A single short document of 30 articles"--the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights--"has probably had more impact on mankind than any other document in modern history," said Navi Pillay, then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2008. Half a century ago, in December 1966, the United Nations formally translated the rhetorical promises from that declaration into legally binding obligations with the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Since then, global efforts to monitor and track human rights violations have grown exponentially.
Nevertheless, rights abuses remain rampant. As the treaty-based human rights system celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, how can we reconcile an increasingly sophisticated global architecture to monitor rights violations with the reality of persistently brazen abuses around the world? At 50, is the system facing a midlife crisis?
Some Governments seem to rely on systems that are fundamentally hostile to basic individual human rights. Demagogues are preying upon public anxiety, stoking divisions and justifying policies that violate rights as necessary measures to respond to the threat of terrorism, curb the use of drugs, or stem migration. And abuses intensify during wartime. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, in February 2016, reported on the Syrian Government's mass torture of political detainees. The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, following a December trip to the country, found that sexual violence had reached epic proportions.
While Ms. Pillay's 2008 remarks heralded the growth of a rules-based human rights system, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has expressed alarm at its erosion. "The defenders of what is good and right are being outflanked, in too many countries, by race-baiting bigots, who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit, at the expense of those most vulnerable," he warned when addressing the September 2016 United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has gone further, saying: "The United Nations was established to prevent war by binding us in a rules-based international order. Today, that order is under grave threat."
It's hard not to worry, given the embrace of torture by a previous United...