fbpx Kathryn Sikkink on Human Rights, Electoral Reforms, and Uruguay’s Successful Response to COVID-19 | Harvard Kennedy School

photo of Kathryn SikkinkJuly 2020. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, on the future of human rights, electoral reforms, and Uruguay’s successful response to COVID-19. | Click here for more interviews like this one.

Links: Professor Sikkink’s faculty page | Twitter: @kathryn_sikkink | The Hidden Face of Rights: Toward a Politics of Responsibilities (Yale University Press, 2020) | Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press, 2019)

GrowthPolicy: My first question is on international human rights. Headlines today offer plenty of scope for skepticism: the Chinese camps for Uighurs; India’s persecution of Muslims; armed groups violating the CAR peace agreement; the recent death of a fugitive Iranian judge who plunged to his death in a Bucharest hotel. One might argue that violations such as these denote the international human rights movement has failed or, at the very least, is toothless. Do you agree? If not, what, according to you, are, or should be, the metrics by which to measure progress in international human rights?

Kathryn Sikkink: Almost half of my 2017 book, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights World in the 21st Century, addressed this question about the effectiveness of human rights laws, institutions, and movements. Our assessment depends on how we measure human rights progress. There are many alarming human rights developments in the world today. But in order to know whether human rights have failed we need to do empirical comparisons, and not only point to all the ways in which the world still falls short of our ideals. 

In Evidence for Hope, I gather together the best data I can find on what many of us would agree would be good measures of diverse human rights. Looking carefully, issue by issue, at data on human rights trends over time, we see that some situations are worsening—such as the absolute number of refugees displaced by war. But there are many more issues where the situation is improving in the world, even after the onset of the pandemic, including a decline in genocide and politics, a shrinking number of people killed in war, decreasing use of the death penalty, as well as increasing awareness and improvements in gender equality, the rights of sexual minorities, and the rights of people with disabilities.

So why do so many people believe that human rights violations in the world are getting worse rather than better? The short answer is that we think the world is worse off because we care more and know more about human rights than ever before, in part as a result of the reports and data of the human rights movement itself. Many activists and scholars use a method I call “comparison to the ideal”—we compare our current situation not to the past but to our ideals, and thus we always fall short. The media and human rights movements draw our attention to an increasingly wide range of rights violations around the world. Inadvertently they may also convince people that there is no human rights progress in the world.  

This issue will be familiar to your readers because it reflects debates over development as well. Some claim that development policy has failed because there is still extensive poverty and inequality in the world. Others point to dramatic improvements in life expectancy, health, education, infant mortality, and other human development measures that have improved over time. We are also stymied in our evaluations of global change by the fact that we are often engaged in counterfactual analysis. That is, we ask, would the world have been better off if human rights law, institutions, and activists did not exist, or if the world had chosen some other policies or emancipatory discourse? As with all counterfactuals, this is very difficult to answer. At a minimum, we need to be aware that we are engaged in counterfactual analysis and spell out and defend the counterfactual.

GrowthPolicy: As we enter the final months of the current administration, what is your assessment of human rights under President Trump? The U.S., as we know, withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018. Some might say the surge in populist right-wing nationalism and police brutality that we have seen in the last four years have reversed human rights gains of the past few decades. Do you believe our domestic institutions are robust enough to protect human rights?

Kathryn Sikkink: No, I don’t think domestic institutions by themselves are robust enough to protect human rights. Historically, in the world and in the U.S., human rights progress has occurred as a result of struggle—often struggle by oppressed groups. Governments have never handed human rights to their citizens on a silver platter. Thus, human agency is at the center of my research.

Where it has occurred, human rights progress is not at all inevitable, but rather contingent on continued commitment and effort. Whether or not human rights gains will be reversed in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world will depend in whether people continue to struggle for human rights, including, but not at all limited to exercising their right and their responsibility to vote. The Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. is one of the most powerful human rights movements we have seen in many years. It is understandably fueled by anger. But anger alone is not sufficient to maintain motivation over time; you also need to have hope and to believe that you can make a difference. Human rights research and social movement research can be a useful tool to focus on what has worked in the past in order to give people the energy to keep working in the present.

GrowthPolicy: In your latest book, The Hidden Face of Rights (2020), you “worry that lack of belief in voting in the United States could lead us down the same path [of repression and violence] because it suggests that people no longer value or engage in the crucial practices of democracy. When I see the arguments for violence being made by some activists from ‘Antifa’ (short for militant Anti- fascists), I do not see them as new and revolutionary but as familiar and dangerous” (p. 81). In what ways do you see this play out in the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections in which voter suppression and gerrymandering are being considered as genuine challenges to a free and fair election process? And the second part of my question: What electoral practices and reforms do we need to ensure greater voter turnout, especially among younger voters?

Kathryn Sikkink: The part of my new book you quote refers directly to my experience living and working in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, when almost the whole region was under repressive dictatorships. I told the story of how, prior to military coups in the region, many people, and especially young people, had lost faith in democracy, and believed that armed struggle was the fastest route to political change. Since that time, many Latin Americans learned from a very hard experience that whatever the many limitations of democracy, democratic institutions offer much better political opportunity structures for human rights than authoritarian ones, and that non-violence has been more effective than violence to bring about change. This finding has since been supported by systematic social movement research, including that of our HKS colleague, Erica Chenoweth.

Large-scale voter suppression in all its forms is a very real danger for the upcoming elections, as are misinformation campaigns and foreign meddling. As such, some of the most important types of activism going on right now will focus on all the ways to confront voter suppression and promote engagement. Voter suppression is a conscious and well-orchestrated set of policies in many states; action to block suppression and encourage voting must be no less conscious. This is (or should be) the work of government and political parties, but especially in the present climate, it cannot be left only to them. All of us have responsibilities not only to vote but to help others exercise their legal right and responsibility to vote. For example, the ways voters were disenfranchised in the recent 2020 primary election in Kentucky, including through last-minute polling restrictions/closures, failures to respond to multiple requests for absentee ballots, ID requirements, and voter purges, are likely to be present in many states in the November elections and activists and ordinary citizens need to be prepared to confront and where possible circumvent them.   

For example, college students vote at one the lowest rates of any group in the United States, in part because they are suppressed, and in part they didn’t pay enough attention to overcome the obstacles some states put in their way. But today college students are making the most rapid advances in voting numbers in recent years. The average student voting rate at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2018 elections more than doubled from the previous midterms, jumping from 19% in 2014 to 40%; that was seven percentage points higher than the average increase in voting rates among all Americans. At Harvard, our increase in student voting was even higher, to 49% in 2018, largely due to the work of the Harvard Votes Challenge, led by students with the support of the Ash Center for Democracy and the IOP.

GrowthPolicy: Please tell our readers about your work in Uruguay. We are especially eager to hear your perspective on the country’s very successful response in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kathryn Sikkink: Since I am writing this from Uruguay, where I have been sheltering in place since the Coronavirus hit, I wanted to do a brief report from the field and use this specific case to discuss some issues involving the interactions of economic development, political democracy, and an effective COVID response. 

Uruguay has been one of the most effective countries in the region and the world addressing the Coronavirus crisis.  It is a very small country, but so too are other countries like New Zealand or Singapore that have been held up as models.  Uruguay’s success owes much to the rapid response of its new center-right government in declaring a national health emergency, and imposing a series of measures to avoid contagion, including a voluntary policy of sheltering in place. But importantly, as observers recognize, the success of this government’s COVID-19 policy builds on other economic and political developments in the country over a much longer time period. Past Uruguayan governments created inclusive social policies, including a national integrated health system and a network of public hospitals, as well as social security and education policies designed to decrease poverty and inequality. As with many small countries, Uruguay combined this with relatively open trade and investment policies, which, in turn, provided resources for social policy.

For example, under the previous leftist government of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), Uruguay had one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, at the same time as it further decreased poverty and inequality that were already at low levels for Latin America. The inclusive social policies that made the most impact in Uruguay involved expanding the coverage of existing social programs; for example, the pension system and conditional cash transfers.

One reason Uruguay has better levels of equality today is that it has long been a fairly equal country, since reformers first introduced innovative social policy in the early twentieth century. The economists of the new center-right government had criticized some of the social policies of the previous leftist government, and yet their success in the pandemic relied on both their own prompt and scientifically sound policies, as well as on the institutional and social-policy infrastructures put in place by previous governments.