Types of Human Rights Violations (9): Self-Inflicted Human Rights Violations

I want to return briefly to the topic of rights violations that are inflicted, not by others or by the state, but by people on themselves. (See here for a previous post). One example is self-inflicted poverty, or poverty that’s the result of people’s own misguided actions (although I hasten to add that I’m convinced that other causes of poverty are more important and more common; and yes, poverty is a human rights violation).

However, it’s interesting to note that when people inflict poverty on themselves, they don’t merely do so by way of misguided, irrational or self-destructive actions. Poor people may engage in preference adaptation, so as to cope better with their poverty. They may also stubbornly believe that their situation isn’t so bad after all, and that many others are even worse off, even if they are among the worst off. This belief helps them to feel better about their lives. (Read more about this here and here). Both preference adaptation and “counting your blessings” won’t do much to help you pull yourself out of poverty.

The problem is indeed that such coping mechanisms tend to perpetuate poverty, and hence they are part of a process of self-inflicted poverty. People who adapt their preferences and satisfaction levels become less prone to fight for their rights.

This problem isn’t limited to poverty. Oppressive circumstances usually stunt people’s ambitions. If the risks of engaging in protests against a powerful authoritarian government are high, then people may settle in their submission and thank the Lord that they at least have some freedom within their homes. Their lack of protest then helps to maintain their submission, and hence they are partially responsible for the violation of their rights.

By the way, the inherent malleability of preferences – which are elements of the examples given above – discredits all theories of justice that are based on equality of preference satisfaction. Given that circumstances may form preferences and that people may revise their preferences downwards in order to achieve at least some level of satisfaction, equality of preference satisfaction will result in lives of very unequal quality.

More posts in this series are here.

Types of Human Rights Violations (8): Active and Passive Violations

You can violate someone’s rights, or you can let violations occur. You can kill, or you can let someone die. Someone’s rights are violated either because you did something, or because you didn’t do something; either because of what you did, or because you refrained from doing something; either because you acted, or because you omitted certain actions; either because you caused this violation, or because you allowed this violation to happen.

All these phrases say the same thing: you either actively or passively violate someone’s rights. I agree that these are two distinct types of rights violations. The distinction is similar to the distinction between negative and positive duties. Active rights violations imply a negative duty to forbear or refrain from doing what would otherwise cause a rights violation; passive rights violations imply a positive duty to do something so that a rights violation does not occur.

The distinction is often understood as entailing different levels of moral blameworthiness, but I think this can be misleading. In criminal law, for example, the punishment for killing is often more severe than the punishment for letting someone die. However, the difference in blameworthiness is hard to see in many cases. Take the following example: one man A poisons his wife B, and another man C fails to take his wife D, who has taken poison by accident, to the hospital. (I’m stealing this example from Jonathan Bennett). If this is all the information we have, I guess many of us would not say that C is less blameworthy than A. Letting die is equivalent to killing, at least in this case.

When people argue for a moral difference between committing and omitting, it’s not the difference between types of actions – positive/negative, causing/allowing etc. – that counts, but intention. A probably had the intention of killing, while C may simply have been confused or in panic. If we attribute the same intention to both A and C – A gives the poison to B because he hates her, and C fails to take D to the hospital because he hates her and profits from the occasion – then the difference between the cases disappears, as does the difference in blameworthiness – and the difference between active and passive violations.

Arguments for a difference between committing and omitting can be based on intention, but then it’s intention that makes the difference, not the types of actions. After all, A may have poisoned B unintentionally, while C may have intentionally refrained from assisting D. The distinction between types of actions – positive and negative – doesn’t therefore seem to carry much weight.

Perhaps it can be rescued by looking at the cost element. Active violations are often judged more immoral than passive violations because it’s generally easier and less costly to refrain from acting than it is to help. Hence, failure to refrain – i.e. actively doing something – is more blameworthy than failure to help – i.e. remaining passive. And yet, this is not always true. Let’s take the same example and modify it a bit. If A poisons B and wants to do this, and C involuntarily fails to help D who’s taken poison accidentally, then it’s true that A is more blameworthy than C: A could have easily refrained from giving B the poison, whereas C would have had to overcome his panic, carry D down the stairs, drag her into his car etc. C may even be forgiven altogether for his failure to help. However, what if A killed B because B had threatened to kill his mother, and C let D die because he hated her? The cost to A of refraining would have been very high, higher than the cost to C of not letting D die.

Again, like in the case of intention, cost can be used to differentiate blame, but it’s cost and not type of action that differentiates.

To conclude: the distinction between active and passive types of rights violations is real, but one should be careful when attaching different levels of blameworthiness to these types.

More posts in this series are here.

Types of Human Rights Violations (7): Unintentional Human Rights Violations

The common view is that there can’t be unintentional human rights violations: only when someone intentionally harms the rights of someone else can we talk about rights violations. In all other cases we should talk about accidents, tragedies or misfortune. However, I’ve never understood this common view. There is criminal liability for accidentally running someone over with a car, but if we unintentionally reduce someone’s freedom or equal standing should that person simply suffer her misfortune rather than seek redress for violations of her rights? That can’t be true. What’s important about human rights is the harm to the victim, not the state of mind of the perpetrator. Rights are about victims, not perpetrators.

So below are a few examples of unintentional human rights violations (you can suggest more in comments).

Criminal punishment is often a very intentional human rights violation. Think of capital punishment and excessively long or discriminatory incarceration. However, let’s assume that there are cases of justified criminal punishment which merely aim to limit some of the human rights of criminals rather than violate them – the difference is that limitations, contrary to violations, are necessary for the protection of rights of others. (This is not an assumption that is evidently true – see here – but let’s leave our doubts at the door for a while).

Justified criminal punishment must be imposed intentionally. Unintentional side effects of incarceration, for instance, should not therefore be part of legitimate criminal punishment. Examples of such side effects are loss of income, loss of education opportunities, prison rape etc. These, unfortunately, are very common side effects, and incarceration thus unintentionally produces rights violations. That is something which should – but never is – taken into account when imposing prison sentences, especially when, such as in this case, the unintentional human rights violations are eminently foreseeable. (More about this here).

Immigration restrictions are imposed not because decision makers in the destination countries want to condemn large parts of humanity to a life of desperation. They are imposed because people – mistakenly in my view – believe that such restrictions serve to protect a national culture, national prosperity or law and order. However, the fact is that immigration restrictions unintentionally perpetuate poverty, and poverty is a human rights violation. Freedom of association and freedom of movement are also violated by immigration restrictions, and those rights violations are also unintentional.

Poverty in general is usually an unintentional human rights violation. Few people deliberately create or perpetuate poverty, and yet there’s a lot of poverty in the world. While some of it is due to natural causes, misfortune or self-destructive actions, most of it is the result of unintentional actions by other people: certain economic policies (such as anti-poor trade policy), or unintentional failure to act charitably. More about this here.

As you can see from all these examples, the absence of an intention to violate rights is not a sufficient reason to negate the reality of violations. It’s also not sufficient to clear people of responsibility. Even if people do not have the intention to violate rights, they should try to assess whether violations are possible side effects of their actions. And in all the examples given, this assessment is relatively easy. If you think about it, you know that you’ll violate rights unintentionally when you lock up criminals, when you stop people at the border or when you implement certain economic policies. Hence, just like the reckless driver hitting someone with his car, you may be held accountable if your actions in the spheres of justice, border control or trade – or in any other sphere for that matter – cause unintended rights violations.

One day I will offer a complete typology of human rights violations. I think…

Types of Human Rights Violations (6)

Let’s take an example of a fictional and very specific human rights violation: a Nigerian woman, let’s call her Joy, doesn’t have enough money to buy food and other necessities on a regular and predictable basis, for her and her family. And yes, poverty is a human rights violation, but if you insist you can easily rewrite this post with another example of a rights violation. Then you can also take another country. The choice of Nigeria is purely random, and nothing in this post is supposed to imply that certain rights violations are typical of Nigeria, or any other country for that matter.

Joy’s poverty can be a case of one or several types of rights violations. A first question we need to ask is whether we’re dealing with an act or a rule based rights violation. Joy’s predicament can be the result of her dominant husband, Emmanuel, who doesn’t allow her to work because he’s jealous and afraid that she may be unfaithful when given the occasion, but who also doesn’t bring home enough money himself. However, a more important cause of her poverty may be the predominant social and cultural rules against education and professional work for girls and women.

So we can try to understand whether rights violations are caused by the conduct and actions of individuals, groups, states etc. or rather by systems of rules and institutions in a society. Counterfactuals will be helpful: how would things have been different if someone had acted in another way or if some other rules had been in force?

In the case of act based violations we’ll also need to establish an agent’s intent, his ability to predict and to avert the consequences of his actions, the availability of alternative actions, the cost of alternative actions to the agent etc. It’s not Emmanuel’s intention to force Joy into poverty, but he can be expected to understand the consequences of his actions. There’s also an obvious alternative action available – let Joy work – which won’t impose a large cost on Emmanuel (most women are not unfaithful at work).

In the case of rule based violations as well we’ll need to see whether the rule’s consequences could have been predicted and averted, whether alternative rules are available, feasible, realistic and not too costly, and, if so, whether there is someone who can be held responsible for not implementing and enforcing those alternatives. If Joy’s poverty is the result of cultural rules against education and work for girls and women, then there are alternative rules available, but those may not be feasible in the short term given the cultural nature of the existing rules. However, we can perhaps point the finger at the government for not trying hard enough to impose an alternative rule such as compulsory education for girls or a law against gender discrimination in employment.

This leads us to the following point: both act based and rule based rights violations can be divided into two additional categories or types, call them active and passive types of rights violations. Rights violations may be caused by wrongful acts or by a failure to act. Or they may be caused by the wrong rules or by a failure to impose the right rules. Emmanuel can violate Joy’s rights by forcing her to stay home or by failing to help her find a job. Joy’s government can violate her rights by enforcing the cultural norms against education and work for girls and women, or by failing to enforce rules regarding compulsory education and employment discrimination.

As is clear from the last example, the rules in rule based rights violations can be either moral and cultural rules or legal and institutional rules (or both of course). And legal and institutional rules can be national or international. Joy’s poverty may be caused by national rules such as in the example above, but also by international legal rules such as those regarding trade restrictions (and even by national rules of other countries such as those restricting immigration).

Act based rights violations can of course also be national or international. If Joy’s government is corrupt and allows the country’s national resources to be expropriated by foreign companies that fill the pockets of government officials, then that will be the cause of her poverty.

In the case of national legal rule based violations, the cause of violations may be incidental or structural: the cause may be a single rule or a small set of specific rules (e.g. the enforcement of gender discrimination in education and work), but may also be a general failure of the rules in society. If Nigeria becomes a failed state, then that will be the cause of Joy’s poverty because it’s unlikely that an economy will flourish absent the rule of law and good governance – and if the economy won’t flourish, neither will Joy.

Other possible classifications of rights violations could differentiate between

  • vertical and horizontal violations: vertical violations being those inflicted on individuals by a government, international institutions etc.; horizontal violations being those inflicted by individuals or groups on each other (both vertical and horizontal violations can be either rule or act based, caused by wrongful acts/rules or a failure to act/rule, national or international, incidental or structural etc.)
  • zero sum violations, positive sum violations, or negative sum violations (Emmanuel or male citizens of Nigeria in general may profit from gender discrimination in the short run – zero sum – but may ultimately also suffer from it – negative sum – because gender discrimination reduces the pool of talent in a society)
  • inflicted or self-inflicted violations (Joy may only have herself to blame for her poverty)
  • current or transtemporal violations (Joy’s poverty may be the lingering effect of slavery)
  • etc.

Types of Human Rights Violations (5): Human Rights Eating Themselves – The Case of Silencing

Some human rights make themselves impossible some of the time. Take the right to free speech: certain forms of the exercise of this right make it difficult if not impossible for others to exercise their version of the right. Free speech for some can silence others. That may sound strange because it’s usually the violation of the right to free speech that silences.

I’m not talking about obvious cases such as the heckler’s veto because those are not really interesting. Below are some more contentious examples.


A lot of pornography depicts women as inferior and consequently contributes to the continued subordination of women. Both men and women can come to see women as subordinate objects of desire, unable or at least unlikely to speak, complain, withhold consent or resist. Pornography is then taken to provide factually accurate and morally correct information about women as silent and submissive objects of desire and sexual use. In the case of women, this process may silence them, and not only with regard to sexual consent. It’s not just that women’s speech fails to persuade or that men fail to listen (“when a woman says ‘no’ she doesn’t mean it”). It’s worse because women may even fail to attempt to persuade in the first place: they learn that their silence is the right attitude. Pornography deprives women of the capacity to speak.

Politically correct talk

Some of us use our right to free speech as a means to propagate the rule that certain words shouldn’t be said or certain topics shouldn’t be discussed because these words and topics tend to cement prejudice and to have self-fulfilling effects. Others may decide to remain silent as a reaction to this rule, because of shame, because they fear professional or reputational consequences, or because they genuinely believe that speaking in a certain manner or about a certain topic does have negative consequences for minority groups. Hence, political correctness silences certain perspectives, but probably not in the same deep manner as pornography.

Powerful voices

Powerful voices, by which I mean voices backed up by lots of money or influence, can monopolize discourse and drown out competing voices. When certain points of view are pushed by well-funded think tanks and lobbyists or by unbalanced media outlets, then less competitive or powerful perspectives are silenced.

Hate speech

When members of minority groups are consistently harassed by hateful voices, when crosses are burned in their front yards, when they’re told not to go to certain places or relate to certain persons, then they may decide that it isn’t wise to protest. They may even internalize the discourse about their inferiority, in which case they are similar to women who have internalized the pornographic female ideal.

These 4 examples of the right to free speech eating itself show that this right – and perhaps other rights as well – should include the right to conditions favorable or necessary to its exercise. When combating restrictions on free speech, we should not only include explicit restrictions but also restrictions of its preconditions. Free speech doesn’t only get hard when governments or fellow-citizens overtly interfere, censor or persecute you for speaking your mind. In free societies you can supposedly say what you want, but how can you say what you want when the “you” in question is shaped and deformed by forces operating under the surface and is turned into a subordinate object that doesn’t even think of speaking? Or, somewhat less extremely, when fear of consequences forces you to remain silent or when a lack of balance in public discourse makes it impossible for you to be heard?

This last point raises a potential confusion: the right to free speech doesn’t include a right to be heard or to be listened to; the duty to respect free speech doesn’t include the duty to listen. That would go too far, even if we admit that free speech is useless without anyone listening. There’s a difference between a duty to listen and a duty not to silence. The latter duty may imply that we need to impose some restrictions on some forms of speech. If pornography or hate speech silences women or minorities, then the right to free speech of women and minorities may require restrictions on the right to free speech of pornographers and haters. Paradoxically, restricting speech can enhance speech.

A related post about self-defeating human rights is here. More on pornography, political correctness and hate speech.

Types of Human Rights Violations (4): Boomerang Human Rights Violations

We usually see human rights violations are zero-sum: a rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. I mentioned before that this isn’t always the correct way of viewing rights violations, but it’s adequate in most cases. One case in which it’s only superficially adequate is what I would call the boomerang human rights violation: you think that violating someone’s rights may produce some benefit for you, and it does so initially, but the actual and final results mean that you become worse off. There’s the obvious and uninteresting example of the dictator using extreme oppression and causing revolt, but here are some other, more intriguing examples. The first one has to do with the right to work.

Gene Marks is … a small business owner (he sells customer relationship management tools), who is attempting to speak to other small business owners, all of whom, presumably, are also delighted that the potential hiring pool is so chock full of talent desperate to be exploited right now. But one wonders who exactly is supposed to purchase all those products and services from the small businesses of the world, if unemployment creeps up to the 10 percent mark or higher? High unemployment means low consumer demand. Which usually means small businesses end up going out of business, or at the very least, laying off more employees, who push the unemployment rate even higher. And so on. (source)

If, as a “capitalist” (i.e. employer), you want to take advantage of unemployment – or the risk of unemployment – to put downward pressure on wages and workers benefits – and thereby violate workers’ rights (a fair wage is a human right, as are favorable working conditions) – you’ll end up shooting yourself in the foot because neither hard working laborers who don’t earn a lot nor the unemployed will consume many of your products or services. I can see the appeal of the statement that generous unemployment benefits discourage people from finding a job, but such benefits do have advantages that go beyond the mere self-interest of the direct beneficiaries.

An ideal policy … would allow people to collect unemployment insurance indefinitely, and let the unemployed borrow or save money. This way, unemployment insurance would not merely be a financial band-aid letting people take risks on the job market and endure some jobless spells, but a critical source of “liquidity,” allowing the unemployed to keep spending reasonable amounts of money — which in turn helps create demand, something sorely lacking from the economy at the moment. (source)

And here’s another example, related to gender discrimination. In many countries, there’s a son preference: male offspring is considered more valuable than female offspring, for reasons to do with gender discrimination and social, cultural or religious views regarding the proper role of women in society. One of the consequences is the “missing girls” phenomenon. The sex ratios in many countries – India and China stand out – are out of balance. Some estimates say that 90 million women are “missing” worldwide. In somewhat overwrought rhetoric this is called gendercide. Girls are often aborted in selective abortions (a one child policy can make this even more widespread), and young girls are often prejudiced against when it comes to nutrition and health care resulting in higher mortality rates. The son preference and the missing girls phenomenon have their roots mainly in cultural beliefs, but economic considerations also play a role. Some professions are open only to men; girls marry “into” other families and hence can’t continue the family business; there’s the dowry problem etc. However, these economic considerations don’t stand on their own and are often the result of discriminatory cultural beliefs. When we accept that gender discrimination and the will to sustain patriarchy is the cause of the son preference and the missing girls phenomenon, then we are dealing with a human rights violation. And also this rights violation can come back to haunt those responsible for it.

A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons — an illegal but widespread practice — means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match. (source)

Rather than cementing patriarchy, the son preference and the resulting unbalanced sex ratios give women more bargaining power. These and other boomerang rights violations are variants of what I’ve called self-inflicted rights violations: people violate other people’s rights, and in so doing they ultimately violate their own rights.

Types of Human Rights Violations (3): Lighthouse Violations and Searchlight Violations

I think it may be helpful to distinguish two types of human rights violations. Or, to be more precise: two types of effects of human rights violations, because many violations will show characteristics of the two types. I’ll call the two types “lighthouse violations” and “searchlight violations”. To clarify these weird sounding names, I have an example.

In the UK, about 85.000 women were raped in 2006. In the US, during the same year, 92.455 rapes were reported. Real numbers are much higher, of course, because there are many unreported cases. In South Africa, one in four men admits to having raped someone. One in 8 more than once. Rape, as well as other types of violence against women (but not only women), is obviously a wide-spread social practice and not merely acts of sick individuals.

As with any case of widespread rights violations, one can understand this in two ways. One can believe that these violations are what I call lighthouse rights violations. In our example, the very fact that rape is a widespread phenomenon makes women aware of the dangers and forces them to adapt their behavior so that they limit the risks. (I talked about human rights and risk here). So the optimist view would be that there are certain automatic restrictions operating in order to limit the number of human rights violations.

The other, more pessimist view, would call widespread human rights violations searchlight violations. If we take the same example, the widespread occurrence of rape can give (certain) men the impression that the practice is normal and acceptable. As a result, the practice becomes even more widespread. Moreover, the practice not only benefits those men who actively engage in it, but men in general because it creates uneven gender relationships, female subjugation, inferiority complexes in women etc. Hence, also women who are not directly victimized by rape tend to be harmed by the practice. Rape shapes cultures, mentalities, gender roles etc.

This is of course a “glass half full or half empty” thing. Rape is both a lighthouse and a searchlight human rights violation. However, I think the more optimist view is probably more correct. If not, we would have to see ever increasing numbers of rights violations, which isn’t the case (at least that’s the intuitive conclusion; human rights measurement is still not a very sophisticated field of research).