Global Good Samaritans? Human Rights Foreign Policy in Costa Rica

By Brysk, Alison | Global Governance, October-December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Global Good Samaritans? Human Rights Foreign Policy in Costa Rica


Brysk, Alison, Global Governance


When and why do certain states help to promote and enforce human rights at the global level? As the constructivist approach suggests, for global citizen states the principled pursuit of human rights is not exceptional altruism, but rather a consciously constructed alternative pathway of national interest. Costa Rica's record of human rights influence in multilateral institutions and processes is enduring, multifaceted, and contributes to globally significant initiatives. Yet Costa Rica did not require wealth or power to afford the luxury of pursuing a principled foreign policy. National identity and international society--interpreted and developed by policymakers--produced a meaningful and surprising contribution to global human security by a country at the periphery of global governance. KEYWORDS: human rights, foreign policy, constructivism, norms, international society.

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Human rights is our national interest.
--Costa Rican Foreign Ministry official

When and why do certain states help to promote and enforce human rights at the global level? Although states are more often the targets than the advocates of human rights criticism, some states do support human rights in global institutions and project human rights in their foreign policies. Their influence can be critical for framing and ratifying treaties, creating and staffing multilateral institutions, monitoring and sanctioning offenders, assisting victims, directing resources, implementing peace processes, catalyzing transnational initiatives on emerging issues, and introducing new understandings of rights to the global agenda. (1) How can we explain this positive form of global citizenship?

Are "global good Samaritans" unique altruists or proponents of a more enlightened and collective form of national interest? A long-standing tradition of foreign policy analysis explores the influence of political culture and national identity on state behavior, but in this approach altruistic norms generally compete with more structural national interests. (2) At the regional level, hegemonic powers promote democratization and human rights in the Americas with an uneasy blend of power and principle that aspiring peripheral promoters of human rights must navigate. (3) The constructivist approach to international relations can help to reconcile the seeming contradiction of the rules of realism in the political culture approach and to situate regional dynamics in a broader framework of the interactive constitution of principled politics. In a constructivist perspective, global citizen states consciously construct an alternative pathway of national interest. State identities are constructed in relationship to international society, in a path-dependent process of historical branch points and investments. These identities then shape foreign policies as they filter perceptions, construct foreign policy roles, build constraining international and domestic institutions, and provide principled rationales and domestic constituencies for political leaders. (4)

Although a more detailed argument for this construction of principled national interest is presented below, it is immediately reflected in the self-understanding of policymakers. Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry officials spoke of human rights promotion pragmatically as a source of "moral power," "comparative advantage," and "long-term security" in the international system. As one official put it, "The promotion of peace in Central America, environmental conservation, human rights, and democracy all make the world a better place--and that makes the world better for Costa Rica." (5) Officials do not make the more straightforward and externally rewarded claim that they are altruists--or the domestically legitimate claim that they are nationalists--but rather consciously adopt a synthetic alternative.

In this study, I analyze the record, sources, and rationale of Costa Rica's human rights foreign policy.

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