Student Blog V: The Language of Human Rights: Blair, Kosovo and the Long Term Impact of Human Rights Rhetoric

Author: Ross Francis

In his work ‘The Last Utopia’, Samuel Moyn argues that a key reason for the breakthrough being placed within the 1970s is because, inter alia, the human rights movement began to transcend and the national framework. This was related to the concept of state sovereignty, and its steady erosion as the preeminent principle of the international order. Thus, appeals to human rights came to mean more than simply the protection of minorities or the right to self-government (the anticolonial movement), but became what can be seen as the rights of all individuals to an acceptable minimum of protection that transcends state borders.[1]

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman has a similar approach to Moyn in terms of the way human rights are defined, but in his work he has sought to place the breakthrough in the 1990s. He presents the idea of the ‘ethical shift’ of the 1990s which was brought about by the end of the Cold War and the spread of democratic, capitalist and legal ideals that resulted. He identifies this shift as reflected in the difference between two major conflicts that bookend the decade; the Gulf War and the Kosovo War. In the former, the war was fought because the sovereignty of an ally was violated and the Western oil supply was threatened, whilst there was no real concern for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons or any other human rights violation. For the latter, not only was the issue of human rights the predominant justification for intervention, but the war involved the active violation of another state’s sovereignty in its name.[2]

In addition, both historians refer to the importance of language as an important tool of human rights and justification for its enforcement. Moyn refers to the ‘language and vocabulary of rights’ repeatedly in his work and Hoffmann presents examples of language that emphasise the ‘empathy of suffering’. Thus, the focus of my essay was on the use of human rights rhetoric, as an element of government policy, from the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, particularly Tony Blair.

Whilst Blair’s legacy, particularly in the field of overseas interventions, may be significantly overshadowed by the Iraq War and its multiplicity of long term effects on the Middle East, my aim was to focus on that first major intervention that made his name. Whilst I was aware of the role of other key figures in New Labour, notably the late Robin Cook[3], Blair was the key figure in foreign policy, an area seen as part of ‘his domain’ (as opposed to say, the treasury).

What I found particularly surprising about Blair’s speeches was the relative scarcity of direct reference to ‘human rights’. Upon closer inspection, however, it became clear that while Blair may not have been using the term itself as much as I had expected, his speeches showed a clear understanding and application of the vocabulary of human rights. One particularly telling passage illustrates this perfectly.

“These are our fellow human beings. Husbands taken from wives. Fathers taken from children, never to see them again, never knowing if they are dead or alive as they walk, mile upon mile, to a safety they may never find.

Old women humiliated, young men massacred, just for being Albanian, just for being there when the Serb killing machine arrived. Our fellow human beings.”[4]

In emphasising the human element, Blair is clearly evoking the language of human rights, as we are encouraged to show empathy for ‘our fellow human beings’. What this passage also illustrates is what Hoffmann describes as language that emphasises the immediacy of distant suffering; language that is designed to demand a reaction in the ‘here and now’. What is perhaps most significant about this shift in language is that its usage didn’t wane when Blair stepped down as Prime Minister, or even when the Labour Party lost their 14-year-long grip on power. David Cameron used similar language, perhaps even more forcefully, in his appeals to Parliament ahead of a Commons vote on the intervention in Libya of 2011[5], which stood in stark contrast the words of John Major, the previous Conservative Prime Minister, in his approach to the situation in Bosnia in the early-to-mid-1990s.

It is hard to imagine a British Prime Minister today not, at the very least, paying lip service to issues of human rights when it comes to foreign policy. Thus, what became clear to me is that Blair’s shift in tone was significant in the long term impact it had on the way Her Majesty’s Government approach conflicts abroad. Whilst Blair was, in some ways, symptomatic of a wider shift – the ‘ethical turn’ – I believe that his intervention was a key turning point, and the sincerity of his beliefs is something I am willing to take at face value, especially in light of subsequent interviews and writings. The language of human rights has become central to British foreign policy and the 1990s was, as argued by Hoffmann, the breakthrough decade. The question is, whether this will prove the case in the future.

[1] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, 2010

[2] Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, ‘Human Rights and History’, Past and Present vol.232, 2016

[3] For example Cook’s speech on the government’s ‘Ethical Foreign Policy’ of 12/05/97

[4] Tony Blair, ‘War in Europe: `It is simply the right thing to do’ Blair appeal: In a nationwide broadcast, the Prime Minister asks `the whole country to unite’ behind any troops sent into action’ The Guardian; London (UK) 27/03/1999

[5] E.g. Hansard, 18/03/2011, vol.525

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