America's Human Rights Credibility Gap

Tuesday, November 9, 2021
REUTERS / Eric Miller

Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, Harvard University

Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Cornell William Brooks, Hauser professor of the practice of nonprofit organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at Harvard University, and Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan family professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discuss what the United States could do at home to bolster its credibility and influence when addressing human rights violations abroad.

This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

So we’re delighted to have Cornell William Brooks and Kathryn Sikkink with us today to talk about America’s Human Rights Credibility Gap. We’ve shared their bios with you, so I’ll just give you a few highlights.

Reverend Cornell William Brooks is the Hauser professor of the practice of nonprofit organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the school’s Center for Public Leadership, visiting professor of the practice of prophetic religion and public leadership at the Harvard Divinity School, and visiting professor of social ethics, law, and justice movements at Boston University’s School of Law and School of Theology. And he’s the former president and CEO of the NAACP in addition to being a civil rights attorney, and a fourth-generation ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

So let me turn now to Dr. Kathryn Sikkink. She is Ryan Family professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School where she works on international norms and institutions, transnational advocacy networks, the impact of human rights law and policies, and transitional justice. She’s the author of many publications, including Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics, and she recently just authored—co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Practice What You Preach.” She has been a Fulbright scholar in Argentina, and a Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of many organizations including the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and CFR.

So thank you both for being with us today. We really appreciate your taking the time to discuss this very important topic.

So I thought I would first turn to you, Reverend Brooks, to talk about America’s failure to resolve domestic human rights issues and how that’s affecting our credibility abroad.

BROOKS: So let me just begin with a word of appreciation to you as our moderator, to my colleague, Professor Sikkink, and to everyone who is a part of this meeting, this conversation. So in answer to your question of America’s failure to address domestic human rights abuses and its impact on our credibility, I’m reminded of a hero of the American civil rights movement, a pioneering intellectual by the name of W.E.B. Du Bois, and as president and CEO of the NAACP, I literally sat under a picture of him at his desk, at my desk.

And the reason I think about W.E.B. Du Bois in this moment in answer to your question is I think about 1947 when W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a petition, or what he called an appeal to the world entitled, “A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities and in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress.”

So this sixth chapter appeal prepared over the course of a year prophetically foretold, if you will, two issues that are at the heart of your question, namely, voting rights and policing. That is to say, racialized violence.

So the response to your question is both substantive and symbolic, which is to say if we think about two images, if we think about the image of George Floyd lying on the concrete in Minneapolis with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, and when we think about the insurrectionists storming the Capitol of the United States of America, these images are metaphors for human rights violations in this country.

So when we think about George Floyd in this viralized video that took place in emotional slow motion that was pornographically violent, that, literally, spoke to the world in terms that are measurable.

So in the midst of generationally unprecedented activism, we saw 26 million Americans take to the streets all across the length and breadth of this country in protests, demonstrations, and rallies in which they lifted up the moral assertion that Black lives matter, and in these protests, the majority of protesters were not, in fact, Black.

There were millions more around the world. They were, literally, protesting, demonstrating, in support of Black lives, painfully and poignantly aware of the fact that young Black men are twenty-one times more likely to lose their lives at the hands of the police, painfully and poignantly aware of the fact that police homicide is such a commonplace and horrific tragedy that it is a leading cause of death, and that in this country, certainly, a thousand people or more lose their lives at the hands of the police, disproportionately Black folks—Black men—but not exclusively.

Now, the reason why this speaks to the world in terms of human rights violation is, certainly, spoken well and eloquently in the U.N. High Commissioner’s report on human rights, particularly with respect to Black folks. So, in other words, this report by the High Commissioner catalog in a discursive and in-depth way America’s glaring and apparent hypocrisy, right.

So, in other words, when you ask the question has our credibility been affected, when W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his appeal to the world there were not 26 million people paying attention to his appeal. In fact, his appeal was sold by the NAACP in little pamphlets for $0.50 apiece. Americans and people across the world watched the George Floyd video at no cost.

So this is a metaphor. When we think about voting rights, so across this country, across a lithograph of this republic, we have seen in the wake of Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court decision hobbling the Voting Rights Act, literally, a Machiavellian frenzy of voter disenfranchisement, we’ve seen not only Black people disenfranchised but young people disenfranchised, people with disabilities disenfranchised.

And so America is in the posture and the position of preaching democracy abroad when our democracy is fundamentally flawed, fundamentally broken at home, and in a way that is glaring.

The insurrection becomes a metaphor—that image becomes a metaphor of the degree to which we have ignored voter suppression, lifted up the myth of voter fraud in ways that, literally, destabilize our democracy and pose a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So in answer to your question about our credibility, think about W.E.B. De Bois back in 1947. Think about the image of George Floyd and the image of the insurrections in answer to your question abundantly so, glaringly so. And so the question for us is not the degree to which our credibility has been impacted and affected. The issue for us is what will we do. How will we respond?

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much.

And, Dr. Sikkink, I’m going to pass it over to you to talk about how should we respond. And I know, Reverend Brooks, you can also comment on this because I think it’s really important to talk about what we can do in our communities to bolster our credibility at home so that we can go about foreign policymaking around the world or holding up our values of human rights.

SIKKINK: So, first, let me just echo the thanks to Irina and the Council for this invitation, to say what an honor and pleasure it is, as always, to be speaking along with my colleague, Professor Brooks, and to be speaking to such a distinguished audience. Irina sent ahead the list and it’s really such a pleasure to speak to such a great audience.

So I wanted to—I was so happy that Professor Brooks started with this story of the Du Bois petition because this talk we’re having today doesn’t begin now. It didn’t begin in the 21st century. It begins, really, almost with the formation of the United Nations when—and particularly during the period of decolonization when the delegates were arriving from newly decolonized countries around the world, including in Africa and Asia, and they encountered racial discrimination and prejudice as—in New York City as they searched for housing and as they traveled in the United States. And so the U.S. government was already aware that our credibility was at risk because of our domestic racial injustices.

And just as the situation today, this was an ethical issue then, it was a political issue, and it was perceived as a national security issue because it was the midst of the Cold War. The United States was fighting for the hearts and minds of these newly decolonized countries. And, yet, they were partly losing the war for the hearts and minds because of our domestic discrimination.

So, today, you can say that we are revisiting some of these issues where the issues of racial injustice, the issues that Professor Brooks has just raised, the issues of voter suppression, the issues of mass incarceration, and a variety of other themes are apparent to the world, and we are being watched carefully and being judged by how we will handle this situation today.

And I want to say it’s not as though the world sort of says, we want you to have the perfect republic, right. We begin—I’m speaking today from an article that I published recently with a colleague in Foreign Affairs called “Practice What You Preach: Global Human Rights Leadership Begins at Home.” It’s the article I wrote with my colleague John Shattuck, and we actually begin that piece saying that we both had memories.

John Shattuck remembered a Russian dissident saying this to him, and I remember an Argentine human rights activist, and they both said they started to admire the U.S. more around Watergate. So they, in some ways, admired us more with this very failure in U.S. leadership but because the response of U.S. political leadership and judicial at the time was to take the necessary measures to hold Nixon accountable for his abuses of civil liberties.

And so I think that’s the issue we’re facing today, too. The world is watching us. They’re not expecting us to be free of problems but they want to know how we’re going to grapple and address our problems, and chief among those is, of course, racial justice. And there’s no doubt that today federal civil rights law needs to be broadened and needs to be applied much more aggressively, and this is going to happen in a variety of areas, including housing policy, reform of the criminal justice system, and voting reform.

So  Professor Brooks already made the point that  we have two million people imprisoned, make up—22 percent of the global prison population in the world are imprisoned in U.S. prisons, 60 percent of those are people of color.

So I think our first goal really needs to be to reduce mass incarceration. That can be done in part through sentencing reform and particularly through sentencing reform around drug possession, for example. So these are issues that states are recognizing and starting to deal with and we have some more successful state policies that can serve as models.

The disparate impact of the pandemic on racial minorities and other vulnerable populations has also revealed, I think, the cracks in our system to the world. And there, too, there are a series of reforms that need to happen and some of them are very practical such as increased federal support for after-school programs and for preschool programs, as well as more federal spending on low-income housing.

That’s something, by the way, that was not in the infrastructure bill. OK. The original plan was to have it in the infrastructure bill and it was taken out. So there’s still—there’s work to be done immediately to address the issue of more public housing.

Now, likewise, it’s hard to have credibility toward democracy abroad without voting reform at home. Biden and Pelosi have been stymied now, I think, three times by Republicans voting against the voting reform bill, and so that needs to be—as soon as these two big bills get out of the way the first issue has to be return to the voting reform bill.

And there, again, we know the solutions. They’re being used in some states. We know how to increase voting. We know how not to suppress voting because we have these—we have states that have very high voter turnout and manage not to suppress their voters.

So we know we need universal registration. We know we need enfranchisement of people with 5.2 million Americans with felony convictions that are disenfranchised even after serving their terms, and we know that much has to be done around purging of voter rolls where—

(Telephone rings.) Sorry. We turned off everything but I couldn’t turn off my telephone.

So this will all let us—and finally, we need to address, of course, partisan gerrymandering as well.

This will let us speak with more credibility abroad, and the world is watching the next U.S. steps closely. We have, as I say, a moral and political obligation to address human rights here at home. But we also have—as we did after World War II, we also have national security concerns as we are engaged in geopolitical conflicts in the world with countries like Russia, or like China.

Increasingly, those conflicts are going to turn not just on economics and not just on the military. Those conflicts are going to turn also on our values and what we stand for in the world, and that is the case that needs to be made by simultaneously addressing our domestic human rights issues as we try to promote and protect human rights in the world.

Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both.

Reverend Brooks, do you want to add a few more words just about  what you think we can do to address this at home and—

BROOKS: Sure. So I’d just add to my colleague’s, I think, encyclopedic discursive cataloguing of what needs to be done in this racial reckoning. I would add a couple of things.

With respect to the criminal justice system, let’s go to the point at which people haven’t been convicted of anything. Bail reform, right. So, in other words, we have a system in this country where, literally, our poor people who may be charged with a parking ticket, with some minor offense, who find themselves, literally, in the bowels of the carceral state because they can’t come up with a couple hundred dollars, right, and this is—this represents thousands and thousands of people and this takes place on a daily basis.

And so the point being here is when the United States criticizes China for mass incarcerating a substantial percentage of the population in terms of Uighurs, in terms of minorities, when we look at minorities in this country, people of color, not only mass incarcerated post-conviction but mass incarcerated before they’ve been convicted of anything. So I think that’s a critical point to take note of.

It’s also important to take note of here that there needs to be not merely a comprehensiveness of the response but an urgency. So if we think about the distance between W.E.B. Du Bois’ petition in 1947 and 2021, the fact that we responded categorically to the same challenges in almost the same way—or, I should say, the same challenges speaks to the fact that there’s been both a lack of response and a lack of urgency with respect to the response.

So as Kathryn lifted up the fact that we have a quarter of the world’s prisoners, we may—we cut—let’s know this. We cut the youth incarceration rate by 60 percent—60 percent—even as we stymied, have been stalemated with respect to the adults, and we’ve done so with respect to the children in the course of the last twenty years, particularly the last ten. The point being here is we can move quickly. We can move with a sense of urgency and impactfully and effectively.

So when we speak to the world, it’s not merely saying the right words backed up by the right actions, but backed up with an appropriate timetable.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Now, let’s go to all of you for your questions and comments, and you can either raise—click on the raised hand icon and I will call on you or else you can write your question in the Q&A box. And if you do that, please also give us your affiliation so that I can read that as well.

So I’m going to go first to Marina Buhler-Miko. Please unmute yourself and identify yourself.

BUHLER-MIKO: Yes. I’m Marina Buhler Miko. I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m a member of St. Alban’s Church where I run our Global Missions Committee.

I think the response of this government and, of course, the response of the Trump administration was even worse, to the Israel-Palestine situation is causing us problems with the young people and the older people in just all over the world, not recognizing the occupation, not recognizing Israel as an apartheid state, and doing nothing to try to alleviate any of that and going back to that old idea of two-state solution, which is never going to work since the settlements occupy so much of the West Bank. And  we’re considered hypocrites that we don’t even recognize it, that our media doesn’t recognize it.

So that’s what I have to say.

FASKIANOS: Kathryn, go ahead.

SIKKINK: OK. I wasn’t sure if you wanted us just to begin or—

FASKIANOS: Maybe just a comment. So if you don’t, we can go on, and thank you, Marina, for that intervention.

Let’s go next to Ruth Messinger who has—oh, Kathryn, go ahead.

SIKKINK: I’d be happy to comment. I was just waiting for you to direct the traffic. That’s all here. OK. So what I want to  underscore, I think, what’s the crux of Marina’s point and that is to the degree possible a coherent human rights policy needs to try to be even handed and not hypocritical, right. It needs to try to treat states with equal human rights problems equally, and the United States has failed to do that in the case of Israel.

And we need to try to be coherent and consistent in our human rights policy, speak out against violations wherever they occur, including the violations that are happening in Israel. So thank you for that reminder.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

BROOKS: I would just simply note that among young activists the way in which the United States responds to Israel and the rights of the Palestinians has caused challenges with respect to how young activists respond to other human rights challenges, and civil rights challenges domestically and abroad.

So, in other words, this is not merely a matter of the credibility of the government. It’s also the credibility that we have among young people, right. So it’s a matter of diplomacy and morality and credibility in terms of the government.

But on college campuses when you see students really going after one another, not merely after the government, it’s painful, and so it only underscores the degree to which the things that Professor Sikkink has lifted up are important, not just for the government but, literally, for young people.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Ruth Messinger.

MESSINGER: Hi. I just want to say—this is Ruth Messinger. I’m the former CEO and ongoing global ambassador for American Jewish World Service, and I do a lot of work on racial justice issues.

I just want to say I’ve never heard a more succinct double presentation of this issue and I’m dealing with it all the time. So I want to thank the two of you. I want to urge Irina to figure out a way to actually get this recording out. It’s really spectacular.

But what I want to ask you both is you—obviously, you suggested a long list of things that we need to remedy in this country to have any human rights standing again. I’m interested—I mean, for either of you, and Professor Sikkink, I haven’t read your paper but I will now, but how we get this message to our government.

I don’t just mean by writing articles. I mean whether there are ways for people in academia and faith leaders, with whom I do a great deal of work, to find some access to the White House to say unless and until we—I want to say unless and until we are addressing some of these issues we won’t have standing and credibility again.

But I think I’d even say a step before that and say unless we show some humility along the issues that Du Bois raised, that Frederick Douglass raised, that have been there for a long time, unless we pass H.R. 40, unless we really make clear that we’re concerned about these issues.

And so I’m just wondering from either of your extensive networks, obviously, the Biden administration is really trying, as opposed to the Trump administration. But how do we get this message across about being honest, being humble, announcing some of our own issues? I think this was—I just want this last point—this was in evidence just now in Scotland. I mean, we went with some commitments and some urging, but we acted as if we had all the environmental issues in hand instead of saying  we haven’t conquered this yet, neither have you; let’s try to do it together. I know that’s not a common U.S. practice, but I think it’s what’s needed. And I’m wondering how you see getting people to think—to stop presenting ourselves as the ruling exception on all issues, doing better than anybody else.

FASKIANOS: I think you both should answer that. So you decide who goes first.

SIKKINK: Cornell, you want to—I started last time.

BROOKS: Sure. Sure. I guess, as a practitioner and an advocate, I have some confidence that the case can be best made by literally the people on the frontlines of this work. What I mean by that is using international bodies, particularly international religious bodies, to really call for the kind of humility that I think you lifted up as a model of leadership. And here’s what I mean. So in other words, Professor Sikkink has lifted up the fact that we can use our faults and our failures as tragic opportunities for leadership. Meaning the degree to which we admit we have a problem, and we have a plan, and we have a strategy, and we have the commitment to respond, we win credibility, as a matter of leadership.

So when you have young people and have religious bodies who are able to say to this administration and international fora: We have these challenges, but we have a history, to some measured degree, of surmounting at least some of them in ways that inspire confidence. So if we look at the election of President Barack Obama amid some voter suppression, right, the country—I should say, the globe was inspired by that election. And perhaps we imbibed a bit too much on hope and change, but it did lift our standing in the world. There are other examples. There are other ways in which and other moments in American history in which we’ve confronted challenges, been relatively honest in terms of activists, and literally inspired the globe. That’s what we have to model because, frankly, these politicians are not going to get the message on their own, right?

We could literally dip them in the curricula at the Kennedy School and they will come out unwashed. This is a lesson that can only be taught by literally people who are literally risking themselves bodily in this work, right? So when you see all these young people who’ve been in the streets, who faced tear gas, who faced literally police officers with guns, and they have been a model for leadership. So we got to—we literally have to organize the message, structure the message, create fora for the messages. But Ruth, I think you were spot on. There are ways to do this. This is not unduly complicated.

SIKKINK: So I very much agree with what Cornell just said. And I want to add, when we wrote—when I wrote this piece, we wrote it, of course, in January. And by the time it got published in March we had to change some of the things we said because some of the things we said needed to happen the Biden administration had already done, OK? So that’s interesting. And there are also things that are scheduled already that are going to happen that are very promising. The Biden administration is holding on December 9 and 10 the first of what apparently are going to be two summits for democracy. And I think that’s a powerful thing to do, to gather together democracies of the world and talk about how to promote democracy.

So I think you’re right. When Biden first announced we are back at the head of the table, right, so wanting to reclaim this position at the head of the table. But I think with this summit of democracies there is this sense of, we need to be a coalition of democracies working with others. And then I’m going to raise something that I think is important for human rights, but I think is a controversial issue. So maybe some of the people will speak up. I just spoke yesterday about the situation in Afghanistan and the ending of the war in Afghanistan. And I do think that that—however poorly the exit was handled, that it was a necessary step as part of a move to enhance our credibility in the world with regard to human rights.

And now what has to happen is now that the war in Afghanistan, in terms of our engagement in that war, is over, we now have to address things like closing Guantanamo, for example. There are still thirty-nine people in Guantanamo. There were forty when Biden came into office. He’s only released one. Thirty-nine people held twenty years without any—for the most part without any charges or convictions. So there’s a—it’s a mixture here of things that are happening that are on the right path, and things that are not yet happening and where people need to really continue to push in order to see change.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to a written question from Simran Jeet Singh, who’s the executive director for the Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project. He agrees with so much of what you’ve shared today and thanks you for sharing your time and expertise.

So often foreign governments and leaders deflect legitimate human rights critiques coming from the U.S. by pointing to our shortcomings here—take care of your own home before you criticize others. It’s another way of approaching what you’ve discussed here. How would you respond to attempts to dismiss or negate such reactions?

So I think we’ll go first to William, Cornell.

BROOKS: Sure. Sure. It’s a variation on where I lifted up in response to the previous question, namely taking the ways in which we’re responding to our own challenges as models for—models, if you will, of our sincerity, diplomatically speaking, and intention, as opposed to necessarily models for others to mechanistically follow. So, for example, when deign to be critical of other countries in terms of their elections, in terms of the way they run their democracies, or the lack thereof, to point to the ways in which we have endeavored to right this democracy—in other words, the litigation that has resulted in some protections with respect to voting rights. Litigation being mounted not just with respect to race, but with—race and the Fourteenth Amendment, but generation with respect to the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, that is to say protecting the rights of young people, people with disabilities, speaking about the innovations in terms of voting, in terms of, same-day voting, automatic voting, the use of technology, early voting.

So in other words, we have an incomplete picture, as in more to be done. But there are things that are being done. So pointing to the things that are being done, taking note of the things that are not being done, and messaging that we are in fact all in this together. In the same way that our fates are joined and yoked with respect to the climate, with respect to democracy our fates are also yoked and joined. So we can’t be dishonest about what we’re not doing, but we can be honest about what we are doing. And there’s a tremendous amount of innovation with respect to young activists, advocates around the country, experiments in democracy that are worthy of note and that we should use as inspiration and for emulation.

SIKKINK: So this is why our article basically says we need to do both of these simultaneously. We can’t just check out from the world leadership for the many years it would take to get our own house in order, right? Because, one, our allies don’t want us to do that, it’s not good for the world for the United States to go into isolationism. So we have to do both simultaneously. And we are starting to do that. The United States had withdrawn from the Human Rights Council, has now run again, and has been re-elected to the Human Rights Council. It’s an imperfect institution, but it’s a better institution with the United States in it than with the United States out of it, despite all of our—as we talked about—all of the flaws we have in our own system.

And so I just think that’s the fine line that we have to walk. And a number of the countries who say who are you to talk about human rights are—that’s a rhetorical strategy, in fact. And many of our—I think our genuine allies in the campaigns for democracy and human rights in the world have welcomed the United States to come back and to be part of this struggle. But I completely agree with what Cornell just said about the importance of doing so with humility and not with hubris.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to a raised hand from Syed Sayeed.

SAYEED: Good afternoon. And once again, I thank the Council on Foreign Relations, and Irina, and both speakers for their outstanding contribution to the issue.

I just wanted to bring out one aspect of this entire national issue and international issue about human rights abuses and all of that. I think in the present situation what we need is to highlight the roles that were played by historical people, like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, and people from Africa. There are remarkable individuals who have played an extremely significant and historically, changing conditions.

So I think what we really need at this point in all communities in all nations, that we focus on a positive approach to doing things in the worst of situations, without engaging in argumentation and battles, and things like that. So those role models I think need to be highlighted. And what they did in the worst of circumstances needs to be analyzed in a way that our younger generation can see the potential that’s there for them to sort of take inspiration from there and do something in the world without waiting for recognition or anything to change circumstances within their communities, within their neighborhoods, and of course, nationally and internationally. Thank you.

SIKKINK: Cornell.

BROOKS: Yeah. So I’m really fascinated by this question because with the essential advent of digital activism, right, so the proliferation of all these platforms in terms of YouTube, and Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter, and TikTok, you have this generation of young people who can literally hold bits of history at a moment’s notice, and in essentially social media nanoseconds. One of the things I teach at the Kennedy School is something that religious people do, which is to say they have a hermeneutic of history, right? So religious people will—Christians will talk about heilsgeschichte, salvation history.

Well, in terms of social justice, the ways in which we can use history, we can look at figures like Martin Luther King, and Howard Thurman, and Gandhi, and Thoreau, but also people close at hand, people in our communities, and tell those stories, use those histories in ways that create a sense of agency, a sense of resilience. So in this moment, to your point, Syed, I think it’s important for us to literally invest in the cultivation, the interpretation, the understanding of history in ways that not merely inform us at a distance—an analytic distance, but also inform and inspire us, right?

This is really, really important in this moment because some of the biggest culture wars in our societies have everything to do with is history being instrumentalized or is it being weaponized, right? In other words, is the 1619 Project about empowerment or is it about power over someone else in ways that are debilitating? What I want to emphasize that’s really, really important is we have an opportunity to really use history to bring generations together and empower generations. That requires investment, it requires bridging sometimes a false chasm, dichotomy between the academy, activism, and advocates in the streets, and the distance between generations.

So your question is a powerful one. It’s a powerful one in terms of the answer. The answer to that question has to do with not merely what we tell young people, but what we show, and what we invest in, and what we open ourselves to.


SIKKINK: I was going to say, I can’t imagine a better answer than what Cornell just gave. I just want to say, as a postscript, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is look at the history of human rights—global human rights. Because there’s sometimes the misunderstanding of people who say, oh, human rights just comes from the Global North, from the United States and Western Europe, and they’ve just imposed that inappropriate model on countries that are no—have no culture interest in human rights. I mean, people—you hear this from people from the Global South saying that’s all cultural imposition.

And one of the things you do if you look at the history of human rights, is you find there are far more diverse origins to global human rights advocacy and to global human rights law than are captured by that model. But somehow people have been forgotten. So I’ve done work where I’ve tried to capture a number of Latin American leaders who contributed to the human rights language in the U.N. Charter, for example, that wouldn’t be there if it had not been for their actions. Including important women leaders about women’s rights issues. Women leaders from India. Madam Pandit, who was Nehru’s sister, and who was the first woman to preside over the U.N. General Assembly, was a powerful voice for women’s rights and for the rights of decolonization. And so—and it goes on and on. So I think it’s important to rediscover some of these histories and lift up these diverse figures who can be role models.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We’re going to go next to Reverend Dr. George Gatgounis.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll now go to the reverend.

FASKIANOS: And please unmute yourself.

We’re still—you’re still muted, and I don’t think—Audrey, I don’t think we can unmute from our side. Can we?

OPERATOR: No. We’ve sent the prompt, if you’re able to click it.

FASKIANOS: OK. So maybe you could type your question or comment in the Q&A box. And if there are other questions, please.

So I see in the chat that Holly Atkinson has asked about women’s rights, particular the attack on women’s reproductive rights. Dr. Atkinson with the CUNY School of Medicine. And, Kathryn, did you say one of the early policies of the Biden administration was to suspend the global gag rule that the Trump administration had imposed. And just to pick up on this, you said that the—you had to revise your article because the Biden administration did a few things that you had already recommended and had more on the way. What are the things—and this is to both of you, maybe we can start to Kathryn—that they need to do next in your view?

SIKKINK: OK. Well, I mentioned that they had suspended the global gag rule. We’d also recommended that they do more to cooperate with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Trump administration, again, had pulled funding from those institutions, accusing them, I think falsely, of being—of working in favor of women’s reproductive rights, OK? Working—put it this way, of being pro-abortion. And so the—one of the issues that we wanted to focus on was that the Biden administration has taken some things—promotion of LGBTQ rights internationally, for example, there have been some initiatives.

But there are some glaring issues still. And if I may—if I may just—one of the glaring issues is around any accountability for U.S. past torture policies. I’ve just—just last week there was a state secret case before the U.S. Supreme Court. And it was a case of U.S. v. Zubaydah. Zubaydah was one of the people accused of being an al-Qaida high-level person. He was not. He was taken to many black sites. He was viciously tortured, including he was water boarded eighty times. And he’s been held in Guantanamo without charge for many, many years. And the—it’s a complicated story—but the Polish government wanted to have testimony from the psychologists Mitchell and Jessen, who had devised the CIA torture policy and who supervised the torture of this individual, Abu Zubaydah. And the Biden administration followed the Trump administration in trying to say this was a state secret. They would not allow these guys to testify because it was a state secret.

And I was one of the people who did a—who helped organize an amicus brief in that case. And one of the things we said is: This is not a state secret. This is—everyone knows this. We recently had—in the military commissions we’ve had a guy give testimony about his torture. Mitchell and Jessen wrote a book about their experience. I mean, this is the best well-known state secret. And the Supreme Court justice asked very skeptical questions about the Biden administration decision to try to pretend this was still a state secret. So there’s some blind spots, and accountability for past torture is one of them.

 FASKIANOS: Cornell.

BROOKS: There’s a saying among lawyers, asked and answered. The question was asked and brilliantly answered. So I don’t have anything else to add on that point.

FASKIANOS: OK. So I’m going to try—let’s try to go again to Dr. Gatgounis and see if he can unmute himself. And it does not look like that is happening. Too bad. OK. (Laughs.) So we will move on.

So, again, if other people have questions. I mean, as Ruth said, you have covered so much succinctly that it’s—I think you’ve stymied the group. But there must be—we have time for a couple more questions. So I encourage you—somebody to raise their hand. Or I will just call on people, if I know the group. (Laughter.) So I can be what I’ve always wanted to be, a professor, and call out. And, oh, Tom Walsh has raised his hand. Thank you, Tom. (Laughs.)

WALSH: OK, hi. Can you hear me, OK?

FASKIANOS: We can. Thank you.

WALSH: Yeah. Thank you, Irina. Thank you to these two excellent presenters. And a great conversation/discussion.

I hope this is not some—I arrived a little late, so if you covered this just move on. But I started thinking about the meaning of justice itself. And we’re dealing with the category of justice called social justice. And justice is—when you unpack it, as both of you know, all of you know, it’s extremely complex. We can talk about economic justice, criminal justice, political justice. People like John Rawls would write volumes about political justice alone. And we have social justice.

And I guess my simple point is that we use general categories and concepts, but they are themselves multiplicities. And that’s why there’s often disagreement. Or we seem to kind of cut the difficult conversation short by associating a particular form of—like, economic justice obviously means X, Y, and Z. Whereas, it might also be possible for a person to see it as meaning A, B, and C.

So again, it’s kind of a question about justice and why we have these intractable arguments, in some ways because maybe we don’t define the terms as carefully as we should. For what it’s worth, that’s my thought for the day. And thank you again for this great discussion—and important discussion.

FASKIANOS: Cornell, do you want to start? Oh, Kathryn, you are muted. You both are muted. OK, something happened. Sorry about that little technical glitch. That was a little interesting, but here we are. We got—

SIKKINK: Here we are!

FASKIANOS: The wonders of Zoom.

BROOKS: And the question went to essentially definitions of justice.

SIKKINK: Mmm hmm.


SIKKINK: I was going to say, I teach a course next semester called “International Law and Global Justice.’ And one of the first things we do is we grapple exactly with these different meanings of justice. And there’s a problem, which is justice means so many things that you might think it means—it means too many things. But I tried to separate them into three major categories of justice. Justice as accountability, justice as fairness—and that’s sort of the Rawls tradition that you mention—and then justice as equality. And show how people exactly the way Thomas Walsh just said, people coming from one tradition of justice, justice as fairness, might arrive at a very different understanding of the just out come than somebody coming at it with the justice as equality. So, yes, your point is very well taken.

BROOKS: If I could—if I could just maybe take a step back from the question. Many of these questions of justice are presented not philosophically but bodily, right? So meaning the racial reckoning that George Floyd’s murder precipitated or hastened had everything to do with the fact that we were confronted with literally a body. And if you look at the way in which the high commissioner’s report responded, by looking at that murder in the context of globalized, colonialized racial violence, noting where—it’s place in history, policing, housing, disparities with respect to education.

The reason I’m taking note of this is because certainly there are many philosophical approaches. But what I have found over the course of the twenty-five-plus years of doing this work as a litigator, as a minister, is there are times in which we are literally presented with an urgent question in the form of a body. In the context of social media, the question is posed in terms of a human being reduced to a hashtag. The point I’m trying to make here is our response can be multifaceted and our response can be multidisciplinary. But at the end of the day, when we look at these very concrete challenges, the—how do you say—philosophical limitations need not impede our legal and policy responses with a sense of urgency, right, and a sense of moral imagination.

And what that means is, look at certainly the human rights report, but any of the reports of the major civil rights organizations. Many of the best media treatments of, say, the issues unleashed in terms of George Floyd’s murder speak to a need for a multivalent response, a multidisciplinary response, a multisystem response. The point I want to just lift up here is if you note the distinctions drawn by older people and by younger people. Younger people say, we got to respond to these problems in this way, this way, this way. And they see no need, right, for any—as Martin Luther King put it—any paralysis for analysis. They see no need to essentially have to figure out the categories before acting decisively.

And the reason I want to note this is because literally the question is so often presented not philosophically. As somebody trained in systematic theology and social ethics, but who’s literally arrived at the doorstep of some of these tragedies, sometimes, we don’t get to wait. We have to move. We have to act. We have to behave in ways that are morally decisive. I just wanted to note that, rather parenthetically.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Jim Gilchrist.

GILCHRIST: HI. Jim Gilchrist. Carnegie Mellon University. Thank you both.

Reinhold Niebuhr famously pointed out that people tend to act less morally in collectives than they do individually. People will do things together that they would not do by themselves. And he wrote a lot about how nationalism is, among other things, a sort of collective egoism. So my question is when you’ve talked about humility, and I fully agree that would be a great thing, can you point to instances of great nations acting with humility? And what would a politically feasible humility look like in 2021 or 2022 for the United States? It’s a little hard to picture what sort of national humility, for example, the president of the United States might offer, that would be politically acceptable.

FASKIANOS: Kathryn, do you want to start?

SIKKINK: Well, for example, this is just a small thing, but I think that Biden could have gotten away with not saying we’re back at the head of the table. I think he could have gotten away—I don’t think people were parsing his statements so much. He could have said, we’re back at the table. We’re back with our allies. We’re part of this struggle, instead of insisting on reclaiming a leadership role that people were a bit skeptical about given—people fear. What they fear is that you’re back at the table, and then you’re gone from the table again four years later. And so there is this distrust. Our allies want us back at the table, they want us working for human rights, but they’re worried.

And so I think at least slight—a slight recognition that there might be some worry about what next wouldn’t be politically damaging nationally, which is kind of what you’re saying, right? I mean, James, are you saying that great powers can’t—it would be too damaging for a leader to say—to express any humility?

GILCHRIST: I’m not saying it would be too damaging, I’m just saying that it’s a rare phenomenon. And what would it look like for a leader of this country to exhibit the sort of humility that you’re calling for? And again, I agree with that. I think that’d be a wonderful model. But anytime anybody suggests that the United States is anything less than exemplary in its virtue, there tends to be a massive pushback. So Obama got in trouble for suggesting some of that. So I’m just curious, can you point to examples where a great power has acted with a kind of humility that has inspired other nations? And then what would that look like here and now?

BROOKS: Hmm. I’m not sure I can give you an example of a nation that’s inspired other nations in terms of an act of humility. What I could imagine is if you look at the response to the Chauvin conviction, namely there was a commendation of the prosecutors, the jury for their work, and this outcome, in terms of holding one police officer accountable for a horrific crime captured on video. The response to that I think, by President Biden and others, was: This does not solve the problem, but it is the right response to the problem. The challenge became that the humility was never leveraged, right? Meaning that we never went from having done this, we can yet do this.

Had the president said, I’m willing to use—I’m willing to amend or create an exception for the filibuster to get the George Floyd Act through Congress, I’m willing to acknowledge the flaws, the mistakes, the challenges of this democracy with respect to policing and the carceral state, but we can take this step. The point is not merely to be humble, but to act decisively and to leverage humility in ways that inspire people. It’s the absence of the latter that causes a lack of appreciation for the former.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both. There’s another question in the chat but, unfortunately, we are out of time, and we will just have to take up clean environments and rights of water on another call. So we’ll have to dedicate a whole conversation to that important topic. So, Cornell and Kathryn, thank you very much for being with us. This is a really wonderful way to spend this hour with you. We really appreciate your taking time from your busy schedules and all the work that you have done.

I encourage you all, if you’re not already following Cornell’s work on Twitter at @cornellwbrooks and Kathryn’s work at @kathryn_sikkink. So please do follow them there. We will send out the link to this video and the transcript, as well as a link to Kathryn’s article, and anything else, Cornell, that you would like us to include that you think would further deepen the understanding of these important issues. And, again, please follow us on our Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion. And as always, we encourage you to send us emails of your suggestions for topics, and speakers, and other ways that we can help with the important work that you’re doing in your communities. Email us at [email protected].

So thank you all again, and thank you both. We really appreciate it.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SIKKINK: Our pleasure. My pleasure. It was great.

FASKIANOS: Take care.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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