The Duck of Minerva

A Response to Patrick Jackson

17 June 2005

I’ve thought about Patrick’s post, “The Uses of Hypocrisy”, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot agree with the interesting arguments he puts forth. I share some of his concerns about the proposal for a “Human Rights Council,” but I think he gets the effect of having gross abusers of human rights on the UN Human Rights Commission exactly backwards.

1. Gross human-rights abusers are unlikely to be “shamed” because of their presence on the UN Human Rights Commission. They are more likely to interpret being elected to the Commission as evidence that their human rights abuses are insufficient to stigmatize them. Indeed, the optimal process for “rhetorical coercion” would be the following: (1) a state attempts to become a member of the Commission, (2) its potential membership garners widespread opposition because of its record on human rights, and (3) it loses the vote for membership.

2. In this respect, Patrick’s arguments might actually favor the establishment of a more restrictive “Human Rights Council.” First, because being excluded from membership would be a strong signal of condemnation for human rights abuses. Second, because it would focus much more scrutiny on those states that do become members. Since the obvious criticism of a “democracies” club is that membership would be based on the political interests of countries like the United States, there would be more pressure on the Human Rights Council to defend its membership criteria, as well as for members to get their act together in order to avoid those kinds of criticisms.

3. Patrick conflates membership on the Commission with “voice opportunity.” Certainly even human-rights abusers ought to participate in debates about the scope, nature, and importance of various political and economic freedoms. Yet it is not clear that denying them a position on the body responsible for enforcing and monitoring human-rights abuses is tantamount to denying them a voice on those matters. They retain the right to speak in the General Assembly and other institutional venues, as well as in non-institutional diplomatic and public arenas. There should be a higher criteria for membership in specialized organs whose job is to pursue specialized tasks.

4. I am unconvinced by Patrick’s argument that states that gross human-rights abusers can effectively monitor or enforce human-rights abuse. Liberals rightfully question whether John Ashcroft should’ve been put in charge of protecting American liberties. They correctly note that an administration whose policy directives either condone or suggest torture cannot be trusted to investigate or stop prisoner abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantanamo Bay. The same logic applies even more so to continuing a system that allowed Libya to chair the Human Rights Commission, as it did in 2003. (Indeed, the continued obscenities committed by the Libyan regime suggest any “shaming” impact was marginal, at best).

5. What this comes down to, in some respects, is the function that organizations such as the UNCHR and its related treaties and covenants serve. One of those functions is to create clearer definitions of when a country is in compliance or in noncompliance with a set of principles – whether nonproliferation, open markets, or human rights. If we are ever to have even reasonably clear standards to monitor and enforce, we cannot give gross human-rights abusers the right to sit on the Commission. Doing so vitiates those standards.

6. Finally, such situations make it harder to use “rhetorical coercion” against relatively clean democracies, such as the US. They undermines the arguments of third parties – whether the UN or NGOs – when they refer to the obligations laid out by the UN and relevant international law. For good reason, 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.

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