HKS Affiliated Authors


In his essay for the Carr Center's latest publication, Making a Movement: The History and Future of Human Rights, Stephen Walt discusses the road to peace, and how it intersects with the human rights movement.

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

"Conceived and written in the shadow of a horrendous conflict, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is a monument to humanity's efforts to limit the tyranny of the strong over the weak and defenseless. That its ideals have yet to be fully realized should not lead us to disparage the hopes that inspired it and the efforts of its defenders.

"Yet, one must still ask: why has humanity failed to live up to the Declaration's lofty principles?

"For starters, the Declaration extols the rights of individual human beings and makes no distinction among them. But human beings are not atomized individuals; we are social animals with a powerful tendency to privilege our own group over others. A declaration proclaiming universal rights is thus in some tension with each nation's tendency to put its own citizens and interests ahead of others'. Moreover, these same principles can also be used to justify ambitious crusades against any government that fails to respect them.

"...Getting states to respect human rights is not the road to peace; it is peace that will make them more inclined to respect rights."

"Furthermore, security is often precarious in a world where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other. Governments of every kind will ignore well-intentioned declarations and well-established norms if they believe that adhering to them might leave them vulnerable.

"It follows that getting states to respect human rights is not the road to peace; it is peace that will make them more inclined to respect rights. When states are at war and fearful for their own survival, they will violate human rights norms with depressing frequency. Sadly, this is true for liberal democracies and autocracies alike. When states are not at war but still feel threatened by foreign rivals, they are more likely to crack down on dissenters, spy on their own citizens, torture perceived foes, and infringe on other liberties, justifying all of these actions as regrettable necessities.

"Accordingly, the best way to make the ideals of the Universal Declaration a reality is to do more to build a peaceful world." ■

Read the full publication.