SSU Forum /GraSPP Research Seminar/ International Law Colloquium, the University of Tokyo
with Professor Jack Snyder and Associate Professor Leslie Vinjamuri

Date: Friday, March 16 2018, 10:30-12:00
Venue: Conference Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject: "Human Rights Futures: Backlash and Beyond"
Lecture: Jack Snyder, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations, Political Science Department, Columbia University
Leslie Vinjamuri, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Relations, and Director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice, SOAS, University of London
Comment: Yozo Yokota, President, Center for Human Rights Education and TrainingEnglish
Moderator: Chiyuki Aoi, Professor of International Security at the Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo
Language: English
Hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo, GraSPP Research Seminar, the University of Tokyo, International Law Colloquium, the University of Tokyo

The Security Studies Unit of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute was delighted to host an event with distinguished guest speakers Jack Snyder, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and Leslie Vinjamuri, Director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Relations, and Chair of the International Relations Speaker Series at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, Director of PARI and Professor of International Relations at the University of Tokyo greeted the guests and explained the purpose of the event, which presented itself as a joint meeting co-organised by the Faculty of Law and Politics, the Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP), and PARI itself. He also introduced Professor Yozo Yokota as discussant and Professor Chiyuki Aoi as chair of the end.

Professor Aoi greeted all participants and attendees and opened the event, which focused on the discussion of the crisis of human rights, the subject of the volume Human Rights Futures (edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder, and Leslie Vinjamuri) just published by Cambridge University Press. She then invited Professor Snyder to speak.

Professor Snyder thanked the host and began his intervention by stating that human rights have never been so much under attack as they are today. It is therefore a good time to re-evaluate the strategies of the human rights movement. It is undeniable that this movement has made tremendous advances in the past few decades, demanding higher standards worldwide. Human rights are not only a valuable goal in itself, but also for the achievement of other positive political results. For instance, it is known from political science that true democracies, where a democratic electoral process is coupled with respect of minorities and human rights, do not go to war against each other. Furthermore, there has never been a country, barring Singapore and oil-exporting nations, capable of escaping the middle income trap without the adoption of a strong human rights and civil rights regime. Human rights appear to be necessary for the promotion of peace and prosperity. The stakes are therefore very high.

Historically, Professor Snyder argued, the human rights movement was based on a tactic made of three elements: the signing of international binding treaties by governments, the collection of information about compliance by activists, and “name and shame” initiatives against those government which did not keep their promises. In this legalist approach to the human rights issue, the rules have been the same everywhere. Legalism, moralism, and universalism shaped this approach. However in more recent years many social scientists and even parts of the human rights community have started to question this formula. Why is this the case? A legalistic approach has proven to be more effective only if a number of conditions are met. The best cases are states transitioning to democracy which already have a high level of democratisation with an independent judiciary and a strong civil society. There is also a consensus on the point that the legalist and universalist strategy works better in the presence of indigenous conceptions of human rights. In many other cases however the outcome is quite different, as the advancement of human rights is more complicated in areas where the state is very strong (e.g. China) or too weak (e.g. Somalia), or when abuses are embedded in cultural traditions such as early marriage, child labour and so on. It also appear that the legalistic approach does not work well when the state machinery is weak, because of corruption or where courts are too slow, or in countries characterised by widespread extreme poverty, located in geopolitically unstable neighbourhood and with large numbers of refugees.

According to Professor Snyder, there are four main views on how to interpret this puzzle.

The first view is that, despite the difficulties, the main legalistic approach should remain as it is.

The second view is the so-called “social power approach”, whereby human rights outcomes appear to be highly impacted by what kind of groups promote them in the society. A crucial element in this constellation is the need to identify pragmatic bargaining power. In a given society, some groups are active in terms of human rights promotion, others are simply spoilers, but other groups exist which can be mobilised on the human rights side if the right political deal is cut. In this context, one may say that “politics lead, justice and rights follow”. Looking at the canonical successful movements in the past such as the Civil Rights Movement in the US during the 1950s-1960s, or the anti-colonial struggle in India, they were in all cases very large mass movements involving the majority of the society, and they were conceptualised as programmes for the majority. Those ideals were also supported by religious leaders. Without these elements, they would have had very limited chances of success. Unfortunately today the international human rights movement has little religious backing in many parts of the world. Furthermore, past successful movements relied on large left wing political parties, but with pragmatism. Gandhi was for instance backed by the Indian Congress movement. Martin Luther King had the support of the US Democratic Party.

The third view can be labelled as localisation or vernacularisation. Human rights often employ the language of Western legal traditions, but in many areas of the world there are different kinds of discourses. Should the human rights movement use a language which better resonates with the local populations and their cultural traditions?

The fourth and possibly more radical view is that the whole legalistic approach to human rights is somewhat superficial as it does not address the big underlying questions of poverty and inequality. The fact that the movement focuses on legal items rather than on social justice is a lost chance.

Professor Vinjamuri thanked the hosts and immediately proceeded to illustrate how the book project unfolded over the years. While it was written, the focus of international attention concerning human rights was predominantly on the Middle East (in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring) and Africa. The empirical context at the time was an ongoing debate on the shrinking space of social activism in the global South. This was also a consequence of the 2008 financial shock, which led to a shortage of funding for many organisations. We are now in a somewhat different context, where the international attention has moved to the situation in the Western world. Professor Vinjamuri addressed in particular the backlash against international courts and its implications for the human rights movement. Kathryn Sikkink argues that backlashes do occur with a certain historical regularity, even if the fundamental direction of progress remains the same. While one has to take the backlash very seriously, the point is how to react in order to keep the movement going and overcome a difficult phase. Professor Vinjamuri argued that there has certainly been a backlash for instance after the ICC indicted Sudan’s president al-Bashir, although that backlash was more contained than initially expected. Why was that the case? Because the ICC is in reality quite a pragmatic actor and indeed international courts can restrain themselves while considering the situation on the ground. Currently there is a different kind of backlash, one which aims at re-writing the rules and in that the role of Trump and more in general of domestic US politics on the global human rights situation can be very significant.

After Professor Vinjamuri spoke, Professor Yokota was invited to discuss with the panelists and the book. He also thanked the host and congratulated the various institutions for organising the event. Professor Yokota introduced himself as an international law and international human rights expert as well as a practitioner. He started his discussion of the book by observing that it contains numerous contributions from experts in different fields, tied together by the question “how to ensure human rights progress and compliance?” It is in many ways an eye-opening volume. From the perspective of international law, there was no overarching human rights discourse before 1945, but only a variety of loosely related topics such as slave trade and the treatment of refugees. After 1945 human rights emerged instead as one of the most important elements of the UN Charter, and over the decades it rose as the most important item of the UN agenda. In the post-war period the expansion of human rights has been concentrated on standard setting and institution building, with a third areas in compliance motoring, whose mechanisms have now become common place in all human rights conventions. Despite all this progress, the world is still very far from full compliance. For instance even in the case of Japan, which is widely considered very respectful of human rights, there are gaps. The constitution states that certain rights and freedoms apply to Japanese nationals, thus excluding foreigners. The extension of those rights has occurred, but only via judicial interpretation. Furthermore, the constitution does not address non-governmental providers of human rights. Even if Japan is a party in numerous international conventions, international standards are seldom discussed domestically and not consistently applied by Japanese courts. In recent years the government has addressed the dispute between universalism vs. localism, siding with universalist positions as the only Asian country to do so, which is encouraging.

While praising the volume for its high quality research, Professor Yokota also indicated two points which could have been dealt with more in detail, namely the role of the media, and the role of education. Concerning the latter, the progress of the human rights movement appears to be at least in part dependent on educating young people about human rights awareness and respect. The UN launched a world programme for human rights education, but the subject is still not taught in schools. In conclusion, professor Yokota remarked that international lawyers are aware of the difficult human rights situation, but their perspective differs from the one of the book’s authors, as international lawyers remains convinced of the primary importance of strengthening procedures and structures, working with the law, under the law, through the law.