Making Human Rights Treaties Work

As the United States prepares to take the war on terrorism to Saddam Hussein's doorstep, the Bush administration has repeatedly called attention to human rights violations in Iraq. The Iraqi regime, President Bush tells us, has engaged in torture and extra-judicial killing and keeps the Iraqi people from enjoying basic civic and political freedoms. Not once, however, has the President suggested that these problems might be addressed through the UN human rights treaty system - a system through which Iraq has committed to abide by the very principles it is accused of violating.

Perhaps this is because the Bush administration, which has just opted out of the treaty creating the International Criminal Court and is busy trying to minimize the effects of the treaty on the US, would rather not focus attention on UN treaties just now. Or perhaps it is because Iraq is far from alone in its disregard of its human rights treaty commitments. Whatever the reason, the apparent irrelevance of the human rights treaty system in current debates is a worrisome sign.

In the half century since the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world community has created nearly 100 universal and regional human rights agreements governing issues as diverse as discrimination against women, state-sponsored torture, and the right of collective bargaining. Although these developments provide clear symbols of the world's ongoing commitment to protecting human rights, strikingly little is known about the true effectiveness of such treaties in achieving their goals.

My own recent research suggests that although countries that ratify treaties usually have better human rights records than countries that do not, countries with the worst human rights records actually ratify many treaties as often as nations with the best practices. Indeed, half of the countries responsible for the most recent widespread cases of genocide, including Rwanda in 1994 and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, had ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was essentially the same rate of ratification found among countries that had committed no genocide. Moreover, violations of human rights treaties abound. Iraq, which just held an election in which Saddam Hussein was re-elected in an uncontested election with 100% of the vote, long ago ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And Afghanistan, which under the Taliban prohibited women's participation in political or civic life, was and is a member of the Convention on the Political Rights of Women.