Human rights in international relations

Essam Shiha
Thursday 28 Jan 2021

The respect for human rights is an important tool of international relations if it emerges from genuinely held values and principles

The long strides that the state has made on the path of sustainable development indicate that the political leadership is genuinely persuaded, based on real faith, that Egypt will not clash with international human rights principles and values. This bodes well for the country’s being able to build a strong state that can stand up against its enemies and be genuinely engaged in a contemporary international relations system that has never had much room for anyone except the strong. 

There is no doubt that many of the criticisms levelled at the Egyptian state in the field of human rights are politically motivated. Egypt cannot accept these criticisms as lessons in morality that should be embraced without inspecting the foreign agendas lying behind them, with these representing other interests besides Egypt’s national interest. Nevertheless, the Egyptian state has been making ceaseless efforts in order to reform the human rights situation in the country, and it is to be hoped that these will continue in order to promote the correct image of Egypt abroad.

Some international human rights organisations have fallen into the trap of political polarisation. They have begun to promote an agenda unrelated to a correct understanding of human rights work, with this being a tool in the hands of some of the world’s major powers and one used to promote their interests. This has led to some of these powers, especially those that fund international human rights organisations, to see contemporary international relations solely in relation to their interests while overlooking the interests of the world’s various peoples. Egypt, with its unique contributions to human civilisation, should never be among those countries that are obliged to accept foreign agendas.

International relations, properly understood, is a solid base for common interests and mutual respect. Respect for the centrality of human rights in the world order has also long been cherished. However, those same rights, when incorrectly understood, can be used to enforce “political conditionalities,” in other words interference in the comprehensive power that the state possesses – military, economic, political and technological, and including soft power – in order to dictate agendas that are not in its interests or in those of its people. 

What sanctions did the US, the only superpower in the world today, suffer as a result of the existence of the obnoxious Guantanamo Bay detention camp? Did not Washington receive secret assistance from regimes that have not ceased to advocate for human rights? Have any real human rights criticisms been levelled against China, the world’s second largest economy and predicted to be the largest in the world by 2030 at the expense of the US? Russia’s carving up of the Crimea – was this stopped in its tracks as a result of international criticisms? Or has it, on the contrary, been successful in enhancing its economy?

Russia has expanded its influence in the international arena, driven by its ambitious efforts to jump from 11th to fifth position in the world economy. There are also many other examples of success going hand in hand for states that possess a steely determination that does not weaken in the face of criticisms from contemporary international relations.

Human rights will remain an important tool of contemporary international relations, but one that many times has masqueraded as singing the virtues of democracy. All of us have watched the violations of the values and principles of democracy that took place in the US recently, despite Washington’s insistence that these values and principles are basically American and its having used them as a cover to promote its interests in the international arena. The US insistence on staying at the top of the world order is undeniable, and its reliance on the concept of human rights to do so will not fade away as long as it succeeds in using these to drive other countries to submit in areas where its interests lie.

The real conviction of the need to respect human rights should emanate from our own values and principles and be consistent with our desire to be compatible with universal human values. The world knows that Egypt faces huge challenges and dangers on the path towards its ambition to found a real democracy on which a modern civil state can be established. The international financial institutions have acknowledged Egypt’s success in implementing its economic reform programme, to the extent that it became one of the very few countries in the world, and the only one in the Arab region, that has achieved positive economic growth during the Covid-19 pandemic, showing that Egypt now has one of the world’s strongest economies. 

The matter then boils down to our capacity to overcome such challenges. The more successful we are in building a strong country, the more we can impose our national will on decisions taken in both the regional and international arenas without paying too much attention to the slanted criticisms coming from elsewhere.

The writer is president of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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