When Rights Become Wrongs

exploitation

Some presumptive rights are in fact making things worse for people. A “right not to be exploited” can condemn the potential victims of exploitation to other kinds of victimhood that are even harder to bear than exploitation. Take for example some kinds of sweatshop laborers and child laborers. Mutually beneficial exploitation is real, and, while it’s definitely immoral it may still be better than the status quo ante. If children aren’t allowed to work or sweatshops are closed under pressure then people’s lives may well turn for the worse. More poverty or worse labor conditions – e.g. prostitution or slavery – can be their lot.

Something similar is the case for the so-called right to cultural identity. This right may very well force some members of cultural communities to endure cultural practices that are harmful to their individual rights, all in the name of preserving the cultural identity of the group. Another example: the “right to land” is often invoked in certain developing countries and is supposed to be a means to undo the unjust distribution of land ownings following a history of white colonialism. Here as well we see that a right may become a wrong: while it may undo one injustice of distribution it creates other injustices (e.g. poverty resulting from ineffective production due to losses of economies of scale and of knowhow).

One last example: immigration restrictions are sometimes justified by the claim that would-be immigrants have a right to flourish in their countries of origin. People don’t want to migrate unless they’re forced by circumstances, it is said. Relaxation of immigration laws is then supposedly a second best option compared to solving the problems in origin countries that create the push for immigration in the first place. So instead of allowing people to migrate we should try to protect their rights where they now live. Needless to say that this approach makes those would-be migrants worse off, and probably not only in the short run. Looser immigration laws have immediate benefits for the migrants, but they can also improve the rights situation in their home countries, for example through remittances and cultural exchange.

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Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t remain silent when everyone else is talking about something. So, a few words about the situation in Crimea. The Russian government and some of the Russians in Crimea are making the argument for secession on the basis of national self-determination and the rights of Russian speakers in the region. It may be useful to have a look at the moral merits of that argument, first in a general and theoretical sense and then applied to the specific case of Crimea. (I’m not discussing the legal merits here).

Ideally, the right to secession shouldn’t exist. An ideal state grants individuals and cultural or ethnic groups all the rights they require, including (limited) self-government and self-determination. Even a very large and diverse state could – and probably should – do that. That is why the right to secession can only have a place in non-ideal theory. But what place? I believe it won’t be among the priorities. In the non-ideal world – the current one – the right to secession should not be the first option, mainly because other, less risky means to realize certain rights would often be available. For example: devolution, agitation, representation etc.

Secession is, most of the time, a one-sided decision that doesn’t have the approval of the state from which a territory wants to secede. Hence the risk of violent conflict, and this risk should be balanced against the possible benefits of secession, especially when non-secessionist and therefore less risky means can yield the same benefits. But even if we’re dealing with a mutual decision, secession may not be the optimal solution because the seceding entity can become the kind of state that doesn’t guarantees all the rights of the new minorities living within its new borders. I wouldn’t even call a mutually agreed separation a secession, by the way.

Of course, there will be cases of extreme oppression that warrant unilateral secession on the grounds that other, less risky means are simply unavailable. For example, it’s difficult to make the case that a secession of part of the territory of North Korea – even one that turns violent and deadly – is not the right thing to do, morally speaking. Both the specific right to self-determination of the seceding Koreans and their other rights would seem to warrant a certain cost.

So what are the reasons that make secession the morally right thing to do? If we agree to limit the concept of secession to a one-sided decision then a secession is justified when:

  1. the purpose is the realization of the human rights of a group of people – including their right to self-government – and this realization is impossible by any other, less risky means within their current state (secession for the purpose of a power grab is then not justified);
  2. the new political entity will most likely grant a higher level of protection of human rights within its territory, including the rights of the new minorities;
  3. and the secession decision is approved by a majority – or perhaps a super majority – of the seceding group. (Self-government is one of the rights that may justify secession, and so it can’t be violated by the act of secession itself).

There may be more necessary preconditions for secession to be ethical, but I believe the combined presence of these 3 are a bare minimum. (The same preconditions would have to be present in the case of bilaterally agreed “secession”, with perhaps the added condition that also a majority of the remaining state should agree. But I’m not sure about that).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is by definition unknown beforehand. The group that wants to secede knows the rights violations it now endures, but doesn’t know the possible effectiveness of non-secessionist means or the possible risks of secession. The nature of the future government of the new political entity is unknown as well, and it’s therefore uncertain how that government will perform regarding the rights of both the new minorities and the majority.

Let’s now return to the case of Crimea. I’m obviously not an expert on the region, but as far as I can tell, none of the three conditions for justified secession are present. It’s clear that the Russian speaking majority in Crimea (if it is a majority) has (or had?) at its disposal other non-secessionist means to further its cause. The upheavals in Kiev did not make long term improvements regarding the rights of the Russian speaking majority in Crimea impossible. There was no reason to believe that the new government of the Ukraine would engage in massive rights violations in Crimea. And, in any case, it’s not clear that the inhabitants of the Crimea – including the non-Russians – will have a higher level of rights protection in the Russian state or in a separate, new state under the tutelage of Russia. If anything, the opposite is more likely. (If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, that would mean even better prospects for the rights of all Ukrainian citizens).

The second condition for justified secession is equally absent. Whether Crimea will become part of Russia or a separate state in Russia’s sphere of influence, past experience with minority rights in Russia or its dependencies isn’t reassuring.

And with regard to the third condition, we can all agree that the referendum was a sham. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible to know whether or not a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea are genuinely in favor of secession from Ukraine. A rushed referendum under the threat of violence doesn’t tell us anything apart from the fact that even Putin craves the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps a year ago we could have known. But not anymore.

More on cultural rights here.

Cultural Rights (14): Tolerance, a Model

To be tolerant means to accept the existence of and to avoid interfering coercively with beliefs, actions or practices that you consider wrong and objectionable. It means that you do your best to co-exist with people who are very much different from you, and different in a negative sense. You allow or permit these people to remain who they are and what they are. You consider what they are, what they do and what they believe to be wrong and objectionable, but not wrong enough to be intolerable and subject to prohibition, legal or otherwise. You tolerate them because you believe that what they do or believe should not be prohibited, or perhaps because you believe you’re not in a position to effectively prohibit. However, I would personally prefer to call the latter option “endurance” rather than tolerance and limit tolerance to the voluntary acceptance of things you could prohibit if you wanted to.

“Acceptance” here should of course be understood, not in the sense of a positive moral judgment, approval or agreement, but in the sense of a practical, pragmatical accommodation. The negative judgment remains but isn’t strong enough to warrant repression or prohibition.

We may decide to tolerate something for a variety of reasons:

  • We may have a strong general sense of respect for other people and for their identity. We may respect people’s moral standing as agents able to choose their own vision of the good life. We disagree with their choices but we respect them as agents able to choose.
  • We may be motivated simply by a general respect for the law, and the law happens to prescribe tolerance.
  • We may believe that tolerance is necessary for the preservation of civil peace and public order, and these considerations outweigh our disgust for other lifestyles. In other words, we hate conflict more than we hate other people.
  • We may be motivated by an expectation of reciprocity: if we show tolerance we expect to be tolerated. Maybe our own group isn’t in the majority either, or risks not being a majority in the future, and hence we may some day profit from tolerance.
  • We may believe, as did John Stuart Mill, that even false opinions lead to social learning.
  • Etc.

Those reasons can imply either equal or unequal relationships between those who tolerate and those who are tolerated.

Below I offer my own petty model of tolerance. I situate tolerance on a continuum going from what I call guidance on one side to prohibition on the other. Guidance means the attitude of emulating certain practices which you view as being important enough to guide your life and your fundamental opinions. Prohibition, the other extreme, means the attitude of suppressing certain practices which you view as being so depraved that they should be forbidden and eliminated, if necessary with violence.

One level below guidance I situate the attitude which I call positive acceptance. People accept things in a positive way if they consider them to be moral, but not necessarily moral enough to be the guiding light of life. One level below positive acceptance is indifference, which marks the boundary between things that are moral and things that are immoral.

Below indifference is negative acceptance, which means viewing things as being immoral yet not immoral enough to suppress them using the law or any other violent means. As stated above, I distinguish between two types of negative acceptance, endurance and tolerance, the difference being that tolerance means accepting something and yet having the ability to suppress. Endurance means you tolerate despite not wanting to tolerate: you tolerate because you don’t have a choice. If you had the power to suppress or prohibit, you would. You don’t suppress or prohibit and you tolerate because you don’t have the power to suppress or prohibit. Real tolerance means that you have that power but voluntarily choose not to use it, for any (combination) of the reasons mentioned above.

Some would also call endurance a type of tolerance. Personally, I want to keep it separate. (Which is why it is in light gray rather than dark gray in the image below). I distinguish three types of tolerance: people can tolerate things unconditionally, they can tolerate things if they happen only in private, or they can tolerate things that happen in public but only conditionally.

I also place all these attitude, including tolerance, on a moral scale, assuming that people decide to accept, reject, tolerate or prohibit acts or beliefs according to the moral value they attach to these acts or beliefs.

Cultural Rights (13): Their Place in the System of Human Rights

I know I’ve neglected cultural rights on this blog. That’s not because I think they should be neglected. Cultural rights are indeed important and they deserve a thorough discussion. First, what are they? Cultural rights are the rights of

  • indigenous peoples,
  • ethnic, racial or linguistics minorities or “nationalities”,
  • immigrants
  • and perhaps also other marginalized groups.

In certain circumstance, some such groups can legitimately claim cultural rights because without these rights they will be unable to preserve, experience and act in accordance with their cultural identity. This cultural identity includes institutions, beliefs, practices, a way of life, a language etc., all of which can be under pressure from another, dominant culture or from some other hostile forces (e.g. globalization, capitalism etc.). Other, more commonly accepted human rights such as religious liberty, non-discrimination etc. are of course helpful as well but sometimes insufficient for this purpose. For example, a state can’t help but to impose an official language, and the users of this official language have therefore an unfair educational, economic and political advantage. Minority groups can then claim that they need the cultural right to receive education in their own language. Non-cultural human rights won’t be much help.

The background assumption of cultural rights is the equal value of all cultures. All cultures have an equal right to survival and all groups have an equal right to preserve their cultural way of life. The pressures that threaten cultures can take various forms, going from genocide (or ethnocide, or cultural genocide) at one extreme to milder forms of acculturation at the other extreme. Some typical forms of pressure are:

  • reducing birthrates through forced sterilization
  • forcibly transferring children to other groups
  • relocating entire groups
  • interfering with education or the transmission of culture to future generations of a group
  • forced conversion
  • erasing the group’s existence or practices from the historical record
  • attacking a culture’s resource base (e.g. deforestation)
  • etc.

The concept of cultural rights should be distinguished from related concerns about economic or political domination. Marginalized cultures can indeed suffer cultural as well as other types of oppression simultaneously, and depriving a culture of its economic base can be as lethal as a direct attack on its identity. However, I think it’s useful to isolate the cultural and identity issues. So I’ll focus on those, and I’ll also deliberately sideline the thorny question of the definition of “culture”, a notoriously overbroad concept: which groups can legitimately claim to be a “culture” deserving of cultural rights? Are cultures really distinct and self-contained? Let’s just assume that there are some such groups, and that some of those are threatened.

Which cultural rights?

Apart from the general right to cultural survival, it’s not very clear which are the more specific rights that are bundled together under the general right, and it’s commonly accepted that the concrete realization of cultural rights depends on the circumstances. In some cases cultural rights can imply a right to some form of affirmative action, in other cases a right to regional self-determination etc.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only mentions a right of groups to enjoy and practice their own culture. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is somewhat more precise, but only somewhat. Hence, cultural rights are often attacked for a double vagueness: vagueness about the specific rights involved, and vagueness about the beneficiaries (which groups qualify as a “culture”?). However, we’ll see below that a more fundamental criticism of those rights is also possible.

Justifications of cultural rights

And yet, I do believe that cultural rights are an important addition to the body of human rights. The justification for these rights is based on two things:

  • the importance of culture for individuals, and perhaps also some vaguer notion of the general importance of cultural diversity and the “heritage of humanity” (in which case cultural rights are important for everyone and not just for members of threatened cultures)
  • the failure of more traditional human rights to protect culture in all cases.

People need a cultural life, a life in a community that transcends time. They want to belong to a group and share a traditional identity. These human values can only be enjoyed collectively and are often neglected in more individualist and liberal theories of rights. Individual human rights such as freedom of religion and association, anti-discrimination laws, tolerance, democratic pluralism etc. are helpful for the preservation of culture and other collective values (such as religion), but not in all circumstances. Take the example I gave before: the simple fact of an official state language and school language puts some minorities in a disadvantaged position, not just culturally but also economically and politically. And indeed there’s nothing that ordinary human rights or tolerance can do about that.

Another justification of cultural rights can be based, not on the value of culture, but on the need for reparations for past injustices. For example, indigenous people can claim that respect for their cultural rights is due to them because of the injustices perpetrated by past generations of the dominant culture, even if there are no present-day threats to their culture.

Criticism of cultural rights

Contrary to the more traditional, individual human rights, cultural rights don’t require the recognition of individuals as equal human beings, equally deserving of respect in spite of their differences. They demand, on the contrary, the recognition of differences and respect for those differences, and differences between groups of individuals rather than differences between individuals. Common identity, group difference and recognition are the keywords behind the notion of cultural rights.

This explains why these rights are often criticized in liberal democracies. Liberalism focuses on the individual. It recognizes group interests but those are typically understood as cooperative, associational and interest based. People, according to liberalism, voluntarily join groups in order to advance their interests. Groups are defined by shared goals and interests, not by the shared identity of the members. Individuals are there first, and groups are secondary. From this point of view, cultural rights can be seen as essentialist: they reduce the identity of members to the identity of the group to which they belong.

This essentialism can indeed be detrimental to individual group members. Because cultural rights are rights aimed at the preservation of cultures, there may be a temptation to use these rights in order to discipline members who deviate from the cultural orthodoxy. Such deviations can be viewed as a threat to the group’s identity and survival. In that case, cultural identity becomes a goal in itself rather than a good for the members. Ideally, cultural rights are valuable because the members of the cultural groups in question value cultural identity, cultural practices and language and can use these rights to protect what they value. It’s those members who have an interest in cultural preservation, not the cultures themselves. (Will Kymlicka has developed this argument). This means that when members lose this interest, they should be free to do so, and cultural rights should not be used to impose an identity, practices or a language. Individual members should be free to evaluate their culture and to reject it if that is what they decide.

It follows that cultural rights should not grant groups power or priority over individuals or over individual rights. If an individual member of a group decides to use her freedom of religion to change her religion, her freedom of movement and residence to physically leave the cultural group, her freedom of expression to decide to start speaking another language etc., then there’s nothing the group can do. The group’s cultural rights can’t trump the individual’s rights. And if individual rights are threatened by cultural rights, the latter should give way. For instance, if a religious group claims the right to oppress its female members or sacrifice its children, that group can’t claim cultural rights as means to protect those practices.

That doesn’t mean a group can never legitimately limit the individual rights of its members. It can, as long as it guarantees a realistic exit right. Individuals can waive their individual rights if they think the rules and practices of their group are more important than their individual rights. This exit right, however, should be realistic and not just formal. There should be no indoctrination and alternatives should not be cut off. For example, Muslim communities should be allowed to discriminate against their female members as long as these members have a realistic right to go elsewhere, realistic meaning that going elsewhere shouldn’t imply abandoning their religion, their family etc., meaning also that they have a real choice and haven’t been indoctrinated into submission (more here).

The priority of individual rights over cultural rights does not force us to adopt an extreme individualist philosophy in which the individual is always prior to the community or in which the community doesn’t count at all. This priority of individual rights is compatible with a communitarian stance. Cultures and cultural rights are important, and they are important for communitarian reasons, but they are not so important that they can trump individual rights. Cultures or other groups have value only in so far as they are of value for the individual members. They can’t have intrinsic value. In other words, they can’t have value for themselves.

The problem of enforced internal orthodoxy within cultural groups, which I mentioned above, may be exacerbated by the possible recognition of cultural rights. Group leaders may believe that they need to enforce orthodoxy and silence “minorities within minorities” in order to present a united culture. Presenting a united culture can make it more likely that the wider society recognizes cultural rights for the minority culture. For example, a leader (or leading class) of an indigenous group may believe that it’s necessary to emphasize the distinctive nature of the group by reviving traditional practices. This revival makes the group seem more valuable from a cultural point of view, and that’s something which will make it more likely that special recognition and special rights are forthcoming. Leaders may even have a personal and selfish interests in those rights, for example their personal leading role may be cemented after the recognition of those rights or during the struggle for recognition. However, some of these traditional practices can be harmful to the individual rights of certain members (e.g. gender discrimination, polygamy etc.) or can go against one particular current of belief within the minority group which is subsequently repressed.

So cultural rights may harm individual rights and may promote internal orthodoxy before they are recognized – and as a means to achieve recognition – as well as after they are recognized – for example, regional autonomy can imply restrictions on intervention by the central authority in the case of rights violations occurring within the regional group. It’s relatively easy to make the granting of cultural rights conditional on respect for individual rights within the group demanding cultural rights (and withdraw those rights when they result in violations of individual rights), but it’s a lot more difficult to avoid the dynamic of groups violating individual rights and suppressing internal dissent in the process of a struggle for cultural rights.

Actionability of cultural rights

Individual rights trump cultural rights, but this raises the question of the actionability of cultural rights: when exactly can they be used to protect cultures? They can’t if a culture’s preservation is in danger because individual members decide to leave, for example through voluntary assimilation into other groups, or decide to fashion the group’s identity differently. Neither can they be actionable when a culture dies because of low fertility rates for instance. Artificially propping up fertility rates for the sake of cultural preservation would harm the rights of individuals in a manner which few would accept. A culture that can’t gain the uncoerced adherence of its members or promote the vitality necessary for the reproduction of its members at replacement rates, doesn’t seem to be worth preserving. Again, cultures are important for individuals. And if individuals lose their interest or change their minds, there’s not much one can do.

If one were to limit individual rights in order to prop up a culture, one would violate the principle that culture are important because they are important for individuals. One would have to adopt the unlikely view that cultures are important in themselves whatever people believe, and that they have an intrinsic value even if no one wants to be a member. Of course, it’s sad when a language dies or when some cultural practices disappear, but this sadness isn’t enough to give cultures the right to force people to do something against their will. Even if it would be somehow morally OK to force people, it would be pointless. One may succeed in getting people to speak a language, take part in rituals etc., but that would happen for the wrong reasons. A culture has to come from within. It shouldn’t be an externally imposed duty.

Perhaps cultural rights become actionable when the preservation of a culture is threatened, not by the free choices of individual members, but by economic forces, migration patterns or political oppression. Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable for the French government for instance to subsidize French language cinema in order to protect it against the “onslaught” of Hollywood. Or for the Tibetans to complain of Chinese “demographic aggression”. (Similar talk about Eurabia seems a lot less reasonable). Or for native Indians in the U.S. to resist forced resettlement.

Realization of cultural rights

And when we decide that cultural rights are actionable in certain cases, we still don’t know which actions short of violations of individual rights we can take to protect them. Some possibilities:

  • An obvious policy could be some kind of federalism and limited self-government, primarily but not exclusively when the minority cultures are geographically isolated and when they haven’t voluntarily chosen to live within a larger political unity (e.g. tribal sovereignty for indigenous peoples).
  • Maybe some quota systems in representative bodies could also help to give culture a voice.
  • Affirmative action.
  • Reparations.
  • Special educational provisions (for example the provision of some hours of education in a native language) or other types of assistance to do things that the majority takes for granted (e.g. multilingual ballots).
  • Certain veto powers (for example, the right of indigenous people to veto the use of land).
  • Some group-based exceptions to general laws (such as an exemption to the rule forcing drivers to wear a crash helmet).
  • Granting jurisdiction over family law to religious or tribal courts.
  • A politics of recognition (e.g. teaching black history in U.S. schools).
  • And perhaps even a right to separate from the political community if nothing else works or if the claim to authority of the central state is weak (as in the case of colonies).

It’s clear from this that cultural rights can in some cases restrict the rights of non-members. For example, the use of English is restricted in Quebec; affirmative action restricts the rights of non-group members; veto-powers over land use restrict the property rights of outsiders etc. However, it’s not the case that cultural rights necessarily restrict the rights of outsiders. Subsidies or regional autonomy for example do not, by definition, involve such restrictions. But if they do restrict some of the rights of outsiders, then we should be very careful. As stated above, cultural rights don’t trump individual rights; the opposite is true. But this general priority of individual rights doesn’t mean that there will never be cases in which it’s better to give priority to cultural rights (the good this will allow us to do may sometimes far outweigh the harm to some people’s individual rights). The general priority of individual rights over group rights doesn’t mean that there can’t be specific cases where the balance goes the other way.

Cultural Rights (12): Collective Rights

Groups, and in particular, minority groups are often attacked, oppressed and persecuted. They are considered to be groups that are separated from the rest of society and that are legitimate objects of targeted attacks such as racism, xenophobia, discrimination, exploitation or even genocide. These attacks are often collective attacks. Persons are discriminated against or killed, for no other reason than their membership of a particular group. Colored people are oppressed because they are colored people.

Some people believe that a collective problem requires a collective solution. A minority that is collectively oppressed claims a collective right to protection, a collective right not to be oppressed. Acts that are expressed in collectivist terms have to be countered by rights using the same terms.

The question is whether it is really necessary or even opportune to solve the collective problems of some groups by way of collective rights or group rights. I believe that the often genuine problems of different groups and minorities (but also majorities) can be solved by applying a number of individual rights, such as the right to equality before the law (a law has to be general and equal for everybody and cannot be directed against or cannot discriminate against certain persons or groups), the right to equal treatment and to equal rights, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to life (in the case of genocide) and religious liberty.

The problem of gender discrimination in a number of Islamic countries is an example of a collective problem that can be solved by applying individual rights. There is no reason to solve this collective problem by adding so-called women’eds rights or collective rights of women to the existing individual rights. Gender discrimination is not a violation of women’s rights. It is a violation of the human rights of women. The principles of equality and non-discrimination are sufficient to solve this problem.

Individual rights are sufficient in all cases, although I have to admit that protecting groups by way of individual rights ignores or neglects the nature of the problem. Only the right of a group (for example, a group of indigenous people) to equal treatment recognizes the existence of a certain kind of discrimination. The individual right to equality, even though it can stop group discrimination, ignores the nature of or the motivation behind the attack on the group, and does not distinguish between individual and group discrimination.

However, the advantage of countering a collective attack by way of an individual right is that the existence of individuals in the collectivity is thereby accentuated. The cause of a collective attack is precisely the belief that a group is a collectivity and a unity, in which the individuals do not count. By using his individual rights to protect a colored person against discrimination, racism or genocide, we accentuate his individuality. He is no longer “just another nigger”, someone belonging to a collectivity, which is a legitimate object of discrimination. Individual rights accentuate the individuality of the person claiming the right, and already hint that there is no reason for discrimination. Discrimination requires collectives and the absence of individuals.

Collective rights do the opposite. Recognizing collective rights can sanction the existence of collectives. It makes thinking in terms of collectives legitimate, it puts the different individualities in the background and it strengthens the opinions of those who oppose and persecute certain collectives.

Cultural Rights (11): Genocide

 

Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:

  • the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
  • inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
  • measures intended to prevent births
  • systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)

“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.

The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”

The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.

Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).

Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:

  • dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
  • promotion of narratives of “us and them
  • hate propaganda, polarization
  • criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
  • identification of victims (“yellow star”)
  • concentration of victims (ghettos)
  • mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
  • state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)

The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:

  • long-lasting tensions
  • imbalances in political power
  • imbalances in wealth or economic power
  • scarcity
  • religious incompatibilities
  • indoctrination and propaganda
  • civil war
  • ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
  • ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
  • colonial heritage
  • outside indifference
  • etc.

Cultural Rights (10): Tolerating Intolerance?

Some people urge us to accept and respect other cultures, other practices and beliefs unconditionally and without exceptions. Every cultural practice, whatever its content, is valuable and should be protected, even if this means giving up certain or all human rights. This means that rejecting intolerance in a certain culture is intolerant and rejecting discrimination is discrimination. Diversity should be tolerated, even if elements of this diversity are expressions of intolerance or discrimination. Otherwise, we would show a lack of respect for cultural identities and we would de facto return to the days of colonization and imperialism.

Respect is important, and human rights are created precisely as tools to make different people with different beliefs and practices or habits live together peacefully.’a0But they are not designed to protect practices which violate them. We can never tolerate intolerance and that we must always discriminate discrimination. One cannot force an idea to be self-destructive. A tolerant system tolerating intolerance or failing to discriminate those who discriminate, will never last very long. Those who are tolerant must be intolerant of those who are intolerant (and the latter include those who attack the institutions protecting tolerance, such as human rights).

This has nothing to do with “an eye for an eye”. It is purely a matter of consistency and self-preservation. We must accept and respect diversity, but not in an unlimited way. Some things are just unacceptable.

Cultural Rights (9): Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is the violent displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory in order to create an ethnically “clean” unit, i.e. a territorial unit composed of only one ethnic group. The means used to achieve ethnic unity are:

  • direct military force
  • police brutality
  • genocide
  • the threat of force
  • intimidation
  • rape
  • pogrom
  • demolition of housing, places of worship, infrastructure
  • discriminatory legislation or policies
  • tribal politics
  • economic exclusion
  • hate speech, propaganda
  • rewriting of history, fabrication of historical resentment
  • a combination of the above.

Given these various “tools”, it is not correct to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. There are more or less violent forms of ethnic cleansing, although all forms contain some kind of force, otherwise one would speak merely of voluntary migration. Deportation or displacement of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group.

Given the element of force it is correct to denounce all forms of ethnic cleansing, not only on the grounds of some kind of ideal of multiculturalism, but also on the grounds of the self-determination of the people involved, of their right to settle where they want, their freedom of movement etc. It is defined as a crime against humanity.

The best known cases of ethnic cleansing are:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
  • Iraq during the Iraq war
  • India and Pakistan during their partition
  • The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict
  • Rwanda during the genocide
  • The relocation of Native American peoples from their traditional areas
  • The forced removals of non-white populations during the apartheid era
  • The Palestinian exodus
  • Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II
  • Darfur
  • etc.

However, it seems that this tactic has been known to humanity since a long time. Some even believe that the Neanderthals were victims of ethnic cleansing.

Some of the justifications given in defense of ethnic cleansing are:

  • To remove the conditions for potential and actual opposition. According to Mao Zedong, guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water. By draining the water, one disables the fish.
  • To create a separate state for one ethnic group. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because one assumes that in such a state it is inevitable that some groups are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting-pot world with no clear territorial separation of groups within states, is the use of force.
  • To redeem a society that is literally “unclean” and “sick” because of the presence of inferior humans.

Cultural Rights (8): Tolerance

Diversity and tolerance of diversity can be very beneficial because they make it possible for us to learn from others, to debate with others and take into account their objections and counter-arguments. Tolerance helps us to come closer to the truth. We can take advantage of diversity and of tolerance of diversity, because diversity means other opinions and criticism of our own opinions. The school of tolerance teaches people to reap the benefits from conflict and difference, and makes people suspicious of all efforts to eliminate conflict or to let it degenerate into violence. Tolerance is more than just a restraint on violence.

Cultural Rights (6): Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing

Self-determination is the essence of nationalism. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. He often sees himself as a force for democracy. Self-determination, the national liberation of a nation that is captured in an alien state and that has to follow the decision of an external power, is indeed part of the struggle for democracy.

However, problems can arise from the desire to have a perfect match between state and nation. If every nation should have its state, then every state should comprise only one nation. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because in such a state it is inevitable that some nations or peoples are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence.

The problem that nationalism misses is that its policies lead to a homogeneous society and that diversity and multiculturalism can be attractive. Most problems of multiculturalism – a lack of integration, conflicts between communities, one group dominating another – can be solved by democracy (by tolerance, respect for religious freedom and individual rights, non-discrimination, institutional reforms, local autonomy etc.).

Nationalism solves the problems of multiculturalism by destroying it. It’s a kind of intellectual laziness to go immediately for the most extreme solutions. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting pot world is the use of force. Homogenization often requires violent separation, civil war (because of the violent reaction of states that want to keep their territory intact), centrifugal forces (because of a lack of clarity: which group is a “nation” and has therefore a right to its own state?), forced relocation of members of other nations – also called “ethnic cleansing”, a method often used when there is no clear territorial separation of nations within a state – and, if really necessary, genocide.

If members of another nation have the misfortune of inhabiting parts of a territory that is claimed by the nationalist nation as the soil of its future state, and if these members do not leave the territory, give up their possession and abandon their graves voluntarily, then nationalism requires the elimination of these people. As long as they are present, the state will not be the representative of one nation. Democracy will require the representation of all nationalities and that is not the optimal situation for nationalists because it means that every nation is not able to rule itself. This is obviously a distorted and dangerous view on democracy.

Cultural Rights (4): Cultural Relativism

Are human rights universal? Or is the worldwide application of human rights the imposition of the culture and norms of the West on other cultures? Universal human rights are said to imply the immoral destruction of other cultures, which in turn diminishes the well-being of the people of those cultures. Identity, especially cultural identity, and a feeling of belonging, are important for everyone’s well-being.

The underlying hypothesis of this theory, which is often called “cultural relativism“, is that human rights are part of the culture of the West, typical of this culture, and compatible only with this culture. They are therefore Western rights rather than universal norms. Under this hypothesis, the worldwide promotion of what we call human rights can be seen as the imposition of the culture of the West. Human rights in this view belong to the cultural identity of the West with its emphasis on individualism and individual freedom. Other cultures have other identities, values and norms. They may cherish harmony and collective goals more than individualism, discipline more than freedom, respect for authority more than democracy, tranquility more than adversarial politics, the afterlife more than free consumption and maximum gratification in the present life, etc. Hence, they will have norms that are different from the norms of the West and different from the application of human rights for every individual. Their norms may even be opposed to human rights.

Respect for the cultural identity and the well-being of other people means that they should be allowed to adhere to these norms and to violate human rights when these rights come into conflict with their own norms. Insistence on human rights, then, could mean disrespect, erosion of cultural identity, and hence also erosion of individual well-being.

According to cultural relativism and its many overt and covert adherents, human rights have a claim to existence in the West, where they are part of the culture and are in accordance with cultural norms and values (such as individualism, conflict, etc.), but not in parts of the world where they are at best inappropriate and at worst damaging to cultural identities and therefore also to people who depend on culture for their personal identity and feeling of belonging.

Is there really a perfect analogy between colonialism and human rights policy, and does the acceptance of human rights necessarily mean the loss of identity and belonging? It is true that respect for human rights must lead to the abandonment of some cultural practices (although in most cases it must lead to the abandonment of distinctly non-cultural practices), but certainly not of all cultural practices and probably not the most important ones. Culture or identity is above all something that is in the mind. What is in the mind cannot cause harm and should never be abandoned. To the extent that culture is part of the mind, it enjoys complete protection by human rights. The extension of human rights will never harm culture in this sense. The freedom of thought is perhaps the most fundamental human right and is an example of the way in which rights protect rather than harm culture. Freedom of religion, tolerance and other values embedded in human rights also protect culture.

Cultural Rights (3): Self-Determination

The right to self-determination is, in the first instance, the right of a state and a people to be sovereign in their territory and the right not to suffer foreign intervention, occupation or aggression. This right is necessary for democracy and human rights, because intervention, occupation and aggression often go hand in hand with violations of human rights and democratic principles. Occupation is incompatible with democracy because the government does not result from the will of the people people. Conquest and consent cannot go together. A democracy can never conquer, because if it does, it ceases to be a democracy. If it conquers, it may of course remain a democracy in its original territory and it may even contribute to the development of democratic institutions in the conquered territories, voluntarily (as with the occupation of Japan by the U.S.) or involuntarily (as with the American colonies of the U.K.). However, even if the latter takes place – and there is no reason why it must take place – we will only see democracy arise in these territories if the people of these territories regain their independence or if they agree to become an equal part of the occupying country.

Of course, self-determination can be used as a shield by tyrants in order to perpetuate human rights violations. Then it has to give way.

Cultural Rights (2): Clash of Civilizations

Theories about the “clash of civilizations” are very popular these days. According to this strand of cultural reductionism, the struggle between capitalism-democracy and communism, which was mainly an ideological struggle, is now replaced by the struggle between civilizations or cultures, a struggle no longer based on convictions, ideology or the economy but on identity.

The identity of one culture may be threatened by another one, or one culture may be expansionist at the expense of others, which causes conflicts. The bloody borders between civilizations (in Israel, Serbia, Russia etc. or even lower Manhattan – 9-11 – given the virtual nature of borders in our globalized age) are given as proof. In order to avoid these conflicts, one has to separate cultures. Multiculturalism, immigration etc. have to be avoided, and the borders have to be defended militarily against aggressive and hostile other cultures. Every civilization should strengthen its identity if it wants to be in a strong position vis-à-vis others.

All this is true to the extent that culture is the cause of conflict. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not, and then other measures are more adequate. Conflicts between the West and Islam are perhaps in part caused by differences in culture, but probably also by economic circumstances, the Palestinian problem, etc. In any case, there are just as many conflicts within civilizations or cultures than between them (Iraq, Rwanda, Korea…). The differences between members of one civilization are often more important than the differences between members of different civilizations.

Cultural Rights (1b): Tolerance

Tolerance as such is not a recognized human right, but it is closely connected to human rights. Why have the right to free speech or freedom of religion if your speech or religion is not tolerated?

Another person, another opinion or another way of life is not just something we have to tolerate like we tolerate bad weather. Social life is not completely negative or meaningless. The company of other people is not only a burden we have to tolerate. The company of others, especially the public company of others, is beneficial because it is necessary for thinking and knowledge. See my post on Kant.

The other person is a necessary part of each human life. We not only tolerate the other person, we also use him, follow him, contradict him, discuss with him, help him etc.

Diversity and tolerance of diversity can be very beneficial because they make it possible for us to learn from others, to debate with others and take into account their objections and counter-arguments, whereby we can come closer to the truth. We can take advantage of diversity and of tolerance of diversity, because diversity means other opinions and criticism of our own opinions. The school of tolerance teaches people to reap the benefits from conflict and difference, and makes people suspicious of all efforts to eliminate conflict or to let it degenerate into violence. Tolerance is more than just a restraint on violence. It contributes in a positive way to life.

Diversity is not, however, something static. Tolerance does not mean accepting diversity as it is and as it will always be. The purpose of tolerance is not to make opinions coexist without interaction of any kind other than bare acceptance, and acceptance is more than an armistice necessary to keep the peace between interests of which no single one is strong enough to impose itself. It must be possible to convince other people, to create a common will, a general interest or even a consensus that is limited to a small group. The function of tolerance is not to separate people and opinions, nor to maintain differences as they are. Its function is to make confrontation between opinions possible. Tolerance keeps aggressive people out of each other’s way; it does not keep people as such, let alone points of view, out of each other’s way. Confrontation can, of course, modify points of view and can eliminate (or enhance) differences. We have opinions on opinions, we judge, we convince, we become convinced, and we change our opinions accordingly. That is why difference in a tolerant world is something dynamic.

It is not because we tolerate someone or some point of view, that we do not have the right to say that this person is mistaken or the right to try to convince this person. Without the possibility to convince, the right to free expression loses much of its meaning. The pleasure of expressing an opinion, showing off and expressing our identity are not the only reasons for expressing an opinion. In most cases, we express an opinion because we want to convince other people. However, taking into account the importance of convincing could lead to another aberration. Tolerance should not be considered as something temporary, necessary as long as opinions differ. Opinions will most probably always differ, and we will therefore always need tolerance.

Given the importance of convincing, we should not blame people for being intolerant when they criticize or even laugh at another point of view. You can be tolerant and “politically incorrect” at the same time. After all, tolerance is there to make criticism possible. Without tolerance, there is only unity. And unity implies the absence of criticism. You are intolerant only when you suppress opinions or customs, when you persecute, physically attack or discriminate people who have another opinion or custom, or when you use force to change people’s opinions or customs.

Tolerant people therefore do not have to leave things as they are for the love of peace, because of indifference, lack of power, or whatever. If you want things to be different, go ahead and argue. You should not be accused of intolerance. Tolerance is sterile when it is no more than putting up with each other or avoiding to persecute people with different beliefs. Tolerance should lead to relationships based on the benefits of difference, criticism and public life.

Cultural Rights (1): Identity

In political discourse, we often see that individuals, as part of a nation, a culture, a political party or an ideological group (e.g. conservatives and liberals), are subject to a kind of homogenization. Individuals are no longer different personalities but rather parts of a group.

In the case of cultures: every culture has its typical personality, its way of life, its way of being human, its national character or “Volksgeist”. The personal identity is a collective identity. People are specimen rather than different individuals. This cultural identity – Chinese are hard working people, Scandinavians somewhat to themselves etc. – influences or even determines the ideas and behaviour of the individual members of the culture and is formed by the religion of the nation, its language, history etc. An individual is born in a culture and formed by it, from his earliest years on. He cannot choose another one and cannot reject his collective identity. His life follows certain patterns that are older than him and that will live on after him. Everything which may seem at odds with the collective identity is in fact comparable to the small movements on the surface of the sea that may go in different directions but that cannot escape the underlying current. Like the current, the culture may not always be visible but it does determine everything.

If individuals receive their personality from their environment and culture, then the members of one group share the most basic assumptions and convictions. And if that is true, it is a justification of ethnic cleansing, wars for national independence, separation etc. because a mono-cultural society will have fewer conflicts than a multicultural one, given the common identity and convictions of people of one culture. This discourse is common in nationalism.

The same, but less extreme, can be seen in political discourse like the “culture war” in the U.S. We reduce people to the groups to which they belong.

However, all this is based on psychological simplifications. Although it is undeniable that the environment we live in, the culture we belong to and the groups we are part of shape our identity, there is no reason to ignore the possibility of individuals to free themselves from their immediate environment and tradition. The whole world can influence us and we may choose to be extremely individualistic. Belonging and identifying with a group are important, but so are originality and individuality. Human rights are designed to give us the possibility of dissent, difference and individuality.