Professor David Kennedy

Credit: Kathleen Dooher Professor David Kennedy ’80 is director of the European Law Research Center at HLS.

In his more than 20 years working and teaching in the field of international law, Professor David Kennedy ’80 observed something he thought no one was talking about–the negative consequences of good intentions. Kennedy discusses his book on the topic, “The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism,” published by Princeton University Press this spring.

Why do you want readers to think about the possible dangers of international humanitarianism? 
Humanitarian voices are increasingly powerful on the international stage–often providing the terms through which global power is exercised, wars planned and fought. To be responsible partners in governance, humanitarians must understand and acknowledge the costs, as well as the benefits, of their ideas. I think my main interest in writing the book was to draw attention to the unrecognized costs of well-meaning ventures.

It’s not that international humanitarian efforts only have dark sides. It’s that too many of us who have been involved in this work underestimate the long-term difficulties and the side consequences of our best-meaning efforts. For example, if you get a Caribbean country to abolish the death penalty in the name of human rights, you might also make a government that incarcerates people under terrible conditions more legitimate. It’s very easy to sign up for human rights conventions, not follow them and still use them as a justification for all kinds of other governmental mischief. It’s those secondary effects that are so rarely taken into account by humanitarians.

Why is it particularly relevant to look at these dangers now?
Professor David KennedyWell, I think I was pushed to write the book by the increasing use of a human rights and humanitarian vocabulary to justify warfare, particularly in the case of Iraq. My sense was that a focus on multilateralism and on the United Nations as a focal point for opposition to the Iraq war was mistaken. The Iraq war would not have made any more sense had it been approved by the United Nations apparatus. The focus on the war’s compatibility with the UN Charter made it more difficult for those who were opposed to the war to get their minds around the idea that it might make good sense to change regimes in the Middle East in the direction of democracy, and to have a sincere debate about whether the military was the right way to do it, whether Iraq was the right place to start.

Although you explore problems with the human rights movement, do you feel the good it’s done outweighs the harm?
There is no question that the international human rights movement has done a great deal of good. It’s been responsible for freedom and an improved quality of life for many people, and it has established standards by which governments judge one another and judge themselves. It has cast light on catastrophic conditions in prisons around the world. All that is true. My worry is simply that we mistake work on the human rights movement for work on the problems of justice and emancipation. More human rights is not always the right answer. Indeed, the most significant challenges for the human rights movement in the years ahead will be to address problems which are difficult to formulate as rights claims–collective problems, economic problems.

You write about human rights approaches crowding out other kinds of solutions. What’s an example?
In the field of health care, it’s particularly dramatic: the attempt to frame the need for drugs or health as a human right, rather than a social service or a community activity. But in many places there are alternatives: religious vocabularies, vocabularies of solidarity based on union or labor activities. There are lots of examples at the local level of human rights advocates finding themselves the dominant players in settings where their approach is very inappropriate.

Are you talking about Western human rights activists acting abroad?
It is worrying that humanitarianism has so often been a one-way street–the center criticizing the periphery. But I do not think it is illegitimate for somebody from the United States or Western Europe to try to bring about change elsewhere in the world. We’re already engaged across the world all the time–the question is how do we do it. With what range of tools? With what sense of our own responsibility?

How has the human rights movement been used by governments to justify the use of force?
It’s difficult for humanitarian professionals to acknowledge that one can bomb for human rights. We say our vocabulary is being misused when President Bush cites human rights to justify policies we oppose. But when we do that, we fail to take responsibility for the effects that we have as human rights practitioners. Humanitarians have worked for years with military professionals to make the law of war a user-friendly blend of humanitarian standards like “proportionality” and military standards like “efficiency” and “necessity.” We shouldn’t be surprised when the military or the political leadership then uses this vocabulary to legitimize the use of force. It’s completely in line with what we’ve been intending in developing it. In short, we need to understand ourselves as participants in governance, rather than simply as critics.