Beth A. Simmons — Institutionalizing Human Rights

[By Beth A. Simmons. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

International human rights have become a central feature of the international legal system. Governments have formally agreed to a bewildering array of treaties, resolutions, and reporting procedures that make them ever more responsible to each other for the way they treat their own people. They have also participated in the creation of a slew of non-binding “standards” and “understandings” about the nature of their human rights agreements. Some even allow their citizens to complain to specific international “oversight bodies” if they feel there has been a violation of the rights guaranteed by treaty. Figure 1 shows the proliferation of these regimes since World War II. Occasionally, some governments even take the views of these bodies seriously.

There is something puzzling about this state of affairs. Why should governments agree among themselves to respect the rights of their own citizens? For much of the 20th century, citizens’ rights were simply considered a domestic problem, beyond the competence of the international community to inquire. This is certainly no longer the case. Formal international rights accountability is probably stronger now than it has ever been at any other moment in history.

The challenge for the future will be to bring actual practices more in line with the promises outlined in international treaties. Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that every person is “entitled to realization . . . of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensible for his dignity . . . ,” about 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2.50 per day. Despite the fact that 165 countries have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides a right “to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections . . . guaranteeing the will of the electors,” probably no more than half the world’s population can really exercise such a right. Even though 186 countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), guaranteeing  nondiscrimination in employment, on average the women of the world earn only 60–70 percent of what men earn for equivalent work.

None of this means that international law has failed. In fact, some research shows that many of the most important treaties, including those discussed above, have made important contributions to better rights practices in the countries that have ratified them. But it does mean that there is no automatic correspondence between principles and practice. How can governments be encouraged to take human rights—and their obligations—more seriously?

One possibility is to strengthen international enforcement of these norms. One could start by making the United Nations a more credible body in this regard. The main forum for handling rights abuses at the United Nations has been the Human Rights Commission, but it was rightly criticized as terribly political and staffed by representatives from countries that had terrible rights records. Some improvements have been made with the new Human Rights Council, but do states really have incentives to be their brother’s keepers?

Some think that countries with a real commitment to human rights should take enforcement into their own hands by imposing economic conditionality. To a certain extent, this is already happening. The U.S. Congress, for example, can withhold foreign assistance if rights practices are unsatisfactory. The European Union conditions membership on acceptance of high rights standards, and even tries to extend its influence to trading partners outside the region through its so-called “democracy clauses” attached to trade agreements. While these kinds of sanctions can be applied to the smaller states, it is hard to imagine  applying such a strategy to China. Furthermore, imposing economic sanctions can hurt the people you are trying to help, sometimes as much as the repressive government does itself.

Perhaps human rights cannot be enforced from the outside. Perhaps people around the world should simply be encouraged to use international norms to fight their own domestic rights battles, in ways they see as appropriate, and according to their own priorities. This approach has already led to important improvements in rights practices for countries that have had some experience with or are transitioning to accountable government, but it may offer little hope for those living in the most oppressive regimes in the world. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that in some countries, to demand your rights is to invite a crushing reaction from a ruthless regime.

Addressing human rights violations worldwide is a long-term project. It probably cannot be solved in isolation from the other major human endeavors of the last century: finding a way to curb poverty, ending widespread civil and international violence, and implementing stable and accountable systems of governance. But none of these projects will be complete without the recognition that individuals have inviolable rights that must be recognized, protected, and even promoted by their governments.


BETH SIMMONS is Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Her new book is entitled Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Simmons was elected in April 2009 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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