Noah Berlatsky: Paper Rights



Legally speaking, human rights have proliferated over the last 40 years. Only 20 human rights were listed by treaty in 1975. Today there are around 300, including the right to privacy, the right to freedom of movement, the right to join a trade union, and the right to an interpreter in official proceedings. With so many human rights recognized by so many countries, we clearly are moving toward a more just and humane world.

Or perhaps not. In his new, short, drily pessimistic book The Twilight of Human Rights Law, University of Chicago law professor Eric A. Posner meticulously, and with a touch of glee, pours cold water on the hopes of the international human rights regime.

There is little evidence, Posner argues, that the proliferation of human rights treaties has done anything to push countries toward a greater reverence for human rights. In fact, he suggests, the growth in the number of legally enshrined human rights is both a symptom of and a contribution to the general incoherence of human rights law. With so many different rights on the books, from a right to free speech to a right to employment, countries can pick and choose which they want to pursue.