Effectiveness of International Institutions for Human Rights

Hosea Luy

How effective are international institutions in protecting human rights?

International institutions face many problems in their effort to protect and promote human rights. They are therefore only moderately effective in their protection of human rights. Although these institutions face limitations to their success, their work and achievements have been crucial to the advancement and promotion of human rights world-wide. It is also important to note that “until 1945, human rights was generally considered to be a matter within the exclusive domestic sovereignty of states” (Cassel, 2001, p. 134). Consequently international human rights institutions are still young and rapidly growing so we cannot fully analyse their effectiveness. This essay will explore the role and effectiveness of international human rights law through the United Nations, nongovernmental organisations namely Amnesty International and the impact of state sovereignty.

It is difficult to pin-point evidence that directly supports the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of international institutions. This is because international institutions work in tandem with other mechanisms to protect human rights, and only together are they successful (Cassel, 2001, p. 123). These mechanisms include the human rights consciousness of the public, nongovernmental organisations and domestic human rights institutions all of which influence each other.

This essay will focus on the protection of civil and political rights excluding a major category of human rights, economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights. Progress in these areas has been limited when examined in the context of all those in need of food, medicine, housing and other ESC rights. “International human rights activists see how little impact they have in taking on matters of purely distributive justice” (Roth, 2004, p. 72), and this is combined with the need for a huge amount of material resources to protect and promote ESC rights (Cassel, 2001, p. 124).

The United Nations (UN) is the top global institution and is unrivalled in its capability “to reach out or into virtually every society, and to establish universally applicable norms” (Gaer, 1995, p. 393). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) is the primary piece of international human rights law and has been signed and ratified by many countries. Any nation state that has signed and ratified the UNDHR is obligated to:

“make laws that protect and promote human rights for all its citizens
support non-government organisations that carry out programs to help people who are victims of human rights abuses” (Human Rights: Organisations and Institutions, 2000, para. 12).

However there is no legal obligation exists to force signatories to introduce domestic law to follow the standards set by the UNDHR (Steinerte & Wallace, 2009, p. 9). This is combined with the sometimes illegitimate excuses of national security and sovereignty that have often been used to “conceal, excuse or justify human rights abuses” (Human Rights: Organisations and Institutions, 2000, para. 6). International human rights law has quite short history and has since its inception been useful for the protection of human rights (Cassel, 2001, p. 134). It has been most effective through its indirect impacts, setting global standards for nations to follow. This has then influenced action on the domestic level in important areas such as politics, the media and the public consciousness (Cassel, 2001, p. 122). The UN’s direct mechanisms to enforce human rights also have a beneficial impact although this is much more limited (Haynes, Hough, Malik, & Pettiford, 2011, p. 452). These mechanisms, such as the Human Rights Committee designated to enforce the standards documented in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, investigate human rights abuses, communicate with governments for emergencies and publicly present their findings and proposals (Gaer, 1995, p. 393). In 2006, a new body, the Human Rights Council (HRC), was created to replace the poor performing UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) (Haynes, et al., 2011, p. 452). It is hoped that the HRC may be able to advance human rights in the future with several changes, such as meeting three times a year whereas the UNCHR only met once a year (Haynes, et al., 2011, p. 452). The UN performed a significant role in coordinating an international effort to end the human rights abuses arising from the policy of apartheid in South Africa. Evidence suggests that economic pressures and sanctions during the 1980s, played a crucial role to end the discriminatory regime (Grundy, 1991, p. 85). Nelson Mandela confirmed the large role of the UN in ending the apartheid regime when he addressed the UN General Assembly in 1994.

“We stand here today to salute the United Nations Organization and its Member States, both singly and collectively, for joining forces with the masses of our people in a common struggle that has brought about our emancipation and pushed back the frontiers of racism.” (Reddy, n.d.)

International law and the treaties established through the UN should be recognised as a “useful tool for the protection of human rights, and one which promises to be more useful in the future” (Cassel, 2001, p. 135).

Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are widely understood to be influential players in the field of international relations. They cooperate on a close level with departments of the UN, providing information on human rights situations, giving advice to commissions and committees to set agendas and policy as well as working together with operational agencies to carry out missions (Martens, 2004, p. 1051). Importantly, NGOs seek to be independent of governments and groups attempting to obtain political power (Wiseberg, 1992, p. 372). The primary goals of NGOs include monitoring and reporting on the human rights progress of nation states, especially violations and building pressure on abusers of human rights (Gaer, 1995, p. 394). Amnesty International is one of the largest human rights NGOs (Human Rights: Organisations and Institutions, 2000, para. 15). The creation of the first mechanism that had the ability to take international action in emergencies was a result of detailed NGO reports of human rights violations. The Working Group on Forced or Involuntary Disappearances sought to respond to reports in Argentina of the kidnapping and torture of people under the rule of military president Jorge Rafael Videla (Gaer, 1995, p. 392). Following a research mission in 1976, Amnesty International produced a detailed report explaining the existence of detention without judicial order and torture as well as a list of those who had “disappeared” (Gaer, 1995, p. 392). According to Mariela Belski the Director of Amnesty International in Argentina, “Argentina led the way in the prosecution of those responsible for the torture, killing and disappearance of thousands of people during the many military governments across Latin America” (Argentina: Death of former military leader who did not escape justice, 2013, para. 2). Amnesty international and other Human rights NGOs have acted as the driving force behind the vast majority of progress in the human rights field by the UN (Gaer, 1995, p. 389). They should be considered as crucial elements for the advancement of human rights and they will increase their effectiveness as they grow in the future.

A major setback to the effectiveness of international institutions seeking to advance human rights is that national sovereignty overrules international treaties (Human Rights: Organisations and Institutions, 2000, para. 10). The concept of sovereignty was first formally adopted in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (Haynes, et al., 2011, p. 29). Westphalia gave state uncontested rule over their nations and legally prevented international interference in a country’s domestic, religious affairs (McCormick, 2012, p. 1). Sovereignty is also stated in the Charter of the United Nations in Article 2-4, barring any attacks on the “territorial integrity or political independence” of any country and Article 2-7 which limits intervention (McCormick, 2012, p. 1). Each signatory to a global treaty has an obligation to and is responsible and for enacting the international human rights standards in their state’s domestic law (Steinerte & Wallace, 2009, p. 12). Often commitment to UN treaties leads to an improved respect for human rights. This is mainly true in countries with “democratically accountable governments or strong civil society” (Neumayer, 2005, p. 930). Although a strong democratic state does not always lead to compliance. Many states, including those that have strong liberal-democratic values continue to use their sovereignty to shirk international law. According to the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Trigg, Australia’s government has breached international law by placing asylum seeker children in detention. “As a matter of very clear international law children should not be detained for anything more than what is absolutely necessary for health checks and security checks.” (Children in detention: Is Australia breaching international law? 2014) Recent studies suggest that human rights laws have the least effect on nations that need it most, countries with oppressive governments “ without internal advocates for reform” (Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2007, p. 408). Taking into account cases where international law has been disregarded, we should not be pessimistic about the ratification of human rights treaties by nations including those ruled by repressive governments. This should raise hopes for future progress. The main factors preventing state commitments to international institutions are not the poor and ineffective design of these institutions but the failure of governments to commit themselves to the treaties they have signed (Moravcsik, 1995, p. 181).

Much progress has made by international human rights institutions in their short history and they should be commended for that fact. However many barriers still exist that prevent human rights being upheld across all states. The main of which is state sovereignty. Nations may choose to sign international treaties but compliance to these documents and effecting changes in domestic law is not a legal obligation. As a result, it could be argued that international institutions have been weak in their promotion and protection of human rights. Instead we should understand to see these institutions as growing establishments that are still in their infancy having remarkable achievements in a short amount of time. Institutions, in particular the United Nations and NGOs have a crucial role to play in the advancement of human rights and the full effectiveness of their operations is still to be seen.

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