Tuesday afternoon, the International Institute and the Human Rights Program hosted Kathryn Sikkink, who emphasized the many ways human rights work has made progress in recent years, despite the negative ways she said media frames international issues.
Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, spoke at the event — a forum for professors, researchers and students at the University of Michigan to discuss issues surrounding the field of human rights study — about international norms and institutions, international advocacy networks and human rights law and policy.
LSA Dean Andrew Martin kicked off the event by announcing the University’s Human Rights Program will be renamed the Donia Human Rights Center in honor of human rights advocate Robert Donia, a University graduate. Donia, whose work focused on highlighting human rights abuses in Bosnia Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav republics during the wars in the 1990s, said he was honored to sit in the company of a multitude of academics who study the issue of human rights.
“I really feel like we should be sitting at a very large, circular table because so many of you here today have really been contributing to the study of human rights at the University of Michigan,” Donia said. “I hope that this center will in some way serve to bring together resources available to study human rights.”
At the conclusion of Donia’s remarks, Sikkink began her lecture “Are We Making Progress on Human Rights?” by listing recent quotes by academics like University of Chicago Prof. Eric Posner and politicians like U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. These quotes, she said, were pessimistic and negative toward the current status of suffering in the world and the progress being made in human rights protections.
Sikkink noted that oftentimes devastating events like the war in Syria and the growing number of refugees — 37.5 million in 2005 to 59.5 million in 2014 — grab headlines in such a way that distracts people from the progress being made in other spheres within the larger field of human rights. Her work, she said, indicates growth and development, often meaning human rights are attained for more people.
“We do know we have collected the largest amount of data, my team, and we have found that the use of human rights prosecutions is associated with improvements in core … human rights,” Sikkink said.
To illustrate her point, Sikkink displayed slides that showing that 60 more countries have banned the death penalty since 1988, bringing the international total to 140. She added that infant mortality is decreasing in every region and the death toll from great famines has also been declining.
LSA senior Joe Geras said he appreciated Sikkink’s use of quantitative data and statistics to support her message and argument.
“Given the topic of what she was discussing, I was interested to see how she would counter a lot of the critiques that are often given toward people in human rights … and I found most of what she said to be accurate,” Geras said.
While Sikkink said issues like global wealth inequality and the use of torture by the United States marked regressions in human rights, she emphasized that the attainment of human rights around the world is on the upswing.
She highlighted the importance of positivity in this particular field, noting it is necessary for human rights activists, policy makers and academics to remain hopeful that their work can contribute to a better world. She said while it is easy to immerse oneself in pessimism, human rights progress can be accomplished only through hope.
“An inability to distinguish between a genuine crisis and areas of progress impedes both theoretical and positive innovation,” Sikkink said. “If we don’t recognize that change has occurred, how can we theorize if there is change?”
LSA junior Emily Young, who attended the event, challenged Sikkink’s assertion that human rights on a whole are improving, saying it failed to grasp the nuances associated with how different societies view quality of life.
“Human rights is very much culturally relative, so what the U.S. defines as a human right is very much different from, like, what Africa or Asia will define as a human right,” Young said. “I feel like (human rights) is a Western term … and I do believe that what we feel is good for a nation is not necessarily what (other nations) feel is and puts a perspective on everyone that they should be like us.”