The international commotion around the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng aroused memories of earlier dissidents like Andrei D. Sakharov and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the Eastern bloc heroes of another age who first made “international human rights” a rallying cry for activists across the globe and a high-profile item on Western governments’ agendas.
All the familiar elements were there: the lone icon speaking for moral principle against totalitarian rule, the anonymous but courageous network at home that sheltered him, the supporters abroad who rallied around his cause, and the governments that made their choices based on a difficult calculus of moral ideals and geopolitical interests. The cat-and-mouse game of Mr. Chen’s surreptitious flight and America’s response resembled cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue, too, but dissidents then sometimes were pushed into their own underground railroads, and often states bargained over their ultimate fate.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which Peng-Chun Chang, a representative of Nationalist China, helped draft — had virtually no impact on world politics in its time. It was only 30 years later that Soviet dissidents and refugees from Latin American dictatorships catapulted human rights to visibility. In part because it was so new, the idea of international human rights initially seemed an uncontroversial effort to establish moral norms above the fray of the cold war’s ideological battles.
Forty years into the era that Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn and many less famous dissidents founded, the meaning of human rights has now become familiar. In reporting on Mr. Chen, most publications, including this newspaper, used the terms “dissident” and even “prisoner of conscience” to refer to him.
However, since the time Amnesty International and other groups popularized those phrases, human rights — a term that once meant the defense of individuals against the oppression of an unjust state — has come to imply other things, too.
Today, it is just as likely to be invoked by powerful states to wage war in distant corners of the globe, much to the chagrin of authoritarian leaders in wealthy rising powers like Russia and China, who see such “humanitarian interventions” as a violation of states’ sovereignty — not to mention a threat to their manner of rule.
The West’s continuing reckoning with China is not likely to play out according to familiar protocols. China has always had a much more distant relationship with international human rights norms than the Communist states of yesteryear. In the cold war, an era when America didn’t ratify any human rights treaties, the Soviet Union did. The fact that their governments had done so gave dissidents’ appeals to international human rights tremendous power at home.
It was Communist Czechoslovakia’s ratification of the main international human rights covenants in 1976 that brought them into legal force — and helped inspire the creation of the dissident manifesto, Charter 77, the next year. Prompted by the arrest of members of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, Vaclav Havel and his fellow signatories criticized the government for failing to abide by the human rights treaties it had signed. Communist China, excluded from the United Nations at the time the first human rights treaties were drafted, still hasn’t ratified the covenant for political and civil rights.
Another reason China’s Charter 08 — formed by Chinese dissidents on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration — hasn’t had an impact comparable to that of its famous Czech predecessor is primarily because today’s geopolitical balance of power is very different from the one that favored cold war dissidents.
Although America was weathering its own economic storm as the human rights era dawned in the 1970s, it was not faced with the prospect of a rising Soviet Union at the time, especially not one whose productivity had supported their extensive borrowing.
Today, China is rising, and because it controls so much Western debt, it is unlikely to be as easy to target for its internal conduct. Some claim that international human rights norms undid the Soviet empire, while others say that it declined and fell because of political mismanagement and economic collapse — things that seem much more prevalent in the West than in China now.
This geopolitical shift gives today’s dissidents and their foreign allies much less leverage than their predecessors had.
But the main difference between then and now is that the whole idea of human rights has lost some of its romantic appeal and moral purity. Today, the issue of human rights is no longer just about limiting power in the global arena but also about how to deploy it.
For many, defending human rights implies the activist prevention of atrocity, after Bosnia and Rwanda stoked our consciences. Following America’s protective bombing of Kosovo in 1999, George W. Bush in 2003 inveighed against Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers before going to war (though a few new torture chambers were set up once Americans got there).
Barack Obama, along with other concerned politicians, appealed to human rights to justify what became regime change in Libya, going far beyond the cause of saving civilians from carnage.
That China and post-Soviet Russia have erected obstacles to a rerun of that human rights war in Syria is easy to chalk up to retrograde interests. But the fact is that they know that the idea of human rights today is about getting things done and not just keeping evil at bay.
It is true that human rights allow their most hopeful partisans to claim that the movement means something beyond the chastening of extremist governments. In Europe, the idea of human rights has penetrated deeply into the way the Continent governs itself, becoming a source of appeal to all comers, not just a weapon against totalitarianism.
But it is in this broader realm that human rights have proved most politically divisive and disappointing. For some dreamers, human rights mean ensuring citizen welfare in the form of economic justice, both within and among states. Yet the idea of international human rights has become prominent in an era when many governments are turning away from the welfare state in the name of the free market.
For those who long for a state and a world that not only protect liberties but also promote well-being, the human rights movement hasn’t made enough of a difference. Human rights have succeeded in combating totalitarianism and preventing atrocities but have proved less able to promote the good life for people suffering less spectacular wrongs.
That human rights have come down to earth since the days of the glamorous dissidents doesn’t make them useless. But it does mean that the utopia they call to mind is now inseparable from the realities of the world as it exists — from states to international bodies to transnational movements. For that reason, Chinese dissidents and their Western allies will need to be even more creative than their predecessors were in using human rights norms to achieve a reformed government.
Most of all, when they appeal to international human rights, they will have to face the fact that these once pure ideals are now much harder to separate from the impure world of daily policy making, international power and unfulfilled hopes.
Samuel Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.