Eroding Principles of Human Rights

After World War II, there was hope that core principles of international law and human rights would become universal, but increasingly these standards have suffered from selective application and propagandistic manipulation, causing a loss of credibility in these key precepts, as Lawrence Davidson notes.

By Lawrence Davidson

The traditional criterion for state legitimacy was very simple. If a state and its government could hold and govern territory, it was legitimate, at least in the eyes of other governments. The form of government and its behavior did not matter in this definition – Stalin’s USSR, Mussolini‘s Italy, Hitler’s Germany – these regimes held territory and ruled as surely as did the ones in Britain, France and the United States. And, in each others’ official eyes, one state was as legitimate as the next.

This outlook began to change in 1945. Just before and then during World War II, fascist behavior in general and Nazi behavior in particular was so shocking that many post-war governments became convinced that state legitimacy required well-defined codes of national behavior enshrined in international law.

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush (with First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush) walk to a White House event on May 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush (with First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush) walk to a White House event on May 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Therefore, right after the war, human rights became a recognized standard by which to judge states and their governments. This new standard, which was implied in the Nuremberg trials, was soon articulated in such documents as the International Declaration of Human Rights and endorsed by the United Nations. It was simultaneously reinforced by a worldwide process of decolonization that focused the international community on issues of human rights, particularly as they touched on the practice of racism and apartheid.

Most importantly, this process led growing segments of civil society to support human rights law as a standard by which to judge state legitimacy. In one case, pressure from civil society worldwide was applied on apartheid South Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s with sufficient force to help change not only the nature of that country’s government, but its national culture and therefore the character of the state itself. By 1994, South Africa was no longer an apartheid state.

New Attack on Human Rights

Recently things have not gone so well. There has been a tendency for the lessons learned about the importance of human rights to fade with time, particularly from the institutional memories of state bureaucracies. The proclivity of all state apparatuses to behave in a Machiavellian way has reasserted itself, particularly in the foreign policies of Western democratic states and their subsequent alliances with all manner of horrid right-wing dictatorships the world over.

This complicity with oppressive regimes produced inevitable anti-Western sentiment culminating in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Subsequently the United States declared a “war on terror,” and this effort seems to excuse everything that the U.S. government has done, from indefinite detention and torture to assassinations and invasions.

To accommodate this revival of amoral statecraft, there is now an effort to rewrite international law in a way that restricts or eliminates the human rights standard of behavior for state legitimacy. The end game here is to get the international community to recognize as “legal” actions by certain great powers and their allies that include the intrusion into the territory of other states and peoples in order to change governments, control populations, capture or kill wanted individuals, and destroy installations and other property.

This is carried out by various means ranging from invasion, enforced apartheid regulations and assassination. At the forefront of this effort are the policies and actions of the United States and its prime ally, Israel.


How is this effort to override international human rights law rationalized? Essentially, what the governments of the United States and Israel – as well as their neoconservative and Zionist supporters – say is that all of their enemies can be classified as terrorists, and because terrorists do not adhere to the standards set by international law, they (the U.S. and Israel) are forced to adopt wartime measures in combating these enemies.

The cornerstone of this approach is the practice of “extraterritorial targeted killing.” Just listen to the well-known Zionist lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, who has proclaimed that “at the moment our legal system is playing catch-up with military technology.” What he finds “imperative” is that drone attacks and the like be made legal by, for instance, allowing someone in the government to obtain a warrant that allows an assassination (and its “collateral damage”) to take place.

Dershowitz is referring to the U.S. government but, the precedent having been set, his scenario for “legal” murder could be adopted by any government – certainly the Israelis have elevated “targeted killing” to a high art.

There is nothing in international law that substantiates this position, and it certainly violates core tenets of international human rights law as well as aspects of the Geneva Conventions. Nor can this behavior be passed off as part of a “just war,” for it fails to meet several accepted qualifications for such a venture as comparative justice and last resort.

Nonetheless, an array of criminal practices have been put into practice under the assumption that “if you do something long enough, it becomes accepted standard practice.” In other words, in Washington and Tel Aviv, the hope is that what starts out as a corruption of the law eventually becomes the law.

Standing Up for the International Law

There is now a struggle going on that will determine both the viability of international human rights law and the role of civil society in defining state legitimacy. Should states that adopt practices such as “extraterritorial targeted killing” or adhere to the racist practices of apartheid continue to be regarded as legitimate, or should they be seen as criminal “rogue states” by virtue of their violation of international human rights law?

In this struggle those who stand in support of human rights should not be underestimated. They are serious, numerous, worldwide in scope, and well organized. But, they are not governments; they are elements of the general population. They are civil society.

This contest may have still greater implications. It may really come down to the fate of the rule of law itself. If we allow international law, and particularly international human rights law, to be marginalized or even done away with, we will return to same international conditions that destroyed the League of Nations, facilitated the rise of the fascists, Nazis and Stalinists, and allowed for the prolonged existence of apartheid South Africa.

In each case the lack of effective international human rights law helped lead to a drastic deterioration in the domestic rule of law in countries like Italy, Germany, Russia and South Africa. And, today we can see signs of deterioration of the rule of law in countries such as Israel and, to a lesser but still real extent, the United States.

There is a lot at stake here and we can be thankful that even as the majority of people blithely go about their daily affairs, a growing minority has become aware of what their governments are doing and its implications for everyone’s future. We should be thankful and supportive – actively supportive.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

15 comments for “Eroding Principles of Human Rights

  1. Hillary
    October 8, 2014 at 20:41

    @ Vesuvius on October 7, 2014 at 7:16 am
    Vesuvius what an excellent post and I would like to know your secret in getting it published.
    My comment in reference to the “inevitable anti-Western sentiment culminating in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.”was NOT allowed.

    • Vesuvius
      October 10, 2014 at 13:03

      @Hillary, No secret at all, I just posted my little comment, and there were no problems. Again, I recommend the reading I suggested. I have studied the Zionist problem in the U.S. (and elsewhere) for some time now, but there is still some work to be done before I hit the “professorial grade”. Anyway, good luck to you!

      • Hillary
        October 11, 2014 at 12:04

        Vesuvius on October 10, 2014 at 1:03

        Thank you ,Vesuvius , your link of course is excellent & Alison Weir is also excellent.
        I hope that The “Your comment is awaiting moderation” — for my comments will cease & free speech will prevail .
        The link for you I am sure you know well already is

  2. October 8, 2014 at 01:16

    The author is making good points, but mentioning Stalin and Hitler in the same sentence is hardly justified. Stalin’s abuses have been greatly exaggerated by cold warriors. If we look at documented evidence, there are about 700,000 executions registered in KGB archives. Yes, this sort of political repressions are a horrible crime, but this figure is nowhere near the 50 million deaths that most people in the West attribute to Stalin. Brainwashing and falsification of history by Western governments are well established phenomena.

    Other deaths that cold warriors routinely add to the 700,000 figure, such as famine and deaths in Gulags can be disregarded as intellectually dishonest. The US has the highest percentage of its population behind bars and how many people die in prisons each year? Should these people be considered “victims of a murderous regime”? Over 20 million people died of famine in the colonies controlled by “liberal democracies” in the 20th century; about 18 million people died of Spanish flu during WWI. Should we consider these people also “victims of a murderous regime”? Don’t even get me started on the millions of people who died in various wars waged by “liberal democracies” on their colonial subjects.

  3. Tom Welsh
    October 7, 2014 at 10:58

    So if the Palestinian government were to use drones to kill important Israeli politicians, intelligence officials, and military personnel – that would also be OK? Or, if not, it would suddenly become OK if the UN were to recognise Palestine as a nation.

    Certainly, any reputable nation (no matter how small) could do the same. For instance, important people in the USA might be assassinated by the government of Nicaragua… or Vietnam… or Iran… or Pakistan… or any of the nations that have been attacked and harmed by the USA. My, that’s an awful lot of nations!

    Maybe it would be wise to rethink this whole matter before it’s too late.

  4. Ptaha
    October 7, 2014 at 10:14
  5. Vesuvius
    October 7, 2014 at 07:16

    Professor Davidson, thank you for this very relevant and disturbing article.
    Thanks toF.G. Sanford on the question of whether 9/11 was a false flag operation. It is becoming more and more difficult to deny these suspicions. I recommend the work done by Mr Christopher Bollyn, “Solving 9/11”. Note that even if you don’t Believe his theory on who did it, his catalog over Zionists abundant in an amazing lot of important positions in America is quite overwhelming.

    Also, thanks to JWalters for the link to Warprofiteerstory. In this context I recommend and Alison Weirs book “Against Our Better Judgment, How the U.S. was used to create Israel”.

    The larger problem here is of course: How can the U.S.A. free itself of the Zionist grip over Congress, The White House, Universities, media etc. If you haven’t read “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2007), please do!

  6. Mike K.
    October 7, 2014 at 04:13

    Evidence connecting the US government [Pentagon, Joint Chiefs] and Israeli agents in the events of 9/11 are so abundant that anyone claiming 9/11 informs the “clash of the civilizations” narrative [itself hatched by Jewish neocons] can not be taken as both honest and well-informed.

    Anyone doubting it ought to spend 2 hours on the web searching for Israeli links to running the 9/11 false flag. You have to wade through some naked hate and nonsense, but in the end the coincidences, the motive and opportunity… is too much to continue to pretend otherwise, although one must, of course, avoid the wrath of the ADL.

    For the ADL, which is really an agent of Israel, no c riticism of Israel is allowed.

    Which is why the Fox piece on Israeli spying around 9/11 was yanked so swiftly.

  7. JWalters
    October 6, 2014 at 19:42

    A very good article. I would simply revise the statement “At the forefront of this effort are the policies and actions of the United States and its prime ally, Israel.”

    It should read “At the forefront of this effort are the policies and actions of Israel and its prime slave, the United States.”

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 6, 2014 at 21:46

      JWalters as you know AIPAC has spend a lot of money over many, many years to purchase their ever so grateful USA government stooges. They have swayed more than one US politician in their favor.

      Yet, I wonder if the day will ever come when another foreign, or maybe not foreign lobby will just flat out, out bid them? Would that not be the shock doctrine in reverse? May not we have something to wish for?
      Joe Tedesky

  8. October 6, 2014 at 18:31

    Why people still use to read news papers when in this technological world everything is presented on web?

  9. F. G. Sanford
    October 6, 2014 at 17:44

    History, as they say, is written by the historians. That sounds facile, redundant and maybe even infantile. We’re living through an epoch in which ideology and ideals have been sacrificed to partisanship and pragmatism. The politics of fear, the attendant propaganda and the inevitable indictments against those who are “with us or against us” have become the norm. Demagogues have always succeeded with that strategy, but the historians will have the last word.

    I read two recent articles on “Alternet”, a publication which, like NPR, proffers itself as a “progressive” news outlet. One article broadly equates Warren Commission detractors with theories about “alien abductions”, “Reptilians” and “Illuminati”. It conveniently ignored the fact that, according to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the “official” government position is that the assassination was a “conspiracy”. The second article lamented the blurring of the line between “conspiracy” and “skepticism”. This was a convoluted rationalization to excuse draconian policies which may justify government secrecy and repressive policies as pragmatic steps intended to protect the populace. It accused skeptics of seeing “conspiracy theory” behind legitimate attempts by the government to “do good”.

    Oddly, the second article finishes with the notion that, when faced with real (or manufactured?) threats, governments may justifiably infringe human rights based on – THEIR WORDS, NOT MINE, the so-called “State of Exception”. Apparently, American progressives have never heard of Carl Schmitt. The “state of exception” is a legal rationalization concocted to justify the most famous 20th Century example of state sanctioned non-judicial execution. The public got to read about it in the papers when suspicion began to mount. Dear old Carl wrote an article called, “The Führer Upholds the Law”. Citing a threat to destabilize the government by subversives led by Ernst Roehm, it justified the murder of about 150 “browns shirts”. But by piggy-backing and settling of old scores, the actual death toll may have exceeded 800. Such laws are ALWAYS abused.

    Also interesting is the fact that Alberto Gonzales and his cronies dragged out Schmitt’s juridical opinions to bolster their justifications for NDAA, the “Torture Memos”, and a host of other deviations from U.S. Constitutional law.

    The real question is whether or not we have slipped irreversibly into fascism. While the general public remains divided, there is a growing coterie of serious historians and scholars who are convinced that our own Reichstag Fire, the “New Pearl Harbor”, was a fraud. There seems to be more than a little skepticism among foreign academics. We in America have disdain for history of other nations, but abroad, not so much. I recommend Michael Parenti’s lecture on the murder of Julius Caesar (Youtube) for an archetypal analysis of “State Crimes Against Democracy”. When the history of America’s loss of moral authority and legitimacy is finally written, the historians who write it will not spare any animus. They will note only that Americans had not the courage to defend their own ideals.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 6, 2014 at 21:30

      I listened to Michael Parenti point out how we must ‘learn to read history against the grain’. I agree with the policy of not only reading the history, but knowing something about the historian presenting us with the history.

      Last year on JFK’s 50th anniversary of his assassination I could not get over the many media hacks (Bill O’Reilly, Chris Mathews, a few others) who had to make sure when they mentioned Kennedys name made sure to recall JFK’s womanizing. They also weren’t reluctant to bring up JFK’s slow response, has it were to Martin Luther Kings civil rights demands. Same pundits made sure on the Civil Rights Acts 50th anniversary to credit LBJ as being one who got that bill passed. Never a mention about LBJ’s womanizing (even though in real life he bragged about his many a conquest), but there these so called journalist of our day made sure they applauded ever so loudly LBJ’s War on Proverty’…as if everyone since has gotten rich since that war was declared!

      As much as you losing your civil rights…well then just look around you & that will be your answer.

      The world could now only be so lucky as to get another Julius Caesar!

      Listen to Michael Parenti on the JFK assassination:

    • Gregory Kruse
      October 8, 2014 at 13:17

      I recently saw a cartoon of three men sitting in a bar, each with a glass of liquor. The first, labelled an optimist, saw the glass as half-full, the pessimist saw his as half-empty, and the one labelled “pragmatist” asked the bartender if he could get a twist.

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