Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Contemporary Human Rights and Latin America

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Contemporary Human Rights and Latin America

Article excerpt

Contemporary Human Rights and Latin America Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century by Kathryn Sikkink (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017)

On September 5, 1921, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Hollywood's then best-paid star, attended a party in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel, drank heavily, and wound up in a bedroom atop an unconscious young actress. She died several days later from a ruptured bladder.

His size was blamed for the accident and, though found not guilty of murder, he was blacklisted in Hollywood for most of his life. This apparently rare case captured the news. In 2017, however, multiple public accusations of often-violent sexual abuse exposed dozens of movie, television and media stars.

On quite another higher level, data on violence has increased significantly in Brazil and Guatemala since the 1980s, as democracy, one of the pillars of human rights, grew.

Recently several Latin American countries-Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador-have threatened to leave or cut off funding to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In late June the United States quit the UN Human Rights Council and then condemned Special Rapporteur Philip Alston's report on extreme inequality and poverty in this country.

What's happening? It looks like an explosion of human rights violations and the demise of institutions that support them... unless you factor in the "#me too movement," consider a greater range of violations, and utilize new data-gathering tools. Viewed through such lenses, human rights standards are improving. This is the tenor of much of Kathryn Sikkink's highly personalized and farranging review of human rights, at a time when others suggest that the human rights movement is on the wane, unrepresentative or somehow misdirected.

Drawing heavily on her own and others' political science data, Sikkink argues that "human rights activists have been effective in creating new issues, putting these issues on the agenda, and constructing a changing standard of accountability for what constitutes a human rights violation." So, despite contrary claims, even from the United Nations, the world is not getting worse. Activists are simply expanding reporting into areas like domestic violence and "unofficial" police actions. This, she argues, is part of a new normative agenda, consistent with psychologist Steven Pinker's view of a historical decrease in violence among humans.

But, fully aware of human behavior, she predicts no teleological utopia, and thus supports her colleague Thomas Risse's Non-Ideal human rights theory, which "tells us what we ought to do given that others will not do what they ought to do." In brief, we must continue to keep an eye on people.

The book covers a wide range of topics, including historical legitimacy, effectiveness of law and activism, and practical future recommendations. Sikkink suggests that readers may want to jump around according to their interests. Doing so, this reviewer first considers Latin America's contribution to human rights, where Sikkink's experience is greatest, her history of Global South's involvement is most detailed, and her conclusions are hardly debatable. The review then shifts to her disagreement with intellectual historian Samuel Moyn's critique of the contemporary human rights movement and its distance from neoliberalism's contribution to global economic inequality.


Much of the earlier writing on Latin American human rights notes that the passage of the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man (April 1948) preceded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), by eight months. However, the American version is not widely known or cited (This reviewer wrote a New York Times op-ed article that was questioned by editors for citing the little-known declaration) and it could appear that Latin Americans simply "jumped the gun" or had a smaller constituency. …

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