States often use strategic messaging in order to defend their human rights violations. Such messaging often relies on promoting exclusionary ideologies or referencing national security doctrines in order to justify a breach of human rights. Less understood, however, are the specific mechanisms that makes such justifications so effective, especially when they aim to excuse unthinkable human rights atrocities. This is important to understand in order to prevent states from relying on these strategies and to hold them accountable when they violate human rights. To address this, the article demonstrates the role that emotion plays in the politics of human rights. Specifically, the article argues that states employ emotionally manipulative/deceptive strategies in attempts to either defend or obscure their human rights abuses. It builds on recent research in both the political and psychological sciences that evidence the role that emotion plays in issues of morality, rights, and justice. Research in this area refers to ‘moral emotions’ which are implicated in informing and communicating moral judgements, as well as motivating moral behaviour. This article argues that states effectively work to manipulate, or ‘disengage’, those emotional processes involved in moral judgements in attempts to reconstrue their human rights abuses as morally acceptable. In doing so, it advances our understanding as to how human rights violations persist, while also contributing to the literature on human rights theory and the role that emotion plays in the politics of human rights.