Columbia International Affairs Online: Course Packs and Syllabi

Human Rights and International Law

An overview
Jack Donnelly
from Human Rights and Comparative Foreign Policy: Foundations of Peace, David P. Forsythe, ed.
United Nations University


The preceding chapters have surveyed the international human rights policies of several diverse countries. Although the selection is not entirely representative — in particular, countries that even today largely overlook human rights in their foreign policy have been ignored, for obvious reasons — it is sufficiently broad to allow some preliminary conclusions about the state of human rights in post-Cold War foreign policy. Many states in the post-Cold War world include respect for internationally recognized human rights as part of their national self-images and as an objective in their foreign policies. Few, however, make more than occasional, modest sacrifices of other foreign policy interests in the name of human rights. In this concluding chapter, I will try to draw attention to both the reality and the limits of states' concern with international human rights.

Realists, who still dominate the intellectual and policy-making mainstream in most countries, properly emphasize the characteristic unwillingness of states to sacrifice material interests. Nonetheless, the fact that human rights are a bounded or secondary interest makes that interest no less real than those with higher priority. If the impact of limited interests is limited, that is still an impact. Even where human rights do not decisively tip the decision-making balance, they still may have some weight. And when a decision does hang in the balance, even the small additional weight of human rights considerations may prove to be decisive in determining national policy.

Human rights advocates properly emphasize the growing prominence of human rights in the foreign policy rhetoric, and even practice, of most states. Human rights today have become firmly entrenched on the foreign policy agendas of many, perhaps even most, states. The clear influence of human rights norms and values, as well as the importance that states give to verbal and symbolic dimensions of foreign policy, suggest further limitations in realist theories. Many states simply do not define their national interests entirely in terms of power, or even material interests.

Nonetheless, although in the late 1990s more and more states talk about human rights, probably with greater sincerity than in the past, few consistently do much more. And no state places human rights at the top of its agenda. In few are international human rights even near the top. This concluding chapter attempts to expand on this summary account of limited (but real) progress and impact, drawing heavily on the preceding case-studies. In addition, it highlights important elements of diversity in the international human rights policies and practices of contemporary states.

I. Human rights and national identity

This volume has argued that for states, as for individuals, what one does is shaped by who one is. National interests are not given simply by objective factors such as geography, history, or position in the balance of power. Furthermore, national identity, like personal identity, is significantly a matter of ideals and aspirations. The national interest is a matter of what a state values, which is determined in part by how that state sees itself, both nationally and internationally. The international human rights policies of most states are in significant measure identity based; that is, they reflect the extent to which (national and international) human rights values have shaped or re-shaped understandings of who they are and what they value. The clear evidence of the preceding chapters is that many — almost certainly most — states today identify more strongly with internationally recognized human rights than even a decade, let alone half a century, ago.

Alternative identities

The characteristic identification of late-twentieth-century states with human rights, however, must be seen in historical context. Iran, whose reluctance to identify itself with human rights seems so anomalous today, is much closer to the cross-cultural and trans-historical norm. Human rights have become central to the self-images of most states only in the past several decades — in many cases, only in the past decade or two.

Claims of superior civilization — for example, Roman, Christian, Muslim, European, and Chinese — have been a much more common basis for foreign policy than identification with a common humanity. In Western and non-Western societies alike, the right to rule has more often rested on a divine mandate, or simply superior power, than on popular sovereignty. Tradition and the demands of social order have justified many more governments than the rights of the citizenry have. The rights of a few, determined by birth, wealth, power, religion, virtue, age, race, or ethnicity, usually have been seen as superior to the rights of many or all.

Almost all societies have believed that rulers ought to treat their subjects fairly and seek to realize their interests. Few, however, have recognized rights of subjects (citizens) that can be exercised against their rulers. For example, Qing emperors and medieval European princes recognized a divinely ordained duty to rule justly. This heavenly obligation, however, was not accompanied by rights of the subjects to enjoy such rule. With such internal rights conceptions, it was inconceivable that human rights would have a place in international relations.

Even where rights of the ruled have been recognized, they have typically been seen as special, rather than general or universal, rights. For example, England's Magna Carta arose from a struggle between the king and the nobility in which the rights of the ordinary Englishman were never even considered. Even Britain's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 was only about the rights of Englishmen. As Edmund Burke a century later noted so forcefully, these are very different from the rights of man. 1

The rise of human rights identities

The United States was the first country to place natural rights — the rights of man, or what we today more inclusively call human rights — at the heart of its national self-definition. 2 Many Americans have attributed this to superior virtue. Others, more plausibly, have pointed to the relatively flexible class structure made possible by the lack of a hereditary nobility, by massive immigration, and by the vast supply of "vacant" land. We should also note that Americans were among the first to have the language of natural rights readily available in their political struggles. 3 Soon after, inspired by both the general idea and the American example, others, beginning in France in 1789, advanced similar claims of rights.

Human rights were part of the founding self-image of the states of Central and South America, when they threw off Spanish (and Portuguese) colonial rule. But the tortured fate of human rights in most of Latin America since independence — Costa Rica over the past half century has been the exception that proves the rule — makes India a much more interesting case. Indian independence in 1947 gave considerable additional impetus to the post—Second World War surge of decolonization. And, as Sanjoy Banarjee emphasizes in chapter 7, India's identification with the human rights values of self-determination and racial equality was (along with its relatively great power) central to its leadership efforts in the third world during the Cold War era.

Countries without human rights in their founding myths have in recent decades increasingly incorporated human rights into their national self-conceptions. In South Africa, for example, human rights became a central part of the national self-image through a revolutionary (although not especially violent) political transformation that brought the end of apartheid. Russia and Hungary might be interpreted in the same light. 4

The United Kingdom and the Netherlands represent the path of evolutionary transformation. Although one can point to no decisive turning point, by the end of the Second World War both countries had come to identify themselves with the cause of universal human rights — at least at home. And once they had dismantled their colonial empires, in part through the influence of human rights ideas (in both metropolitan and colonized political communities), human rights emerged as an increasingly prominent part of national identity and foreign policy.

Dutch relations with Indonesia provide a striking example. Immediately after the Second World War, the Netherlands fought to maintain colonial rule. In the 1960s, massive Indonesian human rights violations were met by little more than muted verbal condemnation. By the early 1990s, however, as Peter Baehr shows in chapter 3, the Netherlands was willing to accept modest but real economic and political costs, and face the stinging charge of neo-colonialism, to press concerns over Indonesian human rights violations.

National and international dimensions

In all these cases, national and international ideas and values interacted dynamically. The international dimension has been perhaps most striking in cases of revolutionary transformation, going back at least to Tom Paine's pamphleteering on behalf of the American and French revolutions.

In India, Gandhi learned from his earlier South African experiences and, like many later nationalist leaders in Asia and Africa, effectively used the "Western" language of self-determination and equal rights against colonialism. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa had an important international dimension that ultimately changed the foreign policies of most Western countries, turning even American conservatives such as Newt Gingrich against support for continued white rule. Beyond any material costs associated with economic sanctions, this weakened the sense of legitimacy and resolve of many white South Africans.

In the Soviet bloc, the Helsinki Final Act and the follow-up meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) provided important support for human rights activists, especially in Russia and Czechoslovakia, and contributed subtly but significantly to the delegitimation of totalitarian rule. 5 Gábor Kardos in chapter 9 even suggests that the most important human rights activity of post-Soviet regimes has been to incorporate international norms into national law and practice.

The international dimension is also clear where human rights have been incorporated into national self-images by more evolutionary means. In most of Western Europe, participation in the Council of Europe's regional human rights regime has placed national rights in a broader international human rights perspective. Britain's decision in 1997 to incorporate the European Convention directly into British law is a striking example of the inter-penetration of national and international rights conceptions. A very different kind of international impetus was provided, in Europe and elsewhere, by Jimmy Carter's 1977 decision to make human rights an explicit priority in American foreign policy. It is no coincidence, for example, that the 1979 Dutch White Paper followed closely on the US example.

International human rights ideas have penetrated even Iran. As Zachary Karabell indicates in chapter 8, Iranian authorities and associated scholars, in addition to criticizing international human rights norms, have argued that these values are both prefigured by and largely incorporated in Islamic law. We should also note that the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah was a broad-based social movement that included human rights advocates who have been forced underground, but not eliminated. One might even suggest that recent "reformers" within the Iranian government, and their (apparently quite numerous) supporters in Iranian society, have been at least indirectly influenced by international human rights norms.

Independent human rights activists with prominent transnational connections — for example, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor — are an increasingly prominent feature of the political landscape. In addition, ordinary citizens have more and more come to frame their political and economic aspirations in terms of respect for human rights. Such individuals, and the groups that they represent and participate in, are nodes for an increasingly transnational process of normative transformation that is reshaping notions of political legitimacy and national identity — and, through these mechanisms, national foreign policies.

II. Self and other, inside and outside

Human rights are held by all human beings, regardless of who or where they are. Thus authoritative international documents characteristically use formulations such as "Everyone has the right" and "No one shall be." To identify with human rights is to identify with all human beings, regardless of nationality (or other status). To identify with human rights is to deny (at least some) fundamental moral differences between ourselves and others.

Talk of national identities, however, underscores the continuing power of particularistic, differentiating self-images. In addition to seeing ourselves as human beings, and thus part of a cosmopolitan moral community, we see ourselves as citizens — Indians, Costa Ricans, Hungarians, South Africans, Americans — as well as members of diverse ascriptive and voluntary groups, such as women, Asians, Europeans, Muslims, Catholics, workers, teachers, electricians, farmers, fathers, sisters, children, football fans, hackers, environmentalists, and human rights activists.

Although national identities may be neither as flexible nor as varied as individual identities, they have multiple elements, which we have seen may change over time. No country's national self-image is exhausted by a commitment to human rights. For example, although Baehr, with little exaggeration, calls human rights a "sacred subject" in contemporary Dutch policy, he also emphasizes the continuing importance of a competing mercantile national self-image. Sergei Chugrov, in chapter 6 on the Russian Federation, argues for a deep cultural split that leads to a simultaneous identification with and rejection of "Western" human rights. In this section, I will explore some of this multiplicity by examining dominant conceptions of the boundaries between self and other and between inside and outside.

Nationalist and internationalist identities

Are nationals and foreigners, "self" and "other," seen as fundamentally different or alike? Imagine an ideal-type continuum. One end point would be marked by a purely national identity that denies any significant similarities between nationals and foreigners. Nazi Germany perhaps approximates this nationalist extreme. The distinction between civilized and barbarian peoples, drawn for example by classical Greeks, Qing Chinese, and nineteenth-century Europeans, also lies toward the nationalist end of the continuum. 6 The other end point would be a purely cosmopolitan identity that completely denies the moral or political significance of national (and other) differences. Religious figures such as Jesus Christ, Mohammed, and the Buddha provide the clearest examples. Movements, both religious and secular, that profess and seek to spread a universal model of social organization and values provide an approximation in political practice.

Most of the countries considered in this volume fall near the middle of this continuum. The persisting centrality of national (and subnational) identities precludes a deeply cosmopolitan self-image in all contemporary states. But extreme isolationist nationalism is rare. Therefore, I will refer to (relatively) nationalist and (relatively) internationalist self-images, which help to shape states' choices of which rights receive special foreign policy attention, in which areas of the world.

Iran presents by far the least internationalist human rights vision among the countries surveyed in this volume, and one of the least internationalist (along with countries such as Burma and Saudi Arabia) in the contemporary world. In its foreign policy, Iran identifies primarily with co-religionists. Iran is committed to what it sees as universal (Islamic) values, but in a particularistic way that largely ignores the rights and interests of foreign non-Muslims. Difference rather than similarity is emphasized in dealing with what the rest of the world — and sometimes even Iran, as in the case of Bosnian Muslims — calls human rights issues.

Russia has endorsed the language of internationally recognized human rights. Nonetheless, most of post-Soviet Russia's bilateral human rights diplomacy, as Chugrov notes, has been directed toward Russian minorities in the "near abroad." Although minority rights certainly are important human rights, this near-exclusive focus on discrimination against co-nationals represents a self-identification that emphasizes the difference between self — Russians or, more broadly, Slavs (e.g. in Bosnia) — and other.

India's recent emphasis on issues of intolerance and terrorism is in some ways similar. Human rights issues tend to be viewed through the lens of national and regional concerns: communal strife throughout the subcontinent, plus the volatile combination of political and communal conflict in Kashmir and Sri Lanka. But India's focus has been more on a class of violations than on the particular characteristics of those whose rights are violated. Furthermore, the traditional Indian emphasis on self-determination and racial equality has involved a substantially more internationalist commitment to common values shared despite other, often dramatic, differences. Although less nationalist than Russia, India's international human rights policy has largely been restricted to these rather narrow sets of rights. Its much broader domestic commitment to human rights has not been significantly expressed in its international human rights diplomacy.

The orientation of the Netherlands is more fully internationalist, involving a fairly comprehensive foreign policy commitment to international human rights. Although focusing on violent abuses of rights to personal security in prominent bilateral human rights disputes (Indonesia and Surinam), Dutch international human rights policy has stressed both civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights. For example, development assistance is seen as an integral part of Dutch international human rights policy, in contrast to the largely tactical linkage characteristic of US policy. In addition, although former Dutch colonies do receive special consideration, and commercial interests are hardly ignored, the bulk of Holland's development assistance goes to countries chosen on the basis of shared values, need, and geographical diversity — in sharp contrast to, for example, France and the United States.

The United States lies closer to India than to the Netherlands. The American definition of human rights, which denigrates economic and social rights, is highly selective. Nonetheless, the American focus on civil and political rights is somewhat broader than that of India. And the global scope of American human rights initiatives, especially in the post-Cold War world, involves an unusually close identification of national and international human rights interests. 7

Openess to international society

States differ not only in the ways in which they associate themselves with human rights violations and struggles abroad, but also in their openness to international human rights pressures. 8 The Netherlands lies at the internationalist end of this spectrum as well. Holland freely submits itself not only to regional and international human rights scrutiny but to multilateral guidance. For example, Dutch non-discrimination law has been substantially reshaped through the Council of Europe's regional human rights regime, individual petitions to the Human Rights Committee, and decisions by the European Union's Commission and Court of Justice. In the Netherlands, the commitment to international human rights is for local as well as foreign consumption.

The United States, by contrast, is extremely reluctant to open itself to international scrutiny — although somewhat less reluctant than even 20 years ago. For example, when the United States finally ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, it refused to accede to the (first) Optional Protocol, which authorizes the Human Rights Committee to receive individual petitions. More recently, the United States has resisted allowing Americans to be subjected to the independent authority of the proposed international criminal tribunal.

Iran's attitude is even more hostile to international scrutiny, as reflected in its paranoid, conspiratorial vision of American hegemony. India's more moderate sensitivity to outside human rights pressure is much closer to that of the United States. Although a leader in aggressive international human rights campaigns against apartheid, racism, and colonialism, India has consistently rebuffed international campaigns directed against its own practices. And, like the United States, it has refused to participate in the Optional Protocol's system of individual communications. 9

Banerjee, in discussing this pattern of Indian foreign policy, distinguishes between assertive and defensive international human rights diplomacy. This formulation usefully points to a characteristic style of "addressing" international human rights concerns, namely, ignoring them or denying their legitimacy. But when he writes of India and China undertaking "joint defensive diplomacy on human rights, each remaining silent about the other's human rights violations," 10 a decision to ignore human rights violations (or subordinate them to other national interests) is perversely described as a defensive human rights policy.

Targets of bilateral and multilateral international human rights initiatives do increasingly face the need to respond. Political alignment and appeals to sovereignty and self-determination provide less insulation than during the Cold War. Responses, however, can be defensive and nationalist, as is typical of countries such as India, Iran, and the United States, or open and internationalist, as is often the case in the Netherlands and Costa Rica.

India and the United States nonetheless remind us that nationalist defensiveness need not reflect a poor human rights record. India has for 50 years had one of the better domestic human rights records in the third world. Likewise, US opposition to international scrutiny is more principled than evasive, reflecting a deeply rooted sense of "exceptionalism" and an unusually stringent conception of sovereignty.

In discussing international norms, it is essential to recall that, in addition to human rights, sovereignty and non-intervention are vital norms of international society. All states, in fact, have a deeper and more enthusiastic commitment to sovereignty than to human rights.

We must not overestimate either human rights or sovereignty in their characteristic struggles. Although somewhat less jealous of their sovereignty than the United States or India, even Costa Rica and the Netherlands are not even close to giving it up even in the limited domain of human rights. For example, Costa Rica, when faced with an adverse ruling on the rights of journalists from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in an advisory opinion that it had itself requested, simply ignored the Court. But the centrality of sovereignty to all states should not obscure the fact that they have very different understandings of its appropriate scope and implications, which reflect relatively nationalist or internationalist self-images. The Netherlands, for example, sees itself more thoroughly as part of international (and European regional) society than does the United States; it participates in international society less selectively and less conditionally. The Netherlands is more willing to accept awkward or inconvenient (international and regional) norms and obligations, especially when there is a general commitment to a particular field of international activity (as in the case of human rights). As Baehr reminds us, we should not idealize Dutch policy. Nonetheless, Dutch international human rights policy rests on a comparatively deep commitment to international human rights norms and full participation in global and regional human rights regimes. The Dutch often see the range of sovereign prerogative as significantly limited by international human rights law. India and the United States, in contrast, see a greater tension between sovereignty and international human rights — at least when it comes to their own sovereignty. Not just on human rights, but in most other issue areas as well, India and the United States are very reluctant to accept the idea that they should bring their own divergent practices into conformity with international norms. They are much more likely to remind others of their sovereign right to pursue their own interests, as they see them, even when those interests conflict with international norms.

It is worth re-emphasizing that this has little to do with widespread systematic deviations from international norms. India, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands have few significant substantive disagreements about international human rights norms. The United States asserts its sovereign right not to be scrutinized almost as forcefully for civil and political rights, where normative differences are minor, as for economic and social rights. Openness to international scrutiny is a matter of national values and attitudes that are in principle (and in these cases in practice) independent of the substance of national human rights ideas and practices.

National attitudes towards international human rights

The two dimensions of attitudinal variation discussed above can be combined in figure 12.1. This diagram maps the space occupied by the countries considered in this volume, which in this regard accurately represent the range of international attitudes (although the sample over-represents the top-right quadrant). The vertical axis, however, is severely truncated from what is theoretically possible. Figure 12.1 excludes cosmopolitan conceptions, of which there are no examples among contemporary states. Even within the realm of internationalist (as opposed to cosmopolitan) openness, considerable vacant but theoretically possible space at the top is not represented.

I want to draw attention to three features highlighted by figure 12.1. First, although many states today accept substantial international monitoring, even the most internationalist reserve a near-exclusive national right to implement and enforce internationally recognized human rights. Even where international monitoring is accepted, states reserve a right to implement the findings of supervisory committees. The global human rights regime is largely a system of national implementation of international human rights norms. (The European regional regime is the exception that proves the rule. And even the European Court of Human Rights relies ultimately on the willingness of states to give national legal force to its findings.)

Second, the fact that countries are arrayed along a single diagonal reflects the tendency for internationalist (or nationalist) orientations to apply both when adopting international norms and when deciding whether or not to open oneself to international monitoring. Although states are at liberty to endorse internationalist norms but assert a sovereign right not to be scrutinized by other states or multilateral bodies — as many European states did in the 1950s — adopting more internationalist human rights norms seems to exert a strong pull toward greater openness to international scrutiny.

Third, were we to compare the distributions 25 and 50 years ago, for both our subset of case-study countries and the full universe of states, we would see a clear progression towards greater internationalism on both dimensions. This is another way of noting that human rights have become a much less controversial and more firmly established subject on international agendas.

III. The intensity of human rights commitments

International human rights policies are (at most) one part of national foreign policies, which all states consider to be driven primarily by the pursuit of the national interest. Therefore, unless we implausibly assume that international human rights take priority over all other national interests, human rights must sometimes be sacrificed to other interests and values. How often and in what circumstances are states characteristically willing to subordinate international human rights concerns? How much do states value international human rights? Answers to these questions are less encouraging (from the viewpoint of human rights advocates), and considerably less internationalist, than the analysis so far might suggest.


Consider another ideal-type continuum. A state might in principle put international human rights at the bottom of its priorities (unwilling to sacrifice any other interest in the pursuit of international human rights objectives) or at the very top (willing to subordinate all other interests that conflict with its international human rights concerns). The chapters in this volume suggest that most contemporary states lie toward the minimalist edge of this continuum. Human rights typically (but not always) lose out in conflicts with most (but not all) competing foreign policy objectives.

Imagine a simple foreign policy model with four interests: security, economic, human rights, and other. The chapters above provide no examples of states sacrificing significant perceived national security interests for human rights. Security conflicts may have somewhat moderated in number and intensity in many parts of the globe in the post-Cold War era. Therefore, human rights may be less often "trumped" by national security. But this is a change in the frequency of conflicts, not in the relative rankings of international human rights and national security. 11

The chapters above do show states occasionally giving human rights priority over economic interests. For example, although Baehr emphasizes the limits of Dutch sanctions against Indonesia in the early 1990s, the Netherlands did accept modest but real economic (and political) costs. Such behaviour, however, is the exception rather than the rule, even for the Dutch.

International responses to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre illustrate the range of responses characteristic even in high-profile cases. 12 Most states that had substantial economic relations with China did adopt aid, trade, or investment sanctions. Japan did so with considerable reluctance, great inconsistency, and for the briefest possible period — yet with real costs to Japanese firms. The United States, by contrast, responded with sufficient vigour that economic sanctions were the central issue in US—Chinese relations until 1994, and a major irritant into 1997. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom took something of a middle course, in the context of a broader European response.

India, however, remained largely silent and thus indirectly, but intentionally, supportive of China. Russia, which also shares a border with China, largely restricted itself to verbal criticism. Japan's reluctance to pursue sanctions had important security as well as economic dimensions. Even the United States never consistently applied the military and political sanctions it announced. 13 Tiananmen thus illustrates both the characteristic subordination of human rights to national security and the occasional willingness of states to subordinate economic interests to human rights.

The residual category of "other interests" is so broad that little of general interest can be said. It is worth noting, though, that in most countries human rights could be usefully separated from the "other" category only relatively recently. And in most countries today there are more interests in the "other" category that human rights (at least occasionally) effectively compete with than even 10 years ago.

Choice of means

So far we have measured the intensity of states' commitment to human rights by the interests they are willing to subordinate. We might call this the foreign policy opportunity cost of human rights initiatives. Intensity of commitment can also be measured by the direct costs a state is willing to bear, as seen in the means characteristically used to pursue international human rights objectives. When other interests do not override international human rights, how far are states willing to go?

Although there is a close relationship between these two measures of intensity of commitment — the higher the ranking of an interest, the more likely a state is to use strong means to realize it — the analytical distinction is sometimes useful. For example, even if human rights remain below security concerns, we still need to know which means a state is typically willing to use when security interests do not preclude action. To take an example from a different issue area, one of the striking changes in international relations over the past century has been the decline in the willingness of states to use force on behalf of economic interests, despite the fact that economic interests have not dropped significantly on the foreign policy agendas of many, if any, states.

International human rights interests are almost never pursued with military force. Only when faced with genocide or severe humanitarian emergencies have states used force to pursue international human rights bilaterally (e.g. India in East Pakistan [Bangladesh]) or multilaterally (e.g. Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia). 14 Furthermore, over the past half-

century, most such massive and severe emergencies have not mobilized international armed force. Even in the post-Cold War era, forceful responses have not been universal. Consider, for example, the refusal to use force to halt the genocidal civil war in the Sudan. We should also emphasize that even a country like the Netherlands is reluctant to risk the lives of Dutch soldiers when it does participate in peacekeeping operations, such as those in Bosnia.

Moving down the ladder of strength of means we find occasional uses of trade and investment sanctions, most notably in the international campaign against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. But strong economic sanctions, as we have already noted, remain exceptional. States will sometimes pay more in money than in lives, but not all that often.

Aid is more regularly used to pursue international human rights objectives. Although aggregate data show only a modest relationship between foreign aid allocations and the level of respect for human rights in recipient countries, 15 aid allocations have in many particular instances been altered in response to human rights violations. Although the United States provides the greatest number of examples, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom have also used aid regularly in the past decade or two to attempt to influence international human rights practices. Even Japan, which has historically been extremely reticent about linking aid and human rights, has included human rights considerations (at least formally) in allocating development assistance since 1992.

We should note, however, that aid and (especially) trade have been used primarily punitively to pursue international human rights objectives. The Netherlands (along with so-called "like-minded countries," such as Sweden, Norway, and Canada) has made a fairly concerted effort over the past two decades to direct aid to rights-protective regimes, not just away from rights-abusive regimes. 16 In recent years, other countries have begun to give greater consideration to aid as a positive instrument in the pursuit of human rights — an inducement and reward, rather than just a punishing sanction. 17 Nonetheless, most states remain much more willing to use aid to punish bad human rights performance — and even then with little consistency — than to reward good performance. 18

Verbal rather than material sanctions and inducements provide the heart of most international human rights initiatives. Condemnations of violations and praise for good or improved performance are the most common means used by all states to further their international human rights objectives. Although words may be cheap, rarely are they free, especially in the world of diplomacy. In any case, verbal policy is an important and appropriate means for pursuing human rights, like other, interests. Furthermore, as I will argue in more detail below, verbal policy may help to alter or maintain the international normative environment within which states act.

States also regularly engage in symbolic action such as recalling ambassadors, suspending educational, cultural, or sporting exchanges, endorsing international investigations, and voting for condemnatory resolutions in international organizations. Even aid sanctions are often largely symbolic. For example, Dutch aid to Indonesia in the early 1990s was less than 2 per cent of the world total, and Japan responded to Holland's cuts by increasing its own assistance to Indonesia.

A growing number of states also provide direct and indirect support to local human rights activists and non-governmental organizations doing human-rights-related work. Such support may cross over from symbolic to material action. Even here, though, the material action is relatively indirect, channelled through local human rights advocates, rather than direct bilateral or multilateral action against another state.

In summary, we can say that international human rights initiatives are almost always subordinated to security interests, and usually subordinated to economic interests as well. Although virtually all foreign policy instruments have been used by states in pursuing international human rights objectives, from private diplomatic initiatives up to the use of force, the means used are usually verbal and symbolic. Nonetheless, international human rights initiatives are an increasingly common part of the foreign policy of most states. When human rights concerns coordinate rather than compete with other foreign policy interests — for example, in India's opposition to genocidal massacres in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) or US policy toward post-Tiananmen China — relatively forceful responses become possible. And the case of Rwanda, however tardy and weak the international response, suggests that in at least some extreme cases states will agree to use force to protect internationally recognized human rights even in the absence of supporting security or economic interests. 19

IV. Evaluating international human rights policies

Most states in the contemporary world are more concerned with human rights at home than abroad. Liberal democratic regimes in particular regularly tolerate international human rights practices they would not even consider accepting nationally. Although cosmopolitan moralists may condemn this "inconsistency," it is an inescapable consequence of a world of sovereign states. States have a special legal and political responsibility for the rights and interests of their own nationals. National foreign policies are supposed to treat the interests of nationals and foreigners differently.

Not all differences, however, will be acceptable to states that have included international human rights among their foreign policy interests. Which are deemed acceptable and which are not raises important issues of moral and policy consistency that may influence the efficacy of international human rights policies.

The purposes of human rights policies

Before we can say much about the consistency (or efficacy) of states' international human rights policies, we need to know what they are attempting to achieve. The "obvious" goal of altering the behaviour of the country targeted by a particular initiative requires little comment. But many, perhaps most, international human rights initiatives have other purposes as well. Therefore, they cannot be evaluated simply — perhaps not even primarily — by success or failure in altering the human rights practices of targeted states.

An immediate and tangible impact need not even be among the goals of well-designed human rights initiatives. For example, India did not expect to change South African policy by supporting UN resolutions condemning apartheid. Holland did not imagine that suspending aid to Indonesia would alter the policies of the Suharto regime. No reasonable American expected that sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen massacre would establish democracy in China, or even return the country to the level of political openness it had reached in the late spring of 1989.

In these examples there was some hope of contributing to eventual changes. But, even here, the kinds of changes aimed for are varied. Deterring similar violations in the future may justify pursuing initiatives for which a state expects no tangible impact in the target country. A level of pressure that cannot be expected to alter behaviour in the immediate target may have a tangible impact on a weaker or more dependent country. Even in the immediate target, it may reduce or forestall repeat violations. Having previously been called to task, even states that refuse to remedy past abuses may be willing to moderate, or even eliminate, future abuses. International pressures on Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s suggest the possibility of moderating future violations even by relatively recalcitrant regimes.

Even where there is no long-run expectation of altering behaviour in the target state, international human rights initiatives may reasonably be undertaken. For example, the aim may be to "punish" rather than to "reform." Even if competing interests or limited resources preclude altering behaviour in the target, states may reasonably choose to impose costs on those who violate internationally recognized human rights. Given the reluctance of states to use strong means on behalf of international human rights, such "punishment" most often is sadly, even ludicrously, weak. Nonetheless, imposing some costs on rights-abusive regimes is usually preferable to imposing none.

A more diffuse objective of international human rights initiatives may be to contribute to maintaining or transforming the international normative environment. Rather than seek to alter particular practices in any country, the aim may be to influence dominant conceptions of political legitimacy. Post-communist governments in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, for example, saw themselves as beneficiaries of such a normative transformation, and their enthusiasm for strengthening the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reflected their desire to contribute to its maintenance. American and European pressures for multi-party elections, especially since the end of the Cold War, have often been directed at influencing broader standards of legitimacy, beyond any impact they may (or may not) have in the immediate target country.

The "precedents" of international human rights policies, however, may have an internal rather than an external target. Their aim may be to establish or support a pattern, or future stream, of foreign policy initiatives. When the Carter administration suspended US aid to Guatemala in 1977, the purpose was at least as much to set a new precedent for American policy as it was to alter Guatemalan human rights practices. Baehr suggests that the precedent established by strong Dutch sanctions against Surinam in the 1980s helped to tip the balance in favour of sanctions against Indonesia in the 1990s. Sanctions that had little discernible short-or medium-term effect in Paramaribo seem to have had a significant medium- and long-term impact in The Hague. 20

Finally, irrespective of any immediate or long-term impact — direct, indirect, or diffuse; internal or external — states may undertake international human rights initiatives because they are legally, politically, or morally demanded. The US Congress has required the President to impose sanctions for certain human rights violations, perhaps most notably in the Jackson—Vanik Amendment's requirement that trade preferences be denied to countries that restrict emigration. Internal (and even international) political pressure may leave foreign policy decision-makers little choice but to act, as illustrated by both American and Japanese sanctions against China after Tiananmen. Occasionally, a response to international human rights violations is even seen by states as morally demanded, irrespective of legal or political pressure. Rwanda and Somalia seem to have fallen into this category in the foreign policies of a number of states.

Hard as it may be for realists to comprehend, states sometimes find it important to stand up for what they value, independent of any other pressures or expected impact, at home or abroad. Such symbolic acts of "witness" — acting out of respect for and to give voice to one's values — may influence the international normative environment, have a long-run impact on the target (or another) state's human rights practices, or sustain a desirable pattern of foreign policy practice. But even if they do not, they may be demanded for their own sake.

We cannot understand many international human rights initiatives without considering the fact that they are perceived as morally desirable, perhaps even demanded. As we have seen, states are much more likely to "do the right thing" when the costs are low or other interests provide additional incentives. Nonetheless, international human rights initiatives occasionally are undertaken primarily because they are right. And even when self-interest is a large part of the motivation, international human rights initiatives often do reflect a solidaristic identification with the rights or well-being of foreigners.

Selectivity and consistency

This appeal to morality, however, raises the tawdry image of trading moral values off against material interests. If human rights are moral values, how can they be appropriately or "consistently" sacrificed to non-moral interests? How can we "put a price" on life, liberty, and suffering?

Such questions rest on a contentious conception of morality. For example, utilitarianism and other consequentialist moral theories see morality as centrally concerned with calculating relative costs and benefits, rather than rigidly following a moral law. But even if we conceive of morality as a matter of categorical imperatives, challenges to the "consistency" of international human rights policies often confuse foreign policy and moral decision-making.

Realists rightly remind us that foreign policy decision-makers are required by their office to take into account the national interest, which is (at most) only partly defined by morality. Moral perfectionism is an inappropriate standard for foreign policy. Many realists, however, go too far when they categorically denigrate morality in foreign policy. The national interest may — and today for many states does — include a moral dimension. Moral interests are no crazier an idea than economic or security interests. The task of the statesman is to balance competing national interests, whatever their character.

Nonetheless, the realist tendency to contrast material and moral interests does point to a significant problem. The differences between human rights and, say, national security seem to be matters of quality, not mere quantity. How then are we to treat like cases alike — consistently — in the absence of a common metric? To pursue the balancing metaphor, how much does one unit of national security (whatever that might mean) weigh relative to a unit of human rights?

But is the problem all that much more severe for human rights than for, say, economic interests? As I am writing this, controversy is raging over Chinese launches of American satellites. Beyond partisan politics, of which there is much, the dispute involves fundamental disagreements about the relative weights that ought to be assigned to the security and economic interests involved. Such disputes seem very similar to those over the place of human rights in Sino-American relations.

Consider also the choice of means. How many American (or Pakistani, or Canadian) lives was it worth to save hundreds of thousands of Somalis from starvation in 1992? To save a smaller number of Somalis from factional warfare among their leaders in 1993? There is no apparent qualitative difference between such calculations and those involved in, for example, the Gulf War. How many American (or British, or Dutch) soldiers was it worth to expel Iraq from Kuwait? To overthrow Saddam Hussein? The problem of competing incommensurable interests is a general problem of foreign policy, not one restricted to human rights and other moral interests.

Issues of consistency do have a special force in moral reasoning. The "golden rule" of doing unto others as one would be done by underscores the fact that morality in significant measure means not making an exception for oneself (or those one is aiding). But, even from a purely moral point of view, only comparable human rights violations require comparable responses. Human rights may be "interdependent and indivisible," but that does not require an identical response to every violation of every right.

Even from a purely moral point of view, considerations of cost may be relevant. Few would consider the United States to be morally bound, all things considered, to risk nuclear war in order to remedy human rights violations in China simply because it acted relatively strongly to remedy similar violations in, say, Guatemala. Conversely, the fact that no state is willing to threaten the use of force to free Tibet from Chinese domination, thus risking nuclear war, does not mean that considerations of moral consistency preclude the use of force in, say, East Timor. That option is precluded instead by competing economic and security concerns. Balancing competing values requires taking account of all the values involved. And consistency requires treating like cases alike all things considered, not just looking at similarities in human rights violations.

Furthermore, to address only moral (in)consistency is to address but one part of the relevant foreign policy. In addition to the authoritative international human rights standards of the Universal Declaration and the Covenants, which can be taken as a rough approximation of an international moral standard, states must consider their own often much more limited international human rights objectives, as well as other aspects of the national interest. Even if a state's actions or policies are morally inconsistent, they may be consistent from a foreign policy point of view.

For example, George Bush extended most-favoured-nation trading status to China in 1990 but denied it to the Soviet Union. Looking solely at human rights behaviours — Tiananmen versus perestroika, glasnost, new thinking, and the collapse of the Soviet empire — this seems wildly inconsistent. But considering all the interests involved, it is plausible, if controversial, to find no foreign policy inconsistency. Bush argued, not implausibly, that his actions properly balanced a complex set of competing security, economic, and human rights interests.

Consider again the "precedent" of Surinam for Dutch policy toward Indonesia. Would it have been "inconsistent" not to have suspended aid? Perhaps. But it might instead have reflected a reasonable and consistent calculation that the economic and security costs in Indonesia were sufficiently great to justify, perhaps even require, subordinating Dutch international human rights concerns.

We can know whether different responses to comparable human rights violations represent inconsistent foreign policy only if we know all the interests involved and the values (weights) attached to them. Alleged inconsistencies in international human rights policies may be — and I would suggest often are — consistent policies based on a relatively low weighting of international human rights interests. It may be inconsistent, from an abstract human rights point of view, for Hungary to undertake international initiatives on behalf of the Hungarian minority in Romania, but not on behalf of Russian minorities in Lithuania or Ukraine, or of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. But there is no evident conflict with the Hungarian national interest.

Hypocrisy, error, and inattention are no less common in foreign policy than in other human endeavours. But, in considering the issue of consistency, we must not confuse the standards of international human rights norms, nationally defined international human rights objectives, and the national interest more broadly conceived. Furthermore, all three must be distinguished from foreign policy actions that reflect a relatively low evaluation of a state's international human rights interests.

Human rights, as we have seen, usually have only a secondary place in the scheme of foreign policy interests. Human rights policies are at best a part — most often a rather modest part — of the foreign policy of most states. Therefore, it is unavoidable that even well-designed foreign policies will treat comparable human rights violations differently.

Towards more effective international human rights policies

Inconsistency may indeed reduce the efficacy of even well-meaning and otherwise well-planned initiatives. I would argue, however, that, although little in the preceding chapters speaks directly to this issue, much of the real and remediable (more than moral) inconsistency in international human rights policies arises from inattention and lack of coordination. Foreign policy, whether addressing human rights or other interests, tends to be made on a case-by-case basis, with relatively little coordination or strategic vision. Balances are struck not by omniscient rational actors but in more or less intuitive ways by usually harried decision-makers grappling with the particularities of pressing issues.

Bureaucratic politics also play a role. The frequent conflicts between human rights and national security officials are well known. Regional branches within the foreign ministry may operate with very different baseline assumptions and expectations. Those working with international financial institutions may come to the table with a very different perspective than those working with human rights institutions.

Bureaucratic organization thus may be significant to the success of a state's international human rights policy. For example, during the Carter administration, human rights concerns were infused more broadly through the foreign policy bureaucracy by devices such as the creation of a Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs within the US State Department and the inter-agency "Christopher group," as well as by congressionally mandated reporting (which required local embassies to give greater attention to human rights issues). The recent reorganization of the Dutch foreign ministry reflects a similar effort to integrate human rights concerns more into day-to-day work, rather than as a separate consideration added relatively late in the decision process.

The other principal source of inconsistency, I would suggest, is a tendency to overly grand policy pronouncements. Perhaps the classic example is Jimmy Carter's claim that human rights were the "heart" of American foreign policy. Having thus raised unrealistic expectations, many observers came to judge American actions as heartless and inconsistent.

Both kinds of inconsistency, however, are rooted in a relatively low valuation of international human rights. Excessively grand rhetoric is a sign of an interest having a lower value in practice than policy pronouncements suggest. And the higher an interest is valued, the more a state is likely to struggle against the tendency toward bureaucratic fragmentation. The biggest "problem" is that foreign policy decision-makers often value human rights less than human rights advocates would like them to. In most countries, the single greatest contributor to more effective international human rights policies would be to increase the priority of human rights relative to other foreign policy objectives.

Consistency is a matter of correctly adding up the various prices and values already assigned to foreign policy interests. Sometimes just calculating correctly will be enough to get "better" human rights policies (judged from the standpoint of human rights advocates). This is especially true in foreign ministries where realist rhetoric has special force or in countries where national security and economics ministries dominate the decision-making process. But a much greater contribution — again, measured from the perspective of human rights advocates — could be made by "getting the prices right," by increasing the price states are willing to pay in order to achieve their international human rights objectives.

This is one final way to restate the central argument of this chapter. Human rights have a greater prominence in the contemporary foreign policy of more states than at any other time in the past. The end of the Cold War has removed, or at least moderated, many impediments to more effective international human rights policies. But, while international human rights are working their way up the foreign policy agendas of a growing number of states, in few if any have they come even close to the top.


Note 1: In addition, of course, the rights of English women (and many other groups) were not at issue in either of these charters of rights. "Englishmen" meant, at best, propertied male citizens — and not even all of them were able to enjoy these rights equally.  Back.

Note 2: From a vast literature see especially Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987); Hunt is particularly good on the combination of US confidence in its positive leadership with its racism. T. Davis and S. Lynn-Jones, "City upon a Hill," Foreign Policy, no. 66 (1987), 20-38; these authors place the chauvinistic rhetoric of Ronald Reagan in proper historical context. Richard Rosecrance, America as an Ordinary Country: US Foreign Policy and the Future (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976); Rosecrance compares lofty American expectations with the early demise of the "American century." The journalist Thomas L. Friedman notes that even foreign circles of opinion, in Lebanon for example, looked to a magnanimous and altruistic United States to save them from their own political deficiencies, in From Beirut to Jerusalem (New York: Anchor Books, 1989).  Back.

Note 3: The idea of human rights — rights that one has simply as a human being and may exercise against one's own society and state — was almost completely absent from political debate prior to the more radical stages of the English Civil War of the 1640s. It did not enter the mainstream of political debate in any country prior to the mid-eighteenth century.  Back.

Note 4: Such a reading would view Marxism—Leninism—Stalinism as a rejection of ostensibly universal but in fact bourgeois "human rights" in favour of, initially, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and, ultimately, a form of socialism that transcends individual rights. An alternative interpretation, advanced by many Soviet bloc theorists in the 1970s and early 1980s, would say that the Soviet model rested on an alternative (and more genuine) conception of human rights. Although I reject this reading (see, e.g., Jack Donnelly, "Human Rights and Human Dignity: An Analytic Critique of Non-Western Human Rights Conceptions," American Political Science Review 76 (June 1982), 303-316), it would imply that in 1989 the dominant conception of the substance of human rights changed, following on a more evolutionary transformation that occurred during the Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and post-Helsinki eras.  Back.

Note 5: See, for example, Sandra L. Gubin, "Between Regimes and Realism — Transnational Agenda Setting: Soviet Compliance with CSCE Human Rights Norms," Human Rights Quarterly 17 (May 1995), 278-302.  Back.

Note 6: We should note, however, that the Greeks and Europeans also recognized very important differences, such as those between Athenians and Spartans or Germans and French, among "civilized" peoples. Furthermore, China saw civilization as accessible (through emulation and extended tutelage) to those who were not Han Chinese.  Back.

Note 7: Ironically, Iran, for all its substantive differences from the United States, presents a similar combination of the aggressive promotion of allegedly universal values with a very strong nationalist twist. For completeness, we can place Japan and the United Kingdom somewhere between the United States and the Netherlands. South Africa, which as chapter 10 indicates is still struggling to determine how internationalist a vision it wishes to pursue, belongs in the same range of the spectrum. Hungary lies in this middle range as well: its special attention to Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries would seem to place it much closer to the United States than to the Netherlands, but its identification with Europe pulls in the opposite direction. Costa Rica falls near the Netherlands, close to the internationalist boundary of contemporary international human rights policies.  Back.

Note 8: Kathryn Sikkink draws a very similar distinction in "The Power of Principled Ideas: Human Rights Policies in the United States and Western Europe," in Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).  Back.

Note 9: Of the countries considered in this volume, as of 28 May 1998 Costa Rica, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Russia were parties to the (first) Optional Protocol. India, Iran, Japan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States were not. (Information taken from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' Web site, at  Back.

Note 10: See page 181 above.  Back.

Note 11: This assessment may be too harsh and static, as a result of assuming a fairly conventional definition of national security, which, for all the talk of common security, peace building, and the like, remains the understanding most commonly held by contemporary states. For an introduction to alternative ways of conceptualizing the relationship between human rights and security, see David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and Peace: International and National Dimensions (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993) and, much more briefly, Jack Donnelly, "Rethinking Human Rights," Current History 95 (November 1996), 387-391. For example, an emphasis on personal security for citizens would make human rights and national security in many instances complementary rather than competing concerns. On the broader issue of reconceptualizing security in a multilateral context, see Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, eds., Security Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), especially Emanuel Adler, "Seeds of Peaceful Change: The OSCE's Security Community-Building Model."  Back.

Note 12: For a brief overview, see Jack Donnelly, International Human Rights (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2nd edn., 1998), chap. 6.  Back.

Note 13: The other countries considered in this volume either were preoccupied with internal issues or had no significant economic relations at stake.  Back.

Note 14: Some might want to add the inclusion of human rights into UN peacekeeping missions in countries such as Guatemala and Angola. In such cases, however, the willingness to use force on behalf of human rights was modest and entirely conditioned on human rights issues falling within a broader international peace and security mandate. The same is even more clearly true of humanitarian operations in northern and southern Iraq; the human rights of the Kurds were an afterthought, and those of the southern Shiites an even later (and more modestly felt) thought.  Back.

Note 15: There is a fairly substantial quantitative literature on human rights and aid in US foreign policy. David Carleton and Michael Stohl, "The Foreign Policy of Human Rights," Human Rights Quarterly 7 (May 1985), 205-229, present a classic finding of no linkage. David L. Cingranelli and Thomas E. Pasquarello, "Human Rights Practices and the Distribution of U.S. Foreign Aid to Latin American Countries," American Journal of Political Science 29 (August 1985), 539-563, argue for a modest but statistically significant relationship. Some of the most sophisticated recent work has been done by Steven Poe and his colleagues. See, for example, Steven C. Poe and James Meernik, "US Military Aid in the 1980s: A Global Analysis," Journal of Peace Research 32 (November 1995), 399-411; Steven C. Poe and Rangsima Sirirangsi, "Human Rights and U.S. Economic Aid during the Reagan Years," Social Science Quarterly 75 (September 1994), 494-509; Steven C. Poe, Suzanne Pilatovsky, and Brian Miller, "Human Rights and US Foreign Aid Revisited: The Latin American Region," Human Rights Quarterly 16 (August 1994), 539-558; and Steven C. Poe, "Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Aid: A Review of Quantitative Studies and Suggestions for Future Research," Human Rights Quarterly 12 (November 1990), 499-512.  Back.

Note 16: See, for example, Olav Stokke, ed., Western Middle Powers and Global Poverty: The Determinants of the Aid Policies of Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden (Uppsala: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1989).  Back.

Note 17: Proposals to establish trade preferences for rights-protective regimes, however, have not been seriously considered, at least in the United States, GATT, and the WTO. For one interesting academic proposal, focusing especially on labour rights, see George DeMartino, "Industrial Policies versus Competitiveness Strategies: In Pursuit of Prosperity in the Global Economy," International Papers in Political Economy 3 (No. 2, 1996), 1-42, at pp. 28-34  Back.

Note 18: The rationale for this approach might be that respect for internationally recognized human rights should be routinely expected from all states, rather than treated as an internationally praiseworthy achievement deserving reward. Although I have considerable sympathy toward this view, it ignores the political realities of achieving progress in implementing human rights, especially when starting from a record of substantial, systematic violations. Working positively to support governments making human rights progress may be a far more effective strategy than using aid punitively, if only because systematic violators are unlikely to be swayed by the modest amounts typically involved in aid sanctions. Conversely, international financial support for governments making real progress is not only powerful symbolism but may in some cases have a real political impact.  Back.

Note 19: NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in response to repression and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which began as I was completing final revisions on this chapter, also suggests a growing willingness to overrule arguments of sovereignty in the face of severe humanitarian crises, at least in a regional context. Although security interests have been appealed to in justifying the attacks, that rationale seems weak and poorly thought out. The real driving force does seem to be humanitarian crisis. But the continuing reluctance to impose sanctions on Turkey for its systematic human rights violations in Kurdish areas of its country nicely illustrates the enduring priority of security concerns over human rights even in the Western/NATO region.  Back.

Note 20: A different sort of primarily internal orientation is represented by the efforts of newly democratic governments in Argentina, Chile, and a number of countries to associate themselves with international human rights norms and initiatives in order to strengthen national human rights initiatives and to mobilize national support for human rights.  Back.