Human Rights and International Law (8): Real and Normative Universality of Human Rights

No doubt the commitment of many countries to human rights is less than authentic and whole-hearted. Yet, the fact of the commitment, that it is enshrined in a constitution, and that it is confirmed in an international instrument are not to be dismissed lightly. Even hypocrisy may sometimes deserve one cheer for it confirms the value of the idea, and limits the scope and blatancy of violations. Louis Henkin

Even though human rights are violated virtually everywhere, the principle that they should be defended is asserted virtually everywhere. Virtually no one actually rejects the principle of defending human rights. Susan Mendus

The Vienna Declaration of 1993, accepted by almost all states of the world (more than 170), affirms that the universal nature of human rights is “beyond question” and that these rights are “the birthright of all human beings”. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the two major treaties for the protection of human rights – have been signed by more than 140 countries (one of them is China). All of these countries have undertaken the legal obligation to respect human rights (including political and economic rights). The universality of human rights is a fact in positive law.

However, all we have is normative universality. Everybody or almost everybody agrees on the norm, but there is as yet, no actual universal application of the norm. Theory is one thing, but reality often struggles behind. Promises are not kept, declarations of good intent are outright lies and treaties are violated. Furthermore, it is very difficult to enforce treaties. There is no global police force or executive power and there is the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.

However, theoretical or normative consensus is not useless. It means that evil is not almighty. Evil has to lie and cheat. Hypocrisy is always a compliment to virtue. There can be no hypocrisy, if virtue does not have at least some influence. Even though a declaration or a commitment often does not change reality immediately and substantially, it can be referred to when yet another dissident is put behind bars. If a state violates a treaty, it will have some difficulty explaining why it has done so, why its actions contradict its words, why the situation supposedly warrants exceptional measures deviating from a self-imposed rule, and why these “exceptional” measures are a part of everyday life for many citizens.

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