How Effective are International Human Rights Treaties?

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Photo by Prayitno | CC BY 2.0

“The United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”

— Philip Alston

Last December, Law Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the United States at the invitation of the federal government to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens. Several CounterPunch articles have provided excellent summaries of the contents of this devastating report: Poverty American Style, The Professor and the Poverty Tour, and War and Poverty: A Compromise With Hell. The report itself should be read by everyone.

How did this visitation happen, and how effective is the UN human rights monitoring process?

Comprehensive international human rights law began with the creation of the UN. “Before the end of World War II, how a state treated its own inhabitants was nobody else’s business” (Louis Henkin). Protecting and advancing human rights was one goal of the UN, as many were horrified at the atrocities that led up to and continued throughout World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by all members of the UN General Assembly in 1948 is not binding, yet it was a…

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