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The Relevance of Human Wrongs (Emilie Hafner-Burton)

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Emilie Hafner-Burton in conversation wit Howard Burton

There’s a growing tendency these days for academics to justify the relevance of their work. To my mind, that’s certainly not without its dangers, often leading otherwise boldly idealistic researchers to publicly shy away from their true motivations as they desperately try to demonstrate how current interpretations of Renaissance humanism, say, can positively affect our GDP.

I’ve done my share of this sort of silliness myself. Years ago, when running a physics institute and lobbying hard for government funding, I’d frequently cite how Einstein’s general theory of relativity – once considered impossible to even conceive of applying to everyday human life – was now actively used in GPS devices. This is the sort of story that academic administrators and government officials love: a tangible “you never know” example of how supporting basic research might one day help give us a better widget. There is something pretty loathsome about the whole business, I must admit: “justifying” general relativity through GPS technology is pretty much like “vindicating” the collected works of Shakespeare by its effectiveness as a paperweight. After all, if revolutionizing our understanding of space and time only counts if it can be used to assist us in finding the right highway exit, that’s pretty good evidence that we’ve well and truly lost the plot on what the human enterprise should be all about.

But there are many areas of scholarship when the “relevance” shoe is very much on the other foot, when burying oneself in detached theoretical frameworks turns out to be just as counterproductive as groping for vacuous “applied rationalizations.”

Take human rights research. It’s pretty hard to imagine studying human rights without tangibly grappling with the horrors of what’s actually happening on the ground, and why. And yet, to a very real extent, that seems to be what many human rights experts actually do.

But not Emilie Hafner-Burton. Emilie is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of International Justice and Human Rights and Co-Director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at UC San Diego, but behind that impressively long-winded title lies a simple allure: Emilie is desperate to understand why human rights abuses happen, and what can be done to – if not eliminate them – at least considerably minimize them. I contacted her because I came across her 2013 book, Making Human Rights A Reality, and found myself captivated by her probing methodological rigor twinned with an earnest determination to find concrete ways forward to make the world a better place.

That might sound like an obvious combination for someone in her field. But the more I started digging around, the more unique she appeared to be.

While it’s certain that virtually everyone involved in the international human rights system strongly adheres to the principles involved, opinions diverge considerably when it comes to how to concretely go about implementing them. Many unthinkingly maintain that the way forward is to simply grow the current system. But Emilie, characteristically, looks deeper.

“I think we need to think about the system actually as a system, which is to say that there are groups of non-governmental organizations and actors out there that are crucial for the provision of information and so on and so forth. Then there’s the question of what we do with this international legal system that we’ve built over 70 years, and it’s grown and grown and grown. We’ve created more and more treaties, and more and more procedures, and more norms and more advocates and more institutions.

“The goal in doing all of this was to reduce repression. But then, when you look around the world, you see atrocities and human rights repression everywhere. There’s actually a debate in the community as to whether things are getting a little bit better or a little bit worse over time, or just staying stagnant. But there’s no debate about the fact that we have massive human rights problems that are happening despite the fact that we have built this extraordinary apparatus of institutions.

“The question is, What do you do about that? Can you fix this system? Is there something we can do to make the system better?

“There have been great victories along the way. But the question remains, What do we do? How the system is answering this question is by growing itself; and that’s one possibility. Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe that’s not a good idea. With more treaties, you get more participation in the system. But is that going to work? Is that the solution?

Emilie, meanwhile, has come to several specific conclusions:

1) The key instruments of the current human rights systems naturally work best in places where the right sort of infrastructure exists to support them, like stable independent courts and a free press. But countries that have such infrastructures are, by and large, not the sorts to commit human rights abuses in the first place.

2) Given limited resources, priorities have to be set when it comes to how and when the international human rights system intervenes. And while different human rights organizations are doing this internally, it is important to have an open public discussion about how to move forwards here, as she states in the following clip:

3) Lastly, it is not enough to just recognize that human rights abuses occur. We have to work harder to comprehend why they occur – what are the incentives that human-rights abusers are subject to? – so as to concretely diminish future abuses.

“There’s a long laundry list of reasons why people engage in these things. And the costs are oftentimes quite unclear: there’s no centralized enforcement mechanism that will always catch or punish you. Having Amnesty International write a bad report about you doesn’t help, but it doesn’t always necessarily hurt.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what the risks are, and sometimes there are big benefits. This is the crucially important point. Most of what operates the incentive structure for people who are engaging in these types of behavior is an interest-based story. It’s in their interest to do so, in the interest of the culture and institutions in which they’re embedded. It becomes very important to start right there. What that means is that the policy process – whether that be law, advocacy, or military intervention – has to do something to address that calculus. I either have to convince you that the benefits of what you’re doing aren’t really that beneficial to you, or that the costs just aren’t going to be worth the benefits at the end of the day. I have to change one or both of those things, because if I don’t do that, I’m not going to have an impact on your behavior.”

For many, discussing human rights abuses in the context of an incentive structure is little short of anathema: drastically cheapening the dignity of human life by invoking crassly detached cost-benefit analysis as if we were assessing the price of bread rather than an individual’s fundamental freedom and autonomy. It’s not hard to appreciate the revulsion: human rights should be sacred and their violation unthinkable to any but the most deranged mind.

That should be the case. But, sadly, it is clearly not. And by demonizing human rights abusers by believing that they are all demented monsters whose mental states lie wholly outside the world of incentives and reprisals, we are simply ignoring what we know to be true in favor of what we wish were the case.

“There’s another important part of this conversation that comes from the psychology of it all, what happens inside people’s heads when they engage in these types of behavior. That’s not something that I’ve ever heard discussed in the social sciences outside of the psychological context of research. But I think that’s really important, and it has very important policy implications for how we’re going to operate with our advocacy programs, because human beings are really good survivors. We’re really good at rationalizing what we do.

“If you look at, for example, some of the individuals who were involved in the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, you will find explanations of, not only, ‘It wasn’t my fault. He told me to do it. War is war,’ but also the moral justification of, ‘What they were going to do to me was so much worse, and I’m saving lives by doing this, so I am legally and morally justified in engaging in these behaviors.’ They believe that.”

If the invocation of Abu Ghraib rings a bell to readers of this blog, that might be because it was touched on two weeks ago in the piece about my conversation with celebrated Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo (Situation Rooms).

Phil, you may recall, has spent a lifetime investigating the situational factors that influence people to act in often-deplorable ways. It is the sort of work, you might think, that would be at the top of every human rights advocate’s reading list. But it doesn’t seem to be.

Sometimes the relevance we seek is right under our nose.


Two short videos featuring Emilie, Understanding Incentives and Situational Implications, are freely available on our website landing page this week.  For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Emilie, click here  Meanwhile, the eBook based on our conversation, Improving Human Rights, is available on Amazon (see here), while the podcast of our edited one-hour conversation with Emilie is now freely available on iTunes.

All Ideas Roadshow videos are available for individual purchase or by subscription ($10/month, $100/year), while all eBooks are available for purchase on Amazon.  Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals.

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