The U.N. and the Protection of Human Rights: An Uneasy Relationship
Ilya Somin has a characteristically thoughtful post on the shortcomings of the U.N. system for promoting human rights and of international human rights law more generally, as seen in the recent hapless efforts of the U.N. Human Rights Council to protect Iranians from repression by their own government.
The bottom line is that the main weaknesses of the international human rights system are structural. By giving so much influence to the very sorts of governments that human rights law is supposed to constrain, it actually empowers oppressors much more than victims. In the short run, liberal democratic governments should work to limit the scope of the system and and prevent its pernicious elements from overriding their own domestic law, a point McGinnis and I emphasized in our articles linked above. In places like Iran, progress in protecting human rights probably depends on action by liberal democracies and internal dissidents acting outside the confines of the UN system. Liberal democracies cannot and will not always prioritize the promotion of human rights. But they have fewer perverse incentives on these issues than dictatorships do.
I pretty much agree with Somin’s critique of the UN human rights system. On the other hand, I am not sure what the U.S. and other liberal democracies’ posture should be with respect to the UN system. Rather than vilify the system, I think the U.S. should make a good faith effort to participate in the system (e.g. the current Obama Administration policy). On the other hand, the U.N. system cannot be seen as the only legitimate source of the content of international human rights law. U.S. and other liberal countries’ participation must never concede this point, and must always retain the option for a non-U.N. mechanism to enforce and protect human rights if the U.N. continues to be “captured” by unsavory regimes. A separate “League of Democracies” might help. I admit this sort of balancing policy is tricky, and the U.S. has never quite figured out how to do this. I am curious what his approach would be or the views of our readers.