Human Rights and Global Objectives

In pursuit of global standards of democracy, human rights, and good governance, a kind of universal charter of citizen rights is under evolution, led by Western countries (e.g. the concept of “responsibility to protect” that was accepted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, as an inescapable obligation for all states toward their peoples, during confl icts11). The sovereignty doctrine does not shield countries that blatantly transgress these norms. This is international law in the making—still amorphous, selective in application, and driven by a fi ckle cycle of world media attention.

Democracy is broadly acknowledged as a universal ideal, but its application in interstate relations is conditioned by other overriding bilateral and regional objectives driven by national interest, security, or other compulsions; its proponents often end up supporting undemocratic regimes. After the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, even democracy zealots now acknowledge that it cannot be exported or imposed from outside. Human rights are closely monitored today, and enter the interstate dialogue, but again violations are treated with selectivity. At the UN, the abolition of the Human Rights Commission and its replacement by the Human Rights Council, composed of ‘independent’ experts has not produced expected results. Good governance is even harder to enforce, though aid donors now make this a condition, and [but] gross human rights abuse in some countries results in foreign aid cutoff, and even sanctions; governance standards are now widely accepted, even while those at the receiving end of Western pressure on grounds of governance resent this.

President George W. Bush made freedom around the world a major theme, but as before, calculations of self-interest, and indulgence for alliance partners, overrode declared principles. After January 2009 the Obama administration has put value promotion on the back burner. Nevertheless, value concepts have moved forward; developing countries are far more sensitive to these standards, compared with even a decade back, with their own civil society organizations leading demands for improvement. Media publicity, right to information initiatives and citizen actions, are visible in many countries. In Africa, a voluntary oversight mechanism, led by eminent experts, has gained traction in over a score of countries.

  • Western states produce global surveys, joining international NGOs, with their extensive annual reports, on application of these universal norms (e.g. Amnesty, Transparency International).
  • On the ground, pressure to improve human rights involves foreign governments in partnerships with these non-state actors; joint actions are often tacit.
  • In the affected countries, foreign states cannot really substitute for the actions that must come from domestic publics; external pressures have their limits (as seen in Myanmar and Zimbabwe).

It is the powerful that project their values on the others. How far does international law support universal social and economic standards, beyond what the UN Charter and international covenants lay down? The global economic recession of 2008 has called into question the universality of market capitalism, a frequent theme in Western value prescriptions, also pushed by the World Bank and IMF.14 But overall, stricter accountability for governments and higher standards of governance have gained traction worldwide, and this is welcome.


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