by of human rights has more positive messages which

by Kathryn

Sikkink. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2017, 336 pp.

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Kathryn Sikkink tries to answer one question in the whole book: do human rights work? She answers this question by presenting empirical evidence to support the work of human rights defenders and activists. She explains her motivation “I write this book…for people on front lines of human rights work who say they have lost hope” and she adds human rights advocates, “general public of United States” and people who share same concerns (6). She believes that longer history of human rights has more positive messages which can prolong the human rights struggles in their context.   

Sikkink’s book is a response to current widespread pessimism about human rights. Whether it is academics or on the news or it is general public when they talk about human rights their conventions are along with criticism. She refers to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2016) “we have reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations” (7). Many people would agree with Ban Ki-moon conclusion, a survey conducted in 17 countries when people were asked: considering all aspects, the world is getting better or worse, or neither worse nor better? (2015), Except China and Indonesia, that majority answered the world the getting better or would stay the same, in all 15 other countries people responded the world is getting worse. In the US and Germany respectively, six percent and four percent responded positively (7). Sikkink’s intent is not necessarily to quiet hostile audiences, as the term ‘hope’ in the title would suggest. Rather, she reclaims powerful human rights lessons and rectifies common misunderstandings to advocate for more proactive, well-informed action at a time when this is truly needed. Unlike other, conventional academic works in the field, Evidence for hope combines scientific consistency in addressing major, contemporary criticisms of human rights with the ability to propose objective means of promoting them exactly where it seems most crucial. In order to do this, Sikkink relies on both academic work and practices to suggest tailored policy recommendations to deal with ongoing human rights violations.


She carefully reviews the history of international human rights laws, institutions and movements around the world. Two main types of criticism and pessimism that she approached in her book is legitimacy and effectiveness of the human rights. By legitimacy she means “generalized perception that a movement or institution is desirable, appropriate and authentic” and by effectiveness “whether human rights work produces positive change in the world” (8). The legitimacy of human rights has been argued by reminding the readers of their diverse origins: Latin American jurists, diplomats, and activists early in the 1940s envisioned and advocated for international human rights law. States in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East took the lead in the 1960s and 1970s to shape the first international human rights institutions. She makes a strong case for seeing the human rights movements a global movement. To measure the effectiveness, the march human rights is unavoidably slow, cumulative and struggle-driven. This aspect

of the phenomena has possibly contributed to the present pessimism felt even by those who

work in the field.


After world war II human rights movement shows how less powerful actors took the lead for enforcing the international protection of human rights, not vice versa. However, they were more successful when they had powerful allies. In case, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) the characters were “Latin American states, other small states and NGOs” (88) that persuade the powerful states to incorporate the human rights into the United Nations as an international institution. For instance, while drafting the UDHR the first article was “all men are born free and equal in dignity and rights” but it was Hansa Mehta the delegate from India that objected. In that time chair of the UN Commission (Eleanor Roosevelt) was not convinced to change it. But Mehta with other delegates insisted and lobbied until it changes to “all human beings” (83). Mainly it was underdogs, weak states, and colonial countries which were looking for equality and dignity rather than strong countries and the group lead the process of including the international protection of human rights into the UN Charter and the UDHR.


During the period of Cold War especially from the 1940s till 1960s, the human rights concept faced turmoil and discord in the whole world. A number of countries in Global South were struggling hard to keep the momentum of human rights alive. Some other countries were moving toward the right direction for democracy and human rights but interrupted by the superpowers. The very important lesson from the Cold War is that “you cannot save democracy by destroying it” and “nor anyone can build democracy from outside” (131). But international actors can play a major role in destroying it. For instance, in Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq arose as the leader of the National Front coalition, “organized support of democracy and against foreign intervention” (108). Later Mosaddeq was elected as prime minister by Iran Parliament. But Mosaddeq was removed by the coup with the CIA intervention. The fear for the US was that Iran will fall into communism influences, or the Soviet Union will invade Iran. This coup resulted in an end for democracy in Iran and “led to political repression, specially of the Tudeh Party” (109). The intervention of global powers continued in other countries and resulted in authoritarianism.


She explains about human rights achievements, statistics on the number of people killed in wars, on the use of the death penalty, newborn mortality and women’s education, for instance, all point to similar movements of positive change. Inclusive, the empirical evidence argued in this book suggests that the human rights situation around the globe is in better situation than ever before. She also has presented the growing challenges of human rights like refugees, torture, disappearances, extrajudicial execution, rape and new expanded rights like sexual minorities, rights of persons with disabilities. She presents that some of these problems are same as the old days, but now we have proper data about it. The mixture of historical and empirical analysis allows this book to communicate how the past has immediate practical implications for the present and future.


Sikkink argue about the accountability of human rights on national and international levels. She believes that there is more justice than ever in terms of accountability. Prior to 1970s, there was no actual charge for the rulers in terms of oppressing of their own citizens (185). It was the 1900s, for the first-time that state and non-state actors were held accountable for their human rights violations which she called it “justice cascade” (209). She argues even very strong authoritarians can be held accountable, and this is a very important achievement of human rights advocates. The justice cascade has enabled the victims of human rights violation to appeal for justice through national and international mechanisms.


Sikkink suggest the solutions for policy change that will help the improvement of human rights. Amongst, to avoid the war and violent solutions and seek the nonviolent solutions (186), to give the ground for promotion of homegrown democracies (193), help to promote economic growth and equality (196), put aside dehumanizing and exclusionary ideologies (200), further the ratification of treaties and enforce existing human rights instruments (203), put an end to impunity through extended accountability processes (207), and finally, support, expand and protect human rights mobilization.


I criticize the book from two aspects, the book has used “empirical comparisons” (229) method in order to show the human rights situation progress. In this method there are two problems, one if the human rights standards reflected in documents are so high that we cannot measure the progress, so we have to change the human rights documents and make it more realistic. If not, then we have to question the amount of progress that we have made throughout the history. There has to be proper baseline to measure the improvement of the human rights situation otherwise we will have the artificial and illusionary progress of human rights. The second problem of the book is the generalization of the events, we have to accept the ability of human rights is less than its inability. Generalization of success stories will not solve the problems, there has to be a proper understanding of situation, and based on the problems the solutions have to be presented.


Finally, the plus point of the book is it is well researched with proper data. It uses the applied history as a example to show the progress. A very good writing style has been followed throughout the book which is the combination of theory, historical evidence, and personal actual recent cases. This approach makes the book more readable and joyful. hope is a great example of using applied history for problem-solving and policy advice. In today’s world, where creative thinking on the present and future human rights challenges becomes increasingly imperative, Evidence for hope shows that there should remain no stringent boundaries between being, thinking and doing in the human rights field.



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