Safe Harbor: Shoring Up the Norm of Nonrefoulement

Safe Harbor: Shoring Up the Norm of Nonrefoulement

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.

But in most countries, if you’re being tortured, good luck finding a sheriff to save you. If you’re lucky, an international human rights organization, the U.S. State Department or a U.N. committee might eventually mention your case in a report. But far too often, that’s about all that international human rights law can do for you.

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