Kathryn Sikkink

Kathryn Sikkink: Closing Remarks

Sikkink began by recalling a passage from her book, Activists Beyond Borders:

At the core of network activity is the production, exchange, and strategic use of information. This ability may seem inconsequential in the face of the economic, political, or military might of other global actors. But by overcoming the deliberate suppression of information that sustains many abuses of power, networks can help reframe international and domestic debates, changing their terms, their sites, and the configuration of participants. 

-(Keck and Sikkink, Kindle Locations 76-79).

Steven Livingston had called attention to the passage in his opening remarks the day before.  The exchange of information served as the leitmotif of the entire conference.  Satellite technology, network data mining and social computation, and forensic science, including massively parallel DNA sequencing are involved in overcoming the deliberate suppression of information.  Sikkink noted that in 1998 when the book was written, the information environment was very different.  What is more, much of the book was about groups in Latin America in the 1970s.   The groups she was working with did not have computers, much less the Internet.  “In that relatively poor information environment the assumption was that the information politics of transnational movements was absolutely necessary.  We knew so little about human rights violations around the world.”  The sort of questions that came up during the conference -- such as “Should we make what we know public?” or “When should we make it public?” -- were not relevant in the 1970s.  “There was a desperate need to get the information that was available out to the public as quickly as possible.”

sikkinkkathrynToday, as the conference has made clear, there is an order of magnitude increase in the richness of information.  It’s information politics on steroids.  In this situation, new issues emerge. Francesco Sebregondi’s amazing presentation about torture in the Saydnaya prison in Syria (a joint investigation between Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture) describes a much more compelling version of the same kinds of stories that were being told by survivors of the Argentine concentration camps in the 1970s who would draw crude outlines of the camps on paper.  The advances in information technology have made amazing contributions to human rights around the world. 

We are now aware of a debate in the world of forensic science between those who believe that most of the burden must be carried by international groups who have the expertise and institutional capacity to maintain control over sensitive data and those who believe that local capacity is essential and a way to overcome the lingering sense of outside intervention into local affairs.  Sikkink expressed that both international and local capacities are essential for realizing prosecutions.  And as Thomas Parsons noted, it is a false dichotomy.  She also noted that perhaps too much thought is being given to providing information to international tribunals when in fact it is the domestic tribunals that have made the greatest headway in seeking justice for human rights abuse prosecutions.  This was a finding of her research reported in her 2011 book, The Justice Cascade.

But what about the potential ill-effects of information technology and information deluge?  Sikkink noted that she is writing a book about the new pessimism about human rights. There is tremendous pessimism about ill-legitimacy and ineffectiveness of human rights law, institutions and movements.  How could this be possible?  From where does this pessimism come?  “One part of the answer is that we know so much more than we ever knew before about human rights violations, and we care so much more, that we think the world is a worse place.” She went on to say, “That this dramatic increase in information may have contributed to an increase in pessimism.”  Elsewhere, with Ann Marie Clark, Sikkink has referred to this as the information paradox  (Clark and Sikkink, 2013).  In public health research, there is something called surveillance bias: The closer one looks, the more likely one is to find evidence that something is wrong.  That might be part of the explanation behind the apparent worsening of human rights around the world.  Public health researchers are finding methodological means to correct for surveillance bias.  Sikkink suggested that human rights investigators learn from public health researchers on how to manage for surveillance bias. 

There are also lessons to be learned from the earlier networked advocacy research literature.  It found that networks are built around trust and face-to-face contact.  So paradoxically, even in this digital world, trust and face-to-face contact among members of a community of practice is still important to human rights work.  People can move in and out of networks by choice, and they often do.  It is difficult to form generalized networks.  Rather, they tend to be formed around particular campaigns and specific goals. There needs to be cases that can be shared.