colonizers because colonized themselves—into debates on tactical and technical modalities, shows what our noble sentiments have become capable of: the 21st-century resurrection of a colonial cretinism and moralizing cruelty that leads governments to treat peoples like Lao Tsu’s straw dogs.”

I know Debray has made some strange turns in his career, but here he is on point.

Read it here.

Further Reading