The Politics of Protection – Moving Human Rights Protection Upstream – Part 1

Maria Lewytzkyj for WNN Features

In a ground breaking interview, Monterrey Institute of International Studies MA graduate, U.S. born Ukrainian, Maria Lewytzkyj, talks with U.S. foreign policy expert, Jan Knippers Black about her latest book, “The Politics of Human Rights Protection – Moving Intervention Upstream with Impact Assessment.” In this interview, Knippers Black offers real advice to global women’s rights activists / human rights defenders and advocates on key issues covering how to navigate through regional and multi-national ‘politics’ and transitional justice. She offers global advocates knowledge in how to use ‘informed activism’ to help prevent ‘disaster’ on the ground for those who are in crisis need of aid and support. Too often, those who need aid the most are often the same ones who suffer the most from less than optimum government, private and NGO sponsored aid programs.

This is the first part of a three part series highlighted on WNN.

INTERVIEW with Dr. Jan Knippers Black, author of “The Politics of Human Rights Protection – Moving Intervention Upstream with Impact Assessment”


"The Politics of Human Rights Protection" by Jan Knippers Black
Jan Knippers Black's latest book, "The Politics of Human Rights Protection," highlights the sometimes less obvious political undercurrent in programs that appear to offer human rights protection, but do not always do what they say they want to do.


Maria Lewytzkyj (ML): With the release of your new book, “The Politics of Human Rights Protection – Moving Intervention Upstream with Impact Assessment,” can you tell us three top ways to move human rights intervention upstream with impact. . .


Jan Knippers Black (JKB): Yes. First is to dream freely, second is think holistically, and third is act strategically.

If you are promoting change, you’ve got to look at the perspective not of those who have the most to lose, but of those who have the most to fear. You also have to consider all the rights of all of the people. If you try to break them up and just choose one set of people and one set of the rights of theirs that are violated, you’re not going to understand what the big picture is about and then you can’t get very far.

The first one (‘dream freely’), is about keeping your eyes on the prize, which is to say, don’t get bogged down in the details of trying to move incrementally beyond the most immediate crisis or problem. Remember that there is something much bigger than just getting past this little obstacle that you have in mind. To know where you are going, you have to know where you are coming from. That means that you have to start by understanding where you are, where you’ve been, and why.

(Rights) Action without understanding is dangerous. So that understanding, I would say, comes from thinking holistically, which involves looking at the issue from a bottom-up perspective, which is very different from the way we look at most things. The framing for most issues come down from the people who have the power and the access to start with.

The third is act strategically. The most important aspect of acting strategically is trying to strip the cover of denial from people all the way up and down the system, not only the plausible deny-ability that presidents and other people at the top demand, but also the garden-variety denial that people use to protect themselves all the time. The main idea is to lift the shield of denial from people at so many different levels in this process. I would say that is the ultimate objective. How you do that is something else. It is coming up with the right kind of strategies of education and information and political advocacy.

I’ll back up a little to say that one of the reasons I think along these lines, like so many people who have been active in human rights for a long time, is that I just get tired of the idea of counting bodies after the disaster has happened–especially when it is so clear to us that it is going to happen. To anyone who has been paying attention to the nature of the conflict in the region or to the consequences of this kind of policy, you can see for sure this disaster is going to happen.

If you look at the way that decisions about war and peace are made, the people who make those decisions, for the most part, really don’t know the region. This includes the history that would need to be taken into consideration, even the history of the past wars. Such decisions are made by non-experts often for political reasons on intelligence that is pre-misinterpreted.

One of the reasons that our leaders have been able to get away with plausible deny-ability for such a long time is that the public wants it too. That’s the most painful part to deal with. It’s not enough that the information that it would take to know how to avoid disaster is not there, it’s just that you have to be able to force people to see it and understand it.

You have to make it hard for them not to know. Understanding is actually an act of courage in itself. It’s a step that is hard to get people to take.

ML: It seems that one of the messages of your book portrays human rights as an afterthought that is now habitual in many cultures. It seems that the pain and suffering goes unnoticed and it isn’t until the system is fixed that wrongs are righted. If there were a preventive approach to human rights in every sector, which ones would you suggest first? Also, there are already human rights commissioners in many governments working with human rights abuse cases — Why are they often not meeting with success?. . .

JKB: Starting from where we (in the U.S.) are now, from a fully developed world empire – where there are a series of influences and hegemonies around and there are competitions for global hegemony, from our perspective in the U.S., we are in the belly of the beast of an empire that now assumes the right to control the ways of the world.

To prevent so much of the kind of abuse that has become routine, you have to be willing to give up the idea of controlling the world. You can try influencing the world. You can try to lead by example. There are all kinds of ways we could try to have a positive influence on the world, but dropping bombs on other countries is not going to be one of those ways. And if we still think that whatever good we want to do for the world has to be done with the final idea that we have to control it, we’ve lost from the start.

(Collectively), we could approach human rights impact assessment in the same way that an environmental assessment has been approached, which is to try to get in ahead of the kinds of policies that affect the most people. We can start with war, and there are basic approaches to foreign assistance and humanitarian assistance. If we studied these approaches carefully, and saw what had been done in the past and what went right and what went wrong, we would have a much better idea than if we had just started with what is best practice.

We don’t really look back after we’ve finished projects to try and figure out how the projects really worked for the people on the ground. It turns out to be (instead), how it worked for the World Bank, for the IMF, for the creditor institutions, for the aide agency.

It would be nice if we could have human rights impact assessment built into the system in the way that environmental impact assessment has been. Why that hasn’t really taken place and why it’s less likely to is (part of this), because it’s a lot safer politically to hug a tree than a poor person.

People who think they have something to lose feel very threatened by the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have needs. So security systems are really built to keep the have-nots from going after what the haves have.

In fact, most of the systemic grand (global) theft that happens is the rich stealing from the poor. Not the other way around. Because it is very easy for the rich to steal from the poor. It’s not easy for the poor to steal from the rich.

There is so much that is systemic that we need to break through in some way. One of the reasons is that everyone (now) wants to say that they’re in favor of human rights. No one wants to be seen as being opposed to human rights. It’s gotten to be not only an accepted part of the discourse, but an obligatory part in a way. The way some people get around actually being for human rights, is that they have trump cards in the system that are allowed to override it (the discourse).

One of these ways is (through the system of) security. Once you play the security card, it overrides everything, including common sense. It means that decisions can be made very hurriedly without looking at any of the possible consequences. People are inclined to stop thinking for themselves. It’s a conversation stopper. It means that the argument stops here.

To a lesser extent, but also to devastating results, the economic card is played the same way. You would think that in times of economic crisis, reasonable people would say, well, triage means you handle the greatest need first.

One of the worst things that happens with the myth of expertise about economics is when economists say, “Of course you have some starving people down there, but we can’t think about that right now, because the banking system is about to collapse.”

Wait a minute! The bankers are in trouble, so we are supposed to turn away from the starving people? I don’t think so.

If there are people who are in danger of starvation. If they are without shelter. If they are without the most basic health care needs. If they are disabled. If they need help for whatever reason. If they are old or young, in times of economic crisis, we should direct whatever we have to the greatest need first. But actually, the opposite is the case.

When I talk about triage in my latest book, I counter-posed it against the broader issues. A lot of people will challenge pursuit of rights that are not well understood and abuses that are not necessarily understood as abuses, because, wait a minute, if you’re talking about human rights, you have to be dealing with genocides and execution and torture. Absolutely, yes, we must maintain an idea of what has to be dealt with expeditiously and urgently, and of course we have to keep an eye on it! But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the borderlines where the issues are not well understood or not agreed upon, because that is where most of conflict actually will be — right there on the fuzzy border.

The rights of immigrants, legal or otherwise, is a huge issue now. The U.S. has been imprisoning and abusing people of all ages. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, take a long time to get things sorted out. In the meantime, the government just abuses people right and left.

It’s not just the U.S., we hear more about that all the time, but Europe is getting worse and worse on this. It’s these borderline issues that call for policy and that cause conflict. We can’t ignore them, because there are even worse things going on.

If we are not expanding the boundaries of the rights that are understood as rights and must be protected, then we are losing ground. The more we lose, the more we stand to lose. This is a dynamic that is moving in one direction or another all the time. You can always say, “Well yes, there is an increasing number of homeless people on the streets, but we don’t have time to think about that, because we have bigger problem to deal with.”

It’s easier to see the nature of ‘cause and effect’ if you look at things in the farming sector. We know that where you have farm labor involved and you are spraying pesticides, there is going to be tremendous damage to the people working there, but we keep doing it. When you are mining — mining gold and other such metals — there is going to be mercury released that will get into the water and it will be damaging to the health of children in the area. But we don’t do anything to prevent that. We may check later, and find lots of kids in the Amazon who are suffering from mercury. How could we have known? Of course we knew. There are many sectors like this. We know the downside. We don’t know how to stop the perpetrators from doing it.

The best example of all is war. This is the idea that you send the bull in to set up the shelves in the china shop, never mind you need to clean up the mess that the bull made in the china shop.

We talk as if we were so seriously concerned about the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, the ‘discriminated against people’ in all parts of the world that we know so little about. So what we are going to do about it is make war on them to straighten it out. How on earth can thinking people come to a conclusion like that? But imperial societies have always come to that conclusion. The U.S. has gotten to be an imperial society and we haven’t faced that.

If we could just get people to face the idea that our whole (U.S.) mindset is drawn from the business of becoming an empire. That would be dealing (honestly) with our problem of denial.  If we don’t deal with that, it’s not just that we’ll keep getting into wars, it’s that we are in a state of war. The system will require conflict all the time to keep itself going. That’s why you have to get out in front of it and recognize that this is an empire. If we don’t want the wars and we don’t want the cost of it, we have to start turning that around instead of going ahead down that path.

ML: What about the work of human rights offices and human rights commissioners?. . .

JKB: It’s one of those tools that is always up for grabs. It can be used to squelch criticism and curiosity about human rights if controlled by a government that doesn’t want to invite anybody into the discussion. It can also be used to bring pressure on the government from the inside and the outside. Like so many institutions and agencies it can be used for good or ill. If we are promoting human rights, the name of our game is that it works for the benefit of human rights instead of against it.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, I was working on some cases with Amnesty International, one of them being that of Annette Lew and other people who were fighting to organize and build a political base of respect for human, women and indigenous rights.

The Taiwanese (at the time) felt like they were occupied more or less by mainland China and they wanted their own government. So I went over to see if I could get into the prison and do a report for Amnesty on what was going on there. I knew that it would not be easy, but perhaps by making enough of a fuss, people would bring (more) focus on the issue to the U.S. and around the world and bring pressure on what was then the government of the Republic of China. Of course, I was turned away from the prison by the human rights office of the government there (in Taiwan).

If you (a country) anticipates that there are people who are going to come over looking into your human rights situation, then you set up a barricade. The intelligent way to do that is to set up a human rights office to push people back.

That’s one thing: Human rights as a discourse. The existence of human rights offices can be a tool and a tool can be used by anyone who picks it up. It can be used for good or ill. The language we use is the same way.

In the early 1980s I had an article that went over to The New Republic on the situation of human rights in Chile. After they published it, the magazine got a really heated message from Elliott Abrams, who was then head of the human rights office for the U.S. State Department. They were using the office the same way that the government of the Republic of China, at the time, had been using it (from their office) in Taiwan. This was to redefine human rights as they chose to and to push back those who were serious about it (human rights).

Something we should understand about any kind of office, any kind of use of language is — that it becomes a political football that can be used either way.

That said, I also have to say that a lot of good has been accomplished by many of those offices in some parts of the world, particularly in Africa. When the people who are trying to fight for human rights have so little clout behind them — when it’s so dangerous to do so — can get United Nations involvement in trying to set up and monitor such an office, even if the UN has to deal with a repressive regime that is trying to control how that office is used, at least there is some push back FOR human rights.

I’m not against countries having human rights offices, in fact I’m for it, but it’s something that people need to understand, like government or social institution itself: an operation that is called a human rights office can go either way.

ML: I want to quote from your book, “To every solution there is a problem: Any remedy devised to protect the interests of the less powerful will soon be turned by the powerful to their own advantage,” I see your point. ‘Everyone can play victim’ is what I’ve heard. How do you suggest staying ahead of that game?. . .

JKB: One stays ahead of the game by anticipating it, and understanding that it will happen. Don’t be blindsided by it every time it happens, and understand that it is systemic. As soon as you implement an increase in minimum wage, the folks who don’t want to pay their workers more will say that they have to downsize, because we can’t afford that. The same thing happens with laws that have come in to protect women or protect children: The first thing you know is that they are used to discriminate against women. We have to stay awake all the time and anticipate what companies are going to do, and counter it and get back on track.


See PART TWO of this continuing three part series on WNN


This trailer, narrated by Dr. Jan Knippers Black, addresses the issues of ‘Transitional In-justice.’ Organized by Global Majority, the Center for Human Rights, at the Universidad Central de Chile, in partnership with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, it follows a course that was co-taught by Dr. Black and the Honorable Juan Guzmán Tapia., and outlines the need for activists to understand the workings of human rights politics inside and outside global regions where aid and justice are sorely needed.


For more information on the topic of politics and human rights assessment:



WNN Foreign Policy writer, Maria Lewytzkyj, earned her MA in International Policy with expertise in US foreign policy with Russia.  She is also an expert in human rights, global conflict and victim redress, along with multilateral negotiations.

Jan Knippers Black (JKB) is a respected doctoral Professor of International Studies currently teaching at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies. Professor Black’s international experience includes Senior Associate Membership at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University; Fulbright, Mellon and other grants and Fellowships in South America, the Caribbean, and India; on-site or short-term teaching and honorary faculty positions in several Latin American countries, and extensive overseas lecturing and research. She was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chile and a faculty member with the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester-at-Sea program.

This interview has been edited by WNN editorial news intern, Katherine Rea.


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