When human rights become a weapon

by Prof Dr iur. et phil. Alfred de Zayas*

The weaponisation of human rights has transformed the individual and collective entitlement to assistance, protection, respect and solidarity – based on our common human dignity and equality – into a hostile arsenal to target competitors and political adversaries. In the stockpile of weaponised human rights, the technique of “naming and shaming” has become a sort of ubiquitous Kalashnikov.
Experience shows, however, that naming and shaming fails to alleviate the suffering of victims and only satisfies the strategic aims of certain governments, politicised non-governmental organisations and of a burgeoning human rights industry that instrumentalise human rights for the purpose of destabilising others and often enough to facilitate “regime change”, regardless how undemocratic, imperialist indeed neo-colonialist that may sound and notwithstanding the customary international law principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign States.
The strategy rests on the false premise that the “namer” somehow possesses moral authority and that the “named” will recognise this moral superiority and act accordingly. Theoretically this could function if the “namer” were to practice “naming and shaming” in a non-selective manner and refrain from obvious double-standards. Alas, the technique frequently backfires, because the “namer” uses human rights la carte has its own skeletons in the closet anyway, or lacks moral credibility.
This classical example of intellectual dishonesty usually stiffens the resistance of the “named”, who will be even less inclined to take any measures to correct real or alleged violations. Or, what may be surmised, the “namer” actually wants the “named” to stiffen resistance and refuse to make any concessions, so that the “named” can be denounced even more loudly. This fits into the concept of human rights as a foreign policy tool, which is not intended to improve the lives of individuals but rather to advance geo-economic and geo-political objectives.
Another technique of norm-warfare is what is termed “lawfare”, whereby the “law” is used to subvert the rule of law, and international criminal law is instrumentalised to demonise certain leaders and not others. Doublestandards here as well. A self-respecting judge would not betray the profession by playing this kind of game – but some do, and instead of safeguarding the ethos of the rule of law these politicised judges corrupt it (remember Roland Freisler’s Volksgerichtshof!) thus undermining the credibility of the entire system.
The arsenal of weaponised human rights also includes non-conventional wars such as economic wars and sanctions regimes, ostensibly justified on the alleged human rights violations of the targeted State. The result is that, far from helping the victims, entire populations are held hostage – victims not only of violations by their own governments, but also of “collective punishment” by the sanctioning State(s). This can entail crimes against humanity, when as a consequence food security is impacted, medicines and medical equipment are rendered scarce or are available only at exorbitant prices. Demonstrably, economic sanctions kill. Sanctions regimes against Iraq, Syria or Venezuela have already killed thousands and thousands of people and set off major migration movements. Under certain conditions, “naming and shaming” involve further violations of human rights and the rule of law, contravening Arts. 6, 14, 17, 19 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and could reach the threshold of what is termed “hate speech” (Art. 20) .
Bottom line: while in specific cases “naming and shaming”, particularly by credible nongovernment organisations, has yielded positive results, it is a very problematic means and certainly not a cure-all for all human rights abuses.
 In more complex situations, “naming and shaming” has either aggravated a situation or proven to be a thoroughly ineffective instrument of change. States would do well to revisit Matthew VII, 3-5 and replace the disingenuous and politicised “naming and shaming” technique by good faith proposals and constructive recommendations, accompanied by the offer of advisory services and technical assistance. so as to concretely help the victims on the ground.
Sowing honesty and friendship is best to reap cooperation and progress in human rights terms. What is most needed today is mature diplomacy, result-oriented negotiations, a culture of dialogue and mediation, instead of this petulant culture of grandstanding, intransigence and holier-than-thou pretence that help no one.    •

*    Alfred de Zayas was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the first Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order with effect from May 2012. After six years of service, his mandate ended in May this year. At present he is Professor of International Law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy.