Human rights law has globalized during the last decades. And it has done so in two ways:
- human rights have become part of most national constitutions
- and have been enshrined in widely accepted international treaties.
In this post, I will look at the relative usefulness of these two movements. The conclusion will be that ideally human rights protection should be a national matter, but in an imperfect world, with failing national protection, international human rights protection is a necessary alternative for human rights protection.
Originally an invention of the French and American revolutions in the eighteenth century, human rights have now become part of a global legal consensus. Although there are many violations of human rights and some philosophical, ideological, cultural, or religious objections to some human rights, the fact is that these rights are part of internationally recognized legal documents (mostly treaties) accepted by the overwhelming majorities of countries. At the same time, they are included in nearly all municipal legal systems (mostly in constitutions). Human rights are the law of mankind, even though they are widely violated. They have been enshrined in the law because they need the law to be adequately protected.
Why do human rights need international law? Isn’t national law enough? These questions may seem strange and perhaps even somewhat useless. Is not the immense effort that has been invested in international human rights law during the last fifty or sixty years proof enough of its utility? I’m not convinced because there is a strong argument in favor of the assertion that the protection of human rights should be first and foremost a matter of national law and national judiciaries.
International law is far removed from ordinary citizens, and if they want to complain about human rights violations they will most likely want to use their national law and their national judiciary. Their own judiciary is closer and hence more accessible and more able to understand and punish. The first responsibility of the international community, therefore, is not regulation or the administration of justice, but assisting countries to reform their national laws and judiciaries in order to make them more compatible with human rights.
However, what if this fails? National law and national judiciaries do not always effectively protect human rights, either because of the absence of adequate national laws or because of the ineffective protection and enforcement of national laws by judiciaries and/or executive powers. And outside assistance and pressure do not always succeed in solving this kind of problem. So, if there is international law protecting human rights, this law can step in when national law fails. Local judges can invoke international law at the expense of inadequate national law. And if not the national law but the national judges are inadequate, international human rights law also provides global mechanisms and institutions allowing citizens to complain about their state’s conduct.
Imagine that such institutions would not exist. That would mean that citizens could only complain to a national organ, an organ of their own state, an organ which may be ineffective, corrupt, incompetent, or perhaps even implicated in the rights violation. And even if these national organs are effective, they are quite useless if there are no international rules for them to apply in place of inadequate national ones. So there is a strong case in favor of international human rights law combined with international monitoring of national human rights situations, and with international complaints institutions to which citizens of a country can turn in order to denounce rights violations by their country.
Ideally, international human rights law and monitoring are unnecessary, and even undesirable, because human rights protection is best carried out on a national level by a state that can correct itself. But this implies the existence of an ideal state with a well-functioning national division of powers, a national “trias politica” in which one power can control and correct the mistakes (e.g., rights violations) of another. As long as not all states are ideal states some national judiciaries need the assistance of international law when their national human rights laws are insufficient or nonexistent, and some citizens need the assistance of international monitoring and enforcement institutions when their national division of powers is insufficient or nonexistent.
As long as we are some distance from Utopia, international law and international monitoring and enforcement institutions are necessary for the universal protection of human rights and should complement national rules and institutions. Countries should be encouraged or, if necessary, pressured to accept international human rights treaties so that citizens can invoke international laws in the absence of national ones. International human rights law traditionally includes the right to monitor and to complain about human rights violations internationally, and this means, in theory at least, that individuals or groups do not have to trust their own state to correct itself and to punish its own crimes. They can involve international monitoring and complaints institutions to further their cause when their national judges are incompetent, unwilling, or unable to implement national rules. Countries should therefore also be encouraged to accept the authority of such treaty institutions wherever this acceptance is voluntary.
Furthermore, the existence of international law makes it easier to reform national law. An international system of law makes it impossible for states to take the law into their own hands and to decide autonomously what is and what is not part of their law. International law is traditionally superior to national law and it can force national law to be compatible with it. It is therefore an additional means to ensure that human rights are part of the law everywhere. By improving national law, international law makes national protection mechanisms more effective. And when it is not the national law but the national protection mechanism and institutions which are defective, international law replaces these mechanisms with global ones, or at least tries to do so (the best global complaints and enforcement procedures are still less effective than the best national judiciaries).
The individual right to denounce violations before an international judicial or quasi-judicial institution gradually took root after World War II. Today, the treatment of citizens by their state is no longer the exclusive competence of the state in question. The days are gone when states could treat their citizens as they liked. Individuals now have a right to speak in the international community and they are no longer confined to national law. They have international law to help them and international stages to voice their protest. International organizations in turn have a right to poke their nose into national affairs and in some cases even to enforce respect for human rights.
This means that citizens are no longer at the mercy of their states and that they can look for outside help if their state does not respect their rights, does not control and correct itself, does not provide mechanisms to enforce their rights (such as laws and the division of powers), or does not make sure that these mechanisms function adequately in all cases.
Most violations of human rights are the consequence of state actions or of actions by representatives of the state. Unless there is a highly effective division of powers, it is unlikely that a state will prosecute itself or its representatives, and it is necessary to have international protection. But national protection within a highly effective system of division of powers must be the first choice. Ideally, national protection is close to the people, easily accessible, legitimate, acceptable, and knowledgeable of local circumstances. It is also close to the perpetrators, which is why effective punishment is more likely than in the case of protection by another country or by an international institution, which may even fail to see the perpetrators, let alone punish them.
National protection is the best option, but also the most difficult one. The perpetrator is often the state or its representatives, which is why national protection can only function within a highly effective system of division of powers. Unfortunately, but not accidentally, most of the more serious violations of rights take place in those states that do not have such a system. National protection can only protect us against relatively minor violations because it can only function in a country with a tradition of separated powers, rule of law, etc.; in a country, in other words, that is unlikely to suffer serious violations of human rights. But still, it is a model that should be used as a universal ideal, even or especially in those countries where it is as yet far from reality. In the meantime, international jurisdiction takes the place of the ineffective national jurisdiction.