Human Rights, Referents, and Biden’s State of the Union Address

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

The International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights is now taking place in Geneva with forty-one films, twenty-four fora, and twenty-three events. Also in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council is currently holding its fifty-fifth regular session. Have I already lost you? Maybe if I started by highlighting violations of the laws of war as they apply in Ukraine or Gaza you might show more interest. But human rights? What relevance do they have to the two major conflicts taking place today? Fighting in Ukraine and Gaza has not stopped because of official declarations of “grave breaches” and “serious violations” of human rights. For most people, there are too many pious pronouncements about human rights violations with too few consequences.

What is the problem with human rights? If the basics of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were written in a non-legal, straightforward manner, I believe people would agree with the Declaration’s principles. (The first sentence of the Preamble could certainly use editing: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”)

Besides the obvious semantic difficulties, the central problem is the implementation of human rights principles and treaties. While human rights are now “mainstreamed” within the United Nations system, there is a lack of their regular operationalization on the ground. What’s the point of having lofty principles and legal treaties when they are so often violated?

An example of a lofty principle: Article 1 of the Declaration says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Who guarantees that all human beings “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”? The “should” is conditionally ambiguous. Who is responsible when people don’t act “in a spirit of brotherhood”? Ought and is are not the same. The United Nations Human Rights Council and its country-examining Universal Peer Review are based on naming and shaming, and not much more.

In a fascinating book, Stuart Chase takes on the problem of the relationship between words and actions. Chase looks for referents. He wants to see the relationship between what is said and what is done. Article 1 of the Declaration, for example, has no referent for who should do what to guarantee that a spirit of brotherhood exists.

The first edition of Chase’s The Tyranny of Words was published in 1938. It was an early foray into semantics. Chase’s insistence on referents captures why concepts like human rights have not had the global impact the Universal Declaration’s authors envisioned. In principle, most people would agree with what appears in the Universal Declaration. It’s the next step that falters. Mainstreaming human rights in the U.N. system is not the same thing as being able to implement human rights on the ground or punish violations.

The notion of referent is key. Chase had a point. The lofty rhetoric of the Universal Declaration lacks a referent. Words and actions must be correlated. There is no global governance to ensure human rights implementation; there is no global government to punish violators. Since states are still the principal international actors, it is up to states to implement the lofty principles in the Declaration.

A good example of the relevance of human rights with a specific referent is President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address. Without judging the quality of the speech or Biden’s intent or ability to implement human rights at home and abroad, his frequent indirect reference to human rights is noteworthy.

Specifically, Biden mentioned: the right to health – “More people have health insurance today;” the right to a good job – “Raise the federal minimum wage because every worker has a right to a decent living;” the right to affordable housing – “I want to provide an annual tax credit that will give Americans $400 a month for the next two years … to put toward their mortgage when they buy a first home;” the right to safety – “all Americans deserve the freedom to be safe;” and the right to a good education – “we need to have the best education system in the world.” He also mentioned the general “right to choose and protect other freedoms.”

Biden believes American citizens have rights. But unlike the lack of referent in the Universal Declaration, President Biden sees himself and his Administration as the referent for ensuring that citizens can express their rights.

If you have lost interest in human rights because of language, legalese, and their non-respect, Biden’s campaign-like State of the Union address is a good case study for the importance of human rights. President Biden’s speech was his way of trying to convince voters that if re-elected he would operationalize the human rights of American citizens. In Chase’s terms, Biden positioned himself as the referent in implementing human rights.

While I do not wish to overemphasize the importance of the Geneva human rights film festival or the meeting of the Human Rights Council this week, now is an opportune moment to highlight that all people have rights and that a government’s job is to guarantee the implementation of those rights. Governments, not Declarations or treaties, are the human rights referent. That is what Chase’s emphasis on referents leads to. That is also what a good part of Biden’s speech was about. Whether governments do defend, promote, and implement citizens’ human rights is another issue. On that, voters will judge Biden and other elected leaders.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.