Overhauling the Human Rights Apparatus: a New Paradigm for the 21st Century

Every institution requires periodic reviews in order to take stock of achievements and failures and develop new strategies for the future. A comprehensive “medical” of the vast human rights apparatus domestically and internationally has become necessary,  Early diagnosis is not good – the human rights system is in many ways sclerotic and in urgent need of reform, adjustment, recalibration, reorientation.  Although the human rights apparatus has enormously grown and expanded since the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), although progress has been achieved in the eradication of poverty, expanding education to all, combatting discrimination, there are chronic problems in the entire system and symptoms of widespread dysfunctionality in the corpus – not only mechanical but also psychological.  It seems like the spirituality of the UDHR has been lost, many noble values simply hijacked for ulterior purposes, human rights norms weaponized to destabilize geopolitical rivals.

Politicians. NGOs and UN secretariat members master the jargon of human rights, to which they only give lip service, but most of them are only going through the motions and falling into a human rights “routine” that fails to see the faces of the victims. At the UN Human Rights Council we witness mostly diplomatic rituals, and an effort not to shake the boat too much. Admittedly, there have been successes, which the apparatchiks and a compliant corporate media effusively hail.  But they hide the root causes of human rights violations, the economic imbalances and continuing exploitation.  They propose the wrong treatment for most ailments, applying band-aids here and there, without developing a coherent preventative plan encompassing early detention of disease, effective curative measures and the rehabilitation of the disabled.

We know that the UN Division of Human Rights evolved into the Centre for Human Rights and then the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (General Assembly Resolution 48/141).  As it turned out, the HR directors are more “managers” than committed human rights leaders, inspired by a genuine belief in the fraternity of human beings and the equal dignity of all.  The UN Secretariat is more politicized than ever, and many have forgotten the sources of the UDHR and the enthusiasm of the creative days of Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, Charles Malik and P.C.Chang.

The much maligned UN Commission on Human Rights evolved into the Human Rights Council, which is more politicized than its predecessor.  In particular the selection of “independent experts” and “special rapporteurs” must be overhauled, because most rapporteurs simply like to grandstand, engage in naming and shaming, and forget that there are victims out there who need our help and not only our words.  This entails advisory services and technical assistance – not just pointing fingers from our high horses.  Many rapporteurs simple toe the line of the powerful. Ultimately, they are in the service of the status quo.

Any road plan to recovery must recognize that all human rights derive from human dignity.  the codification is never definitive and never exhaustive, but constitutes an evolutionary mode d’emploi for the exercise of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Alas, the interpretation and application of human rights is hindered by wrong priorities, sterile positivism and a regrettable tendency to focus only on individual rights while forgetting collective rights. Many rights advocates show little or no interest for the social responsibilities that accompany the exercise of rights, and fail to see the necessary symbiosis of rights and obligations, notwithstanding the letter and spirit of article 29 of the UDHR.

The time has come to change the human rights paradigm away from narrow positivism toward a broader understanding of human rights norms in the context of an emerging customary international law of human rights.  Law is neither physics nor mathematics, but a dynamic human institution that day by day addresses the needs and aspirations of society, adjusting here, filling lacunae there. Every human rights lawyer knows that the spirit of the law (Montesquieu) transcends the limitations of the letter of the law, and hence codified norms should always be interpreted in the light of those general principles of law that inform all legal systems, such as good faith, proportionality and ex injuria non oritur jus.

I propose discarding the obsolete and artificial division of human rights into those of the falsely called first generation (civil and political), second (economic, social and cultural) and third generation (environment, peace, development) rights – with its obvious predisposition to favour civil and political rights.  This generational divide is part of a structure that perpetuates a world order that much too often appears to allow injustice.

Instead, I propose a functional paradigm that would consider rights in the light of their function within a coherent system — not of competing rights and aspirations, but of interrelated, mutually reinforcing rights which should be applied in their interdependence and understood in the context of a coordinated strategy to serve the ultimate goal of achieving human dignity in all of its manifestations. Four categories would replace the skewed narrative of three generations of rights.

First we would recognize enabling rights, among which I would list the rights to food, water, shelter, development, homeland, education – but also the right to peace, since one cannot enjoy human rights unless there is an environment conducive to the exercise of those rights.  Article 28 of the UDHR postulates the right of every human being “to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. This entails the basic necessities of life and the right to a level playing field.

Secondly I would propose a category of inherent or immanent rights, such as the right to equality, the right to non-arbitrariness; indeed, every right necessarily contains in itself the element of equality, the self-evident requirement that it be applied equally and equitably, that there be uniformity and predictability (what the Germans call Rechtssicherheit). Immanent rights also encompass the rights to life, integrity, liberty and security of person, in the light of which other rights must be interpreted and applied. There are also inherent limitations to the exercise of rights. The general principle of law prohibiting abuse of rights (sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas – use your right without harming others, a principle advocated by Sir Hersh Lauterpacht as an overarching norm prohibiting the egoistic exercise of rights to achieve anti-social results or unjust enrichment) means that every right, also a human right, must be exercised in the context of other rights and not instrumentalized to destroy other rights or harm others. There is no right to intransigence as we know from Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. The letter of the law must never be used against the spirit of the law.

Third I would propose a category of procedural or instrumental rights, such as the rights to due process, access to information, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the right to form labour unions, social security, leisure – rights that we need to achieve our potential, to complete our personalities, to engage in the pursuit of happiness.

Finally I would postulate the category of end rights or outcome rights, that is, the concrete exercise of human dignity, that condition of life that allows each human being to be himself or herself.  This ultimate right is the right to our identity, to our privacy, the right to be ourselves, to think by ourselves and express our humanity without indoctrination, without intimidation, without pressures of political correctness, without having to sell ourselves, without having to engage in self-censorship. The absence of this outcome right to identity and self-respect is reflected in much of the strife we see in the world today.  It is through the consciousness and exercise of the right to our identity and the respect of the identity of others that we will enjoy the individual and collective right to peace. (see my 2013 report to the GA A/68/284, paras. 67-68)

The United Nations Human Rights Council should become the international arena where governments compete to show how best to implement human rights, how to strengthen the rule of law, how to achieve social justice, where they display best practices and give life to this new functional paradigm of human rights.  This kind of competition in human rights performance is the noblest goal and challenge for civilization.  The Council should become the preeminent forum where governments elucidate what they themselves have done and are doing to deliver on human rights, in good-faith implementation of pledges, in adherence to a daily culture of human rights characterized by generous interpretation of human rights treaties and a commitment to the inclusion of all stakeholders.

What the Council must not be is a politicized arena where gladiators use human rights as weapons to defeat their political adversaries and where human rights are undermined through “side shows”, the “flavor of the month” or “legal black holes.”  The civilization model of the globalized world must not be one of positivism, legalisms and loopholes, but one of ethics, direct democracy, respect for the environment, international solidarity and human dignity.

When overhauling the human rights apparatus we need not only doctors, we also need the legal profession. Unfortunately, many lawyers are “pens for rent” or “intellectual mercenaries.” One would think that government lawyers and lawyers employed in the human rights apparatus should be conscious of their special responsibilities to humanity. They should see their role as that of facilitators of enforcement of just laws both nationally and internationally. They should devote their efforts to translating international commitments into concrete action and crafting the necessary measures to comply with treaties and the rules of international judicial bodies.

Unfortunately, many government lawyers, and even lawyers in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, many UN rapporteurs and independent experts, mistake their vocation for that of defence lawyers, paid to get their guilty clients off the hook. It cannot and must not be their function to look for ways to dodge responsibility by concocting specious interpretations of the law, making bogus distinctions or inventing loopholes.

In order to overhaul the human rights apparatus we need lawyers who are committed to making human rights, juridical, justiciable and enforceable.  Lawyers, UN Secretariat members, ngo’s and civil society can all cooperate in making the promise of the UDHR a reality for all men, women and children in the planet.  But we must stop those politicians and corporate media engaged in the destruction of language, those who disseminate cognitive dissonance, those who want to hijack the system for profit and constantly try to drill holes into the vessel of human dignity.

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).