If you want to promote respect for human rights you’re likely to turn to the law, and not just any law: human rights are usually if not always included in constitutions and in the human rights treaties that countries have accepted. They are, in other works, part of the basic law. You hope and expect that those in charge of verifying respect for the law and enforcing this respect when it’s absent will see that the case you bring before them is a clear violation of human rights – clear on the basis of the evidence you present – and will use their legal monopoly of violence in order to force the violators to stop, to respect the law and to remedy the harm that is done to you or to those you represent. Judicial courts, including international courts, and enforcement agencies such as the police force, the military, peacekeepers and such, are believed to be the institutions that are best placed to promote respect for human rights law.
You may have many good reasons for this belief: there’s the authority of the law as a special kind of rule, stronger and more commonly accepted than rules of morality, and there’s the possibility to use violence as a means to coerce. You may also have good reasons to believe that these legal and enforcement institutions will never be perfect: there can be perjury, judges may be incapable, suspects can escape, the police may be corrupt, laws can be counterproductive etc. Still, you strongly believe that the law is the best you can hope for in a world of imperfect humans, and certainly better than self-defense or persuasion.
Many of us will recognize our own beliefs in this description. However, one could easily call these beliefs naive. Look at the Supreme Court in the U.S. for instance. Would there be so much bickering over the nomination of new Justices by acting Presidents, if the judicial protection of rights was the quasi-mechanical process that I just described? Or is this bickering not proof of the fact that the political affiliation of the Justices determines to a large degree their rulings? Why would the other political party systematically object to the Justices proposed by the President if the politics of those Justices don’t make a lot of difference in the way they rule? But if those politics do make a lot of difference, what is left of the credibility of the system of law as a means to enforce respect for rights?
Some of this skepticism is the basis of the theory of legal indeterminacy. This theory states that laws have nothing to do with how judicial cases come out; that lawyers and judges can manipulate laws and the legal system in order to justify any decision they please; and that any possible result in any legal dispute can be justified as the legally correct outcome. If laws do not determine or – according to a more moderate form of the theory – do not significantly constrain judicial decisions, then it’s often futile or even risky to ask a judge to rule on a supposed rights violation. You may get the result you want, but only if the judges share your moral, political or religious outlook. In the worst case, your tormentor is vindicated, which will only encourage him and others like him.
The theory of indeterminacy is corroborated by the historical shifts in rulings based on the same texts. Take for example the death penalty in the U.S., which has been ruled both constitutional and unconstitutional. Of course, the indeterminacy of the law is not always the fault of judges, lawyers or prosecutors. The legislators also have a role to play. Laws have to be clear and unequivocal.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to require strict determinacy: no law, however carefully crafted, will produce one and the same legally acceptable type of outcome over decades. There will always be so-called hard cases that require interpretation and choices. And because beliefs and opinions change over time, interpretations and choice will also change. Still, in all legal systems in the world, there seems to be much more indeterminacy than what most of us believe would be optimal.
Take another example: international criminal justice. Here as well it’s clear that the equal application of the law is just a sick joke. Security Council Resolutions – which can be seen as quasi-judicial – are notoriously inconsistent, and their application is even more inconsistent. The International Criminal Court, one of the best international legal institutions around, only manages to prosecute the worst violators in the poorest and geopolitically irrelevant parts of Africa. China merely has to hint at possible economic consequences and all human rights talk about China – let alone action against China – stops instantly. Never mind the fact that China has accepted human rights treaties. Russia is part of the Council of Europe and has therefore accepted the jurisdiction of the most powerful international human rights court in the world. And yet, we all know< that human rights in Russia are far from safe. International human rights law clearly suffers from collective action problems, perverse incentives, competing priorities and double standards.
So, if it's naive to rely only on the law, which other means do we have in order to promote respect for human rights? The two major alternatives to law are story-telling and honor. Read more about those here and here respectively.