Human Rights and Democracy in Practice:
The Challenge of Accountability

by John Shattuck

This is a time of great global transitions, and those transitions affect the nature and thrust of human rights advocacy in U. S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, especially in its last decade, threats to human rights and democracy were seen as deriving from two primary sources: the threats posed by communist totalitarianism were clearly perceived both by the U.S. government and the human rights community; and the human rights community for its part did not limit its critique to totalitarian states, but also crusaded against human rights abuses by au­thoritarian regimes, even those considered friendly to the United States and its allies. In both cases, the threat to human rights was seen as de­riving from centralized authorities. The U.S. government saw the hu­man rights challenge through the prism of the Cold War; while this was understandable, it often led Washington to define democracy-building as requiring the creation of strong central governments, to rely on counterinsurgency to defend them, and often to ally itself with au­thoritarian regimes, which justified their repressive tactics as necessary to meet the communist threat.

The human rights community, for its part, developed the forms of advocacy with which we are familiar—monitoring, reporting, publicizing cases, advocacy on behalf of individual victims of human rights abuse and advocacy for the imposition of bilateral and multilateral sanctions against abusive governments—in the process displaying much imagination, doggedness, and personal courage.

Today, in the post-Cold War world, things have changed. Although the familiar paradigm of human rights abuse by strong central governments is still very real, we are faced with unfamiliar and daunting challenges as well, which may be usefully thought of as internally driven human rights abuses, that is, abuses arising from social groups, from weakening and disintegrating governments and states, from ethnic and other inter-group conflicts, all exacerbated by economic, environmental, and demographic pressures.

At the same time, the human rights movement has gathered steam the world over. As we saw most dramatically at the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the human rights movement is one of the most powerful, and growing, political phenomena in the world today. This growth has not happened in a vacuum—it is the result of tireless efforts by brave men and women, and is a function of the broader growth of nongovernmental organizations worldwide. Around the world we are seeing increasingly assertive indigenous grass-roots forces pressing for democracy and human rights both in the familiar sense and in the broader sense of government transparency and accountability.

This phenomenon results from the confluence of a number of factors: the failures of strong central governments to shepherd satisfactory economic and political development; the burgeoning environmental movement, which is about rendering governments and corporations accountable for the use they make of resources and for the effects of development on communities; the global movement to empower women; the communications revolution, which has fostered ties among otherwise isolated groups of activists in both the developing and developed world; and the spread of free-market economics, which creates dynamic middle classes who seek to realize the political and social dimensions of their new economic mobility and freedom.

All this is taking place in the context of a multi-polar world, in which states are drawn into cross-cutting and sometimes contradictory relations with one another on a range of issues—economics, environment, security, population, migration—while encountering forces of integration at some levels and disintegration at others.

In this sort of world, traditional bilateral enforcement measures—in the form of sanctions, linkages, and conditionalities—are of uncertain use, particularly in light of other policy objectives, such as promoting global community through ties of trade and commerce and helping to stabilize imperfect democracies which nonetheless enjoy significant regional influence. In a multi-polar world the United States has far less leverage when it acts on its own, and may even reap counterproductive results if other countries choose not to support U.S.-imposed sanctions against human rights abusers. Although traditional "sticks" still have their time and place—particularly in a multilateral setting—they are never universally applicable, but always have to be tailored to the specific situation of the countries involved. This is all the more true today—when the challenge facing us is how to help countries in the midst of wrenching political, social, and economic transitions achieve effective institutions that will foster human rights and sustainable democracy.

All the while, we are seeing a mounting coincidence between U.S. strategic interests and human rights and democracy. The relationship between those two terms, both conceptually and practically, is not without its difficulties. As Tom Carothers has pointed out in the Washington Quarterly, the human rights and democracy communities have over the years come to rather different perspectives on a number of issues, including the relative emphases to be placed on law versus politics, on strengthening government institutions, and on how to allocate U.S. funds abroad.

The way to reconcile this conceptual conflict is to recast human rights and democracy issues in terms of accountability. Accountability, as we are coming to see it, moves simultaneously in two directions: vertically, as ruling elites are to be held accountable to the people whose lives they rule, and horizontally, toward the broader international community. And indeed, the passing of the Cold War makes it more urgent and more possible than before to construct an international system of accountability and justice based on law and respect for human rights in the processes of government and politics.

Accountability becomes even more compelling in light of the horrific interethnic conflicts we are witnessing today. The genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia did not arise spontaneously out of the ether. They were fomented by individuals who sought to gain political ends through hideous means. Unless these leaders are held accountable, reconciliation and reconstruction will not be possible. In Rwanda and the Balkans, but not only there—indeed everywhere we see massive, genocidal human rights violations—the international community must investigate and assign responsibility by establishing international criminal tribunals. Why do we need such tribunals? Why is accountability so central to reconciliation?

First, unless the leaders of violence are made responsible for their acts, the cycle of retribution will continue and claim more lives. Fixing responsibility on those who have directed acts of mass violence can transform revenge into justice, affirm the rule of law, and break the cycle of violence.

Second, justice is necessary in order to lift the terrible burden of collective guilt that settles on any society whose leaders have directed such terrible violence. If countries like Rwanda and the states of the former Yugoslavia are to rebuild themselves, that burden must be lifted. Moreover, assigning responsibility enables the international community to differentiate between victims and aggressors, and helps expunge the cynical illusion that conflicts with an ethnic dimension are hopelessly complex and therefore insoluble.

The new international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are not a cure-all but rather an example of the sort of human rights accountability institution that we are now able to create in the post-Cold War world. War crimes tribunals, by definition, arise after the fact. Yet beyond dealing with present crises we must work to prevent future crises and conflicts. Meaningful accountability in tribunals will, with time, have a deterrent effect. But we must be creative in other ways as well.

The ambiguities in the nexus between democracy promotion and human rights protection are also at play in the context of accountability. From the perspective of democracy promotion, the overriding goal of political reconciliation among contending groups necessitates a lessening of personal accountability in order to create viable democratic institutions in divided countries, and to give elites of the ancien regime a stake in the viability of those institutions. From a human rights perspective, by contrast, marking the individual criminal responsibility of those responsible for human rights abuses is of overriding importance, not merely for reasons of principled humanitarianism, but to ensure that violations do not recur.

There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of this debate. It can and must be resolved by a commitment on the part of both the democracy and human rights communities to learn from each other and to develop a range of appropriate institutions of accountability that can be tailored to different countries.

The term accountability must be turned from an idea into a reality by developing a spectrum of institutional responses to human rights abuse, supple enough to respond to a range of issues, and concrete enough to actually bring about change in troubled societies, and not just burden the workload of the International Court of Justice or add new volumes to the statute books.

The challenge is not one of advocacy as such but of institution‑building. It is essential to construct viable domestic institutions of accountability and justice, undergirded by an international framework of human rights protection and democratic governance, whose overarching aim is not only to realize the inalienable rights which we believe to be the birthright of every person, but also to defuse and ameliorate political and social tensions, to create safety valves for societies undergoing difficult economic and social transitions, to cultivate local means of conflict resolution, and, over the long haul, to foster a more peaceful and just world.

The human rights policy of the Clinton Administration is working toward these ends, sometimes with forethought, sometimes reactively, in the mix of concept and improvisation that characterizes hands-on policymaking:

  • war crimes tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda;

  • truth commissions, like the one in El Salvador, which will publicly identify the perpetrators of past human rights abuses;

  • national human rights commissions of the sort we have encouraged for Mexico and India, which can take an active role in countries with democratic institutions, whose human rights practices often fall short;

  • strengthening the United Nations human rights system through the creation of the new position of High Commissioner for Human Rights, and generally working to coordinate UN human rights institutions, such as special rapporteurs, commissions, and observer teams;

  • working with regional bodies like the Organization of American States, as we have in supporting Haiti's human rights monitors;

  • launching the U.S. government's Interagency Working Group on Democracy and Human Rights, and giving a greater role to the State Department's human rights bureau in the allocation of foreign assistance monies;

  • developing rule of law and administration of justice assistance programs in a wide range of countries.

These programs have already met with substantial success in Central and Eastern Europe and their successes can be replicated elsewhere.  The common denominator of all these activities is that they support the building of institutions and structures that can foster human rights at the national and international level over the long haul.

This is not a substitute for traditional human rights advocacy, but an aug­mentation of it. Our objective is to address the new challenges of a chaotic post-­Cold War world in which forces of disintegration threaten to overwhelm the possibilities of international order. That is why we must develop new institu­tions for conflict prevention and accountability, and new strategies for sustain­able economic and political development.


John Shattuck is the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. At the time of publication, he was the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

© 1999 Yale University Press.  Originally published in Harold Hongju Koh and Ronald C. Slye, eds., Deliberative Democracy and Human Rights (Yale Univ. Press, 1999): 301-6.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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