Alfred H. Moses | Copyright: UN Watch Credit: Oliver O'Hanlo… | Flickr

Alfred Moses, UN Watch Chair and a former special advisor to President Carter, addresses the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracysee quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On the legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

“After the Berlin Wall came down, and the collapse three years later of the Soviet Union, one might suppose that we’re proclaiming here today the triumph of human rights, but sadly this is not the case. We are collectively weeping, not celebrating.”

On the championing of human rights in the world:

“Human rights are not on the ascendancy. That time has passed. The great days for the advancement of human rights were right after the fall of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, totalitarian Japan and of course, the Soviet Union. It was then, immediately after the fall of the great dictatorships, or the evil dictatorships, that democracy and human rights were proclaimed as universal values.”

On the coexistence of universality and particularity:

“History has taught us that the skilful and careful blending of particularity and universality is not only possible but desirable.”

“The present march away from the universal to the particular, if not checked, will sound the death knell for human rights; of that I have no doubt.”

On the importance of freedom and human rights to civilizations:

“History has taught us that the absence of individual freedom leads to the decay of political power.”

“Dictators cling to power out of fear and suppress human rights, sowing seeds that will lead to the destruction of their regimes.”

On the way forward for universality and taking action: 

“A call to vigilance and action is needed to prevent what could become a calamity, and that calamity will put an end to universal human rights as we’ve known it in the West.”

“This is the time for us to act in defence of universal human rights and for the dignity of man. The longer we wait, the longer we wait, the harder the struggle will be.”

On the universality of human rights:

“Human rights are universal, they belong to each and every one of us. The denial of human rights for one is the denial of human rights for all.”

“You cannot particularise human rights; they’re essential, they’re part of our very being, regardless of colour, race, religion or all those things, superficial as they are, that divide us. Human rights should unite us.”

“We derive comfort from the particular, but the fact is that we live, if we live for a purpose, it’s for the universal, and without practising the Four Freedoms ourselves and holding that before us, we’re not truly living up to what we have as human beings, which is the right and obligation to advance all of mankind.”

Full Remarks 

Good morning, almost Good Noon.

My dear friend Hillel, I never felt old until this morning, when I heard Hillel say he was “too old” to understand social media. Now, what gives Hillel the right to say he’s too old?

Like all of you, I’ve been inspired by the words we’ve heard yesterday and today, and moved by the recounting of human rights abuses perpetrated against individual speakers, their fathers, wives, husbands, against the citizenry of their countries; all of those causes are important – they’re more than important, they’re vital for all of us.

But today, with your permission, I’d like to look at the broader picture, which I think we need to recognise and focus on if we’re gonna prevent or diminish the individual cases that we’ve heard today, which sadly enough have occurred throughout humankind.

Given that I’m almost the same age as Hillel, I have a tendency to reflect on the history, not of the world, but the history that I have individually experienced. After the Berlin Wall came down, and the collapse three years later of the Soviet Union, one might suppose that we’re proclaiming here today the triumph of human rights, but sadly this is not the case. We are collectively weeping, not celebrating. 

In these brief remarks, I would like to try to answer two questions: how we came to this situation, and what do we do about it? When the Wall came down, and European Communism disappeared, Frank Fukuyama, Mr Gascon mentioned yesterday, distinguished Western intellectual, predicted that with communism vanquished, liberal democracies would become the final form of human government throughout the world, marking the end of the movement at the start of the French Revolution; the end, if you will, of history, but sadly that has not been the case. 

Fukuyama’s prediction of the world being dominated by liberal democracies was narrowly focused and unwittingly arrogant. He was writing from the perspective of a Western intellectual who ignored the fact that more than 80% of the world’s population does not live in the West. But even if we stay with Fukuyama’s narrow focus on the West, human rights are not on the ascendancy. That time has passed. The great days for the advancement of human rights were right after the fall of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, totalitarian Japan and of course, the Soviet Union. It was then, immediately after the fall of the great dictatorships, or the evil dictatorships, that democracy and human rights were proclaimed as universal values. 

As has been said from this podium so many times, eloquently stated in René Cassin’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights. That was in 1948, that’s three years after the far. It was a time when Eleanor Roosevelt was chairing the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It was sadly the same year that the world lost its great human rights champion, Mahatma Gandhi.

There have been human rights achievements in the decades that have followed, most notably in the ending of apartheid in South Africa. The saint-like image of Nelson Mandela is still fresh in our minds as we recall his stirring words. Unlike the leaders of other national movements, almost universally, President Mandela proclaimed: freedom for all, equality for all, regardless of nationality, race or religion. Like René Cassin, he believed that human rights were universal, not particular. The same can be said for the President that I served, Jimmy Carter; he made human rights a bedrock of American foreign policy, replacing the realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger. 

In the decades that followed, things started to unravel in the West. Particularity replaced universality, and as The Clash of Civilizations that was foreseen, Professor Samuel Huntington became an ever more potent force in world events. Particularity came to the forefront, universality was less and less spoken about and certainly less and less practised.

Over the preceding centuries, even before the current centuries, there was a time, admittedly, when religion was a motivating force in national affairs. But that time has long passed in the West. We do not have religious wars in the West. I was struck by the fact that when the United States intervened in Iraq, the Bush administration proclaimed: “We’re intervening not on behalf of Christendom, but on behalf of democracy.” What a farce, utter and total farce. But so it was.

There are other parts of the world, however, where religion is a motivating force; perhaps, the motivating force in national events that affect the rights of all of us. 

Most notably, that has occurred in the Muslim world, as predicted by Professor Huntington. The conflict is centred on the division between Shia and Sunni. That has been its origins, which emanates from the question of the legitimacy of a successor, the succession to the Prophet Muhammad. But that conflict has spread beyond the Muslim world and has affected all of us, regardless of where we live. Because of the Western intervention in that conflict, and because of the pent up of feelings, often religiously motivated, maybe nationalist also, you have fatwas proclaiming a Holy War against the infidels, which includes all non-believers. It’s hard to think that the Pope, or the Bishop of Canterbury or the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem would today proclaim a Holy War. But here we are in the 21st century, with prominent religious leaders proclaiming a Holy War against those who do not believe, in accordance with the fatwas declare a narrowest form of particularity.

It’s not isolated to the Muslim world; it exists throughout the world. Tribalism is perhaps one of the most extreme forms of particularity. Tribalism which does not admit to any differences, whether it be religion, which is not normally a major force in tribalism, but colour, what you do, what you believe in, narrow tribalism, it affects much of our world today. 

Particularity, it has its counterparts in the West: you have white supremacists in the United States and Canada, who are proclaiming their particularity based on colour, which is a cover for origin, or ‘why aren’t you like me?’ White supremacism in the West is a form of tribalism, even though the dominant religions, Christianity and Judaism have long rejected the notions of particularity based on colour or based on origin. 

Even more alarming than the clash of civilisations foreseen by Huntington, some would argue, is presently seen in the heightened nationalism in the West, where I live. It includes certainly my own country, the United States. When our President, Donald J. Trump, puts up his thumbs and says ‘America First’, what he is saying is ‘narrow nationalism, exclude those who are different, exclude all persons from seven countries, who what they have in common is religion and a religious belief’. That, too, is a threat to universalism, on which human rights are ultimately based.

Those of you from France, you don’t escape either. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, and leaders of far-right political parties elsewhere in Europe, including the Netherlands and Germany, are proclaiming the same sentiments. In Germany, the Alternative For Germany political party is likely to have a seat in the next parliament, Reichstag, German parliament. It’ll be the first far-right parliament in the parliament in Germany since the end of World War Two. 

The experts tell us that jihadist attacks in the United States and Europe are likely to increase as impoverished Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East grow in number, with no hope of progress in the countries in why they live. Some of them, we’re told, will fall under the influence of extremists, of religious extremists, who promote the notion of ‘Jihad’, or ‘Holy War’, and urges persons to engage in acts of terrorism with eternal salvation their reward. How my country and your country, if you live in the West, react to those attacks, will have a major impact on what our countries will be in the decades ahead and what our lives will be as free citizens in the West.

A call to vigilance and action is needed to prevent what could become a calamity, and that calamity will put an end to universal human rights as we’ve known it in the West.

Particularism and heightened nationalism are on the rise elsewhere. Last week, I read an article in the Financial Times where the African Republic of Cameroon was condemning the speaking of English. As a result, the Cameroon soccer team had many English-speaking persons who had decided not to go back to Cameroon. But, when Cameroon says that speaking English is a crime, that too is a heightened form of particularism and tells us the direction in which the world is heading. 

Under Putin Russia understands this, certainly, he understands this. He understands the contest that is taking place in the world between particularity and universality, and seeks to take advantage of that opportunity to aid the extreme right, seeing it as its ally, in Europe and yes, in the United States. 

History has taught us that the skilful and careful blending of particularity and universality is not only possible but desirable. Our everyday lives, all of us, are consumed with the particular, not the universal: family, jobs, community, the other reasons that we live and experience day to day. But our reason for being is universal, not particular. The particular may be nourishing, comforting, but it’s not our raison d’être. We live if we live as human beings for the ideal of universality, not particularity. The present march away from the universal to the particular, if not checked, will sound the death knell for human rights; of that I have no doubt. 

This is ironic. History has taught us that the absence of individual freedom leads to the decay of political power. Previous panel we heard about fear from Jared, but the fact is that those dictators cling to power out of fear and suppress human rights, sowing seeds that will lead to the destruction of their regimes. It’s always been thus. Empires succeed and survive if they have human rights as part of their mantra – it is like the tea kettle that lets off steam. In a democracy, you can bring about change without the destruction of the body politic. In totalitarian regimes or authoritarian regimes, that is not possible. Instead, you have the eruption, you have the disruption, you have the chaos, you have the killing, you have the denial of human rights and you have the oppression, which we have witnessed over the centuries.

At this point you may be saying: ‘what time am I gonna have lunch?’, and you’ll also be saying ‘what can we do to make the world better?’ and ‘do we have a chance?’ If you have confidence in the essential goodness of human beings, and I do, and I think all of you do, or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing, then the answer is ‘Yes’, universality will not only survive, but will become the saviour of all of us’. But, this is the time for us to act in defence of universal human rights and for the dignity of man. The longer we wait, the longer we wait, the harder the struggle will be. 

You are the human right heroes. We are only here to applaud your actions and what you have accomplished. You have witnessed human rights abuses; some, as we have heard, of unthinkable brutality, But witnessing, as important as it is, is only the beginning. What more do we need to do? Let me suggest just a few things:

One; in condemning human rights abuses in your own countries, it is right and proper to speak out on behalf of victims and denounce oppressors, and all of you have done that. This is your duty and obligation. But in the process, please remember that human rights are universal, they belong to each and every one of us. The denial of human rights for one is the denial of human rights for all.

Second; the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Roosevelt in 1941: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear, are still the bedrock of everything we do. To the extent those Four Freedoms are in danger or weakened, human rights are endangered and weakened. You cannot particularise human rights; they’re essential, they’re part of our very being, regardless of colour, race, religion or all those things, superficial as they are, that divide us. Human rights should unite us. They belong to each of us, and cannot be particularised.

And lastly, let’s acknowledge to ourselves – I’ve said this before, but I’ll end on it because I think it’s important – in most forms, whether it be religion, patriotism, community space or everytday pursuits, it is easier to champion particularism: ‘my nation, my city, my family, my wife, my husband’, than universalism. We derive comfort from the particular, but the fact is that we live, if we live for a purpose, it’s for the universal, and without practising the Four Freedoms ourselves and holding that before us, we’re not truly living up to what we have as human beings, which is the right and obligation to advance all of mankind.

Thank you so much.

9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 20, 2017

Speakers and Participants

Alfred Moses

Chair of UN Watch, former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, Special Presidential Envoy for the Cyprus Conflict, Special Counsel to President Jimmy Carter

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