The 21st century was met with an explosion of international documents intended to protect universal human rights. Indeed, the international community is currently flooded with treaties, protocols, resolutions, mandates, and handshakes. However, there is one critical element to all of these policies and ideas that dries up their potential for positive impact – enforcement. Without enforcement, human rights treaties cease to ensure the dignity of individuals and become about elevating the political reputation of the actors signing the treaties. Many states that ratify these treaties do so simply as a way to promote their own international political agenda, improve their global reputation, and mitigate outside criticism, while having little to no intention of altering their behavior.
However, this issue of false ratification is not only a luxury afforded to the most powerful nations; it is practiced by states across the spectrum. For instance, Morocco jumped on the human rights bandwagon, putting pen to paper to ratify the Convention against Torture back in June of 1993. However, despite adopting this protocol, Moroccan student activists, protesters, and proponents of self-determination, along with left-wingers and Islam affiliates, have fallen under the knife of the state and have been subject to torture. Activists have reported being beaten, burned, and raped. Those who report these offenses are often arrested and sentenced for filing “false reports” and committing slander.
In Indonesia, local governments throughout the country have passed laws that promote discriminatory regulations against women, despite the fact that Indonesia ratified the Convention Eradicating Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) back in 1984. These local regulations include prohibiting women from straddling a motorcycle and requiring them to ride sidesaddle, prohibiting women from dancing, gradually moving women out of certain workplaces in order to inhibit them from participating in “extramarital affairs,” as well as forcing all women to wear the hijab. Additionally, there is some talk in certain regions within Indonesia of instituting mandatory “virginity tests” for females in secondary school.
As Azerbaijan warms up to host the European Games this summer, many accuse the state of using the event to eclipse pervasive human rights violations throughout the country. Despite ratifying the European Convention on Human rights back in 2002, Azerbaijan has had a propensity to crack down on many of the civil rights of its citizens that are protected under the convention. These violations including the freedom of speech and the imprisonment of various members of opposition political parties, human rights defenders, journalists, online enthusiasts, and political activists based on fraudulent charges, from drug or weapons possession to treason.
In addition to the plethora of minor players on the world stage, one of the largest transgressors within the global human rights system is China. While China appears to be one of the biggest supporters of human rights on paper, given the numerous treaties and organizations they take part in, domestically they commit human rights violations on a grand scale, including acts of repression, torture, and random seizure of their citizens. Of the permanent Security Council members, China has ratified the most human rights treaties and has currently signed six of the nine major human rights documents, which include measures such as the Convention against Torture (CAT) and the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Additionally, China has vocalized its intentions to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which upholds citizens’ rights to exercise their freedom of speech, participate in regular and free elections, and be tried in front of an impartial and independent court.
However, China’s position as one of the five permanent members within the UN Security Council grants the state certain immunity from international action being taken against its domestic violations. China may unilaterally veto any resolution that comes to the floor that it deems unfavorable, making it and many of its political allies immune to any potential referrals, condemnations, or proposals for intervention. As a consequence, China is able to ratify a myriad of treaties without fear of any negative backlash or repercussions from the UN due to its lack of compliance. In fact, China was elected for the UN Human Rights Council and began its three-year term at the beginning of 2014.
However, reports have shown that China’s administrative role within the human rights system is in fact inversely correlated to its domestic practices. Additionally, according to human rights groups within the state, such as The Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch group, the human rights situation within China is at its lowest point in 25 years; the “domestic security regime” has been cracking down even more on civilians and human rights groups. Ironically, following China’s appointment to the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, 2,270 documented cases of “stability maintenance” efforts, which include house arrests, forced relocation, phone tapping, criminal detention, enforced vacation leave targeted against government critics, and disappearances.
Despite the political front of a benevolent state wishing to propagate human rights across the globe, China has yet to apply many of its international human rights commitments domestically. Although the Chinese administration under president Xi Jinping appears to have made some minor progress in the field, such as the recent abolition of the infamous “reeducation through labor” camps (used to punish political and religious dissidents through inhumane and indefinite detention) China has failed to live up to its international résumé.
While non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and social media users continue to unveil many of these abuses, there is currently no other mechanism for accountability or enforcement. The lack of international enforcement within the human rights system and the political structure of the United Nations as a whole has yielded a paradigm in which states are incentivized to sign treaties without needing to alter their behavior. Aside from a light slap on the wrist from media shaming, states have zero negative repercussions for not abiding by the international human rights treaties which they sign. What is worse is that they benefit politically from just putting down a signature that carries no weight. The international human rights system has become a false front for states to push their political agenda while creating the illusion of progress. Only through a dramatic restructuring of the human rights system, as well as the United Nations, can human rights treaties begin to enact meaningful change; unfortunately, states have absolutely no reason to change the status quo. However, rather than just abandoning hope, we need to redirect our focus and efforts to more impactful methods: grassroots solutions and enacting bottom-up change. By backing local movements that demand that their states abide by international human rights norms, citizens will able to pressure their governments to follow through on their promises. In finding ways to foster an enduring and genuine respect for human rights within the domestic arena, the power lies with the masses. The actions of ordinary citizens can be more impactful in changing the status quo than diplomats perfunctorily putting their mark on a piece of paper.