I’ve noticed this a number of times: human rights defenders’ passionate commitment to the cause isn’t matched by a concomitant knowledge of the best means available to promote the cause. In fact, no one has a f***ing clue and there’s a lot of groping in the dark.
For example, human rights activism frequently takes the legal route: vote laws, enact constitutions, sign treaties and let the courts do their work. That’s quite understandable in theory. If you want to force people, the law is often the right way to go. However, we see that the effect of human rights law on the acts of rights violators is usually very limited, if not counterproductive. This should be obvious when you understand that some of the worst rights violators are tyrannical states which have no interest in the rule of law. Enacting laws when there’s no rule of law is transparently futile (with one caveat: law can create its own culture). Even legislation in countries that do respect the rule of law is often ineffective. Case in point: there is now something called the New Jim Crow in the US right.
There’s also a lot of talk about education. If only we could educate people about human rights then the next generations would be better off. It’s a similar problem: education can only be successful in a wider environment that is stable and well willing. The invocation of appeals to honor (Appiah style) and storytelling (Rorty style) have a whiff of desperation about them. And I guess I don’t have to discuss the effectiveness of the UN Human Rights Council, economic boycotts, sanctions or diplomacy (although it does seem as if sanctions had a small positive effect in Apartheid South Africa).
Given this lack of understanding about the effectiveness of human rights promotion, it’s quite surprising that there is progress at all, and somewhat less surprising that most progress is a surprise. Poverty has sharply declined, but a lot of the decline is despite intentional efforts rather than because of them (development aid doesn’t seem to do the trick according to Easterly). Communism has disappeared, and although there are many who want to take the credit, it’s better to admit that 1989 took all of us by surprise.
So, some of the progress we see is unintentional in the sense that we intend it to happen and yet it happens despite of our intentional actions. That’s good as far as it goes: better to have unintentional progress than no progress at all. But of course it would be even better if our intentional actions were successful and if things happen because of our actions rather than in spite of them, if only because then we would be able to be more intentionally effective in the future.
It would also be better if some of our intentional efforts would stop making things worse: the US wages a war on terror but only seems to make it worse, in at least these two manners: first, the war on terror creates resentment which in turn becomes a breeding ground for future terrorists; and second, it has become increasingly clear that the war on terror leads to rights violations, and not just in the target countries.
And then there’s a type of actions situated between ineffective intentional efforts and counter-effective intentional efforts, namely those actions which are effective but which also carry a heavy cost. Slavery has been abolished in the US, but no one wanted it to be a war that did it. Bombing Serbian civilians in order to protect those in Kosovo is another example. Here we enter the difficult domain of weighing the lives of some against the lives of others.
All of this confirms how clueless we are when it comes to effectively protecting people’s rights. That’s a shame, given the importance of the cause.