Why the US should ratify international human rights treaties: A response to Eric Posner

Eleanor Roosevelt UDHR 1948In a recent article in Slate, the Chicago University Law professor Eric Posner argues that the US should not ratify the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because international human rights treaties “are little more than a collective back-scratching exercise involving many of the world’s most unsavory nations”.

Posner identifies several risks in the event the US entered human rights treaties like the aforementioned: “The views of other parts of the world could come into play” in the interpretation of domestic disability rights legislation; the Convention would prevent the US from repealing or narrowing its legislation, in the unlikely scenario this may even be intended; “US failures to ratify other human rights treaties have not stopped nearly all other countries from doing so”; and “then there’s the question of whether it makes sense to impose Western-style standards for disability rights on other countries”. Posner finishes his article with this emphatic conclusion:

The human rights regime is a vast international Potemkin village, a kind of communal effort among states to deceive one another and mainly their citizens, or an excrescence of the bureaucratic imperative to deny error and bad intentions, using whatever legal forms happen to be available. Think of it as the modern version of the brass band and fancy bunting that surround the dictator while he harangues the crowd. Fine if other countries want to do that, but why should we be complicit?

Since Posner doesn´t seem capable of identifying any compelling reason for which the US should ratify international human rights treaties, I hereby offer him three:

1.       Because it would benefit the US as a global power.

This is particularly important at a time when global power seems to be shifting away from the West. Growing economies, like China, Brazil, India or Turkey, are demanding their voices to be heard in international policy discussions. They seek to expand their area of influence, their portion of the pie. In the meantime, Western economies are stagnant and insist in looking into the abyss. Agreed: The BRICS have their own problems as well; however, the Rest does not depend on the West anymore. In this context, human rights may increase the leverage of the West. The US (and Europe) must recover the post-World War II leadership and advocate that there is no future without human rights.

2.       Because it would benefit the international system of human rights protection.

Posner argues that the international human rights system is only a propaganda tool for despicable nations, and therefore the US should not comply with such a sham. Yet, this assessment does not reflect the reality. To this day, 127 nations have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Dangerous foes, like Australia (ratified on 17 July 2008), Costa Rica (1 October 2008), Cook Islands (8 May 2009) or Denmark (24 July 2009) are among those who have acceded to this treaty. (Yes, I got tired of scrolling down the whole list, so I refused to go beyond the “d”). The US shares the dubious honour with Somalia (the perfect example of a failed State) and South Sudan (the last State to join the UN, on 14 ‎July 2011) of being the only countries that have not yet ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But even if Posner was right in this critique to the international human rights system, we must not forget that the US has the means and the opportunity to change it for the better. Large-N multivariate research suggests that, under some circumstances, the ratification of human rights treaties may have a positive effect over rights protection. In some cases, the support of the US can make all the difference. For example, the ratification of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court would ensure that there is no safe haven for war criminals and genocidaires. And the ratification of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights could make the strong case for the coexistence of capitalism and an adequate standard of living for all.

3.       Because it would benefit the American people.

The last point is the one argument that really matters, after all. As said earlier, Posner argues that if the US ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government would find it more difficult to restrict the domestic legislation on disability rights. Posner seem to believe this is bad. I actually think the opposite! The American people can only benefit by the protection of their rights via new legislation (local, national and international) and the creation of effective mechanisms to monitor the protection of those rights. At the end of the day, human rights is not about what happens in complicated diplomatic negotiations in New York or Geneva. Human rights is about what gets done at home. The domestication of international human rights is an old but current challenge. The power of human rights cannot be measured by the internationalisation of human rights legislation, but rather by the extent to which these rights have been interiorised and applied by public authorities at both national and local levels.

Koldo Casla


Photograph: Eleanor Roosevelt, on the day of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948


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