Calculus: Deal Doggedness and Human Rights Diplomacy

As the issue of denuclearization in the interest of global peace and security continues to be of pressing concern to the world, there is a growing tendency to prioritize such matters of international import above concerns around the problematic human rights records in countries like Iran and North Korea. However, concerns regarding the human rights situation within a country’s borders should not be relegated to the backburner while negotiating deals regarding international peace and security owing to two broad, interconnected reasons.

First, egregious violations of human rights within national borders – by their very nature – cut across these national borders and thus merit international anxiety. In particular, repressive regimes foster instability, dissatisfaction, violent conflict, and frequently, radicalization. While it is tempting to call for an emphasis on America’s “softer” side in response to human rights concerns beyond American borders, it may be prudent to acknowledge instead that the way a country treats its people can be of consequence to polities the world over. Accordingly, if Azadeh Moaveni’s conclusion that any substantial improvement in Iran’s human rights situation demands larger, structural reforms from within is accurate, any gains consolidated by finalizing deals such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are necessarily of limited value for international peace and security. In fact, regimes that mete out systematic repression to their own people, such as Iran and North Korea, are “inherently destabilizing”; their volatile internal dynamics, posited against the background of nuclearization, present huge risks to international security, which merit due investigation, analysis and response. In such a scenario, allowing horrific internal conditions to play second fiddle while negotiating sweeping arrangements for global peace is to miss the forest for the trees.

Secondly and more specifically, acknowledging that both these concerns are relevant to the all-pervasive ‘international security’ problem could also be helpful in selling negotiations and engagement with an adversary state such as Iran to domestic constituencies. By emphasizing its potential to raise Iran’s profile in the world order and bring economic relief within Iranian borders, President Rouhani, for instance, garnered some measure of domestic support for a deal which – on the face of it – seemed like a massive concession of sovereignty. In an increasingly polarized international order, where domestic forces operating within one of the negotiating parties may view the very act of approaching the negotiating table as an admission of weakness, acknowledging that there are costs to peace and security on both sides of the coin may be a wiser move.

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