Global good Samaritans? Human rights foreign policy in Costa Rica.

Author:Brysk, Alison

When and why do certain states help to promote and enforce human rights at the global level? As the constructivist approach suggests, for global citizen states the principled pursuit of human rights is not exceptional altruism, but rather a consciously constructed alternative pathway of national interest. Costa Rica's record of human rights influence in multilateral institutions and processes is enduring, multifaceted, and contributes to globally significant initiatives. Yet Costa Rica did not require wealth or power to afford the luxury of pursuing a principled foreign policy. National identity and international society--interpreted and developed by policymakers--produced a meaningful and surprising contribution to global human security by a country at the periphery of global governance. KEYWORDS: human rights, foreign policy, constructivism, norms, international society.


Human rights is our national interest. --Costa Rican Foreign Ministry official When and why do certain states help to promote and enforce human rights at the global level? Although states are more often the targets than the advocates of human rights criticism, some states do support human rights in global institutions and project human rights in their foreign policies. Their influence can be critical for framing and ratifying treaties, creating and staffing multilateral institutions, monitoring and sanctioning offenders, assisting victims, directing resources, implementing peace processes, catalyzing transnational initiatives on emerging issues, and introducing new understandings of rights to the global agenda. (1) How can we explain this positive form of global citizenship?

Are "global good Samaritans" unique altruists or proponents of a more enlightened and collective form of national interest? A long-standing tradition of foreign policy analysis explores the influence of political culture and national identity on state behavior, but in this approach altruistic norms generally compete with more structural national interests. (2) At the regional level, hegemonic powers promote democratization and human rights in the Americas with an uneasy blend of power and principle that aspiring peripheral promoters of human rights must navigate. (3) The constructivist approach to international relations can help to reconcile the seeming contradiction of the rules of realism in the political culture approach and to situate regional dynamics in a broader framework of the interactive constitution of principled politics. In a constructivist perspective, global citizen states consciously construct an alternative pathway of national interest. State identities are constructed in relationship to international society, in a path-dependent process of historical branch points and investments. These identities then shape foreign policies as they filter perceptions, construct foreign policy roles, build constraining international and domestic institutions, and provide principled rationales and domestic constituencies for political leaders. (4)

Although a more detailed argument for this construction of principled national interest is presented below, it is immediately reflected in the self-understanding of policymakers. Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry officials spoke of human rights promotion pragmatically as a source of "moral power," "comparative advantage," and "long-term security" in the international system. As one official put it, "The promotion of peace in Central America, environmental conservation, human rights, and democracy all make the world a better place--and that makes the world better for Costa Rica." (5) Officials do not make the more straightforward and externally rewarded claim that they are altruists--or the domestically legitimate claim that they are nationalists--but rather consciously adopt a synthetic alternative.

In this study, I analyze the record, sources, and rationale of Costa Rica's human rights foreign policy. Although assessing the motives for policy is inherently difficult, a combination of primary and secondary documents with "process tracing" through interviews can help chart the cognitive map that guides policymakers. Participants' claims regarding incentives and influence must be examined critically--but multiple perspectives, consistency of accounts with behavior and over time, and consideration of available alternatives can help to bolster the reliability of self-reporting. (6)

First, I examine Costa Rica's international human rights record. Then, I assess the blend of structural and constructed sources of a positive policy of human rights promotion: from small power status or small-sized states, to domestic democracy, to social democratic ideology, to regional niche. Finally, I consider the lessons the experience of this principled peripheral state may offer for good global citizenship in other beleaguered regions. The ability of global good Samaritans to reconstruct rather than contradict national interest means that state promotion of global human rights may be an option for many more members of the international community. It also implies that the international human rights regime can be strengthened further at the interstate level, alongside the struggle for the democratization of global governance.

Costa Rica: "The Little Country That Could"

Our foreign policy is like the bumblebee--it's really too heavy to fly, but the bee doesn't know this, so it just keeps moving its wings and stays in the air anyway. --Ambassador Rodrigo Carreras, former vice-minister of foreign affairs Costa Rica qualifies as a "global good Samaritan" because its record of human rights promotion is enduring and multifaceted, and it makes a meaningful contribution to globally significant initiatives. A recent foreign minister underlined the centrality of this role: "The policy of promotion and respect for human rights and democracy is not only internal but has become the active, constant, and priority goal of Costa Rica's foreign policy in the major international organizations." (7) Among other initiatives heavily influenced by one small country, Costa Rica played an important role in the establishment and activities of the UN Human Rights Commission--and two generations later, campaigned successfully for the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Costa Rica was a key sponsor of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (which greatly strengthens monitoring capabilities) and of the path-breaking Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities. At a regional level, Costa Rica crafted a peace process to resolve three civil wars and promoted and continues to host the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). As the comparative study of human rights and foreign policy cited above suggests, Costa Rica's influence in multilateral institutions follows the pathways outlined for other human rights promoters; such states help to create institutions, frame treaties, implement human rights policies, and introduce new understandings of rights to the global agenda.


Costa Rica was an early and active advocate of global institutions, serving as the cochair of the London preparatory conference for the San Francisco meeting that founded the United Nations itself. Costa Rica's first ambassador to the UN, Fernando Soto Harrison, was vice-president of the founding Human Rights Commission (Soto Harrison often presided--since the official chair was also the prime minister of New Zealand, who was distracted by national responsibilities). Soto Harrison, who had been involved in the establishment of Costa Rica's Supreme Electoral Tribunal--a path-breaking domestic democratic institution--worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to draft core procedures and documents of the human rights regime. Costa Rica's Soto Harrison recalls that small countries were assigned to the seemingly insignificant Third Committee but were determined to use the emerging institution as a platform for a broader global vision of promoting principles. (8)

Costa Rica was a founder of the UN Children's Fund and the first country to sign the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the same year, Costa Rica's long-standing diplomatic advocate for human rights, Fernando Volio Jimenez, became president of the UN Human Rights Commission. Costa Rica consistently sought election to this body and held a seat in 1964-1967, 1975-1977, 1980-1988, 1992-1994, and 2001--an unusual span for a single small country. Costa Rica used this position actively. In 2001, for example, Costa Rica proposed three important initiatives in the commission: a global campaign of human rights education, an Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and an improved system of information gathering by UN bodies for country reports on human rights (more studies, interagency collaboration, and wider coverage). (9) During one of the "lulls" in commission membership, 1988-1990, two Costa Ricans headed the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (Luis Varela and Jorge Rhenan Segura), and they remain active in this priority policy area.

Costa Rica helped create the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (established in 1995), which was based on an initial proposal introduced by the indefatigable Fernando Volio Jimenez in 1965 and renewed at periodic intervals. Costa Rica's campaign for the new institution resumed in 1980 but gained critical mass in 1993, when Costa Rica hosted the Latin American regional preparatory conference for the Vienna World Human Rights Conference. Then foreign minister Bernd Niehaus, UN veteran and minister of justice Elizabeth Odio, and former Human Rights Commission representative Jorge Rhenan Segura exercised...

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