Reading 11: Simmons

Simmons, Beth (2009). "Introduction." in: Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics. Cambridge University Press: 1-22.


Human rights underwent a widespread revolution internationally over the course of the twentieth century. The most striking change is the fact that it is no longer acceptable for a government to make sovereignty claims in defense of egregious rights abuses. The legitimacy of a broad range of rights of individuals vis-à-vis their own government stands in contrast to a long-standing presumption of internal sovereignty: the right of each state to determine its own domestic social, legal, and political arrangements free from outside interference. And yet, the construction of a new approach has taken place largely at governments' own hands. It has taken place partially through the development of international legal institutions to which governments themselves have, often in quite explicit terms, consented.

How and why the turn toward the international legalization of human rights has taken place, and what this means for crucial aspects of the human condition, is at the core of this study. From the 1950s to the new millennium, governments have committed themselves to a set of explicit legal obligations that run counter to the old claim of state sovereignty when it comes to protecting the basic rights of individual human beings. There was nothing inevitable about this turn of normative and legal events. Indeed, the idea that sovereign governments are not accountable to outsiders for their domestic policies had been presumed for centuries.


Questions for discussion

  • Human rights (HR) treaties change politics, through mobilization at the domestic level, is the central argument in the book. So, what is the value added of international courts in this area? Her theory does not include international courts (ICs). In fact, if it only takes the treaties to change behaviour (when these are strategically utilized by litigants and non-governental organizations (NGOs) at the domestic level) international human rights courts seem to be redundant. From a normative perspective, it seems we can have (some) adherence to human rights, without the risks of over-judicialization that comes with ICs?
  • Simmons argues that human rights treaties, while negotiated internationally, create stakeholders almost exclusively domestically. While international community norms are important for explaining the signing and ratification of HR treaties—in particular for the “false positives”, i.e. regimes that sign treaties without sincere intention to comply—compliance with these treaties is determined at the domestic level without much influence of international factors. State actors simply do not bother too much about other states’ human rights records, according to Simmons. Is this asymmetry between the international and the domestic level, when it comes to commitment and compliance, unique for the HR area? Does it mean that compliance is particularly difficult to achieve in HR?
Published May 9, 2016 1:13 PM - Last modified May 9, 2016 1:22 PM