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Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


The Need for Stronger Institutions

The advantages of a rights approach remain theoretical without broad governmental ratification of the relevant human rights treaties and a reliable means of enforcement. Stronger institutions are needed to insist that governments and corporations respect human rights in their global dealings. The United Nations and the International Labour Organization have played an important role in establishing human rights standards, including the U.N.'s international covenants and the ILO's core labor standards. But these institutions lack adequate enforcement powers. Except in extraordinary circumstances, the most they can do is encourage treaty ratification and condemn abusive conduct. The U.N. has been more effective because its special rapporteurs and working groups have more latitude to use public shaming to encourage compliance. The tripartite nature of the ILO -- combining representatives of government, business, and labor -- often leaves the organization paralyzed when it tries to uphold rights in contentious situations.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization, which does have enforcement powers, focuses on promoting global trade, sometimes at the expense of international human rights norms. The proposal to add a "social clause" to its mandate has been controversial in part because the WTO has no expertise, culture, or tradition of protecting rights. Moreover, many Southern governments and NGOs fear that sanctions under a social clause would be applied against only developing countries, not against comparable abuses in the industrialized world.

At a regional level, the Council of Europe has established clear rights standards in the European Convention on Human Rights, enforced by the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Social Charter. At the same time, the European Union has established an institutionalized "social dialogue" procedure among employers and unions, set forth in its Maastricht Social Protocol and Agreement, and an international court, the European Court of Justice, with a proven track record of protecting employment rights. However, the commitment to integration that made this model possible is peculiar to Europe. It is not clear whether the model can be applied elsewhere.

At a national level, labor rights have been promoted through trade conditionality, such as the linkage between respect for core labor rights and access to preferential trade benefits (Generalized System of Preferences) that exists in U.S. and E.U. legislation. But this conditionality is limited geographically and applied irregularly. It should be broadened, made justiciable, and applied more consistently.


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Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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