Friday, December 19, 2014

High Noon for Human Rights: Beth Simmons Faces Down Eric Posner

Several newly published responses to Eric Posner's Twilight of Human Rights Law continue to take issue with his basic argument that human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives.  One of the best is in the current issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.  Harvard Professor Beth Simmons, who has been around the block with Professor Posner a few times on these issues, turns an informed and critical eye on Posner's claims.  "News flash," she writes.  "Human rights law has not altered human nature.  But in numerous instances, it has altered human behavior."  

According to Simmons, Posner looks at human rights law with blinders of his own making:

"[W]hile much of Posner’s critique is on target, especially his observation that international organizations are ill-equipped and states are uninterested in enforcing human rights around the world, the conclusion—that international human rights law is thus useless—is neither logically compelling nor supported by the evidence that Posner himself presents. The book announces the “twilight” of international human rights law by focusing overwhelmingly on states and intergovernmental institutions. This account misses most of the meaningful human  rights action, which has taken place largely between stakeholders and their governments at the  domestic level." 

In particular, Simmons points out that "[h]uman rights obligations are useful tools for a populace to demand more attention to basic human rights and needs than the state may be currently devoting" -- a phenomenon that she explored in great depth in her award-winning book Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics.  Noting the absence of the usual scholarly citations from Posner's volume, Simmons concludes that "Posner leads his readers patiently, if tendentiously, through the history of international human rights law and the institutional lay of the land. But it is precisely the less initiated who should be most wary" of this account.

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