Introduction and Overview
ANGER, HOPE, AND THE BELIEF YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
DO HUMAN RIGHTS WORK? That is, have human rights law, institutions, and activism produced positive change in the world? And, if so, how do they work and under what conditions? How can we learn from past successes and failures to make human rights work better in the future?
These questions have provoked vigorous debates among scholars and practitioners. In particular, there is a recent increase of pessimism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights law, institutions, and movements. This pessimism comes from governments and scholars, and, more importantly, from many within human rights movements.1
Some of the pessimists are, understandably, activists at the front lines of the most difficult human rights challenges today. Heba Morayef, an Egyptian human rights advocate, told me at a conference that she “has lost hope.” In the last five years, she has moved from a “dream moment” during the Arab Spring uprising to sometimes being “too scared to tell people” what work she does. She has been working for many years on human rights in Egypt with Human Rights Watch and later as associate director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, a group at the forefront of advocacy for freedom of belief and expression, as well as freedom from gender-based discrimination.2
As a young woman, Morayef knew she wanted to work on some kind of political reform. She liked the human rights law class she took at the university because it “combined an activist agenda with something that was tangible.” After graduating, she saw “there was a small group of human rights organizations in Cairo that were unafraid and so I found myself there.” Morayef started her career as a human rights defender under the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak, mainly working to get prisoners out of jail or to stop torture. She said, “I wasn’t scared as a human rights defender under Mubarak, but you didn’t feel terribly effective in the big picture.… We didn’t expect any big changes, so all you could do was to work on the little corners, but these little corners were at the heart of the police state, of course. So it was subversive per se.”
Morayef’s sense of effectiveness began to change after the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011:
The only frustration I felt was that I couldn’t clone myself because there was so much to do. We were being invited to government meetings by parliamentarians, who were saying, “Give me a law on police reform or tell me what I need to do to stop journalists from being locked up.” … There wasn’t enough time to be doing everything, and we were a really small community. We were very fashionable. That’s silly, but what I mean is—young people were coming to us as volunteers, rich businessmen wanted to support our work, and there were lots of citizen initiatives popping up at the grassroots level in different cities around the country that had a rights discourse.3
Then came elections that brought to power the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood party under the leadership of Mohammed Morsi. But Morayef says that she still wasn’t pessimistic about the big picture because “We felt we could fight them and we were not without power.”
All of that changed after 2013 when a military coup against President Morsi brought the Egyptian Arab Spring to an end. The new president of the military-civilian regime cracked down, not only on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, but also on the media, NGOs, and anyone who voiced criticism. On August 14, 2013, one month after Morsi had been removed from office, police violently attacked camps of his supporters who were protesting the coup in two squares in
Cairo. “That day,” Morayef said, “was really the loss of hope. Because, if you can kill 1,000 people in one day, there is not much you won’t do. Up to that moment, things weren’t looking good, but I didn’t feel so hopeless about Egypt’s future in my lifetime in the way I did after the massacre.” The massacre ushered in a chilling atmosphere for human rights work. “We are now called foreign agents and spies. I had a couple of talk show hosts mentioning me as a spy, and got lots of Twitter hate,” Morayef explained. After the coup in 2013, Morayef said, “it is the worst moment Egypt has seen in my lifetime, in terms of the number of people killed through the use of lethal force by the police, numbers of political prisoners, mass trials, mass death penalty sentences, and extrajudicial executions.”
By 2017, Morayef had moved to Tunisia to head Amnesty International there, directing its research work on North Africa. When asked if she expected to see change in her lifetime, Morayef replied, “The thing about change is that change can be good or bad. I have no sense that I will see change in the good sense, meaning fewer human rights violations, more political space, less fear.… I don’t believe that the darkness of this moment will last forever, but it will take a long time to rewind.”4
Across the world in Mexico, in a very different political situation, long-time human rights activist and scholar Sergio Aguayo appeared to echo some of Morayef’s words. Although Mexico has had a competitive electoral democracy since 2000, repression has worsened in recent years. When Aguayo first started working on human rights in Mexico in the early 1980s, he said, “there was hope. We were part of an adventure.… We were an alternative to revolutionary violence. We knew we perhaps were not going to be at the vanguard of change, but we nevertheless knew we were the protectors of the victims of political violence.” But now, he said, “Hope has gone away.” He pointed to the dramatic increase in disappearances and deaths at the hands of those in various levels of the government, organized crime groups, and companies. Mexico’s government had created human rights institutions, but these institutions failed to protect human rights. New “pretender” human rights NGOs had sprung up, who “corrupted the concept of NGOs and human rights.” Individuals in the human rights movement with contacts abroad were being attacked and discredited as antinational or corrupt. “And
you don’t even know if it is the government, a local boss, or organized crime groups that are attacking you,” said Aguayo.5
Egypt and Mexico are not the only countries where human rights activists on the front lines are under attack. Many governments—China, Russia, Ethiopia, Israel, and India, to name a few—have sought to crack down on human rights NGOs by blocking their access to foreign funds or by forcing them to register as foreign agents.6
From 1993 to 2012, thirty-nine countries enacted restrictive laws on the foreign funding of civil society organizations.7
These restrictions were part of a larger plan whereby governments discredit and delegitimize human rights organizations, attacking them as antinational because they receive foreign funds or portraying their ideas as foreign. In some cases, such as India, the very same governments that welcome foreign capital view foreign support for human rights and justice issues from a nationalistic lens.8
Efforts to weaken human rights activism suggest that governments perceive organizations that promote human rights to be effective. Why else devote considerable energy to regulating, silencing, and delegitimizing them? Still, evidence of their apparent effectiveness provides little comfort to targeted activists.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump campaigned on an open promise to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”9
Immediately after taking office, the Trump administration issued an executive order banning people from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States. Leaders of repressive states were among the first foreign dignitaries to visit President Trump, while at the same time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued for more separation of US values and its foreign policies, acts widely interpreted as signaling a desertion of US human rights policies.10
Given these political developments, it is no surprise that human rights activists in the United States feel discouraged and hopeless as well. I have never been so worried about how US politics could negatively influence human rights at home and around the world.
I write this book for people like Heba Morayef and Sergio Aguayo, people on the front lines of human rights work who say that they have lost hope. I also write for human rights advocates and the general public in the United States who share my concerns about the
impact of US policy on human rights in this country and abroad. I write because I believe that the longer history of human rights has a more positive message that could help sustain them in the context of their current struggles.
Pessimism about human rights progress is widespread. Whether on the news, in the academy, or when one talks to a member of the general public, the standard view is that all types of human rights abuses in the world are getting worse. At the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “We have reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations,” seventy years ago.11
He had in mind the global refugee crisis, but he was making a claim about human suffering in general. In light of the devastating news coming from Syria, South Sudan, Burundi, and other human rights hot spots around the world, it is not surprising that Ban Ki-moon was concerned.
Most people around the world would agree with Ban Ki-moon’s conclusion about the state of human rights in the world. A 2015 survey of 18,000 people in seventeen countries asked, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither better nor worse?” In only two countries—China and Indonesia—did a majority of people think the world is either getting better or staying about the same. In the fifteen other countries, very low percentages of people thought the world was getting better—in the United States only six percent and in Germany only four percent.12
Some academics critique human rights law, institutions, and movements for this perceived lack of progress. A number of new books, blogs, and op-eds bear titles like The Endtimes of Human Rights, The Twilight of Human Rights Law
, or “Welcome to the Post-Human Rights World.”13
According to Eric Posner, author of The Twilight of Human Rights Law
, “Countries solemnly intone their commitment to human rights, and they ratify endless international treaties and conventions designed to signal that commitment. At the same time, there has been no marked decrease in human rights violations.”14
Elsewhere he writes, “The law doesn’t do much; we should face that fact and move on.”15
Posner is a realist legal scholar with little sympathy for human rights law; still, scholars who are more invested in human rights also express negative opinions.16
When the Human Rights section of the International Studies Association was planning for its annual meeting in 2016, the chair proposed an all-day session around the theme of “What is wrong with Human Rights?” The email invitation said, “Together we ask: ‘what’s wrong with rights?’ and what can we learn from these encounters?”17
The International Studies Association is the major professional association for International Relations scholars and its Human Rights section draws those with a special dedication to this topic; if the most committed academics want us only to focus on “What is wrong with Human Rights,” what do the real critics say?
It is entirely appropriate that human rights should be under constant review and debate. The concept of human rights has become one of the dominant moral and political discourses in the world today.18
It is one of the ways that we discuss our values and our beliefs. As an increasingly influential set of norms, laws, and institutions as well as a powerful global movement, human rights should be subject to inquiry and critique.19
Genuine human rights crises around the world, such as those in Syria or the attacks by ISIS on the Yazidi people in Iraq, demand our attention and concern. The purpose of this book is 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.
I will address two main types of criticism and pessimism involving the legitimacy
and the effectiveness
of human rights law, institutions, and movements. By legitimacy, I mean a generalized perception that a movement or institution is desirable, appropriate, and authentic.20
Those who critique human rights institutions believe they are less desirable, appropriate, or authentic than others they can imagine. Effectiveness, on the other hand, involves whether human rights work produces positive change in the world. Legitimacy and effectiveness are linked; for example, the effectiveness of an institution can affect whether it is seen as desirable.
Four main types of actors with quite different positions and rationales articulate these critiques. The first are the governments with poor human rights records that criticize human rights because
they don’t want to bind their own hands or be held accountable for human rights violations. The second are members of the general public who fear that the world is on fire and that human rights isn’t doing enough to help, an opinion that is at times also held by policymakers. The third includes various academics from different disciplines and viewpoints, ranging from realists to critical theorists. The fourth includes human rights activists, especially from the Global South, who worry about lack of progress and lack of consultation in the human rights world. They resent the high-handedness of some large human rights NGOs based in the Global North and the indifference and privilege of some staff in human rights institutions. Each of the four critiques is separate in theory, but sometimes they are blurred together in practice. For example, repressive governments may find it useful to deflect criticism of their own human rights practices by echoing academic criticisms saying that human rights concerns originated in the Global North and are imposed upon the Global South as a form of cultural or political imperialism. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro claimed at the UN in 2015 that Venezuela faced “imperialist attacks” and ongoing harassment through the “manipulation of human rights by the West.”21
As we shall see in chapters 3
, however, Venezuela has advocated historically for the international protection and promotion of human rights and democracy.
If I am more hopeful than others, it may be because I have seen dramatic improvements in some human rights in my lifetime, such as greater equality and opportunities for women and sexual minorities. When she was young, my mother, Arlene Sikkink, was told that if she wanted to work, there were three careers she could aspire to: nurse, secretary, or teacher. Because she liked science, she chose to be a nurse. My mother t...