Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

The Future of International Human Rights Law: Lessons from Russia

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

The Future of International Human Rights Law: Lessons from Russia

Article excerpt


This volume raises two broad and closely related questions. What do we mean when we talk about international human rights law? How should researchers investigate international human rights law? One is a matter of subject, the other of object. The papers in this symposium indicate multiple approaches to both. Rather than synthesizing these contributions or adjudicating among them, this intervention both embraces and challenges them. My main point is commonplace to the point of banality, that what you see depends on where you stand. The perspective I offer to make this point is Russian.

Russia matters because the foundational moment for international human rights law--the lieu de memoire of the field, with apologies to Pierre Nora--occurred in the context of the U.S.-Soviet relationship through enactment of the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. (1) Russia later became a place for testing the claim that international human rights law has its greatest impact in the disassembly of authoritarian regimes. Finally, the work of economists who sought a rigorous explanation for their failures in Russia in the 1990s gave an enormous boost to the empirical turn in the study of the effect of legal institutions on societal outcomes--a close relative to the empirical study of the impact of international human rights law. A reconsideration of the Russian context thus brings to light ways to think about the origins of international human rights law, and what its consequences--more unintended than not--have been.

The first part of this paper reviews the Russia experience, drawing shamelessly on my own adventures. Personal narrative presents challenges, not the least being the high likelihood that the audience does not find the author's life as fascinating as he does. I will try to overcome these hurdles. The second part proposes ways of understanding this experience that can shape our approach to both the subject and object of international human rights law. I argue in particular that local knowledge based on deep understanding of the society affected is indispensable to the human rights project, and that the specifics of local histories and values may defeat the expectations of the promoters of human rights. Although agnostic as to the future of this field, I hope to enrich the agenda of human rights workers and researchers going forward, whatever their methodological commitments.


Specialists in international human rights law will find a focus on Russia odd, if not off-putting. Western human rights workers tended to see the Soviet Union as a negative space, embodying an antithesis of human rights. During the flowering of this field in the 1970s and 1980s, mainstream activists and academics typically sought to establish their anticommunist credentials as a predicate to launching critiques of what they framed as human rights abuses in the West. (2) Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, they have paid little attention to Russia except as a somewhat backward place, a rival with Turkey for the greatest source of complaints brought to the European Court on Human Rights. They see Russia as peripheral, not central. (3)

But Russia has been, and remains, more interesting than the mainstream view allows. The concept of international human rights law--human rights as a set of obligations resting on international law, not simply as an expression of values--was forged in the postwar struggle for hegemony between the Soviet bloc, with Russia at its center, and the so-called capitalist world. The supposed triumph of the West in turn put the ideological claims to the test, as the struggle's losers, first and foremost Russia, purported to assimilate the practice of human rights through international law enforcement. The many-sided disappointment of Western liberals with the results, especially in Yeltsin's Russia, energized a new body of empirical scholarship exploring the relationship between legal institutions and economic development. …

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