Kathryn Sinkkink.

Kathryn Sikkink, a leading expert on international human rights, argues that it’s time to talk about a new ethics of responsibilities to deal with climate change, voting, digital privacy, and other pressing issues.

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Nation & World

Feel that clean air and voting are human rights? It’s partly on you

9 min read

New book calls for the embrace of an ‘ethics of responsibility’ to solve social, economic, and political problems

After years of writing about human rights, Kathryn Sikkink has decided to focus on responsibilities. It is what lies at the heart of her new book, “The Hidden Face of Rights: Toward a Politics of Responsibilities.” The Gazette sat down with the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School to talk about her call for a new “ethics of responsibilities” and the role of individuals in dealing with climate change, voting, digital privacy, and other pressing issues.


Kathryn Sikkink

GAZETTE: You have written many books about human rights, but your new book focuses on obligations rather than rights. Why is there a need to talk about what you call “a politics and ethics of responsibilities,” and what does it involve?

SIKKINK: The main point I want to underscore is that this book is about rights and responsibilities, not about responsibilities instead of rights. The important word here is “and.”

Human rights are incredibly important, but to advance human rights and implement them, it’s just not enough for everyone to only talk about their rights. To implement rights, we have to talk about the responsibilities of many actors that make it possible for people to enjoy their rights. We, human-rights theorists and activists, have known for a long time that for every right there has to be an actor with a corresponding responsibility to make sure that right can be exercised. But sometimes, human-rights activists only want to talk about states’ responsibilities and not about the responsibilities of other actors. States’ responsibilities are incredibly important, but responsibility can’t only rest with the state.

GAZETTE: Some people might think this approach of the “ethics of responsibilities” is naïve and overstates the impact individuals can have. What is necessary to make this more than a symbolic statement?

SIKKINK: Many human-rights activists are lawyers, and they think about rights in terms of the liability model: Who’s to blame? Who can we sue? Who can we put in jail? That’s a good model for implementing some rights, but it doesn’t get far enough with most rights. I’ve written a book about responses to mass atrocities, and it’s all about how we need to prosecute state officials for mass atrocities. I believe in the liability model for some rights. But there are other rights such as the right to vote, in which actors’ responsibilities can really make a difference. In some parts of our country today, voter suppression by state actors is a conscious policy. Citizens can’t just wait for the state to do its job. We have to be conscious of what other actors can do to take responsibility to circumvent voter suppression and support voter turnout.

GAZETTE: You talk in your book how the ethics of responsibilities can be applied to climate change. How so?

SIKKINK: There’s been a move underway to talk about a right to a clean environment and a right to a stable climate. I’m not opposed to the idea, but in order to move ahead, we have to talk about the responsibilities of all actors, including the states. Now that our federal government has abdicated its responsibilities entirely with regard to climate change, we can’t just twiddle our thumbs and wait for another election in the hope it will bring a government to office that cares about climate change. There are many other actors that can step forward. They don’t have legal responsibility, but they do have an ethical and political responsibility. I’m talking about corporations that are interested in working on climate-change issues, but also about state and municipal governments. For example, Massachusetts offers subsidies for solar panels, and Cambridge has a terrific recycling program and a brand-new curbside composting program.

“All normative change in the world begins with a group of deeply committed individuals.”

GAZETTE: What can individuals do to help prevent climate change?

SIKKINK: We know that 50 percent of global carbon lifestyle emissions are produced by the 10 percent who are the wealthiest people in the world, and that includes not only businessmen who fly to London every week, but also myself and virtually all of my colleagues. According to certain sources, you need something like $100,000 of assets to be considered among the 10 percent wealthiest people in the world. Because privileged people create more emissions, and they have more responsibility in helping to reduce emissions. An excellent scientific study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas tried to figure out the most effective actions people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. That study suggested that the first thing is to have one fewer child, but there is a big debate about that. The second thing is to live car-free. The third is to avoid one international airplane flight. The fourth thing is to sign up for green energy to make sure your energy comes from green sources. The fifth is to eat a plant-based diet. A fellow who was my colleague at the Radcliffe Institute, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist who studies the climate impact of food choices, told me that for people like me who can’t give up meat completely yet, the one thing we can do is to give up beef because it has the worst impact on climate change. Personally, I’m working on that, but it’s quite hard. I’m also trying to reduce my travel by one international plane trip per year. We, at Harvard, need to think about the impact that our travel is having on global emissions.

GAZETTE: Your book also argues that this approach can be applied to voting.

SIKKINK: Here is an example: We know that eligible Harvard students often don’t vote. Instead of focusing on who’s to blame, there is a lot we can do together as a community to help our students vote. Harvard students and the administration have really stepped forward and worked together to take on this ethical and political responsibility. We have good data about student voting. In the midterm elections in 2014, approximately 22 percent of eligible Harvard students voted. In the 2018 midterm elections, almost 49 percent of eligible Harvard students voted. In political terms, that is a huge jump. Harvard added a voter-registration window into the mandatory online check-in for all students. When President Bacow first met with the freshman class two years ago, he said to them, “I’m going to give you your first homework assignment.” He said, “Register to vote,” and that was huge. The Harvard story is not unique; similar changes are happening in other institutions around the country, from community colleges to large public universities to private institutions.

GAZETTE: This new politics of responsibilities can also be applied to areas such as digital privacy, freedom of speech, and others. Where does this framework come from?

 SIKKINK: I drew on the work of political theorist Iris Marion Young, especially her posthumous book, “Responsibility for Justice.” She calls for a “social-connection model of responsibility,” not a liability model, not who’s to blame. She says that “everyone who is socially connected to a structural injustice and able to act needs to step forward and act.” And that’s the argument I was making about climate change. It’s too late to just point your finger at who’s to blame. With climate change, all of us are socially connected to the problem and able to act, need to act in order to address this crisis. Same thing with the digital-privacy issue. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, everyone was blaming Facebook but not thinking of the ways we make it easy for Facebook and other corporations to violate our privacy. In the business model of these corporations, our data is the product, and they will not change without concerted pressure from consumers and governments. In other words, the approach of ethics of responsibilities can be applied for every issue. You can start by asking what are the rights at stake and what do we have to do to take ethical and political responsibility.

GAZETTE: You said you wrote this book for people who are willing to act but are too busy to do it. What do you hope your readers will gain from reading the book?

SIKKINK: I know there will be lots of critiques to the book. I know that people will say, “This ignores the deep structural power that leads to some of the problems in the world today.” But the reason I wrote this book is that I’m a scholar of norms movements in the world. I study how new norms start and gain traction and where they succeed. I’ve written books and done research on everything from anti-slavery to women’s suffrage campaigns in the world to the anti-foot-binding campaigns in China to campaigns about female genital cutting and other human-rights issues. And what I can tell you is that all normative change in the world begins with a group of deeply committed individuals. If we’re going to start focusing on people taking seriously their individual responsibilities for climate change, that has to be a norm movement. It has to be people starting to think about their personal carbon footprint and the things they can do to reduce it. It has to start with a movement of what I call “norm entrepreneurs,” people who take their ethical responsibilities seriously to act to fulfill their rights.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.