Human rights in international relations
Sixty-six years after the founding of the United Nations, human rights looks like an insular world unto itself: A system with its own standards, institutions and mechanisms, a world of experts still far from being intrinsically connected to people’s daily life worlds. Insofar as the mass media pay attention to human rights questions and issues, their focus is primarily on international relations and foreign policy. This would not give any reason for concern if the emphasis were just on human rights as an end to be achieved. What permeates international relations is, however, human rights as an instrument to uplift a state’s own credibility while undermining that of other states. In that respect two distinctive ways of twisting human rights may be discerned: Offensive and defensive human rights. Offensive human rights implies a focus on violations by other states. Illustrative in this respect is the usual practice in the relations between Cuba and the United States: In whatever forum possible, motions are put forward to censure the rival state. The term defensive human rights, on the other hand, refers to the practice of signing and ratifying whatever treaty possible (not uncommonly with pre-announced reservations) as well as incorporating human rights standards in the country’s national constitution, not as a first step towards implementation but simply as a point of positive reference whenever questions are asked as to the country’s human rights record. To be sure, the ensuing state obligations are internationally enforceable only if systematic non-compliance were first reported to the UN Security Council and next resulted in action in the form of sanctions.
This could happen only very rarely as international governance is extremely weak in practice. Consequently, state sovereignty – also a UN foundational principle (UN Charter Article 2) – has remained a crucial obstacle to the enforcement of international human rights law. Thus, in practice, the states participating in Treaty-based mechanisms can refrain from submitting country reports as well as ignoring conclusive observations that require a clear follow-up, and in the Charter-based bodies they can disregard motions and resolutions requesting essential changes in their human rights policies and practices, while even denying access to UN-mandated representatives seeking entry into the country under scrutiny.
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