Jonathan Cohn

Kathryn Sikkink’s “Human Rights: Advancing the Frontier of Emancipation” offers some welcome optimism at a time when most of what’s on the news might lead one to despair. Sikkink’s optimism stems from the possibilities within the human rights framework and the human rights movement—the optimism of knowing that victories are possible, while knowing fully well that they are never assured.

One of the most compelling parts of her essay was the discussion of the expansiveness of the human rights framework as a tool for emancipation. She writes, “Human rights are the most effective tools of emancipation that emerged during the twentieth century not only because the alternative visions have failed, but also because human rights norms contain the seeds of their own expansion. Indeed, the boundaries of human rights have widened over time to include an ever-larger set of human entitlements.”

This expansiveness was on display last month when officials from 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean signed a binding pact with measures to protect land defenders, who have faced increasing risk throughout the region. The new treaty requires states to “guarantee a safe and enabling environment for persons, groups and organisations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters.”

The treaty is nominally binding. But what will happen to countries that don’t comply? The “pink tide” that once brought a wave of progressive change in Latin America is in recession, and it’s unclear whether the revanchist neoliberal governments now on the rise would care much to follow through and hold the rights-abusing extractive companies accountable. But even if compliance leaves something to be desired, the commitment can provide activists a recourse and compel further action. And it can inspire further, greater demands.

On a similar front, some UN officials are hoping to codify the right to a healthy environment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 70 years ago, doesn’t mention the environment. It doesn’t discuss a right to clean air or clean water; if it was signed thirty years later, it likely would have. But the foundational “right to life” is meaningless if it does not also include a right to safe and clean environment, one of the most basic necessities of life.

A right to a clean environment can be a powerful tool in climate advocacy. Massachusetts, where I live now, has such a right built into the state constitution: “The people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment; and the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources is hereby declared to be a public purpose.” This right has helped activists and advocates in court battles. Court cases are defensive measures. They can’t always undo a human rights violation committed, but they can prevent future occurrences.

Any discussion of rights leaves one with a key question: If countries violate rights with impunity, how valuable is the codification of such rights in the first place? I’d argue that there is value in the process. The existence of rights on paper at least gives the possibility of enforcement, and the organizing, mobilizing, lobbying, etc., work that secures those rights on paper is the same work necessary to give those words meaning on the ground. As anyone who has worked on an issue or electoral campaign knows, win or lose, one of the greatest values of the campaign is the connections you make, the lessons you learn, and the resolve you get to fight harder and demand more the next time.

Jonathan Cohn

Jonathan Cohn is the Managing Editor of the Great Transition Initiative and the moderator of the corresponding Great Transition Network.

Cite as Jonathan Cohn, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Human Rights," Great Transition Initiative (April 2018),

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