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Submitted by on September 21, 2015 – 5:49 pm

cfrArticle by: http://www.cfr.org/

Issue Brief:

Although the concept of human rights is abstract, how it is applied has a direct and enormous impact on daily life worldwide. Millions have suffered crimes against humanity. Millions more toil in bonded labor. In the last decade alone, authoritarian rule has denied civil and political liberties to billions. The idea of human rights has a long history, but only in the past century has the international community sought to galvanize a regime to promote and guard them. Particularly, since the United Nations (UN) was established in 1945, world leaders have cooperated to codify human rights in a universally recognized regime of treaties, institutions, and norms. read full article at http://www.cfr.org/global-governance/global-governance-monitor/p18985#!/human-rights?cid=soc-twitter-in-human_rights_ggm-92115#resources

An elaborate global system is being developed. Governments are striving to promote human rights domestically and abroad, and are partnering with multilateral institutions to do so. A particularly dynamic and decentralized network of civil-society actors is also involved in the effort.

Together, these players have achieved marked success, though the institutionalization and implementation of different rights is progressing at varying rates. Response to mass atrocities has seen the greatest progress, even if enforcement remains inconsistent. The imperative to provide people with adequate public health care is strongly embedded across the globe, and substantial resources have been devoted to the challenge. The right to freedom from slavery and forced labor has also been integrated into international and national institutions, and has benefited from high-profile pressure to combat forced labor. Finally, the steady accumulation of human-rights-related conventions has encouraged most states to do more to implement binding legislation in their constitutions and statutes.

Significant challenges to promoting human rights norms remain, however. To begin with, the umbrella of human rights is massive. Freedom from slavery and torture, the imperative to prevent gender and racial persecution, and the right to education and health care are only some of the issues asserted as human rights. Furthermore, nations continue to dispute the importance of civil and political versus economic, social, and cultural rights. National governments sometimes resist adhering to international norms they perceive as contradicting local cultural or social values. Western countries—especially the United States—resist international rights cooperation from a concern that it might harm business, infringe on autonomy, or limit freedom of speech. The world struggles to balance democracy’s promise of human rights protection against its historically Western identification.

Moreover, implementing respect for established human rights is problematic. Some of the worst violators have not joined central rights treaties or institutions, undermining the initiatives’ perceived effectiveness. Negligence of international obligations is difficult to penalize. The UN Charter promotes “fundamental freedoms,” for example, but also affirms that nations cannot interfere with domestic matters. The utility of accountability measures, such as sanctions or force, and under what conditions, is also debatable. At times, to secure an end to violent conflict, negotiators choose not to hold human rights violators accountable. Furthermore, developing nations are often incapable of protecting rights within their borders, and the international community needs to bolster their capacity to do so—especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Finally, questions remain over whether the UN, regional bodies, or other global actors should be the primary forums to advance human rights.

In the long term, strengthening the human rights regime will require a broadened and elevated UN human rights architecture. A steady coalition between the global North and South to harmonize political and economic rights within democratic institutions will also be necessary. In the meantime, regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations must play a larger role from the bottom up, and rising powers must do more to lead. Together, these changes are the world’s best hope for durable and universal enjoyment of human rights.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall assessment: Heightened attention, uneven regional efforts, weak global compliance

The international human rights regime has made several welcome advances—including increased responsiveness in the Muslim world, attention to prevention and accountability for atrocities, and great powers less frequently standing in the way of action, notably at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Yet, despite responses to emergency cases demanding action, such as Sudan and Libya, global governance in ensuring human rights has faltered.

Many experts credit intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) for advances—particularly in civil and political rights. These scholars cite the creation of an assortment of secretariats, administrative support, and expert personnel to institutionalize and implement human rights norms. Overall, the United Nations (UN) remains the central global institution for developing international norms and legitimizing efforts to implement them, but the number of actors involved has grown exponentially.

The primary mechanisms include UNSC action, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), committees of elected experts, various rapporteurs, special representatives, and working groups. War crimes tribunals—the International Criminal Court (ICC), tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and hybrid courts in Sierra Leone and Cambodia—also contribute to the development and enforcement of standards. All seek to raise political will and public consciousness, assess human-rights-related conduct of states and warring parties, and offer technical advice to states on improving human rights.

However, these mechanisms are far from consistent. Generally, when they are effective, they change states’ conduct by publicizing abuses rather than by providing technical advice or applying punitive measures. For example, no global body was capable of forcing the United States to stop its mistreatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, but mounting international pressure [PDF] did encourage fundamental U.S. reform of its detention and interrogation policies in 2009. As a result, skeptics also counter that other grassroots movements or organizations hold greater responsibility for rights improvements than global institutions. Furthermore, although progress in condemning and responding to atrocities has been significant, it has been limited in advancing civil and political rights. Many in the international community are reassessing economic, social, and cultural rights as IGOs increasingly link human rights to business practices and public health. Elsewhere, attention to the rights of women, minorities, and persecuted ethnic groups has steadily increased.

Of all rights-centered UN bodies, the UN Human Rights Council receives the most attention. In its former incarnation as the Commission on Human Rights, it developed a reputation for allowing the participation—and even leadership—of notorious human rights abusers, undermining its legitimacy. Reconstituted as the UNHRC in 2006, the new forty-seven-member body has a higher threshold for membership as well as a universal periodic review (UPR) process, which evaluates the human rights records of states, including those on the council. Generally, the UPR has been welcomed as encouraging accountability and highlighting progress, and states have largely cooperated. However, Israel became the first state to withdraw from the review panel, breaking the established precedent of collaboration and cooperation. This follows a pattern of disproportionate focus on Israel—more than half of resolutions passed since 2006 have focused on Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories—while ignoring major abuses in other states.

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