Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Kenneth Roth on human rights

Today, 10 December, is Human Rights Day, commemorating The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. In celebration, we’re sharing an edited extract from International Human Rights Law, Second Edition by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

The modern state can be a source of both good and evil. It can do much good – protecting our security, ensuring our basic necessities, nurturing an environment in which people can flourish to the best of their abilities. But when it represses its people, shirks its duties, or misapplies its resources, it can be the source of much suffering.

International human rights law sets forth the core obligations of governments toward their people, prescribing the basic freedoms that governments must respect and the steps they must take to uphold public welfare. But the application of that law often differs from the enforcement of statutes typically found in a nation’s law books.

In countries that enjoy the rule of law, the courts can usually be relied on to enforce legislation. The rule of law means that courts have the independence to apply the law free of interference, and powerful actors, including senior government officials, are expected to comply with court orders.

In practice, there is no such presumption in most of the countries where my organization, Human Rights Watch, works, and where international human rights law is most needed. The judges are often corrupt, intimidated, or compromised. They may not dare hold the government to account, or they may have been co-opted to the point that they do not even try, or the government may succeed in ignoring whatever efforts they make.

International human rights law should be seen as a law of last resort when domestic rights legislation fails. Judicial enforcement is always welcome, but when it falls short, human rights law provides a basis that is distinct from domestic legislation for putting pressure on governments to uphold their obligations.

Human rights groups investigate and report on situations in which governments fall short of their obligations. The resulting publicity, through the media and other outlets, can undermine a government’s standing and credibility, embarrassing it before its people and peers and generating pressure for reform.

Beyond documenting and reporting violations of human rights law, human rights groups must shape public opinion to ensure that the exposure of government misconduct is met with opprobrium rather than approval. In part this is done by citing international law to convince the public of a global consensus about what is right or wrong in a given context. By presenting an issue in terms of rights, human rights groups help the public to develop a moral framework for assessing governmental conduct beyond public sentiment in any particular case or incident.

For the law to play this role of moral instruction, it is not enough simply to recite it. When people’s security or traditions are at stake, it takes more than a mere reference to the law to change the public’s sense of moral propriety. Human rights groups must be creative in moving the public to embrace what the law demands.

Sometimes it is difficult to convince a local public to disapprove of its government’s conduct. Thus, the great challenge facing human rights groups is often less concerned with arguing the law’s fine points or applying them to the facts of a case than with convincing the public that violations are wrong. That requires the hard work of helping the public to identify with the victim’s plight, making the law come alive, and generating outrage at its violation with some public of relevance. When human rights law can be made to correspond with the public’s sense of right and wrong, governments face intense pressure to respect that law. Shame can be a powerful motivator.

Headline image credit: Hands raised. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.