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Human Rights

Contemporary Trends in Human Rights Diplomacy

By Umamah Basit, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. 


Human rights diplomacy, put simply, involves diplomatic negotiations, interactions, policies and strategies aimed at the promotion and protection of human rights. Over the years, emerging democracies have put great emphasis on human rights policy. Many international human rights and humanitarian NGOS such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also active in diplomatic circles and continue to build pressure on national governments through public advocacy and lobbying activities. However, although human rights issues are gaining significant momentum and are being increasingly discussed, there remain a number of challenges when it comes to the universal protection of human rights. Moreover, since the concept of human rights is constantly evolving, it is often difficult to maintain “coherence” amongst all the different actors engaged in human rights discourse.

The practice of human rights diplomacy can be witnessed at all levels – state, institutional and civil society. At the multilateral state level, we have the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council, which consists of five permanent and ten non-permanent member states, has “the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. The institution appoints special envoys and dispatches peacekeeping forces to resolve tensions in conflict zones. In some cases, military and economic sanctions may also be imposed to halt government-sponsored human rights violations. Another intergovernmental body involved in multilateral human rights diplomacy is the UN Human Rights Council. Every four years, the Council assesses the human rights situation in all UN member states through the mechanism of ‘universal periodic reviews’. The Council also sends special rapporteurs to investigate particular human rights problems in different countries.

The EU’s role as a diplomatic actor in the international arena also presents a good example in this context. Since the EU came into being, it has sought to engage both bilaterally and multilaterally in the fields of international security and defense, human rights and the environment. The development of a regional framework for human rights protection, set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that all Council of Europe members are committed to the respect, promotion and protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms – both domestically and abroad. In instances where national and European law are in conflict, member states seek to interpret domestic law so far as possible consistently with the Convention.

While most countries are dedicated to the advancement of human rights principles around the world, it must be noted that the extent to which countries engage in human rights diplomacy usually depends on two factors: the national interests at stake and the benefits to the community-at-large. This remains one of the biggest dilemmas in international relations. For instance, when it comes to multilateral negotiations, China has forcefully adopted the principle of sovereignty. On the other hand, the government actively pursues open discussion and dialogue in bilateral frameworks. Another example is India. India has repeatedly maintained that the human rights situation in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir is a domestic issue and should be left to the Indian government to resolve on its own. Despite the fact that many states have explicitly condemned the human rights abuses, those with economic and political interests in the country have often refrained from interfering to avoid disrupting friendly relations.

It is also worthwhile to mention the conventional practice of “back door” or “quiet” diplomacy. For example, Japan, despite being a very vibrant democracy, has traditionally refrained from incorporating human rights considerations into its foreign policy. Although Japanese politicians and diplomatic representatives discuss human rights, they usually do so “behind closed doors”. Japan may be a party to several UN treaties and resolutions but almost never takes the initiative to raise human rights matters in the Security Council. In the last few months, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demonstrated a greater assertiveness on human rights, and earlier this year, he outlined his vision for a foreign policy built around “the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. More recently, the prime minister has ordered Japanese diplomats to support the UN Human Rights Council in establishing a Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea. Given Japan’s general reluctance to engage in human rights discourse on the international stage, this initiative signifies a huge step forward, and may encourage other “friends” of democracy and human rights in the region to come forward and do the same.

The final aspect to consider is the notion of ‘responsibility to protect’. One of the main tenets of R2P is that if certain countries fail to protect their citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has the right and responsibility to intervene to “correct the situation” through coercive measures such as economic sanctions and in the last resort, military intervention. Under Security Council Resolution 1674, the Security Council therefore has authority to take action to protect civilians in armed conflict, genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The important question, however, is: how far can states go? Enabling countries to respond to crises and developing their infrastructure is one thing; but forcing national jurisdictions to adopt universal human rights values is another. Intervening states need to ensure that they are not infringing upon the national sovereignty of states, and account must be taken of the social, economic and cultural circumstances of the particular region. As David Forsythe argues, states need to consider the “likelihood” of universal human rights norms “being accepted back home”. Although most countries do generally accept the notion of ‘responsibility to protect’, precisely when such external intervention is justifiable remains questionable.

Given our deepening global crisis, the integration of human rights concerns in state law and activity almost seems inevitable. Nevertheless, it is important to make a fine distinction between “endorsement” and “implementation”. Although human rights are universally accepted as ideal standards, there is a growing need for governments to endorse these rights at the global level. Forming a holistic approach to human rights may be difficult, but the key to ensuring effective and sustainable human rights protection is striking the right balance between public advocacy and political intervention. We must remember that “talking” about human rights is only one aspect of human rights diplomacy; mainstreaming and enforcing these rights is the other and more challenging aspect.


Forsythe, David. ‘Human Rights Diplomacy in a Modern World’, APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Accessed April 15, 2013.http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1902987

To read more on Human Rights Diplomacy, please click here 

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy



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