Greetings from Brussels! After spending an incredible week in Paris, we are back in Brussels for our final week here. Our European Security course has wrapped up, and this week we have started our Human Rights course with Dr. Fabry. After spending the past (almost) two months discussing security and European institutions in lecture and at our site visits, I think it will be refreshing to have a new topic, human rights, to round out our general understanding and analysis of European current and past issues.
Yesterday, our lectures focused on a general introduction to the topic of human rights by defining what constitutes a human right, the emergence of international governance on human rights as well as global and regional human rights institutions. After laying that foundation, today we discussed the role that human rights plays in foreign policy considerations and actions, both in the European Union as well as the international system as a whole.
Overall, the existence of a global system of recognition for human rights would be impossible without foreign policy recognition by states. While modern democratic states tend to place a relatively strong emphasis on the importance of human rights, states also have many other important values and interests to pursue that can sometimes clash or interfere with human rights initiatives. Nevertheless, states have the ability to employ a variety of economic, diplomatic and military means in an effort to support global human rights. These tools range from quiet diplomacy and diplomatic sanctions, economic sanctions and incentives and the use of armed forces, if necessary.
States are not the only actors who have an effect on global human rights campaigns. In fact, some of the leading powers on these initiatives come from non-governmental institutions including private actors and advocacy NGOs. While these NGOs do not have a government or economy that they can use as leverage to persuade other states to address human rights violations, they instead collect and document information that they use as evidence in an effort to convince governments to implement existing or new standards on a given human rights case. NGOs like Amnesty International focus on a range of civil and political rights as well as economic and social rights like humanitarian relief and development aid.
In addition to state actors and NGOs, international criminal justice operations also seek to address and resolve global human rights violations. International criminal justice is a subset of the larger category of transitional justice, which pertains to the appropriate responses to gross human rights abuses in the wake of domestic conflicts. The goals of these global justice operations include punishing perpetrators, deterring future crimes and reconciling divided communities/political groups. However, a divide exists between the objectives of achieving criminal justice or national reconciliation, as the two can often clash. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, there was a growing international call for a permanent, impartial body that would deal with international war crimes such as those in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Kosovo and Bosnia. The International Criminal Court, established by the Rome Treaty, is our modern answer to this request, and the court tries cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in a global effort for retributive and restorative justice and the deterrence of future crimes.
Finally, we concluded our class time with a debate on the similarities and differences between the European and American views on the International Criminal Court and which argument we found most convincing. The European perspective favors an ICC that operates at a supranational level in which states relinquish some level of their sovereignty for the sake of justice in acts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. This version of the ICC would operate with 18 appointed judges from a variety of the 123 state parties and would uphold an international standard for trying the above crimes while not infringing on state sovereignty. The American perspective, however, favors an ICC in which each state would have their own national court that would address human rights crimes at a domestic level, so as to avoid cultural clashes on right vs. wrong and a watered-down judicial system. The debate raised a lot of interesting questions about the presence of an international criminal court as a whole. On one hand, some of my classmates felt that in the anarchical state of the world that we live in, an international court would be too far removed from national interests to serve the interests and well-being of a nation’s citizens. On the other hand, many felt that the creation and use of the ICC was a step in the right direction, and while the court itself may not be flawlessly impartial or be able to effectively try, persecute and reconcile all past crimes, the ICC is a necessary check in the international system, particularly for states that do not have advanced judicial and legal systems. However, one aspect that we discussed really struck a chord for me: does the existence of an International Criminal Court give powerful states a “cop-out” mechanism for intervening in war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity as they are occurring? For example, in the cases of Rwanda and Kosovo, did the United States and Western European states use the excuse of “justice will come” to avoid the military and economic costs of practicing what they preach in the area of human rights violations? This is a difficult question to address and get to the bottom of, but I am looking forward to further exploring this question in our site visits to the ICTY and the Hague later this week!