The Human Rights Regime: A Podcast Primer

Human Rights Regime
The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room is the meeting room of the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the Palace of Nations in Geneva.

The Human Rights Regime

This week’s podcast focuses on China and the international human rights regime with Rana Siu Inboden. The poor state of human rights in China is widely known. The tragedy at Tiananmen is just one of many chapters in a long story of disrespect for human rights. When I was younger, people demanded freedom for Tibet. Today the attention has turned to the Uighurs of Xinjiang, or, as they call it, East Turkestan. But China is more than an isolated nation like Myanmar. Its influence on human rights extends beyond its borders. Moreover, its growing power has allowed it to become more brazen over time. As scholar Andrew Nathan has commented, “There is growing worry among Western analysts about the extent to which China, as its power grows, will seek to remake the world in its authoritarian image.”

The international human rights regime is one of many channels where China has influence to shape human rights beyond its borders. It is often overlooked because its ability to enforce its principles remains weak. Its potential to produce change is largely unrealized. Many listeners of the Democracy Paradox may know quite a bit about the human rights abuses in China, but very little of the international human rights regime. This primer is designed to bring you up to speed. It goes through the basic elements of the UN human rights regime including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, and its key instruments. This is a general overview, so I have provided links to some resources to learn even more.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone of the international human rights regime. Its passage in 1948 was more aspirational than legislative. It established the principle of human rights and clarified the rights that states must ensure for their citizens. Moreover, it showed human rights was neither radical nor controversial. It passed without any dissent and just eight abstentions. Some key nations like the Soviet Union did abstain, but they also did not block its passage. Even today nations do not openly challenge the value of human rights. 

However, the aspirations of the Universal Declaration have often fallen short of their ambitions. States did not magically respect the human rights of their citizens or their neighbors. Even the United States falls short of providing rights to “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Nonetheless, it offers a blueprint for conversations about human rights within nations and between them. Still, it took almost twenty years before the UN revisited human rights in a formal manner through the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. But today the Universal Declaration does carry greater weight through a more robust infrastructure known as the human rights regime. 

Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) formed in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). It offers a forum to discuss human rights issues involving specific countries or larger thematic issues like torture or women’s rights. It also conducts a survey of all 193 UN member states known as the Universal Periodic Review where they obtain third party contributions from NGOs about the state of human rights in individual countries. They also investigate allegations of human rights abuses and have a formalized complaint procedure to raise awareness of abuses in specific countries. 

The composition of the Human Rights Council includes 47 member states that serve six year terms. The vast size of the council gives it authority because any decisions demand extensive negotiation between diverse interests. So, the condemnation of a member state like Myanmar must pass over objections from member states such as China, Russia, and Cuba. Unfortunately, the inclusion of member states with little respect for human rights makes it difficult to make meaningful progress. The United States has expressed frustrations with the focus on Israel and Palestine without considering issues in nations such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. At the same time the Human Rights Council has shown the greatest potential when the United States has taken an active role.

Human Rights Instruments

Beginning in 1965 the UN began to extend the Universal Declaration with additional agreements to form its core instruments and monitoring bodies. The instruments have limited effectiveness because they do not take effect in a member state without their ratification. Moreover, international bodies lack any means of enforcement beyond reporting requirements and observers. Still, the treaties and conventions do form international law and can compel compliance through a country’s domestic courts. But even this expectation depends on the strength of the rule of law within any given member state. 

The nine core instruments of the human rights regime include:

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Final Thoughts

The international human rights regime includes even more committees and mechanisms for observance and reporting. Many of the core instruments include optional protocols with even stiffer requirements. Nonetheless, its most effective tools are indirect. The reporting and observance is to raise awareness and shame countries into better practices. However, many countries today actively resist key elements of the human rights regime. The Like Minded Group (LMG) works to limit the growth of the regime and hinder country specific actions. Still, the human rights regime has made progress toward the adoption of improved human rights practices despite its limitations. 

The Democracy Paradox will explore China’s relationship with the human rights regime this week. Look for the interview with Rana Siu Inboden on September 14th. 

Further Reading

Rana Siu Inboden (2020) China and the International Human Rights Regime: 1982-2017

Amnesty International Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Roland Axtmann (2007) Democracy: Problems and Perspectives

Luis Cabrera (2020) The Humble Cosmopolitan: Rights, Diversity, and Trans-state Democracy

Council on Foreign Relations The Global Human Rights Regime

Freedom House (2021) Freedom in the World

Global Governance Institute The United Nations Human Rights Regime

Office of the High Commissioner: United Nations Human Rights  Core International Human Rights Instruments and their Monitoring Bodies

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

United Nations Human Rights Council

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Rana Siu Inboden on China and the International Human Rights Regime

Luis Cabrera on International Human Rights

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