How Human Rights Watch Tried to Suppress a Targeted Killing Norm

14203284_10153734268660894_3046983579658798280_nThe United States has been persistently trying to build support for its case that its targeted killings should be considered legal. Human Rights Watch has been actively trying to resist this effort, with varying degrees of success. This clash offers us deeper insights into how the global rules of the game are determined.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently stated, “It’s long past time for the US to assess the legality of its targeted killings, as well as the broader impact of these strikes on civilians.” HRW has doggedly resisted U.S. efforts to normalize what has long been taboo: the killing of specific individuals outside conventionally understood battlefields.

International relations scholarship tells us a lot about how human rights groups try to introduce new ideas to improve the human experience and how states attempt to thwart these efforts.  But it tells us less about the inverse: Namely, how human rights groups aim to impede state-led campaigns to expand their ability to act in the global arena.

My recent article explores the ways in which HRW, a prominent member of the anti-targeted killing network, strove to do just that. My article demonstrates how HRW initially tried to entirely suppress the emergence of a targeted killing norm by demanding the United States halt its denials and admit to the practice. HRW also named and shamed the United States and its allies for violating human rights and sovereignty norms.

Then came bin Laden’s death, which was a watershed moment in changing global opinion about this practice, from one which largely opposed it to a tepid, and perhaps temporary, tolerance of it. This change in global opinion contributed to a change in how HRW resisted targeted killings. It switched strategies by focusing on suppressing the emergence of an unbridled norm, one that might clash with deeply entrenched protections afforded to state sovereignty and human rights.

For instance, it sought to limit the number of US actors engaged in targeted killing by pushing for the end of CIA participation in the program.  It also pressured the United States to be more transparent about civilian deaths in a bid to restrict the practice and hold it accountable for “collateral damage.”

By showcasing this contestation between norm champions and norm suppressors, the article also further refines Finnemore and Sikkink’s exemplary norm life cycle model, highlighting the dynamism in global normative debates. Normative content is not static, remaining unchanged once its advocates take it up. It is subject to modification as a result of the battles waged over its prescriptions and parameters throughout the norm life cycle. These conflicts have the potential to both strength and weaken norms.

In my article, I also emphasize that normative death and regress is a possibility at any stage in this model. Normative ideas can fail to emerge. Even well-established norms are vulnerable to attacks which may eventually lead to their demise. Furthermore, there is nothing inevitable about the normative journey. Just as entrepreneurs can help their ideas advance through the norm life cycle, norm suppressors can stall their progress and move them backwards.

Additionally, I illustrate how similar state and non-state actors act, both as advocates for new ideas and resistors to those ideas. Among other things, both sets of actors effectively deploy frames to attract supporters and weaken their opponents. They also comparably form alliances to further their objectives. Furthermore, I argue that norms scholars should study “bad” norms, norms that widely differ from their rights-protecting counterparts that dominate the scholarly landscape. Doing so is not only more faithful to a neutral understanding of norms (shared understandings of appropriate behavior in a given situation), but will also help us understand a wider range of political phenomena like the current global rise of right wing populism, regulatory moves to control cyberspace, or the growing push to limit or abolish gay rights.

Studying norm suppression not only fills noteworthy gaps in the scholarly corpus, but also helps us better unravel intriguing puzzles like why some norms fail to emerge and others find more success. These insights allow us to better understand how norms operate in the global arena, significantly contributing to theoretical and policy-making debates.

Betcy Jose is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado Denver. She works on issues related to global norms, international humanitarian law, and civilian self-protection. She has published in Critical Studies on Terrorism, International Studies Review, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Foreign Affairs, World Politics Review, and Duck of Minerva. She is currently working on a book manuscript exploring contestation in armed conflict norms to be published in 2018. Her Twitter handle is @betcyj.