Has the human rights movement failed?

By David Bosco

Human rights organizations arguably have more influence (and more cash) than ever before. In the multilateral realm, human rights mechanisms at both the global and regional level enjoy increased reach and new prominence. And yet a number of recent books have considered the human rights movement with a decidedly skeptical eye. In The Last Utopia, historian Samuel Moyn argued that the modern human rights movement has quite shallow historical roots and should be seen, in significant part, as a refuge for idealists disillusioned with world socialism and other ideologies. In another book, The Endtimes of Human Rights, British political scientist Stephen Hopgood laments the loss of the movement’s early innocence and argues that it has become simultaneously too immersed in geopolitics and too distant from affected local populations (Hopgood’s book prompted a lengthy response from Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth).

Eric Posner, a prolific University of Chicago law professor, has the latest entry in the revisionist field, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. His criticisms have some overlap with those of Hopgood, although Posner comes from a quite different disciplinary and normative background. He sees a human rights movement that suffers from overstretch and doctrinal confusion. But more than anything, he believes the movement is unwilling to assess its own effectiveness. He summed up his arguments in a recent Guardian article:

[H]uman 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.

As he makes this argument, Posner repeatedly and unfavorably compares the human rights movement to the campaign for economic development, which he believes suffered from similar top-down failings. But, he argues, development advocates have at least learned from their failures.

Animated by the same mix of altruism and concern for geopolitical stability as the human rights movement, development economists have also largely failed to achieve their mission, which is to promote economic growth. Yet their failures have led not to denial, but to incremental improvements and (increasingly) humility….Rigorous statistical methods are increasingly used, and in recent years economists have implemented a range of randomised controlled trials. Much greater attention is paid to the minutiae of social context, as it has become clear that a vaccination programme that works well in one location may fail in another, for reasons relating to social order that outsiders do not understand.

I share some of Posner’s concerns, particularly regarding the seemingly endless expansion of “rights” and the potential for incoherency. I also wonder whether the intense focus by some activists on drafting new and ever more specialized international treaties is a wise approach. Posner is certainly correct to point out that evidence human rights instruments actually improve countries’ behavior is thin at best.

But I’m not convinced that the analogy to economic development is appropriate, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the question of how we judge results. Respect for rights at the national level is the most obvious measure, but certainly not the only one. The human rights movement is also about changing people’s minds. And so a country whose rights record does not improve after joining a major treaty is not necessarily evidence of failure. If  human rights instruments have helped shift beliefs in that country about acceptable government behavior or given domestic activists a new point of leverage, they could be deemed a success even in the absence of improved behavior by the government. The push for economic development, by contrast, can’t really content itself with having shifted mindsets.

Second, there’s the question of the relative resources devoted to economic development and human rights. Rich countries directly and indirectly pour real money into promoting economic development in poor countries. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that aid to developing countries totaled more than $134 billion. If those funds are not producing results, there is an urgent need to understand what has gone wrong. By contrast, the money that rich governments spend negotiating human rights treaties and promoting international human rights is chump change. Posner is undoubtedly right that the movement could benefit from more attention to local context and more honed tactics. But given the minimal investment in human rights, Posner’s demand for the kind of innovation, rigor, and accountability development experts now seek seems excessive.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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