The Use and Abuse of Human Rights Discourse: A Legitimacy Test for NGOs, IGOs and Governments


Since the end of the Second World War, human rights have emerged as a standard for evaluating state conduct. As the stature of human rights has risen, however, the language and concepts of rights are increasingly misused. Claims are made by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), or governments, who seek legitimacy for policies that are in fact highly partisan and even abusive of the values of human rights.

What counts, then, as a legitimate use of human rights discourse? Aren’t human rights policies always ‘political’? Can any meaningful distinction be drawn between a ‘human rights position’ and a ‘partisan political position’?

In this article, I propose a test for identifying illegitimate uses of human rights discourse in the policies endorsed by IGOs, NGOs, governments or scholars. The test consists of three prongs. The first prong is uncontroversial, and serves to identify the core components of human rights policies. I argue that any human rights policy presupposes a few basic elements, which I call its parameters: (a) a choice about territories to which the policy will apply; (b) a choice about human rights issues for which the policy is adopted; (c) a choice about victims to which the policy applies; and (d) a choice about time frames within which abuses have occurred.

Under the second prong, I then examine a further kind of choice, which is more controversial. It is called perpetrator selectivity, and concerns the choices that are made about which states (or other responsible actors) are to be criticized for human rights abuses. I argue that, in singling out states or actors for criticism, organizations and governments must observe a standard of overall proportionality between the states or actors whom they select for criticism and the prima face levels of actual human rights abuse that have occurred (as determined by the parameters identified under the first prong).

The third prong adds the decisive element. There are indeed instances where perpetrator selectivity may legitimately be disproportionate to prima face levels of human rights violations. Where there is such disproportion, however, it must not effectively recapitulate the position of any contentious party to a recognized political, social or cultural conflict.

At first glance, that final criterion may appear complicated or unworkable, since human rights are constantly concerned with political, social and cultural conflicts. Several case studies are introduced, however, to show that it provides a reliable standard for evaluating the legitimacy of claims made in the name of human rights. For example, the test is applied to claims by Muslim groups, which purport to adopt broad and even-handed human rights mandates, while in fact directing virtually all of their criticisms at the abuse of Muslims by Western or pro-Western regimes, ignoring equal and worse violations committed by more avowedly Muslim regimes. I argue that such an approach may be legitimate in the partisan political arena, but not in the arena of human rights, as it contravenes some of the core values of international human rights law.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Human Rights Law | International Law

Date of this Version

September 2006