Current counterterrorism adviser to the president and CIA director nominee John Brennan wrote in his 1980 graduate thesis unequivocally that “absolute human rights do not exist.” r. In answering the question, “Are there universal human rights?” he sums up over 200 years of classical liberal thinking in the English Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. To refute this he just cites Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham in dismissing natural rights as simple nonsense. To this he concludes that human rights are subjective, and that “the reality of human rights is therefore determined by the morality of the individual and the legal code of the state.”
This argument comes up again and again in his thesis, so it is important that we refute this post haste. Ultimately Bentham and Brennan have a misconception of what natural rights really are and where they are derived from. Natural rights, or negative rights, originate from John Locke’s argument of property rights, which have later been expounded upon. He derives our natural right to our property by deriving the original ownership. Since we own our own bodies, and this can be proven by action (try to disprove human action without acting), we then mix our action with nature and produce goods that, by the very nature of our action, we own. From this all other natural rights are derived.
Brennan does believe in human rights, even if they are relative since his “own morality does include the concept of human rights.” He states them as four-fold: “security, welfare, liberty and justice.” How he has derived them is from the “Western perspective” once again expounding the fact that human rights are relative to your culture and your geographic location. If you were worried that these rights were not fickle enough, he then qualifies his/western human rights with these considerations: “long-term vs. short-term fulfillment, capability and culture.”
Since letting citizens participate freely in the political process can be messy and may lead instability, according to Brennan, “too much freedom is possible and in the end, even detrimental to the cause of democracy.” Even “[then-Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s undemocratic methods, therefore, may aim at the ultimate preservation of democracy rather than its demise.” If after all this you are still wondering where he stands on human rights violations, he answers,“Can human rights violations in Egypt be justified from a democratic perspective?”
His answer, “If the preservation of political order and stability is [the] justification for various human rights violations.” He does qualify this in saying that it may have been simply to preserve Sadat’s rule, but he leaves it open to the reader to interpret. Even so, this makes human rights simply a matter of interpretation and relativism that can lead to gross abuse of power.
Apparently, to save democracy sometimes we need a tyrant. Tell that to Thomas Jefferson or anyone who signed the Declaration of Independence, or any Egyptian who was or is being silenced in the name of preserving “democracy.” If democracy — the supposed safeguard of freedom — can itself be used to warrant aggressions against freedom for its own preservation according to Brennan, we must seriously reconsider its effectiveness. Natural rights go in direct opposition against total democracy and therefore are the reason we have a constitution. Democracy and statutory law is simply to codify already existing natural law, and anything more — censorship, restriction of property and association — are all in violation of human rights for those reasons alone, not because the UN wrote it down somewhere.
It is certainly scary that the man, who will be spying not only on foreigners, but you and me, does believe that our rights can be breached if it is to gain political stability. This to me seems a recipe for disaster or at least further abuse of power. I wonder how he justifies torture, seeing as the freedom from it is the only human right he believed may be universal: “[A]bsolute human rights do not exist (except for the probable case of freedom from torture)…”
If he seems willing to disregard the only human right he though in 1980 was absolute why not disregard all the other rights he saw as relative.