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Kathryn Sikkink

Professor Kathryn Sikkink

Tracking the human rights trail

Sikkink was one of three new Regents Professors honored on Sept. 8

By Gayla Marty

Sept. 6, 2006; updated Sept. 15

In 1976, Kathryn Sikkink was a University of Minnesota student who'd won a scholarship to study for a year in Latin America. A few days before she left, she opened the New York Times to see her host country named on the editorial page. "Uruguay: Torture Chamber of the Americas," it said, describing a report by Amnesty International. That didn't stop Sikkink. She got on a plane and, for the next year, the soft-spoken Minnesotan would doggedly follow the story, interviewing diplomats, officials, students and professors in Uruguay. Slowly, she watched as the international spotlight began to turn the tide of fear and repression.

Thirty years later, Sikkink is a distinguished political science professor in the University's College of Liberal Arts. And she's still getting on planes. Her work tracking and explaining how new norms form for human rights have made her a world-renowned scholar of comparative politics and international relations.


Megan Gunnar, Institute of Child Development, College of Education and Human Development
Profile: "A leader in the study of children and stress" (July 21, 2006)

Kathryn Sikkink, Department of Political Science, College of Liberal Arts, with additional appointments in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Law School
Faculty profile

Donald Truhlar, Department of Chemistry, Institute of Technology
Profile: "A super computing chemist" (Sept. 12, 2006)

For more information about all three faculty members to be honored Sept. 8, see the news release, "University of Minnesota names three new Regents Professors."

On Sept. 8, the Board of Regents honored Sikkink and two more new Regents Professors, the highest designation given to members of the University faculty. Child development researcher Megan Gunnar, theoretical chemist Donald Truhlar, and Sikkink bring the group of top scholars to 23.

"This is a huge honor, to be in a group of incredibly great professors," she says. "And it's a tremendous validation of my work."

One day this summer, Sikkink sat in her sunny West Bank office overlooking the Mississippi River as it heads south toward the Gulf of Mexico--a powerful symbol of the currents that connect her to all points global. She talked urgently with a prospective student from Maryland about opportunities at the U. Her quiet enthusiasm often broke into laughter, a clear expression of her joy in teaching and the research she described.

Sikkink is considered a giant in political science, recognized worldwide for her methodological approaches to the study of human rights, the role of nongovernmental organizations, and comparative politics. She's also known for her powerful analytical instincts, which have completely reoriented the way scholars think about complex political interactions in the world today.

Her books have earned many "best book" awards by academic organizations in her fields. Activists Beyond Borders has been translated into Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Her articles have become classic references not only in political science but sociology, law, history and environmental science. Countless undergraduate and graduate students from around the world--some who've won Rhodes, Truman and other scholarships--have been changed by her teaching, advising and mentoring.

Sikkink gets energy from new ideas and from tracking them like a sleuth. She says we are witnessing a remarkable transformation, which she and a colleague have dubbed the "justice cascade."

From a wide, immaculate cabinet in the corner of her office, she pulls printouts documenting a clear rise in the number of trials for human rights abuses.

"When you study international relations, rule number one is--guess what--that [the dominant] break the rules," says Sikkink. "But--what's new is that norms and rules matter. You can temporarily throw your weight around, but might does not make right permanently. Witness Augusto Pinochet--people thought he could never be touched, and now he's a broken man. It used to be that someone like Pinochet in Chile or Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti or Idi Amin [in Uganda] could commit human rights crimes and then retire on the Riviera. But that's changed. Now they can't be sure they won't face trial."

Leadership in calling those responsible to justice is coming from countries that have suffered most from brutal dictatorships, she says--Argentina, in particular. That's why Sikkink's research depends on regular trips to Latin America, the Netherlands--seat of the 100-nation, treaty-based International Criminal Court--and other countries. The Regents Professorship research stipend will make that travel easier to accomplish, allowing her to continue research on some of those distant trials.

The paths that connect Sikkink to faraway places started even before college, when she was growing up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. By the time she finished her undergraduate degree, she had studied in Spain, Mexico, Uruguay, and East Africa. She got accepted into Columbia University but instead worked for a human rights organization for a year. Then she won a Danforth fellowship, which pushed her toward graduate school.

"By then, I knew I wasn't cut out for human rights work," she says. "I was always the one asking, 'Shouldn't we study this a little more? Shouldn't we read more about this first?' But we had to get down to work, get somebody out of jail. I was happier with the life of the mind!"

Yet the life of Sikkink's mind is constantly guided by concrete experiences as a human rights worker and a friend of those living under repression. Hers is a thoughtful but physically demanding quest that has led to several prestigious recognitions and awards. In 2001, she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the highest honors and recognition that can be bestowed on a scholar in her field. In 2002, she was elected to the Council on Foreign Relations. In a 2005 survey by political scientists at the College of William and Mary that asked, "Who has been doing the most interesting work in international relations in recent years?"--she was in the top ten.

"The bias in the academy used to be strongly toward pure theory. A wonderful thing about Kathryn is that she has helped to change that--she is a strong theorist, and she also has informed the practice of human rights."

"She's smart as a whip and very motivated," says department chair John Sullivan, Regents Professor of Political Science. "She also has the discipline and skill to write path-breaking books about her work....The bias in the academy used to be strongly toward pure theory. A wonderful thing about Kathryn is that she has helped to change that--she is a strong theorist, and she also has informed the practice of human rights."

Sikkink is a magnet for students and scholars alike. She, in turn, is clearly motivated not only by the scholarship but by students. She remains closely connected to undergraduates, perhaps because her own undergraduate experience played such a critical role in launching her career. Knowing firsthand what an honors program can do for an individual student, for example, is one reason she devoted many hours during the past year to work on a task force to improve the University's honors programs.

Sikkink is also motivated by her family. Her newest book is dedicated to her two sons, whom she is raising with husband Doug Johnson. She and Johnson met as students at the U; since 1988, he has directed the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, which provides medical and psychological care to about 200 survivors of torture each year.

"A lot of Minnesotans care about what happens to people around the world," says Sikkink. "They're interested in the same questions that interest me...Why would it happen in Rwanda, for instance, that in a hundred days, almost a million people would be killed? And what should the United States do, say, in Darfur? And when it's over, who's responsible? Will they be held accountable? What are ways to keep it from happening again?

"We need to be concerned about democracy and the rule of law because we know that people who abuse their own citizens are unstable and more likely to provoke terrorism," she continues. "We all will be safer in a peaceful world."

For more information about Sikkink's work, see her faculty bio. Sikkink is currently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on a long-planned semester of research.