Summer 2014 (28.2) Essay

Against a World Court for Human Rights

Too much of the debate about how respect for human rights can be advanced on a global basis currently revolves around crisis situations involving so-called mass atrocity crimes and the possibility of addressing abuse through the use of military force. This preoccupation, as understandable as it is, serves to mask much harder questions of how to deal with what might be termed silent and continuous atrocities, such as gross forms of gender or ethnic discrimination or systemic police violence, in ways that are achievable, effective, and sustainable. This more prosaic but ultimately more important quest is often left to, or perhaps expropriated by, international lawyers. Where the politician often finds solace in the deployment of military force, the international lawyer turns instinctively to the creation of a new mechanism of some sort. Those of modest inclination might opt for a committee or perhaps an inquiry procedure. The more ambitious, however, might advocate the establishment of a whole new court. And surely the most “visionary” of such proposals is one calling for the creation of a World Court of Human Rights. A version of this idea was put forward in the 1940s, but garnered no support. The idea has now been revived, in great detail, and with untrammeled ambition, under the auspices of an eminent group of international human rights law specialists.

But a World Court of this type is not just an idea whose time has not yet come. The very idea fundamentally misconceives the nature of the challenges confronting an international community dedicated to eliminating major human rights violations. And, if it were ever realized, it would concentrate frighteningly broad powers in the hands of a tiny number of judges without the slightest consideration of the implications for the legitimate role of the state. To the extent that the proposal to create such a court is a heuristic device, public debate about it might arguably help in identifying some of the major challenges that confront the building of a more effective international human rights regime. For the most part, however, the proposal is a misguided distraction from deeper and much more important challenges.

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