Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (26): Objects in Statistics May Appear Bigger Than They Are, Ctd.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post how some numbers or stats can make a problem appear much bigger than it really is (the case in the previous post was about the numbers of suicides in a particular company). The error – or fraud, depending on the motivation – lies in the absence of a comparison with a “normal” number (in the previous post, people failed to compare the number of suicides in the company with the total number of suicides in the country, which made them leap to conclusions about “company stress”, “hyper-capitalism”, “worker exploitation” etc.).

The error is, in other words, absence of context and of distance from the “fait divers”. I’ve now come across a similar example, cited by Aleks Jakulin here. As you know, one of the favorite controversies (some would say nontroversies) of the American right wing is the fate of the prisoners at Guantanamo. President Obama has vowed to close the prison, and either release those who cannot be charged or tranfer them to prisons on the mainland. Many conservatives fear that releasing them would endanger America (some even believe that locking them away in supermax prisons on the mainland is a risk not worth taking). Even those who can’t be charged with a crime, they say, may be a threat in the future. I won’t deal with the perverse nature of this kind of reasoning, except to say that it would justify arbitrary and indefinite detention of large groups of “risky” people.

What I want to deal with here is one of the “facts” that conservatives cite in order to substantiate their fears: recidivism by former Guantanamo detainees.

Pentagon officials have not released updated statistics on recidivism, but the unclassified report from April says 74 individuals, or 14 percent of former detainees, have turned to or are suspected of having turned to terrorism activity since their release.

Of the more than 530 detainees released from the prison between 2002 and last spring, 27 were confirmed to have engaged in terrorist activities and 47 were suspected of participating in a terrorist act, according to Pentagon statistics cited in the spring report. (source)

Such and other stats are ostentatiously displayed and repeated by partisan mouthpieces as a means to scare the s*** out of us, and keep possibly innocent people in jail. The problem is that the levels of recidivism cited above, are way below normal levels of recidivism:

[In the] general population, … about 65% of prisoners are expected to be rearrested within 3 years. The numbers seem lower in recent years, about 58%. More at Wikipedia. (source)

Human Rights and Risk

Obviously, we all run the risk of having our rights violated. Depending on where you live in the world, this risk may be big or small. For some, the risk always remains a risk, and their rights are always respected. But that’s the exception. Many people live with a more or less permanent fear that their rights will be violated. This fear is based on their previous experiences with rights violations, and/or on what they see happening around them.

I see at least two interesting questions regarding this kind of risk:

  • Is, as Nozick argued, the risk or probability of a rights violation a rights violation in itself? Do people have a right not to fear possible rights violations?
  • And, to what extent does this risk of rights violations lead to rights violations?

The first question is the hardest one, I think. It seems that the risk of suffering rights violations is there all of the time, although it may be very small for some of us. If there is a right not to live with this risk, then this right would be violated all of the time. What good is a right that is perpetually violated?

However, it would seem that in some circumstances, where the probability that rights are violated is very high, people do indeed suffer. Imagine that you live in a society in which there is a high probability that you are arbitrarily arrested by the police. Even if you are not actually arrested – and your rights are therefore not violated – you are living in fear. It would seem that a right not to live in fear of rights violations does have some use in these high-risk environments.

But if we limit the right not to risk rights violations to situations in which there is a high probability of rights violations, we will have to decide on a threshold: when, at what level of high probability of rights violations, does the right not to risk rights violations become effective? This means introducing arbitrariness.

And another problem: what if you don’t know about the risk? There may be at certain moments a high probability that your rights will be violated, but you don’t have to be aware of this. In that case, you don’t fear the rights violations, and hence there is no harm done to you. It’s difficult to conceive of a right when its violation doesn’t (always) cause harm of some kind, and hence the right not to risk rights violations seems impossible in this case.

The second question is more straightforward. Everyday we see how the risk of rights violations leads to actual rights violations. The perception of risk, and people’s counter-strategies designed to limit the risk of rights violations, makes them violate other rights. The war on terror is a classic example. Ticking bomb torture is another.

The objective of avoiding risk creates risks, namely the risks that our actions designed to avoid risk cause harm. We may have to learn (again) how to live with risk.

Terrorism and Human Rights (7b): Arbitrary Arrest and Guantanamo

All democracies arrest people without a charge or conviction, but they only do so for very short periods of time, usually a very limited number of days. Also, when a charge is filed, democracies want to have a court case as soon as possible. Detention on remand, as it is called, is confinement in a house of detention prior to treatment of a case in court. Generally, this type of detention is imposed, if a person is suspected of a serious crime and if he/she is prone to escape, to tamper with the evidence, to commit further crimes etc. Democracies also want to keep this detention on remand as short as possible, because there is always the risk that an innocent person is imprisoned.

In a well-functioning judicial system, there can be no excessively long detention without a charge or detention on remand. We do not want to incarcerate innocent people. Without a time limit – usually expressed in number of days – detention without charge or detention on remand would be arbitrary arrest. And arbitrary arrest is typical of tyranny. An arbitrary arrest is an arrest of a person without evidence of this person’s involvement in a crime. If there is such evidence, then there can be no problem presenting this evidence within a very short delay, after which the person can be formally charged and a court case can be decide on guilt or innocence, also within relatively short delays. A long delay between an arrest and a formal charge or between an arrest and a court decision on guilt or innocence, would create an injustice if it turns out that the person in question is innocent. The harm done by this possible injustice can be limited is the time frames are short. All this is part of treating people fairly and doing justice.

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. This is linked to habeas corpus.

Unfortunately, the U.S., still a beacon of democracy and the rule of law, has decided that its war on terror forces it to imitate dictatorships and to detain people, in Guantanamo and other places, without a warrant, without a charge, without a fair trial and conviction, and for indefinite periods. Let’s hope the new administration will close these prisons soon and, if there is evidence, formally charge the inmates.

The government in the U.K., not having an equivalent of Guantanamo, has simply decided to change the period and extend the number of days it can detain people without charge.

Which Human Rights Do We Have?

Here’s a summary list of internationally recognized human rights:

1. Civil Rights or Freedom Rights

  • Equality of rights without discrimination
  • Life
  • Security and integrity of the person
  • Protection against slavery, torture and cruel or inhuman punishment (humane treatment when detained)
  • Protection against arbitrary arrest or detention (arrest or detention only on the basis of a law and with prompt notice of the charges)
  • A public, fair and prompt trial before an independent, impartial and competent judge
  • Presumption of innocence until proven guilty
  • Means necessary for your defense
  • Protection against compulsory confession
  • The right not to testify against yourself
  • “Ne bis in idem”, no two convictions or punishments for the same offense
  • Case reviewed by a higher tribunal
  • Protection against “ex post facto” laws, laws established after the deed
  • “Nullum crimen sine lege”, there is no offense without a law
  • Recognition as a person before the law
  • Equality before the law and equal protection by the law
  • Judicial protection of rights and access to legal remedies for rights violations (the right to apply to a court which offers redress for violations)
  • Protection of privacy, family, home and correspondence
  • Freedom of movement and residence
  • Asylum from persecution
  • The right not to be deprived of your nationality, the right to change your nationality
  • Protection against arbitrary expulsion of nationals and aliens
  • Leave and return to your country
  • The right to marry and beget a family of your choice
  • Protection of the family
  • The right to own property
  • Freedom of thought and religion
  • Freedom of expression (seeking, receiving and imparting information regardless of borders)
  • The absence of attacks on your honor and reputation
  • Freedom of assembly and association (including the right to leave an association)

2. Political Rights or Democratic Rights

  • Political participation, directly and through freely chosen representatives
  • Equal access to public service, the right to be elected
  • The will of the people is the basis of the authority of government
  • Periodic and genuine elections
  • Universal and equal suffrage
  • Secret vote

3. Social, Economic and Cultural Rights

  • Social security
  • A certain standard of living
  • Work, of your own choice and under favorable conditions
  • Protection for the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled and sick persons
  • Fair wages and equal wages for equal work
  • Free trade unions (right to form and join)
  • Strike
  • Rest and leisure
  • Food, clothing and housing
  • Health care
  • Special protection for children and mothers
  • Education
  • Participation in the cultural life of the community
  • Self-determination
  • International solidarity

Terrorism and Human Rights (4): Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus, literally (from Latin) “(We command) that you have the body”. This is an important legal tool to defend oneself against arbitrary or unlawful arrest. Habeas Corpus is a legal action undertaken to seek relief from arbitrary or unlawful arrest, either by the person arrested him or herself, or by a representative. The court should then issue a writ (a writ is a formal written order issued by a court) ordering the custodian, i.e. the person or institution imprisoning a person, to bring this person to the court so that the court can determine whether the custodian has lawful authority to hold the person. If not, the person should be released from custody.

Any prisoner, in a well functioning judicial system, may petition the courts or individual judges for a writ of Habeas Corpus. (A petition is a request to an authority, more specifically in this case it is a legal pleading that initiates a case to be heard before a court. The purpose of a pleading is a correction or repair of some form of injustice, e.g. arbitrary arrest).

Habeas Corpus does not determine guilt or innocence, merely whether the person is legally imprisoned or not. It can also be a writ against a private individual detaining another, for example in slavery.

It has historically been and still remains today an important tool for safeguarding of individual freedom against arbitrary state action. Currently, the U.S. is trying to set very strict limits to the writ, limits previously unheard of in democratic societies. The current U.S. administration believes restrictions on Habeas Corpus are necessary in the war on terrorism.

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. One can therefore claim that the writ is an important means to make this right real.