The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy serves as the hub of the Harvard Kennedy School’s research, teaching, and training in the human rights domain. The center embraces a dual mission: to educate students and the next generation of leaders from around the world in human rights policy and practice; and to convene and provide policy-relevant knowledge to international organizations, governments, policymakers, and businesses.
Atrocity crimes rage today in Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Burundi, and Yemen. Given their potential to establish facts and promote accountability, recently opened United Nations investigations of international law violations in each of these states are thus a welcome, even if belated, development. However, these initiatives prompt questions about their designs, both in isolation and relative to each other.
This article describes the investigations into alleged violations in these five states, examines their respective sponsors and scopes, and presents a wide range of questions about the investigations and their implications, including their coordination with each other and their use of evidence in domestic, foreign, hybrid, and international courts (such as the International Criminal Court). The article concludes that, while seeking accountability for international law violations is certainly laudatory, these particular investigations raise significant questions about achieving that goal amidst rampant human rights abuses in these five states and beyond. International lawyers, atrocity crime survivors, and other observers thus await answers before assessing whether these investigations will truly promote justice.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835 that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Tocqueville’s observation, broadly accurate over the past two centuries, is facing perhaps its most severe test today.
In its 2016 “Democracy Index” report, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed democracy.” In 2018, Freedom House offered a more dire assessment: “[D]emocratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”
Declining participation and confidence in government are not new, but the populist forces that propelled the election of Donald Trump signaled a new level of public disillusionment with democratic politics and institutions. During his campaign and first year in office, Trump’s core constituency cheered him on as he attacked fundamental elements of liberal democracy, including media freedom, judicial independence, and a pluralist civil society.
A new report from the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy examines the democratic checks and balances in the US, and measures their resiliency in the first year of the Trump administration, comparing US response to illiberal democracies worldwide.
“The Carr Center is building a bridge between ideas on human rights and the practice on the ground. Right now we are at a critical juncture. The pace of technological change and the rise of authoritarian governments are both examples of serious challenges to the flourishing of individual rights. It’s crucial that Harvard and the Kennedy School continue to be a major influence in keeping human rights ideals alive. The Carr Center is a focal point for this important task.”
- Mathias Risse