Summer Reading: Emilie Hafner-Burton on Human Rights



With the Commission of Inquiry process upon us, it is useful to glance sideways at the growing empirical literature on international human rights. We will be looking at a number of recent contributions, but Emilie Hafner-Burton’s Making Human Rights a Reality  is a good place to begin (truth in advertising; Hafner-Burton is a colleague at UCSD).

Hafner-Burton’s starting point is the uncomfortable truth that the increase in the number of international human rights treaties, and the signatories to them, has not been matched by an attenuation of human rights abuses. Indeed, the book begins with a clever graphic showing the rise in the number of countries ratifying the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR, rising since 1981) and the number of countries engaged in abuses of nine protected CCPR rights (also rising). If anything, the campaign for wider treaty coverage coupled with the norm of universal participation has given rise to perverse results: conventions that are honored in the breach and institutional machinery that does not have the tools to do much about it.

To understand this disconnect, Hafner-Burton draws on the growing literature on compliance in international relations, which focuses not only on coercion but on persuasion as well. The book starts with a fascinating detour into the psychology of abuse: how perpetrators rationalize their actions—for example, by reference to special circumstances—morally distance themselves and then routinize their behavior. An important conclusion follows: simply telling perpetrators that what they are doing is immoral or illegal will carry little weight unless the laws are either backed up by material consequences (incentives, including coercion) or seen as legitimate (persuasion).  In an overview of the international legal and institutional architecture, Hafner-Burton points out that while the system has developed some means of applying pressure through tribunals and commissions of inquiry, the core of the system was always rooted in processes of socialization: spreading norms, encouraging debate and learning, shaming violators and seeking to encourage key actors—diplomats, NGOs, private sector actors—to internalize these norms in practice.

How well has it worked? By far the most controversial aspect of Hafner-Burton’s book cannot be traced to her research alone; rather, it is simply a sober reporting of a growing scholarly literature on the effectiveness of the existing international human rights machinery. The standard set-up in this empirical literature is a panel design that looks at the covariates of countries’ human rights records. Not surprisingly, democracy is one of the most important causal factors, while membership in particular conventions shows little effects except for countries that are already democratic.  (In the case of the Convention on Torture, joining a actually leads to worse human rights abuses). As we know too well from following North Korea, the worst abusers are little affected by the efforts to cast a spotlight on their abuses and in fact put numerous roadblocks in the way of disclosure or enforcement actions.

Hafner-Burton catalogues the shortcomings of the international machinery: a widespread ignorance of the content of treaty commitments; an overwhelmed international bureaucracy; cumbersome treaty reporting requirements; inadequate complaint mechanisms and weak enforcement. But at the core of many of these defects is the aspiration to universalism and the politics that ensue; the fox-guarding-the-hen-house problem. What can we do with human rights bodies that permit gross offenders to participate as members? Hafner-Burton suggests that modest reforms, such as limiting expansion, might help to address the drift. But it is clear that reforms to get around the basic constraints of universalism have to step outside much of the international machinery altogether.

For this reason, Hafner-Burton turns in the last third of the book to strategies of “stewardship” that involve the self-interested behavior of major powers: efforts on their part to incentivize and persuade. Hafner-Burton recounts the well-known limits on direct intervention, sanctions and rewards and thus turns to a more novel discussion of what she calls “localization”: the domestic political processes that raise awareness on the part of politically-salient groups and get international conventions translated into national law and enforcement procedures. This lens puts the role of other actors, such as NGOs, in a somewhat different perspective. Not only can they be conduits for spurring the action of the stewards; they can also serve as transmission mechanisms through which international norms are given a local presence and even flavor. A similar chapter shows how national human rights institutions can play a similar function.

A final substantive chapter on triage raises interesting puzzles for those of us interested in North Korean human rights. Hafner-Burton argues that a human rights strategy must focus on circumstances where the use of scarce resources is most likely to yield gains; good intentions are obviously not enough. But where, exactly, should triage lines be drawn and does North Korea fit? The US clearly has strong security and political interests in the Korean peninsula, so it would appear to pass that test. But do those interests push in the direction of a stronger or weaker focus on human rights? How much leverage do we actually have over North Korea on these issues? What types of actions—from more assessment, cooperation with other states in the region, human rights-specific sanctions, dialogue—might be most effective?

Translating the general findings to the particular is not easy, but Hafner-Burton’s reminders about the role of persuasion and localization could point to very different strategies, not necessarily mutually exclusive: on the one hand, the offer of a dialogue, but at the same time pursuit of information strategies that would raise awareness within North Korea of alternatives to the existing order. In the absence of any domestic groups that can provide pressure, localize norms and engage the domestic political system, she concludes outside action is not likely to yield much or even be counterproductive.

Hafner-Burton’s work raises very tough questions for the international human rights community about the role of the UN machinery and exercises such as the Commission of Inquiry. At the same time, however, the book ultimately underlines the obvious point that such machinery works only in conjunction with the actions of core states and other intermediaries in pursing strategies of enforcement, mitigation and persuasion. Translating these suggestions into concrete actions is not straightforward. But one idea that surfaces at the end of the book is the utility of clubs—rather than universal bodies—as the locus of formulating strategies. Loose coordination on North Korean human rights is already emerging through the UN treaty bodies, as the CoI proposal suggests. But more explicit “clubs” of countries with common interests in North Korean human rights—including in the Asia-Pacific region—may be an unexplored avenue for thinking about strategies of engagement and persuasion as well as pressure. In the end, however, the North Korean leadership has to see some attenuation of abuse as in its interest if progress is going to be made.

Some recent posts on human rights issues:

On the Commission of Inquiry.

On prison camps as a possible external focus.

The Special Rapporteur's Report.

Decreasing Support for the DPRK on Human Rights Issues at the UN.

All human rights posts.

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