Human rights in the world: SGIS panelists optimistic despite challenges

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

After a decades-long global decline in democracy, the next American president’s ideals and pragmatic approach loom large for the trajectory of human rights worldwide. But no singular solution is obvious as issues of human rights grow out of almost every other policy area and usually require complex multilateral approaches.

Panelists remained optimistic, however, in the “State of Democracy and Human Rights in the World” session during the IU School of Global and International Studies conference “America’s Role in the World: Issues Facing the Next President. ”

Global and International Studies Building

Global and International Studies Building

Panelists included experts on human rights in Africa, China and Russia: Gardner Bovingdon, associate professor of Central Eurasian studies; Emma Gilligan, associate professor in SGIS; Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First; and Michelle Moyd, associate professor in the Department of History.

“Human rights are often viewed by foreign policy officials just as something nice to have,” said panel moderator Christiana Ochoa, professor of law and Charles L Whistler Faculty Fellow at the Maurer School of Law.  “But I would like to posit that virtually all of the major foreign policy challenges are the result of the failure to respect human rights.”

Massimino posed three primary challenges to the flourishing of global human rights: the global refugee crisis, violent extremism and authoritarian governance.

“We need a blueprint for a bilateral advancement between the U.S. and the world,” Massimino said. “We have to approach this with great humility. The U.S. can only lead effectively when we lead by example.”

In creating this blueprint, policymakers must consider the connection between poverty and the rise of extremism, Moyd said.

“Poverty and all the factors that come along with it are often driven by or exacerbated by the violence by groups like Al Shabaab,” Moyd said, referring to the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Extremist groups continue to grow in Eastern Africa, she said, by capitalizing on a lack of opportunities for youth and purported ideas that Islam is on a global defensive and young men have a stake in trying to assert a particular Muslim identity.

To address these African issues, the next administration must adopt a 21st century understanding of Africa as a modern and urban place, Moyd said.

Sino-American relations remain strained due to a history of similarly failed unilateral strategies. Instead of achieving practical policy conversations, the U.S. tried to lecture the Chinese, prompting a natural response of stubbornness, Bovingdon said.

“For a long time, U.S. policy has had ideals but not been pragmatic,” Bovingdon said.

China and Russia present similar international policy problems, said Gilligan, an authority on contemporary Russia. Both countries continue to curb the work of internal and foreign human rights organizations through legislative and police crackdowns.

Despite the challenges, Gilligan remains optimistic as internal organizations continue to innovate and find ways to challenge the restrictive laws. And while Russian laws limit the ability of foreign organizations to support political activity, Gilligan pointed to effective internal civil disobedience campaigns.

“We have to make sure that we can keep these organizations alive, keep them functioning and keep their work as public as possible,” Gilligan said. “This means finding ways to support them, even if we can’t monetarily support them.”

Ochoa lauded the optimism of the panelists, despite the odds stacked against human rights in much of Africa, China and Russia.

“The arc of history may bend toward justice, but only if you make it bend,” Massimino said. “Change only comes from within societies. I see America’s role in the world as fostering that.”

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