We live in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties – there are nine “core” treaties – have been ratified by the vast majority of countries. Yet it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times.
At a time when human rights violations remain widespread, the discourse of human rights continues to flourish.
The truth is that human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives. There is little evidence that human rights treaties, on the whole, have improved the wellbeing of people. The reason is that human rights were never as universal as people hoped, and the belief that they could be forced upon countries as a matter of international law was shot through with misguided assumptions from the very beginning.
NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International can pressure governments to improve the human rights they care about, even if they can’t get countries to comply with all their treaty obligations. The human rights legal regime, taken as a whole, has made human rights the common moral language of international relations, which has forced governments to take human rights seriously.
But while governments all use the idiom of human rights, they use it to make radically different arguments about how countries should behave.
And while NGOs do press countries to improve their behaviour, they cite the human rights they care about and do not try to take an impartial approach to enforcing human rights in general. Sophisticated organisations such as Human Rights Watch understand that poor countries cannot comply with all the human rights listed in the treaties, so they pick and choose, in effect telling governments around the world that they should reorder their priorities so as to coincide with what Human Rights Watch thinks is important, often fixing on practices that outrage uninformed westerners who donate the money that NGOs need to survive. But is there any reason to believe that Human Rights Watch, or its donors, knows better than the people living in Suriname, Laos or Madagascar how their governments should set priorities and implement policy?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the human rights treaties were not so much an act of idealism as an act of hubris, with more than a passing resemblance to the civilising efforts undertaken by western governments and missionary groups in the 19th century, which did little good for native populations while entangling European powers in the affairs of countries they did not understand. A humbler approach is long overdue.