In This Review

The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Inalienable Rights)
The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Inalienable Rights)
By Eric Posner
Oxford University Press, 2014, 200 pp

Beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, countries have signed on to a widening array of treaties and conventions designed to protect human rights and backed by an expanding set of international courts, commissions, and monitoring bodies. But has all this human rights law and activism actually improved people’s lives? In this sharply argued book, Posner answers no. To be sure, a greater proportion of people around the world are freer today than ever before. But Posner argues that human rights law has been largely irrelevant to that improvement. Liberal democracies sign on to human rights treaties because they see the agreements as cost free, believing that they themselves already abide by the rules. Meanwhile, authoritarian states sign on solely for propaganda purposes and then find it fairly easy to flout the rules. Posner worries that the proliferation of human rights treaties encourages “rule naiveté”: an illusion that Western norms can be applied and impartially enforced everywhere. He urges Western countries to focus instead on promoting economic development, which can achieve real and measurable gains in improving people’s lives.