Policy, legal scholar Kathryn A. Sikkink shares collaborative history of international human rights


The creation and codification of internationally protected human rights is often criticized for excluding certain voices from the conversation. But Kathryn A. Sikkink has dedicated her life’s work to discovering how much collaboration actually ensued. 

Sikkink delivered her lecture, titled “Exploring the Diverse Origins of International Human Rights,” on Friday, July 15, in the Hall of Philosophy, closing Week Three’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Spirituality of Human Rights.”

As a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Law School, Sikkink works to guide the understanding of international human rights and their diverse origins. She has published several books, including International Norms, Moral Psychology and Neuroscience; The Hidden Face of Rights: Toward a Politics of Responsibilities; Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century; and The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance

Sikkink does not normally discuss the spirituality of human rights at lectures. However, she said spirituality is intimately connected to the years-long research she has conducted on the history of human rights.

“I’ve worked on the history, legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights movements, human rights institutions and human rights law,” Sikkink said. “And so, it is a logical step for me to think more deeply about the spirituality of human rights.”

People have many different ideas of what the term “spirituality” truly means and represents.

“One definition of spirituality is this sensitivity or attachment to religious values,” she said. “But more commonly, I think it refers to a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and what issues that really make our life meaningful.”

Human rights can possess a similar meaning to spirituality, and their true role can be debated and differentiated by each individual. 

While human rights have a long history of both national and international protection, Sikkink focused her lecture on the formation of international, universal human rights. 

“(The formation of internationally protected human rights) does not necessarily come only from the great powers or from France or the United States,” she said. “It comes from more diverse audiences and participants. And it’s a moment where different religious traditions have a very important role to play.”

Most faiths believe all human beings are endowed with basic human rights for the entirety of their Earthly existence. Yet in some areas, human rights may be recognized, but the ability to possess and live with those rights have been stripped away.

“One of the most devastating things about human rights is that we simultaneously recognize and embed them in international law, and yet, there’s this huge gap between people having rights and people actually being able to enjoy those rights,” Sikkink said. 

There can often be a misconception, according to Sikkink, that human rights were born from the Global North to be imposed on the people of the Global South without their input or assent. 

“(After) over almost 15 years of studying the history of human rights, (I’d like to) say that is a flawed notion. It’s a flawed notion,” she said. “And it’s a notion that I take very, very personally.” 

Sikkink studied abroad in South America as a college student. She began working as an intern, and later became a staff member, for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“Many human rights demands came from people, actual victims of human rights violations, in Latin America,” she said. “And so for me to hear people (say), ‘Human rights come from the Global North, and the people of Latin America never would have thought of human rights if Jimmy Carter hadn’t told them in 1976,’ is just, to me, so deeply contrary to my lived experience that I felt the need to go and excavate the history of human rights and find out whether this was true or not.”

To understand who was involved with the formation and groundwork of international human rights, Sikkink invited audience members into a journey of the past, starting with the Dumbarton Oaks conference. 

The 1944 conference included only four representatives for China, the Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom. These countries drafted proposals for what would become the United Nations Charter. 

“The Chinese representative wanted to (include the protection of human rights) in that draft, about racial and ethnic discrimination, because he knew that Chinese people around the world had suffered discrimination,” Sikkink said. “… And even that request by China to put one article about racial discrimination in the draft was not accepted by the other great powers.” 

Due to the United Kingdom’s imperial power and Jim Crow laws in the United States, this request was denied, and the term “human rights” was only used once in this draft.

In 1945, 50 countries gathered in San Francisco to finish the Dumbarton Oaks draft and implement it as the U.N. Charter.

“Of the 50 countries that were there, 18 of them were from what we’d call today the Global North,” Sikkink said. “Thirty-one, or 62%, were countries from what today we’d call the Global South. This included 20 countries from Latin America.”

The Latin American countries wanted to add an appendix to the charter that included the definition of human rights.

“Now, needless to say, they failed,” Sikkink said. “… But they did succeed in really enhancing attention to human rights in the U.N. Charter.”

Non-government organizations are standardly allowed in U.N. meetings in 2022. But the first time they were given a seat at the table, 42 NGOs were invited to share their missions and core messages on anything from civility to religious freedom to human rights.

With the partnership of NGOs and Latin American countries, the term human rights was added to the charter seven times.

“One of the most important (sections) is the only commission that has (explicitly) called for (countries) to set up a Human Rights Commission,” Sikkink said. “And all the future work of the U.N. on human rights is based on that language.”

But the U.N. Charter was still missing key definitions of what human rights actually protect, despite the term appearing in the charter. 

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not the first intergovernmental Declaration of Rights,” Sikkink said. “The first (general international human rights instrument) was something called the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man.” 

This declaration was created by Latin American countries, and it included both rights and duties. Some of the duties include educating oneself and one’s family, a belief from Latin American tradition. 

“The negotiation of these initial declarations of human rights (included) people from many different traditions, including religious traditions, to bring forward their beliefs and try to gather acceptance for those beliefs,” she said. 

Because nearly all major religions have understandings of human dignity, these core values were implemented during the development of the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man.

Eight months after this declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights finished the drafting stage, was presented to the U.N. General Assembly, and passed. But Sikkink said the drafting process tells an interesting story.

“All of us have heard about Eleanor Roosevelt, the chair of the drafting committee. She played a very important role. Some of us have heard of René Cassin, the great French philosopher jurist, who the French want to call the ‘Father of Human Rights,’ ” she said. “But how many of you have heard of the three or four other most important people drafting that document?”

Some of these notable people include Peng Chun Chang, the representative of nationalist China, Charles Habib Malik, the representative of the Maronite Christian community in Lebanon, and Hernán Santa Cruz, a Chilean who represented socialist Latin American tradition. 

“(Cruz) was the person who made sure that economic, social and cultural rights, economic and social rights particularly, got into the Universal Declaration,” Sikkink said. 

The last influential person Sikkink mentioned was Hansa Mehta, the delegate from India and a feminist. Mehta persistently lobbied to change one of the universal declarations that said, “All men are born free in dignity and rights” to say “All human beings are born free in dignity and rights.”

“Every single word, every single article in the Universal Declaration was debated over and over again by all the delegates present,” Sikkink said. “… When we’re choosing our values, for me, choosing ideas that are the result of deliberation among many people around the world, it’s really crucial.” 

Many treaties have been ratified since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most recent being the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; yet the United States still has not ratified this treaty. 

“Even when Bob Dole went onto the floor of the Senate in his wheelchair to call on his Republican colleagues to support this, they did not get the votes,” Sikkink said. “We have to have two-thirds of the U.S. Senate in a presidential system — that’s the hardest ratification rules in the world.”

Even when treaties are ratified, Sikkink said it is debated if these declarations are being translated into practice. But understanding the roots and meanings of these international human rights protections “provides one of the most important and morally defensible  starting places for talking about progressive change in the world.”

These protections do not eliminate conflict in the world, but Sikkink said they represent deliberate nonviolence and noncoercive tactics. They represent triumph after struggle and injustice. They are the guidelines for global governance and change, promoting interconnectedness to all global citizens.

“Human rights helps me and many others in the world feel a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it gives meaning to life,” she said.

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The author Alyssa Bump

Alyssa Bump is a life-long Western New Yorker, but this is her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua. She is eager to recap the Interfaith Lecture Series while broadening her perspective of the human experience. Alyssa is a senior at SUNY Fredonia, majoring in journalism and public relations with a minor in professional writing. As editor-in-chief of her college newspaper, The Leader, Alyssa focuses on becoming a compelling storyteller and an innovative leader.