Are human rights in crisis?

Installation against torture

The temporary fountain sculpture against torture by German artist Erik Tannhäuser is evocative of the practice of waterboarding

Source Swiss Info

By Klaus Dingwerth, who is assistant professor for political science at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland as well as a non-residential fellow with the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, Germany

Fifty years of human rights: a look at the data suggests that little has improved. However, that does not imply that international human rights law is meaningless.

December 16, 1966 marks the beginning of human rights as we know them. When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, it created a system of rules in which states not only made legally binding commitments to observe a number of fundamental rights, but also accepted independent UN monitoring of their compliance with these commitments.

Yet the two covenants were only the beginning.

In the years that followed, ever more states became parties to ever more human rights agreements.

Moreover, whenever new states were founded, chances were high that the covenants would serve as a foundation for drafting those parts of the national constitution that deal with the fundamental rights of persons.

No congratulations

And yet, while much suggests that human rights have been a success story, crisis talk dominates.

Stephen Hopgood, an International Relations scholar at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has declared the coming years to be the “endtimes of human rights”.


Klaus Dingwerth is assistant professor for political science at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland as well as a non-residential fellow with the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, Germany

A reviewer of his book agrees: that human rights norms are in crisis is no longer in dispute, she holds.

Eric Posner, Professor of International Law at the University of Chicago, speaks of the “twilight of human rights law” and recommends that Western states should no longer put their hopes in international treaties.

What evidence supports such a diagnosis?

First of all, there is the world around us. After 50 years, human rights continue to be violated all too often. The international community is a by-stander in Syria; religious fundamentalism has been on the rise; the United States has tortured after 9/11; European states have either been complicit in acts of torture or only half-heartedly responded to US violations of fundamental rights; Turkey might reintroduce the death penalty; and Switzerland and Britain consider withdrawing from the European human rights regime.

Yet crisis talk does not rely on impressions alone. Since the latter are always selective and can therefore mislead our judgment, social scientists do not tend to trust it. They propose to take stock in a more systematic way and rely on “hard” and objective data instead. The interpretation of such data usually leads to two arguments that support “the case against human rights”, as Posner has summarised his arguments in The Guardian newspaper (4 Dec 2014).

Read further

Additional Reading

The Muslim Times has a large collection of articles promoting human rights

The only constitution the world needs is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


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