The Long Arc of Human Rights: A Case for Optimism

By Bettinger-López, Caroline | Foreign Affairs, May/June 2018 | Go to article overview

The Long Arc of Human Rights: A Case for Optimism


Bettinger-López, Caroline, Foreign Affairs


The Long Arc of Human Rights: A Case for Optimism Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century BY KATHRYN SIKKINK. Princeton University Press, 2017, 336 pp.

Does fighting for human rights actually make a difference? Scholars, policymakers, lawyers, and activists have asked that question ever since the contemporary human rights movement emerged after World War II. At any given moment, headlines supply plenty of reasons for skepticism. Today, the news is full of reports of Rohingya refugees fleeing a campaign of murder, rape, and dispossession in Myanmar; drug users dealing with brutal, state-sponsored vigilantism in the Philippines; and immigrants and minorities facing the wrath of extreme right-wing and populist movements in European countries and the United States. It is easy to succumb to a sense of despair about the laws and institutions designed to protect human rights.

In 1968, the legal scholar Louis Henkin wrote that "almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time." Subsequent empirical studies, primarily in the fields of international trade and international environmental law, have confirmed Henkin's qualified optimism. But in the field of international human rights, empirical studies have sometimes led to more pessimistic conclusions. In a 2002 article in The Yale Law Journal, for instance, the legal scholar Oona Hathaway concluded that "although the practices of countries that have ratified human rights treaties are generally better than those of countries that have not, noncompliance with treaty obligations appears common."

Hathaway and others who have analyzed international human rights regimes have generally focused on the efficacy of specific laws, institutions, or methodologies: for example, the number of human rights treaties that a given country has ratified, the existence of domestic legislation that reflects international norms, or the presence of national human rights institutions. But few have stepped back and considered the overall impact of the broader international human rights movement. In her new book, Evidence for Hope, the political scientist Kathryn Sikkink fills that gap-and the news, she reports, is better than one might fear. Drawing on decades of research into transnational civil society networks and international institutions, Sikkink counters skeptics from the left and the right who have argued that the persistence of grave human rights violations throughout the world is evidence that the international movement has failed and should be abandoned altogether. On the contrary, she concludes, the struggle for human rights has indeed made a difference: "Overall there is less violence and fewer human rights violations in the world than there were in the past."

Sikkink contends that skeptics have relied on the wrong metrics to measure progress and have failed to see shifts in the human rights movement that have made it more durable. She is even relatively bullish about the prospects for continued progress in the Trump era. In this way, she distinguishes herself from the many activists and scholars who fear that the populist nationalism that helped put Donald Trump in the White House could reverse hard-fought human rights gains of the past few decades, both in the United States and abroad.

HIDDEN PROGRESS

Among Sikkink's aims is to defend the institutions and movements that have supported the concept of human rights, which together are often described as "the human rights regime." Sikkink takes issue with scholars and activists who fault the human rights regime for failing to produce a "maximum ideal of justice" but who do not offer alternative approaches that are "within the realm of the possible." The human rights movement should be praised, she contends, for "widening the limits of the possible," thereby changing what is probable. In an earlier book, The Justice Cascade, Sikkink showed how that process can work by tracking how the idea of individual accountability for human rights violations gained a foothold and led to an increase in criminal prosecutions for such wrongdoing. …

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