Debate with Kenneth Roth about human rights treaties

You can read the debate here. Since having a blog means always having the last word, I add a few further responses to his last entry.

1. I don’t actually advocate the repeal of human rights treaties. It is enough to ignore them, or even just to recognize that they allow almost unlimited discretion because violation of them is unavoidable.

2. Ken argues correctly that the mere fact that a law (for example, the law against murder) is frequently violated is not an argument for repealing the law. But that’s not my argument. I think governments frequently violate human rights law for good reasons–having to do with the limits of their capacity and the rigidity of the law. I don’t think anyone has a good reason to violate laws against murder or rape.

3. Ken recounts a number of anecdotes where he says that treaty ratification led to a change in the behavior of states. I never claim that literally no one pays attention to specific treaty obligations, and several of his examples (the landmine treaty, the European Convention, and so on) go beyond the scope of my claims, which are restricted to the universal human rights treaties. Beyond that, while his anecdotes are compelling, I have seen too many examples of anecdotal arguments falling apart on close inspection to be willing to take them at face value.

4. Finally, in the battle of reductios, Ken argues that I must believe that countries should be permitted to enslave their workers because I reject economic rights embodied in the ICESCR. My actual argument is that if the ICESCR is interpreted as giving migrant workers in Qatar western-style employment rights, that could very well hurt many more people than it helps. In actual fact, the ICESCR is ambiguous, so it is HRW that is urging Qatar to recognize minimum wages or collective bargaining rights. Will this improve the lives of most workers or end up grievously harming many workers because of a reduction in the demand for labor? What bothers me is that HRW thinks or pretends that it knows the answer to this question, but it doesn’t.