“I am very concerned” Dr Leslie Vinjamuri on human rights

aiweiwei, leslie vinjamuri interview - Life at SOAS

This blog post is part of a series surrounding the event ‘Challenging Human Rights Leadership‘, in partnership with The Elders and the British Council Future Leaders programme, that will be broadcast at 6pm on Monday 29 October via Facebook Live. Visit the events page and select ‘Going’ to receive a notification when we go live. #HumanrRightsLeaders

Leslie, it’s been 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed by the United Nations. Would you say things are better or worse in 2018? 

Undoubtedly better.  But this is not to diminish in anyway the very real, and very tragic human rights abuses being committed on a daily basis in places like Syria and Yemen, not to mention Venezuela and in many other places.  But the arc of history has bent towards progress on questions of human rights.  Recall that in 1948, India was only recently independent and the United States had not yet desegregated its schools (the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in the Supreme Court was concluded in 1954) and the civil rights movement did not gain full steam for another decade.  Global expectations have risen dramatically, an architecture of norms and institutions not to mention the UN SDGs have been agreed.  There is a lot to be pessimistic about, and a lot of tragedy.  The fact that the arc of history bends towards progress is not helpful if you are a parent of a school child killed in Yemen, but it is fair to say that the incidence of extreme poverty has decreased globally, and respect for political and civil rights has increased markedly.  A lot of these positive changes have been driven by democratization in regions like Latin America, and economic development in China, India and Africa (not by the human rights framework).  But the UDHR and the many institutional initiatives that embed human rights globally have been successful in raising global expectations that human rights should be respected, and also increasing our awareness of situations where these standards are not met. And expectations matter.  They explain why so many of us are distraught with contemporary politics not only in conflict zones, but also in the United States and across many parts of Europe.

Who have been your personal heroes/icons in the fight for human rights across the globe? 

This is a difficult question.  I admire many of the heroes that we all do – not only Mandela or Gandhi, but more recently Ai Weiwei. (I also recognise that most leaders also create a shadow, even those whose human rights leadership is exemplary.) I am especially admiring of the women who were ahead of their times.  You can guess who those are.  But there are ordinary women also.  The mothers who channelled their pain and fought for truth, so the Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo in Argentina and today the mothers in Yemen who are starving to save their children and have become a symbol for children’s rights globally.  Personally, I am inspired every time I see Louise Arbour or Mary Robinson speak.  And let’s not forget those closest to home, Valerie Amos has transformed our own community by bringing the world’s foremost human rights advocates to SOAS and highlighting the work of our scholars. Jack Snyder, my coauthor and former adviser, has forced me to think more critically and deeply about human rights than anyone I know – his current unrelenting focus is on the problem created by an unregulated social media environment.  Every week he engages me in rigorous discussions about how best to design regulations for Twitter.  There are many ways to fight for human rights – not all of them are conventional.  Critical scholarship that takes nothing for granted, but that also aims to be productive, is essential.

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri at Chatham House Library.

Let’s imagine the world in another 70 years – are you optimistic or cynical about what it will look like?

I would not know how to get out of bed in the morning if I weren’t optimistic – but it is my deep concern for the heightened social division and polarisation in the United States, and also in Europe that keeps me from needing an alarm clock. Most people are inherently good, but without strong leadership, robust institutions and especially a rich fabric of social norms to reinforce those instincts, things can quickly erode.  That this is happening in a context where people are basically fairly well employed and have a decent living standard, and where there is a long history of democracy, is something we should all be very worried about.  I used to focus a lot of my attention on authoritarian states, and states that were newly democratic, but backsliding.  That is no longer the case.  And of course, once we begin to contemplate the pace of change, the consequences of automation, and (in some parts of the globe), the prospect of a youth bulge, then things get far more complicated.  I am not cynical, but like most people who are reading, listening, and watching, I am very concerned.


Dr Leslie Vinjamuri is a Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at SOAS University of London.  Leslie is Head of the US & the Americas Programme at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Follow her on Twitter.  

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