Are human rights treaties a scam

Few events have shaped human history like the French Revolution has. France has seen many revolts and also full-blown revolutions. Still, as soon as I say the very words, you will immediately and correctly associate them with the events that found their first high watermark in the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789.

Together with the Great English Revolution and the Russian Revolution that toppled the Romanov family, it is one of the big defining moments in the history of humanity and the human condition.

The French Revolution was no short affair of a few days or weeks. Historians still argue about when it started and ended. However, there is widespread consensus that it continued producing its effects and morphing in nature for about a decade. It saw horrible atrocities like the Great Terror when thousands had their heads chopped off by the dreaded guillotine.

But the French Revolution is also known for a text that has since been an integral part of the French order of Constitutional Law. The brand-new National Assembly proclaimed the Declaration of Human Rights and Citizens on August 26, 1789.

This was not the first time that an attempt at defining a calendar or list of fundamental human rights that would apply to all individuals equally was made. Talk about Human Rights goes back a long time – or at least so we think.

The United Nations refers to the Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient text by the Persian Great King and conqueror Cyrus that supposedly defines the first such catalog of fundamental rights of all humans.

Never mind that the ancient world about 2500 years ago when Cyrus conquered his empire did not have a concept of universal personality. Society was strictly divided into higher and lower classes and depending on what class you belonged to, you either had an appreciable number of rights and freedoms or none at all. What rights did a slave ever have?

As there was no universal definition of personality, there was no concept of human rights. Cyrus was a product of his time. He did not conquer the largest empire ever seen through nice words and singing Kumbah Yah. Cyrus killed, maimed, burned, raped, and pillaged his way through what is today the Middle East and Central Asia with an absolute disregard for any human life just like any great conqueror did at the time and later. He enslaved millions and never flinched from exterminating entire cities down to the last dog if this served his purpose of conquest.

Thats what he did before he reached Babylon, the biggest, richest, and most prestigious price on his conquistadorial route. But although the neo-Babylonian empire under Nabonidus had seen better days, it was still a mighty opponent with a long tradition of independence and revolt against any outside domination as the Assyrians knew all too well. Cyrus needed a psychological victory which he achieved in two parts.

First, he met the Babylonian army at the city of Opis – just north of Babylon. There, he not only defeated them but massacred every living soul and made sure that the elites of Babylon would get the message. Messing with Cyrus was no good idea. The second part was the hint of a political deal under which he would allow the Babylonians to carry on with their ways as long as they accepted Persian suzerainty and paid their tributes.

The Cyrus Cylinder says that the Babylonian population opened their doors willingly and welcomed Cyrus as their liberator when in fact they had little choice. They knew what Cyrus would do to them if they resisted. The Cyrus Cylinder was not even redacted by Cyrus or some confidant of his. It was a text conjured up by the Babylonian high priests as a testament to the deal they had with the ruthless conqueror.

They very likely wanted to make sure they could have the best deal possible in a very dangerous situation and hold their overlord to it. As said, Cyrus had a gruesome reputation, and who knows what he would have done to the city had they resisted any further.

The cylinder was conserved in the Esagila, the temple of the Babylonian city god Marduk, where it was found in 1879 by the archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in what was at the time the Ottoman Empire.

Today, the Cyrus Cylinder is recognized to be the first declaration of Human Rights and is cited by many human rights activists and scholars. A replica of the cylinder was donated by the Shah of Iran to the United Nations and is being kept at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Why such a long story? Because it pays to understand how this story came together as the human rights story of the Cyrus cylinder is made up. It is the result of an erroneous translation that was made right after its discovery towards the end of the 19th century.

The translation claims that no one who does not want to shall be forced to live under the rule of Cyrus. We know from historical research that Cyrus did not take kindly to opposition to his rule, so this was a sham. It is also supposed to say that slavery was abolished and that religious freedom was instituted. Ancient societies were built on slave labor. That was true for any culture especially the great empires as their massive construction projects would not have been possible without armies of slaves.

Ancient Persia was a product of its time which means that slavery was ubiquitous. The concept of personal freedom for everyone did not even exist as such. And what concerns religious freedom, the cylinder says that Babylon’s God Marduk proclaimed Cyrus to be its ruler to save the city, its ways, and religious traditions from the man’s wrath. No generalized religious freedom can be discerned from the cylinder that an individual could have invoked.

So, the Cyrus Cylinder as the first treaty of Human rights is a sham as it was never intended to be such a thing and also does not contain text to this end. But what about all the other documents? What about the countless Human Rights Declarations and Treaties that have been created – some say discovered?

Human Rights are a peculiar part of any legal system. Any self-respecting liberal democracy refers to one or a whole slew of documents that are supposed to produce individual rights for the people living on the territories of that country.

But even if we assume the intentions of those creating those documents in the first place to have been pure and truly selfless – and that’s a big IF – the record in the real world is mostly poor or even very poor.

It all comes down to whether the human right in question preserves an individual guarantee of liberty such as the protection of personal property or the right to refuse medical treatments one does not agree with. Or if it creates a right to complain, to blame, or to exploit such as the right to a basic income.

The one protects the individual from being harmed whereas the other seeks to redress perceived social injustices. And this second group is a can of worms that once opened has no logical end as injustices always exist in the eye of the beholder. The right to be aggrieved supposes that there is some mushy definition of some form of aggriever even if such an aggriever cannot sensibly be discerned.

But someone needs to provide redress and that always comes down to money. Human Rights have become a money-making scheme for those who believe they can. And they have become a tool for nations with human rights records that make even hardened criminals blush to smear those who at least give the notion of fundamental rights a good try however flawed those attempts might turn out to be in the end.

What are fundamental rights? Something in the ether or a set of tools against those who can violate you.

I argue it should be the second but all too often it’s the first.

When we talk about relationships between citizens and their offshoots such as companies or associations, the regular laws governing those relationships usually should suffice. At least theoretically, citizens confront each other in court based on equality.

I am not going to elaborate on inequalities that might be perceived due to financial imbalances. As a legal professional, I have argued more than one case successfully where I spoke for the financially much less potent party. Money plays a role, but good preparation can negate that.

The one counterparty against which you as a citizen are if not helpless then at least on a much weaker footing is public authorities is the state. These include everything from governments to legislatures and even the court system plus all their emanations down to independent regulatory bodies. Those legal entities have powers incomparable to any other entity. The state has the power to beat criminals and even noncriminals through public safety rules and taxation.

The only choice you have is to leave the country you don’t agree with and sometimes not even that. Such a stark reality requires a set of tools that allows the citizen to defend against an overbearing state. It’s the government that should fear the citizens, not the citizens that should fear the government.

Pretty declarations don’t get us there. Creating redresses for perceived social injustices will create more injustice than they are supposed to repair.

Human Rights are a construct that emanates from a socio-cultural setting and a lot of historicity. The French Revolutions created a set of rules that needed decades, in some cases centuries of fleshing out by courts and subsequent legislatures. And the journey is not over. But it’s a French journey. It’s hard to transpose those rules to another country or society that does not share the same legacy.

So it is for any country on Earth. If a country has never had any such set of rules or has no regard for its citizens, it will use such rules in an international context for its nefarious ends. But there is no situation of equality and will most likely never be.

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations should be scraped. The United Nations Declaration of Fundamental Rights likewise. It is not a legislature that has grown out of a socio-cultural context and that can back it up with force. So, it’s empty words. Except that, it’s used by those with an execrable human rights record to shame those with a fairly acceptable one. The world does not need a human rights declaration. Countries need clear rules for citizens to beat the state if it overreaches.

I would call total transparency a fundamental right. The governed should be able to know down to the cent what happens with their money. Term limits would be another one to prevent a permanent political caste from forming. Those are only two examples.

Lofty declarations without clear and useable rules for the citizens are useless. And international treaties that try to form a body of rights that would apply to everyone equally are useless at best – and dangerous at worst.

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