Eugene's excellent post on the UN Human Rights Council's egregious resolution seeking to repress freedom of speech provides an example of a problem that John McGinnis and I have sought to highlight in our work on democracy and international law: the extensive influence repressive nondemocratic regimes on international law's contents. If you look at the list of nations supporting the resolution, it turns out that most of them are either outright dictatorships (such as China, Cuba, and Jordan) or authoritarian pseudo-democracies such as Russia. By my count, about 16-18 of the 21 nations voting for the resolution fall into one of these categories. In a vote limited to democratic states, the resolution would have lost overwhelmingly by at least a 2-1 margin (all 10 of the nations voting against it were democratic).
An international law norm supported primarily by dictatorships is not necessarily a bad one. On average, however, such norms are likely to be worse than those generated by the domestic legislative processes of democratic states and therefore should not be allowed to override them without prior ratification by those same democratic processes (as in the treaty ratification process in the United States).
We should be especially wary of nondemocratic states' influence in the field of human rights law, where these regimes have an obvious incentive to promote norms that legitimize their efforts at repressing their political opponents and staying in power. The resolution discussed in Eugene's post is a clear example. Repressive regimes seeking to suppress opposition groups can easily label their speech "racist," "xenophobic" or an incitement to "hatred," to use the terminology of the resolution; they could then argue that repressing such speech is just a case of enforcing international law. Although these regimes would probably engage in repression even without support from international law, obtaining such support gives their policies unwarranted legitimacy, and undermines international efforts to prevent them.
Unfortunately, many scholars and international law advocates argue that international law should be allowed to override the domestic law of democratic states in even absent formal ratification processes. To the extent that this occurs, our domestic law might be displaced by legal norms that serve the interests of brutal despots.
Most experts would concede that UN Human Rights Council Resolutions are not in and of themselves binding international law. However, as McGinnis and I discuss in our article, such resolutions do contribute to the formation of so-called "customary international law." It would be unfortunate if such "law" were allowed to displace domestic law - not because US law is especially good, but because this particular alternative is often far worse.
Related Posts (on one page):
- Democracy and International Human Rights Law:
- The UN Human Rights Council and the Influence of Nondemocratic States on International Law:
- The U.N. "Human Rights Council" Again Urges Speech Suppression:
- Should the United States Obey the Decisions of the International Court of Justice?
- Reflections on Medellin:
- A Texas-Sized Win for Texas in Medellin: