Iran and the Shortcomings of International Human Rights Law

Hadi Ghaemi and Aaron Rhodes of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to take a stand against the blatant repression undertaken by the Iranian government. But they acknowledge that so far the UN has done more to support the Iranian government than its victims:

The new session of the U.N. Human Rights Council began on March 1. A failure of the world’s most influential human rights body to deal with the abuse of human rights in Iran will be interpreted by Tehran as a green light for the government’s brutal policies that could result in more executions of political prisoners….

While atrocities since June have horrified people around the world, leading to demonstrations by more than 50,000 people in 110 cities last summer, Iran seems, astonishingly, to be strengthening its standing in the Human Rights Council.

The 47 member states have shown no willingness to hold a special session, as many international human rights experts have recommended, nor have they supported the idea of a special U.N. envoy to look into the situation, and to press Iran to abide by its commitments….

The failure of the Human Rights Council to take serious action to condemn Iran’s human rights abuses, and the election of Iran to the Human Rights Council itself, will be deeply disillusioning for the reform and human rights movement in Iran. It could destroy their faith in the international human rights system, for which many have sacrificed their freedom and security, and for which many have died. It will give legitimacy to hanging political prisoners, and more will be hanged.

But this issue is not just about Iran. It is about the capacity of the U.N. system to protect human rights. If Iran’s grave abuses are ignored and if Iran assumes a place on the council, the council will be further weakened. Other dictatorial regimes will be emboldened to repress their citizens.

Ghaemi and Rhodes attribute the Human Rights Council’s failure to take a stand against Iran to concern that doing so might derail negotiations to reign in Iran’s nuclear program. However, those negotiations have achieved little or nothing in any event. The real cause of Iran’s successes in the United Nations are traceable to deeper weaknesses of international human rights law.

Both the content and enforcement of international human rights law are heavily influenced by authoritarian states who have a strong interest in using the system to protect and legitimize their own oppressive practices. John McGinnis and I have discussed these issues in detail in two academic articles (see here and here).

Far from seeking to protect human rights, the HRC (whose membership includes numerous dictatorships), often passes resolutions intended to facilitate repression (see e.g. here and here). Iran itself has been a member of the HRC in the past and, as Ghaemi and Rhodes point out, is likely to succeed in its efforts to become one again. Even the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most important international human rights law agreement – includes repression-facilitating elements introduced at the behest of the USSR and its totalitarian allies.

The bottom line is that the main weaknesses of the international human rights system are structural. By giving so much influence to the very sorts of governments that human rights law is supposed to constrain, it actually empowers oppressors much more than victims. In the short run, liberal democratic governments should work to limit the scope of the system and and prevent its pernicious elements from overriding their own domestic law, a point McGinnis and I emphasized in our articles linked above. In places like Iran, progress in protecting human rights probably depends on action by liberal democracies and internal dissidents acting outside the confines of the UN system. Liberal democracies cannot and will not always prioritize the promotion of human rights. But they have fewer perverse incentives on these issues than dictatorships do.

In the long term, we should explore the possibility of establishing international human rights bodies that exclude illiberal regimes from membership. That may be the only way to create a Human Rights Council that isn’t just a committee of wolves pretending to guard the chicken coop while they gobble up the chickens.