Have Human Rights Failed?

Refugees rescued by the Italian navy between Italy and Libya, October 2014
Getty Images
Refugees from Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Nigeria rescued by the Italian navy from a rubber boat in the sea between Italy and Libya, October 2014; photograph by Lynsey Addario from her book Of Love & War, published by Penguin

It’s been more than seventy years since, following the atrocities of World War II, the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, multiple human rights treaties and conventions have been drafted, and most countries have ratified one or more of them—including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and treaties focused on torture, race- and sex-based discrimination, and the rights of children. Human rights organizations have proliferated at the domestic and global levels, and international institutions dedicated to the monitoring and enforcement of human rights, including commissions, special rapporteurs, and courts, are well established.

But are we better off as a result? Is this project worth our continuing collective investment? With Donald Trump in the White House and populist authoritarianism on the rise more generally, human rights advocacy, which is predicated at least in part on “naming and shaming” malefactors, seems almost quaint. Trump himself seems utterly incapable of being shamed. And he shows little or no interest in criticizing the human rights practices of others—especially Russia.

Even before Trump took office, an increasing number of scholars had begun to question the efficacy of advocating for human rights. Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has argued that the ratification of human rights treaties has done little to reduce human rights violations worldwide.1 Samuel Moyn, a law professor at Yale, has argued that human rights are largely irrelevant because, he asserts, they do not address the expanding gap between the rich and the poor.2 Stephen Hopgood, a professor at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, has argued that we are facing the “endtimes of human rights,” in part because of the erosion of US and European influence and the rise of China and Russia.3 And Moyn and other critics have also questioned the legitimacy of human rights advocacy, portraying it as a handmaiden to neoliberal policies imposed by the West on the Global South.

In Evidence for Hope, Kathyrn Sikkink, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, offers a spirited response. On the question of the provenance, and therefore the legitimacy, of human rights, she fills in the partial history that Moyn and other critics have emphasized. While critics often depict human rights as beginning in the 1970s with the Helsinki Accords’ recognition of “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “equal rights and self-determination,” Sikkink demonstrates that the call for human rights protections in fact began far earlier, in the 1940s,…

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