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Rights or Wrong? On Falsification in the Human Rights Issue Area

December 7, 2007

A conference was recently held at the University of Maastricht on Human Rights and Methodology, which explored the following questions:

By which criteria can a product of human rights research be qualified as a methodologically sound piece of work? What are examples of such good practices and what are examples of practices that are unsatisfactory from a methodological point of view? And are there aspects and considerations that are typical for the methods of research applied in the field of human rights?

In his keynote, David Forsythe lamented the paucity of methodological rigor in human rights scholarship, which tends to be legal or normative in character. And Todd Landman argued for the importance of treating human rights as any other subject in the social sciences, with causal and constitutive propositions subjected to rigorous analysis.

In this vein, I’d like to know how to construct a research project that could attempt to objectively test some propositions culled from political rhetoric about detainees in the global war on terror. Though detainee treatment on the surface seems to be (and perhaps should be) a moral debate, in actuality both sides consistently invoke explanatory arguments to make their case. Most of these claims should be empirically testable. To wit:

Hypothesis: Coercive interrogation techniques are effective and necessary as a means to extract “actionable intelligence” from the enemy.

Counter-hypothesis: Coercive interrogation techniques are in-effective and counter-productive.

Hypothesis: Human rights violations by a super power erode the human rights regime itself.

Counter-hypothesis: Human rights violations by a super power strengthen the human rights regime by galvanizing other “good citizen” states against the hegemon’s practices.

Hypothesis: Governments that abuse foreigners are likelier to then abuse their own citizens.

Counter-hypothesis: There is no such necessary relationship, because governments draw a distinction between foreigners and citizens; they are capable of abusing the former while protecting the rights of the latter.

You see what I’m suggesting.

If human rights activists are going to base their arguments on utilitarian claims rather than normative claims, would it be a good idea to make sure these claims are not specious? Do political scientists have a role to play here? Or is the role of the “responsible” scholar never to attempt to falsify arguments, however specious, that might conceivably stay the hand of vengeance?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.