As democracy has receded in many parts of the world, “human rights” -- and the language, institutions, and framework of laws to which the concept has given rise over the past 75 years -- have increasingly attracted criticism.
Of course, realities on the ground have always fallen short of the lofty aspirations enshrined in our patchwork global human-rights system, from the first initiatives under the League of Nations to the 1945 United Nations Charter and the treaties subsequently adopted by UN members. But defenders of human rights can hardly be blamed for the rise of populist authoritarianism. Autocrats are on the rise not because the human-rights regime has failed, but because power dynamics stifle economic opportunity and block political alternatives, enabling authoritarian strongmen to flout democratic rules.
But while rights and their legal underpinnings have been eroded in recent years, the past 12 months have created an impetus for their resurrection. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the mass atrocities that followed have reminded us that human rights -- and the international legal architecture that gives them substance -- still matter. In fact, the war underscores three fundamental lessons about the state of human rights today.
First, Russian aggression and atrocities have reminded us that rights, justice, and democracy are not empty rhetoric. They have concrete meaning and value. But only when they are on the verge of being lost do we come to appreciate just how important and vulnerable they are. Before Jan. 6, 2021, many of us in the United States could not have imagined that our own Capitol -- the seat of American democracy -- would come under physical assault, or that an incumbent president would refuse to recognize the results of a free and fair election and seek to remain in office through lies and deception.
Similarly, before Feb. 24, 2022, many people saw the dictates of international law -- the inviolability of borders, the right of people to choose their own rulers, the prohibitions against abusive conduct even during armed conflict -- as mere platitudes that are not worth much in the real world of hard power. But the Russian invasion and its brutal targeting of civilians and their infrastructure have reminded us why we created these legal norms -- and why we no longer can take them for granted.
The second lesson of the war follows from the first: It is not enough to proclaim human rights in print; they also must be recognized, defended, and expanded through struggle. The millions of Ukrainians fighting for their lives and demanding full accountability for those most responsible for the war understand this all too well. As Ukrainians mobilize on the battlefield to preserve their freedom and democracy, they are also pushing for what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls a “just peace.” By that he means an end to the conflict based not only on the return of Ukraine’s occupied territory but also on accountability for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainians and the rest of the world have learned that it was a mistake not to punish Putin for his prior acts of aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine -- not to mention his troops’ earlier crimes in Georgia and Syria. A settlement that lacks prosecutions for the senior perpetrators of the violence will not bring an enduring peace. As the Ukrainian prosecutor general and the International Criminal Court proceed with their investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity, the UN General Assembly must create a new tribunal to try Russia’s leadership for the singular crime of aggression.
Finally, this war has taught us that what is happening in Ukraine is of universal concern. If we want to deter future dictators from launching an aggressive war, it is not enough to prosecute Russia’s current rulers. We also must make clear that, like atrocity crimes, aggression will be punished whenever and wherever it occurs.
Obviously, Ukrainians are the ones suffering most directly from the heinous acts committed in Bucha, Mariupol, and countless other towns that have been laid to waste. But these are also crimes against all humanity. In defending its own democracy, Ukraine is fighting to preserve an international rules-based order on which we all depend. In this sense, Ukraine’s cause really is the world’s cause.
While the global spotlight is rightfully aimed at Ukraine for now, we must not forget the other human-rights crises that also deserve international attention and resources -- from Myanmar and Ethiopia to Afghanistan and Palestine. Holding Putin and his henchmen to account is essential; but our task will not be complete until we bring the law to bear on the perpetrators of other grave crimes, too.
The very notion of international justice demands that it be administered impartially and equally. Anything less is not worthy of the name.
James A. Goldston
James A. Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. -- Ed.