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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series are here.

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Migration and Human Rights (52): Remote Border Controls, Or How to Deal With Poor People On the Move

Many of the poorest people in the world are determined to seek a better life in wealthy countries. The governments and large swats of the populations of those countries react with increasing despair to this stubborn fact, even though the numbers of immigrants aren’t really much higher than they used to be. It’s also not the case that current immigrants create more problems than their predecessors. (On the contrary, welfare consumption, crime rates etc. are lower among immigrants than among natives, and there’s a lot of evidence that natives benefit from immigration).

But then what is causing this despair? I guess it’s got something to do with the perceived failure of Western governments to deal with the “immigration problem”. Whether or not it’s true that there are too many immigrants causing too many problems, many Westerners think it’s true and are dismayed by their governments’ reaction to this supposed fact: people are upset with ineffective policing of the borders (to the extent that some of them have set up private militias to deal with illegal border crossings); they’re upset with the failure of government agencies to send back “illegals” present on the territory; they want but often don’t get harsher immigration laws; they sometimes get but don’t want amnesty etc.

These governments, being democratic, feel the need to respond to popular discontent – even though the actual popularity of the discontent can be questioned. How do they respond? The first thing they do is step up their existing efforts: tightened border security (including walls if necessary), less generous visa and asylum rules etc. Unsurprisingly, this is often unsuccessful if success is defined as a large reduction in the number of illegal – and sometimes also legal – immigrants. Poor people are very determined folks and often find a way around restrictions.

Hence, there’s now a second line of response. Since a few decades now, Western governments have been trying to “externalize” or “extraterritorialize” their immigration restrictions. They also call this policy, somewhat euphemistically, “upstream” or “remote” border control. Western governments have de facto extended their borders. A first step in this second line of response has been the policy of intercepting people on the high sea, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the states that are the supposed destinations of the people who are intercepted. For example, the US has used force against Haitian refugees outside its territorial waters. And of course this is now the common European practice in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US, Europe but also Australia are moving their border enforcement efforts beyond their national borders into the high sea. But that’s only a first step in the extraterritorialization of immigration control. Immigration restrictions are now being implemented in the territories of countries wherefrom migrants try to reach the West.The policy is to have agreements with the countries of origin and important transit countries. These countries agree to control people departing from or transiting through their territories.

The word “control” can mean different things here: for example police patrols carried out in cooperation with the authorities of Western countries; no-go buffer-zones if the origin or transit countries share a border with the destination countries; destination countries funding detention facilities abroad etc. Cooperation agreements like these aren’t always mutually voluntary. In some cases, Western countries make development funding, visa-allotment and other goodies conditional upon acceptance of said agreements.

Here’s a visual representation of the increasing importance of remote border controls.

This is the outsourcing of immigration control, and I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of it. In truly Orwellian style, Western governments use the supposed wellbeing of (potential) migrants as a justification of remote border controls. Better to stop them before they depart for the West than to allow them to put themselves at risk during an often dangerous journey. Better also to stop them than to send them back on the same dangerous journey. As if it’s not the immigration restrictions that make the journey dangerous and that force a good deal of successful immigrants to make the same journey back.

If you believe that immigration restrictions are morally acceptable, then I guess remote borders controls are OK. This type of immigration restriction isn’t necessarily more harmful to potential migrant than more traditional restrictions at the border or in the territory of destination countries. It can indeed be less harmful, sparing a lot of people a lot of trouble and risk. But my point is of course that immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable. If I’m correct, then more restrictions mean more immorality. Why do I think immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable? Because I believe there are good reasons based on human rights to allow people to move across borders, even people who want to move for purely “economic” reasons (meaning that they want to move in order to escape starvation and crippling poverty). I’ve set out these reasons here and won’t repeat them now.

I do realize that I’m occupying a minority position here. Much less controversial is the right of refugees and asylum seekers to move across borders. The Refugee Convention is very clear about the rights of people migrating in order to escape persecution. One of these rights is non-refoulement. This is a principle of international law that forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.

Article 33 of the Convention states:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Even if you think it’s OK to have remote border controls for economic migrants, the same controls will unavoidably trap some refugees in the countries that want to kill or imprison them. It’s only abroad that they can get a fair hearing of their asylum claims, but this is made impossible by remote border controls. So let’s get rid of it, and not only for the sake of refugees.

More posts in this series here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (34): Which Are the Best Anti-Human-Rights Theories?

Those of us who believe human rights are important have an intellectual duty to engage with the best critics of human rights. “Engage” may be too big a word for this blog post, but what I’ll do here is list some of the best anti-rights theories and link to previous posts where I’ve dealt with them in some more detail.

By “best” I obviously don’t mean “convincing”. If I was convinced by any (or all) of these theories I wouldn’t be writing this blog. None of the theories I list here, or any other anti-rights theories for that matter, are even remotely convincing on close inspection. I won’t provide that close inspection in this post. In most cases I’ve done so before, and I’ll therefore take the luxury of linking back to older posts.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism comes in many shapes, but the most basic form of the theory is evidently opposed to human rights. Human rights limit the things that can be done to maximize aggregate utility, and the efforts to maximize aggregate utility often – in some forms of utilitarianism – justify harm done to individuals if that harm is necessary for greater gains elsewhere in society.

Of course, there is such a thing as rule utilitarianism which claims that respect for rules (e.g. human rights) usually maximizes utility or is the best proxy for utility in the absence of detailed knowledge about consequences of specific actions. Read more here and here about the link between utilitarianism and human rights.

Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism doesn’t reject human rights as such, but only their universal applicability and desirability. According to this theory, different cultures have developed their own moral codes, adapted to their own identity, circumstances and history, and moral diversity is therefore something valuable that needs to be protected. Efforts to universalize human rights will destroy moral diversity and non-western cultural identities, and are in fact exercises in cultural imperialism and cultural genocide.

Read more here, here and here about cultural relativism and human rights.

Empire

A related criticism views human rights as a tool in outright power imperialism. Human rights talk only serves to justify violent interventions in so-called “rogue states” or other countries that provide a selfish and imperial benefit to the U.S. (but also Europe). The violent interventions in Kosovo/Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. have all been partially justified by human rights talk but were, according to some, primarily motivated by the strategic interests of the intervening powers. More here.

The economic case against human rights

It’s often argued that economic growth is enhanced by certain policies and actions that imply violations of human rights. The Chinese government in particular is quick to use this argument. And the whole “Asian values” debate – somewhat outdated now – was based on it. Especially developing countries supposedly can’t afford the luxury of human rights. They need discipline and organization in production and consumption, not freedom. Read more here, here and here.

Legal positivism

Legal positivism doesn’t claim that there are no rights, simply that there are no human rights. Rights exist only if they are part of the law. Human rights in the abstract, as something that human beings possess independently of their country’s laws, is simply idle talk. It seems I still have to make the case against legal positivism…

Marxism

According to Marx, human rights are the rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature and they are designed to protect the wealthy from the poor. More here, here and here.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (47): Globalization

Human history is often viewed as a widening circle of moral concern. In the olden days, the claim goes, people cared only about their siblings and tribe. Then they started to care about their class, their nation, their religious community, their civilization, and ultimately their shared humanity. Cosmopolitanism, or the equal respect for all human beings whatever their affiliation or location, is then the end-state of morality (although some want to go further and include animals or even inanimate objects in the circle of moral concern). This end-state dovetails with human rights concerns because human rights are also the rights of all humans, whatever country, class or culture they belong to.

The widening of moral concern – if it indeed occurred as described – went in tandem with other and more familiar globalization processes, such as increased international trade, integration of different economies, the development of international law, increased communication through the internet, easier transportation, intercultural dialogue, migration etc. And all these different processes interact: communication and transportation foster trade, trade fosters communication, communication widens the circle of moral concern etc.

This story implies that globalization – of any kind – is always or unequivocally beneficial from the point of view of human rights. However, that may not be true. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of different types of globalization.

Pros

  • Increased migration is almost without exception beneficial to the prosperity and freedom of all parties involved, although the migrants obviously benefit most.
  • Intercultural dialogue promotes tolerance and agreement on human rights, and this dialogue is not only fostered by new technologies but also by international trade. Better communication as well makes people care more about what happens in the world and makes it more difficult for oppressive regimes to hide their oppression. In this sense, communication and trade drive the widening circle of moral concern.
  • Economic interdependence between countries creates a self-interested incentive for governments to promote rights and democracy elsewhere in the world and makes it more likely that international law can impose itself over concerns about national sovereignty. Global economic collaboration requires international regulation, and economic regulation can open the door for other types of regulation, including rights regulation. Countries that depend economically on an international institutional and regulatory system, will have a much harder time invoking their sovereignty when faced with accusations of rights violations, since they already lost a huge chunk of their sovereignty due to economic integration.
  • The increasing importance of multinational companies makes it easier for consumers in one part of the world to lobby for corporate responsibility elsewhere in the world.

Cons

  • Outsourcing, a commonly cited aspect of globalization, can result in people losing their jobs, and the threat of outsourcing can force people to accept lower wages or inferior labor conditions. And work is a human right.
  • The threat of cheap foreign labor and cheap foreign products can lead to protectionism and immigration restrictions, two major causes of poverty in developing countries.
  • Globalization may erode the welfare state because a large part of the tax base – corporations, financial intermediaries and skilled workers – become internationally mobile and can thereby avoid to pay the taxes that governments need to finance their welfare systems. The tax base can also decrease because governments cut taxes in an effort to maintain the competitiveness of local businesses.
  • The previous three phenomena – outsourcing, labor and product competition and pressure on the welfare state – may not only lead to restrictions on international trade and migration, but can also counteract the widening circle of moral concern: politicians and local businesses can and often do use these threats to stir up xenophobia. A xenophobic public is more likely to vote in favor of trade and immigrations restrictions. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that people’s circle of moral concern is wider in countries that are more affected by globalization.
  • Globalization implies a certain degree of power deflation: states lose power vis-à-vis the market, multinationals, international institutions and each other. This in turn means that decisions affecting the well-being of people are taken by outside forces. Democratic self-government – which is a human right – is then threatened.
  • The interconnectedness of international financial markets increases the likelihood that a local financial or economic crisis spreads to the rest of the world.
  • A higher number of increasingly globalized multinational companies also means a higher risk that some of those threaten indigenous cultures, exploit poor workers etc.

On balance, however, I believe that globalization is good for human rights, even though I can’t quantify the pros and cons.

What is Totalitarianism?

It sounds like a somewhat antiquated concept and it may very well be true that it’s useless as a descriptive device for current politics. However, I believe that it remains a necessary tool for the correct understanding of 20th century history. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China were very different countries and very different political regimes, but it can be argued that what they had in common was more important than what separated them. And what they had in common separated them from all other authoritarian governments before and after them. (Hannah Arendt was one of the first to notice this). That is the reasoning behind the concept of totalitarian government. Those three governments – and perhaps a few others – can be described as totalitarian states and were therefore instances of a separate type of government, like oligarchy or democracy. They were not just particularly brutal forms of dictatorship. We’re not talking about a difference in degree. Of course, some of the elements of totalitarian rule which I describe below can be found in other dictatorial governments as well, but other elements can’t. (Just like some elements of democracy can be found in non-democracies). And what certainly can’t be found elsewhere is the combination of all those elements.

Totalitarian government is a post-democratic form of government. It couldn’t exist in the era before mass democracy. It’s post-democratic in the sense that it is an outgrowth of modern democratic traditions. Political parties, party ideologies, mass movements and mass mobilization, the pseudo-popular legitimacy of rigged elections and referenda, the mass idolatry, the personality cults, mass indoctrination, propaganda, Potemkin constitutions, show trials etc. all show the totalitarian debt to democracy. The same is true for the focus on re-education and rectification of thought when some parts of the popular will are considered to be deviant: this is proof of the importance of popular consent (when consent is absent, it’s fabricated).

Contrary to older forms of despotism, totalitarianism admits that the state is no longer the natural property of a ruling class, the private tool of a sovereign or a gift of God. It is the expression of the will of the people. Not, as in a democracy, of a divided people or of a people who’s identity fluctuates over time as a consequence of public debate. The will of the people under totalitarian government is permanently defined as a unified whole. The people are defined as a race or a class. The people have a homogeneous project, namely racial supremacy or the liberation of the proletariat. The will of the people, which is also the basis of democracy but which is always kept vague, heterogeneous and fluctuating in a democracy, now becomes a singular, clear and permanent will. All individuals and individual projects or interests are identified with a collective project. Everything which is in accord with this project, is part of the people; everything else is not – is foreign, alien, “entartet”, bourgeois or capitalist – and must be destroyed. If it’s the whole of the people that works towards a certain project, then those with another opinion are enemies of the people and have to be destroyed to protect the people and its project.

That is the origin of the genocidal nature of all totalitarian governments but also of their less extreme forms of exclusion of the other. Every internal division is seen as external. The other is not part of the people. Society isn’t divided but is divided from its enemies. Every sign of internal division is externalized: dissidents are foreign spies, the other is a member of the international jewish conspiracy, a tool of international capitalism, the fifth column etc. For example, long after it was clear that the attack on Hitler in 1939 was the work of a single German individual (Georg Elser) the nazis maintained that the British secret service was to blame. The other attack by von Stauffenberg in 1944 was framed as the work of aristocratic officers who were alienated from the German people. This division between internal and external is consciously cultivated because it confirms the image of the people as a unified whole. If real foreign spies or class enemies can’t be found then they are created. and duly suppressed. Hence everyone can become the enemy, even the most loyal followers.

The fixed will of the people is subsequently represented by the party and the state. The party doesn’t represent a majority, but the people. Hence, other parties have no reason to exist. All people and the whole of the people are represented by a single party. And since this party perfectly represents a perfectly clear and unified popular will, it can infiltrate all parts of society: school, church, labor union, factory, the press, the judiciary, the arts and all other social organizations cease to be independent. The party is everywhere and submits every organization to its will. It believes it can do so because its will is the will of the people. And the party uses the means of the state to be everywhere: the secret service, the department of communications, the police… As a result, the state is also everywhere. Totalitarian government simultaneously bans people to the private sphere – all free and deviant public actions and expressions are forbidden – and destroys the private sphere, to the point that people can’t even trust their friends and family. All private actions are potentially public. Wiretapping, surveillance, public confessions… Even the most private things of all, your own thoughts, are attacked by way of propaganda and indoctrination. Totalitarianism strives for total control of private and public life. All spontaneous and independent individual or social projects are doomed unless they are completely trivial. They can only survive when they are part of the common project, because they make sense only when they are part. When they are not, they are potentially in opposition to the common project.

But we should understand that the identification of the party with the state is only temporary. The state in fact is bound to disappear. That becomes clear when we consider the imperialism that is typical of totalitarianism (to a lesser degree in the case of China). By definition, the projects of totalitarian governments – racial supremacy or a classless society – go beyond the borders of a state. Aryans aren’t only meant to rule within the borders of Germany. They deserve global supremacy in part because they are the best race and in part because the Jews are a worldwide threat. And the classless society can’t exist when it is surrounded by a capitalist world; the proletariat in other countries also deserves to rule.

Totalitarianism is a form of rule that goes beyond the state. A particular state is just a convenient tool for a certain stage in the popular project. The people as well is a concept that goes beyond the group of citizens of a given state. There are also Aryans and workers in other states. In non-totalitarian dictatorships, political rule is essentially tied to the state. A normal dictator may attack other countries, but will do so while enhancing his state or expanding his country. His rule will never go beyond the rule of a state, suitably redefined if necessary. If necessary he’ll redraw the boundaries of the state, but he will never go beyond the state as such. Totalitarian rule, on the other hand, is ultimately larger than the state. It’s the rule of a race or a class, on a potentially global level.

As the people and the state are subject to the rule of the party, so the party is subject to the rule of one individual. The leader makes sure that the party remains unified, because a divided party can’t claim to represent a unified people. So there’s a series of identifications going on: the people is identified with a class or a race; this unified people is then identified with the party that represents it; the party in turn identifies itself with the state because it (temporarily) needs the tools of the state to realize its project (class rule or race rule); the state then takes over society and identifies with it; and ultimately a single leader takes over everything in order to guarantee unity.

The people are like a collective individual, a body with a head controlling all its coordinated movements. State terror and genocide can then be seen as the body removing sickness and parasites. The other is often explicitly identified as parasitical or infectious. Violence and oppression are medicines used to safeguard the integrity of the body of the people and their purpose. The Great Purge wasn’t called a purge by accident. The Jews weren’t depicted as pestilent rats for no reason.

The image of the body also means prophylaxis: why wait with punishment until the crime is committed? We know that certain persons are enemies of the people. Crime in the sense of opposition to the project of the people is a fatality for them, sooner or later. There may be good Jews, but we can’t take the risk that they marry an Aryan and defile the race. And some capitalists may be less harmful than others, but why wait until their presence undermines collectivization or until they betray the country and invite an invasion?

Totalitarian government isn’t like a normal lawless and arbitrary dictatorship. Of course, the laws under totalitarian government are regularly broken or changed to serve certain goals. But there are deeper laws that the totalitarian government has to protect, namely the laws of nature (in the case of Nazism, and more specifically the laws of natural selection) and the laws of history (in the case of communism, more specifically the laws that say that economic and industrial development will necessarily destroy capitalism and inaugurate communist production). Those “deeper” laws aren’t human laws; they are historical laws that drive mankind towards the realization of the project that animates totalitarianism. Totalitarian government serves to facilitate and fasten the operation of those deeper laws. Jews are exterminated because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of Aryans. Capitalists, bourgeois, kulaks etc. are exterminated (or reeducated in order to become communists) because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of the proletariat (the proletariat is doomed to rule given the evolution of capitalism, but its rule can be hastened).

There is no “regis voluntas suprema lex” as in previous forms of despotism. The legal lawlessness covers a deeper lawfulness. Legal laws have to be adapted to best serve the deeper laws. If terror and violence are required for the realization and hastening of the evolution postulated by the deeper laws, then the legal laws will mandate and require terror and violence. Terror and violence don’t only serve to intimidate, destroy opposition, isolate people from one another and coerce compliance. They serve the project of the people.

I think all this justifies grouping Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China under a separate form of government. That doesn’t mean that everything about those regimes was new and typical only of totalitarian government. Obviously, genocides, terror, show trials etc. have occurred before and since. Those are not inventions of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. There are historical parallels, just as there are parallels between contemporary art and ancient art, but still we prefer to distinguish these two forms of art. We have to look beyond the phenomenology of despotic regimes throughout history, and identify the particular logic of different forms of despotism.

Human Rights and International Law (23): The Dilemma of Treaty Ratification Rates

In the case of human rights treaties, we face a tough choice: should we aim at universal/near-universal acceptance and ratification, or should we instead limit ourselves to the goal of “real” or meaningful acceptance and ratification? The problem with human rights treaties is that ratification is almost costless. A country can ratify them even if it has no intention of respecting their provisions, because it knows that lack of respect will not result in any serious harm. The same is not true for other types of treaties: a country ratifying a military collaboration treaty, a fishery treaty etc. knows that non-respect of the treaty provisions can lead to harmful retaliation by other treaty signatories or fines imposed by some international institution.

The relative costlessness of human rights treaties means that most if not all countries will readily accept them. They can only gain: signaling support for human rights by way of treaty ratification can even reduce outside pressure for better rights protection. After all, a country that signals willingness to respect human rights should have more leeway than a country that openly and willingly violates those rights.

Hence, near-universal ratification rates are a natural outcome in the case of human rights treaties. Some argue that instead of pursuing the commonly accepted goal of near-universal ratification of human rights treaties, we should instead aim for “real” and meaningful acceptance; in other words, acceptance only by states that do intend to implement the treaties’ provisions. States that would sign the treaties simply to signal a positive attitude towards human rights and to relieve outside pressure should therefore be excluded from ratification.

Exclusion means raising the cost of ratification – for example by way of preconditions for acceptance incorporated into the treaties or by way of effective sanctions in case of non-respect. This in turn means that treaty ratification rates will be brought down.

All of this sounds reasonable at first sight, but it does create a dilemma. Treaty ratification, even if it is at first mere signaling by an authoritarian state that doesn’t have any intention of respecting the treaty, can have beneficial effects over time. By making “fake” or “shallow” ratification more difficult we would also destroy those beneficial effects. What kind of effects am I talking about? Well, for instance, a treaty can promote a human rights culture. When a state accepts a treaty, even if only for the purpose of international signaling, it also signals, inadvertently, to its own population: it signals that human rights are becoming universal moral norms. The state therefore can’t help but increasing the legitimacy and salience of human rights, and its oppressed population can use this fact: it can wield the language of human rights in a more effective way than before, both against the state and in order to rally support.

Hence, we may see an effect of treaty ratification going in two opposite directions: shallow ratification my reduce outside pressure against the ratifying state, but may also increase inside pressure.

So it’s not obvious what we should do. Should we aim at near-universal ratification, or at meaningful ratification? Both strategies have pros and cons. Near-universal ratification may reduce the meaning of human rights – if even the worst dictator can ratify a human rights treaty without any significant cost, then human rights will lose their appeal. We may even increase the number and severity of human rights violations because states that signal adherence to human rights will see a reduction of international pressure. On the other hand, making ratification more costly will reduce the number of ratifications, which in turn will reduce the moral stature of human rights and will make it more difficult to argue that human rights are universal.

I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t see an easy way out.

More posts on this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (31): Or Maybe We Don’t? – Exploring the “Dark Side” of Human Rights

Do human rights have a “dark side“? There are some specific complaints about the nefarious or even evil consequences of certain particular human rights, and there are complaints about the harmful consequences of human rights in general. The former complaints are a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll start with those.

Complaints about particular human rights

Freedom of expression is believed to be harmful because it protects pornography, which in turn leads to gender based violence and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it implies the free dissemination and reproduction of hate and it therefore fosters violence, racism and different kinds of “phobias”. And, finally, it allows blasphemy and hence it encourages religious tensions and violence.

Those human rights that guarantee a fair trial, and more particularly the rights of defendants, make it more difficult to have an effective criminal justice system. As a result, it becomes more likely that dangerous criminals return to society. Also, the right to life makes it harder to justify capital punishment, with the same result.

The right to privacy can support gender subordination and make it more difficult to tackle domestic violence.

Some human rights can even bring us to the edge of destruction (a ban on torture makes it impossible to deal with ticking time bomb terrorists).

Such specific complaints against particular human rights can be countered rather easily. Most if not all of the harmful consequences of rights are violations of other rights. If we grant that rights are limited by other rights, then we can balance rights against each other. Or one can argue that the supposed harmful consequences of some rights will (almost) never occur, or that they aren’t really harmful at all. For example, if we don’t torture we won’t make terrorism more likely. And some forms of pornography or hate speech aren’t really very dangerous.

Complaints about human rights in general

A lot harder to answer is the challenge that there’s something wrong, not with particular human rights, but with human rights as such. This challenge can take different forms.

Human rights are supposed to be the fig leaf of international intervention and modern imperialism. The anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, was partly a reaction to 9-11 but it was also justified by reference to the brutal rule of the Taliban. It may be a meager defense, but if we were to reject everything that can be abused we wouldn’t have much left. The question then becomes one of degree: are human rights more likely to be abused for imperialist reasons, or more likely to serve the beneficial goals for which they are intended? And what is the probable balance of good and bad that will result from those different uses of human rights? I think the good that comes from human rights clearly outweighs the bad, and that the bad will happen anyway, whether or not people use the excuse of human rights while making it happen.

There’s a similar claim about the inherent cultural imperialism in human rights. Human rights, even when they’re not used to justify war, military intervention or territorial occupation, are still imperialist because they imply the imposition of western values on other cultures. Human rights are then believed to be a form of cultural aggression and part of a neocolonial effort to extend the individualist, secular and modern culture of the West elsewhere in the world, destroying the indigenous cultures in the process. This claim, however, is based on some rather shaky foundations: that human rights can only be found in the West, that intercultural transmission is necessarily aggressive, one-sided and involuntary, that human rights express a culture, that human rights are individualist etc.

Then there’s the claim that the abstract nature of human rights removes the personal and the specific from cases, and removes therefore the things that make us care about cases. I dealt with this complaint before, so I won’t repeat myself. The core of the reply would be that one approach – an abstract one – doesn’t exclude a more contextualized and specific one. For instance, one can talk about the abstract desirability of the right not to be tortured and about the errors in reasoning of those arguing for exceptions to this right, and at the same time one can talk about specific cases of torture.

Another complaint is the classic marxist one: the individualism of human rights spills over into egoism and capitalist greed. Again, I refer to an older post for a detailed reply. Suffice it to say that human rights as claims on others can indeed lead to divisiveness and a lack of social harmony, and that human rights as claims for your rights can promote selfishness. These tendencies, however, are canceled by the more communitarian nature of other uses of rights (religious liberty, tolerance, freedom of association etc.).

Still another complaint is about the victimization inherent in human rights. Focusing on people’s human rights violations means focusing on their status as victims, and talking about people as victims is somewhat infantilizing. Human rights activists do indeed often view non-whites, non-males and non-westerners as passive victims, incapable of agency, waiting to be rescued by do-gooders. This obviously reinforces their subordination. (More on self-defeating human rights policies here). This complaint is more about the way people act when trying to promote human rights than about human rights as such.

A final complaint about human rights is that they give people false hope, at least those people in the poorest countries of the world. What is the point of having a right when you don’t have the means to realize that right, when there’s no way of securing the things you have a right to? For billions of people all over the world, the right not to suffer ill health, poverty or homelessness is just a sick joke. Why should we have rights when there’s no way to make them real? Good luck going to a judge in a famine infested country and asking him to respect your right to food. And even if we can make our rights real, it’s better to use politics, science and economics than abstract rights that don’t tell us how to move forward. The reply to this complaint would focus on the benefits of having rather ambitious goals, even if the complete realization of those goals is not yet possible. At least one can measure progress. And it would also focus on the realistic nature of most human rights goals. For example, it’s simply not true that poverty eradication is utopian.

More posts in this series here.