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International pressure on US human rights matters now more than ever

Domestic politics are important, but we need international human rights law in the United States now more than ever. EspañolFrançais

These are dangerous times.  Never has it been so important for domestic and international human rights advocates and scholars to collaborate.  Such action must be guided by past successes in promoting human rights, based on our best history and social science. I share Stephen Hopgood’s sense of urgency, but I disagree with his recommendation that we should only engage in domestic politics and abandon international human rights norms and law. 

We will need even stronger domestic movements to protect vulnerable populations from hate and discrimination and to mobilize groups harmed by globalization.  Domestic movements, as always, must frame their work in ways that will resonate politically. But human rights will continue to be one important language to mobilize both domestic and international publics. The US election did not reveal a tectonic shift in the electorate. Clinton won the popular vote and Trump received fewer votes than Romney did in 2012. This is less a story of a major realignment of US politics, and more about the electoral college, voter turnout and the impact of third parties.  Sexism and xenophobia, nothing new in US politics, played a role. These issues are all important but insufficient to conclude that we should suddenly abandon human rights.

Human rights will continue to be one important language to mobilize both domestic and international publics. 

Oppressed people have long used human rights ideas to fight their struggles, while elites, and often US elites, sat on the sidelines or exacerbated the problem. As Steven Jensen shows in his important new book, The Making of International Human Rights, newly decolonized states propelled the human rights agenda while the US was engulfed in racial discrimination. The US government, pressured by Southern segregationists, blocked the institutionalization of international human rights law because it feared it could be used to end Jim Crow. Newly decolonized states quickly drafted the Covenant against Racial Discrimination (CERD), creating a human rights treaty body and mechanism for individual petition. Once in the CERD, these enforcement provisions were accepted in all subsequent human rights treaties.  But most importantly, powerful domestic social movements, supported by international pressures from many states in the global South, drove the movement for US civil rights. In the context of the Cold War, US racial discrimination policies disadvantaged the country in the war for hearts and minds, which the USSR exploited. Such international pressures emboldened the US government to intervene in matters previously seen as the jurisdiction of state rights, leading to the desegregation of transportation, education, and citizenship. It is thus necessary to understand how strong domestic social movements can benefit from the support of transnational networks and international institutions. 


Wikimedia/Rowland Scherman (Some rights reserved)

Cvil Rights March on Washington, D.C in August 1963. Powerful domestic social movements, supported by international pressures from many states in the global South, drove the movement for US civil rights.


Latin American governments struggled to build a human rights regime from the 1950s to the 1970s, while the US government was supporting military coups against elected governments and embracing brutal military regimes that replaced them.  Towards the very end of this period, the effort to build regional human rights institutions received genuine, welcome support from the Carter Administration, as it pushed countries to ratify the American Convention and provided financial support for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. But the protagonism originated from Latin American governments and regional human rights activists.

More recently, the practices that eventually helped limit the George W. Bush administration policy on torture and rendition were largely due to pushback from NGOs and certain media outlets, as well as officials within the Bush Administration knowledgeable about and concerned with international law. State department legal advisor William Taft’s response to memos saying that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to the conflict in Afghanistan, Jack Goldsmith’s decision to withdraw the worst torture memos, and Navy legal counsel Alberto Mora’s struggle against the policy of cruelty, were all motivated by their understanding of US obligations under both domestic and international law.   

The Bush administration eventually was constrained from further eroding the global norm against torture because of opposition from allies and adversaries.  Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were not persuaded by arguments about international norms and law, as Trump may not be either. But they eventually understood that they were unable to pursue their interests because of the resistance they faced, including through the possibility of criminal accountability for US officials. International norms and law inspired other countries to take a firm stand against US torture policy, which in turn limited US ability to pursue its perceived interests. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Douglas Johnson, Alberto Mora, and Averell Schmidt document the strategic costs of the torture and rendition policy to US long-term interests, arguing that the policy hurt America because other institutions and countries believed in and enforced international human rights law.

To push back against a Trump administration policy of torture and cruelty will require broad international collaboration between human rights movements and institutions. Human rights should not be cast aside as compromised by their association with liberal elites. As surveys by James Ron and his colleagues have shown, human rights ideas have a much broader constituency around the world than Hopgood understands.

As I argue in my forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, Making Human Rights Work: Evidence for Hope, human rights change is a long-term process that has experienced and will continue to experience dramatic setbacks, of which the Trump election is the latest frightening example. But this will be far from the first time that the US government is on the wrong side of human rights issues. Concerted domestic efforts in collaboration with international pressures from foreign governments and human rights movements and institutions will be essential to mitigate the potential for the Trump administration to commit human rights violations.  A closer look at the history of human rights provides models of collaboration between domestic movements and international pressures, models that offer hope and guidance in this difficult moment. Rather than putting the idea of human rights aside, we need it more than ever.

About the author

Kathryn Sikkink is a Regents Professor Emerita at the University of Minnesota and the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Kathryn Sikkink es profesora emérita Regents en la Universidad de Minnesota y la profesora Ryan Family de Política de Derechos Humanos en la Escuela Kennedy de Harvard.

Kathryn Sikkink est professeur émérite à l’université du Minnesota et professeur en politique des droits humains à Harvard.

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