Kathryn Sikkink has long been at the forefront of scholarship on human rights that is both positive (in the sense of giving us reason to be optimistic) and rigorously evidence-based. She and collaborators have highlighted the importance of human rights doctrine and law, rights-based international activism, and related dynamics to helping hundreds of millions of persons to challenge repression and better their own circumstances. I have found her work deeply instructive and often inspiring. I would like to use this response to invite Sikkink to share her thoughts on some challenges to the current promotion of human rights, and also the roles that regional organizations are increasingly playing or the spaces they might open for the promotion of human rights.
The first challenge concerns the increasing sophistication of authoritarian governments, and also democratic governments which increasingly display some authoritarian tendencies. Among the latter we could certainly include the United States, where a leader elected on a populist platform seems to work daily to undermine the rule of law and constitutional checks and balances which serve to protect individual rights, while directly targeting the rights of immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable groups.
I would like, however, to focus on a case in India, where a group of activists has sought in part to implement the “boomerang” model that Sikkink and collaborators theorized. This model highlights ways in which activist groups can reach out to international allies to place pressure on their own governments for change, often in a human rights context. I have since 2010 been studying efforts by a group in India, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, to reach out not only to international NGOs based in other countries, as well as governments of those countries, but also, vertically, to the UN human rights regime. Beginning in the late 1990s, their aim was to see caste discrimination globally recognized as a violation of human rights under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). While some UN committees were willing to affirm this, the member states who have the final say have not, under some pressure from the Indian government.
Even so, the activists’ efforts have made caste discrimination far more visible globally, resulting in supportive resolutions from the European Parliament and others, and increased scrutiny through the UN periodic review process under the Treaty. In recent years, though, especially after the nationalist right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came back to power nationally, such activists have been targeted by the government. In fact, more than 10,000 Indian NGOs have now seen their authorization to receive foreign funding effectively cancelled. This has meant the closure of vocational schools serving rural Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) children, and has hampered Dalit advocacy groups’ efforts nationwide. This trend has been seen in other countries. What would an effective response to such a crackdown look like?
The second invitation I would offer concerns the role that regional institutions have been playing or could come to play in promoting human rights protections, and especially how central they should be to an analysis such as the one Sikkink has offered. The European Court of Human Rights has, of course, been extensively studied, in part as a means of reinforcing core rights for persons within the states over which it has jurisdiction. Other longstanding regional courts are much more weakly empowered, but we are also seeing the emergence of regional human rights commissions, newer courts, and activist initiatives seeking to leverage regional integration to promote individual rights, in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and elsewhere. One example is the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, which works to promote rights in the 10 member states of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations. It is a freestanding NGO, not connected to the organization. It calls attention to significant rights violations in the region through issuing press releases, and through a fact-finding strategy involving delegations headed by parliamentarians from other states investigating reported abuses within a state. This helps prevent the targeted state from simply repressing an investigation or report by its own parliamentarians. The organization does not have a public headquarters, however, because of concerns about such repression.
I would simply invite Sikkink to share her thoughts on the possible role of regional organizations and courts moving forward, as we consider how the global human rights regime might be developed and strengthened, especially in an age where democracy has been in retreat across a range of states, or at least has come under significant pressure from populist or authoritarian-leaning leaders.