International Law Ineffective Without Strong Enforcement And Accountability Mechanisms
Effectiveness is defined by the oxford dictionary as “the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result”. The overall effectiveness of international law across the globe has been repeatedly debated, with much evidence to be found for both sides. “International law is a system of treaties and agreements between nations that governs how nations interact with other nations, citizens of other nations, and businesses of other nations”. The United Nations founded the International Law Commission in 1947 with the intentions of acting as an overseer to the rulings and governing of the many nations of the world; moreover, to ensure that they were in line with what the UN deemed acceptable. Despite the various plausible claims made which back the idea of the vital role of international law, there are an overwhelming number of cases disproving this. Finland is an example of the success of non-binding international law in the human rights sector through the implementation of Concluding Observations (COs). Other countries such as Germany, Australia, Turkey and Italy, who are some of the many countries who have ratified almost all of 18 International Human Rights Treaties, are also evidence of the viability of international human rights law. On the other side of this argument and acting as evidence are the circumstances in countries such as Syria and Burma where a tyrannical president and malicious military rule over their citizens and strip away their human rights.
Supporting the argument of the practicality of international human rights law without binding agreements is Finland with its superior responses to the Concluding Observations (COs) that were reported by the human rights treaty bodies of the United Nations (UN). Finland prides itself for being an advocate for human rights and ensuring that human rights law is actively implemented in Finnish society. Without having any strong enforcement forced upon the country, the Finns have managed to make many legislative changes that they say were influenced by COs. For instance, the Finnish government “justified” their Minority Ombudsman by the COs, furthermore, this Ombudsman included “elimination of all forms of criminalisation as well as other discriminatory legislation and official measures based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression”. Domestic stakeholders who are involved in reporting Finland’s human rights status to the UN also acknowledge the usefulness of international human rights law. Fifty of these stakeholders were interviewed about the effectiveness of COs in Finland with many of them stating that they have every so often made a positive impact on the state of the country’s human rights. The Children’s Ombudsman, which “reports annually to the government on the welfare of children and youth and the implementation of their rights”, was another legislative change where the interviewees believed that COs were an “essential or decisive factor” in its implementation. Finland attributes their Ombudsman’s to the suggestions made by the human rights treaty bodies of the United Nations; moreover, they make these positive changes to human rights law without having to face any legal repercussions had they decided not to go along with the COs. Finland is therefore a great example of the effectiveness of international human rights law without strong enforcement and accountability mechanisms.
Countries such as Turkey, Italy, Germany and Australia are further examples of how international human rights law works without directly implementing penalties on signatory countries if they do not adhere to what is outlined in the treaties. Many countries do not join treaties without ratifying (“the action of signing or giving formal consent to a treaty”) them which “grants states the necessary time-frame to seek the required approval for the treaty on the domestic level and to enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to that treaty”. These countries have chosen to make laws from the treaties that they have joined, without being forced to in any way. Each of the countries listed above have ratified the “International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination” in order to ensure that everyone is treated equally and that it is against the law to discriminate solely based on race such as in the workplace or in public. Another human rights treaty that that all these countries have signed and ratified is the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” which aims to bring forth females and give them the rights that they were and continue to be denied in comparison to their male counterparts. These treaties were signed by all four of the countries in the above statements and more; additionally no unbearable pressure was put onto those countries to have the expectations of the treaties completely implemented into their societies. However, signatory nations nonetheless opted to ratify the treaties and create legislations from them due to the recommendation of the human rights treaty bodies of the United Nations. The stated countries along with others which are not named, have again proven that the positive impact of international human rights law is not just a fantasy, but that it truly makes a difference.
Those who believe that, without binding agreements or punishments, international human rights law is futile often use the current state of Syria as evidence to support their claim. The situation in Syria began in March 2011 following the arrest and alleged torture of fourteen school kids who had written the slogan “The people want the downfall of the regime” on the walls. Peaceful protests erupted and weren’t welcomed by the current ruler of Syria, President Assad, and lead to people being killed by officers which can be said to have lead to what we now know as the Syrian Civil War. The UN Security Council “has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” and was asked to interfere in the hopes that they might be able to dissolve the tension. The Security Council; however, were unable do anything due to Russia and China vetoing the decision, Russia due to its “significant economic and military ties with Syria”. This is a clear example of the ineffectiveness of international human rights law as while citizens are suffering under the dictatorial rule of their president, countries such as Russia have the ability to prevent the rest of the world from providing aid to countries in dire need due to their own self interests. Had there been strict rules and laws that were legally enforced in the United Nations itself, Syria might have been able to receive the support that it was and still is in complete and serious need of. Another effort that was made to change the circumstances in Syria, yet failed, was the sending of Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, to Syria in order to propose a peace plan to the president. It was a “six-point peace plan that called for a UN-supervised ceasefire by all parties” Although initially accepting the proposed plan, President Assad went against the agreement less than 2 weeks later. The UN, had no power over his decisions and he wasn’t held accountable, which once again posed a failed opportunity to find a solution to the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Syria and the failed attempts by the UN to aid it provide verification of the inability of international human rights law to make a change when it is lacking binding laws and accountability instruments.
Burma is another country whose citizens don’t have any human rights, in fact, it “could be considered the ‘Mecca’ for human rights violations”. Burmese citizens have fallen victim to the oppressive and despotic rule of the Burmese military for more than fifty years, furthermore, despite the many efforts made to free the Burmese citizens of this harsh reality, nothing of real value has been done for them yet. Their human rights have been violated through forced displacements, forced labour, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture, recruitment of child soldiers and through the oppression of political and religious leaders. With such extreme violations of human rights, the United Nation’s Security Council found that there was a “threat to the peace” in Burma which gave them adequate reasons to interfere, yet, “with no apparent justification, the UN has failed to respond to the crisis in Burma with the same conviction as it has previously mustered in assisting other countries facing similar grave circumstances”. Additionally, there was a vote on a possible solution proposed in early 2007 to the Burma Crisis through the restoration of democracy by the Security Council; however, this was vetoed by both Russia and China. An exact repeat of what happened can be found in the Syrian Civil War in 2012. If some countries in the UN’s Security Council have the power to veto any vote, there will never be a 100 percent chance of being able to provide real change for a nation whose human rights are being violated. The ability to veto votes without any repercussions is further proof that international human rights law will never function to its full potential until countries are held accountable for their decisions and suggestions become rules that have to be followed.
Examples of international human rights law failing can be seen in many modern crises of the world such as those in Burma and in Syria. In contrast, the positive effects of international human rights law are evident in countries such as Finland, where they pride themselves on their human rights laws, and in countries that sign and ratify major human rights treaties. The argument about whether international human rights law is effective or ineffective without strong enforcement and accountability mechanisms is heated, however, it seems that the latter is truer. This is not to say that international human rights law hasn’t made any positive changes throughout the decades it has been in place or that it is completely useless; however, can it really be said that it is completely effective if there are still places in the world that have had their human rights stripped away from them?
- Bell, Justin, ‘The Burma Crisis: Civilian Targets without Recourse’ (2014) 1(3) The Indonesian Journal of International & Comparative Law: Socio-Political Perspectives 768, 768
- ‘Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women New York’, 18 December 1979’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (Web Page) < https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cedaw.aspx>
- ‘Guide: Syria Crisis’, BBC News, (News Article, 9 April 2012) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13855203
- ‘International Law and Justice’, United Nations, (Web Page) < https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/international-law-and-justice/index.html>
- Krommendijk, Jasper ‘Finnish Exceptionalism at Play? The Effectiveness of the Recommendations of UN Human Rights
- Treaty Bodies in Finland’ (2014) 32(1) Nordic Journal of Human Rights 18, 29
- Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, ‘Finland’s international human rights policy’, Finnish Government, (Web Page) https://um.fi/finland-s-international-human-rights-policy#sexual%20minorities
- Reuters, Thomas, ‘What is International Law?’, Find Law, (Web Page) < https://hirealawyer.findlaw.com/choosing-the-right-lawyer/international-law.html>
- ‘Explainer – The Treaty Process in Australia’, Rule of Law Institute of Australia (Web Page, 9 April 2018) https://www.ruleoflaw.org.au/treaty-explainer/
- Simpson, John and Edmund Weiner, Oxford English Dictionary (online at 8 April 2019) ‘effectiveness’
- ‘United Nations Security Council’, United Nations (Web Page)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, opened for signature 18 December 1979, 1249 UNTS 13 (entered into force 3 September, 1981)
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, opened for signature 21 December 1965, 660 UNTS 195 (entered into force 4 January 1969)
- Oxford English Dictionary (online at 8 April 2019) ‘effectiveness’
- Oxford English Dictionary (online at 17 April 2019) ‘ratification’