As we begin a new century, what is most striking about the human rights challenges we face is how different they are from those of the cold war era. Whereas the abuses of the cold war period came from strong tyrannical states, the ones in the post–cold war world chiefly originate in weak or collapsing states. We have not come to terms with this changed situation. Our current debate about humanitarian intervention continues to construe intervening as an act of conscience, when in fact, since the 1990s began, intervening has also become an urgent state interest: to rebuild failed states so that they cease to be national security threats.
To understand how the human rights situation has changed, we need to go back to the end of the Second World War. From 1945 until the end of the cold war, human rights remained subordinate to state sovereignty within the framework of the United Nations Charter. Articles 2.1 and 2.7 of the charter define sovereignty in terms of inviolability and non-interference. The prohibition on internal interference is peremptory, while the language that urges states to promote human rights is permissive. States are encouraged to promote human rights, not commanded to do so.
The UN Charter’s bias against intervention reflects the chapter of European history the drafting powers believed they had been lucky to escape. Even in death and defeat, Adolf Hitler remained the ghost at the drafters’ feast. Yet it was Hitler the warmonger, not Hitler the architect of European extermination, who preoccupied the drafters. For them, aggressive war across national frontiers was a more salient risk than the extermination of peoples within states. This fact illuminates the degree to which both the Holocaust and the Red Terror existed in suspended animation during the cold war. They were not the all-defining crimes they were to become in the modern moral imagination of the 1970s.
The central problem of the cold war world, from the Western point of view, was to consolidate state order and guarantee that these new states remained in the Western camp. Accordingly, the human rights performance of states mattered much less to the West than their allegiance to the Western camp. Human rights was also given a subordinate place in the UN system. UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Commission, for example, had no power to investigate member states, and after the successful passage of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1948, no formal human rights conventions were ratified until the 1970s.
The marginal place of human rights in the institutional order of the cold war also related to the ambiguous light that human rights standards cast on the behavior of superpowers. Universal commitments, even if only rhetorical, can be embarrassing. The Americans had Jim Crow to hide. The Russians’ dirty secret was the Gulag. When the Americans and the Russians used the universalistic creed to lecture developing nations, ...
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