Interview with Emilie M. Hafner-Burton

Emilie Hafner-Burton

“Avoiding Using Power Would be Devastating for Human Rights”


Many human rights activists and scholars fear state power – and justifiably so. Often with the powers of a Leviathan, States are responsible for massive human rights abuses at national level and also abroad. Yet, others, like Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, author of the 2013 Princeton University Press-published book Making Human Rights a Reality, argue that “States are at the center of the human rights problem and so they have an important role to play in the solutions.” In sum, human rights activists, scholars, and policy-makers ought to make the best use of state power, including promoting human rights abroad.

Hafner-Burton, in a thought-provoking interview with Conectas’ director, Lucia Nader, strongly defends what she calls a ‘steward’ role for States at international level. While being cautious in not defining stewardship as an “entitlement or privilege” of only certain Western countries, Hafner-Burton, herself critical of US foreign policy including Obama’s, assigns an important role to Southern countries as well as human rights organizations from the South in promoting human rights abroad. As she argues in this interview, “human rights promotion will gain more traction if more governments get into the business of responsibly promoting human rights in their region, launching more power for human rights from beyond North America or Europe.”

Her interest in issues of state power and international law is not new. As seen in this interview with Conectas, Hafner-Burton cares deeply about finding ways to narrow the gap between international human rights norms on paper and their reality on the ground. Two decades ago, Hafner-Burton moved to Geneva, Switzerland and started working for an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting human rights and disarmament. From that moment on, she had the opportunity to take an inside look at how the United Nations functions, experiencing first hand the difficulties of human rights advocacy. Ever since, she has been working to craft more effective solutions to the persistence of human rights abuses globally.

Emilie Hafner-Burton’s academic experience reflects this concern. She is a professor at the UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and is the Director of the School’s new Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. Looking across a wide array of issues, including human rights and security, the Laboratory explores when (and why) international laws in fact operate. Additionally, Hafner-Burton’s academic background extends to other renowned universities, such as Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford.

In the following interview, Hafner-Burton reflects upon the legitimacy of international human rights system, the role of States and international human rights organizations in it, as well as presents a critical view of the US foreign policy in human rights. With a realistic yet encouraging tone, Hafner-Burton makes clear that “in an ideal world States would stay out of each other’s business. We don’t live in that world.” And, as much as the United States’ human rights record has been constantly criticized whenever the US promotes human rights abroad, Hafner-Burton warns that Southern countries, such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, need to mind their human rights record at home too if they want to promote human rights abroad responsibly.

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Conectas Human Rights • You mention in your book Making Human Rights a Reality that the international human rights system, particularly the UN, is facing today a crisis of legitimacy and relevance because it is packed with countries that have no intention (or ability) to honor its norms. Some other experts would argue that this crisis is mainly due to the fact that this same system suffers a crisis of representation. Its lack of legitimacy would come not from “bad States” but because “western countries” manipulate the system to get only what they want from it.

Emilie M. Hafner-Burton • We agree that the UN is facing a crisis of legitimacy and relevance. One reason is precisely that States—all States, not only “western countries”—manipulate the UN system to get what they want from it. That politicking helps explain why the track record of states’ compliance with international human rights norms is quite low. Its central human rights body—the UN Human Rights Council—is responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. That council is by design highly representative, open to balanced participation (through election) by countries from all of the world’s main regions.

Yet that Council is routinely staffed by governments—including some “western countries”—that cannot or do not want to promote even the most basic human rights at home or abroad. The UN’s human rights laws are open to voluntary participation by any country. They too are regularly violated. Laws and rules that are routinely broken lack legitimacy and authority. They risk becoming another venue for cheap human rights talk.

Conectas • As an example of such risk of cheap human rights talk, as you put it, one could mention the Western selectivity in picking only those issues and countries they want to deal with. What is your opinion about this selectivity?

E.M.H. • We agree that the UN has a serious crisis of global representation—the UN Security Council is a case in point. And we agree that countries are selective in the human rights issues they raise and the countries they deal with. This is as a general (and inevitable) problem, not only a western one. When you look at the track record for which countries have been most targeted by the UN’s main human rights body, you see a complex picture. Powerful countries—“western” and non-western alike—have been the favored targets. These countries are also better able to avoid paying consequences for their wrongdoings. Additionally, countries that sit on the UN Human Rights Council are also getting political favoritism: they are less likely to be targeted for human rights violations than their neighbors.

These patterns of favoritism are prevalent at the UN. Another example is the UN Human Rights Committee. This is a treaty body responsible for reviewing claims filed against States (under the first optional protocol to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights). Victims file claims seeking help, but not all victims get a favorable ruling or compensation. Claims that a government has violated due process rights, civil liberties, or political freedoms have been the most likely ones to lead to a ruling in the victim’s favor. Claims about suffrage or the rights of women or children have been much less successful—for some reason, the committee has ruled less often for these victims, who are often among the most underprivileged and underrepresented in society. The UN Human Rights Committee has also found democratic countries (both “western” and non-western) to be in violation more often than other countries—including those where abuses were worse. In short, decision making within the key UN human rights institutions is based not solely or even mainly on the extent of violations of human rights but also on other factors including national and interstate politics. There is no such thing as neutrality in this system and that fact leads to inequalities not only among countries but also among issues and victims.


Conectas • You argue that, in order to protect human rights, we need “steward states” and that they must find ways to use power more effectively. One of the assumptions of this issue of Sur is that, over the past decade, we have seen emerging powers from the South assume an increasingly influential role in the definition of the global human rights agenda. Some might say we are now in a multipolar order, where power is not so clearly divided. Do you agree with it?

E.M.H. • I agree entirely. States are at the center of the human rights problem and so they have an important role to play in the solutions. “Stewards” are actors that have a strong interest in advancing human rights abroad, for whatever reason. Let me be very clear: stewardship is not an entitlement or privilege. It is a nonaligned description of a foreign policy decision that any State or organization can make to use its power in an effort to promote human rights. For a lot of different reasons, many States are already in the business of stewardship outside of the UN system.

While there are potential benefits in using power in the service of human rights, there are also great dangers. Power badly performed can backfire and cause harm, especially to the most vulnerable. And efforts to promote human rights from the outside—whether through brutal means such as war or more peaceful means such as funding—are often seen as foreigners imposing their interests on the rest of the world. Too often, the use of power to promote human rights is illegitimate, based on external motivations or understandings that are out of synch with the needs and perceptions of the people—including the victims— states’ policies are supposed to benefit. That helps explain why so many current efforts by stewards to promote human rights flop—even at times catalyzing anti human rights sentiment.

The solution is not for stewards to avoid using power altogether. That would be devastating for human rights and also unrealistic—states do this because it is in their interest and they are probably not going to stop. The solution is to find ways to use power more effectively and fairly. To partner with, rather than to lecture at, local communities. Steward states need to develop congruence with local beliefs and practices. And they need to engage willing local entrepreneurs, such as NGOs, religious leaders and national human rights institutions over sustained periods.

Conectas • How does the rise of emerging powers affect your “stewardship” argument? What could be the role of countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa in promoting human rights? These countries have serious violations occurring at home – would this prevent them from promoting human rights abroad?

E.M.H. • The emergence of rising powers from the South provides a critical opportunity for human right stewardship to become more representative. Right now, stewards disproportionately target the developing world. The West tells the rest what to do, imposing norms, policies, and even laws. And telling others what to do undermines the legitimacy behind the messages. Illegitimate advocates can’t effectively promote human rights. Human rights promotion will gain more traction if more governments get into the business of responsibly promoting human rights in their region, launching more power for human rights from beyond North America or Europe. Nothing prevents States in other regions or with less than fully democratic political systems from choosing stewardship. This is a decisive moment for countries like Brazil, India and South Africa to reshape the global human rights agenda through more active participation as stewards in their regions. If they decline stewardship, the status quo will continue. Nevertheless, like all stewards, these countries will face the same challenges of promoting rights responsibly faced by Western countries, or they too will cause more harm than good.

Conectas • With Obama’s administration, maybe people thought we would see radical changes in the US foreign policy regarding human rights. As an American citizen, how do you evaluate this? Was there any substantive change? If any, what were the main positive and negative aspects?

E.M.H. • When Obama was elected, there was the hope among many in the human rights community in the US that things were going to change in some fundamental way. And there have been a great many substantive changes compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush. Yet there have also been a great many shortcomings. Obama inherited a country in crisis, with America’s self-image as a global human rights leader in decline. Obama promised big changes that he and his administration have yet to deliver: closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reigning in the use of torture and illegal violations of civil liberties by the US government and military. Guantanamo is still open, the US supported the invasion of Libya, Iraq has collapsed into an intractable civil war with devastating effect on millions of innocents, and Afghanistan is not far behind and little progress has been made on protections for basic liberties in the US or elsewhere. On all of these fronts, the US continues to face serious challenges.

Obama has made some genuine efforts to rebuild America’s image as a world leader on human rights. His administration has taken steps toward improving US credibility through greater engagement on democracy and human rights promotion in some places—think Honduras after the coup in 2009 or Cote d’Ivoire after the election crisis in 2010-11—with a softer, less “preachy” tone than his predecessor. In 2009, the US joined the UN Human Rights Council with an eye toward reform and engagement. And total US government spending in support of democracy and human rights promotion has gone up under Obama.

But his administration also continues to downplay—sometimes altogether ignore—human rights issues in places where the US has prioritized other interests. It is not clear if that is a good or bad thing, but it is entirely consistent with predecessors before him. What is clear is that, partly in response to the rise of emerging powers from the South, the US under Obama no longer displays a “one-size fits all” approach to human rights promotion through its foreign policy. It has taken a softer stance. Democracy and human rights promotion through war is no longer a central doctrine. And his administration has openly recognized the important role for emerging powers in the new global order, focusing more attention and resources to support the development of democracy and civil society in places like Indonesia, more through common commitments than threats.

Conectas • How does the US human rights record affect its legitimacy to promote human rights abroad or, in your terms, to act as a steward?

E.M.H. • We must be very realistic about what a better strategy for stewards like the US can and can’t do. It can make efforts to promote human rights a bit fairer and a bit more effective. It can’t erase the politics from human rights. And it cannot solve the problem of hypocrisy: that steward states are often guilty of abuses themselves. The United States is frequently a target of this criticism, as it leaves its fingerprints around the world in ways that sometimes cause rather than alleviate suffering. There is no excuse for human rights abuses committed by US troops and leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq, or anywhere else, including at home. But just because the United States must do more to prevent human rights violations and punish citizens (including government agents) who commit human rights crimes does not mean it has forfeited its ability to act as a steward—for better or worse it is still trying, if not always successfully, to promote human rights around the world.


Conectas • In your book, you say that local organizations could “broadcast, endorse, and legitimize foreign efforts within their communities.” This is a pragmatic and potentially effective strategy. However, some could argue this is quite a “patronizing” view, as if local organizations were instruments of “superior States´” foreign policies. How do you respond to this criticism?

E.M.H. • This is an astute and important observation. Most victims of human rights abuse need help, and many cannot find that help from their own government or society because the government or society is the source of the problem. Sometimes, movements to protect rights emerge and succeed internally. Other times, help from the outside can make the difference—that, at least, is the idea behind most human rights foreign policy and international activism. But one of the big barriers to human rights promotion is that stewards (whether they are foreign States or organization) are seen as imposing their own interests on the rest of the world, and this imposition is not only unfair, it is often ineffective.

Foreign involvement usually works best when there is local support from human rights stakeholders, not when outsiders impose policies. That means that partnerships with local organizations are usually essential for effective human rights foreign policy. NGOs and other local organizations can attract, shape and help implement these promotion efforts, while raising the odds that those policies resonate with local issues, customs, and practices. They can broadcast, endorse, and legitimize human rights within their community and appeal to local stakeholders without whose support foreign efforts will likely fail. This strategy poses a great threat to human rights abusers because it can unite their local and foreign adversaries and boost the legitimacy of human rights by championing them at the domestic level.

But there are tremendous risks here too. One is that local organizations become instruments of “superior States.” This is the opposite of what is necessary for an effective foreign policy, which is for stewards to partner with—not control—local organizations on their own terms. When local organizations depend on foreign support they must walk a fine line. That support, on the one hand, is a signal that can raise an organization’s status and influence. On the other hand, it can also compromise their reputation or ability to operate in the local settings. Organizations can find their influence diminished when foreign funding or affiliation creates perceptions of collusion. Dependence on foreigners can also distort local social movements by introducing external agendas.

Another danger is that a large role for foreign funding and cooperation can make local governments feel insecure. Aggravated by a rise in local community activism and afraid of losing control, local governments can respond with intimidation that undermines the ability of local organizations to operate safely or effectively. The effects can be felt not only in organizations but also among citizens who, fearing revenge or other consequences, disengage from the movement.

Conectas • Working internationally from the Global South – some organizations, including Conectas, have been working to influence the foreign policies of their countries and other countries. How do you see the role of southern-based groups in working with foreign policy issues? Should this be limited to their “own” countries or they have the legitimacy to monitor and influence other countries’ foreign policies? What challenges do you see for them doing this work? Furthermore, how do you see the relation between organizations created in North (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, among others) and those created and rooted in the South?

E.M.H. • Southern-based groups have a central—and increasingly pivotal—role to play in the promotion of human rights, including through working with foreign policy issues in their own countries and abroad. If a strategy of better stewardship is ever to work, it will depend heavily on the activities of organizations like Conectas to mobilize support for Southern governments to make human rights a local policy priority but also a foreign policy priority. Without the actions of these organizations, stewardship will flounder.

Yet, as far as North-South partnerships are concerned, the many difficulties of partnering across borders are well known. There is no perfect method for managing the tension between the need for foreign stewards to link their efforts into local organizations and communities, and the fact that those very linkages are a potential source of suspicion and misaligned incentives. Yet there may be a few rules of thumb for establishing successful partnerships to ensure that local organizations are not made into instruments of “superior States” but act as autonomous partners. One is resonance between policy goals. Local organizations and stewards should only partner when they seek to advance the same objective—foreigners, whether they be States or activist organizations, should not buy local support. Resonance helps guide the creation of shared interpretations of a norm that legitimates and inspires community support rather than imposing foreign concepts that feel alien. Another is community buy-in. If organizations are entirely funded by external actors, that is where their accountability lies. When some backing comes from the local community, the organization represents that community.

In an ideal world there would be no need for stewards and States would stay out of each other’s business. We don’t live in that world. We need stewards because human rights are not adequately protected. And States are not going to stay out of each other’s business. Stewards are going to keep making efforts, for better or worse, to promote human rights—that is not going to stop. But stewardship can become better, less harmful on innocents, more effective for victims. It can benefit from stronger engagement by the global South, on their own terms, and closer voluntary partnerships with local civil society who are on the front lines in the fight for human rights.

Emilie Hafner-Burton

Emilie Hafner-Burton is a professor at the UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and is the Director of the School’s new Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. Looking across a wide array of issues, including human rights and security, the Laboratory explores when (and why) international laws in fact operate. Additionally, Hafner-Burton’s academic background extends to other renowned universities, such as Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford. /she is the well-known author of the 2013 Princeton University Press-published book Making Human Rights a Reality.

Original in English.

Interview conducted in July 2014 by Lucia Nader (Conectas Human Rights).