Covid-19 Has Shown the Limits of Liberal Human Rights

Covid-19 has demonstrated the inequalities that hide behind liberal human rights discourse – and made it clear why the fight for collective social and economic rights is so much more transformative.

A considerable amount of ink has been spilled in the media of late warning of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human rights. Autocratic leaders around the globe have used the crisis as a pretext to fan the flames of nationalist fervour and ruthlessly clampdown on civil liberties.

In India, Narendra Modi has used the crisis to unleash a wave of attacks against Muslim communities and incite nationalist sentiment. Much to the chagrin of EU leaders, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has further consolidated dictatorial powers and imprisoned journalists while dismantling what remains of a free press. Meanwhile in the United States, President Trump’s firing of the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services reflects an increasingly insidious crackdown on dissent that has even led to the arrest of journalists covering the protests over the killing of George Floyd.

In light of these and numerous other mounting threats to human rights around the world, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that the current global crisis is fast becoming a human rights crisis.

Liberal discourse has reflected a growing awareness of the detrimental human rights implications of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Britain, the introduction of emergency legislation has provoked calls for greater vigilance with regards to the protection of individual civil liberties while across the Irish sea similar concerns relating to the human rights impact of emergency legislation have been raised.

Yet when equally urgent threats to social and economic rights emerge in the discussions around potentially devastating austerity measures that have already crippled healthcare systems for years, liberal uproar couched in the language of human rights is more often than not replaced by comparatively anodyne critique of government policy. Human rights-based criticisms, it seems, are narrowly confined to the civil and political sphere.

It is no surprise therefore that in recent weeks we have seen the emergence of a narrative in the media that pits the health of individuals against the health of the economy, whereby sacrifice of the former has been considered by some as a necessary evil for the survival of the latter. The trade-off between the provision of basic social services to the most vulnerable in society and the freedom to operate unhindered in the marketplace has been framed by commentators as an issue of conflicting rights – an approach which reveals both the political malleability of human rights and their vulnerability to manipulation.

But even beyond the right-wing ideologues, one need not look further than the response of United Nations chief Antonio Guterres to get a sense of how vacuous liberal human rights rhetoric has become. Far from provoking calls for transformative social and economic change – or awareness of the structural inequalities and systemic weaknesses that have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable in society – his response was characterised by platitudes.

The failure of the global spokesperson for human rights to articulate an alternative vision to a system that is directly responsible for the seriousness of the unfolding human rights crisis both exposes the fundamental hypocrisy of claims that ‘we are all in this together’ and raises the question as to the moral utility of the concept of human rights.

Understanding the ideological forces that shaped the evolution of human rights in western liberal discourse partly explains why contemporary human rights rhetoric has been so insufficient in responding to the Covid-19 crisis. As Samuel Moyn has argued, the co-option of human rights by neoliberal thought leaders from the 1980s onwards was motivated by a desire to provide a veil of legitimacy for a politico-economic project expressly designed to entrench rather than tackle inequality.

Human rights has routinely served as a convenient tool for governments to justify certain forms of intervention during crises while restricting others. Thus the introduction of the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks was couched in the language of human rights by a Bush administration best known for its utter contempt for basic human dignity.

Meanwhile, the refusal of the EU to even temporarily lift international sanctions that have exacerbated the human rights situation in a number of countries has been telling. Its minimal gestures of symbolic support are one of the best examples of how organisations which extol the virtues of human rights are often engaged in cynical diplomatic realpolitik.

Given the longstanding cultural hegemony of human rights in Western liberal discourse and its almost universal status as a powerful agent of change, it would be misguided to make the case for its abandonment altogether.

Rather, unmooring human rights from its neoliberal constraints and restoring the centrality of collective social and economic rights should be the starting point for a new discourse. Only then can human rights rhetoric move beyond platitudes and lay claim to the kind of moral authority it once possessed.

Until such a time arrives, human rights rhetoric in the form of eloquent speeches emanating from a neoliberal establishment that oversees a global regime of inequality should be taken with more than a pinch of salt.