The Causes of Poverty (53): Poor Economic Growth

As an update of this previous post, here’s some more information about the nature of the relationship between economic growth and poverty reduction.

In a recent paper, Lane Kenworthy has compared growth and income data for 17 developed countries. Specifically, he looked at the ways in which the incomes of people in low to middle income groups benefit from economic growth. “Growth” here means increases in the amount of per capita GDP – this caveat is necessary in order to filter out economic growth that is the result of population growth and that doesn’t make the average person better off (although it obviously can make some persons better off, immigrants for instance). “Income” includes both wages and welfare benefits or other government transfers. Another preliminary remark: it’s wrong to think that growth automatically and by definition makes everyone – and hence also the poor – better off. It just makes the average person better off. That means that it can also in some circumstances make some people – e.g. the poor – worse off. Growth numbers are silent about the distribution of the effects of growth.

The question which the paper tries to answer is the following. Given that poor people can benefit from economic growth in two ways:

  1. either growth “trickles down“: more aggregate national income or production means more jobs, better paid jobs etc.
  2. or growth can increase the government’s tax base so that the welfare system can be made more generous,

which of these two mechanisms has been most prominent in the 17 countries examined in the paper?

The answer is “number 2”. Why? Well, in some of the selected countries economic growth was accompanied by a significant rise in low-to-middle household incomes, while in the other countries the effect of economic growth on the incomes of people in low-to-middle income groups was much smaller or zero. If economic growth trickles down (1), then one would assume it trickles down in all or most countries. After all, if growth results in more and better paid jobs for the poor, then there’s no a priori reason why this result would occur in one country but not in another.

The nature of government transfer systems is the reason why the effect of growth on the incomes of the poor is not the same in all countries:

when households on low incomes got better off, it was due most often to a rise in net government transfers. Where net transfers increased, incomes tended to increase in concert with economic growth. Norway, the UK, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark illustrate this pattern. Where net transfers were stagnant, income trends were decoupled from growth of the economy. We observe this in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. This is an important finding. It means that, as a general rule, growth has not trickled down to low income households through wages or employment. And it means that, when government transfers haven’t grown, wages and employment haven’t stepped in to take their place. (source)

Looking at all this from the perspective of the causes of poverty: it’s clear that poor economic growth in wealthy countries cannot, by itself, explain poverty, because these countries can witness both growth and stagnation of the lowest incomes (as a result of their failure to implement the necessary transfer programs). Hence you can have growth without poverty reduction. If lack of growth is the main cause of poverty, then growth would by itself and automatically reduce poverty. We see that this is not the case.

In poor countries, on the other hand, growth can perhaps be sufficient. Those countries start from a lower base and more can trickle down. A lack of growth can, therefore, explain the persistence of poverty in developing countries, but probably not in developed countries. The latter have a basis of wealth that is large enough to fund welfare programs even if growth is poor. Growth helps to make this funding easier, but it’s not really necessary. A more progressive tax system, coupled with some good legislative will, can also do the trick.

More here.

Limiting Free Speech (39): From Hate Speech to Hate Crime, the Case of Rwanda

Although I take human rights, and especially freedom of expression, very seriously (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise), I also believe that hate speech can produce hate crime. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. This is called incitement to violence. I do understand the problems with this justification of limits on freedom of speech: it can be abused by those who want to muzzle their opponents. If people react violently to criticism, ridicule or insults, then they may claim – wrongly in my view – that the responsibility for the violent acts lies with those making “incendiary remarks”. You can read my objections against this type of argument here.

Nevertheless, I think there are other cases in which hateful words can turn into hateful crimes. The classic example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan hate radio that called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic minority population before and during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (it infamously swept up the Hutu’s to start a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”):

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and called for violence against Tutsis, which many experts believe significantly contributed to the violence. An interesting new job-market paper by David Yanagizawa seeks to determine the precise role that RTLM played in the genocide. Yanagizawa relies on “arguably exogenous variation in radio coverage generated by hills in the line-of-sight between radio transmitters and village” to determine the causal effects of RTLM. He finds that RTLM played a significant role in the genocide: full village radio coverage increased violence by 65 percent to 77 percent. The effects are larger in villages with a large Hutu majority and in villages without access to other information sources i.e. villages with lower literacy rates. In total, Yanagizawa calculates that the radio station’s broadcasts explain 45,000 deaths (or 9 percent of the total death toll). (source)

If this is correct, it’s difficult to maintain the doctrinal position that freedom of speech is always and absolutely beneficial and worthy of protection without exception. Unless of course you claim that freedom of speech is more important than the right to life. I refer to an older post on balancing different human rights.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is absolutely vital, for many different reasons (some as fundamental as thought itself, see here), and no regular reader of this blog can say that I’m ambivalent about it. But what I do object to is the school of thought that believes free speech is the uppermost value, trumping all others in all cases and all circumstances. Maybe this quote from Isaiah Berlin can help to get my point across:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. (source)

This description of Berlin’s value pluralism is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another. Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty; … knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life”; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are”; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand. … “we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others”.

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).

Migration and Human Rights (14): Migration and Overpopulation

People often, but mistakenly in my view, see two types of links between overpopulation and migration:

  • The pressure to migrate from the undeveloped South to the richer North is mainly if not exclusively caused by overpopulation in the South.
  • The reason why countries in the North restrict immigration from the South is the fear of overpopulation in the North, resulting from immigration. The relatively healthy economies of the North would not be able to withstand the population shock of major inflows of immigrants, especially given the fact that most immigrants are not high-skilled and tend to be a burden on an economy rather than an asset. Immigration needs to be restricted because it means importing poverty.

I’ll try to argue that both these arguments are wrong and that it is a mistake to link migration to overpopulation in these ways. I’ll start with the first point.

Two things are true about the first argument: migration towards developed countries has increased sharply during the last decades (see here), and population growth in the South has been faster than in the North (see here). What is not true, however, is that the latter has been the cause of the former.

Other social and economic factors, rather than overpopulation, have driven migration. Given the highly regulated nature of migration to the North (green cards, other types of labor certification, visa, border controls etc.), it’s obvious that the people who are able to immigrate are not the poor that are supposedly driven out of their own economies by overpopulation. Only the “jobworthy” who are successful at applying for entry-visas can migrate. (See also here.) And the same is true for illegal immigrants, i.e. those bypassing the regulations. They as well tend to be people who have work prospects in the North, or at least enough money to pay human traffickers.

All this also serves to disprove the second argument above: if migrants in general are not the poorest of the poor, then the second argument doesn’t hold.

However, back to the first argument for a moment. Another economic factor driving migration and completely unconnected to population levels, is the globalization of economic production. Employers in developed countries actively look for relatively cheap workers from the South, and technological improvements in communication, transportation and travel are making this easier.

(One could also point to war and violence as driving forces behind migration, but Malthusians would reply that the real driving force is overpopulation, causing first war and conflict, and then migration. There’s a lot to be said against this, but I’ll keep that for another time).

Regarding the second argument, one can make the following counter-claim. Let’s assume that immigration controls indeed serve the only purpose of keeping people out so as to keep the economy healthy and avoid population shocks which the economy wouldn’t be able to withstand. (Of course, immigration controls in reality serve many other purposes, e.g. pampering xenophobes). If we assume this, we should further assume that existing quotas on immigration (quotas as the result of visa policy, labor permits, family reunion policy etc.) are set in such a way that the number of migrants that are allowed into the country is roughly the number that the economy can sustain. Not higher because then immigration policy would defeat its purpose, but not much lower either because then the restrictions would be unjust and arbitrary.

Given these two assumptions, how do we explain the failure of massive numbers of illegal immigration to destroy host economies? Take for instance the U.S. It’s in an economic crisis right now, but nobody in his right mind claims that immigration is the cause. The U.S. economy was booming for years, and at the same time accommodated millions of legal and illegal immigrants.

To sum up, the tidal wave paranoia of the poor masses of the South engulfing the developed world is just another example of Malthusian hysteria. A simple look at population growth numbers make this abundantly clear. Population has indeed grown more rapidly in the South than in the North (partially because of higher birth rates), but only to return to the same proportion as a few centuries ago. The industrial revolution in the North resulted in more rapid population growth, and the South is now catching up. Fears of growing imbalances and “tsunamis of the poor” aren’t based on facts.

Economic Human Rights (21): Sweatshops

Sweatshops don’t have a very good reputation. They impose degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, and they expose workers to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures. In many cases, the workers are young women who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – including sexual exploitation – by their bosses. On top of that, many sweatshops violate child labor laws. Hence, sweatshops have been called a form of modern slavery, and not without reason. They indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations.

Most, but not all, sweatshops are situated in the third world countries, where labor regulations are lax, salaries low and trade unions not very powerful. Third world countries also don’t have a high level of technology intensity in industrial production, making it profitable to employ manual labor. Western companies often outsource high technology factories in the West to low technology sweatshops in the South. In the West, sweatshops also exist, but mostly in the illegal economy.

However, many economists who can’t possibly be accused of heartlessness or indifference when it comes to the problem of global poverty, have defended them. There’s for example Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Nicholas D. Kristof. They argue that the alternatives in many countries are worse. Sweatshops may insult our western sense of justice, but that’s because our economies offer in general much higher standards of work. In third world countries, sweatshops are a step forward for many people. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many of them would be forced into subsistence farming, garbage scavenging, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives offer lower incomes and worse conditions.

Furthermore, many of the young women working in sweatshops see their employment as a way out of gender discrimination. It’s a form of liberation from the oppressive local and traditional systems in their rural hometowns. They move to larger industrial towns, earn a living, have their own rooms, and as a result they can escape an early (and often arranged) marriage and early motherhood. And without the burden of an early marriage and motherhood, they can develop their education.

Developing countries starting their manufacturing sectors in the form of sweatshops, can expect improvements elsewhere in their economy:

The growth of manufacturing has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise. Paul Krugman

So it’s probably not a good idea to try and abolish sweatshops, or to boycott products produced in sweatshops. We may do more harm than good when we force people out of sweatshops and into other types of employment. What we have to do, however, is to promote better labor standards and working conditions in existing sweatshops, and do so realistically. Demanding immediate implementation of western standards is silly, given the level of development of third world economies, and would result in the end of sweatshops. But western companies that use or trade with sweatshops can be pressured to do something about the worst aspects of sweatshop labor.

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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (14): Is Morality Linked to Culture and Culturally Relative?

Is morality linked to culture? Or, in other words, is morality culturally relative? Does every culture have its own moral rules? This is relevant from a human rights perspective because human rights can be seen as moral rules for humanity. However, if morality is culturally relative, then this is a problem. Universality of moral rules then seems to be impossible and without universal moral rules it is difficult if not impossible to judge the practices of another culture. These practices may seem morally wrong from the viewpoint of the culture of the West for example, but the rules of the West, i.e. human rights, only apply within the morality of the West. Other cultures have their own rules and can only be judged by their own rules. One cannot apply the rules of American football to European soccer or vice versa.

As is often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Whereas some moral rules are obviously very specific to particular cultures, other rules are globally accepted (which doesn’t mean respected). It follows that both extremes, imperialism and isolationism, are wrong. Human rights promoters should not go about and destroy cultural diversity, but cultural diversity is not the ultimate goal either. Cultures should not be isolated from human rights criticism. Individual rights matter just as much, if not more, than the rights of cultures. After all, if culture is important, it’s because it’s important for individuals.

The Cognitive Evolution Laboratory of Harvard University has started a project aimed at showing that morality is in essence universal. It has created a moral sense test which everyone can fill in (it’s available here, and takes less than 10 minutes to fill in; you’ll help these people by doing it).

The Causes of Poverty (17): Overpopulation

According to Malthus, food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc. (This is called a Malthusian catastrophe). Ultimately, population growth will halt because if this, and population levels will return to the “normal” equilibrium possible within the limits offered by nature (the so-called “carrying capacity”).

And if these disasters aren’t enough, active population control is necessary, including measures such as the abolition of social security (social security doesn’t incite people to birth control, see here) and even more extreme policies (many of which proposed by Malthus’ more enthusiastic followers rather than by himself).

Malthus agreed that humanity was capable of increasing its productivity, but believed that population growth would necessarily outpace this increase. The facts are, however, different. Standards of living have risen enormously over the last centuries, notwithstanding large increases in population numbers. GDP growth has even been faster than population growth, giving, on average, every human being more resources than ever before in history. Of course, these resources aren’t equally distributed, but that’s a problem of justice, not of population.

Blaming everything on overpopulation is simplistic. All major problems in life are multi-causal, and population isn’t a real or major cause in many cases (bad governance is often a more important cause). And when it is, population control isn’t the answer. Technology, productivity, consumer adaptation, better governance etc. are more promising solutions.

Cultural Rights (10): Tolerating Intolerance?

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

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

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

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.

The Causes of Poverty (5): Overpopulation

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. The areas of the world which are inhabitable and useable for agriculture are too small compared to the number of people living in them. These people are followers of Thomas Malthus or of malthusianism, and often even predict major catastrophes which will reduce the population significantly. They also advocate some quite draconian measures for limiting the human population.

In scientific terms: overpopulation occurs when an organism’s numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat; carrying capacity = [available sustainable resources > current and projected needs of the organism].

For example, imagine a population of 10 living in a habitat of 10 square kilometers. These 10 square kilometers can produce food, drinking water, shelter etc. for 15. Then there is no overpopulation. But if the population grows or is expected to grow at a rate of 10% annually, without an equal or superior growth in resources, then overpopulation threatens. There would also be overpopulation if the material resources are adequate but other needs such as space, privacy etc. are not met. For example if the available space is too small to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

So overpopulation can result from changes in the population (increased births, reduced deaths, better healthcare, migration etc.) or from changes in the resources – material or psychological – in the habitat (for example desertification, natural disasters, technological innovations etc.), or from a combination of both.

The current state of the world’s population is the following:

  • Present world population – 6,500,000,000 but unequal distribution of world population (see graphs below). The main population clusters are East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe.
  • Average world growth rate – 1.4% annual, but also unequal distribution of growth rates: fastest growing areas are the Middle East – over 4.0% annual – and the slowest growing areas are Central and Eastern Europe – 0% or less. Southern Africa even sees negative growth rates as a result of the HIV epidemic.
  • Forecasts are notoriously difficult but the world’s population is expected to rise by 40% to 9.1 billion by 2050.

 

 

Blaming everything on overpopulation is misguided and reductionist. Problems such as poverty and war have a complex set of causes, including in some but not all cases overpopulation, government policies, cultural factors, repercussions from colonialism, religion etc.

One can also question whether there is indeed a problem of overpopulation. Per capita food production has risen the last 50 years, and poverty (expressed as the number of people living on less than 1$ a day) has decreased while the population has increased. So poverty and war may not have anything to do with the size of the world’s population. However, ecological problems may have something to do with it. If so, the solution would surely not be population control, which is much too difficult and often dictatorial. Changes in consumption patterns are a much more promising route.

What is Democracy? (20): Rotation in Office

One of the arguments against democracy and in favor of authoritarian forms of government turns to the economy. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term and central planning, all of which is said to be incompatible with democracy. The rotation in office typical of a democracy puts always other people in power, with other priorities and laws. Democratic governments, laws and policies change continuously. This goes against the interests of long term planning, as well as the interests of companies that need stability for their investments.

Furthermore, the constant pressure of public opinion and the next election, forces governments to sacrifice long term benefits for short term advantages that may even have negative consequences in the long term.

However, it is difficult to deny that the democratic procedures for changing governments create stability because they help to avoid revolt. Opposition movements do not have to resort to extreme measures to gain some influence. In addition, if the people decide to change something, this is because they believe that it ought to change, that it is not good as it is. Consistency is not the only value.

Children’s Rights (2): Child Labor

Child labor not only keeps children from attending school. It often harms them physically and mentally. It is therefore a double problem from the point of view of the human rights of children.

  1. It denies them the education that they need for the exercise of and struggle for their human rights. Without education the freedom of thought and opinion becomes rather academic since thought and opinion requires a certain level of education. Political participation without literacy is also quite difficult. Without education people will find it difficult to struggle against rights violations and to find meaningful work when they are adults. So child labor can have lifetime consequences for human rights.
  2. The conditions in which children have to work often lead directly to violations of their rights, such as the right to good health. Moreover the kinds of jobs children have to do are often extremely stultifying, creating feelings of insignificance and hopelessness, with disastrous consequences for their personality and future development.

Legal aspects

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in article 26, includes the right to education and hence, implicitly (not explicitly), the prohibition of child labor since the two are incompatible. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states, rather carefully in order not to frighten away developing countries who might otherwise not have accepted the treaty:

“Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law”.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the strongest legal language prohibiting illegal child labor but does not make child labor illegal.

Numbers

The International Labor Organization estimates that 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work (or about 15% of the world’s children, about 35% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa).

They work in very different industries but mostly in commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining, parents’ business and domestic service either at home or in other homes, in factories, sweatshops, fields, tourist attractions etc. Some children work in illicit activities like the drug trade and prostitution or as soldiers. Often their situation is aggravated by child slavery, child trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor.

Where?

In Western countries, child labor has gradually died out. It was common during the industrial revolution (and before) when children as young as four were employed in factories with dangerous working conditions, but labor laws, education laws and technological progress (and some say colonialism) have caused its disappearance.

From Unicef:

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the worldwide highest share of child labourers. In the 18 countries in this region with data on child labour, 38 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years of age are engaged in work that can be considered harmful to their development. Among these children, slightly more than half (20 percent of the total) also attend school while another 18 percent are only engaged in labour. Overall, 60 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years attend school. 21 percent of all children are neither in school nor do they engage in labour. These children may, however, perform work that is not considered labour, for example household work for less than 28 hours per week… [T]he share of child labourers among girls is the same as among boys, about 38 percent. On the other hand, the area of residence is strongly associated with child labour: rural children (43 percent) work much more than urban children (25 percent).

Why?

It’s often the poverty of their parents that forces millions of young children out of school and into work. But companies obviously also have an interest in hiring children. Children earn less, are less vocal defenders of their rights, are more easily forced to accept certain “work procedures” etc. For some professions, the anatomy of children also gives them an advantage compared to adults (mining for instance). Many companies, including Western multinationals, often find the temptation too hard to resist, and the consumers engage in moral complicity when purchasing products assembled or manufactured in developing countries with child labor. Consumer boycotts of such products, however, without compensating measures such as the provision of education for the children in question or benefits to poor families, may simply result in an even worse situation when children are forced into other labor activities, often more hazardous or detrimental.

A child may sometimes consent to work if, for example, the salary is relatively attractive, but such consent may not be informed consent. Child labor may still be an undesirable situation for a child in the long run.

Economic advantages of the abolition of child labor

Child labor undermines the general economy because it lowers general labor standards and wages for all workers (adult workers often suffer from unfair competition since they normally would be paid more and are generally more vocal about their labor conditions). It may have a short-term beneficial effect on a country’s international competitiveness because it allows countries to produce at lower costs and with fewer regulations, but internally in the country it affects the general labor standards and work force.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (5): Lack of a Fair Trial

A characteristic element of modern democratic states is their ability to offer fair trials to those accused of crimes. We try to treat everyone, even suspected criminals, with fairness, and we have two principal reasons for this:

  1. We only want to punish real criminals. A fair trial is one in which everything is done to avoid punishing the wrong persons. We want to avoid miscarriages of justice.
  2. We want to use court proceedings only to punish criminals and deter crime, not for political or personal reasons, as is often the case in dictatorships.

One important condition for a fair trial is publicity. Justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done, not only to deter other criminals and to give consolation to victims, but also because publicity makes it more likely that the real perpetrator is punished. Every trial is therefore a show trial. The publicity of a trial makes it possible to judge the judge and hence to correct mistakes if necessary.

The secret trial is typical of authoritarian regimes because it allows for abuses of power. It makes it easier to use the justice system for other purposes than the identification and punishment of proven criminals. It is very hard to use a public trial for power games or oppression.

On top of that, false accusations or false testimonies are more likely to remain undiscovered in a secret trial. After all, it is not only the state that can gain from a secret trial. Interested third parties can also benefit from an unfair trial.

However, publicity alone does not guarantee that trials and verdicts are fair and just (which is clear from the phenomenon of communist show trials). The following elements are just as important (as with publicity, most of them are included in the main human rights instruments, for example articles 9, 10, 14 and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights):

  • No punishment or imprisonment without an indictment and without swift information on the nature of the indictment. If the purpose of the justice system is to punish criminals, it’s very easy to tell the suspect who we want to imprison before his or her trial about the crime he or she is suspected of having committed. After all, the crime has been committed and the accusers surely must know the nature of this crime. It must be awful to be imprisoned without knowing why. The absence of indictments indicates that the authorities merely wish to use the justice system to terrorize the population, not to punish crime.
  • No excessively long detention on remand (detention without a lawful and fair trial and conviction). We do not want to incarcerate innocent people.
  • The possibility of an appeal to a higher court. Mistakes can be made.
  • A competent and impartial judge; fairness, according to the dictionary, means impartiality. A partial judge is an absurdity. Such a judge would be completely useless, and people would be better off fighting their cases amongst themselves, one against one instead of one against two.
  • The possibility to defend yourself and to receive free legal assistance. The possibility to argue and to give counter-arguments, to call witnesses for the defense and to question witnesses for the prosecution. This requires time, hence this must be balanced with the point mentioned earlier about the excessively long detention without a trial. Swift justice can be as unjust as detention without a trial.
  • Innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rests on the accusers. This is necessary to discourage wrongful accusations and also because the purpose of the trial is precisely the establishment of guilt. If guilt is assumed beforehand, then why have a trial in the first place?
  • No forced confession, because that would defeat the purpose of convicting the real perpetrator. And no obligation to incriminate yourself (the right to remain silent), which is linked to the rule that the burden of proof rests with the accusers.
  • No excessively tough penalties. The purpose is to punish, to prevent repetitions of the crime by the same criminal and to deter other criminals, not to balance the wrong that has been done by an equally painful punishment.
  • “Ne bis in idem”: no two trials for the same offense. If people can be retried continuously for the same crime, then the purpose is obviously not the punishment of proven criminals, but punishment per se. Anyway, if all the rules listed here are respected, there is no need for a retrial. This rule is also called double jeopardy.
  • “Nulla poena sine lege”: no crime or punishment without a law voted and published before the criminal deed. In other words, no retroactive laws, no laws with retroactive effect (laws which make deeds punishable after they have been committed). One cannot punish people for acts that were not a crime at the time when they were committed, because people should know what is or is not allowed so that they can plan their lives as law-abiding citizens.
  • For the same reason, laws should be predictable and should not change all the time. Nobody is responsible for a violation of a law if the law changes from day to day, because if the law changes constantly, then nobody knows the law and then nobody can respect the law. Predictability and permanence of the law are prerequisites for obedience, just as knowledge and publicity.
  • There should not be too many rules, otherwise the judges and the police will not have enough time to enforce them all or to punish all violations of all rules, which leads to injustice. Too many rules also leads to involuntary violations of rules, because citizens do not know what they are or are not allowed to do. The purpose of the justice system is to punish crimes, not mistakes; criminals who knowingly violate rules, not law-abiding citizens who unknowingly do what they shouldn’t.

All these elements put together make the justice system just, and protect the citizens against the state or against fellow citizens that want to abuse the justice system. If one element is missing, then all the others may become useless.

Economic Human Rights (12): Life Expectancy

Life expectancy, or the average length of life in a given population (mostly a country), is of importance to the issue of human rights. A low life expectancy means shorter life spans. Now, it’s not because a life is relatively short that is has to be less fulfilling, less happy or less meaningful. However, it is obvious that a longer life will allow for more activity, self-development and freedom, and hence for more enjoyment of human rights, than a shorter life.

Moreover, longer life expectancies are often an indicator of better health and healthcare, and good health is a prerequisite for human rights. Bad average health or healthcare and low life expectancy, on the contrary, are indicators of poverty, and poverty is in itself a violation of certain human rights and makes other human rights impossible.

Life expectancy in Western countries today is almost double what it was in the pre-modern era. This is the consequence of highly reduced infant mortality rates, modern medicine (e.g. before modern medicine, one in four women died in childbirth), improvements in sanitation (sewers) and nutrition, etc. Especially in the last century did we see enormous progress. In the US for example, life expectancy at the beginning of the 1900s was 50 years. At the end of the same century it was 77 (with differences of course between male and female and between social classes; poverty, in particular, has a substantial effect on life expectancy).

Of course, as in most cases, the developing countries haven’t achieved the same levels as the West. They have improved their numbers but there are still large and shocking inequalities in life expectancy, with Africa again bearing the heaviest burden. Sub-Saharan Africa (partly because of HIV) has even seen a decrease in life expectancy during the last decades. The former USSR also saw a decrease.

 

 

 

A person’s life in one of the poorest countries will on average be half as long as the life of a person fortunate enough to be born in a rich country.

(High infant mortality rates in a particular country can bring down rates of life expectancy at birth drastically. In these cases, another measure such as life expectancy at age 5 can be used to exclude the effects of infant mortality to reveal the effects of causes of death other than early childhood causes. However, that’s somehow “cooking the books” since infant mortality does reduce the life expectancy of the infants in question. On the other extreme are some people who want to include aborted fetuses in life expectancy rates).

Cultural Rights (8): Tolerance

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

What Are Human Rights? (11): Equal Rights

The idea of equal rights resulted from the emergence and the ascent of the bourgeoisie in 17th and 18th century Europe, and was in the first instance, a tool for the protection of their interests. The bourgeoisie was, compared to the aristocracy, a relatively open class. One could enter and leave this class in a relatively free and sudden way and the moment of entering or leaving was sometimes hard to predict. For this reason, it was undesirable to create a new set of privileges in the style of those of the older classes. If the bourgeoisie was to have rights to protect its interests, they had no choice but to instate rights for everybody.

Historically, the transformation of privileges (or freedoms and rights limited to certain groups, such as guilds, corporations, the nobility etc.) into general or human rights was the invention of the revolutions of the 18th century. From this moment on, human rights were considered to be rights of individuals as entities detached from concrete relationships and groups.

Of course, in the beginning this was to a large extent rhetoric. Women and the working class didn’t have the same rights as white affluent men. There was also slavery, colonialism etc. It took centuries of struggle to make people aware of the contradictions between human rights philosophy and social reality. We have made enormous progress (slavery is abolished in many countries, the civil rights movement in the US has ended many types of discrimination like the Jim Crow laws etc) but still the struggle isn’t finished.

Economic Human Rights (6): Health

Bad health and suffering create the same problems as poverty. You have to be healthy and without pain, in order to have a cultural and political life and to be able to use freedom rights and political rights. A sick, suffering or toiling person is thrown back upon himself and unable to relate to the outside world, just as a person who concentrates exclusively on his or her body for pleasurable reasons.

Intense bodily sensations of any kind – positive and negative – shut us off from the world, because they make it impossible to perceive anything except our own body. In other words, they make our public and political life and the use of our classical rights impossible or undesirable.

Hunger and consumption, as well, force you to concentrate on yourself and your body. You do not have the time, the energy or the desire to concentrate on the world. When you are eating or thinking of eating, you are imprisoned in cyclical biological necessities and in your metabolism with nature necessary for the preservation of life. You have to avoid sickness, pain and hunger – as well as their extreme opposites – to be open to the world and fit for cultural and political life.

Human Rights and International Law (2): Universal Jurisdiction

Some countries have granted their courts so-called “universal jurisdiction” in certain matters. Traditionally, courts only have national jurisdiction and can only punish crimes committed on the national territory; crimes committed elsewhere should be handled by the courts of the country in question or by international courts. Laws of one country are also generally understood to be applicable in that country only. Universal jurisdiction in effect leads to extra-territoriality of the law. Some laws are valid outside the territory as well and national judiciaries can apply these laws to acts committed elsewhere.

Belgium, for instance, at one time allowed its courts to prosecute genocide, even if the crime of genocide was committed abroad and no Belgians were involved either as perpetrators or as victims. This was a commendable initiative from a moral point of view, but there are several reasons why universal jurisdiction is not very effective and cannot replace national and international law.

  1. The victims of genocide, or the representatives of these victims, if they already know that Belgian courts can possibly help them, will find it difficult to go to Belgium to plead their case. These people will probably live in some Third World country and will not have the financial means to start court proceedings in Belgium (where the hell is Belgium anyway?)
  2. The perpetrators are mostly not in Belgium and can therefore not be punished by the Belgian courts. If convicted, they will simply avoid Belgium and it is unlikely that they will be extradited by their home state since they generally occupy a leading function in the government of their state. The only tangible result is a number of diplomatic crises between Belgium and other states, sometimes traditionally friendly states.
  3. The Belgian courts quickly find themselves in the position of Atlas, carrying the whole burden of global suffering. There is no way in which these courts, already suffering serious delays, can handle all submitted cases.
  4. Political agitators will use the Belgian law to make publicity for their case. They will be tempted to file spurious charges against their political enemies. For example, friends of Saddam Hussein filed charges against President George W. Bush and some other leading members of his administration for waging war against Saddam. The Belgian courts, of course, could not refuse these charges without examination. So an investigation was launched, which deeply upset the Americans, who even threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Belgium, supposedly to protect American officials visiting these headquarters. After all, the Americans know that they are no saints and that Belgian courts can one day decide that there is a case to be made against some of their officials, and can try to arrest them.
  5. What if several states decide to start cases simultaneously against one and the same offender, each using its right to universal jurisdiction? That would create judicial uncertainty and many practical problems.

However, in the absence of effective national or international jurisdiction, universal jurisdiction may be the only alternative. And even if it’s not effective for the reasons given above, it sends a signal.

Economic Human Rights (5): Rights or Aspirations?

Is it justified to use the word “rights” in the context of economic rights such as the right not to suffer extreme poverty? Are these rights comparable to classical freedom rights or are they an example of the way in which superficial reasoning destroys the meaning of words? Are they rights or are they mere aspirations or desires masquerading as rights?

The claim that the expression economic rights is an oxymoron is based on the following reasoning. Rights have to be enforceable. There is no right without a remedy. If a right is violated, then it must be possible to redress the situation in a court of justice. It has to be possible to find somebody who is responsible for the violation and who can stop the violation. If nobody can be forced to respect a right because nobody has the power and duty to respect it, then it is useless and wrong to speak about a right. Take for example the “right” to have a climate in which the sun always shines and in which the temperature is constantly between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius. This can be a desire but it can never be a right because it is not enforceable. There is no remedy if it is violated; there is no way to redress the violation. A court of justice cannot decide that the government should take action to realize this “right”. Nobody is responsible for a violation and nobody can stop a violation. Nobody can be forced to respect the “right” because nobody has the power to respect it, and hence there is no right.

It is not uncommon to hear the same kind of reasoning in the case of economic rights, although in international law these rights enjoy a similar level of protection as classical freedom rights or civil rights. What we do in the case of a violation of classical rights – ask a judge to force the violator, for example the government, to respect our rights – is often impossible in the case of economic rights. If there is no work, then a judge cannot force the government to give us work. If there is no money, then a government cannot have the duty and responsibility to provide social security and thereby eliminate poverty. Ought implies can. The rule that we should not impose a duty on someone who is unable to fulfill it, does not pose any problems in the case of freedom rights. If the government violates our right to free speech, then a judge can force the government to protect our right because this protection only requires that the government stop its actions.

This criticism of economic rights is based on an exaggerated distinction between forbearance and active protection. It is true that freedom rights often require forbearance and economic rights active involvement and commitment. But things can also be the other way around. All human rights depend on judicial and police institutions that in turn depend on the protection of the state. Even a right such as free speech needs the active involvement of the judiciary and hence the state in order to be protected. If our right to free speech is violated, then we may need the help of a judge and perhaps even the police in order to force the violator to stop his actions. And for some states, it can be just as difficult to fulfill their duty to provide efficient judiciaries and police forces as it is to fulfill their duty to provide work and social security.

If freedom rights need as much active involvement as forbearance, then the same is true for certain economic rights. The right to food in an amount sufficient for survival is often better served by government forbearance than by government action. Look for example at the Great Leap Forward and its disastrous consequences for the people of China. All human rights need actions as well as forbearance. According to the circumstances, a right can be more or less positive or negative. The right to food in Mao’s China was relatively negative and directed against state intervention. In many inner cities, it is relatively positive and directed at the passivity of the state. All human rights require both intervention and abstention. And it is, therefore, unfair to dismiss economic rights on the grounds that they impose duties on the government that are different from the duties imposed by “real” rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Rights (4): Cultural Relativism

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

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

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

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

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

What Are Human Rights? (10): Dependent on Prerequisites

People often oppose the universal application of democracy and human rights because they believe that in some places, some of the prerequisites are absent. Their point of view is not that democracy and human rights are in themselves objectionable or undesirable, but that some countries are not mature enough yet (as in the case of economic prerequisites for example) or will perhaps never be mature enough (as in the case of cultural prerequisites for example). Instead of being undesirable, democracy and human rights are (as yet) impossible.

One has to deal with this line of argument, for two reasons. Firstly, because we will dispose of a reason to universalize democracy and human rights if we can show that the argument is incorrect. Secondly, because we will know what to do or change in order to universalize democracy and human rights if it is established that the argument is correct.

In some cases it is correct. Democracy and human rights are indeed conditional. They depend on certain prerequisites for their existence, survival and development. However, this is not a reason for fatalism or for the rejection of universality. It does not mean that democracy or human rights are forever impossible. The necessary conditions can invariably be created, with more or less effort. An example of this is the absence of media monopolies. It is impossible to introduce democracy if the pre-democratic and authoritarian monopoly ownership of the media is maintained. If this monopoly is not abolished with the introduction of democracy, then the old rulers will use their monopoly of the media in order to maintain or to return to power. The absence of this kind of monopoly is a prerequisite for democracy but it is a prerequisite that can be created. The same is true for most if not all the other prerequisites.

What is most interesting is that democracy and human rights do a lot themselves to create or promote the conditions necessary for their survival and development. Instead of “fit for democracy”, we should say “fit through democracy”, in the words of Amartya Sen. You can only become fit for democracy when you already have a democracy. Once democracy and human rights begin to win ground, they improve the chances of their own survival and future development. Here’s a post on peace, which is obviously a precondition for but is also promoted by democracy and rights.

However, it remains a fact that, without important efforts, democracy and human rights are not universally possible yet, even if they are universally necessary or desirable. Fortunately, there are many different kinds of prerequisites and the absence of one can be compensated for by the presence of others. Furthermore, many so-called prerequisites are in fact no more than excuses for rights violations and authoritarian government. If some people claim that a particular country is not yet mature enough for democracy and human rights, then it is very likely that these people have an interest in rights violations and authoritarian government. Those who suffer never claim that they are not mature enough for rights. We should not rush to conclusions. It is very tempting to call something a prerequisite, especially for opponents of democracy and rights.

Among the prerequisites that are not really prerequisites, culture is probably the most important one. Democracy and human rights develop somewhere and have their origins in the life of a community, but this does not mean that their development in this community was necessary or that their development in other, very different communities, is impossible. Democracy and rights can develop in communities with very different cultures, even in communities that do not have a democratic tradition (take the case of post-war Germany for instance). They are connected, not to a culture, but to mankind and to the values of mankind. Of course, there can be elements in some cultures which promote the development of democracy and rights and elements in other cultures which hinder this development (perhaps Protestantism and Catholicism respectively). However, the main causes and prerequisites, namely the values which need democracy and human rights, are present everywhere.

The argument for cultural prerequisites implies that certain cultures are destined for democracy and that other cultures can never be democracies. At an even deeper level, it implies that cultures cannot and should not change. The different cultural identities must be protected against more powerful and hostile cultures engaging in cultural imperialism. A culture which is supposed to be incompatible with democracy must remain undemocratic for its own sake. However, this obscures the fact that cultures and traditions do change and often even want to change. On top of that, many traditions are not as old as they seem. They are often recent creations (anti-democratic traditions are in most cases inventions of authoritarian rulers). So why not create a democratic tradition?

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (5): Property Rights

Private property often does not have a good press. It’s unequal distribution has often been criticized. However, there is a recognized human right to private property (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely) and this right is important for different reasons.

First of all, private property is a means to protect of the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public.

Without private property, there is no private world (another example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights).

Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore, also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.

Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again.

Furthermore, property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.

Finally, it is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.

The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).

The right to private property is, just as most of the other human rights, a limited right. There can and should be redistribution of private property from the rich to the poor, if other human rights of the poor suffer as a consequence of insufficient private property (for example, the economic rights of the poor). Taxation and expropriation, however, should be used carefully, in view of the numerous important functions of private property. The more property a state acquires, the weaker the citizen becomes. Weaker not only compared to the state, but also compared to fellow citizens. His fellow citizens will find themselves in a position whereby they can control and intervene in his weakened private space.

You also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.

The property of your body can justify private property of material goods. The power of your body and your labor is incorporated in the goods you produce. By working on an object, you mix your labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from you, he also takes away your labour, which means that he takes away the power of your body. He therefore uses your body, which is incompatible with your right to possess your own body. See John Locke for a more elaborate exposition of this argument. If man owns his body, he also owns the power of his body and the objects in which this power is incorporated, to the extent that he has not stolen the objects. This can also be used as an argument in favor of some form of communism.

The right not to be a slave is the negative version of the right to possess your own body. Those who commit slavery (but also those who steal) act as if the bodies of other people are their property, a property that can be bought and sold. Considering other people as your property diminishes the value and dignity of these other people. Other people should not be considered as a means.

What Are Human Rights? (5): A Limited Set

The struggle for human rights is a noble one. But sometimes this struggle goes astray. People tend to claim more and more rights. Let us not forget that rights cost money. The more rights we have, the less money we can spend on each. If we say that a couple, which has problems to beget a child, has a “right” to a child, then the effort to realize this right may cost so much that there is not enough left for starving children in Africa.

New rights also create new duties, first of all for those who have the duty to respect this new right. Is it not likely that there is a certain level above which it becomes difficult for people to shoulder their duties? And is it not unfair to force people above this threshold? Moreover, states which habitually violate human rights, can use the number of human rights as a convenient excuse, and perhaps not without good reason. If there are many rights, then there are many duties, and some of these states can point to a lack of resources. “We can’t do all at once; give us time; first things first; the West has also taken its time to realize all rights”, etc. It is in the interest of rights violators that the number of rights increases and that, as a consequence, the significance of the concept of “rights” diminishes.

But rights can also create duties for those who hold the rights. Take the example of two prisoners who claim the “right” to marry and have sexual intercourse. What happens with the baby?

There are already enough rights violations, so let us first try to enforce respect for the existing rights, before creating new rights and hence new violations. However, new rights may become necessary. Again the middle ground, now between excessive conservatism and the exaggerated creation of new rights, seems to be the best position.

Cultural Rights (3): Self-Determination

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

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

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (3): Physical Security

Those human rights that protect a person’s security, bodily integrity and life, and that prohibit physical assault, dismemberment, torture, cruel punishment etc., acknowledge deep-rooted needs such as the wish to survive and to avoid pain.

Now, if it is reasonable to presume that some or even all people will not always be able to avoid violence and that it is preferable to avoid having other people revenging violence, then it is also reasonable to create an impartial institution that is above the people and that is strong enough to counter violence. This institution is the state. In many cases, the only way to eliminate or avoid violence is to threaten and punish the perpetrators. In order to be able to threaten and punish, you must be stronger. Citizens are seldom stronger than other citizens because even the strongest have to sleep. Only a state can be strong enough to counter or avoid violence by way of punishments. It can act as a third party which restricts the conflicting parties. It is above the parties, both because of its impartiality and because of its superior power. This superior power makes it able to enforce a decision on the conflict. Its impartiality means that it is not involved in the conflict and that it has a clear and impartial view of the problem and the possible solutions. The state uses the “security-rights” to control conflicts.

The state controls or limits conflicts and protects the life and body of its citizens in different ways, by punishing violence, but also by using systems and institutions that formalize, ritualize and soften conflicts, for example court proceedings or the democratic power game (the discussions in parliament and the ritualized changing of leaders in a peaceful way make it possible to avoid revolutions and other violent reactions of opposition movements). Security, peace and the protection of life are the first mission of the state and especially of the judicial power and the police, because this mission, once fulfilled, makes all other human activities possible.

Of course, the state has other missions as well. Some of them, such as public life, justice and freedom, are even more important, albeit perhaps less urgent. Urgency, however, is a debatable matter. One could say that public life, freedom or justice should come first because they promote peace and security. Furthermore, it often happens that missions that are more important than peace and security – because they correspond more to human life (after all, animals also want peace and security) – are overshadowed by peace and security (as for example in the theories of Hobbes and Kissinger). This is of course reprehensible, and self-destructive. Too much attention to peace and security can endanger peace and security.

People whose economic rights or whose right to free expression are violated because the rulers think that these rights are less important than peace and security, or that they should be sacrificed for the sake of peace and security, will revolt, and revolt automatically creates insecurity.

The problem is that human rights should do more than just regulate the peaceful coexistence of people with conflicting ideas. They should also regulate public interaction (e.g. culture, art, education, science). For this reason, we should avoid concentrating too much on security. Human rights protect security, not for the sake of security but for the sake of our public life, which of course needs security. However, security alone is not enough, and neither are those human rights that explicitly protect security. Human rights in general and the state acting as guardian of human rights do more than just guarantee peaceful and secure coexistence.

Concentrating too much on security also leads to a narrow view of the nature of citizenship. Citizens are more than people who try to achieve contradictory private interests, who come into conflict with one another, who cause violence and then require a state and rights in order to regain their security. They also create relationships and groups, they try to convince each other, they debate, they express themselves and they try to find a common interest. The state makes sure they can do so, both by limiting violence and by creating the structures in which debate and common actions are possible (structures such as elections, parliaments, court procedures, human rights etc.).

Terrorism and Human Rights (3): Torture

A few words on the infamous “ticking bomb argument” in favor of torture: suppose we capture a terrorist, and we know that he knows where the ticking bomb is hidden that will soon kill thousands or millions. Are we not allowed to torture him in order to get the information which can save these people? Are we not morally forced to torture him?

I don’t believe this simple cost-benefit analysis (low-cost torture to individuals compared to enormous gains for large, threatened groups) is a realistic description of torture, given the facts that

  • the example of the captured terrorist with information about a ticking bomb is unlikely to happen in real life, and
  • most actual torture cases are very different.

One should also consider the consequences of allowing torture, even in extreme cases:

  • installing a certain mentality in the minds of the torturers, sometimes destroying their mental health
  • the damage to judicial and democratic institutions
  • the reciprocity of our enemies (they will also use torture if torture is inflicted on them) …

Cultural Rights (2): Clash of Civilizations

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

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

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

What Are Human Rights? (3): Universal Rights

Universality means that human rights are valid everywhere. This characteristic is of course inherent in the expression itself – human rights are rights of all humans – but is not universally accepted.

Many people, in particular those who benefit from violations of other people’s rights, reject the claim that human rights are universal, primarily because non-universality would allow the continuation of rights violations and hence the continuation of the benefits which almost inevitably result from violations.

Somebody always benefits from the harm inflicted on others, otherwise there would be no harm inflicted.

These benefits are, however, rarely given in justification of non-universality because a justification is usually a moral undertaking, one which therefore cannot start from the premise that benefits for someone justify harm inflicted on someone else. A more common justification can be found in the theory of cultural relativism or in some variation of it.

Religion and Human Rights (4): Religious Liberty is About More Than Religion

Religious liberty or the freedom of belief is a human right. It is the right to be protected against coercion in matters of religion, to be free to practice and profess a religion of your choice, in private as well as in public, to change your religion, or – which is often forgotten – to practice no religion at all and to be free from religion.

Religious liberty is an important value because it protects diversity and plurality and hence counteracts religious persecution and coercion. It makes a monopoly of one religion impossible except when culture and demography are such that there is a de facto monopoly that is not contested and it guarantees the coexistence of different and publicly competing beliefs.

In this way, it also guarantees debate and diversity in general. If there is debate and diversity on the level of religion, then why not on other levels? On top of that, religious liberty guarantees tolerance: if people can be tolerant – or are forced to be tolerant – in the field of religion, then they will probably be tolerant in other fields as well. This shows that religious liberty can be of interest to non-religious persons, not only because it protects them from the imposition of a religious belief, but also because it allows them to live in a world of tolerance and diversity. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of a democratic society and a system of human rights that also aim at such a world.

Religion and Human Rights (3): The Historical Origins of Religious Liberty

The European religious wars not only caused harm and tyranny (tyranny because it led to the creation of absolutism by the European monarchies trying to restore peace and tranquility). It also led to the institution of religious liberty. After all, the state had no choice but to put itself above the factions. Only by loosening its ties with a favoured religion and guaranteeing a free and equal space for every religion, was it able to channel the struggle away from violence. As religion had become a dangerous and dividing power, it became clear that the state had to separate itself from the church, not only to keep the peace, but also to maintain itself.

The duty of the state to support one particular religion was replaced by the duty to protect the plurality of religions. Religious freedom gave citizens who belonged to a religious minority the power to claim protection from the state. In this way, the state not only liberated the people from the horrors of religious wars, but also from the pressure of religious conformity.

The fact that, in our day and age, global mobility and globalization encourage competition between and coexistence of different religions, makes it likely that the local historical events which resulted from the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe – which have been events limited to the history of the West – will be reproduced elsewhere in the world. Different states in different parts of the world will feel the same need to pacify competing parties by putting themselves above these parties. They can only put themselves above competing religious communities if they separate themselves from religion and if they grant religious liberty. Only religious liberty can produce peaceful coexistence in a plural society. The option of suppressing one or all of the competing parties (as is attempted in China for instance) will only produce revolt and will lead us away from rather than towards peace and security.

These contemporary historical developments justify and promote the universality of the right to religious liberty.

What is Democracy? (1): International Democracy

Is democracy possible at a level that is higher than that of the state? A number of problems can only be solved at a transnational level. If democracy is important, then it is important that transnational decisions and organizations are democratic and based on the agreement of the people.

But is it possible ? Democracy is not at its best on a large scale. Efficient participation is difficult in very large groups. On the other hand, international cooperation can stop events taking place without the agreement of the people. If we have international cooperation, we can avoid the situation in which one country takes a decision that has a negative effect in another country (for example, the decision to build a nuclear plant just at the border with another country, without involving the people of this other country; or the decision of one country to start destroying its rain forests, irrespective of the consequence for the global climate). International cooperation in the sense of defense cooperation in institutions like NATO can protect the national sovereignty of individual states and therefore also the right to self-government of the people of these individual states. And finally, international cooperation allows a nation to solve problems which it cannot solve on its own (pollution for example). In everyone of these three cases do we see that international cooperation has a positive influence on self-government.

It is obvious that international organizations, set up to solve international problems and hence to give control to the people, must be democratic, at least when we remember that self-government is among the reasons for solving international problems. Some of these problems inhibit self-government because an individual nation is not able to deal with them. International organizations are set up to recreate self-government by solving problems that inhibit self-government. Therefore, one should not create an undemocratic international institution, because the purpose of such an institution is precisely self-government.

How can we make international organizations more democratic than they currently are? There are not many examples to inspire us. In any case, the people of the different states have to be represented in these organizations and not only in their own states. Direct democracy is also a possibility. Perhaps we can presume that we have a democratic decision from the moment that democratic states, in their position of members of the organization, take a common decision. These states represent the people and hence the people are indirectly involved in the decision. However, do these states have to decide unanimously? Or can we also apply the system of majority rule at an international level? In the latter case, we put aside entire nations. Is this acceptable? It is certainly not acceptable for the nations concerned. The reason why these nations joined the organization in the first place, was to solve problems that escaped their power and to recapture their sovereignty. They will never accept to be outvoted.

The fact that international organizations take away a part of the sovereignty of states in order to be able to solve certain problems, does not have to imply a weakening of democracy. On the contrary, it can imply the rescue of democracy, on the condition of course that these organizations are governed democratically. The people of every individual state have less democratic power because they are minorities in a larger entity, but the “people” of the whole have more democracy because they are now able to solve problems they were not able to solve when they were still divided.

International cooperation can also promote democracy because it implies mutual influence. A state that needs other states in order to solve environmental problems for example will find it more difficult to ignore demands from these other states aimed at an improvement of the human rights situation. The shield of sovereignty loses its strength and can no longer be used to counter criticism of human rights violations, because it is precisely the lack of sovereignty or self-government which forced the states to cooperate.

Gay Marriage From a Human Rights Law POV

Do homosexuals have a right to marry according to the international human rights standards? Not explicitly. They do not even have the explicit right to be homosexual, but jurisprudence has established that homosexuals should not be discriminated. First of all, all human beings, whatever their convictions, practices, behavior etc., have the same rights. So killing or torturing or arbitrarily imprisoning people is always wrong. And if this is done because these people are homosexuals or something else is irrelevant.

Homosexuality is also protected by the right to privacy. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

And nothing is as private as sexuality.

Regarding the right to marry, article 16 states:

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned as an unwarranted limitation. So the use of this article is a weak defense of gay marriage. But Article 2 states:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The “such as” clause signifies that there may be other types of unwarranted distinction. See also Article 7:

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

And from a non-legal POV: gay marriage is not necessarily a threat to the institution of marriage. A gay couple can be as serious about marriage and about raising children as a heterosexual couple. Those of us who care about the importance of marriage have much graver threats to deal with.

Cultural Rights (1): Identity

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

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

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

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

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

Economic Human Rights (1): Hierarchy of Duty Bearers

It is probably correct to see in the policy to “outsource” social services to faith-based organizations an effort to undermine the division of church and state and to financially support radical christian organizations with taxpayers’ money. Very likely it is also an effort to promote christianity (by giving organizations money for social services they can more easily proselytize).

However, economic rights should not be viewed as primarily the business of the state, otherwise we will lose both the benefits of self-support (i.e. autonomy) and the community spirit which results from spontaneous mutual assistance. Allowing economic rights to be realised at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen the feeling of belonging. The fact that our economic rights are realised in part by our responsible fellow citizens, enhances community feelings and again supports the statement that human rights are not individualistic and do not only deal with the relationship between citizens and the state. Focusing too much on the duties of the state will create a mentality of passive reliance on government support (for yourself and for others) and a mentality of dependence (state help kills self-help). Egoism, isolation, irresponsibility and helplessness will become the main features of society. We will only have rights and no duties, rights moreover which only the government should respect and realise. In order to avoid this, people should be allowed to act responsibly. They should be responsible for themselves and for others, and the state should not take away this responsibility without good reasons (for example the responsibility of parents to care for their children or the responsibility of individuals to find a job).

The state is responsible for economic rights only if everything else fails. Only those who are helpless and who have been forgotten by private philanthropy can call on the state for assistance. In this case, the state does not abstain or does not make laws which forbid something; it executes policies that result in an equal supply of those goods and services necessary for the satisfaction of basic needs. These policies are mainly taxation, redistribution and development aid and can be seen as the enforcement of citizens’ duties. When the state forces you to pay taxes, it forces you to fulfil your duties arising from the economic rights of your fellow citizens (which is why tax fraud and tax evasion are particularly reprehensible crimes: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities). It is the duty of the state to force the people to fulfil their duties, their duty to be self-supporting if possible and their duties towards each other if necessary.