Does fighting for human rights actually make a difference? Scholars, policymakers, lawyers, and activists have asked that question ever since the contemporary human rights movement emerged after World War II. At any given moment, headlines supply plenty of reasons for skepticism. Today, the news is full of reports of Rohingya refugees fleeing a campaign of murder, rape, and dispossession in Myanmar; drug users dealing with brutal, state-sponsored vigilantism in the Philippines; and immigrants and minorities facing the wrath of extreme right-wing and populist movements in European countries and the United States. It is easy to succumb to a sense of despair about the laws and institutions designed to protect human rights.
In 1968, the legal scholar Louis Henkin wrote that “almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time.” Subsequent empirical studies, primarily in the fields of international trade and international environmental law, have confirmed Henkin’s qualified optimism. But in the field of international human rights, empirical studies have sometimes led to more pessimistic conclusions. In a 2002 article in The Yale Law Journal, for instance, the legal scholar Oona Hathaway concluded that “although the practices of countries that have ratified human rights treaties are generally better than those of countries that have not, noncompliance with treaty obligations appears common.”
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