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July 31, 2013 11:33 AM Too Much Human Rights Work?

By Erik Voeten

Over at Foreign Affairs, Jacob Mchangama and Guglielmo Verdirame argue that international human rights institutions have proliferated to the extent that they have become counter-productive:

If human rights were a currency, its value would be in free fall, thanks to a gross inflation in the number of human rights treaties and nonbinding international instruments adopted by international organizations over the last several decades. These days, this currency is sometimes more likely to buy cover for dictatorships than protection for citizens.

The authors hit on something important although I am not terribly impressed with many of the examples. Yes, we all know that the UN Human Rights Council and its predecessor are and always have been political institutions where countries vote partially based on geopolitical interests rather than sincere interest in improving the human rights of others. Yet, it is not clear that this provides real cover for dictators (although here is a theory how that may work) and there is at least some evidence that even highly political exercises of shaming may exert a sanctioning effect.

They mention that the European Court of Human Rights has gotten into trouble with the United Kingdom. This is accurate but it was over the Court’s interpretation of voting rights and torture; not new fancy rights that are outside of the traditional core of human rights.

Moreover, I think they exaggerate the difference with the past:

Respect for human rights around the world would likely be stronger if human rights law had stuck to a narrower and more clearly defined group of rights.

Go read the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It includes a right to “rest and leisure,” a right to “enjoy the arts,” and so on. There has never been a consensus over what should or should not be included in human rights. Rights are almost never clearly defined and are always open to interpretation by political and legal actors.

What is true, of course,  is that many of these rights and others are now embedded in treaties and conventions whose effects are unclear. I don’t think we fully understand if and how this proliferation affects the protection of rights that many people think should have priority. Emilie Hafner-Burton’s new book Making Human Rights a Reality investigates this issue and similarly argues that stakeholders that are willing to put resources into the struggle to improve human rights should set priorities.

I am planning to do a series of posts over the next few weeks based on this book and some other recently published scholarly work that sets out what we know about the effect of international human rights institutions and what lessons we should draw from this knowledge about reforming these institutions. That these institutions are in need of reform is something I think most of us can agree on. The answer to just refocus on “ institutions and treaties that embody the ideals that inspired the human rights movement in the first place” is too simplistic and overly glorifies the past.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.

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