Why is it that “human rights” treaties get signed with such alacrity? On its face, The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes depriving a child of the right to watch the TV programs he likes (Article 13) or choose who he hangs out with (Article 15) human rights violations. Nonetheless, it has been signed by every country in the world except the US and Somalia. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (169 states parties, again not including the United States) has been used officially to support demands that prostitution, abortion and lesbianism be legalized, the Koran reinterpreted and Mother’s Day abolished. Noble causes, perhaps, but why would any country sign on to someone else’s judgment of the matter instead of making up its own mind?
It’s not that there’s a secret about the meaning of these treaties. The UN website pushing CEDAW, for example, says:
The Convention is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations …
Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.
We all know what those things mean. Why would anyone accept such a treaty? What does it give a country in exchange for the surrender of sovereignty? After all, if a country wants to target culture and traditions for the sake of affirming reproductive rights and reshaping family relations it can go ahead and do so, treaty or no.
The answer, of course, is the effect on the distribution of power within each country. In unity there is strength. The rules of international law constitute a union among ruling elites that have similar interests and would rather answer to each other than to their own people. The effect of modern human rights treaties is to reshape society in the interests of those elites by weakening self-government and traditional institutions. They both exemplify and further the manipulative nature of modern political life, that in theory puts all decisions in the hands of the people while placing the decisions in settings (international human rights negotiations!) that are so complex, open-ended and remote from everyday experience that it is impossible for the people to judge the matter intelligently. By default the decisions are made by ruling elites.
American right-wingers are in the habit of complaining about how far American government has strayed from its original principles of popular participation and limited jurisdiction. Our government’s refusal to participate in some of the more outrageous extensions of the notion of “human rights” demonstrates, however, that we still have a great deal to be proud of.