A Review of Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century

Contemporary Human Rights and Latin America

by | Dec 29, 2018

Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century by Kathryn Sikkink Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017

On September 5, 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Hollywood’s then best-paid star, attended a party in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, drank heavily, and wound up in a bedroom atop an unconscious young actress. She died several days later from a ruptured bladder. His size was blamed for the accident and, though found not guilty of murder, he was blacklisted in Hollywood for most of his life. This apparently rare case captured the news. In 2017, however, multiple public accusations of often-violent sexual abuse exposed dozens of movie, television and media stars.

On quite another higher level, data on violence has increased significantly in Brazil and Guatemala since the 1980s, as democracy, one of the pillars of human rights, grew.

Recently several Latin American countries—Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador—have threatened to leave or cut off funding to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In late June the United States quit the UN Human Rights Council and then condemned Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on extreme inequality and poverty in this country.

What’s happening? It looks like an explosion of human rights violations and the demise of institutions that support them… unless you factor in the “#me too movement,” consider a greater range of violations, and utilize new data-gathering tools. Viewed through such lenses, human rights standards are improving. This is the tenor of much of Kathryn Sikkink’s highly personalized and far-ranging review of human rights, at a time when others suggest that the human rights movement is on the wane, unrepresentative or somehow misdirected.

Drawing heavily on her own and others’ political science data, Sikkink argues that “human rights activists have been effective in creating new issues, putting these issues on the agenda, and constructing a changing standard of accountability for what constitutes a human rights violation.” So, despite contrary claims, even from the United Nations, the world is not getting worse. Activists are simply expanding reporting into areas like domestic violence and “unofficial” police actions. This, she argues, is part of a new normative agenda, consistent with psychologist Steven Pinker’s view of a historical decrease in violence among humans. But, fully aware of human behavior, she predicts no teleological utopia, and thus supports her colleague Thomas Risse’s Non-Ideal human rights theory, which “tells us what we ought to do given that others will not do what they ought to do.” In brief, we must continue to keep an eye on people.

The book covers a wide range of topics, including historical legitimacy, effectiveness of law and activism, and practical future recommendations. Sikkink suggests that readers may want to jump around according to their interests. Doing so, this reviewer first considers Latin America’s contribution to human rights, where Sikkink’s experience is greatest, her history of Global South’s involvement is most detailed, and her conclusions are hardly debatable. The review then shifts to her disagreement with intellectual historian Samuel Moyn’s critique of the contemporary human rights movement and its distance from neoliberalism’s contribution to global economic inequality.



Much of the earlier writing on Latin American human rights notes that the passage of the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man (April 1948) preceded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), by eight months. However, the American version is not widely known or cited (This reviewer wrote a New York Times op-ed article that was questioned by editors for citing the little-known declaration) and it could appear that Latin Americans simply “jumped the gun” or had a smaller constituency. However, Sikkink carefully demonstrates that the creation of the American Declaration was quite different in several important ways.

As World War II was coming to an end, international relations talk and policy planning shifted from Frank Delano Roosevelt’s heavily rights-focused Four Freedoms speech and the related U.S.-Great Britain Atlantic Charter (1941) to a narrower focus on security, with several treaties among the “Great Powers” that did not include much human rights language. Sikkink details how Latin American counties, and dogged diplomats there, voiced strong concerns about exclusion of human rights language in these treaties, emphasized social and economic issues, organized international conferences and drafted statements that were presented to the “Big Powers.” Lobbying by Latin American nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) led to the inclusion of human rights language in the 1945 UN Charter. And the “language adopted was not the language of the great powers, but rather of the Global South; it was only adopted by the great powers in response to pressure from small states and civil society.” Sikkink also points to even greater pressure from Latin American counties and diplomats in the crafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They pressed for the inclusion of economic and social rights, stressing the duties of states as well individual rights. While these efforts were not always successful, the persistent actions clearly illustrate that international human rights are not the exclusive creation of a few Global North superpowers, as
some suggest.

Adding to this regional perspective, Sikkink details the inclusion of women in the drafting of the UN Charter and the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the role of Eleanor Roosevelt is widely documented, two Latin American women—Berta Lutz of Brazil and Minerva Bernardino of the Dominican Republic—were extremely active in the endeavor. Though often opposed, even by women, Lutz and Bernardino were able, for example, to shift the language in that declaration from “all men are born free and equal in dignity and rights “to “all human beings.”

Sikkink recognizes that Latin America’s early role often goes unnoticed because later Cold War concerns dominated public attention. For example, as a Bogotá meeting drafted the American Convention, the popular leftist leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated on the streets of the city. That sparked decades of clear violations of human rights. Elsewhere, notably in Guatemala (1954), governments, often supported by the CIA, shifted focus to fierce anti-Communism. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution such sentiments and related human rights violations spread to the Southern Cone. During that period Sikkink began her work on human rights and related actions, illustrating, for example, the imaginative and effective “Boomerang Effect” of the international human rights movement. As democracies reappeared, legal and legislative actions inspired her well-documented argument describing a “Justice Cascade,” a surge of new laws and constitutions in support of human rights. Accepting this focus and chronology, there is no doubt that Latin Americans played a strong and long-lived role in the development and practice of human rights.

However, other accounts of events at about the same time and in the same Latin American region are not so optimistic in regard to human rights. Among the many critics of the optimistic view is intellectual historian Samuel Moyn, whose detailed global histories cannot be fully detailed here. But the focus of the debate can be introduced by remaining in the Southern Cone.



Moyn’s The Last Utopia (2010) and numerous essays introduced his concern with the near parallel rise of both human rights and neoliberalism, leading to global inequality. This obviously drew Sikkink’s attention and efforts to refute. However, Moyn’s longer and recent (2018) historical study, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, more clearly illustrates his argument, and can be seen by looking at Chile in the 1980s, when and where the movement away from Pinochet’s dictatorship paralleled the rise of strong neoliberalism. He mentions that some Marxist theorists such as Naomi Klein suggest “that human rights movements were to blame for collusion or at last distraction from the truth.” For Moyn this is “exaggerated and implausible,” and he adds that “the human rights movement surely did not bring the neoliberal age about.” Moyn’s emphasis lies not so much on the links but the failure of many human rights scholars and activists to support the sort of economic and social rights that go beyond mere subsistence, or sufficiency, and aim toward equity and equality. No doubt Sikkink shares some of the interest, and Moyn certainly likes human rights. So, one could suggest that the two books were like ships that simply crossed in the night and the writers need to sit down and chat. However, at a December 2016 panel at Harvard, they continued the debate.

Part of the difference is methodological. Moyn draws almost entirely on high-level conferences, scholarly work and public statements to develop his intellectual history. Sikkink argues from archival historical research, political science literature and quantitative surveys to ascertain the facts. They both do a good job. However, as seen by this anthropologist, both seem to have drawn little interpretation, directly or indirectly, from those who historically suffer gross violations, namely, indigenous peoples in Latin America. Here the situation supports Sikkink in her argument for improvements. National and international laws and constitutions in support of indigenous rights, largely social and economic, have grown significantly in Latin America. Previous UN Special Rapporteurs on Indigenous Rights, Rodolfo Stavenhagan and James Anaya, both Latin American specialists, agreed that laws have improved, but both have lamented the large gap that exists between laws and practice.

Here, indigenous peoples are not simply waiting. The aspects of the broad laws that most draw their attention and actions focus on territorial and economic questions. The cry is no longer “States, give us goods! ” but rather, “Consult us with regard to economic issues, generally natural resources on our lands, and let us help to determine how to share that wealth.” This is not a cry in the dark for new rights but simply a request to implement existing human rights laws through dialogue. In many areas, it’s working, and where it doesn’t. the indigenous groups keep up the pressure. This exemplary case—groups realizing group rights—not only supports part of Sikkink’s argument but perhaps illustrates a means toward Moyn’s egalitarian ends.

Fall 2018Volume XVIII, Number 1

Theodore Macdonald, anthropologist and Faculty Affiliate at DRCLAS, has worked on indigenous rights and with indigenous leaders since the 1980s.

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