The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

That went fast.

June 7, 2008

My month-long course on human rights has wrapped up, which means I’ll be able to get back to blogging about other things, like global norm development and enforcement, the laws of war, and the US election. OK, I’ll be able to get back to blogging, period.

A few concluding insights I developed from reading this set of books with some smart students are below the fold.

1) The cultural relativism argument really doesn’t hold water. Sally Engle Merry has shown that activists around the world are adopting human rights language and translating it into their own vernacular to suit their cultural context. The “culture” argument is a weapon of elites, not individuals. Also, she says, we should spend much more time studying the “culture” of the transnational human rights movement itself.

2) Large-N analyses of human rights performance like Todd Landman’s Protecting Human Rights or Emilie Hafner-Burton’s work are biased toward civil and political rights; they don’t incorporate measures of economic and social rights. This may affect the validity of their results, but it also exerts an unfortunate constitutive effect on global understandings of what human rights are.

3) It’s very hard to define what a “human rights issue” is. Too bad for my new project on issue emergence. The concept is used within the human rights literature to refer to things as specific as “dowry killings” or as broad as “women’s rights” (really an issue cluster, I think). And while doing field interviews this week at Human Rights Watch for my new book, I noticed practitioners often refer to countries, not abuses, as “issues.” Scholars of global civil society need better ways to operationalize their concepts – they should both make sense analytically and jive with practitioner understandings.

4) Lots of human rights claims are floating around in the primordial soup but are not recognized as human right problems at all by leaders in the human rights movement. For example, is infant male circumcision a bodily integrity rights violation? Some groups say yes, but HRW and Amnesty say no. Is there a human right to self defense? Gun advocates say yes; according to this article by David Kopel, the UN says hell no. Is it a violation of the prohibition on forced labor to conscript citizens to serve in the military? Some say yes. HRW says, only if you mistreat them or if they are children.

5) Despite that, none of the books we read, even Jutta Joachim’s book on agenda-setting, offered a good theory of how the human rights movement sets its own agenda. The literature remains focused on how civil society affects state agendas or enforces existing standards. But in my mind, there are some very interesting questions about how certain things get framed off the agenda, and why some issue entrepreneurs are more successful than others, and how human rights gatekeepers decide what matters.

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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.