Evidence and Bias for human rights – A review of Kathryn Sikkink’s Evidence for Hope

Written by Oskari Mantere.
Edited by Delaine Lorio.

Reading some of the literature might lead to an overly pessimistic assessment of the state of human rights in the world today. The most extreme argument goes that since the supremacy of the West in global politics is coming to the end, so too is this The End Time of Human Rights. A more toned down but equally negative scholarly argument states that in an unequal world, human rights are Not Enough; instead of human rights, we need a new political and moral language that can better address inequalities and injustice.

Kathryn Sikkink, who is unquestionably one of the most prominent human rights scholars, disagrees. In Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, Sikkink builds a more optimistic picture of the current state and history of human rights. Sikkink’s counterargument builds upon two main pillars – namely, human rights are (1) effective and (2) a legitimate project. 

Chapters five and six discuss the effectiveness of human rights law, institutions, and movements. These chapters also contain some of the best work in the book. Chapter five provides a deep and insightful meditation in methodological problems for measuring human rights development or recession. One such problem is that the more successful human rights activists are, the more information we have about human rights abuses. Thus, counter-intuitively, a situation on the ground might actually be better, but the data and statistics we have would lead us to believe that the abuses had intensified.

Chapters three and four tackle the accusation that human rights are an illegitimate project – e.g. that they are a form of cultural imperialism or that they are inauthentic to the Global South. In Chapter three Sikkink argues, using mainly diplomatic history, that the origins and survival of human rights in international politics are largely due to actors from the South. A similar argument is part of Chapter four – albeit this chapter also tells a story of contingency and regression. 

In general, chapters three and four work as a good introduction to human rights history for those interested. Furthermore, there are some praiseworthy elements in Sikkink’s historical narrative. For instance, Sikkink highlight many female actors, not just Eleanor Roosevelt, who are crucial in the articulation and the creation of international human rights. Too often the role of women and a question of women’s rights are externalised or marginalised in the historical narratives of international politics. Moreover, Sikkink allows complexity both in human rights history and heroes. History is not simply a march towards the fulfilment of human rights and a champion of one set of human rights against another.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949. Author: FDR Presidential Library & Museum

However, Sikkink’s argument struggles in many parts. The most obvious problems come in the chapters discussing the history of human rights. There are several issues here. First, Sikkink asserts the purity of the international human rights regime by arguing that their inclusion to the UN Charter was due to the NGOs and smaller states, not due to the domination by the great powers. Unfortunately, Sikkink does not provide enough evidence for her claims. Literature does support the view that smaller states – especially from Latin America – had a significant impact on the UN Charter and that the pressure they put on was an important aspect of putting human rights to the Charter. However, there is no support for the view that NGOs were crucial in this. Neither does Sikkink provide any evidence for this nor have I read any convincing arguments for this view. Some historical literature has made an argument that a meeting between the U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and NGOs on 2 May 1945 was a key moment in human rights history. However, it is unlikely that such a minor meeting would have dramatically changed the course that the U.S. took in the San Francisco Conference. Moreover, there are some convincing claims made by Mark Mazower that show the linkage between imperialism and power politics and human rights in the UN Charter. The UN human rights system was a toothless regime and partly a red herring. Sikkink does not mention any of this, not even to dispute it. A lack of engagement with literature and casual assertations without providing adequate evidence is a frequent and glaring weakness in historical chapters. 

Discussion of the relationship between decolonisation builds upon (great) historical scholarship done by the likes of Steven Jensen and Roland Burke but fails to engage with nuances of the scholarship. Human rights were not absent in decolonisation, but they were at best a sideshow and usually a marginal issue. Furthermore, even when the post-colonial states made human rights initiatives in the UN, they also hindered the progress. Anti-Semitism had no chance of being codified as a violation of human rights and the post-colonial states stymied most efforts to address human rights violations that happened in the Global South; international human rights politics were no less politicised when they came from the Global South than when they came from the Global North. Evidence for Hope suffers crucially from a narrative commitment to a story where human rights are an unequivocally good and legitimate project. For some reason, Sikkink seems to think that her argument is best supported by claiming that the origin of human rights comes from a good place and that this origin is a important today. There is some complexity in her argument but not enough. The narrative coherence seems to be more important than understanding multifaceted realities. Sikkink shows that there is evidence for hope. However, nonengagement with the literature; bad citation practices; historical claims that are not backed by substantial evidence; dubious historical interpretations; and a failure to conceive ambivalence in human rights where there is some, takes away from her otherwise laudable project.

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