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.

Human Rights Promotion (23): Moral vs Emotional Persuasion

Actions are motivated by beliefs, at least to some extent. (I’ll come back to this in a minute). It’s safe to say that many actions are driven mainly by beliefs, beliefs both about the nature of facts and about how we should act – factual and moral beliefs in other words. Unsurprisingly therefore, many actions that result in rights violations are also caused by beliefs. Certain beliefs are harmful to human rights because they result in actions that violate those rights. I’ll focus here not on harmful beliefs that are self-interested – I find those rather boring – but rather on harmful moral beliefs: rights are often violated because of the view that other people should be forced to do what the coercers believe is the “right thing”. (FGM is an example that comes to mind.)

Beliefs about how we should act are often based on beliefs about “facts” (for example the supposedly detrimental facts that result from failure to perform FGM, such as female promiscuity and bad hygiene). “Facts”, in turn, are seen through a thick interpretative layer of beliefs about morality, which is why I use the scare quotes. For example, if you oppose homosexuality for moral reasons (because “it’s wrong”), then you may tend to see homosexuality as “unnatural”, and this view is often proposed as factual. 

One way to undermine harmful moral beliefs is to attack their factual basis. We can point out the real facts (for example, that the Koran does not require FGM, or that women’s sexual morality and health do not require it). Of course, people who are for some reason intimately attached to certain beliefs will “find” other “facts” to support them. In some cases, however, challenging people’s factual beliefs can make them reject their harmful moral beliefs. At least that’s my belief.

We can also attack harmful moral beliefs directly and try to persuade people to change those beliefs irrespective of their factual basis. For example, we can stress inconsistencies or logical fallacies in ethical beliefs. We can say to racist Christians that the teachings of their God include statements about human equality and rules about neighborly love. And the naturalistic fallacy is abundant (“homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural”; “we should not care about distant strangers because evolution has programmed us to take care of our own”, etc.). 

In short, there’s a whole lot we can say in order to undermine harmful moral beliefs and promote support and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, this will only work in some cases. Ask yourself how often you’ve modified your own moral beliefs. I myself can only come up with two examples: my views about criminal punishment and immigration. (To the extent that I’m quite ashamed of some of the older posts on this blog, to which I won’t link). When we do change our moral beliefs, it’s because we’ve become convinced that the facts on which we’ve based our moral beliefs aren’t what we thought they were (immigration isn’t harmful, capital punishment doesn’t deter, gay marriage doesn’t undermine traditional marriage etc.). When we change our moral beliefs, this is why we do it, not because we now see the moral truth of something (the truth of the rule that strangers have as many rights as we have, that criminal shouldn’t be treated as means to scare future criminals, that sexual orientation shouldn’t determine rights etc.).

So, the best means to change harmful moral beliefs is to attack the supposedly factual basis of those beliefs. However, as I’ve said, this won’t work every time or even a lot of the time, because we constantly try to marshal new facts as a basis of our moral beliefs when the old facts become discredited. If necessary we fabricate the facts. That we do this points towards a deeper problem. Maybe what really motivates us are primordial emotional reactions such as disgust, cleverly dressed up and rationalized by way of beliefs and “facts”.

There’s a great scene at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds about how we can’t justify our disgust of rats on the basis of facts that wouldn’t also justify disgust of pretty squirrels:

If indeed we’re not motivated by moral beliefs or facts, then no amount of moral reasoning or factual discussion can help us avoid rights violations resulting from post hoc rationalizations of our disgust. A more emotional kind of persuasion may be more promising. Telling people stories about the suffering of those who are seen as disgusting can conceivably remove their disgust and hence their need for harmful beliefs and biased selection or creation of “facts”. The chances of something like this succeeding have to be balanced against the “primordial” nature of a lot of our emotional reactions. “Primordial” in the sense of “very old” and “resulting from early human evolution”. That’s a steep climb. 

All this has implications for the legalistic approach to human rights promotion. To the extent that rights violations are actions that have a deep foundation in our emotions – and not all rights violations are like that – legislating them away won’t work. Other strategies have to be employed. 

There’s a good podcast about the same topic by the VeryBadWizards guys here. More about persuasion here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (22): What Hope is There For Persuasion?

The ability to persuade other people is important for human rights in at least two different ways:

  • How do we achieve respect for human rights? Since a lot of human rights violations are caused by ideas and opinions – for example by harmful moral judgments or political ideologies – respect for human rights depends at least in part on our ability to change minds, other people’s as well as our own.
  • Why do we need human rights? Certain human rights in particular, such as the right to free speech, are justified by our need to persuade others. We want to express ourselves and we express ourselves for different reasons: to communicate our identity, to signal what we think about something, but most importantly to persuade others of the goodness of our opinions, compared to their opinions. That’s a universal human need. Ideally, we also believe that expressing our opinions improves those opinions. We prepare our opinions in advance of expressing them, and – knowing that we will be criticized for those opinions by other agents freely expressing themselves – we try our best to prepare our opinions for this criticism. We consider possible counterarguments in advance and how to reply to them. This brings with it the possibility that we refine our opinions or even replace them with better ones, based on our inner reasoning in preparation of our expression. Free speech – our own free speech and that of our critics – helps us improve our opinions. Persuasion – both of others and of ourselves – is therefore an important reason why we need human rights. (This is the theory behind the notion of the marketplace of ideas).

The problem is that people don’t seem to be very good at persuading each other or themselves. The description of communication that I’ve given here is highly idealized. If we can’t dramatically improve our ability to persuade, then we’ll have a hard time fighting for rights because we’ll lose weapons as well as reasons necessary for this fight. There are other non-communicative means to increase the levels of respect for human rights (reciprocity, self-interest, the law etc.), and the need to improve our opinions and to persuade isn’t the only possible justification for human rights (other justification are offered here). But in such an important fight a restricted arsenal or rationale is a net negative. So it’s worth the effort to try and remove some of the things that make it hard to persuade.

So what are we up against? Apart from the obvious and uninteresting fact that some people are immune to persuasion – good luck talking to the Taliban – there are other and perhaps even more damaging causes of a lack of persuasion: confirmation bias, the importance of emotions rather than reasoning or argumentation as a basis of our beliefs, polarization, and a whole set of other psychological biases (e.g. the belief that beautiful people make better sounding arguments).

What to do about all this? We should avoid the obvious conclusion that humans are merely bias machines governed by unconscious reflexes, responses to stimuli, emotions and prejudices formed through ages of human evolution. Or that rational argument based on facts and sound reasoning never plays any role. Many but probably not all our opinions and decisions are biased by prejudice and emotive reactions created by a mind shaped by evolution. There’s certainly no hope of radically removing those parts of our minds that work that way, but we can hope to reduce their effect. If we are conscious of our confirmation bas, for instance, then we can try to counteract it by actively seeking out disconfirming information or by making an effort to read people from the opposing side. Rational persuasion can and does occur, and we can make it occur more often than it does today. For example, here and here are two examples of cognitive scientists pushing back against the current trend in their profession. They show how strong arguments can indeed persuade people and how group reasoning in particular is helpful.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (20): Exposing Criminals

There are a number of private initiatives aimed at publishing personal information about convicted criminals. Websites such as,, and so on publish information about criminals’ place of residence after they’ve left prison, or even their contact information. Newspapers as well seem to make it a point of honor to mention personal details in their crime reporting. Sometimes the “criminals” are people who are merely suspected of a crime.

This kind of thing is said to be justified as a form of privatized human rights enforcement. If people know where criminals live or work, they can steer clear of danger and increase their physical safety or the security of their property. Public knowledge about ex-cons also serves to “shame” them – including some potential criminals – and that again is something which may reduce the risk of future crimes. In any case, the overall justification seems to be enhanced protection of the rights of possible victims through private crime prevention.

Purveyors of personal information about criminals claim that what they do is protected by free speech rights – including the right to access information. Maybe it is, but in that case we seem to have a conflict between rights. Criminals have a right to privacy, and information about their past convictions may well be part of their private lives. Publication of this information could sometimes also endanger some of their other rights, such as their right to work, to choose a residence etc. -given what we know about public harassment and discrimination of people known to have a criminal past.

What to do about this conflict of rights? Perhaps violations of the rights of criminals are an acceptable price to pay for the speech rights of the exposers and the rights of possible victims. Even violations of criminals’ right to physical security – given the possibility of violent retaliation by past victims or vigilante hotheads – may be viewed as an acceptable risk. Some even want to argue that exposing criminals is a matter of justice: too lenient court sentences can be corrected by private retaliation made possible by published information.

I guess most of us would agree that this goes too far. Even if we believe that sentences are too lenient, we shouldn’t view private retaliation as an acceptable justification or byproduct of public exposure of convicted criminals. I don’t think there’s a large constituency against the right to physical security for criminals who have served their time (or for those still serving their time). A reasonably well-functioning criminal justice system should take care of punishment. And when we don’t have a well-functioning criminal justice system, the obvious goal is to improve it, not privatize it.

The best case in favor of private efforts to expose criminals is based not on retaliation but on the rights of the exposers and of possible victims. You can make the case that criminals’ general right to privacy can sometimes be overruled in favor of the right to free speech of the exposers and the right to physical safety and property of potential victims.

On the face of it, that’s not a ridiculous claim. Different rights often contradict each other, and it’s quite common that some rights should give way to some other rights in certain specific cases. Neither is it ridiculous to claim that private initiative has in general a role to play in human rights promotion. However, I don’t think we’re dealing here with a good example of a helpful private initiative. For two reasons.

  1. Balancing acts between rights are treacherous and best left to professional judges. Convicted criminals – or anyone else for that matter – have no right to be free from shame or public humiliation but they do have a right to privacy and to be free from harassment and vigilante justice. We should take these rights seriously, even if – and perhaps because – we are dealing with the rights of criminals. These criminals have already paid the price for their crimes and should be protected against violations of their rights. An attack on their privacy should therefore be avoided if at all possible, especially if such an attack can invite further violations of their rights such as vigilante justice, work problems, family problems etc. It’s unlikely that a balancing act between the speech rights of the exposers and the rights of the criminals would be decided against the latter. A balancing exercise between the exposers’ right to free speech and the criminals’ right to privacy would almost always favor the latter. The harm done to the rights of criminals when favoring free speech rights is more important than the harm done to the rights of the exposers when favoring privacy rights.
  2. If you’re not convinced by this and you still want to make the case that criminals’ right to privacy should be limited for the sake of someone else’s free speech right, then you still face another problem. It doesn’t seem right that criminals’ privacy should give way because there’s a risk of future violations of property or security rights of others. There has to be more than a mere risk, and typically there isn’t in these cases. People engage in the exposure of criminals because of the supposed risk of having criminals close by, not because these criminals are actually engaged in crime.

More about this here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (19): A Game Theory Approach

Game theory is a useful tool for trying to understand the interaction between the struggle for rights and the countervailing forces (often states). Let’s look at a few examples. In the case of popular protests and revolutionary reaction against oppressive regimes, an important decision both sides have to take is whether or not to use violence. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. In other words, protesters may have reason to escalate their expression of discontent, just to make sure their point comes across and those in power realize that things are serious. On the other hand, the violence of protests or revolutions can easily escalate beyond what is necessary or effective. Difficult to keep violence under control, and the ultimate outcome of a violent revolution may not at all be what the protesters initially desired. We see that all too often. (Present-day Egypt is a case in point).

From the perspective of those in power, things look quite similar. Again, some violence can be a good thing (from their point of view), but it shouldn’t be too much. Oppressive regimes have reason to use a certain amount of violence in order to stay in power, but if they go beyond that amount they risk violent reaction. However, it’s not just violent reaction that may be a problem. While moderate violence helps an autocrat to retain control, he doesn’t want to engage in violent repression for a very long time. Long term violence, even moderate violence, renders public discussion and persuasion impossible. As a result of this destruction of the public space (in the Arendtian sense), support from the people is increasingly harder to come by and opposition is more likely. That’s not in the interest of the regime.

And it’s not just autocracies; democracies as well have to engage in strategic decision games. Take for instance border controls. There’s an interesting story about migration from Suriname to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Netherlands and the Surinamese people could travel back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. The Netherlands wanted to stop this migration, but the result was that the Surinamese rushed to “beat the ban” and moved in massive numbers. Half of the population of Suriname ended up in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with the 1962 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely and also produced a rush to “beat the ban”.

It’s often the case that the numbers of permanent immigrants jump up just before the imposition of border controls between countries that had free movement arrangements. Migrants who previously moved back and forth, depending on the job market or the state of the economy both at home and in their destination countries, decide to stay in the destination countries because once they go back home they can’t return. Border controls have the same effect on “illegal” immigrants who often decide to stay because they can’t risk the dangerous border crossing more than once. So states that want to limit the numbers of migrants should, paradoxically, open their borders at least to some extent. Not too much, probably, but not too little either.

From the perspective of the migrants: if we want to promote freedom of movement – which is a right – then we may do best to go steady and not open the “flood gates” all at once. High numbers of migrants may reduce native support for immigration. When natives are allowed to make up their minds about the pros and cons of immigration gradually, then there will be “natural” growth in support for increased immigration as people start to see the benefits and get over their preconceived ideas about disadvantages. (See also this).

You can of think of literally thousands of games like these: a new democracy transitioning from a violent authoritarian regime has to decide how much forgiveness and unpunished injustice it can afford, and how much justice and discontent among the ranks of the old regime it can afford; Ukraine and the international community have to decide if they can afford to give up the Crimea and risk further annexations by an emboldened Russia, or if they can afford to push back and risk conflict with Russia. The list of cases can go on and on.

The interesting question is this: which general lessons for human rights promotion can we take away from this? Apart from the obvious and rather boring lessons that game theory taught us long ago – try to understand unintended consequences, take into account your opponent’s incentives, anticipate his moves etc. – there’s the lesson about multiple equilibria. Zero border restrictions will tend to move towards an equilibrium of high restrictions because tribal fears will create a backlash. These tribal fears will perhaps only be swayed by a learning curve based on and made possible by gradualism. But very strict migration restrictions will also make this learning curve impossible since very few migrants will come and people will not get the opportunity to revise their prejudices about immigration. Immigration restrictions are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best equilibrium seems to be the gradual expansion of freedom of movement.

Something very similar is the case for transitional justice. A strong focus on prosecution of the old guard will – like instant open borders – can create a backlash among the often numerous supporters and collaborators of the old regime. This backlash may undermine the new democracy and lead to a restoration of the pre-democratic equilibrium. The opposite strategy, no attention to transitional justice at all, may also undermine the new regime as the victims of the old regime will have no reason to give support to the new one. Gradual prosecution of the top cadre of the old regime, combined with truth commissions, atonement and forgiveness looks likely to provide a stable “learning curve” for the new democracy.

And you can write your own paragraphs about cases like violent protest, the Crimea etc. The stories will all be quite similar. Human rights promoters should in general think harder about the expected equilibrium of their actions. The lesson is probably that among different possible strategies the gradual one wins from the all or nothing approach because the equilibrium that results from all or nothing tends to be nothing (also in the case of oppressors by the way). Gradualism of course doesn’t preclude ambitious long term goals.

More on game theory and rights here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (18): To What Extent Can We Count on the Free Market?

Why not use the free market to promote human rights? The free market – or the market for short – is the name of the institution, protected by government rules, which allows individual or collective agents such as firms to freely exchange goods and services. Agents exchange things in the market for self-interested reasons and they tend to use money as the medium of exchange, but that doesn’t mean we’ll only see greed and accumulation of wealth resulting from the operation of the market. I’ll show that we can, to some extent, count on the market to further the cause of human rights.

But let’s start by complicating things a bit:

  • The market can either benefit or harm human rights.
  • And human rights can either benefit or harm the operations of the market.

Hence, the relationship between market and rights is difficult, to say the least. Here are a few examples:

Some human rights are a direct benefit to the market. Take for example the right to private property. This is a human right and it’s one that is generally conceived to be essential for the efficient operation of a market (some even argue that this right justifies free markets, but I want to sidestep issues of justification here and focus on consequences). You can construct a similar argument in the case of other rights such as the right to free movement, to assembly etc. At other times, however, human rights can hinder the market: privacy is a human right but privacy can cause asymmetrical information which in turn causes market dysfunctions.

Markets can have a similar two-sided effect on human rights. Conventional wisdom says that the market is the institution that delivers the highest possible level of prosperity, compared to other ways of organizing the economy. Higher prosperity may benefit certain specific human rights such as the right not to suffer poverty, the right to work etc. This benefit may occur because additional wealth “trickles down” or because additional wealth means additional redistribution. In general, it’s the case that rights cost money, so increased prosperity should, all else being equal, lead to increased rights protection across the board.

A more indirect way in which the market benefits rights is through it’s focus on individualism: the market – as opposed to a centrally planned economy – allows individuals to choose when and what to trade. Individual freedom is also at the heart of human rights. Some have also argued that the rational self-interest that is typical of people engaging in market transactions counters some dangerous and often violent passions such as xenophobia, nationalism and racism. If people trade with one another, they may become more tolerant of one another, if only because trade requires contact, respect, trust and peace. Tolerance and peace are of course also beneficial to human rights. And, finally, both the market and human rights requires the rule of law. If markets foster the rule of law, then that will benefit rights as well.

However, other aspects of markets can harm human rights. A strict interpretation of property rights – something we often hear from defenders of the market – may make redistribution difficult if not impossible, and some rights depend sometimes on redistribution. Think again of the right not to suffer poverty. More generally, markets can have two types of effects that may harm human rights indirectly:

  • Markets tend to “colonize” areas of life where an exchange of things for money is perhaps not the best way to proceed. Some goods can only be valued when they are shared rather than exchanged (e.g. art). In other cases, exchanging goods can destroy their value (e.g. political votes), just as pricing goods can destroy their value (e.g. gifts). I can also mention some types of commodification of the body such as prostitution or organ trade. While commodification of the body is not necessarily a rights violation in itself, it does devalue the dignity of human life. People are treated as means rather than ends, and a devaluation of human beings makes human rights violations more likely.
  • In some sense, this instrumentalization of the other is inherent in all market transactions, not just those in which bodies or body parts are traded. Market transactions are by definition self-interested and impersonal. We only buy or sell when that makes us better off and we don’t need to get to know our buyers or sellers. We use them simply to satisfy our needs. While self-interest and lack of personal relationships in one area of life do not necessarily harm relationships, communities, caring and common deliberation on the public interest in other areas, they can do so when markets “colonize” those other areas.

And, finally, there’s the risk of exploitation in market transactions, which I have discussed here.

I’m more interested in the effects of the market on human rights than in the effects of human rights on the market. Human rights are the ultimate good, and markets are generally a means (at best, markets are one form of exercise of certain human rights). Since the effects of the market on rights can go either way, the question becomes one of limits. If the market harms human rights, or if it expands into areas where market-transactions can indirectly harm human rights, then we have good reasons to limit the operations of the market. However, when doing so we must take care not to go too far and undo the positive effects of markets.

These limitations don’t always have to be of a legal nature. A good public education system can create a culture that helps to keep markets in their place. Governments can acquire art collections and thus remove them from the market. Or they can promote organ donation in various ways (e.g. reciprocity and presumed consent) so that organ shortages don’t force people into markets (legal or illegal markets). Welfare can help poor people avoid exploitative market transactions. And so on. However, legislation is often unavoidable if we want to protect rights against the market.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (17): Human Rights For All? Nobody Has the Slightest Idea How

I’ve noticed this a number of times: human rights defenders’ passionate commitment to the cause isn’t matched by a concomitant knowledge of the best means available to promote the cause. In fact, no one has a f***ing clue and there’s a lot of groping in the dark.

For example, human rights activism frequently takes the legal route: vote laws, enact constitutions, sign treaties and let the courts do their work. That’s quite understandable in theory. If you want to force people, the law is often the right way to go. However, we see that the effect of human rights law on the acts of rights violators is usually very limited, if not counterproductive. This should be obvious when you understand that some of the worst rights violators are tyrannical states which have no interest in the rule of law. Enacting laws when there’s no rule of law is transparently futile (with one caveat: law can create its own culture). Even legislation in countries that do respect the rule of law is often ineffective. Case in point: there is now something called the New Jim Crow in the US right.

There’s also a lot of talk about education. If only we could educate people about human rights then the next generations would be better off. It’s a similar problem: education can only be successful in a wider environment that is stable and well willing. The invocation of appeals to honor (Appiah style) and storytelling (Rorty style) have a whiff of desperation about them. And I guess I don’t have to discuss the effectiveness of the UN Human Rights Council, economic boycotts, sanctions or diplomacy (although it does seem as if sanctions had a small positive effect in Apartheid South Africa).

Given this lack of understanding about the effectiveness of human rights promotion, it’s quite surprising that there is progress at all, and somewhat less surprising that most progress is a surprise. Poverty has sharply declined, but a lot of the decline is despite intentional efforts rather than because of them (development aid doesn’t seem to do the trick according to Easterly). Communism has disappeared, and although there are many who want to take the credit, it’s better to admit that 1989 took all of us by surprise.

So, some of the progress we see is unintentional in the sense that we intend it to happen and yet it happens despite of our intentional actions. That’s good as far as it goes: better to have unintentional progress than no progress at all. But of course it would be even better if our intentional actions were successful and if things happen because of our actions rather than in spite of them, if only because then we would be able to be more intentionally effective in the future.

It would also be better if some of our intentional efforts would stop making things worse: the US wages a war on terror but only seems to make it worse, in at least these two manners: first, the war on terror creates resentment which in turn becomes a breeding ground for future terrorists; and second, it has become increasingly clear that the war on terror leads to rights violations, and not just in the target countries.

And then there’s a type of actions situated between ineffective intentional efforts and counter-effective intentional efforts, namely those actions which are effective but which also carry a heavy cost. Slavery has been abolished in the US, but no one wanted it to be a war that did it. Bombing Serbian civilians in order to protect those in Kosovo is another example. Here we enter the difficult domain of weighing the lives of some against the lives of others.

All of this confirms how clueless we are when it comes to effectively protecting people’s rights. That’s a shame, given the importance of the cause.

More on human rights progress here and here.