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From Rights to Reality: Beth Simmons’s Mobilizing for Human Rights and its Intersection with International Law

Octo­ber 14, 2011

On Octo­ber 14, 2011 the finale of the day­long 17th annu­al Her­bert Rubin and Jus­tice Rose Lut­tan Rubin Inter­na­tion­al Law Sym­po­sium, “From Rights to Real­i­ty: Beth Simmons’s Mobi­liz­ing for Human Rights and its Inter­sec­tion with Inter­na­tion­al Law,” was a dia­logue between Sim­mons, Clarence Dil­lon Pro­fes­sor of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, and Eric Pos­ner, Kirk­land & Ellis Pro­fes­sor of Law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Law School and a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at NYU Law in Fall 2008.

The exchange, mod­er­at­ed by José Alvarez, Her­bert and Rose Rubin Pro­fes­sor of Inter­na­tion­al Law, con­cerned Simmons’s book Mobi­liz­ing for Human Rights: Inter­na­tion­al Law in Domes­tic Pol­i­tics. Recall­ing how she came to the top­ic, Sim­mons said, “My under­grad­u­ate stu­dents got me inter­est­ed in this ques­tion of whether treaties mat­ter for human rights and for inter­na­tion­al law gen­er­al­ly.… Two decades ago we just didn’t have good answers to that kind of a ques­tion. There was no good empir­i­cal work that real­ly addressed the extent to which inter­na­tion­al law and treaties could mat­ter and could affect out­comes and con­se­quences that we’re inter­est­ed in.”

Sim­mons assert­ed that there are a num­ber of rea­sons states of all stripes join inter­na­tion­al human rights treaties. Regres­sive regimes sign on to treaties to reduce crit­i­cism of their prac­tices, she said. And, she added, there’s also peer pres­sure: states in the same region emu­late one anoth­er in the rat­i­fi­ca­tion process. While inter­na­tion­al enforce­ment rarely occurs, she said, treaties aren’t use­less because domes­tic actors with strong per­son­al stakes demand state com­pli­ance.

It puts a new agen­da on the table domes­ti­cal­ly,” said Sim­mons. “It intro­duces an issue that many states would not have been bring­ing up at that point in time.… It increas­es the strength of domes­tic demands and poten­tial­ly increas­es the case that can be made because they are avail­able for lit­i­ga­tion. They may not be the ide­al instru­ment for lit­i­ga­tion, but they add to the kind of ammu­ni­tion that can be brought in a court case.” Tran­si­tion­al coun­tries in between autoc­ra­cy and democ­ra­cy, she said, tend to see the great­est effect from treaties, since there is improve­ment to be made along with a degree of open­ness to change. The book touch­es on civ­il and polit­i­cal rights, women’s rights, tor­ture, and children’s rights.

While treaties aren’t a “mag­ic bul­let,” she said, “inter­na­tion­al law should be a tool that we can use to influ­ence rights, giv­en that we can’t stop war in any auto­mat­ic kind of way, and we’ve found no way yet to solve these oth­er mega projects.… They’re not a sub­sti­tute for peace­mak­ing, for democ­ra­ti­za­tion sup­port, or for devel­op­men­tal pro­grams.”

Jok­ing that he was there in his “cus­tom­ary role as Darth Vad­er,” Pos­ner began with praise for Simmons’s book. “When I start­ed writ­ing about inter­na­tion­al law, one of my com­plaints was that peo­ple hadn’t thought about inter­na­tion­al law in a suf­fi­cient­ly empir­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous way, so I can’t show ingrat­i­tude now and com­plain that Beth has done just this and come to results that maybe I don’t like, maybe I do like.”

Pos­ner raised ques­tions about aspects of the book, say­ing he wasn’t entire­ly con­vinced by Simmons’s accounts of why states enter human rights treaties, what ben­e­fits they derive, com­mon-law con­sid­er­a­tions, and what com­pli­ance with a treaty actu­al­ly means.

He also raised a coun­terex­am­ple regard­ing Chi­na, which he said had lift­ed 200 mil­lion cit­i­zens out of pover­ty in the past three decades while not com­ply­ing with human rights treaties; the gov­ern­ment said it was con­cerned about pover­ty rather than human rights.

Should we crit­i­cize Chi­na for not com­ply­ing with human rights treaties?” said Pos­ner. “One could say this is the great­est human­i­tar­i­an accom­plish­ment of any state in quite a long time, and they did it by vio­lat­ing human rights treaties. You might say they could have com­plied with human rights treaties and raised all these peo­ple out of pover­ty, but we don’t know what the coun­ter­fac­tu­al is.”

While Sim­mons did not have time to respond to each crit­i­cism, she tack­led the issue of why a state enters a human rights treaty: “To not under­stand the degree of momen­tum post-World War II for try­ing to address human rights issue is to not under­stand the pres­sure was to do some­thing and not just sit there.… I actu­al­ly don’t think there are strong exter­nal ben­e­fits to par­tic­i­pat­ing in a human rights regime.… I do agree there’s a lit­tle bit of mys­tery, shall we say, for why this regime has such a momen­tum, but I think to put it in a his­tor­i­cal con­text does quite a bit to resolve that.”

Among those par­tic­i­pat­ing in the symposium’s oth­er pan­els were Philip Alston, John Nor­ton Pomeroy Pro­fes­sor of Law; Robert Howse, Lloyd C. Nel­son Pro­fes­sor of Inter­na­tion­al Law; and Catharine MacK­in­non, promi­nent fem­i­nist and Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Law School pro­fes­sor. The sym­po­sium was orga­nized by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Pro­fes­sor of Law Ryan Good­man, the NYU Jour­nal of Inter­na­tion­al Law and Pol­i­tics, the Cen­ter for Human Rights and Glob­al Jus­tice, the Inter­na­tion­al Law Soci­ety, and Law Stu­dents for Human Rights.

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