In our increasingly globalized world, visionary politicians and activists have promoted ideas such as human rights, democracy, development, and peace as shared global ideals. Among them, few can claim the level of worldwide acceptance that the concept of human rights enjoys. Economic development had a period of high approval, but concerns about environmental damage have dampened enthusiasm around it. Environmentalism, in turn, has been growing in popularity, but some still claim rights for development over environmental protection, and others argue that the environmental crisis is overstated. Peace has always been a distant goal or a utopian ideal, as terrorism, nuclear diffusion, territorial disputes and other hard power issues constantly undermine the Kantian perpetual peace. Democracy as a global ideal has a complicated status. While it is embraced by many as the most desirable governance system, many others reject it as an imposition by western nations. The second Iraq War and the associated neoconservative ideology of diffusion of democracy by force may have amplified the latter image. Compared to these other global ideals, human rights seems to enjoy the highest level of consensus and the most fully developed international instruments. The number of international human rights treaties and parties, as well as the growing number of international nongovernmental human rights organizations, serve as evidence for this observation. How did human rights achieve this status? Can and should democracy become such a global ideal?

    The Development of Human Rights as an Ideal

    Scholars often point to the horror of the Holocaust as the primary impetus for international efforts to establish human rights as the collective concern of international society. Western nations in particular led these efforts, in order to prevent another holocaust from escaping global attention behind the shield of state sovereignty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted virtually unanimously on December 10, 1948, in the UN General Assembly, became one of the most influential and most frequently cited documents in human history.

    The next step was to draft binding international documents that would concretize the ideals of the UDHR into international law. Although Cold War politics delayed the drafting process, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. Between the adoptions of the UDHR (1948) and the two covenants (1966), the constellation of actors and advocates supporting global human rights changed dramatically. Western nations that led the early efforts to establish human rights as a global ideal faced serious contradictions between their rhetoric and the reality in their territories. Behind their flowery language of human rights in international forums lay colonialism, racial oppression, gender discrimination, and other ugly realities, which came to the fore as inhabitants of their territories identified the hypocrisy of their rhetoric. Unwilling to give up their privilege quickly, western governments receded into the background of international human rights promotion.

    In turn, newly independent nations in Africa and Asia took center stage, pressing for racial, social, and economic equality in the world. Indeed, the first UN-sponsored treaty with a monitoring body was the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), and the first global sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council were against the apartheid regimes of Rhodesia (1966, 1968) and South Africa (1976). Soon, however, these newly independent nations had to face their own domestic violations. Their enthusiasm for racial equality was couched in human rights language, but that language also included fundamental freedoms that these countries did not provide to their citizens. As the oppression of authoritarian regimes in many African and Asian countries triggered intense debates in international human rights forums, these countries became more cautious about publicly advocating for human rights.

    In the meantime, the Cold War further complicated global human rights politics. Because of the ideological warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which both superpowers promoted their social systems as superior to the other, debates on human rights issues in international forums often degenerated into partisan bickering and rarely produced resolutions, much less actions. Furthermore, many countries benefited from the “he is an s.o.b., but he is my s.o.b.” mentality of the superpowers, counting on the superpower on their side to protect them from any serious international interventions to protect human rights. In this political environment, many countries ratified key international human rights treaties such as the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, expecting few serious consequences from ratification. By the time the Cold War ended, a vast majority of the nations in the world had committed to multiple human rights treaties and the status of human rights as a global ideal was indisputable. Thus, Cold War politics paradoxically elevated the status of human rights in international discourse.

    The Role of NGOs and Governments

    In the post-Cold War world, where global human rights activities have been freed from superpower bickering, many of these human rights treaties are making real inroads. Nongovernmental organization actors, who had always played important roles in promoting human rights in international forums, have become even more active and effective. They provide critical information for treaty-monitoring bodies (which help them hold state representatives accountable) and stage global campaigns to shame violating governments into compliance. Because most governments have already committed to human rights as a global ideal, even if the discursive commitment was merely lip service, they have to take criticisms about human rights violations seriously. Furthermore, the international human rights instruments that the governments’ commitments produced have become increasingly influential. Victims of human rights violations today have multiple venues for contestation beyond domestic courts. Often with help from human rights activists, they file grievances and urgent calls for help to UN and regional human rights instruments. Although not all the victims’ voices are heard, and the enforcement mechanisms are still weak, many systematic violations have been addressed by these instruments. For example, many children have moved from sweatshops to classrooms, many indigenous peoples have regained their land and cultural practices, and many women have been freed from oppressive practices such as female genital cutting. These changes are at least partly attributable to pressures exerted on violating governments by international human rights instruments, often with assistance from nongovernmental actors.

    To be sure, international human rights treaties could still use much sharper teeth. Naming and shaming is the primary tool for activists, but this approach does not work well with powerful nations such as Russia or China or with secluded regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar. Furthermore, many excuses such as cultural relativism, security concerns, or the war on terror forestall important efforts to advance human rights in international society. These problems notwithstanding, the global legitimacy of human rights is virtually beyond reproach. Few governments would dare to deny the importance of human rights; violating governments typically argue that their conducts do not violate international human rights standards rather than asserting that they do not care about human rights.

    Achieving Global Legitimacy

    The elevation of human rights to this level of global legitimacy was possible because (1) the discursive commitment was relatively easy to make since few consequences were anticipated; (2) the broad, somewhat vague, conceptualization of human rights made it palatable to diverse actors; and (3) civil society actors consistently and increasingly pressured governments to commit to human rights. As we have seen, it went through twists and turns and in the process gained acceptance by virtually all major actors in world politics. First, western nations led the early efforts, then newly independent nations took over, and then during the Cold War countries in both eastern and western blocs committed to the idea of human rights. By the 1990s, a vast majority of governments had expressed some level of commitment, and human rights had achieved almost universal recognition as a global ideal.

    Contrast this situation to the lack of international instruments to promote democracy. When Zimbabwean citizens suffer from the unwillingness of President Mugabe to accept election results, they do not have an international instrument to which they can appeal. When citizens of Myanmar or North Korea take part in a perfunctory election, they too have no international forum to which they can appeal the absurdity of fake democracy. They can certainly claim human rights violations, but, with the major human rights instruments overwhelmed by many claims, it would be much more effective if there were an international instrument devoted entirely to democracy. The International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, 1987) serves as a good model. Torture was a part of the UDHR and the ICCPR, but many experts and activists agreed that there should be a separate treaty and monitoring body devoted specifically to the issue of torture. A similarly focused convention is proposed for democracy. If there were sufficient diplomatic will and activist zeal, there is no reason why an international treaty on democracy cannot be adopted at the UN.

    We have learned from the history of global human rights that, for a global ideal that could potentially undermine state sovereignty to become institutionalized into international instruments, state commitments and civil society support—even as lip service at the outset—are crucial to implementation. Looking at the current status of democracy in international society, it is foreseeable that many countries would make discursive commitment to democracy as a global ideal. Procedural democracy, if not substantive democracy, is likely to be acceptable even to dictators, given that many of them do allow perfunctory elections. Thus, if the scope of the international treaty is limited to procedural democracy, the low threshold might draw a majority of states into the treaty system, which eventually could raise the standard. Furthermore, civil society actors have been ready to make their contributions and are already engaged in election monitoring in fragile democracies. In the wake of worldwide criticisms against the unilateral U.S. effort to spread democracy by force, we are at an opportune time to institutionalize democracy as a global ideal.

    Kiyoteru Tsutsui is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan. He currently has a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is completing a book entitled Rights Make Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan. His research on global human rights has appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Social Problems, Sociological Forum, and the Journal of Peace Research, among others.