It has been muddled by the academicians, coarsened by the politicians, corrupted by the international sans-culotterie, and debased by dictators of various ideological hues. And yet for all that, the idea of “universal and inalienable human rights” has been one of the great and positive moral forces shaping world politics in the twentieth century—a human achievement that should give us some comfort at the end of a century whose most distinctive political hallmarks have been Auschwitz and the Gulag archipelago.
While classic Great Power interests were engaged in the Cold War, human rights claims were the moral root of Western resistance to the Marxist-Leninist project. The Cold War was fought to prevent the spread of Marxism-Leninism throughout the world; it was worth the enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure it required because resisting the spread of Marxism-Leninism was a moral imperative. Which is to say, the Cold War was fought on behalf of what the West understood to be, not merely an alternative, but a morally superior conception of the human person, human community, human history, and human destiny. To be sure, those convictions, which are encapsulated in the phrase “universal and inalienable human rights,” had to be defended through the concrete forms of armed resistance and military deterrence in order to be given effect in the world of affairs. But had the convictions been absent, the commitment to deterrence would certainly have faltered, and perhaps even failed, in the Western democracies.
Human rights claims, and the distinctive form of political power they can generate, were also central to the dynamics of the Cold War’s endgame.
When Leonid Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, he may well have thought (insofar as the drug-addled Soviet leader was capable of reasoned thought) that he was taking out a 99-year lease on Stalin’s external empire. In fact, however, he was signing its death warrant. For the “Basket Three” human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords quickly gave rise to “Helsinki monitoring groups” within the Soviet empire, which were now linked (as previous anti-totalitarian groups had not been) to “Helsinki Watch” groups in the West. These post-Helsinki human rights groups in the Warsaw Pact, countries proved remarkably tenacious in the face of bitter Communist repression. Aided by the Western “Helsinki Watch” agencies and the new vigor of Western governments at the serial “Helsinki Review Conferences” during the 1980s, human rights activists energized by the “Helsinki process” eventually became the backbone of the anti-Communist resistance that was instrumental in carrying off the Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe and the New Russian Revolution of August 1991 in the old USSR. One cannot imagine the Polish revolution, for example, without Wojtyla, Michnik, Walesa, Geremek, Mazowiecki, Kuron, and Solidarity; or the Czechoslovak revolution without Patocka, Havel, Benda, and Charter 77; or the New Russian Revolution without Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner.
These post-Helsinki developments had repercussions in the NATO alliance, too. For the east central European and Soviet human rights movements were instrumental in helping restore to the Cold War the crucial ideological dimension it had lost in the West in the early to mid-1970s. Moreover, this new recognition, in Britain and America, of what the Cold War was actually about—namely, an unavoidable confrontation between imperfect democracies and pluperfect tyrannies, the resolution of which held profound moral and strategic implications for the future of freedom—helped put intense external pressure on the Soviet leadership at precisely the time when the Moscow gerontocrats were least capable of mounting an effective defense of their regime. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher intuitively understood that moral pressure—in the form of an assertive human rights campaign—was the essential complement to the military-economic pressures being put on the Soviets by Western rearmament. And the results are now plain to see.
But the importance of “universal and inalienable human rights” as a rallying cry for political change has not been limited to Europe. In Latin America, transitions to democracy and the free economy in the 1980s were also driven by human rights campaigns, notably in Chile and Argentina. Similarly, in East Asia, the economic success of the “little dragons” of South Korea and Taiwan has released democratizing pressures that usually begin as campaigns to secure basic civil rights and political freedoms, and have led, in both countries, to impressive democratic transitions.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.