The Danger of Human Rights Proliferation

When Defending Liberty, Less Is More

human rights chavez cuba castro iran venezuela russia china north korea syria
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses the UN General Assembly in 2009 (Lucas Jackson / Courtesy Reuters)

If human rights were a currency, its value would be in free fall, thanks to a gross inflation in the number of human rights treaties and nonbinding international instruments adopted by international organizations over the last several decades. These days, this currency is sometimes more likely to buy cover for dictatorships than protection for citizens. Human rights once enshrined the most basic principles of human freedom and dignity; today, they can include anything from the right to international solidarity to the right to peace. 

Consider just how enormous the body of binding human rights law has become. The Freedom Rights Project, a research group that we co-founded, counts a full 64 human-rights-related agreements under the auspices of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. A member state of both of these organizations that has ratified all these agreements would have to comply with 1,377 human rights provisions (although some of these may be technical rather than substantive). Add to this the hundreds of non-treaty instruments, such as the resolutions of the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council (HRC). The aggregate body of human rights law now has all the accessibility of a tax code.

Supporters of human rights should worry about this explosion of regulation. If people are to demand human rights, then they must first be able to understand them -- a tall order given the current bureaucratic tangle of administrative regulation.

Compounding this problem is the adoption of conflicting norms on particular human rights. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, without qualification, that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Yet during the Cold War, at the instigation of communist states, conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is still at the heart of the international human rights system, prohibited certain forms of “hate speech,” with no clear guidelines on how to resolve the inherent conflict with freedom of expression. The consequence of this legal and moral confusion is that human rights are now sometimes invoked to restrict rather than protect free speech. Several UN member states, including Egypt and Pakistan, insist that derogatory statements about religion constitute advocacy of religious hatred, which is prohibited under the ICCPR.

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