A Focus on Human Rights Can Deescalate Violence

12 December 2014

On the occasion of Human Rights Day, noted human rights expert and Director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Professor Douglas Johnson, spoke to Mosaiko about his work and the current state of human rights globally.

M: Tell us about your work at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

DJ: The Carr Center is one of 15 different research centers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. We focus on research, practice, compliance, and teaching about human rights. We're particularly interested in training future practitioners and leaders of human rights policy. In addition, our research projects work to inform policy.

Our program in human trafficking examines the underlying causes and conditions that permit human trafficking to flourish, and develops data-driven public policy strategies to address this global human rights crisis. The director of the trafficking program, Siddharth Kara, specializes in supply chain issues in trafficking, understanding the economics and causal chains that lead to human trafficking – a recent report on the carpet industry is a prime example of this. (

Another focus area at the Carr Center is Transitional Justice, examining the challenges of countries attempting to regain balance and redress legacies of massive human rights violations. With the most significant data base in the world developed by Carr's affiliate faculty, Dr. Kathryn Sikkink, we look at the relative effectiveness of many mechanisms, such as criminal trials and truth commissions, regarding their relative effectiveness to improve human rights protections and reinforce democratic cultures. Right now we are developing the data needed to evaluate the Colombian government's victim services program. This is actually the most ambitious victim reparations programs in the world, and has led to groundbreaking legislation to improve government response.

In addition, we continue to monitor the situation in Guantanamo, and the use of torture as a weapon of war. Personally, I firmly believe torture is wrong and doesn't "work." In fact, I believe it has alienated our allies. I have great respect for military lawyers who put their careers at risk in order to fight for their clients' human rights – and our program on the "Costs and Consequences of the U.S. Decision to use Torture as a Weapon of War" means to examine this further.

M: In the United States, we often hear the term "civil rights." Is that different from human rights?

DJ: That's an interesting question. Many international covenants are divided between political and civil rights, as well as economic rights. The struggles of the 1950s-1960s in the U.S. were focused on gaining political and civil rights for African-Americans in the south, because those were the rights being denied them. The term "civil rights" was used by those movements, and the substance of those rights was easily understood in the media. The focus on "human rights" became much more popular in the 1970s, a time when many more issues were being taken up on the global level, and multilateral treaties and covenants were coming into effect. Today, human rights are often focused broadly on economic rights, poverty, and other underlying conditions.

M: With the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture, what has been the response of the human rights advocacy community and what do you think will happen next?

DJ: The results of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture and the CIA have been widely anticipated and the conclusions known for some months. Despite that, the extent and nature of the abuse was shocking. But perhaps most disturbing to me was the sheer amateurish quality of the thinking behind the program and its extraordinarily inept handling. The people of the United States needed to see these conclusions and the data, and the nations of the world had every right to expect an accounting from a nation that has provided leadership on so many fronts, including leadership by previous Administrations in the fight against torture. Keeping secret what already much of the world suspected would not have diminished distrust of our nation; the secrets would continue to fester and fantasies would multiply to our discredit. I hope that the full report will be declassified and released so that we may fully understand what happened and why, so that our institutions can be repaired and strengthened to defend our values as a people.

M: As a human rights expert, what's your take on events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere in the United States right now?

DJ: When I was in college I spent two summers working for the Minneapolis Police Department, so my thoughts on Ferguson are shaped by my work there. I remember in 1971 I worked on a series of training films for officers on how to intercede in domestic violence disputes. At the time, 85% of police killed in the line of duty were killed interceding in these disputes. They would walk into a fiery situation, a husband and wife at each other's throats, and the officer's mannerisms would unite the spouses against the police. The goal of the training was to help officers walk into a domestic violence situation and deescalate rather than escalate the violence.

Police can have a view that is authoritarian in order to take control of a situation, and that includes the right or necessity of using violence. This can clearly escalate conflicts rather that deescalate them. At both the local level and the international level, the goal should be to deescalate conflicts, and there are some police departments that are investing in that approach, and Ferguson shows what can happen when that training does not happen. In fundamentals, a change in mentality is required so that police see their job as one of protecting human rights.

Harvard has just published an interesting article on this topic, entitled Viewing Ferguson Through a Human Rights Lens:

M: De-escalation touches on your work with the New Tactics in Human Rights Project. Would you tell us about that?

DJ: I was working as Executive Director at the Center for Victims of Torture when the work of the president of Amnesty International in Brazil came to my attention. At the time, AI internal rules did not let a local chapter report on human rights abuses in Brazil itself. So, the president thought of a new tactic: they organized a human rights education program for police. He developed a very carefully thought-out operation to educate 5,000 policemen in two of Brazil's most populous states. The training sessions began with the statement that police are human beings, and have human rights. It looked at their own living conditions, their own families. It discussed ideas like the right to adequate food and appropriate living conditions. It provided a different, new, framing for police of what human rights were. The surprise conclusion: the reason we have police is to protect human rights! There was a measured drop in incidents of police violence in those two states. In fact, the State Department's annual Human Rights Report noted it at the time.

That's not the only example. I remember meeting a Liberian police officer who was concerned that there was not adequate training in human rights, so he started a police association on his own. He wanted to get better education and training for police, including on better human rights practices. Turns out he wasn't the only one: his association now has 800 dues-paying members. The New Tactics project is about finding and sharing those great innovations in the tactics of human rights, respect for other people, respect for values. It turns out police want these things too. They, like us, want to deescalate violence.

M: You're teaching three classes at Harvard this semester. Your students will soon be policy practitioners. What are the future areas for work in human rights?

DJ: I'm seeing a great deal of interest in students in the emerging field of corporations and human rights. The idea of businesses adopting principles of human rights is gaining a lot of traction in the corporate world, and young people see this as an area where they can make a real difference.

We're also seeing continued interest in the role of law and trials. Lately there has been a shift in accountability, from holding states accountable to holding individuals accountable. There is new data that criminal trials and accountability have a measurable impact on improving democratic practices. There is still research to be done on how much of an effect truth commissions have on improving human rights, though what is known is that the acknowledgment of past abuses helps in victims' healing processes. The program I mentioned before, in Columbia, is a groundbreaking reparations program that has created opportunity for people to return fully as economic and political participants to society.

Concerns persist about security, about how we secure ourselves and societies, to protect them from violence. Human rights ideas have been slower to get into this area. Terrorists are non-state actors so they don't sign conventions, and there was a fear that if activists reported on terrorist groups, that would be like giving them the status and prestige of a state. You will see increasing reports on non-state actors, however, as states feel it is useful and helpful for human rights organizations to monitor their activities.

Ultimately, there are so many arenas that human rights work, and knowledge, can have an impact in. One of our goals at the Carr Center is to incorporate human rights principles and training in courses beyond ours – for example, engineering, and business – and train students whose work, while not directly in 'human rights,' will have deep impacts on rights regardless. As a research center, our goal is to reach beyond traditional or obvious outlets, and have the widest impacts possible.


October 2020 > <
T 1 F 2 S 3 S 4 M 5 T 6 W 7 T 8 F 9 S 10 S 11 M 12 T 13 W 14 T 15 F 16 S 17 S 18 M 19 T 20 W 21 T 22 F 23 S 24 S 25 M 26 T 27 W 28 T 29 F 30 S 31
U.S. Ambassador Pyatt to American Citizens on COVID-19

This website uses cookies to manage authentication, navigation, and other functions. Accessing our website, you agree that we can use these types of cookies.