Friday, February 1, 2008

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Human rights vs. democracy promotion

Human Rights Watch has released their 2008 world report, and it's getting some play in the Financial Times and other outlets. Here's the FT lead:

The world’s well established democracies are increasingly prepared to give credibility to authoritarian regimes, failing to probe how autocracies conduct flawed elections to bolster their international standing, a leading human rights body said on Thursday.

In its annual survey of democracy across the world, Human Rights Watch argues that the US and the European Union are too quick to support “sham democracies” in states like Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan, turning a blind eye to their abuse of underlying civil and political rights.

“In 2007, too many governments...acted as if simply holding a vote was enough to prove a nation ’democratic,’ and Washington, Brussels and European capitals played along,” Human Rights watch said in its latest report.

This is difficult to dispute. That said, Roth's introduction reveals an interesting tension between the human rights and democracy promotion agendas:
Part of the reason that dictators can hope to get away with such subterfuge is that, unlike human rights, “democracy” has no legally established definition. The concept of democracy reflects the powerful vision that the best way to select a government and guide its course is to entrust ultimate authority to those who are subject to its rule. It is far from a perfect political system, with its risk of majoritarian indifference to minorities and its susceptibility to excessive influence by powerful elements, but as famously the “least bad” form of government, in the words of Winston Churchill, it is an important part of the human rights ideal. Yet there is no International Convention on Democracy, no widely ratified treaty affirming how a government must behave to earn the democracy label. The meaning of democracy lies too much in the eye of the beholder.

By contrast, international human rights law grants all citizens the right to “take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and to “vote” in “genuine periodic elections” with “universal and equal suffrage” and “secret ballot” so as to “guarantee[] the free expression of the will of the electors.” It also grants a range of related rights that should be seen as essential to democracy in any robust and meaningful form, including rights protecting a diverse and vigorous civil society and a free and vibrant press, rights defending the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law. The specificity and legally binding nature of human rights are their great strength. But when autocrats manage to deflect criticism for violating these rights by pretending to be democrats, when they can enjoy the benefits of admission to the club of democracies without paying the admission fee of respect for basic rights, the global defense of human rights is put in jeopardy. Why bother complying with so intrusive a set of rules as international human rights law when, with a bit of maneuvering, any tyrant can pass himself off as a “democrat”?

On the one hand, Roth is correct so far as the state of international law is concerned. On the other hand, it's far from clear that the clarity of human rights law has had appreciable effects on, you know, respect for human rights.

Indeed, whether human rights treaties have had any effect on state behavior is a disputed point in both international relations and international law scholarship. Compared to the various waves (and smaller counterwaves) of democratization that have occurred in recent decades, however, the advancement of human rights looks like its lagging pretty badly. So I'm not sure that the codification of human rights law is the great advancement that Roth proclaims it to be.

posted by Dan on 02.01.08 at 11:48 AM


But 9-11 changed everything.

posted by: someotherdude on 02.01.08 at 11:48 AM [permalink]

The US is wrong if with interfere with other countries.

The US is wrong if we don't interfere by trying to guarantee everyone human rights.

So how do we win this one?

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 02.01.08 at 11:48 AM [permalink]

The problem is Bush has given cover to so-called democracies like Pakistan. They can claim to be democratic and get U.S. support because they seemingly go along with the Bush program. They are anything but democratic but know that to get U.S. aid all they have to do is espouse the Bush doctrine and they will be labeled democracies. Why doesn't Pakistan accept the U.S. military aid being offered to go after the extremists? Because they want the cash instead to spread around to the corrupt officials. The U.S. is being badly used in Pakistan because of Bush's personal liking for Musharraf. Millions are going down the drain because of Bush's crush on Musharraf. When Pakistan is "lost" as Iran was due to U.S. backing for the shah of Iran, will a lesson be learned? No. It will be business as usual.

posted by: outsidethe beltway on 02.01.08 at 11:48 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?