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What Should We Expect From International Human Rights Institutions?

- July 31, 2013

As I announced yesterday, I plan to do a series of blog posts on what we know about how to improve the human rights of people abroad and how this knowledge can help us do a better job in the future. I will focus a lot on international human rights institutions, which are treaties, like the Convention Against Torture, in which states enter into legal obligations to protect a particular set of rights as well as the associated institutions that help enforce those obligations. These institutions vary from powerful international courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights, to relatively toothless UN monitoring bodies.

Whenever I teach about international human rights institutions my first task is to lower expectations. International human rights treaties inevitably contain language that expresses lofty ideals and grand ambitions. The point is not just that these goals are unlikely to ever be fully attained but also that treaties are a very limited policy tool.  If we wished to give policy advice to governments interested in improving their human rights record, we should tell them to democratize, to develop economically, to create a strong independent legal system, and to stop having civil wars.  Signing treaties does not enter the top ten of most important things countries could do. Indeed, countries like the United States have a relatively good human rights record without ratifying many human rights treaties.

So, why do we care about international human rights treaties and associated institutions? To start with, it turns out that we have very limited foreign policy tools to help countries become economically developed stable constitutional democracies that do not have civil wars. Even very expensive and intrusive tools, such as military interventions, more often than not fail to achieve those goals. Violating human rights is often central to a government’s strategy for staying in power or it may be central to the domestic power of an agency over which the civilian government has imperfect control (police, military, paramilitaries, etcetera). This is not behavior that is easy to change.

A basic but fundamental insight from policy analysis is that policies are more likely to succeed when the problem is easy to solve and you have a lot of resources. Improving human rights in other countries is a hard problem for which there are few resources available. Human rights treaties are cheap and relatively unintrusive (compared to other foreign policy options). If these tools can marginally improve human rights in some countries, they may be well worth the investment.

Over the next two weeks, I will highlight some theories and empirical findings that seem to suggest that some treaties do indeed have those conditional effects; especially in countries that are democratizing but are not yet fully stable constitutional democracies (see here and here for earlier blog posts).  There are  inevitable tensions between these more realistic but lower expectations about when we may be satisfied with the effectiveness of treaties and  their grand and universal ambitions. Scholars sometimes lament that treaties matter most where they are needed least. How could we possibly be satisfied with a human rights regime that barely makes a dent into the practices of North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia? Or that allows Libya, Syria, and the Sudan to play political theater in the UN Human Rights Council?

It is understandable that the neglect or even abuse of the international human rights regime by the worst offenders leads some to conclude that the entire regime is illegitimate. My interest is in how institutional design can help solve some of these problems. I believe that smart design may limit some of the ways countries like Syria use the system to their advantage but it can do little to change the behavior of a strong and powerful regime bent on violating rights in order to stay in power. Human rights treaties are simply not sufficiently powerful policy tools for that. This does not make them superfluous. Hundreds of millions of people live in countries where there are openings for international institutions to make a difference. A key question is whether our current human rights institutions are effective in positively changing the lives of those people.