Harvard Human Rights Scholar Kathryn Sikkink Visits McGill: A Summary of Her Views on the Prevalence of Human Rights in the 21st Century

Written by Arthur Scalabrini; edited by Magdalene Karalis

On September 22nd 2017, Harvard human rights scholar Kathryn Sikkink came to McGill University to present her new book Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century.

Professor Sikkink is renowned for her research on transnational advocacy networks and human rights compliance. In her previous work with Margaret Keck, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, she showed that activists could form powerful transnational coalitions capable of mobilizing information for a cause and yielding considerable influence in international politics. Later in her career, while working alongside Thomas Riss and Stephen C. Ropp, she developed what she coined a ‘spiral model’ to explain why states comply with international human rights law. This model emphasizes the power of social interactions, international norms and transnational advocacy networks in positively shaping state behaviour regarding human rights.

Professor Sikkink began her presentation by pointing out the reasons behind her new work: the low level of morale among human rights workers and the widespread scepticism regarding human rights. Regarding the former, she told the audience that there exists a widespread feeling among human rights activist that their work does not bring about any meaningful changes. Regarding the latter, many commentators and scholars question the effectiveness of human rights in delivering positive changes or assimilate them as tools of Western imperialism. In addition, public opinion in various countries bolsters this scepticism by believing that the world used to be a better place than it is now. Against this bleak backdrop, the objective of her book is to confront this misrepresentation of human rights effectiveness.

To counter this perspective, Sikkink displayed an array of statistics demonstrating the impact of human rights since 1995. Genocides and politicides have become less frequent, the number of civilian casualties in armed conflict has been reduced, and the death penalty is becoming increasingly outlawed, a dramatic dip that correlates with an Amnesty International campaign in the ‘70s. Meanwhile, gay marriage has been legalized in two dozen countries, and (charted against population growth) famines are less recurring. With a variety of other examples cited, Professor Sikkink bolsters her point that, since 1945, human rights have brought positive changes in myriad domains, and have been highly impactful in the long run.

In light of this evidence, why is there such pessimism regarding human rights? Professor Sikkink proposed three possible explanations. First, human rights organizations might be counterproductively exacerbating this pessimism by raising awareness on terrible and shocking human rights issues. This in turn contributes to the perception of their own lack of effectiveness. Second, the creation of numerous new treaties since 1945 has increased number of applicable rights. As a result, more human right might be violated, which then fuels the idea that human rights are ineffective. Finally, she put forward an explanation derived from the psychological concept of availability heuristics. People have a tendency to evaluate events based on related information that directly spring to mind. For instance, after seeing several news reports regarding a certain type of human rights violations, one would be more likely to overestimate the frequency at which such violations occur. This effect would foster the perception that human rights violations are more prevalent than what they actually are and therefore may minimize the significant strides we have made in global human rights overall.

Professor Sikkink concluded the event by presenting her research as ‘evidence for hope’ that the human rights movement has been effective since its beginnings and will continue to bring changes in the future. For this reason, she dedicated her book to all activists, encouraging them not to despair, as their dedication to human rights will eventually make a difference as it has in the past.

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