Why the U.S. Shouldn’t Sign On to Empty Human Rights Treaties
They’re a propaganda exercise for many of the world’s most unsavory nations.
Then there’s the question of whether it makes sense to impose Western-style standards for disability rights on other countries. Poor countries face many problems. A country that is required to build ramps and elevators for disabled people has less money to build health clinics for sick people and schools for children. Governments must make trade-offs, and we in the West really have no idea what these trade-offs should be in Angola or Suriname. The impulse behind the human rights regime bears more than a passing resemblance to the naïveté with which the West has supplied poor countries with power plants, dams, and other development projects that turn out to cause more harm than good, as William Easterly and other development economists have documented again and again.
So why do other states enter all these treaties in the first place? In 1936, Stalin engineered the ratification of the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed rights to free speech, religious freedom, due process, work, rest, and all sorts of other good things—even while he was sweeping political opponents into the gulag. Stalin considered his constitution a propaganda coup. And while he did not fool everyone, he fooled a lot of people, including many influential Western intellectuals.
Today, there are many countries with sham constitutions like the Soviet Constitution. A recent paper by two law professors, David Law and Mila Versteeg, lists dozens that promise the moon in terms of constitutional rights but flagrantly violate most of them. You might think of these countries’ participation in human rights treaties in the same light as their constitutions, as a kind of propaganda, albeit blessed with the imprimatur of the leading liberal democracies, aimed at ignorant, especially Western, observers.
If you need evidence, consider a country like Uzbekistan, a party to the convention protecting the rights of the child, and a place where, according to Human Rights Watch, there is “Government-sponsored forced child labor during the cotton harvest.” Or Saudi Arabia, a party to the convention banning discrimination against women (“girls and women of all ages are forbidden from traveling, studying, or working without permission from their male guardians”). Or Vietnam, a party to the treaty that guarantees political freedoms (“systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly”). Or China, a party to the treaty that bans torture (“forced confessions under torture remain prevalent”). Or Nigeria, a party to the convention outlawing racial and ethnic discrimination (“State and local government policies that discriminate against … people who cannot trace their ancestry to what are said to be the original inhabitants of an area continue to exacerbate intercommunal tensions and perpetuate ethnic-based divisions.”). (All quotations from Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report.) Or consider India, which ratified a treaty that confers a right to housing, and yet is unable to house tens of millions of homeless Indians who live in shanties on streets and garbage dumps. The nine most repressive countries of 2011, Freedom House‘s “Worst of the Worst,” including Eritrea, Syria, and Turkmenistan, belong to most of the major human rights treaties.
The human rights regime is a vast international Potemkin village, a kind of communal effort among states to deceive one another and mainly their citizens, or an excrescence of the bureaucratic imperative to deny error and bad intentions, using whatever legal forms happen to be available. Think of it as the modern version of the brass band and fancy bunting that surround the dictator while he harangues the crowd. Fine if other countries want to do that, but why should we be complicit?
Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is a co-author of The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic and Climate Change Justice.