As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, how do we explain the declaration's significance in a world still rife with human rights violations? Is Eleanor Roosevelt's vision a failure because it has not put an end to the abuses that spawned it? These questions are recurring themes in the recent commentary on this site by AC Grayling, Francesca Klug and others.
In answering them, I start with the assumption that, from the short-term perspective of most governments, human rights are inconvenient. Most governments are eager to cling to power, and they are often tempted to do so by censoring a critical newspaper, jailing a pesky opposition leader, or scapegoating a vulnerable minority. Even when pursuing other goals, governments resort all too readily to an ends-justify-the-means mindset that leads to human rights abuse.
Sixty years ago, governments could pretty much get away with these strategies, with little consequence for their international standing. The universal declaration began to change that. It gave rise to a host of treaties, ratified by most governments of the world, which transformed an aspirational statement into legally binding standards. The United Nations, in turn, established institutions to scrutinise governmental compliance and to condemn transgressions.
But arguably the most important development inspired by the declaration is the emergence of a diverse and vibrant human rights movement. Today, local human rights groups exist in nearly every country. They use a range of tactics to address everything from classic repression to the arbitrary denial of housing, education, and healthcare. Their concerns, in turn, are projected globally by international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In situations of serious abuse, the human rights movement often cannot rely on local courts to enforce rights. Abusive governments have long figured out that killing, corrupting or compromising a few judges and lawyers is enough to secure impunity for human rights abuse. Instead, the human rights movement has developed the capacity to put intense pressure on abusive governments with the goal of forcing them to resist the temptation to violate human rights.
Most important is the power to shame. Today, in light of the movement set in motion by the declaration, no government wants to be known as a human rights violator. By carefully investigating, reporting, and publicising misconduct, human rights groups can subject abusive governments to intense public opprobrium. Because that embarrassment undermines legitimacy at home and abroad, governments will go to great lengths to avoid it. They often begin by denying the problem or attacking the messenger, but ultimately they recognise that the key to their public-relations problem is to acknowledge and change abusive practices.
Second, working in influential capitals around the world, human rights groups have developed the capacity to exert intense diplomatic pressure. The declaration has encouraged governments not only to respect human rights at home but also to promote human rights in their relations abroad. They might withhold the sales of arms, or condition budgetary support, or simply refuse to invite a leader to prestigious summits, until the abusive government curbs serious violations. These forms of pressure increase the cost of abuse.
Third, in extreme cases of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, the human rights movement has helped develop the capacity to prosecute individual offenders, including sitting heads of state. The emerging system of international justice, culminating in the International Criminal Court, provides venues for prosecution that are beyond the reach of abusive governments to shut down. Having worked intensively to establish these tribunals, human rights groups now provide evidence, expert testimony, and political support.
Finally, in situations of ongoing mass murder, human rights groups can sometimes convince the world to deploy military force to stop the killing. The concept of government responsibility to protect people facing mass atrocities is still contested, but increasingly, at the behest of the human rights movement, states are willing to put pressure on an abusive government until it relents and agrees to the deployment of an international protection force.
None of this guarantees an end to human rights violations, as the prevalence of abuse in today's world painfully attests. But it does mean that governments may pay a high price for abuse — their reputation, their finances, their freedom and even the control of their territory. They may calculate that the benefits of violating human rights still outweigh these costs. But as the costs rise, so does the likelihood that governments will resist the temptation to abuse. That revised calculation, a consequence of pressure from the human rights movement, is the most powerful legacy of the declaration.