The architects of the UN human rights system undoubtedly never anticipated the evolution of their project. Their once-negligible cabin at the edge of the woods has grown, albeit in a haphazard and lopsided fashion. Additions small and large have been added, the trees shielding the structure have been cut down, and a maze-like structure has found itself at the city center. The existence of the human rights system owes itself to a belief that

no longer exists. States adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other early international human rights instruments on the understanding that enforcement would always be a matter of state discretion. Thus, in the early years, spanning roughly from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the Cold War, states could agree to the establishment of the UN Human Rights Commission and other UN human rights bodies without the sense that they were relinquishing any of their sovereignty. Although many international human rights standards were established by the new human rights bodies during this period, these standards were rarely enforced. No UN body believed itself to be competent to do so. For the first 20 years of its existence, even the UN Human Rights Commission, the central UN human rights body, adopted the position that it had no power to take any action in regard to human rights complaints. With the influx of new member states to the UN, mainly from Africa

and Asia, the composition and focus of the UN human rights organs changed. Greater attention was paid to anti-colonialism and anti-racism. While some developments during this period were positive, such as the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Race Discrimination, political opportunism cast a pall over this period. Manipulated by the politics of the day, human rights became a central political wedge, first between East and West and then North and South. began demanding more

of the international human rights standards, though with little effect. Advocates increasingly argued that sovereignty did not shield states from international scrutiny for human rights violations. International outrage over extreme racism in Africa supported the Human Rights Commission’s development of a nascent enforcement system, ushering in a new era of international monitoring and reporting on thematic issues and investigation of individual complaints. Yet the UN system of human rights remained troubled. To the extent that human rights advocates were attracted to international organizations as a means of solving international problems, enthusiasm soon waned. As Henry Steiner and Philip Alston observe, “it became clear that [international] institutions could simply incorporate the polarities and conflicts of the ‘outside’ world, become lethargic administrators through inertia and stale bureaucracy, and experience manipulation and corruption.”1