In considering the relationship between a foreign policy of restraint and human rights, I am reminded of a debate I have witnessed often in my career. This is the frequently misguided way that I have seen peace and human rights pitted against each other.
Too often, the U.S. government, media figures and even other civil society actors have invoked human rights language to justify disastrously militarized foreign policy decisions undertaken primarily for other reasons, such as geopolitical maneuvering, the maintenance of military primacy, or capitalist interests.
I have also seen legitimate human rights concerns instrumentalized to reject diplomatic engagement with repressive regimes. Every peace advocate has been asked, “But what about their human rights record?” when we insist there is a diplomatic pathway to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, to reduce tensions with North Korea, or to jointly confront the climate crisis with China.
Those who urge restraint in the deployment of militarized policies and urge full use of non–violent tools of engagement and diplomacy in such instances are therefore met with accusations of siding with authoritarians or not caring about human rights. But I am a human rights legal scholar, and also an anti–war advocate, and these are not dueling identities to me. Rather, they are one and the same.
I wholeheartedly reject the “peace vs. human rights” dichotomy. It stands on flimsy premises. For one thing, it holds the United States out as a global disciplinarian. This erases the uncomfortable reality that the United States is itself a serial rights abuser that flouts international norms with impunity in its quest for primacy. It rings a bit hollow to sound the alarm about rights abuses in Cuba while simultaneously maintaining an indefinite detention camp in Cuba, for example.
Additionally, to accept such a binary framing is to believe that diplomacy is a reward that should only be granted if and when other governments’ human rights practices align with our expectations. The usually unspoken assumption is that isolating, threatening, or punishing the foreign government will persuade it to change its ways.
But there is little evidence to support this theory of change. What success stories make us think that the lives of everyday people are improved in the long term when the United States leads with military force, imposes crippling sanctions and travel bans, or refuses to talk to other leaders? So many of these policies have at best not helped and at worst done significant lasting additional damage.
Diplomacy is not a gift or a stamp of endorsement, it is simply a tool of statecraft that requires making and extracting certain concessions in the service of foreign policy goals. Moreover, it cannot possibly be the case that our government is sincerely committed to only engaging with states that maintain sparkling human rights records. Otherwise we would not be seeing a fervent attempt by the Biden administration to secure a defense pact with Saudi Arabia, and Israel would not be the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II.
Conversely, militarism saps the possibility of full respect for human rights. Even beyond the lives unjustly lost in conflict, perceived threats to national security are also frequently invoked by governments to justify rollbacks of rights and overspending on arms at the expense of their people’s human needs. A lack of peaceful and diplomatic engagement between states also reduces international people–to–people exchanges and social and economic opportunities. And in an international human rights system that depends on horizontal engagement between governments for monitoring and enforcement, a failure to engage in robust diplomacy narrows opportunities for the parties to build credibility and trust between their governments, verify accurate information, and communicate directly in ways that could bolster momentum and leverage toward greater human rights progress.
Seventy–five years ago this week, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressed that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. More recently, international support for a collective “right to peace” has been gaining momentum, with Africa leading the way in enshrining this right into international law. In 2016, the UN General Assembly resolved that “everyone has the right to enjoy peace such that all human rights are promoted and protected and development is fully realized.”
In my view, the search for a more restrained, less militarized, and more diplomacy-focused foreign policy does not stand in contradiction to human rights advocacy. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing.