When social scientists began to ask the question – neglected by human rights lawyers and activists – whether international human rights law actually improved the enjoyment of human rights, they came up with largely negative answers: international human rights law had no effect, or very little effect, or was sometimes counter-productive, being associated with more human rights violations, depending on the research methods used. Kathryn Sikkink was among the leading scholars challenging these results, showing that the previous studies greatly oversimplified the human rights world.
Her book, Evidence for Hope, brings together the empirical evidence showing that human rights law sometimes, in some places, improves the enjoyment of some human rights. Sikkink defends the human rights movement from the charge of `utopianism’ by turning the tables on the critics and accusing them of unrealistic expectations for human rights law. The human rights struggle takes place on a hard road but there is solid evidence that progress has been made and that further progress can be made in the future. Science, realism, and hope can be combined.
Academics, journalists, and ordinary citizens (including even human rights activists) are often more impressed by bad news than by good news. Human rights disasters (Cambodia, Rwanda, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine) rightly hit the headlines, but important human rights improvements (for example, in maternal and infant mortality or disability rights) are less noticed. Indeed, increased concern for human rights has led to better information about human rights violations and, paradoxically, the dubious belief that human rights have not improved and may well have deteriorated.
Sikkink brings us the good news about human rights on the basis of comprehensive and systematic research. Sikkink, a specialist in Latin America as well as in international human rights, also argues robustly against the widely-held view that human rights were a Western imposition on the rest, documenting the contribution of non-Western countries to the development and acceptance of international human rights law and the ambivalence of the West to these developments. Sikkink’s book exemplifies two primary virtues: hope for a better world and action for a better world informed by the best available evidence.