Human Rights Promotion (24): Forcing People To Be Free

In the case of a people or a nation whose rights are violated and who complain about it, it seems pretty obvious that certain types of foreign intervention aimed at helping them is morally acceptable and maybe even necessary, at least as long as the means we use are also morally acceptable (as long as we don’t cause more problems than we solve, for instance). A much tougher question: can we, irrespective of the risks inherent in any type of foreign intervention, promote human rights abroad if the people in the target country do not want their human rights protected?

It’s evidently paradoxical and self-contradictory to force someone to be free. Rights imply freedom and respect for the choices and the consent of people. That’s what they’re for. Hence imposing them is futile. And yet, freedom isn’t always the result of people’s free choice. Just as peace isn’t always restored with peaceful means. So maybe there are good reasons to force rights on unwilling recipients, but before exploring those reasons I should make it clear that the imposition of rights on unwilling recipients should be the exception. Consent is important. People have a right to reject their rights and outsiders are normally not allowed to impose rights in an authoritarian way.

This general rule is, however, general rather than absolute. I can see at least four reasons why we can sometimes deviate from it.

First, it’s obviously incorrect to reduce rights to a matter of choice, to something that can be chosen or rejected. In a sense, rights are prior to choice: it’s only when people have their rights that they can make an informed choice. That is true for all types of choice, including the choice to reject rights: only after free discussion about the pros and cons of rights can those rights be reasonably rejected. While it’s not impossible that people who have rights may decide to forgo them after such a discussion, I think it’s unlikely. The more common occurrence is opposition from people who have never had rights and have therefore never had the opportunity to make an informed choice about rights. It’s likely that unfamiliarity, the force of habit or tradition, fear, indoctrination or a combination of those plays a part in their rejection. While those social, political or psychological processes are not in themselves sufficient to override people’s choices, they do make those choices suspect. The least one can say is that those choices are not sufficiently informed. And if the status of people’s choices is lowered, then the relative status of intervention is raised (given of course the assumption that intervention doesn’t harm other moral rules besides the requirement of consent).

A second problem: even if we assume that people who have never had the benefits of human rights are able to make an informed choice against human rights, then it’s still the case that those people act in a way that is self-contradicting (not less so than the enforcers of freedom). Rights make choice possible, and rejecting rights therefore means choosing not to choose. Or, better, it’s choosing a system in which it’s hard if not impossible to choose. One can of course do that, but if you’re really opposed to choice, then why exercise a choice in the matter? It’s like a decision not to decide, which is a kind of decision but a pointless one. Making indecision more obvious by loudly proclaiming that you’re deciding not to decide doesn’t add any value to your indecision.

So a nation that chooses against rights contradicts itself and is at odds with its own opinions. By making a choice against rights, this nation acts in a way that is coherent with rights.

And yet, even if we suspect that an expression of lack of consent is insufficiently informed and self-contradictory, we may still want to hold on to the rule that we should avoid intervention because of this expression of a lack of consent. Maybe we should err on the side of consent. But then we face a third problem: how do we determine that this expression truly reflects popular opinion within a nation? Is it the nation that rejects rights, or some vocal and self-interested individuals wrongly presenting themselves as representatives? The members of this nation need rights in order to express their opposition to rights. When they do in effect have these rights, then we’re back at problem #1. But when they don’t, there’s no way to know that a statement “coming from the people” does in fact express widespread popular opinion rather than the voice of a privileged minority that may benefit from rights violations.

A fourth problem: even if there is a way of determining popular opinion in a nation that doesn’t have rights, we are still faced with the predicament of oppressed minorities. This can also justify intervention. Even the views of the majority in such a nation – whether informed or not – should not always trump intervention. In general, however, the rule against intervention in a non-consenting nation is a good one. In the words of J.S. Mill:

[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways … So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people. (source)

Indeed, a lot depends on the specific type of intervention, on the means of intervention. Talking to people and trying to persuade them can also be seen as a form of intervention, but it’s not at all coercive. Other means are more coercive and will therefore violate the rule to respect consent. Which doesn’t mean those means are always forbidden. We may question the value of some expressions of non-consent, as I did above.

There is, however, an error in Mill’s argument, as he pointed out himself. The reason why we do not meddle with the free choice of someone else, is precisely his or her freedom. By choosing to submit to a tyrant, this person alienates his or her freedom. One free choice makes all other free choices impossible.

He therefore defeats … the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself … The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom. (source)

Which is a better way of stating problem #2 above.

Still, if we want to override the general rule that we can only intervene with the consent of the people and that we shouldn’t impose human rights on a presumably unwilling nation, then we should have strong indications that an expression of opposition is manipulated, unrepresentative or grossly misinformed, or that there is a strong undercurrent of unexpressed consent to intervention. And, of course, we should only intervene in ways that don’t violate other moral rules unrelated to the requirement of consent. For example, if we have indications that opposition to intervention is only a matter of national pride, habit, ignorance or a lack of knowledge of the possible alternatives, then intervention aimed at convincing people, showing alternatives etc. can be sufficient. Habit can make many things acceptable. Even more so, it creates a feeling of tradition and when something belongs to a tradition, it also belongs to an identity. And who wants to lose his identity? It can be more frustrating to lose your identity than to suffer rights violations.

By the way, a lot of what I say about consent may be true of consent in general, not just consent to international intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

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