from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Global Human Rights: Miles to Go

February 28, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Nearly three years ago, the first arrest warrant for a sitting head of state was issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The date was March 4, 2009, and the leader was Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who remains that country’s leader to this day. As this glass half-full anniversary approaches and the international community faces what UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called “almost certain” instances of crimes against humanity in Syria, the complex issue of human rights has once again assumed the center stage in world politics.

Recognizing the significance of both developments, the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program has launched the newest expansion to the award-winning Global Governance Monitor: a component dedicated to human rights.

Created in 2009, the Global Governance Monitor tracks multilateral efforts to address global challenges. Similar to the guide’s seven other issue-specific components assessing the nonproliferation, finance, oceans governance, climate change, armed conflict, terrorism, and public health regimes, the new chapter on human rights includes:

  • A brief video explaining the state human rights worldwide.
  • A graphic timeline tracing the history of the regime, from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 through the present.
  • An issue brief on the regime’s strengths and weaknesses, and steps the United States should take to address gaps.
  • A matrix evaluating the scope and mandate of all the major institutions and initiatives related to human rights.
  • An interactive map detailing flashpoints around the world, including the struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, political repression in Myanmar, and torture at Guantánamo Bay.
  • A list of resources, including essential documents, recent articles, and CFR experts on the subject.

The human rights component’s interactive issue brief also features six core policy recommendations to improve and reform the global human rights regime. In particular, it is vital that relevant players within the international community:

  • Empower regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to act. Global intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are important but not enough to alone advance the fullest realization of human rights. Regional organizations and NGOs have also become important actors. The United States, in concert with other leading powers and global IGOs, should actively cultivate a more robust role for regional institutions and NGOs.
  • Encourage intergovernmental organizations’ technical assistance to states. The United States should make a concerted effort to urge intergovernmental organizations to devote more time and resources to help developing countries expand their capacity to protect human rights on the ground. Although they must not abandon roles of speaking truth to power, condemning rank abuses of human dignity, and authorizing experts to monitor human rights, IGOs finite resources would be best spent on technical assistance.
  • Further renovate the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and global architecture. In the long run, the global human rights architecture needs to be reformed. Two reforms, which should not be objectionable to the developing world, are critical. First, UNHRC membership should become universal, so as to not privilege illiberal governments that win elections and to permit governments to spend more time on tangible human rights programs than on elections. Second, the UNHRC should move to New York, where all member states already field delegations, to better inform the work of the UN Security Council, UN Development Program, UN Women, and UN Children’s Fund.
  • Rethink economic and social rights. In the long run, the United States can advance the efficacy of the human rights regime by encouraging the global North and South to rethink economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR). The United States has been even less inclined than more social democratic states in the North to embrace the justifiability of ESCR. However, recent U.S. policy priorities—such as combating human trafficking and HIV/AIDS through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief initiative—demonstrate the inseparability of weak rule of law, discrimination, poverty-induced desperation, and poor public health.
  • Make democracy a touchstone of multilateral human rights. Human rights and democracy are not one and the same. Human rights can be incrementally improved in contexts lacking elements of democratic governance. Yet, in the long run, the global human rights regime should be premised on the idea that democratic governance is the best foundation for durable human rights protection. Multilateral institutions should premise their declaratory, diplomatic, and aid policies on democracy as the foundation, as the UN Development Program did between 1999 and 2005.
  • Think outside the box in using global economic institutions to promote rights. Global economic institutions, given adequate political will, can also help promote and protect human rights. In particular, these institutions should promote the notions of equal access to justice and real-time freedom of information as catalysts for economic development. For instance, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and regional development banks should extend their anticorruption and good governance work to promote equal access to legal rights for all groups with the objective of expanding developing nations’ productivity and prosperity.

Together, myriad issues—whether the ongoing crises in the Middle East, the apparent spike in antigay sentiment across Africa, or calls to make Internet access a human right—highlight the once and future significance of human rights as a critical global governance issue.  The Internationalist invites readers to explore the new component.



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