Thursday, April 19, 2018
For the most part, Sikkink does not sugarcoat the challenges facing the human rights movement. Trump’s nativist agenda, hateful rhetoric, and professed enthusiasm for torture techniques “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” have rightly alarmed U.S. human rights advocates, provoking fears of backsliding at home and emboldening bad actors around the world. Last December, the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who had expressed concerns about the Trump administration and other potential sources of harm to the human rights regime, announced his unusual decision to not seek a second term, saying it “might involve bending a knee in supplication.”
But Sikkink remains optimistic. She argues that the fight for human rights has taken on a new dimension as developing countries have joined the fray in ways that do not depend on Washington. “Human rights work in the coming years of the twenty-first century may look very much like the Cold War period,” she writes, when “the major powers were mainly in opposition to the international protection of human rights and where momentum and progress depended on the actions of smaller countries, with support from emerging NGOs and civil society.” But she also notes an important distinction between the two time periods: today, “these small countries and activists have far more institutional resources at their disposal—the human rights law, institutions, and movements that earlier activists created in the mid- to late twentieth century.”
Everyone should hope that Sikkink is right. Human rights organizations based in the developing world have evolved significantly over the past few decades, and Sikkink cites a study showing that they are increasingly trusted by citizens and are not perceived as the “handmaidens” of powerful donor countries. Such groups could become highly effective in mobilizing support for human rights in an era of populist nationalism and rising authoritarianism. But they and their counterparts in the developed world will need to craft customized solutions that do not rely solely on established practices. The kind of “boomerang” that has worked in the past may not always be the right tool—especially if powerful figures in Washington are not interested in listening to world opinion.
Editors' Note: This essay was published in Foreign Affairs.