The recent Ibero American summit in Spain (a gathering of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking leaders) has been dominated by discussions about Cuba and, more widely, by the issue of human rights. An official statement was put out condemning the U.S. blockade of Cuba. Cuban critics have reacted furiously, denouncing Castros human rights violations and the summits failure to address this question.
It is not unusual for human rights to polarize opinion and political leaders. The U.N Commission on Human Rights, controlled by exquisite human rights violators, is a case in point. In the Western Hemisphere, we know only too well how the issue of human rights can be caught up in an ideological crossfire that is of little help to those who suffer at the hands of brutal state security apparatuses or even of some democratic governments for whom majoritism is a convenient cover under which they persecute, incarcerate, maim, or kill minorities and critics.
With notable exceptions, the left and the right have tended to espouse a hemiplegic notion of human rights (to borrow French writer Jean-Francois Revels apt adjective). The left denounced Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, but fails to do the same with Fidel Castro. The right points a finger at Castros appalling human rights record but turned a blind eye to the elimination of thousands of people at the hands of the Argentine junta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and backed Alberto Fujimori in Peru while the Colina death squad went around killing students and ice-cream vendors for suspected links to Shining Path that turned out to be untrue.
To make matters worse, the issue of human rights usually gets mixed up with the question of foreign policy towards the country suspected of violating them. Again, inconsistency is the norm. On the right, most opinion leaders and politicians back the U.S. embargo against Cuba but supported Margaret Thatchers refusal to apply sanctions against apartheid with the argument that capitalism is a better way than isolation to generate those middle classes that will eventually pressure despotic regimes to allow civic and political participation. The left, as we have seen in Spains summit, continues to decry the embargo against Cuba and calls it a blockade, and yet that same left was at the forefront of the calls for sanctions against Pinochet.
The consequences of all this is the relativization and the blurring of the issue of human rightsand of the truthto the detriment of people for whom violence at the hands of the state is not an academic matter. However, we should not be surprised that intelligent people cannot agree on the apparently simple question of what constitutes a violation of human rights, regardless of the political colors of the perpetrators. And the reason is that the issue of human rights is no different from the issue of liberty, perhaps the most fundamental and disputed issue of our civilization.
The concept of human rights arose at the time of the French Revolution, and even then it bitterly divided opinion because in many ways that political event substituted one form of authoritarianism for another. The leaders of the Revolution themselves violated human rights, prompting critics like Edmund Burke to decry the armed doctrine that was used as a justification for invading countries (a sort of humanitarian interventionism avant la lettre). The German Welfare State (the right) later introduced the idea of social justice and Roosevelts New Deal (the left) further diluted the idea of individual rights and justice by taking up the banner of economic and social rights (as opposed to the classical liberal notions of individual rights and justice).
The discussion about human rights, therefore, is a discussion between those, on the left and the right, for whom the end justifies the means and therefore legitimizes the use of state force against peaceful individuals, and those for whom the rights of an individual take precedence over the governments aims and interests. If you think individual liberty is paramount, you do not justify Castros human rights violations on the grounds that U.S. foreign policy against Havana is unjust, and you do not justify Pinochets elimination of 3,000 Chileans on the grounds that his free market policies were ultimately beneficial for the country.
One essential problem with the issue of human rights has been the difficulty, on the part of the left, to understand that property rights are at the core of that very notion. Ultimately, the right a person has not to be violated is the property he or she exercises over his or her body (by extension, a person should enjoy the right not to have his or her possessions expropriated through outright violence or distributive compulsion). And the right has had a hard time understanding that notions such as free markets and free enterprise are meaningless if the government concentrates power around it to such an extent that society is no longer a spontaneous order (in Austrian economist Friedrich Hayeks famous phrase) but an autocratic command system in which human rights are conditional on the governments plans.
Sadly, Ibero American leaders at the summit seemed quite unconcerned with these important truths.