Suzanne Katzenstein and Jack Snyder are calling for “human rights pragmatism” in this month’s The National Interest. Their article, “Expediency of the Angels,” draws on quantitative human rights literature showing the limits of “naming and shaming” and specifying the conditions under which human rights strategies can be most effective – in particular when activists speak to the power and interests of “spoilers” and construct schemes that enable local communities to “escape perverse incentive traps.”

This argument is right on the money. But Katzenstein and Snyder miss an important element in a human rights pragmatism that would tread a middle ground between principle and politics: the trade-offs between different rights and rights-bearers themselves that can come from making these hard choices.

For example, the authors’ discussion of female genital cutting draws on Gerry Mackie’s landmark comparison of genital cutting and foot-binding as largely a collective action problem among families who might prefer to stop cutting, but who worry about disadvantaging daughters on the marriage market. The solution both in early twentieth century China and today in some parts of Africa was not to “name and shame” but to create systems of public pledges by parents to allow their sons to marry only un-mutilated girls.

This is indeed an excellent example of a pragmatic approach that can be effective at reducing the incidence of cutting – but notice the rights trade-offs. The scheme described relies on the assumption that parents can choose their children’s marital partners in advance – a violation of the UDHR. And as in China, girls in such communities who were cut before the pledges took place will now be disadvantaged; their economic survival and social status in the community will now be compromised as a result of the human rights campaigners’ success, coupled with being born at just the wrong time. While this does not invalidate the goal of reducing cutting or the strategy, it suggests that the recognizing the externalities of these strategies is important if the goal is to blend principle and pragmatism, rather than subordinate one to the other.

Human rights pragmatism is not, therefore, just a set of tradeoffs between principles and power or between universal standards and local realities. It can also involve balancing the needs of particular vulnerable groups, and privileging particular kind of rights.

Katzenstein and Snyder would no doubt respond that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good: reducing mutilations in Africa is worth certain trade-offs; some rights are less important, some abuses more terrible, some problems more amenable to solution now, and that campaigners should be pragmatic in setting their priorities. And I would agree. My concern is that such hard choices be recognized and evaluated in the context of promoting human rights pragmatism, for too often they go unacknowledged until it is too late.

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