The Long Arc of Human Rights: A Case for Optimism
Foreign Affairs, Volume 97, Number 3, May/June 2018
Posted: 24 May 2018
Date Written: April 17, 2018
In this piece, I discuss the scholarship of the political scientist Kathryn Sikkink who, drawing on decades of research into transnational civil society networks and international institutions, 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, Sikkink 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.
In the essay, I refer to the case of Jessica Lenahan v. United States of America (2011), which I litigated before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), to reinforce the argument that the international human rights regime has effected positive change in the world.
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