Have Human Rights Treaties Failed?

Posner, Eric Ken_Roth5_web_0

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Eric Posner, author of “The Twilight of Human Rights Law”, debate the issue in the NYT. Posner:

Age-old blights like child labor, the subjugation of women, religious persecution and even slavery are amazingly common. Even in the United States, torture has been used against suspected terrorists, police brutality flourishes and convicted criminals often receive extraordinarily harsh punishments.

Many people argue that the solution to these problems is to strengthen human rights law. They argue that we need more treaties, with stricter obligations and better-funded, more powerful international institutions. But my view is the opposite. Human rights law is too ambitious — even utopian — and too ambiguous: it overwhelms states with obligations they can’t possibly keep and provides no method for evaluating whether governments act reasonably or not. The law doesn’t do much; we should face that fact and move on. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care when governments abuse their citizens. But more focused and pragmatic interventions, including relying heavily on foreign aid for economic development, rather than coercion or shaming, is the better way to go.


Human rights treaties help to explain why these abuses are wrong. They may not always provide definitive answers — any text requires interpretation — but they codify a widely endorsed set of principles from which the conversation can begin.

Would we really be better off, as Eric implies, if each discussion of governmental behavior started from scratch — if, rather than debating what constituted a violation of, say, the right to a fair trial, we had to begin by discussing whether people should be given fair trials?

More here.