As I announced yesterday, I plan to do a series of blog posts on what we know about how to improve the human rights of people abroad and how this knowledge can help us do a better job in the future. I will focus a lot on international human rights institutions, which are treaties, like the Convention Against Torture, in which states enter into legal obligations to protect a particular set of rights as well as the associated institutions that help enforce those obligations. These institutions vary from powerful international courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights, to relatively toothless UN monitoring bodies.
Whenever I teach about international human rights institutions my first task is to lower expectations. International human rights treaties inevitably contain language that expresses lofty ideals and grand ambitions. The point is not just that these goals are unlikely to ever be fully attained but also that treaties are a very limited policy tool. If we wished to give policy advice to governments interested in improving their human rights record, we should tell them to democratize, to develop economically, to create a strong independent legal system, and to stop having civil wars. Signing treaties does not enter the top ten of most important things countries could do. Indeed, countries like the United States have a relatively good human rights record without ratifying many human rights treaties.
So, why do we care about international human rights treaties and associated institutions? To start with, it turns out that we have very limited foreign policy tools to help countries become economically developed stable constitutional democracies that do not have civil wars. Even very expensive and intrusive tools, such as military interventions, more often than not fail to achieve those goals. Violating human rights is often central to a government’s strategy for staying in power or it may be central to the domestic power of an agency over which the civilian government has imperfect control (police, military, paramilitaries, etcetera). This is not behavior that is easy to change.