Let’s take an example of a fictional and very specific human rights violation: a Nigerian woman, let’s call her Joy, doesn’t have enough money to buy food and other necessities on a regular and predictable basis, for her and her family. And yes, poverty is a human rights violation, but if you insist you can easily rewrite this post with another example of a rights violation. Then you can also take another country. The choice of Nigeria is purely random, and nothing in this post is supposed to imply that certain rights violations are typical of Nigeria, or any other country for that matter.
Joy’s poverty can be a case of one or several types of rights violations. A first question we need to ask is whether we’re dealing with an act or a rule based rights violation. Joy’s predicament can be the result of her dominant husband, Emmanuel, who doesn’t allow her to work because he’s jealous and afraid that she may be unfaithful when given the occasion, but who also doesn’t bring home enough money himself. However, a more important cause of her poverty may be the predominant social and cultural rules against education and professional work for girls and women.
So we can try to understand whether rights violations are caused by the conduct and actions of individuals, groups, states etc. or rather by systems of rules and institutions in a society. Counterfactuals will be helpful: how would things have been different if someone had acted in another way or if some other rules had been in force?
In the case of act based violations we’ll also need to establish an agent’s intent, his ability to predict and to avert the consequences of his actions, the availability of alternative actions, the cost of alternative actions to the agent etc. It’s not Emmanuel’s intention to force Joy into poverty, but he can be expected to understand the consequences of his actions. There’s also an obvious alternative action available – let Joy work – which won’t impose a large cost on Emmanuel (most women are not unfaithful at work).
In the case of rule based violations as well we’ll need to see whether the rule’s consequences could have been predicted and averted, whether alternative rules are available, feasible, realistic and not too costly, and, if so, whether there is someone who can be held responsible for not implementing and enforcing those alternatives. If Joy’s poverty is the result of cultural rules against education and work for girls and women, then there are alternative rules available, but those may not be feasible in the short term given the cultural nature of the existing rules. However, we can perhaps point the finger at the government for not trying hard enough to impose an alternative rule such as compulsory education for girls or a law against gender discrimination in employment.
This leads us to the following point: both act based and rule based rights violations can be divided into two additional categories or types, call them active and passive types of rights violations. Rights violations may be caused by wrongful acts or by a failure to act. Or they may be caused by the wrong rules or by a failure to impose the right rules. Emmanuel can violate Joy’s rights by forcing her to stay home or by failing to help her find a job. Joy’s government can violate her rights by enforcing the cultural norms against education and work for girls and women, or by failing to enforce rules regarding compulsory education and employment discrimination.
As is clear from the last example, the rules in rule based rights violations can be either moral and cultural rules or legal and institutional rules (or both of course). And legal and institutional rules can be national or international. Joy’s poverty may be caused by national rules such as in the example above, but also by international legal rules such as those regarding trade restrictions (and even by national rules of other countries such as those restricting immigration).
Act based rights violations can of course also be national or international. If Joy’s government is corrupt and allows the country’s national resources to be expropriated by foreign companies that fill the pockets of government officials, then that will be the cause of her poverty.
In the case of national legal rule based violations, the cause of violations may be incidental or structural: the cause may be a single rule or a small set of specific rules (e.g. the enforcement of gender discrimination in education and work), but may also be a general failure of the rules in society. If Nigeria becomes a failed state, then that will be the cause of Joy’s poverty because it’s unlikely that an economy will flourish absent the rule of law and good governance – and if the economy won’t flourish, neither will Joy.
Other possible classifications of rights violations could differentiate between
- vertical and horizontal violations: vertical violations being those inflicted on individuals by a government, international institutions etc.; horizontal violations being those inflicted by individuals or groups on each other (both vertical and horizontal violations can be either rule or act based, caused by wrongful acts/rules or a failure to act/rule, national or international, incidental or structural etc.)
- zero sum violations, positive sum violations, or negative sum violations (Emmanuel or male citizens of Nigeria in general may profit from gender discrimination in the short run – zero sum – but may ultimately also suffer from it – negative sum – because gender discrimination reduces the pool of talent in a society)
- inflicted or self-inflicted violations (Joy may only have herself to blame for her poverty)
- current or transtemporal violations (Joy’s poverty may be the lingering effect of slavery)