Human Rights Treaties in the Age of (seeming) Inhumanity…

Whether treaties are signed and/or ratified, or violations of them do/do not occur, human rights treaties demand and affirm the dignified rights of the world’s citizens. Further, on a principled level, they provide a glimmer of hope in what often seems to be a dreary age.

Considering the recent American elections, regardless of what party you belong to, who you voted for, and what you’re protesting now, the popular sentiment in the streets is one of certain groups of American people stripped of their rights, their voice, and their votes. Whether change can be made on this scale or not, when you feel as though your country and your government is not hearing you, it’s important that you have an international body or set of guidelines that you can turn to. As people have begun to divide along the line that is American democracy, it is clear that this is an issue of diversity, of inclusion, of justice, and, ultimately, of human rights.

Human rights are a hope; they are a necessary means for all to know and realise their potential and hold others up to the same ideals. “Human rights achieve their highest expression when understood in the context of human relationships – within the family, the community, the nations and among the community of nations,” the Baha’i International Community writes. To ensure that violation and compliance to human rights treaties were not biased and were held to this global standard, the Universal Periodic Review was created. It provided a universal character and nature for the compliance of treaties and the livelihood of humanity.

As such, when a nation like the United States of America – widely considered to be developed, a world leader, an exemplar – has come under scrutiny for violating the rights, the voice, and the vote of half of its people after an historic election, it becomes gravely important that there is hope; that there is a standard to which we all strive. However, this is not unlike the United States. The state has violated treaties of torture, has not ratified the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, does not reprimand police brutality, and inhumanely punishes convicted criminals. How do we create a shift in our understanding of human rights and what it means to us as a universal human entity, for the “greater good”, rather than on an individual basis? Law, organization, and limitations are important to our human existence and routine. How do we elevate our understanding of law from national to international in order to rise above the barriers in a positive and holistic way?

I’ve been thinking on it quite a lot: Why did I say, when I was a little girl, that I wanted to fight for human rights when I grew up? I saw my neighbourhood and wanted to share. I looked at my community and wanted to build. I observed my country and wanted to serve. I perceived the world and wanted to change it. It was important to me to begin where I could make an effective difference and influence a person, a small group, a generation, to carry-out the lofty standards and systems we hold as ideals.

That’s what the importance of human rights treaties is: people knowing their rights and compliance happening on a personal and community-level. That’s what “think global, act local” has always meant. We can make the arguments of foreign aid and continuing violations, oppressive governments and powerless international law. However, our duty is to make change in our environments as we think about the advancement of civilization at-large. Roth writes, “[human rights treaties] codify a widely endorsed set of principles from which the conversation can begin.” This is the basis of compliance.

Therefore, I would ask, why do we need incentive? Should it not be a natural instinct and the duty of the government to protect the dignity and integrity of its peoples? The incentive should be simple. Investing in the people and their rights will lead to educational, economic, political, and social prosperity. And, if a state chooses to denounce the treaties and refuses to comply, the global standard is present and understood to, thereby, call guilty parties into question and inform affected peoples of the state that there can be an alternative. Often, it’s as simple as the empowerment an individual may gain in learning that their humanity may be protected by an international conviction of human worth.

Abdu’l-Baha, a prominent figure of the Baha’i Faith, wrote, “The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort. My hope for you is that you will ever avoid tyranny and oppression; that you will work without ceasing till justice reigns in every land…”

Local action leads to international compliance.

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One thought on “Human Rights Treaties in the Age of (seeming) Inhumanity…

  1. I agree that international human rights charters and conventions have value simply because they affirm the existence of those rights. At the same time, the more skeptical side of me wants to argue that does not mean much unless they somehow cause improvements in human rights protection. The link between the two appears tenuous and rests on several other assumptions which simply don’t hold true in many parts of the world.

    The conversation between Roth and Posner on whether human rights treaties have failed gets to the root of your question. Posner claims that despite the advances in rights and democracy over the past several decades, “there is no evidence that the treaties have played a causal role in these developments.” He claims that these are the results of development and modernization which bring about stronger institutions. It is not enough to create laws for people to abide by; we must focus more to create conditions that make them easier to implement.

    The fact that Americans have recourse to legal and international bodies when rights are trespassed is simply a privilege that many do not have. The signing of treaties does not automatically transfer into the community’s knowledge of rights. In much of the third world, people are illiterate and thus unable to understand their rights, or may simply not have access to human rights lawyers or financial resources to defend themselves. In many countries, especially non-democracies, the right to protest, assemble, or publicly assert your rights is a dangerous affair. In this sense, most of the world – unlike Americans – do not really have an international body or set of guidelines to turn to when their rights are violated.

    I often ask myself the same question that you posed: “How do we create a shift in our understanding of human rights and what it means to us as a universal human entity, for the “greater good”, rather than on an individual basis?” But this “greater good” is harder to envision, and dissolves into a kind of abstract and transparent notion when it runs up against the solid precepts of history. In a world where political decisions turn more on material than moral considerations, states will choose development or security over human rights. Many Asian nations see collective interests as overriding individual ones on which Western notions of human rights are based. This is the trade-off that China and other nations accept. In this sense, there may be prerequisites to protection: it is not simply knowledge of rights or an international standard that is critical, but other basic societal needs need to be met before rights can reasonably be protected.

    This could explain why it does not appear a “natural instinct” or perceived priority of the government to protect all of its citizens’ human rights. If protecting human rights clearly led to societal prosperity, we would expect to see more protection. Perhaps the causal arrow is reversed – it is only with economic prosperity that rights standards can be met. Or human rights protection is one of many necessary ingredients for prosperity. There appears to be a strong correlation between rights-protecting states and prosperous states and democracies, but many are not convinced that they should pour resources into protecting human rights before they reach other development goals. If this is the case, then it is not simply universal affirmation of those rights that is critical. Most states do want to protect their people, but security and development may be overriding priorities and prerequisites.

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