The Ethics of Human Rights (39): The Effect of Time on Human Rights Violations

What is the effect of the passage of time on violations of human rights?

  1. Perhaps there’s no effect: a crime remains a crime, and a rights violation remains a rights violation, even if all the victims have died long ago and their descendants don’t continue to suffer from the fact that their ancestors were wronged.
  2. Perhaps the passage of time erodes the severity of rights violations.
  3. Or perhaps the passage of time makes rights violations worse.

I think all these three effects can occur. Let’s look at them in turn.

Time has no effect

We have to distinguish this kind of case from cases in which the descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors (I’ll deal with those latter cases below). What we’re talking about here are rights violations that have occurred many years ago, perhaps centuries ago, but don’t have an impact on the distant descendants of the initial victims. (All severe rights violations are likely to have some impact on a generation or two of descendants, but the question here is how the passage of time affects rights violations, and hence we need to imagine a sufficiently long period of time).

An example could be the execution some centuries ago of a group of political dissidents. Contrary to the case of slavery for example, you can’t reasonably claim that the descendants of the dissidents still suffer from the original rights violation centuries after it has happened. What you could claim, however, is that the passage of time didn’t reduce or increase the importance of the original rights violation: it’s still a stain on the nation’s self-image.

The significance of the original rights violation doesn’t lie in the impact it has on descendants who are presently living – like it’s arguably the case with the impact of slavery on currently living African Americans for instance. It’s significance lies in the impact on the whole of the nation. The rights violation took place in the past, but it didn’t end there. The victims are dead, but the crime reverberates throughout time.

So what should we do? We obviously can’t compensate the victims. They’re gone. We can’t compensate the descendants because they don’t suffer like for instance the descendants of slaves suffer. What we can do to make things right is to acknowledge, to apologize, to memorialize etc. Otherwise, no amount of time will reduce the impact of the original rights violation.

Time erodes the rights violation

Case number 2 seems counterintuitive. How can the simple passage of time make things better? We’re not talking here about things getting better simply because people forget or have a lack of historical sensitivity. Something more profound can cause historical rights violations to dissipate or even disappear. Jeremy Waldron has given an interesting example of the way in which the passage of time diminishes or even removes the impact of an injustice.

Say tribe A steals a water hole from tribe B after it has used force to remove tribe B from the territory. That’s, in some sense, a violation of the property rights of tribe B. However, after some time, an ecological catastrophe occurs, resulting in the said water hole to become the only one in a vast area. It can be argued that tribe A now has a right to use the water hole, and to do so to the same extent as tribe B. If tribe A grants equal access to tribe B there is no longer an injustice.

Another example is a rights violation that has an impact on the descendants of the original victims, say slavery. These descendants continue to suffer from the harm done to their ancestors, as is arguably the case for slavery in the U.S. However, even if the descendants suffer, it’s likely that the suffering diminishes over time. We can assume that both suffering and the struggle against suffering are to some variable extent attributable to people’s own actions (or inactions) and to current events, and not entirely to historical events. So if we decide to pay restorations to descendants of the victims of historical rights violations because the consequences of these rights violations reverberate to some extent throughout time in the sense that they still harm people today, we should apply a so-called discount rate.

Time makes things worse

An example of case number 3 is resource depletion. If past (or current) generations squander(ed) all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it is likely that their descendants will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights, and that the standard of living will go down as time goes by.

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