All Shorenstein APARC News Q&As February 25, 2022

New Book by Stanford Sociologist Kiyoteru Tsutsui Probes the Decoupling of Policy and Practice in Global Human Rights

In his new book, Shorenstein APARC’s Japan Program Director Kiyoteru Tsutsui explores the paradox underlying the global expansion of human rights and Japan’s engagement with human rights ideas and instruments. Japan, he says, has an opportunity to become a leader in human rights in Asia and in the world.
Protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a Black Lives Matter peaceful march in Tokyo.
Black Lives Matter peaceful march in Tokyo, Japan, June 2020. Protesters marched through the Harajuku - Shibuya area, calling for the eradication of racism, especially to end discrimination against Black people all over the world. Takashi Aoyama/ Getty Images

Since World War II, there have been significant advances in the implementation and enforcement of human rights norms. Yet despite the proliferation of human rights law at the international level, the protection of human rights remains one of the most elusive goals of the international community. To what extent does international human rights law affect government human rights practice?

This question, closely related to politics and state compliance, is a source of debates between mainstream international relations scholars and international legal scholars. It is also one of the primary concerns of a new book by Stanford Professor of Sociology Kiyoteru Tsutsui. Titled Human Rights and the State: The Power of Ideas and the Reality of International Politics and available in Japanese from publishing company Iwanami Shoten, the book explores the dynamics of the global diffusion of universal human rights and the establishment of international human rights institutions, assesses the impacts of these ideas and instruments on domestic politics around the world, and examines how Japan has engaged with them.

Here, Tsutsui talks about some of his hypotheses and findings. Tsutsui is a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor and Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies at Shorenstein APARC. He also serves as director of the Japan Program at APARC and deputy director of the Center.


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How did you become involved in studying international human rights?

I was originally interested in probing why there are so many ethnic conflicts in the world. As I looked at some of the data, I learned that ethnic conflicts are on the rise regardless of the countries’ wealth, religion, region, political system, and so on. I suspected the cause of this near-universal rise in ethnic conflicts was an element that was spreading globally and theorized it might be human rights principles. Human rights ideas have been expanding globally, and they tell subjugated populations such as ethnic minorities that they deserve more rights and empower them into political mobilization. Governments typically reject these claims, leading to conflict between the states and the minority groups, which are often ethnic groups.

This prompted me to examine how human rights ideas evolved over time, became enshrined in key international human rights treaties, and shaped domestic politics across the world.

States that committed to human rights without thinking about the consequences have to face a world in which their violations can become a real liability for them, a world that they helped create with their empty promises for human rights.
Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Your new book examines the paradox of the global diffusion of universal human rights. Could you explain this paradox and its origins?

The main paradox here is that states have unwittingly promoted universal human rights to a near-sacred status when these principles do nothing but constrain their sovereignty. I should note that throughout the history of human rights, it was civil society that pressed states hard to establish human rights and limit their arbitrary exercise of power. Gradually, civil society actors expanded their vision of rights-holders such that it’s not just Christians, whites, and men but also non-Christians, non-whites, and women who are seen as deserving of rights, and that universe of obligations expanded to include all humanity by the time of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. States resisted this process every step of the way but had to make concessions to legitimize their authority and, in the era of World Wars, to mobilize the public toward war efforts. When women contributed to domestic mobilization for World War I in Europe or when Black people contributed to World War II in the United States, the governments’ arguments for discriminatory treatments against them began to lose legitimacy.

Then, as many human rights treaties emerged since the 1960s, states across the globe ratified these treaties in droves, often to deflect criticisms against their domestic human rights practices. The Cold War context gave them a false sense of security, as they thought that these treaties are toothless and if anything happens, either the United States or the Soviet Union would protect them from serious sanctions. This may have been an accurate calculation at the time, but the large number of states parties to these treaties elevated the legitimacy of human rights norms enshrined in these treaties, making human rights a near orthodoxy.

The end of the Cold War enabled the United Nations to engage in human rights activities free from Cold War constraints, and now those states that committed to human rights without thinking about the consequences have to face a world in which their violations can become a real liability for them, a world that they helped create with their empty promises for human rights. All these miscalculations by states constitute this paradox, what I have called in a co-authored paper the paradox of empty promises.

Portrait of Kiyoteru Tsutsui and 3D mockup cover of his book 'Human Rights and the State: the Power of Ideas and the Reality of International Politics' (in Japanese)
International human rights treaties and institutions have been instrumental in making incremental improvements even if these instruments are often ineffective when powerful states are not willing to act, says Kiyoteru Tsutsui.

What is your assessment of the efficacy of international human rights instruments and human rights diplomacy in the 21st century? Have some strategies been more effective than others in improving human rights practices?

If you look at the history of international human rights instruments in the post-World War II era, it is fairly clear that those instruments are often powerless when powerful states — permanent members of the UN Security Council — are not willing to act. The international community has repeatedly failed to stop major human rights violations, even universally condemned crimes like genocide, by these powerful states and their allies and protectorates. The international human rights regime’s track record for large-scale, intense human rights violations is not good.

On the other hand, international human rights instruments have been effective in making incremental improvements when sustained campaigns of naming and shaming can be mounted. These changes take a long time and do not necessarily result in dramatic improvements, but all over the world, indigenous peoples have gained more rights, women have voted in more countries than ever, and extreme poverty has declined. International human rights treaties and institutions have been instrumental in bringing about these changes and their contributions should be acknowledged, although we should be aware that there is always the potential for backlashes against all the progress. 

How has Japan been involved in international human rights? How do human rights diplomacy and education in Japan compare with world standards?

Japan’s first international statement that can be seen as a contribution to human rights may have been the proposal to include a racial equality clause at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. As the only non-white major power, it was an important proposal, even if it was made for its own strategic calculations, and minority groups all over the world, including Black people in the United States, applauded it. It did not pass, unfortunately, and the disillusionment contributed to Japan’s aggressive behavior in Asia after this period.

In the post-World War II period, Japan had an engagement policy, which meant that it would prioritize communication with rights-violating regimes rather than condemn and impose sanctions on them. This was often criticized by the human rights community, as Japan engaged with apartheid South Africa, Myanmar’s military regime, and post-Tiananmen Square China. Over the last decade or so, more politicians and diplomats have been interested in moving Japan toward values diplomacy, largely in an effort to counter China. Some of them have been vocal in criticizing China and North Korea for their human rights violations, and this momentum might spill over to a fuller commitment to human rights diplomacy that has eluded Japan.

Japan’s human rights diplomacy is still emerging for the most part, but it has been a relatively good listener to criticisms about its human rights violations. Primarily because of pressures from UN human rights instruments, Japan has acknowledged Ainu as an indigenous people and promoted their culture, accorded more rights to resident Koreans in Japan, compensated victims of discrimination against leprosy patients, and addressed inequality in legally marriageable ages between men and women.

The more inwardly oriented United States is creating a vacuum in promotion and protection of liberal values, especially with China’s influence surging, and Japan should carry the torch taking the mantle of human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
Kiyoteru Tsutsui

How do you think Japan will contribute to the future of international human rights? Do you believe that Japan may play a larger role in advancing human rights on a global scale?

Japan has an opportunity to become a leader in human rights in Asia and in the world. The more inwardly oriented United States is creating a vacuum in promotion and protection of liberal values, especially with China’s influence surging, and Japan should carry the torch taking the mantle of human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Japan is the largest contributor to the budget of the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals responsible for major human rights violations, and it is an interesting symbolic example of Japan’s potential contributions to international human rights. That budget is allocated according to national wealth, and the two richer countries, the United States and China, are not members of the ICC, so Japan becomes the largest contributor. This could be a dynamic that plays out in other areas, and Japan should embrace that role of becoming the biggest contributor to international human rights efforts.

What did you find surprising as you were researching your book?

When Japan made the aforementioned proposal for racial equality in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference, it received majority support and was about to be adopted. It was U.S. President Wilson who nixed this clause, making the argument that such an important resolution requires unanimous support. We tend to think of President Wilson as an architect of the League of Nations at the Conference, and although that might be true, his role in this episode might be indicative of his thinking around the issues of race.

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