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Human Rights Violations: The Root of International Conflict

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By Dr. Elise Carlson-Rainer
Assistant Professor, Doctoral Programs at American Public University

Human rights violations are often the root cause of domestic, regional, and international conflict.[1] Whether it is discrimination based upon religion, ethnic minorities, race or national origin, the genesis of war is often found in the systematic denial of human rights. This year, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated: “Promoting human rights and democratic governance is a core element of U.S. foreign policy. These values form an essential foundation of stable, secure and functioning societies. Standing up for human rights and democracy is not just a moral imperative, but is in the best interests of the United States in making the world more stable and secure.”

What the Secretary’s words reflect is that addressing human rights globally is not just a form of idealism, rather it is a critical component of a state’s national security. Foreign policy leaders and scholars such as Daniel Mahanty in The National Interest has increasingly recognized the critical intersection of human rights and national security: “To think that torture, prisoner abuse, extrajudicial killings, rape, political detentions, and excessive use of lethal force by police are irrelevant to our security interests is not only an odd proposition on its surface, but entirely contrary to our national experience.”[2] In this short piece, I argue two main points: 1) International relations scholars and practitioners have traditionally undervalued human rights as a critical aspect of security policy and 2) Academics have a great deal of potential to collaborate with policy makers in creating a more strategic approach to choosing tools for promoting human rights and democracy in international engagements.

As background, addressing human rights in foreign policy is a relatively new public policy. Before World War II, leaders historically turned a blind eye to how people were treated by their own governments. Raising human rights concerns in another country formerly was seen as meddling in domestic affairs, and a breach of sovereignty. World War II changed that international norm. Out of the ashes of the conflict, leaders realized the imperative to address genocide, religious discrimination and other human rights violations. Thus, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in the United Nations.[3] This document set forth an international doctrine that still guides international law and human rights policy norms. Since that time, many governments have increasingly recognized that international peace and stability are critical to any society’s own security and economic development. In Europe or any continent, leaders have come to understand that conflict in even the smallest country impacts their own security.[4]

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, instability in the Middle East again raised human rights into the political spotlight as the root cause of civil conflict. Last year, President Obama told an audience of Middle East leaders that “governments across the Middle East who make a ‘commitment to justice and human rights’ will continue to have a friend in America…when governments do not lift up their citizens, it’s a recipe for instability and strife.”

Given this political reality, over the last few decades most liberal democracies have established a wing of promoting human rights and democracy within their foreign policy.[5] Across the globe, diplomats promote free and fair elections, the right for political opponents to organize and assemble poets and bloggers to have freedom of expression, religious freedom and beyond.[6] Human rights and humanitarian assistance is now a multi-billion-dollar aid industry, including the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), aid agencies of other liberal democracies and international bodies of the United Nations.[7] It is critical for international relations experts to understand its impacts, and how this funding and diplomacy can be used most strategically.

While many governments conduct human rights diplomacy, there is very little qualitative or quantitative work on the efficacy of this work. Foreign policy leaders choose from a variety of tools to promote human rights. It could be building a domestic violence shelter to address women’s rights, train candidates in political party development, conduct interfaith dialogues or fund international elections monitors.

Human rights diplomacy can also come in the form of shaming: the European Union may release a statement publicly criticizing Russia’s treatment of its LGBT minority population,[8] or the U.S. may openly criticize Iran’s arrest of peaceful protestors.[9] There is a great deal of potential for trained academics to study this field more in depth and provide greater systematic evidence to policy officers on the efficacy of their specific strategy in a country.

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The siloed aspect of foreign affairs does not often allow military and defense leaders to attain training or expertise on international human rights norms. Therefore, human rights are often undervalued by security officials. Women, ethnic or religious minorities can be left out of peace building operations, often leading to long-term unresolved conflict.

However, sometimes we can see the fusion of human rights and security policy. For example, NATO allies have set international human rights standards for newly built Afghan prisons,[10] and Bangladesh military units have been trained in international standard procedures for search and seizure of their citizens. Far beyond building military alliances and trade partnerships, security personnel benefit from understanding the critical correlation between human rights abuses and civil unrest.

As practitioners of security studies, it is critical for us to understand the root of conflict. It is equally imperative to understand the causes for peace. Scholars can provide more systematic evidence for foreign policy leaders to devise strategic security policies. This work helps leaders to be able to stress the importance of upholding human rights with their foreign counterparts at home and abroad.

About the Author

Dr. Carlson Rainer serves as Assistant Professor of International Relations in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Public University. She is a former U.S. diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Dr. Carlson-Rainer also worked with the U.S. Mission to the UN and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in the field of human rights and foreign policy.


[1] Müllerson, Rein 1997. Human Rights Diplomacy. Routledge, London, UK.

[2] Mahanty, Daniel 2013. “Realists, Too, Can Stand for Human Rights.” The National Interest. http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/realists-too-can-stand-human-rights-9208

[3] Citation for UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[4] Katzenstein, Peter. 1985. Small States in World Markets. Cornell University Press, NY; Ingebritsen, Christine 2006. Scandinavia in World Politics. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland.

[5] Brysk, Allison. 2009. Global Good Samaritans; Human Rights and Foreign Policy. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

[6] For example, United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/Home.aspx; U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor https://www.state.gov/j/drl/index.htm

[7] For example, the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) budget https://www.usaid.gov/results-and-data/budget-spending; Sweden’s International Development Agency budget http://www.sida.se/English/About-us/Budget/ and UNDP’s budget

[8] “European Parliament Condemns Detention, Torture And Killings Gay Men In Chechnya” http://www.lgbt-ep.eu/press-releases/european-parliament-condemns-detention-torture-and-killings-gay-men-in-chechnya/

[9] For example, https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2011/06/165369.htm

[10] For example, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) Afghan program “Prison Improvements.” With CPD, CSSP has trained over 90 percent of Afghan prison personnel and alleviated overcrowding in 13 provincial prisons. Emergency Response Training enabled the CPD to regain control of Pol-i-Charkhi prison from insurgent inmates two years ago. INL also has a corrections construction program, which includes an extensive renovation of Pol-i-Charkhi prison.” https://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/c27187.htm