- Evidence For Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century by Kathryn Sikkink
It is ironic that this book, which argues that human rights have made successful advances in spite of the challenges of the modern era, appears as the very concept of human rights is under attack on multiple fronts. In fact, Sikkink correctly notes that there has been a "recent increase of pessimism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights law, institutions, and movements" (3). She points out that this comes from multiple sources including "governments and scholars, and more importantly from many within human rights movements" (3). After acknowledging the challenges facing implementation of a human rights agenda she proceeds, in this book, to argue that the pessimism generated by this perspective ignores the important advances in human rights demonstrated by events such as the decline of colonialism and the advance of women's rights around the globe. She also argues that the "decline in genocide and politicide in the world, the declining number of battle deaths as well as the number of civilians killed in war, a declining use of the death penalty, and dramatic improvements in equality for women" (9) indicates that the pessimism is exaggerated and that positive advances have been ignored.
Throughout the book Sikkink makes the argument that there has been an historic improvement and evolution of human rights protections. To support this claim she lists a number of human rights declarations as well as the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). What she does not do, however, is evaluate the success of these institutions. Have they been effective is stemming the human rights violations of the twenty-first century? Sikkink ignores negative trends like the fact that countries such as the Philippines and South Africa, and organizations such as the African Union are planning to withdraw from the ICC and accuse it of bias since it focuses on small countries committing large crimes but not on large countries committing large crimes. [End Page 124] This is further ammunition for the accusation that national and international politics determine the direction of human rights protections.
Her view echoes that of other recent books that pursue the same positive view, most recently Steven Pinker.1
Of course, these arguments describe a perception of reality from the security of an academic office, and the historical trends are broadly accurate if you accept the timeline and the definitions of "progress." That is, if one compares the present to World War II, of course, combat deaths have declined and yes, there have been many advances. However, if one were sitting as a Rohinga in Myanmar, or under attack in Syria, or threatened by famine in South Sudan, or various places still facing massive human rights violations and violence the view would be very different. This reflects a major problem with arguments concerning the impact of human rights on the real life experiences of large numbers of people.
In short, this is one of those books written to make us feel that the world is not really experiencing a crisis of human rights violations and to act as a reinforcement for those in the movement. In this case, Sikking, following Pinker, argues for what she calls "hope" and her argument as far as it goes, is persuasive if naïve. It is naïve since it ignores or minimizes modern trends and troubling changes in both domestic and international politics.
Of course it is important to not give in to despair and to maintain a positive perspective. This helps to propel a human rights agenda without giving up to periodic patterns that appear to fly in the face of the good feelings. One problem is that good feelings can make us numb, and when we are numb we are slow to respond. Further, we too easily lapse into self-congratulation such that we're inclined to give ourselves a pass for moments where we do not react to a crisis. Sikkink would encourage us to smile...