For the past decade or so, a bunch of academics have debated whether international human rights law has improved human rights outcomes. In my book The Twilight of Human Rights Law, I argued “no”, but many other academics have disagreed with me, including Beth Simmons, and most recently, Kathryn Sikkink, in her book Evidence for Hope.
But while we, and many others, have argued about statistical significance, causation, and definitions, we missed, or at least gave insufficient attention to, the bigger story. That story is the redefinition of human rights to give them “conservative” content. Under the traditional definition, human rights were understood in either “liberal” (think of the US Bill of Rights) or “social democratic” (think of Sweden, or anyway what we like to imagine Sweden to be) terms. Around the periphery, to be sure, other conceptions existed. Many Islamic countries argued that human rights law protected people against “defamation of religion,” which in practice meant restrictions on free speech where it offended religious sensibilities, while China’s “right to development” was supposed to excuse certain human rights violations until poverty was taken care of. But these views were never taken seriously by the dominant human rights community, consisting largely of liberal NGOs like Human Rights Watch, international human rights courts, and governments in the powerful liberal democratic countries, and never gained traction.
This may soon change. On May 30, a short notice appeared in the Federal Register announcing the formation of the “Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights.” The Notice says that the “The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” The Commission’s terms of reference add that its aim “… is not to discover new principles, but to recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.”
Read more at OpenGlobalRights