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Safe Harbor: Shoring Up the Norm of Nonrefoulement

Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013

Among the most damning criticisms of human rights law is that when it is needed most, it is nearly impossible to enforce. To understand how this is so, think about someone being detained and beaten by police officers in a police station. This probably happens to thousands of people every day all around the world, and it is a very simple matter in international law. It’s called torture, and it is illegal. Always.

That’s the theory, anyway. When a system of law is enforceable in practice, it should be possible to turn a clear legal right into something actionable—say, a court order—with the potential for the state to use force if necessary to enforce it. That’s what happens, for instance, when landlords get the sheriff to evict tenants who don’t pay their rent. ...

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