Monday, 8 June 2009

Bill Easterly on "rights" at the UN

At his blog Aid Watch Bill Easterly comments on "rights" at the UN. He writes
But let’s talk about rights at the UN. The UN publicizes such positive rights as “right to water,” “right to housing,” “right to health”, etc. These rights sound wonderful, while not imposing any specific obligation whatsoever on any specific actor to do any specific thing for any specific poor person. It is impossible for the UN or any other body to allocate responsibilities for observing the “right to water,” and also decide who will be first in line among the 884 million people now without clean water. So even if the UN creates international pressure to observe these “rights,” the pressure is diffused across so many potential actors with unclear responsibility that it has no effect, accomplishing nothing for poor people.

What about the UN’s record on the more traditionally defined “negative” human rights, like freedom from state killings and torture? These human rights are a lot easier to specifically address – the UN could denounce human rights violations, identifying the violator and the victim each time. Here international pressure could have more of an effect, because it is applied to very specific wrong-doers to stop very specific actions against specific victims [...]

So such victims could appeal to the UN Human Rights Council for their rights vis-à-vis the governments of Cameroon, China, and Egypt – except that the governments of Cameroon, China, and Egypt are MEMBERS of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN is perpetrating a sick joke on such victims, by filling the Human Rights Council with human rights violators. This travesty is already well known, but that doesn’t mean anyone who cares should stop talking about it.
Easterly end by noting
So here’s the scorecard on UN human rights. On something like “the right to water,” where it is impossible to identify who is violating such “rights,” the UN talks big. On human rights violations like killings and torture, where the UN knows precisely who is the violator, the UN sometimes shows up on the violator's side.
The UN is willing to talk big when words are meaningless, and unwilling to take action when actions could actually achieve something. If (costly) actions are taken as the measure of true intention-costless actions are just cheap talk , signals must be costly to be credible-then the UN comes up looking very lame when it comes to human rights.

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