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Human rights concepts in the OSCE region: changes since the Helsinki Final Act

Aaron Rhodes

11 April 2017




The Helsinki Accords resonated with dissident movements in the Soviet Bloc that had reconstructed a classical liberal approach to human rights. Human rights campaigns on both sides of the Iron Curtain emphasized civil and political rights. But human rights revisionism, expanding the scope of human rights, was growing in international institutions. In 1993, the international community embraced the concept of the ‘indivisibility’ of human rights. An expansive, ‘post-modern’ vision of human rights de-emphasized the protection of basic individual freedoms, while expanding global regulation. A strong moral and political challenge to classical human rights has emerged in the form of Eurasianism, a statist doctrine that denies the existence of universal human rights and insists that each culture has its own values. The idea of human rights as protections for basic freedoms, diluted and weakened over decades by assaults and compromises, may lack the moral clarity needed to confront the Eurasian challenge.



Human rights protections have been a cornerstone of the political commitments shared by the participating States of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE – before 1994 the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) since the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. Principle VII called for ‘respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of choice, religion, or belief’. The Final Act referred to both civil and political rights, and economic and social rights: the participating States would ‘promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development’. But the dynamic element in the Helsinki Accords – what aroused hopes and actions in civil society – has always been classical human rights, the ‘negative liberties’ that compelled governments to respect fundamental individual rights and freedoms. The Helsinki Accords committed the participating States to ‘confirm the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties’. They thus implied that those fundamental freedoms needed to be honoured if respect for other rights was to be realized; that is, they established a priority for basic freedoms as opposed to welfare rights. During the Cold War, liberal democracies tended to focus on civil and political rights, while communist states claimed priority for economic and social rights, whose legitimacy within the international system had been assured by their inclusion in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Key human rights concepts promoted mainly by the Soviet Bloc and Third World countries, including the ‘indivisibility of human rights’ and the ‘right to development’, gained ground. But the civil society human rights communities on both sides of the Iron Curtain tended to emphasize civil and political rights. Activists in the Soviet Bloc held diverse and often inchoate views on the philosophy of human rights, but rediscovered the fundamental precepts of classical liberalism in their principled confrontation with totalitarian regimes. Focusing on civil liberties, they framed human rights work as a scientific activity based on objective standards and facts, primarily aimed at holding states accountable for protecting individual freedoms.

With the end of the Cold War, the international community more strongly embraced elements of the Soviet concept of human rights – a much broader human rights agenda than that suggested by the Helsinki Final Act. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights resulted in consensus – essentially a political compromise – on balancing the ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ versions of human rights, attempting to resolve contradictions between the social and economic rights propounded by socialist states and the individual liberties favoured in the West. While the post–Cold War Helsinki human rights community has generally focused on individual civil and political rights, the global human rights movement has moved towards collective, social and economic rights, embracing an expansive vision of freedom as dependent on positive state actions, not simply state restraint. There has also been a trend towards restricting fundamental freedoms in deference to the goals of tolerance and community values.

Today, the Helsinki human rights principles of individual intellectual and political freedom face a renewed challenge in the form of the ‘Eurasian’ doctrine, articulated mainly by Russian political philosopher Alexandr Dugin and founded largely on teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. Eurasianism challenges the very idea of universal human rights, promoting instead the notion that particular societies and nations have their own human rights values, a position often taken by many authoritarian states over the past decades, including those in Central Asia. Freedom is seen not as the possibility for individual initiative and a posture of critical independence from the state, but rather in an embrace of national authority, identity and purpose. On the global scene, more and more governments are adopting a similar approach, driving a movement that not only opposes economic neoliberalism but promotes a human rights concept based on providing security via positive state actions, while de-emphasizing individual freedoms by balancing them against other objectives.


Human rights and ideology during the Cold War

Dissident human rights concepts

During the Cold War, and to an extent inspired by the Helsinki Final Act, a unique and original human rights discourse emerged from Soviet and East European dissent and has shaped the approach of the global civil society human rights community. The human rights doctrines of the Soviet-era dissident human rights movement, as a subset of a diffuse, highly diverse field of dissenting groups and individuals, cannot easily be described, and even its still-living members exhibit a certain habitual opacity. The lines between ‘human rights’ movements and a wider range of initiatives composed of people seeking reform, autonomy, or the downfall of the Soviet system have never been clear. Some dissidents had no concern for human rights and held views antithetical to human rights. The dissident human rights movement, in general, consisted of those who worked for the realization of the rights and freedoms of others from an inclusive and non-ideological perspective, referring to national and international law and political agreements as standards defining state obligations.

Soviet dissidents reinvented human rights for themselves, according to Ludmilla Alexeyeva (1985, 267ff.), a historian and founder and current chief of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who has been among the Soviet human rights movement’s primary ‘participant-observers’. Dissenting human rights activists had limited or no access to the philosophical and legal literature that informs the human rights tradition. Especially in the early years of the movement, they also had little or no contact with civil society human rights formations in the West. They did not take over existing interpretations of the concept of human rights, but constructed the meaning of human rights for themselves in the face of antithetical conditions in which basic liberties were denied, and in relative isolation. Their posture has been characterized as one of ‘moral idealism’ (Barghoorn 1966, 47). The members of the Soviet human rights movement tended to promote human rights for its own sake. An analyst writing during the Cold War noted: ‘Dissent in Soviet society has an existential stance: the inner need of the individual to speak or act in the name of ideals, even when no concrete means exist to realize them [as a] moral compulsion’ (Kadarkay 1982, 168ff.).

In this regard, their stance was consistent with the idea of the need for moral constraints on civil law, and the nature of freedom, originating in classical Greek philosophy. The Stoic philosophers had distinguished between natural law and civil law; civil law, the laws promulgated by states and legislatures, needed to be consistent with the moral requirements of human nature. The law needed to respect the sanctity of the individual. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle took freedom to mean primarily the ability to make choices, the quality that distinguishes humans from animals, which is thus a pillar of and essential to the fulfilment of human nature. Martin Palous, a philosopher and a leader in the Czechoslovak human rights movement Charter 77, considered that freedom in its ‘positive, classical sense’ exists in ‘public acts based on initiative’ (Tucker 2000, 120–121). In the classical liberal view of human rights formed by Immanuel Kant and John Locke, freedom is an end in itself, a key to the fulfilment of human potential in the exercise of reason, free will and moral agency. Freedom, in turn, does not exist unless it is exercised and allowed to be exercised. Kant said that freedom is what bestows dignity on a person – if human rights are to protect dignity, they must first and foremost guarantee freedom. In classical human rights doctrine, protecting freedom is a moral duty.

In a publication that followed his exile in the US, Soviet human rights advocate Valery Chalidze (1984, 3) wrote that the dissidents’ struggle for freedom was ‘limited to advancing freedom of speech, recognition of the rule of law, and due process’. ‘Freedom means accepting responsibility for one’s own behavior and future’ and ‘the need to free oneself from the belief in the possibility of a perfect social system’ (Chalidze 1975, 4). For intellectuals like Chalidze, freedom meant not only the exercise of reason and choice in the face of an oppressive, controlling state, but also freedom from natural desires that impinge on intellectual and moral integrity.

The dissident human rights movement reconstructed classical human rights principles also with regard to the ‘utility’ of human rights. In defending freedom, human rights activity was thus not a means to other ends, but an end in itself. Human rights work was not conceived as a ‘practical’ or ‘realist’ activity, associated with clear ‘objectives’ and ‘results’. It was also generally clear that the human right to freedom was a universal individual right – clear because Marxist-Leninist doctrine, while incorporating the word ‘freedom’ for manipulative political purposes, qualified its meaning with denunciations of ‘arbitrary’ individual wishes, and the obligation to conform to the interests of the majority.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group, one of the first to follow the Moscow Helsinki Group’s lead, concerned itself largely with preserving the national and cultural traditions of Ukraine, but it also stressed individual rights. ‘A Manifesto of the Ukrainian Human Rights Movement’, from 1977, in a rare explicit reference to classical human rights doctrine, claimed that ‘the state does not bestow a right on a citizen, but only defends a person’s natural right’. The law ‘should provide for the primacy of the individual’ and be ‘the guarantor of the freedom and sovereignty of the individual’ (Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group 1977, 93ff.). In a manner typical of numerous national human rights movements, therefore, Ukrainian activists saw no contradiction between the idea of individual rights and a primary concern for preserving Ukrainian national identity.

Political diversity was a principle of both the Charter 77 movement in communist Czechoslovakia and the Soviet dissenting human rights groups. This inclusiveness was, in effect, a laboratory for the viability of human rights as a unifying principle. To enjoy human rights meant that one’s freedom to think, reason and judge was honoured, but in a sense human rights was ‘empty’ of particular visions of what a society must do to be good. Dissident Soviet human rights activists defended the rights of all, including varieties of Marxists and Czarists who themselves did not believe in civil liberties, and members of ethnic-national movements whose concern was only for members of their own group, not respect for individual rights as such. Human rights defenders also defended Slavophile, anti-rationalist and anti-Western extremists; in doing so, they separated questions of ideological politics from human rights, recognizing that all are entitled to basic freedoms.

When we examine the intellectual character of the dissident human rights movement, its scientific approach emerges as a key element. Andrey Sakharov, Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Yuri Orlov, as well as figures like Václav Havel, among others, approached human rights as intellectuals, and in numerous cases as trained physical or social scientists, and while they were clearly motivated by moral principles, they approached the question of human rights largely detached from political passions. A dissident intellectual was one who strived to live where one could search for truth, as opposed to an environment of ‘ritualistic ideological automatism’ (Tucker 2000, 116). To do so was morally necessary to defend individual human rights. The Chronicle of Human Events, a primary samizdat or self-published underground newsletter initiated in 1968, had a scientific, factual, dispassionate style. Human rights was seen as a moral and intellectual discipline of self-depoliticization. For the human rights dissident, this was an ‘authentic life’, a free life ‘in truth’, as opposed to one in which thoughts and actions are understood as expressions of an all-determining collective identity (Tucker 2000, 173).

The scientific approach of the dissident human rights movement was given new impetus by the Helsinki Accords. The contradiction between these political commitments and the reality of existence in Eastern Bloc states, where those human rights were not respected in any way, was stark. Human rights analysis thus required objectively measuring the behaviour of a state against the principles and standards to which a government had committed itself by signing the Helsinki Final Act. The effectiveness of human rights activity rested on objectivity; bias stemming from either support of or opposition to the state would distort and discredit results.

The Soviet Initiative Group for Human Rights, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia saw their mandates as assisting the state to abide by the Helsinki Final Act, and they also sought dialogue on their findings and concerns with the communist authorities. Closely associated with the scientific ethos of politically neutral and independent civil society human rights activity was the principle of ‘legalism’, a view of law as an objective framework imposing obligations not only on citizens but also on the state. The formation of these human rights concepts was – again – a matter of negating the Soviet legal perspective that Chalidze (1975, 4) described as the ‘subordination of law to ideology’. As such, they emerged as an indigenous form of procedural liberalism.

This brings us finally to the issue of non-partisanship, the political stance of most dissident human rights defenders, which has been suggested by a number of the preceding points. The insistence on a firm distinction between human rights activity and political activity was a common refrain, and one that has, in varying degrees, been embraced, yet often betrayed, by the post–Cold War international human rights movement. The main currents of Soviet human rights activity did not seek ‘regime change’, or even any specific political outcome, but rather, as indicated above, a respect for individual rights and freedoms, as protected by law. Charter 77, for example, was explicitly not a base for oppositional political activity, and had no programme of political reform or distinctive political agenda; its main philosophical proponent, Jan Patočka, considered the movement an ‘apolitical act’ (Tucker 2000, 120). Leaders like Sakharov demonstrated their political neutrality, for example by demonstrating not only against Soviet violations of human rights but also against American policies like the war in Vietnam. Yuri Orlov, a practicing physicist and founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, clarified in a conversation with the author in the late 1990s that human rights should not be about ‘what’ but rather about ‘how’.

It is fair to say that most Soviet-era human rights defenders showed little genuine interest in economic and social rights, or rejected the concept altogether; nonetheless, significant figures in the movement have taken such rights seriously, and categorical assertions are unwarranted. Chalidze, whose views are clearly liberal, wrote that civil and political rights are universal, while economic, social and cultural rights ‘depend largely on a particular economic and social system’ (Chalidze and Schifter 1988, 28); that is, such rights should be respected according to public choices based on democratic processes within particular societies. Economic and social rights were part of the realm of positive law, but not the natural law upon which human rights were based.
But the dissident human rights community generally left such conclusions within a strategic silence, not openly criticizing economic and social rights but generally ignoring them. Chalidze attributed this to ideological ‘inertia’ and to a deep sympathy with the goals of socialism, despite the abuses of the communist state. He wrote that although economic and social rights had been included among those set forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to ‘placate’ the Soviet Union, and reflected ‘Soviet propaganda’ (Chalidze and Schifter 1988, 5), with a few exceptions, they were never a target of significant invective by the Western human rights community. Avoiding doctrinal human rights controversies that abutted fundamental political disputes was consistent with the effort to keep human rights advocacy and politics separate.


The Cold War human rights debate

The Cold War, while a period of intense military preparedness and bloody proxy wars, was in large part an ideological and philosophical war between Soviet communism and Western capitalism. To an extent, the Cold War was also a conflict about the meaning of human rights. The forces of state socialism, while losing ground through the processes that culminated in the collapse of communist regimes, nevertheless managed to set in motion significant changes in the international human rights machinery based on collectivist and redistributionist concepts.

Domestic Western activists campaigning for the rights of people behind the Iron Curtain were generally in agreement in their focus on civil and political rights, while social and economic rights were largely discredited by their highly problematic implementation in communist societies. The American human rights organization Helsinki Watch was founded to monitor implementation of the Helsinki Accords and to support the Moscow Helsinki Group, Charter 77 and other similar organizations behind the Iron Curtain. In addition, the Soviet and Western human rights groups, including Amnesty International, shared not only a primary interest in civil and political rights, but also a rigorous non-partisanship.

At the United Nations, a vivid political confrontation of the differences between the two categories of rights had eventually led to the promulgation of two separate human rights treaties in which the ‘mixed bag’ of principles contained in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights were codified into international law. The decision for separate treaties was considered a victory for the proponents of classical human rights and for legal scholars and jurists who argued that social and human rights could not be adjudicated in the same manner as civil and political rights. It was a victory for those who considered social and economic rights ‘aspirational’ but not functional, like legal, international human rights – they were a different kind of human right – a position typically taken by American diplomats during the Cold War and even today, for example.

The ideological Cold War was a period of serious and open discussion about the meaning of human rights in terms of fundamental philosophical, legal and economic principles. An era of ‘alternative human rights’, or human rights revisionism, emerged, challenging the narrow classical liberal interpretation. Believing that human rights had been used as a political club against them, the Eastern Bloc as well as Third World states in turn took up human rights as a weapon in their conflicted dealings with Western liberal democracies. In April and May 1968, the UN held an International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran. The Tehran conference had serious consequences for the concept of human rights: an ‘expansion of human rights to cover nearly every concern of the Global South’ (Whelan 2010, 144). While neither its Proclamation nor its Final Act addressed the problem of protecting freedoms, they strongly promoted placing economic, social and cultural rights, and the ‘right to development’, at the centre of the UN human rights agenda. At the conference, the Iranian delegation insisted that ‘the promotion of human rights was directly related to economic and social progress’ (quoted in Whelan 2010, 146). Similar language appeared in the conference’s Final Act, which asserted, in Article 17, ‘a profound inter-connection between the realization of human rights and economic development’.

Perhaps most significantly, the Tehran International Conference on Human Rights revealed how the concept of the ‘indivisibility’ of freedom rights and economic and social rights would emerge as a lever to encourage international transfers for ‘development’, as well as one that would be a tactical tool for contextualizing and reducing criticism of violations of freedoms. The Final Proclamation of the conference stated: ‘Since human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, the full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights is impossible’ (Whelan 2010).

In 1977, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 32/130, ‘Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means within the UN for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’. The resolution endorsed the Tehran position on the relationship between the different kinds of human rights, repeating that ‘the full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights is impossible’. Indeed, driving the concept of human rights further into the realm of economic policy, it called for a ‘new international economic order’. According to legal scholar Moses Moskowitz (1979, 122), the resolution passed with ‘patently ideological and political support’. Another critic said the resolution made it possible ‘for any developing country to defend itself against charges of human rights violations by replying that it hadn’t received adequate foreign aid’ (Adams 1984, 119) – the argument being that granting civil and political rights without the financial means to provide social and economic rights would only lead to political conflict and instability.

Democratic states did not vote against Resolution 32/130 but merely abstained. It passed with the support of 123 states, none voting against, a sign of reluctance to defend a concept of human rights centred on fundamental freedoms. In fact, Western powers, seeking to avoid any impression of insouciance about the poverty that has plagued citizens of Third World countries, have rarely openly criticized the concept of economic and social rights or the notion of the indivisibility of human rights. Many signed the International Convention on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, including the US under President Jimmy Carter (although the US has yet to ratify it).

The most notable criticism of conceptual changes in human rights occurring in the UN system came from the US during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, a period of intense confrontation with the USSR. American officials then forthrightly denied the legitimacy of economic and social rights, and the US government denounced regimes that tried to obfuscate restrictions on liberty with claims about honouring those rights. Reagan’s officials, who also forcefully defended Soviet human rights dissidents, even considered dropping the term ‘human rights’ altogether and replacing it with terms like ‘individual rights’, ‘political rights’ and ‘civil liberties’ (Lord 1984, 132), motivated by frustration with the growing ambiguity and exploitation of the term, which often included criticism of social and economic problems in the US. Debate over the nature of human rights was vivid and alive, as the limited focus on freedom rights based on natural law, that is, the basic approach to human rights represented by the Helsinki Accords, came under more intense pressure.


The post–Cold War, ‘post-modern’ UN human rights agenda

In 2005, speaking at a conference to commemorate the 1985 Alternative Cultural Forum in Budapest, János Kis (2006, 60), a prominent Hungarian political scientist and philosopher, said that while the dissident human rights movement ‘took the side of human rights universalism, they took it unreflectively, without being challenged to defend their position against relativistic objections’. The ‘anti-communist human rights movements’ had ‘failed to leave after them any tools to deal with [post-communism’s] ideological complexities’.

The dissident human rights movement, and indeed the broader human rights outlook associated with the Helsinki Final Act, had focused on what Kis termed the ‘non-controversial core of human rights’. But what might now be seen as the simplicity or innocence of the movement should, in fact, be an important point of reference in the face of the politicization and fragmentation of human rights after 1989. In his speech, Kis made reference to two major challenges faced by the concept of human rights that had emerged following the momentous changes that burst forth that year. One was a ‘post-modern’ challenge to the universality of human rights, a claim that the concept of human rights is simply a ‘local ideology’, and ‘socially constructed’ like all others; this gave rise to a range of ‘collectivist’ concepts, as opposed to the principle of universal individual human rights. The other was the claim that political action has no moral dimension, and is simply about power; human rights is, in this view, a political ideology and as such a strategy to gain power. For several decades following the end of communist regimes, human rights concepts were strongly affected by the first trend; in the present, regimes around the world increasingly turn to an ideology of power – often justified in the name of ‘human rights’.

In 1993, the UN organized the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, a profoundly influential meeting in which the international community put its imprimatur on a new vision of human rights, and one that contrasted broadly with both the focus on civil and political rights in the Helsinki Final Act, and the principled avoidance of ideological politics that Cold War–era dissident human rights defenders had upheld. Drawing on tendencies that had shown themselves in the formation and content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that had gathered strength in the Cold War period, the UN forcefully endorsed the concept of the indivisibility of human rights and declared that all human rights are equal, pulling the concept of human rights towards specific political orientations and holding it there as a fixed dogma. The new vision tilted heavily towards economic and social human rights; the records of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the lead-up to the conference show that promoting ‘indivisibility’ was a tactic to promote those rights (Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights 1993). In linking and balancing freedoms and services, it could be compatible with authoritarian regimes that aimed for a concept of human rights without individual civil and political freedom at its core.

This may be understood as a ‘post-modern’ approach to human rights because it embraced a profound scepticism of the long-standing binary oppositions that had structured human rights discourse since the Enlightenment: the distinction between the rights of individuals honoured by state restraint (negative liberties), and the material benefits to welfare made possible by positive state actions; the distinction between the obligations of states to protect human rights, and those of private citizens and independent institutions. Post-modernism proceeds from an assumption that objective truth does not exist, holding instead that truth is a social construction; its most radical proponents, like Michel Foucault (1991), have held that truth is produced by power. The post-modern human rights approach is ‘anti-foundational’. It has detached itself from the principle that universal human rights are founded on a common and eternal human nature, turning instead towards the ‘cultural relativist’ position that human rights can and should evolve as societies and their values change.

When opening the Vienna conference, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gali gave voice to this point of view when he observed that ‘the world is undergoing a metamorphosis,  … certainties are collapsing … the lines are becoming blurred’. He suggested that the conference would establish links between development, economic and social rights, and civil and political rights. Each cultural epoch, he said, has its own way of implementing human rights, which are ‘the ultimate measure of all politics’. He said that human rights are ‘both absolute and historically determined’ – that they ‘should evolve simultaneous with history’ yet would not cease to be ‘universal’ (Boutros-Gali 1993). The Secretary General’s speech can be interpreted as signifying that the concept of human rights depends on politics, as ‘only democracy can guarantee human rights’ (Boutros-Gali 1993). The post–Cold War, post-modern concept of human rights seemed one that could be adapted to what situations demanded.

Since the Vienna conference, the doctrine of the ‘indivisibility, interdependence and inter-relatedness’ of human rights has become a dogma that is commonly invoked to promote economic and social rights, and also exploited by authoritarian states to divert attention from denials of freedom. No human rights violation can be considered as an objective problem in and of itself; human rights problems can be endlessly contextualized and relativized, balanced against a wide range of other concerns. Some, including those who support a more equal distribution of resources, see in the increased emphasis on economic and social rights an undermining of the democratic processes by which societies should form social policies (Neier 2012, 81). But the World Conference established that poverty is a ‘violation of human dignity’ and fighting poverty is a human rights activity to be informed by human rights principles. Economic inequalities, a central challenge of any society, would be adjudicated by courts, as opposed to democratic action in legislatures. By emphasizing social and economic rights and promoting the view that positive state actions are how to realize them, the international community embraced and promoted the political position that government action, rather than restraint, was essential to realizing human rights.

The women’s rights movement emerged at Vienna to challenge entrenched forms of gender discrimination. But it also helped change the UN’s general approach to human rights, fuelling a redefinition of universality and perhaps even a redefinition of the human person – a person would, as a result, be seen largely as defined by subcategories of humanity – by sex, age, class, ethnicity, and so on. New treaties would need to be promulgated to rectify historical injustices to various groups. Another innovation resulted when women’s rights activists and diplomats branded the perpetrators of domestic violence human rights violators. Largely as a result, the primary responsibility of states to honour human rights was clouded over by the concept of violations by ‘non-state actors’, that is, civilians being held culpable for human rights violations. The distinction between crimes and human rights violations was blurred.

Finally, human rights also became more internally contradictory. The 1993 conference ushered in an era in which a number of putative human rights, chiefly protection from intolerance and xenophobia, came into conflict with freedom of thought, conscience and speech, thus seriously weakening respect for these primary human rights. No one can deny that intolerance and xenophobia are unhealthy and potentially dangerous, and that they are often associated with human rights violations and crimes. In the years since the 1993 conference, however, international human rights intergovernmental machinery, governments and civil society, including the OSCE, have poured resources into ‘combating intolerance and xenophobia’, focusing on prejudicial attitudes among citizens. In recent years, eradicating ‘Islamophobia’, for example, has become a central objective, while efforts to end ‘hate speech’ are today a high priority for international human rights institutions. Their legal foundation lies in Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that ‘Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.’ In negotiating this treaty during the Cold War, Western diplomats had vigorously opposed the use of such vague language, which they said could be misused to silence politically dissenting voices, but the measure passed, with the support of the Soviet Union and other repressive states (Mchangama 2011). Today, all European states have hate speech legislation. In addition, since the early 1990s and the Vienna conference, and especially among the most developed democracies, a strong human rights trend has been towards restricting and imposing ‘politically correct’ bans on forms of speech.

Since the 1993 Vienna conference, a main task of the official UN human rights apparatus has been to promote the notion of the indivisibility of human rights and the other elements of the Vienna Declaration, indeed, to act as an ‘enforcer’ of the doctrine; the issues debated during the Cold War are no longer considered open issues. The international human rights community has also increasingly focused on global regulation of economies. For example, in a letter to UN delegations, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay (2013), outlined the principles that should animate a ‘post-2015’ human rights agenda. The principles include ‘substantive equality of both opportunity and result under the rule of law’. Substantive equality of result is a blatantly political goal that depends on an ideological political programme for its achievement, and is clearly at variance with the principle that human rights should be politically neutral. A human rights ‘establishment’ has emerged, joined by both civil society and governmental actors, which, following the strategic compromises of the Vienna conference, has absorbed a number of the central human rights doctrines promoted by the Soviet Union. To a large extent, therefore, it can be argued that human rights has lost the dissident movement’s charismatic association with the non-partisan struggle for freedom, and become a slogan of indistinct meaning, one that could be attached to an ever-widening range of demands, and even the practices of the worst dictatorships on Earth. Human rights has lost the clarity that gave the Helsinki Final Act its power to inspire those seeking freedom.


Eurasianism: an anti-modern challenge to liberal human rights doctrines

With the prevailing idea of human rights having become diffuse and contradictory, and intellectual human rights discourse thwarted by dogmatism promoted by UN institutions, its deepest foundations have been challenged from within the broad OSCE community of participating States. Eurasianism, as a political idea, has commonly stood for a long-standing Russian vision of a blending of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ cultures and political values. Eurasia has come into sharper focus in the context of reborn conflict between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic political community following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine, events that have suggested the emergence of a ‘second Cold War’. Recently the word has been associated with an ambitious vision in which Russia and other former Soviet states will be ideologically united with European societies by a common determination to govern according to their own national traditions, excluding the fundamental liberal democratic principles that are enshrined in the international human rights system, and eschewing the political values of ‘neoliberal’ Atlanticism. A number of opposition political parties in Europe have embraced the political vision of Eurasia (Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute 2014).

Eurasia thus stands for an exceptionalism as regards international human rights, one claimed for societies considered part of the Russian cultural space, yet one that can be embraced by other societies as well. It invokes familiar ‘cultural relativism’ arguments that are also made by numerous states in other regions in justifying rejection of universal human rights standards. But while the Eurasian political idea and its human rights components, largely carried by leaders of the Russian Federation and allied states, is generally expressed in defensive postures against criticisms of human rights practices, it is also increasingly a positive doctrine about human rights and freedoms. Eurasianism may be considered ‘anti-modern’, invoking the primacy of national traditions and cultural identity and a conservative Orthodox Christianity, as opposed to a vision of a universal obligation to protect individual freedom and civil society based on a common human nature, that is, the vision of human rights informed by Enlightenment rationalism.


The Eurasian human rights vision

The Eurasian human rights doctrine has formed itself around a harsh critique of post-modernism, and as an antithesis to globalized human rights values; few if any references to international legal human rights obligations may be found in explanations of the Eurasian approach to human rights, as if they are of no import whatsoever. Yet the Eurasian approach to human rights is consistent with several trends inspired by principles the international community embraced at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. A primary source for the Eurasian approach to human rights lies in initiatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2008, the church published Basic Principles of the Russian Church Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom, and Rights (Russian Orthodox Church 2008). The document was developed with the assistance of Dugin, who has emerged as the primary intellectual architect of Eurasianism and a significant influence on President Vladimir Putin and the Russian political and religious elite. Dugin stated that the tract was ‘designed to influence the legal model of the Russian state’ (Siskova 2008).

According to the Basic Principles, it is legitimate for the state to limit freedom of expression, since ‘public statements and declarations should not further the propagation of sin or generate strife and disorder in society’, thus mixing political and religious or moral rationales for restricting speech. Blasphemy ‘shall not be justified by the rights of the artist, writer, or journalist’. The document states that ‘it is especially dangerous to insult religious and national feelings, [or] to distort information about the life of particular religious communities, nations, social groups and personalities’. The church thus expanded a position on insulting religion that has been strongly promoted both by opponents of anti-Semitism and by Islamic regimes, fusing it with and thus sacralizing ‘patriotic’ feelings. The Basic Principles praise citizen participation in government as long as it is supportive of the government, but ‘the use of political and civil rights should not lead to divisions and enmity’. The Basic Principles refer to an ‘Orthodox tradition of conciliarity’ which ‘implies the preservation of social unity on the basis of intransient moral values. The Church calls upon people to restrain their egoistic desires for the sake of the common good.’ Following on this theme of unity, in a section on ‘Collective Rights’, the document states that ‘the rights of an individual should not be destructive for the unique way of life and traditions of the family and for various religious, national and social communities’. It further states:

Unity and inter-connection between civil and political, economic and social, individual and collective human rights can promote a harmonious order of societal life both on the national and international level. The social value and effectiveness of the entire human rights system depend on the extent to which it helps to create conditions for personal growth in the God-given dignity and relates to the responsibility of a person for his actions before God and his neighbours.

The Basic Principles thus incorporate a notion of the ‘indivisibility of human rights’ which, as noted above, obscures a fundamental distinction between ‘negative liberties’ and positive state actions and was the lynchpin of the Vienna Declaration, suggesting and indeed encouraging a larger state role in promoting human rights, rights conceived as dependent on conditions that can only be provided when the state assumes an activist role, as opposed to one of constraint. The theme of collective rights is further extended in the Basic Principles to apply to the rights of a ‘civilization’ (à la Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ theory) to its own values, in effect suggesting Eurasia’s cultural relativism: ‘Civilizations should not impose their lifestyle patterns on other civilizations.’ If one takes the Basic Principles as a key to Russian human rights policy, they thus include a frank rejection of the concept of universal human rights standards in favour of a particular Russian approach, that is, a strong cultural relativism.

Dugin, to whom we will refer in more detail below, has stated, ‘I am deeply convinced that the conception of human rights varies from one culture to another, from one society to another, inasmuch as the very concept of the person varies’ (Coalson 2008). From this perspective, the Russian nation and culture is different from others, and thus Russia naturally has its own concept of human rights. At a news conference on 17 April 2014, President Putin himself reportedly stated that ‘the powerful genetic code of the Russian nation, that makes us Russians, is different from other nations and especially compared to the so-called Western genetic code’. Putin ominously continued by asserting that a feature of the ‘Russian genetic code’ is the ability ‘to die for the common cause publicly, in front of the eyes of the community’ (Illarionov 2014).

These statements suggest a form of traditional Russian ethnic or cultural nationalism. Filling an ideological void that had existed since the end of state socialism, numerous Russian intellectuals and political leaders have embraced the notion of Russia as an ethnic nation, in which, according to one of the fathers of Russian nationalism, Alexander Herzen (1812–70), ‘the purpose of individual work was to aggrandize Russian culture’ (Greenfeld 1992, 243). Putin’s statements about the irrelevance of nationality and his stated goal of creating a ‘single cultural space’ have broad, worrisome implications for the protection of minority rights in a country with 180 different ethnic groups. Putin’s statement could be interpreted as indicating an effort ‘to undercut nationality as such for Russians by promoting a more expansive definition of Russianness’ (Goble 2014a).


From political to cultural control

The emergence of a distinctly Eurasian approach to human rights in the Russian Federation is evident in changing patterns of human rights violations. Especially since 2000, the Russian Federation has become a ‘managed democracy’, meaning that obstacles have been constructed to prevent profound political change, impede conflict and encourage political loyalty. Public opinion on political questions is strongly influenced by a dominant state-controlled media, while only a small number of independent media have escaped closure. Citizens’ groups and journalists who have made independent investigations of government practices with critical results have been met with harsh treatment, including assassinations; and new legislation has severely restricted the ability of nongovernmental organizations to receive and use funds from foreign donors (the Foreign Agents Law, a term with extremely negative connotations of dangerous espionage by hostile powers), changes that have impacted organizations seeking to monitor human rights. While the court system had made significant steps towards professionalism and independence after the end of the USSR, it is moving back towards being an instrument of the state, and is far from able to ensure justice, particularly in politically sensitive cases of conflict between individuals and the authorities.

Human rights violations in the Russian Federation, particularly in the past 10 years, have evolved in the direction of restricting freedoms, with the aim not only to secure political hegemony but also to forge cultural, religious and spiritual harmony and unity. Censorship has developed from a mechanism mainly aimed at suppressing oppositional political voices to one also shielding citizens from a range of ideas, images and texts thought to conflict with the dominant cultural and religious values. The Internet has come under new restrictions, with an increasing number of sites blacklisted by the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecommunications, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor). While the number of mass media outlets not under tight government control had been very small for years, those remaining few have come under more pressure, some leading to closure. At the same time, there has been a further consolidation of mass media in the hands of owners loyal to the government. Legislation has been prepared to make it a crime to ‘allow publications of false anti-Russian information’ (Moscow Times, 7 March 2014).

New bans on products are aimed at removing influences seen as incompatible with Russian religious and moral values. Russian politicians have recommended banning advertising for condoms, pregnancy tests and birth control medications; on the import of medical equipment and telephones produced abroad; and on artistic and literary works that ‘romanticize the criminal world’ (Goble 2014b). A bill to protect children from information that ‘denies or distorts patriotism’ has been introduced, patriotism being defined as ‘the love of the fatherland, devotion to it, striving to serve its interests through one’s action’ (Moscow Times, 11 May 2014).

Reference can also be made to the Russian government’s efforts to suppress public displays and support for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. Homosexuality and the obscuring of gender differences appears to be a central concern of Eurasianism as articulated by Dugin, who has devoted considerable analysis to what he considers an unnatural and corrupt ‘post-modern’ tendency in Western societies to break down clear divisions between the sexes, resulting in the phenomenon of the ‘transhuman’ person (Dugin 2012, 191). Russian legislation has outlawed ‘homosexual propaganda’, infringing on a number of fundamental civil and political rights. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are among the other states adopting or considering similar legislation (Human Rights First 2014). In December 2014, the Russian government named being transgender, bi-gender, asexual and cross-dressing personality disorders that disqualify a person from holding a driver’s license (Human Rights First 2015).


Freedom according to an ideology of state power

As noted in the foregoing, during the Cold War, dissident human rights defenders in the Soviet Bloc found freedom in principled actions on behalf of victims of a totalitarian system, a vision of freedom as moral courage and will guided by independent rationality. Since the 1975 Helsinki Accords and into the post–Cold War era, the international human rights system has expanded the boundaries of human rights in the direction of positive state obligations aimed at creating material security as a condition for freedom. Today’s Russia-led Eurasianism poses an antithesis to classical liberalism with a vision of freedom as cultural harmony and as unity between the state and the individual.

During the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council, in June 2014, Belarusian Ambassador Mikhail Khvostov, when confronted with a report alleging serious violations of basic freedoms and rule of law, said that his government had been successful at ‘organizing the political life of society’, that the legal system is ‘secondary to politics’, and that ‘without politics there is no purpose and without purpose there is no state’. The state, Khvostov submitted, ‘is the guarantor of our system of values and way of life’ (Rhodes 2014). His assertions went unchallenged by diplomats from liberal democracies.

Eurasianism’s main challenge to the ‘uncontroversial core of human rights’ lies in its ideology of state power. States embody cultures and traditions; states are thus not artificial arrangements through which individuals protect their security and guarantee their liberties according to a social contract, as conceived in the liberal political tradition, but rather organic entities outside of which individual life has no purpose or meaning. The political system ‘gives us our shape’ (Dugin 2012, 169). In an echo of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, identity is considered to be ‘installed in us by the state’ (Malvicini 2014). According to Dugin (2012, 154), liberalism, based on social contract theory, pluralism and the idea of civil society, is an ‘absolute evil’, the ‘repudiation of God, tradition, community, ethnicity, empire and kingdoms’. Liberalism is considered to create enmity between the state and the person. It detaches the person from the state as his or her natural spiritual home, resulting in ‘transhumanisation’ and an ‘uncertain identity’. A state must not be ‘neutral’ on moral questions; this would be to neglect the sustaining values of historical communities. Dugin asserts that the Russian conception of human rights does not include ‘the right to sin’, and that the state has an obligation to protect itself from sinful influences (Coalson 2008).

Human rights, in this perspective, is an alienating idea that attempts to nullify values and hierarchies that are essential to the fulfilment of the individual in the context of society. Human rights, with its necessary subjection of state practices to objective scrutiny concerning compliance with abstract, international standards, is based on and depends on a dualism between the person and society, indeed, between the person and her/himself. Desecrating the bond between a person and the state, according to Eurasianism, results in a form of spiritual and intellectual bondage, while the state, rather than being a threat to freedom, is the source of freedom.

Eurasianism’s ideology of power thus claims to confer a form of freedom on citizens. An analysis of censorship in communist-ruled Hungary perhaps shows the logic of Eurasianism’s freedom: In The Velvet Prison, Hungarian dissident Miklos Haraszti (1988, 8) wrote: ‘Censorship professes to be freedom because it acts, like morality, as a common spirit of both rulers and the rules.’ Eurasianism has thus redefined freedom and human rights consistent with its form of anti-modernism. Russian authorities, and others, including Belarus and nearly all of the Central Asian republics, have thus de jure or de facto rejected universal human rights standards as something alien, imposed upon the new Eastern Bloc by the West, but are also promoting a positive notion of freedom, and a concept of human rights consistent with restrictions on individual liberties.

As the international community has moved away from a concept of human rights with freedom at its centre, conditioned the realization of freedom on complex state policies, and encouraged legislation limiting freedom of speech, Eurasianism’s idea of freedom, while deeply at variance with the liberal tradition on which international human rights were built, finds echoes in the very ‘post-modern’ international human rights regime it scorns. As noted above, since the 1993 Vienna Declaration, combating ‘hate speech’ has increasingly become a concern of governmental and civil international human rights organizations. These campaigns, particularly in Western Europe, have been waged in the name of such goals as ‘multiculturalism’, ‘diversity’ and ‘promoting tolerance.’ They have been attacked as ‘politically correct’ attempts to ‘celebrate diversity by enforcing conformity’ (Steyn 2014). Ironically, therefore, Eurasianism and the trends in international human rights ultimately converge in restricting freedoms to achieve cultural harmony, and while obscured by differing political and cultural ideals, and by ideological labels that suggest vast differences, they result in similar encroachments on individual liberties.


Conclusion: the need for dialogue on the meaning of human rights

Over 25 years since the fall of the communist regimes, many civil and political rights have not been secured in the vast majority of the former Soviet republics, despite decades of civil society campaigning within these societies and the various efforts of other states and international organizations, including the OSCE. Citizens often lack access to independent courts, free and independent media, free and fair elections, and freedom of association, while religious freedom is often threatened. Human rights protections have also deteriorated dramatically in Turkey, and are often insufficient in EU member states. The obduracy of repressive practices at variance with the freedoms envisioned by the 1975 Helsinki Accords has been tied to the persistence of political cultures and mentalities, corruption, and ineffective efforts by the international community. The international preoccupation with terrorism and the instability of Middle Eastern countries has drawn focus and resources from the Helsinki signatory states.

At the same time, the fragile consensus in the 1990s on implementing fundamental human rights standards in OSCE participating States has given way to a more overt challenge to the very concept of human rights embedded in the Helsinki Final Act. Eurasianism poses a profound challenge to the classical liberal ideal of universal, individual human rights based on a common human nature; that is, to the principle that a central obligation of a state is to protect the freedoms of its citizens, ideas that have animated the international community since the end of World War II.

But the capacity to defend the right to basic individual freedoms has arguably been weakened by the extension and fragmentation of the concept of human rights, that is, by developments in human rights discourse since the Helsinki Final Act. A complex process driven by state actors opposed to Western liberal democracies, as well as a diffuse array of civil society forces seeking to merge a wide range of ‘social justice’ concerns into human rights issues, has transformed human rights into a highly ambiguous concept that can even be used to justify repression. There is a danger that the focus on basic liberties has been diluted by an expansive approach to the meaning of human rights, and by more and more services and necessities being deemed ‘human rights’ in United Nations declarations and by international courts.

Without a consensus on the meaning of human rights and a sense of human rights priorities as placing emphasis on respect for fundamental individual liberties, it is unlikely that substantial further progress can be made on implementing the human rights standards to which participating States of the OSCE have formally committed themselves. The crucial importance of international human rights standards to peaceful civil society communities that are committed to the rule of law and are determined to enjoy their internationally guaranteed human rights is even more clear now than it was in 1975. Our cursory review of human rights developments since Helsinki and the philosophical and political challenges posed by Eurasianism suggests that after more than 40 years, the Helsinki human rights concept is more relevant than ever.


Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.





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