Thursday, February 27, 2014

Human Rights Inflation:
A Real Problem but a Flawed Argument

Pedro Pizano, writing in Foreign Policy, takes on the troubling issue of human rights inflation. His argument, briefly, is this: When every good thing is framed as a "right," the significance of core rights (to life, freedom from torture, freedom of conscience, etc.) is diminished and dictators get off the hook for their crimes.

Unfortunately, Pizano weakens a good and necessary discussion of the way the language and institutional structures of human rights are sometimes mishandled by supporters and manipulated by opponents with a spurious and long-discredited argument that claims there is some sort of fundamental difference between political and economic rights. He even claims, falsely, that of the 30 provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "18 were considered rights, provisions that impose immediate obligations on the state at the level of the individual, [while] the 12 social, economic, and cultural provisions were considered aspirational." Is this why Article 3 reads, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person" while Article 23 reads, "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment"? We're supposed to read "everyone has the right" in the first instance as a genuine right and somehow know that "everyone has the right" in the second instance is just a way of saying "it would be nice if everyone had the right"?

Pizano also claims that economic, social, and cultural rights "were controversial from the start." According to whom? Not according to those whose political freedoms seemed insignificant when compared to the economic deprivations of the Great Depression. Not according to those who were struggling to regain some semblance of economic and social normalcy in the aftermath of World War II. Not according to those who, today, will be free to concern themselves with the struggle for civil and political rights only when they have achieved some measure of food security.

Pizano's fundamental misunderstanding of the International Bill of Human Rights (which comprises the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) is further demonstrated in this statement: "In 1976, to address these issues, the rights were correctly divided up into separate binding treaties that impose obligations on the state through oversight bodies: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)." Setting aside the questionable statement about the role of oversight bodies in imposing obligations, it is worth noting that this division took place much earlier and was the product, in large measure, of Cold War politics. It followed a period in which the United States had taken itself out of international human rights conversations almost completely as the Eisenhower administration attempted to appease a Congress toying with major restrictions on executive power through the Bricker Amendment. In fact, the U.S. returned to formal negotiations over human rights  treaties only in the 1960s. The ICCPR and the ICESCR were adopted by the UN in 1966. The year that Pizano says "the rights were correctly divided up," 1976, was in fact the year the two Covenants entered into force. Their texts had been formalized--and the division of subject matter had been effected--for a decade at that point.

There is a need--an ongoing need, in fact--for conversations about human rights inflation, just as there is a need for conversations about the flaws in our institutions and procedures for human rights enforcement. Pizano's attempt to contribute to this conversation, unfortunately, is rather poorly informed.