Fundamental rights risk losing importance due to an increase of international human rights conventions. This was the thesis discussed during an event on “Expansion of human rights – blessing or curse?” organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels. The phenomenon known as “human rights inflation” could be counterproductive according to certain experts and could paradoxically lead to a further deterioration in terms of human rights violations.
Jacob Mchangama, CEO of the Danish Think Tank Justitia uses a simple analogy: “looking at human rights as a currency, the strong increase in human rights conventions over the past few years leads to a devaluation of human rights.” Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, numerous other conventions have been added. About 60 years later, the United Nations and the Council of Europe combined have adopted nearly 1,400 rights provisions. The introduction of 3rd generation human rights, such as collective rights or the right to a healthy environment, has greatly contributed to this increase. An increase which raises several questions according to our panelists.The sheer number of conventions could make it increasingly difficult if not impossible to guarantee the protection of human rights and provide enforcement mechanisms. Especially in the framework of weak international institutions, too many human rights laws can be a problem, stated Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Co-chair of the Working Group for the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. In her view it would be necessary to limit the increase of human rights instruments and to focus on the existing ones and their implementation. However, she would avoid prioritising any set of human rights over another. Jacob Mchangama on the other hand, would go a step further and claimed that while it is necessary to stop adopting new rights, it is also necessary to introduce a prioritisation of rights within the existing framework. Resources are scarce and it is necessary to allocate them to fundamental individual rights in order to ensure their protection. Also, 3rd generation rights are often promoted and advocated for by illiberal states across the world, who like to hide behind those rights in order to give their actions political legitimacy, thereby further undermining international human rights protection. When for example Cuba congratulated North Corea on its implementation of 3rd generation human rights, thereby promoting itself and North Corea as human rights champions is an absolute scandal. The fact that national constitutions of countries where human rights are upheld are much more restrictive than the UN gives further proof for the fact that it is not necessary to push for new human rights conventions. Renate Weber MEP, Member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and a human rights advocate herself, reminded us that this year we celebrate the 800 anniversary of the Magna Carta. In this context, she deplored the ongoing erosion of human rights, including in Europe. She admitted being preoccupied by the fact that European citizens seem to have given in on their rights and deplored a worldwide “human rights crisis”, which in her view is partly due to international developments after 9/11 and to a strong focus on 3rd generation rights by many illiberal countries around the globe. She too agreed that the international community has been over-legislating in the field of human right, while at the same time neglecting enforcement mechanisms and the legitimacy of international human rights bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council. In conclusion it can be said that international human rights law should not be seen as a miracle cure for everything going wrong in the world. Indeed, human rights have some kind of “trump status”. But, if we give a trump status to every pressing issue around the world this very status will become meaningless. Julie Cantalou