Making Human Rights a Reality

Continuing my series on human rights, I want to highlight an important recently published book by Emilie Hafner-Burton[1] that deserves a much wider audience than it has received so far. Making Human Rights a Reality brilliantly conveys to an educated lay public what social scientists have learned about human rights abuse and how (not) to stop it . Moreover, it contains a number of sophisticated but controversial proposals to make the international human rights regime work better.

Emilie Hafner-Burton is a professor at the University of California at San Diego. She is one of the most prominent scholars in the field of human rights with an extensive academic publication record. She also won the International Studies Association’s 2012 Karl Deutsch award,which is handed out to a scholar under the age of 40 who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to the study of international relations and peace research.

The first part of the book examines the causes of human rights abuse. The chapters evaluate what political scientists have learned about the structural factors that provide incentives for abuse but it also examines lessons from psychology, anthropology, and criminology to understand why individuals and networks of individuals persist in abusing others. There are at least two general lessons that emerge from this. The first is that abuses persists when individuals rightly or wrongly believe that they will gain something from this behavior; not because abusers are psychologically or biologically abnormal. The second lesson is that the reasons these beliefs persist are quite varied across societies. In some places they stem from civil wars, in others from illiberal dictatorship and in yet others from legacies of violence or distrust that are difficult to break. A universal human rights system may be insufficiently tailored to adequately break the specific incentives that keep abuse alive in particular contexts.

The second part provides an overview of existing human rights institutions and of scholarly research into the effectiveness of these institutions. As I wrote last week, global human rights treaties at best have a modest effect in a smallish subset of states that does not include the world’s worst human rights abusers. Hafner-Burton rightly lauds the existing system for its achievements, including developing normative standards. Yet, she also argues, with Jacob Mchangama and Guglielmo Verdirame, that human rights treaties have proliferated too much and that this threatens the legitimacy of the human rights system as a whole (see my views on this here). Consequentially, activists and states that care about human rights improvement should not invest in more global human rights treaties that define new rights.

Instead, Hafner-Burton favors a more decentralized solution with a central role for “stewards:” states that have for one reason or another decided that improving the human rights of others should be a central component of their foreign policies. She argues that these steward states waste precious resources by investing in ineffective strategies and institutions. She advocates several avenues for improving the efficiency of human rights policies. States should better localize which agencies within a state are primarily responsible for abuses or what the causes of abuse in a specific context are. Moreover, triage should lead states to invest more heavily in areas of human rights promotion where the evidence suggests that it is most likely to work. In essence, human rights policy should undergo a similar revolution to the one attempted in development and foreign aid where attention for project evaluation and tailored investments has been a staple of the policy debate for over a decade.

This argument is controversial in part because it moves the human rights system away from the cherished principle of universality and highlights a not so cherished principle among human rights advocates: state power. I can’t possibly do justice to all the nuances here and I hope to take on some of the recommendations more critically as my series continues. For now, let me simply recommend that you go read the book (chapter one is freely available from Princeton University Press).


[1] Emilie is a friend. In the recent past people have gotten upset when I insert disclosures in a post so I am using a footnote this time. Not sure what the developing norms are on this. Anyway, her credentials speak for themselves.

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