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College of Arts and Sciences

Evangelista tackles individual rights vs. national security

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Cornell Chroncle
December 15, 2016

On Nov. 29, Matthew Evangelista, Cornell’s President White Professor of History and Political Science and director of the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, delivered the lectio magistralis at the University of Roma Tre in Rome, Italy, on “Human Rights, Armed Conflict and International Law: The Role of the Individual in the European Context.”

Evangelista discussed the “individualization of international politics,” which he defined as the “expansion of practices normally associated with states to include individuals” and “an increase in the value attributed to life and to human dignity.”

The attention on the value of the individual influences the relationship between international politics and international law, said Evangelista, “In particular, it blurs the distinction between three separate spheres: international humanitarian law (also known as the law of war), human rights law and international criminal law.”

Evangelista listed three paradoxical situations resulting from this individuation:

  • The laws of war increasingly limit military practices in favor of the protection of civilians (and combatants) from harm. However, at the same time, the interpretation of the law – by the United States, for example – allows for an expansion of the use of force to attack people outside recognized zones of conflict, through drones and other means.
  • International criminal tribunals and hybrid forms of transitional justice prosecute certain individuals, but leave others immune from prosecution – leaders of powerful countries, for example.
  • The names of some individual victims of violence and terror become known, in part because of their citizenship; others remain anonymous members of categories such as “refugee” or “collateral damage.”

Evangelista expressed skepticism about conceding individuals an increasingly important role in our explanations for international politics. He noted that even when legal cases are brought against powerful states, such as Russia, the government might pay a fine but not change its behavior.

“It will be difficult to protect the rights of individuals at the expense of state sovereignty – and, in particular, what states consider their right to use armed force for defense,” he said.

The task of political science, said Evangelista, is to identify the two competing mechanisms at work: “The first serves to limit the prerogative of the state in the interest of individual human rights in a spirit of cosmopolitanism. The second produced a reaffirmation of state sovereignty in defense of national political communities in a spirit of realism, and sometimes at the expense of individual rights.”

But, asked Evangelista, “Should we prefer sovereignty and national security or individual rights? Do we have to choose between them?”

It is obvious when things go too far toward an extreme, he said. “Donald Trump has made his choice between state sovereignty and human rights – at a risk, abroad, of destroying relations with allies and, in our country, of creating fear of discrimination on grounds of religion, gender, race, national origin and immigration status. His policies threaten mass surveillance of Muslims and expulsion of children and students born in the United States of undocumented parents. Trump has promised to reintroduce the practices of torture associated with the administration of George W. Bush – and ‘worse.’”

Evangelista noted that Trump is not unopposed, and “here we can hope to see a certain resistance to the individualization of the presidency of the United States, if officials refuse to violate the law or to carry out acts in violation of our Constitution and international law…[and] we hope that universities can make a contribution both to peace and to the safeguarding of individual rights.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

 Matthew Evangelista delivering lecture

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