I really enjoyed listening to Philip Alston speak in class this week. He’s such an engaging speaker and it’s always inspiring to hear from someone who has had such a broad and interesting career in the human rights field. I also found it to be a great counterpoint to last week’s reading, which was very pessimistic about the future of human rights.
One of the most important aspects of both Philip Alston’s talk and article was his exploration of the challenges and opportunities involved in adapting the international human rights law framework to meet modern challenges. I think his argument that there needs to be a stronger focus on economic and social rights is a strong one. One of the driving factors of populism is the increasing inequality in many countries. If international human rights law can position itself as a major player in the movement to combat inequality then it will be able to engage with a much broader section of the population that may have thought that IHRL doesn’t have anything to do with them.
Is the UN a human rights failure?
Connor Gearty’s article offered an interesting perspective on the role of the United Nations in the human rights field. I particularly liked reading about the history of the UN and the Dumbarton Oaks conference. One of Gearty’s major criticisms is that the UN architecture places too much emphasis on sovereignty at the expense of human rights. In some respects, it is true that the notion of sovereignty has led the UN to take a cautious approach throughout history when it comes to protecting human rights. Most notably, this can be seen in the wording of Art 2(7) of the UN Charter. However, I would argue that this norm of non-intervention is gradually changing. One of the most important developments has been the Right to Protect principle, which fundamentally opposes the notion that nation-states sovereignty will always trump human rights abuses.
Edit:In the aftermath of the US strikes in Syria there has been much academic debate about the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention outside of the R2P structure. one such article contends that there is a need for unilateral humanitarian intervention outside of the UN structure. It argues that the Security Council is flawed and cannot adequately respond to human rights abuses due to the veto power wielded by the P5.
It is a contested and controversial position that does not enjoy widespread support in the international law community. However, it is interesting to read in conjunction with Gearty’s criticisms of the UNSC. Gearty contends that the UNSC has wielded both legislative and executive power in ways which are fundamentally damaging to human rights standards. An example of this can be seen in the UK Supreme Court case of HM Treasury v Ahmed. This case concerned five men whose assets were frozen as they were accused of financing terrorism. While the case centred on the legality of the UK Terrorism Orders which were the domestic regulations used to implement the UNSC Resolutions, the case does explore the interaction between domestic law, international law and human rights standards. The case is an intriguing example of the ways in which the UNSC, charged with maintaining peace and security, can make resolutions which compromise individuals’ basic human rights.
Human Rights Bodies
When examining the role of the Human Rights Council, Treaty Bodies and Special Rapporteurs, I was struck by the increasing diversity of bodies in this field. In particular, there is now a much greater scope of topics that Special Rapporteurs cover. One example is the Special Rapporteur on LGBTQ people, a position that would have been unimaginable perhaps even a decade ago. This is just one example of the ways in which international human rights law can adapt to meet changing societal expectations.
Given all the news surrounding Australia’s bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council, it was good to gain a clearer understanding of the HRC’s purpose and processes. With regards to Australia’s bid for a HRC seat, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the sentiments in The Age’s Editorial from 1/3/2017. I definitely agreed with the criticisms of Australia’s own human rights record, most infamously Australia’s refugee policies. These mirror broader criticisms of the HRC in general, that its members often do not have exemplary human rights records themselves.
It will do the government no service in this campaign to argue Australia’s overall record is better than laggards in the human rights field. There are always worse. Australia should aim for better, to achieve an unimpeachable standard in support of human rights. In striving for such a goal, a seat on the council would never be in doubt.
I liked the conclusion of the editorial as, to me, it encapsulated a lot of my thoughts about the human rights field in general. Mainly, that there is always room for progress and that the aim should always be to reach further and try harder in pursuit of perfection. Perfection has not occurred yet, however striving to reach it is a worthy goal that will improves the lives of many.