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January 30, 2015

Legal experts Posner and Stone critique human rights law

Eric Posner, an esteemed professor at the University of Chicago Law School, criticized human rights law as a largely ineffective tool for advancing global human rights in an event moderated by fellow law professor and constitutional law expert Geoffrey Stone on Tuesday evening. The talk was part of International House’s Global Voices Program and promoted Posner’s new book, The Twilight of Human Rights Law.

Posner began his talk with a refresher course in human rights history, noting the ever-evolving nature of human rights as a concept since the Enlightenment era. Quick to emphasize his support for global human rights themselves, Posner purposefully defined his distinction between human rights and human rights law.

“[Human rights] reflects the basic idea that people have certain interests that are powerful enough that governments should never be able to violate them,” he said.  Human rights law goes further to claim human rights are “so important that they should be embodied in international law,” leading to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous future treaties.

What Posner finds problematic about human rights law is the nature of international treaties, which comprise much of human rights law. “Countries [frequently] tend to enter into treaties because they want another country to do something,” he said. “These treaties aren’t actually enforced…they’re not forced by their own domestic institutions to comply with these treaties. So increasingly it looks like ratification of these treaties for most countries is purely symbolic.”

Posner pointed to torture as an example. Despite condemning torture in international treaties and declarations, countless countries violate these treaties, including the U.S. Studies have shown that even when countries condemn torture in their own constitutions, they don’t actually torture less.

“I don’t think the treaties have had any impact,” Posner said.

As the discussion portion of the talk came to a close, he tried to reassure the audience that some hope remains in defending human rights. “The state of human rights is better than it was 50 years ago,” he said. “There’s more political liberty, almost certainly…but there is no causal relationship between the treaty ramifications and this improvement in people’s well being.”

Instead, he suggested measuring progress using specific goals.

“We should judge compliance with human rights by looking at how well countries achieve substantive measurable goals such as poverty reduction.”

Posner said that human rights should not be belittled. Instead, society should work to more accurately comprehend how these rights are effectively instituted because such studies will defend human rights more concretely than international treaties can.

In summarizing Posner’s thesis, Stone said that human rights law “isn’t actually having an impact on the real world…. We’ve all misdirected our attention in all the efforts that have been put into the enterprise of articulating and attempting to generate a body of law with respect to human rights.”

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