by Rhodri C. Williams
Last weekend, Swedish international lawyer Krister Thelin published a provocatively commonsensical proposal in Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s two big broadsheets. In his article, Thelin, who sits on the UN Human Rights Committee, recommended that the countries of the world be assigned grades allowing comparison of their human rights performance. He argues that overcoming UN hesitations in this area would place greater pressure on non-compliant states and provide benchmarks to guide the performance of governments genuinely interested in performing better. Mr. Thelin also suggested that such an approach would be of immediate assistance in encouraging progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in the course of the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East and North Africa.
This argument is sound in principle. Human rights are meant to be universal and applicable in equal measure to all the states of the world. Moreover, the vast majority of states have ratified human rights conventions and virtually none deny the existence or applicability of human rights as a matter of official policy. From this perspective, the failure of states to uniformly apply human rights is not only morally repugnant but hypocritical, and a grading system as proposed by Mr. Thelin would further expose this hypocrisy. The establishment of such a system would probably be more complicated than Mr. Thelin lets on, given that it would add further fuel to a number of debates within the field of human rights as well as in regard to the related fields of humanitarian assistance, development cooperation and transitional justice. However, one of the striking aspects of Mr. Thelin’s proposal, as it now stands, is that it does not entirely acknowledge the existence and significance of these debates.