Expediency of the Angels

Expediency of the Angels

Mini Teaser: Wary of overpromising, the U.S. public has begun to shy away from promoting our values abroad. What's needed is not to abandon idealistic goals, but to pursue them in more pragmatic ways.

by Author(s): Suzanne KatzensteinJack Snyder

THE OBAMA administration will face human-rights issues at every turn in confronting terrorism, insurgency and ethnic cleansing along the arc of crisis from South Asia to Sudan. To tackle these strategic challenges as well as chronic rights abuses, the new administration and nongovernmental advocacy groups need a new, more pragmatic approach.

In the past, the strategies of neoconservatives and liberal activists have been long on the rhetoric of freedom and rights, but have fallen short on results. Wary of overpromising, the U.S. public has become skeptical about promoting American ideals abroad. Yet the real lesson of these setbacks should not be to abandon idealistic goals, but to pursue them in more pragmatic ways. Without developing a more effective human-rights policy, the United States will neither recover its tarnished reputation nor accomplish its strategic goals.

Some human-rights activists have begun to learn this lesson in their own work. While pronouncements from the headquarters of advocacy organizations still sound doctrinaire, pragmatists in the field are developing eclectic outcome-oriented approaches that take into account the power of local actors and the need to tailor tactics to local circumstances. Both realists and idealists should find value in these effective approaches, which can help restore America's political standing in the world while also doing good.

Over the past two decades, traditional human-rights activists have placed human-rights issues on the international agenda in quite dramatic fashion, but a hefty stack of statistical studies suggests that they have done only a little to improve actual situations on the ground. Treaty signing, legal accountability and "naming and shaming" have had little demonstrable positive effect, and sometimes they even backfire. Where human rights have improved, it is mainly because wars have ended or democracy has been successfully consolidated, not because of human-rights activism.

Rights advocates who have targeted diffuse, embedded practices like child labor and female genital cutting have run into stiff resistance, even from those they seek to help. Advocates focusing on states' violations have hardly fared better. The much-vaunted International Criminal Court has not delivered much justice or deterrence anywhere. And though everyone pledged "never again" after the Rwandan genocide, the response to atrocities in Darfur and eastern Congo has been diffident and ineffectual.

In response to these disappointments, a new approach is emerging. Turning human-rights conventional wisdom on its head, pragmatists argue that amnesties for rights abusers, material inducements for potential peace-deal breakers and dialogues based on local morality can be effective; criminalizing abuses and universalizing Western standards often fail. These new tactics strive to be realistic about power relations, the state's ability to actually implement change, the cultural resources of those that oppose rights reform and the social dilemmas that trap communities in habits of abuse.

This style of engagement fits well with the current climate of U.S. public opinion, which remains committed to human-rights ideals but has become wary of pushing this agenda with unreflective zeal. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Global Views 2008 survey, a plurality of U.S. public opinion has downgraded "promoting and defending human rights" from a "very important" to a "somewhat important" goal; a majority wants to "move cautiously," rather than either "aggressively" or "slowly" in promoting human rights abroad. Reflecting this mood of measured idealism, one of the few points of agreement in the second presidential debate was that the United States should try to prevent genocide, but that Washington must also be realistic about the constraints it faces.

But being realistic does not mean that states should be left alone to do whatever they want to their citizens. Nor does it mean that states should discard moral approaches altogether in favor of one-sided strategies of material incentives and pressures. Instead, building on a review of the evidence of what works in shaping human-rights outcomes, we make the case for using a range of material, informational, moral and legal tools, all adapted to fit the specific cultural, economic and political contexts sustaining particular patterns of abuse.

Efforts to improve human rights are often frustrated by two kinds of social dilemmas. First, spoilers (whose social position depends on the perpetuation of abuses) can stymie rights-reform movements in order to preserve their power. Second, abuses are sometimes so engrained in local social practices that a society can fall into a perverse-equilibrium trap (a situation where individual members of a community cannot abandon abusive practices unless everyone changes their behavior at the same time). Human-rights interventions fail when their tactics are not designed to outmaneuver these two very strong forces.

This pragmatic approach should appeal to realists who recognize that winning the hearts and minds of the world's abused and oppressed has never been more important in the struggle to make the world more secure and to help restore America's good name. Realists have rarely prevailed for long in U.S. foreign policy, largely because they have lacked an attractive ethical message that resonates with the American public. Human-rights pragmatism can help redefine realism's moral stance.

Idealists, too, may find value in this pragmatism, since the approach does help bring an end to human-rights abuses. Still, some idealists may oppose the idea of prioritizing pragmatism over principle. They may conclude that the principles are so important they should not be compromised even tactically. But a look at what human-rights pragmatism really means may help idealists reevaluate the costs of their positions.


A REVIEW of the classic tools of human-rights advocacy-naming and shaming, signing treaties that promise to end abuse, criminal trials for the tyrannical and even some grassroots activism-shows they have often failed.1 These strategies frequently don't work because of their one-size-fits-all philosophy. They fail to adapt to local factors that decisively influence human-rights outcomes, such as per capita income, the level of democracy, whether a country is at war, whether it inherited strong rule-of-law institutions as its colonial legacy and whether a Left or Right government is in power. Not acknowledging these specific on-site societal attributes dooms well-intentioned policy.

For decades, naming and shaming has been the emblematic human-rights practice. Ominous faces of dictators would flash on television screens, Human Rights Watch would issue denunciations in attempts at ostracism and sometimes this would lead to dictators agreeing to sign toothless human-rights treaties. But, as political scientist Emilie Hafner-Burton has shown, regimes that are heavily targeted for naming and shaming tend to restrain themselves only from the most publicized cruelties-the ones that can be easily dug up by advocacy organizations and reported on the evening news. In the meantime, these regimes increase other abuses to maintain the same overall level of repression. Without being precisely aimed to resonate in local debates, an indiscriminate shotgun blast of naming and shaming does little.

Though signing treaties does improve behavior in countries that have recently consolidated democracy, for entrenched autocracies-often the worst human-rights abusers-ratification has proved to be cheap talk. Trade agreements that include human-rights clauses may marginally improve short-term behavior. But that is if, and only if, they are backed up with monitoring and suspension of rewards in cases of violations.

Efforts to improve accountability in international courtrooms have also made scant difference. Activists succeeded in setting up war-crimes tribunals for genocidal killers in Rwanda and instigators of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia-reviving the Nuremberg precedent after a half-century hiatus-but these prosecutions failed to deter subsequent atrocities, even in the conflicts under their jurisdiction. Total deaths due to civil wars have indeed declined (not counting the millions of civilians who died in eastern Congo from starvation and disease as indirect effects of war in the late 1990s), but this is the result of the winding down of conflicts left over from the cold war and post-cold-war transitions, not the result of criminal accountability or human-rights activism.

Domestic courts have likewise prosecuted more human-rights crimes, especially in Latin America, but these trials were a consequence of the consolidation of the rule of law, not a cause of it. They came late in the game, after democracy was well established. In these cases, more pragmatic and less idealistic measures, including amnesties for rights abusers, were often needed to induce dictators to surrender power and to stabilize fledgling democracies. These amnesties were only revoked once democracy and legal rights were secured.

In much the same vein, grassroots activism often fails when it does not adapt to local needs. Efforts to change diffuse social practices that lead to human-rights violations have been relatively unsuccessful, and have sometimes backfired. Campaigns against child labor have often provoked the ire of the very people they purport to help. Facing a U.S. boycott and trade sanctions, Bangladeshi activists successfully argued that child workers should not be thrown out of work, but rather should have better conditions and opportunities to combine work and school. Campaigns against female genital cutting have met stubborn resistance at the community and individual level, sometimes leading to violence or back-alley noncompliance. As with legal accountability for atrocities, attempts to change these troubling practices must be based on a realistic analysis of local conditions if they have any chance at success.

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