Why states in general are resistant to the promotion of human rights agenda? Universal Declaration of Human Rights were created in 1940s to re-affirm human agency. Before that the Westphalian system, where the state is the central authority in the public affairs, became the norm. In effect human agency is subject to the interest of the state.
Human rights instruments were created after the devastating World War II. It was aimed to restore agency and give individuals the juridical resources to stand up when the state ordered them do wrong. This is a turning point because before that only states had rights in international law. Human Rights according to Ignatieff (2000) also re-affirms European tradition on the importance of the individual. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, individuals received international legal recognition. Individuals are able to challenge unfair state law or oppressive customary practice as their rights are enshrined in the Declaration.
Given the above, in practice, the adoption and implementation of human rights principles by the states have been inconsistent across the board. The states in general regard human rights as a direct challenge to their sovereignty. It is considered a threat to their sovereignty because in principle it is a liberation of the individual from the state’s control and also in practice in many countries human rights agenda are pushed through by the non-state actors such as NGOs and other international actors.
Therefore if states are to adopt and ratify human rights instruments it is normally driven by the tangible benefits such as foreign aid, trade and investment or intangible motive like praise, acceptance and legitimacy. However as Nielsen and Simmons (2015) found in their empirical study that there is almost no evidence that states can expect increased tangible or intangible rewards after ratification of human rights treaties. This presents a puzzle. Why should sovereign states agree to subject an internal issue to international scrutiny?
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) has been used as a forum where governments are publicly named and ashamed others for abusing their citizens. Through this forum governments hold each other accountable to their promises and are ‘forced’ to live up to their commitments through ‘social conformity’, peer pressure mechanism and that states want to keep their good reputation in such forum. (Lebovic & Voeten, 2006).
Apart from UNCHR, many human rights based NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have employed ‘information politics’ to set human rights agenda at international level. Given the constraint funding resources (they don’t receive funding from governments) these human rights watchdogs have strategically used media and selected cases to gain public attention in the North thus able to influence human rights discourse through various international forums, bilateral trade and investment between the states in the North and repressive states (Ron et al., 2005).
Apart from that, the fact is that human rights is also largely political. This can be observed in ‘American exceptionalism’ – death penalty and watering down of International Criminal Court (ICC) decisions. Human rights campaign can also become very selective depending on the interest of audience in the Northern states. The concept of human rights as ‘universal’ has also been challenged by other concept such as ‘Asian values’ where the position of community represented by the state is much higher than the individual. This contradiction of concepts and values are better reflected in the ASEAN human rights declaration, which for many analysts can be seen as a compromised result between universalism and relativism of human rights. In short the contradictions between the human agency and the state sovereignty, Western values versus Asian values will not be resolved anytime soon.