The Triumph of Human Rights Norms

Human Rights Day 2009—the 61st anniversary of the adoption without dissent by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—is an appropriate occasion on which to ask ourselves whether all the human rights declarations, treaties, covenants and conventions that have been ratified since 1948 have truly made any difference in the struggle for a more humane and rights-respecting world. Might the U.S. State Department have been correct six decades ago when, shortly before the vote on the Universal Declaration, it declared the document little more than a “hortatory statement of aspiration”?

If many of the commitments contained in the various human rights instrumentalities are flaunted with impunity—as they surely are—what good are they anyway? One scholar even contends that many countries that ratify a convention such as the one against torture are more likely to violate norms in practice than those that don’t. Among other things, the ratifiers—so the argument goes—regard their having adopted human rights instruments as a kind of cover for their miscreant deeds.[1]

No one disputes that international human rights law is hardly a foolproof guarantee of virtue, especially as it lacks dependable enforcement mechanisms. But law plays two roles in society: It delineates behavioral boundaries beyond which people may not go without fear of punishment but also establishes norms that define the nature of a “civilized” state, whether those norms are formally enforced or not. Few people are arrested for failing to wear their seatbelts or smoking in no smoking zones but the fact that both behaviors are now against the law endows them with a certain taint they did not carry 30 years ago. This is how values change…slowly but steadily.

And that is true of international human rights laws and norms as well. They may not always be enforced—perhaps even rarely fully enforced—but they gradually come to define what a reputable nation looks like. They delineate boundaries beyond which a country or a corporate entity may not go if it wishes to retain the respect of the international community.

The United States learned this lesson the hard way with its ventures into unlawful detention and the use of torture during the presidency of George W. Bush. No one suspected that the United States would be subject to formal sanctions of any substantive kind for Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, but its reputation as a human rights champion suffered precipitous decline in the eyes of the world for its have strayed so badly from widely accepted human rights principles.

Other great powers will eventually learn this lesson as well. Chinese prosecutors have just charged Liu Xiaobo, the co-author of Charter 08—a bold online manifesto calling for political reform—with inciting subversion, a charge routinely brought against those who criticize Chinese authorities. Liu may well be convicted and China will no doubt pay little immediate price for his being so.

But prosecuting someone for no greater crime than advocating peaceful democratic change flies in the face of the global trend toward greater democracy, openness and respect for divergent opinion. There is not a chance in the world that authoritarian China will ever be the fully respected international leader it so desperately wants to be until it conforms its civil and political practices to international norms just as surely as it needs to do its economic and trade policies.

And where did those global civil and political norms originate? With that “hortatory statement of aspiration,” the Universal Declartion of Human Rights.

Fortunately, dozens of countries have displayed far less fear and stubbornness than China when it comes to changing values. For many of them over the years aspiration has translated into expectation and expectation turn into commitment. That’s a remarkable achievement for a little document only a few pages long. So happy anniversary, Universal Declaration, and thanks for the renewed exhortation on Human Rights Day 2009.

William F. Schulz, a Senior Fellow in human rights policy at CAP, served as executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994-2006. He is the author of  Strategic Persistence: How the United States Can Help Improve human Rights in China.


[1] Oona A. Hathaway, “The Promise and Limits of the International Law of Torture,” in Sanford Levinson, ed., Torture: A Collection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 199-212.