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date: 24 April 2017

What Helps Protect Human Rights: Human Rights Theory and Evidence

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Human rights violations occur in every state around the world. Since the end of World War II, the international community has attempted to change state practices, to protect rather than violate human rights. States have used economic policy, international law-making, and even military intervention to try to improve human rights practices, but the effectiveness of these approaches in protecting human rights varies widely. What can states and the international community do to protect human rights?

To prevent human rights violations, it is first necessary to understand why states choose to repress their own citizens. States abuse human rights because they do not have the capacity to handle political protest, because they cannot provide government services, because they do not want to grant citizens political rights, or because state agents have been trained to find these abuses excusable and acceptable. The causes of political repression are linked to the effectiveness of strategies aimed at protecting human rights. The existing literature and many critics have argued that efforts aimed at protecting human rights are largely unsuccessful, and that lack of success often results from attempting to impose change without addressing the reason these violations occur.

Worse still, some of these efforts are linked to a dramatic worsening of human rights conditions. International efforts, including the imposition of economic sanctions, the deployment of peace-keeping missions, and the ratification of human rights treaties, have all been linked to worsening human rights conditions. However, these same efforts have been successful when employed under the right conditions. This discrepancy, shown in the existing literature, highlights the need to understand a state’s motivations for repressing their citizens before the international community intervenes in the defense of human rights. It is possible to protect human rights, but there is no universal solution to preventing human rights abuses.