The Duck of Minerva

Continuing the debate on the UNHRC

17 June 2005

Dan raises some important points in his response to my post expressing some skepticism about the Congressional Task Force’s recommendation to eliminate the United Nations Human Rights Commission and replace it with a democracies-only Human Rights Council operating outside of UN control. After considering his arguments I remain convinced that the Task Force’s proposal is a bad idea, even though the present system is certainly a flawed one. Replacing this flawed system with the proposed Human Rights Commission would, in my opinion, make things worse rather than better. It would make it harder to promote human rights globally without resorting to coercive force, and would also contribute to what I would argue is the biggest problem facing international politics today: the dangerous spectacle of an overwhelmingly powerful United States that is convinced that it is acting according to universal right.

Let me take up Dan’s points directly before re-stating my most important reservations about the Task Force’s proposal.

First, Dan is skeptical that shaming can work for a human rights abuser seated on the Commission, because that state would be more likely to understand their election as “evidence that their human rights abuses are insufficient to stigmatize them.” If having a good human rights record were actually a criterion of membership on the Commission, then this would be a reasonable conclusion for the state to draw. But as far as I know, under the present system it is not the case that one has to be an exemplary adherent of human rights norms to be elected to the Commission, otherwise Libya, Sudan, etc. would never have been elected. So at the moment, no special grace is bestowed by being elected to the Commission; this would not be the case under the proposed new Council.

Second, Dan suggests that rhetorical coercion would work best if states were denied membership on the basis of their human rights record. But I’m not sure that this is the case. Denying a state membership unless they adhered to certain standards would only work if a) membership were desirable in itself and b) sufficient pressure could be mounted to deny states membership on this basis. This 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. And the carrot-and-stick approach would also presume the existence of precisely the thing that the Commission is set up to achieve: a universal agreement on and assent to human rights norms. If everyone already thought that human rights were a good thing, we wouldn’t need a Human Rights Commission. Instead, we have a situation in which there is a lot of formal assent to human rights norms together with a lot of violation of those norms in practice, which strikes me as a perfect opportunity to engage in rhetorical coercion.

Third, Dan argues that I conflate membership on the Commission with voice opportunities more generally. While Dan’s certainly right that states can bring up human rights issues in other forums, and participate in broader debates about human rights, their ability to do so does not present as many opportunities for rhetorical coercion as membership on the Commission would. Members of the Commission are charged to “examine, monitor and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories…or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide.” This institutional charge makes their hypocrisy even more apparent; the state has been placed into a role that highlights its own human rights record, increasing the opportunities for others to try to shame the state into compliance.

Fourth — and this may be the most profound disagreement between Dan and myself on this issue — Dan argues that human rights abusers can’t be trusted to effectively monitor or enforce human rights abuses. This suggests that Dan regards the Human Rights Commission as something akin to the US Justice Department: an instrument for executing policy and administering and enforcing law. But that’s not what the Human Rights Commission is. The Justice Department is part of an administrative hierarchy, backed up by the sovereign authority of the federal government; the UNHRC can’t be like this, given the manifest lack of a world government. So what is it? I’d suggest that UNHRC is more like a jury, in the way that Tocqueville describes juries functioning: they are (ideally) little laboratories or schoolrooms where people learn how to deliberate, how to exercise popular sovereignty, and so forth. The point? The Justice Department directs its efforts outward, at people not in the Justice Department, and can be evaluated based on how well it affects their actions. But UNHRC is also directed inwards, and can provide an opportunity to socialize its members. Making an excellent human rights record a condition of membership would deprive the organization or its successor of that possibility.

[Parenthetically, I have no idea whether or not anyone has actually tried this strategy, or whether it has worked. But what I do know is that shifting to a Council of the Putatively Virtuous Democracies would eliminate the possibility of using this kind of strategy.]

Fifth, Dan suggests that international organizations are supposed to create clear standards, and human rights abusers can’t be trusted to create such standards and effectively monitor them. If we assume that “being a human rights abuser” is a dispositional quality of a regime, and that service on a Human Rights Commission can never affect the state serving, then this argument follows. In fact, something like this argument seems to animate the Task Force’s recommendations, although they give the dispositional quality a name — “democracy” — and use that as the criterion of membership on the proposed Council. I am not convinced by this argument, though, as 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.

I am also reminded of the fact that George Bush the Elder appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court, and that Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to be Chief Justice. Neither move worked out particularly well for the Republican Party. The moral of the story, I think, is that actors can change. And I think that this is especially important if they are being placed in a position where rhetorical coercion can be most effectively applied. I think UNCHR fits.

Finally, Dan notes that “it is very difficult for citizens of liberal democracies to take those rules seriously when they compare their own records to those of the states that sit in positions of judgement.” Granted. I am just not at all confident that establishing a Council composed of democracies which are definitionally advocates of human rights will make it any easier to do this. The charge of hypocrisy has no logical merit, although it has political efficacy in many situations; the current culture of personal purity in American politics, where people can be forced to leave public office because of an extramarital affair [which baffles me, given a) the statistics on extramarital affairs in the United States in general, and b) the fact that whether a person is sleeping with someone other than her or his spouse tells me nothing whatsoever about whether that person is a good choice to run the country. Case in point: FDR. ‘Nuff said], certainly increases the likelihood that citizens of the US will make precisely the argument you mention as a way of shielding themselves from accusations of human rights abuse. But is this likely to be any different under the Task Force’s proposal? I’d submit that the situation will get worse.

This brings me to my last point. From the general tenor of Dan’s response, I infer that his major concern in thinking about the Task Force’s recommendations is what the implications of the proposed changes will be for the promotion of global human rights. Although I share that concern, I have to be honest that it is not my most important consideration when thinking about this issue. 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?

Countries are not virtuous. Politics should not be about virtue. And trying to eliminate the evil other — fighting what Andreas, in a Schmittian mode, referred to as the “Liberal War Against Politics” — is in my view likely to lead to even greater disasters in the future. I just can’t reconcile myself to a policy that would give even more symbolic ammunition to those who would claim the mantle of divine favor for the United States.

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