February 04, 2013
Margaret McGuinness, J.D., is professor and co-director of the
Center for International and Comparative Law at St. John’s
School of Law. Before coming to St. John’s in 2010, Prof.
McGuinness taught at the University of Missouri School of Law, and
she has been a visiting scholar at the University of Georgia and
Temple University law schools as well as the Johns Hopkins School
of Advanced International Studies. She entered academia after
practicing law in the public and private sectors. Prof. McGuinness
began her professional life as a foreign service officer.
As an attorney and a legal scholar, what has influenced
your interest in international human rights?
I came into the field with the intention of focusing on
international law, international dispute resolution and human
rights. I lived in Great Britain as a child, so I was exposed to
travel and foreign cultures from an early age. I attended junior
high and high school in Ridgewood, NJ. Growing up during the
Cold War, in the post-Vietnam era, I found geo-politics endlessly
In the early ’90s, I was a foreign service officer at the U.S.
Embassy in Pakistan, with responsibility for the human-rights
portfolio. I met with human-rights activists, judges and members of
the police in various cities to better understand how the rule of
law did or didn’t work there. I also wrote the first draft of the
Embassy’s human-rights report. It was one of the comprehensive Country Reports on
Human Rights Practices that the State Department produces for
every nation in the world. The experience remained with me when I
returned to the States.
What is your current research project?
I’m examining the impact the State Department’s Country Reports
have had on international human-rights jurisprudence. Congress
passed legislation in the 1970s requiring the State Department to
monitor and report on human-rights practices around the world. The
annual report was intended as a way to constrain the president’s
ability to carry out diplomacy with regimes that were rights
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was criticism that the
reports themselves were not accurate depictions of
human-rights practices, that they soft-pedaled human-rights abuses
by allies while harshly criticizing others who were not allies. Yet
the reports have had staying power. They started appearing in legal
opinions and within the NGO (non-governmental organizations)
community to support factual claims of rights abuses. Advocates who
bring asylum claims to U.S. courts, for example, use the reports to
support their arguments concerning human-rights conditions in
other countries, while the U.S. government uses them to refute
those assertions in cases where it is looking to deny asylum.
My research has found that the Country Reports are used in other
nations' immigration cases as well.
Has the cause of international human rights lost or gained
ground during the course of your career?
Oh, it’s absolutely gained ground. In the ’70s, there was a robust
debate among professional diplomats, members of Congress and others
about the role of human-rights in U.S. foreign policy.
Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger embodied the view that
diplomacy is not about human rights; it’s about geo-strategic
interests. Since then, there’s been a definite shift toward an
understanding that observing human rights is valuable to us all. It
makes the world a more peaceful place, because the rule of law is
preferable to the rule of the gun.
I’ve also seen through my research that ideas change behavior.
Today, you would never hear foreign service officers object to
supporting human rights in the way the State Department objected to
congressional oversight of human-rights policy in the early ’70s.
It’s become normalized for them that U.S. foreign policy places
human rights at the top of the agenda. At the same time, the
international human-rights system itself has matured. You could say
we are witnessing a shift from the infancy of the human-rights
system to its coming of age.
How would you like your research to contribute to these
I’d like to contribute to a more measured understanding of the role
of human rights in foreign policy. U.S human-rights policy appears
somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, the U.S. acts as an
outsider to the international human-rights system, which some
scholars attribute to American “exceptionalism” on human rights.
Yet the U.S. government constantly measures the behavior of nation
states according to international human-rights standards. For
example, the State Department Country Reports don’t evaluate the
behavior and actions of states against the measure of the U.S.
Constitution; they reflect international standards taken from the
Declaration of Human Rights, the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international
How does your research impact your teaching at St. John’s
School of Law?
My interests inform a great deal of my teaching at St. John’s. The
legal field is constantly evolving, and globalization will present
challenges to my students when they graduate and begin their
careers as practicing attorneys. They’ll be facing intense
competition from around the world. They’re going to have to be
nimble, entrepreneurial and acquire expertise in international as
well as local law. Preparing students for this evolving climate is
one purpose of the St. John’s Center for
International and Comparative Law (CICL), which I co-direct
with Chris Borgen
[Christopher J. Borgen, J.D., Associate Dean for International
Studies and Professor of Law].
We connect the study and the practice of international law in a
variety of ways that benefit our students—not just through courses,
but internships, study abroad offerings and opportunities to
present papers. We want to ensure that St. John’s students are
globally oriented as they enter the profession of law.
I’ve also engaged several of my law students to work as research
assistants for me, to read and analyze U.S. and foreign case law
and reports by United Nations human-rights agencies as well as NGO
documents, to better understand how the Country Reports on human
rights are used by claimants, governments, judges and advocates
around the world.
What brought you to St. John’s School of
I was interested in returning to the New York area, and I was
excited by the plans Dean Simons
[Michael A. Simons, J.D., Dean and John V. Brennan Professor of
Law and Ethics] and Chris Borgen—whom I have known professionally
for many years—had put in place for expanding global programs. My
expectations have only been exceeded in the two years I have been
What do you like best about teaching here?
That’s easy—my students and colleagues, who make the experience
exciting and meaningful.