Human Rights and International Law
Today’s New York Times has an interesting piece on the promotion of human/women’s rights in Africa and the tension between such rights and local custom. This is an excellent illustration of the central problem with international law (at least from a political science perspective). As I have discussed in several other posts here, the critical tension is between sovereign equality of states and the creation of strong, enforceable law. As the Times article makes clear, international legal standards, especially in an area like human rights, often runs counter to local practice, tradition, and custom in the developing worlds. For example, the rights of women to hold property or the practice of female genital cutting (both mentioned in the article) seem to be clear violations of internationally accepted norms.
In order for international law to be successful, it will have to challenge and likely make illegal many such practices. This is a problem for those believers in cultural relativism, or opponents of western “cultural imperialism.” In my experience, many supporters of broadening the breadth and scope of international law into domestic jursidictions like women’s rights are hesitant to acknowledge that doing so requires judging other cultures and declaring their traditions barbaric and illegal. This problem is compounded when international law seems to coincide with western standards for human rights or the treatment of women.
So, I’ll pose a question to all of you international lawyers out there: How can this problem be resolved? And this is not a rhetorical question. If law is to flourish, it must make judgments about right and wrong. On the other hand, if we are to protect the diversity of other cultures and prevent or slow the spread of western values, then the international community must promote sovereignty instead of law. Are you willing to promote the law at the expense of cultural diversity? Personally, I would be, although I can see few international mechanisms by which such decisions could be made. How can the international community agree on standards that violate the sovereign right of nations and peoples to govern themselves?