Reflection on Human Rights from Brussels and The Hague

After seven weeks of discussing security issues and matters of US-EU relations, it was a pleasant change of pace to begin learning about human rights. There were several topics that we discussed in the first two days of comprehensive lectures that were very interesting to see play out in our site visits, including the tension between human rights and sovereignty and the enforcement of international human rights.

Overall, the concept of human rights is meant to be universal. Since it deals with all humans, it not only prescribes how governments should treat their own citizens domestically, but it also presumes that we all have an external responsibility to ensure those rights for all others. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is the supreme authority of the state over a political community. Although human rights are not in direct opposition with sovereignty, there is a tension between them, because while human rights calls for a specific unified treatment of all, sovereignty gives the state the right to govern its own citizens independently, while demanding that it respect other states’ right to do the same. In class, we briefly touched on this implication that the state has an absolute responsibility to ensure the rights of all humans versus the concept that the state only has authority and responsibility over its own people.

It was really interesting to see this tension play out in some of the site visits that we had. In our visit to the Council of Europe, for example, we were able to hear about cases in which countries refused to implement a decision or mandate made by the European Court of Human Rights. Russia, for instance, has yet to pay a fine of about two billion euros, and the United Kingdom has been refusing to give prisoners’ voting rights. In both cases, the rationale for not implementing a decision by the European Court of Human Rights is often one that involves a nation claiming to protect its own sovereignty and national interests. We were also able to hear a more Russian perspective on the annexation of Crimea from the official who talked with us. According to him, Russia views the annexation of Crimea as a human rights issue that it handled under its jurisdiction because it thinks that it has a right to protect all Russians, especially minorities who are not being given the same political rights in Ukraine as other Ukrainians. This only begins to illustrate the different issues that can occur as a result of the tension between human rights and sovereignty.

Not only can human rights be used as a mask for states to justify their interests, as many would claim that Russia has done in Ukraine, it can also be an issue that conflicts directly with national interests, as is the case with migration into Europe. The conflicts in the Middle East have led to much illegal immigration from North Africa into the European countries bordering the Mediterranean, including Italy and Spain. According to the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights, many of these immigrants who are refugees have the right to seek asylum in Europe. However, this right often conflicts with the countries’ duty to take care of its own public – paying money to help refugees moves vital resources that can be used to help the local population. It even conflicts with national security interests in which many of these European countries would rather block off their borders rather than accept thousands of people a week, among whom there may be a potential terrorist threat.

Another major topic that we covered in class was the enforcement of human rights. While much of the enforcement is uncertain, we learned that it does exist to some extent. For example, there have been many diplomatic and economic engagements that have often led to benefits in human rights. In addition, there have been legally binding rulings that have come out of international courts established to promote and secure human rights. For example, in our visit to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, we learned about how effective the courts were in putting many of the high level criminals in jail (if they survived through years and years of trial).

One thing that was very disheartening to learn was the paradoxical and somewhat voluntary nature of human rights when it comes to enforcement. When we went to the Peace Palace in The Hague, for example, it was made clear by the history of the palace, which was built as a symbol of peace and cooperation only a year before the First World War occurred, that when issues of territory or security arise, they are often prioritized before enforcing human rights. However, after talking to Dr. Fabry about the importance of understanding the “beast” of International Law in its own context, I began to feel a little bit more confident in the system, even though it functions in a less coercive way than the state.

Even though technically these courts and NGOs like Human Rights Watch (which we also visited in Brussels) have no authority over the state except whatever authority the state feels like giving over to them, they are extremely powerful when it comes to developing international norms. By reporting on human rights abuses all around the world, the Human Rights Watch is able to bring the attention of key journalists, decision makers, and policy makers towards abuses occurring in places that would not have otherwise been known (example: Central Africa Republic). In addition, another key result of having all these international agreements is that it is often used as justification for taking non-military action, like economic sanctions. For example, although international law was ineffective in preventing the annexation of Crimea, I do think that it is important to note how important it was in bringing countries together to publicly criticize and impose sanctions on Russia without leading to war.

Ultimately, the issue of human rights, sovereignty, and human rights enforcement is much more complicated than I had initially thought, and it only means that there is more to learn and much more to try to understand!

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