Consortium of:

Building Hope: On Legitimacy and Effectivity of Human Rights

  20 January 2023





Written by Maurisa Zinira

The path of upholding justice frequently presents challenges to both victims and those who devote their lives to this cause. Human rights, which are rights inherent in individuals, cannot be obtained for free; there is a price that must be paid to obtain our rights. Such work for justice frequently calls for considerable effort. Oftentimes, activists themselves have doubts about the viability and efficacy of their work. Has the fight for human rights so far produced any results? Are efforts to advance human rights ineffective?

These questions became a concern for Kathryn Sikkink, who then wrote a book entitled Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, which seeks to give renewed hope to the despondent by addressing the challenges of protecting human rights. In light of the significance of the ideas presented by Sikkink in this book, PUSAD Paramadina and CRCS UGM took the initiative to translate this book into Indonesian under the title Membuktikan Harapan: Efektivitas Perjuangan Hak Asasi Manusia pada Abad Ke-21, which will ensure that Indonesian activists and academics working to protect human rights have access to Sikkink's work. For wider dissemination, the book was reviewed and launched at the 11th RISOS (Reading in Social Science) forum, which was held on 9 December 2022 at the Ojo Keos Café, South Jakarta. Present as commentators at the special year-end RISOS event were Atnike Nova Sigiro—chairman of the National Commission of Human Rights (KOMNAS HAM), Usman Hamid—Executive Director of Amnesty International Indonesia, and Asfinawati—Lecturer at the Indonesian Law College, Jentera.


Legitimacy and Diverse History of Human Rights

This book, written by Kathryn Sikkink, is her reflection on the international human rights work that she has studied for years. Sikkink, who is Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, often hears and witnesses that activists become discouraged and give up when confronted with situations of extreme violence and threats. Heba Morayef from Egypt and Sergio Aguayo from Mexico were among veteran activists who were appalled by the numerous human rights atrocities that left their nations in a state of rage, terror, and sorrow. Humanitarian activities were stopped and the NGOs' freedom of movement was restricted. Sad facts that have also occurred in other parts of the world, including India, China, Israel, Russia, and Ethiopia among others.

Taking into account these various experiences, this book focuses on discussing two major issues related to the legitimacy and efficacy of human rights. Regarding legitimacy, Sikkink tries to answer the question of whether human rights are really needed. While referring to effectiveness, she brought up the discussion about the efficacy of human rights in solving humanitarian problems. To address these two concerns, Sikkink divides her book into four parts with seven chapters. By highlighting the dynamics of international human rights, Sikkink responded to various accusations that had delegitimized the human rights struggle in various regions.

One of the accusations that is often made is about the origin of human rights which is considered as an attempt by the US and Europe to intervene in the countries of the South, Asia, and Africa. For Sikkink, the opposite is true. She shows at length the history of human rights which is diverse and full of contention. In international human rights conceptualization, there were agencies from oppressed countries that demanded the fulfillment of their rights, meanwhile at that time, the US and several other European countries were engaged in colonization and war. Sikkink argued that long before the International Declaration of Human Rights was issued, Chilean academic Alejandro Alvarez had envisioned the value of defending human rights even before the International Declaration of Human Rights was published. In his writings, which were presented in a series of events at the American Institute of International Law in 1917 in Havana, Cuba, Alvarez argued for the need for individual rights to be recognized internationally. Several European experts were interested in this concept, and later in 1921, at a meeting of the European Institute of International Law, Professor De Lapradelle offered a draft declaration with more thorough and comprehensive provisions.

In the following years, Alvarez, together with two other colleagues, Andre Mandelstam from Russia and Antoine Frangulis, who became the delegation from Haiti, drafted and published the first declaration on human rights at the international level. The three of them represent three nongovernmental legal organizations—one each at the American Institute of International Law, the International Law Institute, and the International Diplomatic Academy.  In 1933, they introduced an international human rights resolution in the League of Nations. However, not much support was received from participating countries as many of them were in crisis.

The figures involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also varied. Apart from Eleanor Roosevelt from the US and Rene Cassin from France, there were other big names that have so far not been brought up much in discussions about the origins of the Declaration. There were at least five people who made a major contribution to the preparation. Among them were 1) Hernan Santa Cruz (Chilean diplomat, delegate at the UN Human Rights Commission), who had an important role in including economic, social, and cultural rights in the UDHR; 2) Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon's first ambassador to the US and the UN) who was instrumental in inserting the articles on freedom of religion and the right to change religion; 3) Peng Chun Chang (Chinese diplomat and deputy chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission), who played a role in avoiding mention of God or nature as the basis of human rights, something that was common in the West at that time; 4) Hansa Mehta (writer, diplomat, Indian freedom fighter), she played a role in changing the formulation of "all men" to "all humans" in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and 5) Bertha Lutz (biologist, lawyer, feminist from Brazil, Brazilian delegate to the 1945 San Francisco conference), who ensured that the UN Charter included an article guaranteeing women's rights. At that time there were six female delegates. Lutz  was supported by female representatives from Latin America, but not supported by women from the US and UK.

Unfortunately, South American nations that were once at the forefront of the fight for human rights have become authoritarian states. Even when the Universal Declaration of Human Right was published as international law, these nations were preoccupied with their military coups, which was regrettably supported by the United States under the guise of opposing communism. In this context, the US was actually playing a double standard. On the one hand, it pushed for the issuance of the declaration, but at the same time it supported the coups that took place in the countries of the region.


The Effectiveness of Human Rights Works

Apart from legitimacy, another aspect that is of concern to Sikkink were various criticisms of the effectiveness of human rights. Not only are antihuman rights groups criticizing the significance of human rights work, but activists themselves also often doubt the contribution of the human rights praxis in the field. Responding to this pessimism, Sikkink said that the matter of effectiveness was a matter of the method of measurement. In general, there are two kinds of patterns that are used. The first is comparison with the ideal, which compares achievements in the field with ideal achievement standards. The current human rights situation is compared to the lofty ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various conventions (which sometimes continue to evolve). As a result, activists often feel pessimistic and frustrated because they fail to achieve these goals. Long-term progress often goes unnoticed, so activists always feel lacking in their work. The second pattern is a comparison with the empirical. Human rights work should be compared to what has happened in the past or what has happened elsewhere. By examining this comparative model, we will be able to examine the numerous developments that have occurred throughout the history of the human rights movement and determine for ourselves whether the work that has been done so far has been successful.

In that span of history, we can also see what progress has been made. In international human rights, said Sikkink—we can see the number of genocides is decreasing. We can also see that in terms of the right to health, progress is marked by the reduction in child mortality, number of children with malnutrition, and attention to health rights with disabilities. In terms of women's rights, inequality in women's educational participation continues to decline. In civil and political rights, progress is seen in the reduction in the use of the death penalty. Meanwhile, in terms of economic and socio-cultural rights, progress has been shown by the reduction in the number of food crises.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons why people often disagree about the effectiveness of human rights, even though progress is visible in several aspects. Some of these reasons include constantly changing accountability standards. This is because the scope and definition of human rights are increasingly diverse and broad, including what is considered a human rights violation. Although according to Sikkink the wider scope and standard of human rights is good, this can cause confusion. Other reasons include surveillance bias or increasing attention and reporting on human rights violations and the availability heuristic, namely the trustworthiness of existing information that continues to be repeated. There is much more information about the problem than about its progress. Finally, a negative bias is yet another fault resulting from the fact that bad experiences are remembered more than good experiences.

Taking into account these factors, it is important to start changing the way we measure work and celebrate every achievement of humanitarian work for hope. Usman Hamid regrets that Sikkink's book has not celebrated the history of non-American struggles, especially Asia and Africa, while yet spending a lot of time on the history of human rights in South America. Although Hamid said that most social movements were raised by neoliberalism, many movements eventually found their own fighting character. To strengthen the legitimacy of human rights in each region, those achievements should be celebrated one among others, by storytelling as what Sikkink envisioned.

For Sikkink, turning pessimism into optimism is important so that the struggle continues. Quoting Alinsky, Sikkink said that struggle requires three things: anger, hope, and belief. However, according to Atnike, the chair of the Indonesian Commission of Human Rights, anger is a negative response. An activist should be able to transform the anger they have into love and compassion.

Despite these shortcomings, the discussants in the RISOS forum agreed that Sikkink's book is important to read by all those who are concerned about the work of protecting human rights. However, Asfinawati said that the arena of struggle must not only stop in discourse but should be encouraged through domestic movements in the field. This idea needs to be conveyed not only to human rights activists, but also to the government to provoke better handling of existing human rights violations.