Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope:
Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century
(Princeton University Press)
The idea of international human rights – rights that transcend national boundaries and state sovereignty – crystallized in the post-World War II period with the adoption of the initial charter of the United Nations in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Promulgated under the auspices of the United Nations, the UDHR is considered the founding text of today’s international human rights law. As Kathryn Sikkink observes in Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, there is a compelling simplicity to the idea of international protection for human rights: “if your government fails to protect your rights, you have somewhere else to turn for recourse” (p.57).
Today, there are several treaties and conventions supplementing and complementing the UDHR. Almost all the world’s countries have ratified some or all of these instruments, while numerous international and non-governmental organizations, institutions, and practitioners monitor compliance and otherwise seek to advance the international human rights agenda across the globe. The idea of international human rights has become, Sikkink writes, “one of the dominant moral and political discourses in the world today” (p.8). And yet.
The general public seems convinced that human rights abuses are worsening and widening across the globe, not diminishing, and there is much to support this view in just about any edition of a daily newspaper: China’s assault on its predominantly Muslim Uyghur population; crackdowns on democracy proponents in Myanmar and Hong Kong; refugee crises brought about by civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia; extra-judicial killings in the Philippines; and Russian targeting of political dissidents, to name only a few. Moreover, one year ago, the respected watchdog organization Human Rights Watch issued a withering report on the United States, finding that it was moving “backwards” on human rights, flouting international human rights and humanitarian law.
In addition, there is no shortage of academics taking aim at the international human rights movement. Assiduous readers of this blog will recall Stephen Hopwood’s, Endtimes for Human Rights, reviewed here in 2016. Eric Posner has produced a work with an equally gloomy title, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. And Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World was the subject of an extensive roundtable exchange that my colleagues at the Tocqueville 21 blog organized in 2018. These and other works make different points, but together constitute what might be termed “human rights pessimism,” a now-substantial body of thought calling into question both the legitimacy and effectiveness of the post-World War II human rights movement.
Sikkink, Professor of Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, seeks to counter the various manifestations of human rights pessimism with “evidence-based optimism,” an optimism grounded “not on wishful thinking, but on an effort to understand more comprehensively the strengths and weaknesses of human rights data” (p.13). She describes her purpose as “not to deflect criticism or to diminish concern with human rights crises, but to clarify some of the terms of the debate, the types of comparisons being used, and the kinds of evidence that would be more or less persuasive in supporting and evaluating claims” (p.8).
Methodically, but with a scholarly zest, Sikkink scrutinizes the pessimists’ challenges to the distinct but related issues of the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the modern human rights movement. In this context, legitimacy turns principally on the notion that forms the crux of Hopgood’s case against the modern human rights movement: that its core principles are the product of the world’s most prosperous countries, especially those from Western Europe and North America, imposed upon its least prosperous ones, in Asia, Africa and Latin America – the “Global North” and “Global South” respectively, to use common shorthand. Sikkink responds by demonstrating the often overlooked contributions of diplomats, lawyers, and intellectuals from the Global South to the body of thought that preceded the UN Charter and the UDHR, along with their contributions to those instruments and to the development of international human rights law after promulgation of the UDHR.
Measuring human rights effectiveness and such related matters as “progress,” “results,” and “success” constitute what Sikkink terms the “single biggest unrecognized and unnamed source of disagreement among human rights scholars and within human rights movements” (p.31). Such measurement requires rigorous application of social science methodologies, Sikkink insists. She gives unsatisfactory grades to most of the human rights pessimists, primarily because they frequently measure not on an empirical basis, using qualitative and quantitative data, but rather against an ideal standard of what would be commendable in a more perfect world.
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Sikkink lays out a convincing case that the international human rights movement’s origins lie at least as much in the Global South as in the Global North — maybe more. She places particular emphasis upon the Latin American contribution to the movement. The idea of international protection of human rights, she suggests, probably originated with the early 20th century Chilean jurist Alejandro Álvarez, who in 1917 proposed the idea of international protection for individual human rights to the American Institute of International Law.
Álvarez saw international protection for human rights as a means to bolster rather than undercut state sovereignty, particularly as a weapon for the weaker states of Latin America to contain the greater raw power of the United States. Álvarez’s ideas were later taken up and expanded by other jurists and scholars from both Latin America and Europe. This circulation of ideas, Sikkink writes with Hopgood in mind, is “very different from the crude understanding of some scholars today, who claim that human rights ideas all started in the Global North and were imposed upon the Global South” (p.63).
At the San Francisco Conference of 1945 which established the framework for the UN, the British and French delegations resisted formal declarations of rights out of concern for their colonies; American representatives worried about Southern legislators interested above all in protecting racial separation; and the Soviet Union was less than enthusiastic about formal declarations. Despite this resistance, the Charter emerged with seven human rights references, a testament to the work of delegations from outside the Global North, especially those from Latin America. The references reflected “not the language of the great powers,” Sikkink writes, “but rather that of the Global South.” They were “adopted by the great powers in response to pressure from small states and civil society” (p.71). Without these references, Sikkink finds it unlikely that the UDHR would have been drafted at all.
But the UDHR was not the first detailed enumeration of rights adopted by an inter-governmental organization. Several months earlier, in April 1948 in Bogotá, Colombia, 20 Latin American countries and the United States approved the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. All of the rights enumerated in the American Declaration appeared subsequently in the UDHR. Latin American representatives, for example, were responsible for language about duties finding a place in the final version of the UDHR, reflecting their more communitarian and less individualistic vision of freedom in modern society, and they managed to insert an article into the UDHR about the right to justice.
Sikkink counters a related argument that Moyn and others have advanced that the human rights movement lay largely dormant after the UDHR’s adoption until the administration of American President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Rather, the movement gathered force in the 1950s through the mid-1970s, Sikkink contends, as jurists and diplomats, especially but not exclusively from the Global South, fought to “ensure the creation of institutions with the power necessary to enforce human rights” (p.97). During these decades of Cold War confrontation, the United States was largely on the sidelines, prioritizing instead its support for anti-communist regimes, many with dubious human rights records.
The decolonization movements of the 1950s and early 1960s linked independence and notions of national self-determination to democracy and human rights. The anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, in Sikkink’s view the most important and sustained human rights struggle of the Cold War period, explicitly embraced the notions of human rights embodied in the UDHR. In 1965, Asian and African countries, led by India, spearheaded passage of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Work also continued during the 1950s and 1960s on the two most consequential follow-up instruments to the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), drafted over the course of 15 years and opened for ratification in 1966. The Carter administration helped “activate and eventually consolidate” (p.28) these institutional developments, Sinkkink writes with emphasis, but they had been underway for the previous thirty years (why human rights became a priority of the Carter administration is the subject of Barbara Keys’ Reclaiming American Virtue, reviewed here in 2015).
In measuring effectiveness and what constitutes human rights progress, Sikkiink explains that the difference between empirical comparisons and comparisons to an ideal might be thought of as two different types of lenses or yardsticks: a comparison to the ideal “involves contrasting what has actually happened with what should happen in an ideal world, whereas empirical comparison contrasts what is actually happening to what has happened in the same country in the past or to what is happening in other countries at the same time” (p.3).
As a skilled social scientist, Sikkink expects human rights critics to be clear about their methods. When comparing cases to the ideal, the ideal should be explicit, not implicit. “This allows others to evaluate the arguments and the quality of the evidence and judge the work, “ she writes. Too many critics “take for themselves the luxury of criticisms without making their own suppositions sufficiently clear” (p.48). Applying empirical data to a cross section of key human rights issues across the globe – the status of women, the prevalence of torture and the frequency of the death penalty among them — Sikkink makes the case that there is real progress in the world, after all. By “looking more carefully at the history of human rights and at current trends we can find hope for progress in spite of struggles and backlash,” (p.247), she concludes.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the human rights movement also needs to consider what Sikkink terms the “information paradox”: the more intense the focus on human rights, the more violations are likely to come to light, especially as reporting improves. That doesn’t necessarily mean the number of violations are increasing. Inadvertently, “as the reports accumulate and are taken up by the media, they may also convince people that human rights movements are not making any progress at curbing such violations” (p.14).
As in much of social science, measuring effectiveness in human rights involves identifying correlations. On the positive side, democracy and human rights are “intimately related,” Sikkink writes, and, “so far in human history, it is hard to have one without the other. That does not mean that democracy inevitably leads to human rights; it just means that democracy is a necessary, but not at all sufficient, condition for human rights progress” (p.131-32). Although there is general agreement among scholars and specialists that democratic political institutions reduce repressive behavior, “research indicates that democratic institutions mainly contribute to decreased repression only after a certain high democracy threshold is reached” (p.193).
On the negative side, there are “risk factors” that signal the potential for increased human rights violations, among them war, particularly civil war; the presence of insurgent groups and separatist movements; ideologies that exclude and dehumanize certain people or groups; and poverty. Sikkink does not include economic inequality among the risk factors, and treads lightly around the topical question whether there is a correlation between rising economic inequality and the human rights movement.
Such inequality is usually attributed to “neo-liberalism,” a shorthand reference to government policies, often associated with the Thatcher and Reagan years, favoring less-regulated markets, open international trade, and privatization of some former state functions, frequently accompanied by reductions in social safety net benefits. Some commentators contend that the relationship between human rights and neo-liberalism is one of “complicity,” that human rights policies somehow make possible neo-liberal policies, while Moyn argues that the human rights movement has been “powerless against inequality” (p.38).
Sikkink respondsthat human rights policies can reduce economic inequalities. The human rights movement has made significant inroads in reducing gender inequalities, for example, with an impact on overall economic inequality. But more fundamentally, while mitigating economic inequalities is a laudable goal — both within and among nation-states – it is best achieved by policies like more progressive taxation, closing tax havens, preventing money laundering and cracking down on corruption. Human rights movements, she contends, “don’t have to be the only tools for fighting inequality” (p.239).
Sikkink does not pretend that the modern human rights movement is flawless. But her spirited defense of an imperfect movement should be reassuring, offering evidence-based reasons not only to reject despair but even to hope that the movement in the 21st century can continue, as it has done in the past, to deliver empirically measurable progress.
Thomas H. Peebles
May 31, 2021