The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Conflating Means and Ends?

June 17, 2005

The debate on the UN Human Rights Commission continues.

Patrick responds to my critique of his post, so now I respond in kind.

Patrick’s first set of arguments make two key points. First, the current system doesn’t shame anyone, because odious regimes get to sit on the Commission. Second, that denying states membership on the Commission because of their human-rights records would only provide opportunities for “rhetorical coercion” if “if a) membership were desirable in itself and b) sufficient pressure could be mounted to deny states membership on this basis.”

These are excellent reasons to reform or significantly change the current system. Unfortunately for Patrick’s position, they are also reasons why the hypocrisy of specific members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission cannot provide human-rights advocates with sufficient resources to mount successful efforts to “rhetorically coerce” miscreant states. If the election to the Commission is understood by everyone to be meaningless, I can’t see how Libya is going to care if Human Rights Watch points out the irony of allowing Libya to make judgements about the human-rights record of other states.

Patrick suggests that the Commission might serve to socialize member states. Here again we run into the basic problem: it isn’t doing that right now, so why would we expect it to do that in the future?

I am, in fact, implicitly suggesting two policy options. One is that we reform the procedures to require some sort of quasi-neutral certification for states who wish to join the Commission. While imperfect, this might actually create a reputational cost for human-rights abusers. It would also allow the Commission to make judgments about whether a state is in compliance with various articles of international human-rights law that other states and domestic audiences might take seriously.

I agree that this would foreclose any “socialization” effects of being on the commission for the worst human-rights abusers. But, honestly, given that (1) there are no major benefits conferred from membership now (except for the propaganda purposes of abusive states), (2) that the most odious regimes have very strong domestic interests in continuing their practices, and (3) that the Commission does not place important officials of members states in an environment of dense interaction coupled with relative isolation from other social pressures, the Commission doesn’t have the structural characteristics that make socialization a likely outcome of membership.

The other policy option is to adopt something along the lines of what’s been proposed, i.e., the Human Rights Council. I’m coming around to the view that, implemented properly, this is not a bad idea. I’ll explain why in the context of responding to Patrick’s other arguments.

Patrick argues that the three-stage process I describe – candidacy, vetting, followed by election or non-election – wouldn’t

be rhetorical coercion any more; it would be good old-fashioned carrot-and-stick bargaining, appealing to self-interest (“do a better job with human rights and we’ll put you on the Council”) rather than trying to close off possible courses of action by rendering them illegitimate, which is what rhetorical coercion tries to do.

I can understand developing an ideal-typical construction of “rhetorical coercion” that separates it from material incentives for the purpose of academic analysis. What I can’t abide by is the idea that, in the actual world of politics, acts of rhetorical coercion cannot, and do not, involve the use of “good old-fashioned carrots and sticks.” Put more simply, why in the world would we not want to couple the two in order to get more effective compliance with human-rights regimes? I also think Patrick misses a crucial point: the three-stage process I describe does involve “rhetorical coercion.” It does so at the vetting stage. “So, Libya, you want to be a member of the Commission. How do you justify the murder of journalists who criticize the government?”

Indeed, we might maximize these kinds of benefits by establishing a Human Rights Council. Not only would its very exclusivity mean that membership would garner more benefits than the current order – in terms of the prestige conferred on its members both in the international community and with their domestic populations – but it would facilitate the kind of rhetorical coercion I just described.

There’s an additional pragmatic benefit. The states most likely to respond to both the socialization effects of membership (and to be vulnerable to rhetorical coercion) are precisely those that are liberal democracies or transitional democracies. Think about it for a second. They would be operating in a recognized peer group whose opinions they would be more inclined to take seriously. When that peer group pronounces (in an official, collective capacity), for example, that the US treatment of detainees violates international human-rights standards, it would have more effect than if the current Commission does.

When it comes down to it, the impact of any of these arrangements on human-rights compliance is likely to be marginal, but the chances of shifting the behavior of, for instance, Libya under the current system are less than the chances of changing, for instance, US behavior under a reformed system. While the overall gains from the latter change are smaller, their probability is sufficiently greater that I think we’d see a net improvement in global human rights.

Patrick’s next argument is that I misunderstand the nature of the Commission. In essence, he writes that is more akin to a jury than to a Department of Justice, and so my claim that gross human-rights abusers can’t execute their duties is misguided. He repeats his objection that

it seems to be a sub-species of the Donatist argument I critiqued in my first post: that only the virtuous can do good things. I am very uncomfortable assigning the label “good” to any actor, whether an individual human being or an artificial person like a state; I am much more comfortable assigning that label to specific actions. And in my experience actors of all kinds are capable of all kinds of actions, good and bad alike.

Patrick is one of my closest friends, and he is one of the few people I would label a “genius,” so I hope he doesn’t mind my responding that he is being hopelessly naïve.

The reason we cannot expect Libya, Sudan, or Tunisia to serve as effective “jurors” is because they have extremely strong incentives not to condemn, or adequately condemn, others for engaging in the same sort of activities they routinely engage in. The members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, developed a well-deserved reputation for resisting any attempts by outsiders – let alone their own organization – to condemn Myanmar (Burma). Why? Because they worried about opening the door to inquiry into their own mixed record on human rights. Same problem.

Given this, I just can’t see the parallel between seating a representative of, say, a genocidal state on the Commission and appointing a life-tenure justice to the Supreme Court.

Let’s cut to the chase: Patrick argues that,

Human rights violations are terrible things, but even worse, I’d posit, is a self-righteous United States of America standing astride the world firmly convinced that it is acting according to the dictates of Right and Truth. What bothers me about such a situation is that there is virtually no effective way to oppose such an empire, since it monopolizes both capabilities and justifications; fanatics are dangerous, and fanatics with massive military machines and nuclear weapons are even more dangerous. And in the case of the United States, we are confronted with the basic historical fact that the United States has always thought of itself as divinely justified. As long as no one else affirms this, some breathing room can be bought. But if we institutionalize this principle of divine election, how then could any effective opposition be mounted?

First, given the choice, I’d reluctantly assent to “a self-righteous United States of America standing astride the world firmly convinced that it is acting according to the dictates of Right and Truth” if it meant ending the genocide, genital mutilation, government-created famines, torture, child slavery, mass rapes, torture, cutting off of hands and limbs, and other ubiquitous acts of death, destruction, and sadism that characterize our world. I’m as critical of American self-pretensions as anyone, but I do have a bottom line on what I know happens every minute and every second in the world around me.

Second, the practical answer to this problem is easy. Make sure that the Human Rights Council is implemented with genuine, if restricted, multilateralism. There’s a lot in this debate that reminds me of a very insightful comment Sheri Berman made at Georgetown this spring while presenting a paper on the intellectual and practical history of social democracy. Sheri pointed out that the problem with contemporary Social Democrats is that they’ve lost sight of their core philosophical and political ideals; they spend their time now simply defending the laws and policies that were the legacy of earlier social-democratic governments and movements, ones that may no longer fit current conditions. Let’s not defend the status-quo simply because it is a legacy of an order we applaud: there’s no reason we can’t implement new architectures, or reform existing ones, if we make sure they are implemented in ways consistent with the same animating vision of world politics.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.