International Law

Eric Posner on Why the Senate Was Right to Reject the Disabilities Treaty

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, December 24, 2012, 9:03 AM

Over at Slate, Eric Posner has a very interesting essay defending the Senate's recent rejection of the disabilities rights treaty—although rejecting the reasons for rejection proffered by the senators who voted against it. Posner also strikes a skeptical chord towards "empty" human rights treaties more broadly. He opens:

This month, the Senate by a vote of 61-38 failed to amass the two-thirds majority needed to approve the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. The treaty’s supporters, lamenting America’s broader reluctance to join international human rights treaties, snorted at the vote and lampooned the antediluvian (but not prelapsarian) Republicans who shot the convention down. And it’s true that there are about a dozen human rights treaties, the vast majority of countries have ratified them, and the United States, frequently, has not. And rightly so. These treaties are little more than a collective back-scratching exercise involving many of the world’s most unsavory nations: The United States does well to keep its distance.

Money quote:

consider a country like Uzbekistan, a party to the convention protecting the rights of the child, and a place where, according to Human Rights Watch, there is “Government-sponsored forced child labor during the cotton harvest.” Or Saudi Arabia, a party to the convention banning discrimination against women (“girls and women of all ages are forbidden from traveling, studying, or working without permission from their male guardians”). Or Vietnam, a party to the treaty that guarantees political freedoms (“systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly”). Or China, a party to the treaty that bans torture (“forced confessions under torture remain prevalent”). Or Nigeria, a party to the convention outlawing racial and ethnic discrimination (“State and local government policies that discriminate against … people who cannot trace their ancestry to what are said to be the original inhabitants of an area continue to exacerbate intercommunal tensions and perpetuate ethnic-based divisions.”). (All quotations from Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report.) Or consider India, which ratified a treaty that confers a right to housing, and yet is unable to house tens of millions of homeless Indians who live in shanties on streets and garbage dumps. The nine most repressive countries of 2011, Freedom House‘s “Worst of the Worst,” including Eritrea, Syria, and Turkmenistan, belong to most of the major human rights treaties.
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?