Trump’s attack on Syria: a bias for hope?

The pessimism that prevails after Trump degraded Syria’s chemical weapons reflects a wider pessimism about progress in human rights. But does the evidence support such naysayers. And are they defeating their own cause?

A girl displaced from her home in eastern Ghouta walks as she holds a pot in Herjelleh shelter in Damascus countryside, Syria, April 15.

Twice within a year, President Trump has ordered missiles fired on Syria’s military for its use of chemical weapons on innocent people. In his second response on April 13, Mr. Trump doubled the number of missiles. And France and Britain joined in. Yet for this tougher defense of human rights, public reaction has been largely pessimistic. The slaughter in Syria is largely expected to continue, albeit with conventional weapons for now.

Even Trump reflected a prevailing negative view about human rights in the Middle East, the region with the most violent conflicts. “We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place,” he said. 

Such events do seem to add to the pessimism about the protection of basic rights around the world. Journalists bemoan that humanitarian instincts have run up against hard political realities and that deliberate targeting of civilians will become a norm. Pundits point to a rise in hateful ideologies and a decline in democracy.

But does the evidence really hold up that the world faces a fallback in human rights and a rise in political violence against innocent civilians? 

Not according to a leading human rights scholar, Kathryn Sikkink of Harvard University. In her latest book, “Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century,” she presents a slew of data about progress in basic rights since the 1940s and warns against a tendency by activists and the media not to stress progress and successes. 

She says future scholars will look back on the seven decades since World War II “as a watershed in the path towards protecting human rights.” By the early 21st century, she points out, most governments had accepted human rights law, at least on paper if not in practice. Violence of one group on another has dropped since 1990. New international courts have led to a rise in accountability for genocide. The number of human rights groups keeps rising.

In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty by law or in practice. Today more than half of all countries have done so. Since 1979, women have seen a steady increase in equality for education. Undernourishment has lessened, and so on.

Activists have been so successful that they have helped draw more attention to once invisible harms, thus creating the false impression of a worsening situation. They’ve also raised the bar on what is unacceptable, such as writing new definitions of torture and extrajudicial killings.

Because atrocities are more visible, human rights activists tend to ruminate on each violation. They absorb the suffering of victims, leading them to believe tragedies are more likely to happen, Ms. Sikkink states. And journalists who write about human rights think they look smarter by reporting mainly negative news.

Based on the evidence she has compiled, she opts for a “bias” toward the hope of human rights progress. “If people around the world come to believe that their efforts on behalf of human rights are suspect or even counterproductive and retreat to inactivity, human rights progress could indeed stall or move backward,” she writes.

Her simple request: “We need to ask not only, ‘What is wrong with human rights?’ but also, ‘What is right with human rights?’ ” 

Syria’s future is still unknown, and its progress in human rights can be uneven. Millions of civilians remain vulnerable. Yet the United States keeps thousands of troops in Syria and is rebuilding portions once ruled by Islamic State. Russia faces more problems for supporting the attacks of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And chemical weapons may not be used again for a long time. 

Such developments always need the context of recent history, especially the history of the world’s steady momentum in recognizing each individual’s right to political freedom and a life of dignity.

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