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Human Rights and Ethics

Principled Engagement: Promoting Human Rights by Engaging Abusive Regimes

The purpose of this project is to explore "principled engagement" as a distinct approach to promoting human rights. Debates over how to promote human rights usually posit those who favour condemnation, ostracism, and sanctions ("isolation") against those who believe in opening up countries through international political and economic integration ("engagement"). Yet, neither of these approaches has been particular successful, particularly when it comes to the most abusive regimes on the periphery of the global political and economic system. Isolation and engagement alike persistently fail to generate the international consensus needed for each approach to work. Moreover, both approaches have substantial perverse effects for the human rights of the general population in target countries.

The concept of "principled engagement" delineates a "third way;" a middle ground between isolation and engagement. Unlike isolation, principled engagement relies on largely non-coercive means. It does not, however, sweep the problems under the rug, but works pro-actively with governments and societies to expose the weaknesses of existing systems, promote alternative policies, and strengthen domestic forces for change. Indeed, while both isolation and engagement essentially ignore the powers-that-be, principled engagement directly engages with those responsible for the human rights situation, as well as broader groups in society, to address concrete problems and improve the practical framework for human rights protection.

While principled engagement is undertaken by a variety of international and national agencies and organisations on a daily basis, it has rarely, if ever, been applied as an overall UN or government strategy for promoting human rights in countries where this issue is a foreign policy priority. For that reason perhaps, there is very little, if any, academic literature that explores the modalities, successes or failures of this approach. In short, there is almost no public debate on what principled engagement means, what it should mean, how it can be used strategically to complement, or as an alternative to other foreign policies, among other questions. This project intends to address this important gap in the literature on international statecraft, as well as to provide concrete lessons and recommendations for policy makers. The project develops a theoretical model of principled engagement and involves a series of case studies aimed at elucidating how it works in practice.


Page last modified 2019.04.16.

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