Gaining Compliance Without
Force: Human Rights
William G. O'Neill
The United Nations and its member states have always found it difficult to secure compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), a problem exacerbated by the extent and severity of modern conflicts. I argue in this chapter that the traditional UN compliance mechanisms have serious limitations and that new responses are needed.
Human rights norms have proliferated over the past fifty years. General treaties cover the gamut of civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights. Specialized treaties ban torture, racial discrimination, and slavery; others elaborate the rights of particular groups, such as women, children, and refugees. Standards on police conduct, the use of force, treatment of prisoners, the independence of the judiciary, and juvenile justice have issued from UN headquarters in six languages. The UN has excelled at creating such standards, and most states have incorporated most of these obligations into their domestic law. It is not a question of aspiration or “good works”—for most states, human rights are the law of the land. Enforcing those rights and holding people accountable for violating rights has been more difficult.
Regional organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Council of Europe, and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) have created human rights standards for their regions. These three entities have regional human rights treaties that largely mirror the UN-sponsored human rights treaties. Most states in each of these regions have ratified their respective treaties. The regional human rights bodies in Africa and the Americas are weak; usually the most they can do is issue public criticisms of violations. Europe is the exception here: the European Court of Human Rights has the power to hear cases and issue binding decisions that are generally obeyed. Asia and the Middle East do not even have regional human rights