Ethics & International Affairs

Roundtable: The Future of Human Rights

Against a World Court for Human Rights

Philip Alston

Too much of the debate about how respect for human rights can be advanced on a global basis currently revolves around crisis situations involving so-called mass atrocity crimes and the possibility of addressing abuse through the use of military force. This preoccupation, as understandable as it is, serves to mask much harder questions of how to deal with what might be termed silent and continuous atrocities, such as gross forms of gender or ethnic discrimination or systemic police violence, in ways that are achievable, effective, and sustainable. This more prosaic but ultimately more important quest is often left to, or perhaps expropriated by, international lawyers. Where the politician often finds solace in the deployment of military force, the international lawyer turns instinctively to the creation of a new mechanism of some sort. Those of modest inclination might opt for a committee or perhaps an inquiry procedure. The more ambitious, however, might advocate the establishment of a whole new court. And surely the most “visionary” of such proposals is one calling for the creation of a World Court of Human Rights. A version of this idea was put forward in the 1940s, but garnered no support. The idea has now been revived, in great detail, and with untrammeled ambition, under the auspices of an eminent group of international human rights law specialists.

Philip Alston is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University Law School, and co-chair of its Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. He was UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions (2004–2010), Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1991–1998), Independent Expert on reform of the UN human rights treaty body system (1989–1997), Special Advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals (2004–2007), a member of the UN Group of Experts on Darfur, and a participant in the Independent International Commission on Kyrgyzstan. Alston also served as editor-in-chief of the European Journal of International Law from 1996 to 2007.