In a speech delivered at the Jacob Blaustein Institute in New York this month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed concerns about the “growing belief . . . that somehow human rights are inconsistent with the world today.” Citing what he called “the growing flirtation with realism” (or is it “principled realism”?)—which presents power as the ultimate determinant in international affairs—the Commissioner warned that the world had already seen the devastating consequences of this worldview, particularly when it is combined with “chauvinistic nationalism,” balance-of-power politics, and a belief in the effectiveness of threats of violence and ultimatums. With leaders increasingly sidelining human rights concerns, he argued the solution was in expanding worldwide popular support for universal human rights by better informing the public of their critical importance and role in upholding global peace. To succeed, however, the Commissioner’s strategy must be combined with a concerted effort to address three problems now deeply embedded within the international human rights architecture.
First, the human rights system must improve its enforcement mechanisms. Human rights norms are notoriously underenforced. The existence of nine core human rights treaties, an expansive system of treaty bodies, and review/monitoring mechanisms has done little to change that. This problem has delegitimated human rights norms in the popular imagination, making them seem, instead, like rainless clouds—everywhere but offering nothing. The many human rights reports submitted to treaty bodies for country reviews and to the Human Rights Council for its universal periodic reviews consistently show that underenforcement is largely the result of the vast power gap between governments and their citizens and the lack of effective mechanisms to hold governments accountable for violations. Because there are significant structural obstacles to improving enforcement, universal human rights proponents must devote more resources to finding innovative ways to reduce the impunity gap. Without improvements in enforcement, the system fails to answer the “so what” question, making it irrelevant to many.
Second, the system must promote social, economic, and cultural rights. For too long, civil and political rights have been emphasized at the expense of socioeconomic rights. In so doing, the human rights system has not only downplayed a central concern of two-thirds of the world’s population, but, given the contentious history of the human rights Covenants, it has also unwittingly reinforced the perception that it prioritizes the preferences of the West. It is significant that the individual complaint mechanism for the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was created in 2008 at the adoption of its protocol (entering into force in 2013) while that of civil and political rights was created in 1966 (entering into force in 1976). Although the system recognizes the problem and has instituted Special Rapporteurs and independent experts on various aspects of socioeconomic rights, these efforts do not go far enough. The political debate about the validity of socioeconomic rights may persist, but the question is settled in international human rights law. The universal human rights agenda ought to reflect this in bolder ways.
Third, the movement must become more inclusive. The Commissioner correctly noted the persisting view that human rights are an “esoteric stream of international law, promoted mainly by Western idealists, leftists, liberals…” That view, which is held not only by some government leaders, as the Commissioner indicated, but also by a significant proportion of laypeople worldwide, speaks to not only why some shun or ignore human rights norms, but also to the sense of alienation that is increasingly accompanying them. The leading scholars, lawyers, and policymakers at the vanguard of the most influential human rights-promoting institutions tend to indeed lean left, and in many ways fit the common description of “elite.” This is having a two-fold impact: it is increasingly (a) slanting the universal human rights agenda left and (b) alienating a significant percentage of the world’s population whose values lean right, dampening their enthusiasm for a regime whose many norms would ordinarily fit their own value systems. This point should not be mistaken for a repackaging of the cultural relativism argument; it is rather an observation about the narrowing of the human rights lens. This should concern the movement not only because it robs it of significant voices as it fights to assert its relevance, but also because it represents the loss of the political ambiguity that once accounted for the broader, though imperfect, support the idea of human rights enjoyed in the aftermath of WW II. If the movement does not become more inclusive, the universal human rights agenda will lose rather than gain popular support.