Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence

Violence is obviously a human rights issue. Violent actions, either by the state or by fellow citizens, violate our physical integrity and personal security. Several articles of the Universal Declaration protect us against different forms of violence: art. 3 protects our right to life and personal security, art. 4 prohibits slavery, art. 5 prohibits torture etc.

Levels of violence throughout history

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but violence has been in decline throughout modern history.

Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers – which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago – he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. … From the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Steven Pinker (source)

This is true for most kinds of violence: war, ethnic conflict, state violence (criminal punishment, torture, repression etc.), war, one-to-one violence (homicide) etc.:

When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime. Steven Pinker (source)

A cognitive illusion

We tend to believe that the 20th century was the most bloody of all, and that the 21st hasn’t started any better. That’s probably a misconception or “cognitive illusion” fueled by unprecedented information flows. Today, we have magnificent information systems delivering facts, figures and images instantaneously. Compared to that, information about the centuries before is by definition more scarce: few images and newspaper reports, no television reports, less systematic historiography, less durable data sources etc.

That doesn’t make the present-day levels of violence acceptable. On the contrary. Rather than looking at history and concluding that man will always be violent, the recent decreases in levels of violence should encourage us to go all the way. And then it’s important to understand why the levels have gone down.

Why has violence declined?

One reason is undoubtedly the development of the modern state and its judicial apparatus. This apparatus can of course be used to inflict violence, but the risk of this happening has decreased as states have become more democratic, more respectful of the rule of law, and more sensitive to human rights. The democratic nature of many contemporary states has also diminished the risk of inter-state violence (this is the so-called democratic peace theory).

Another, and related, point is that

Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short – not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. … These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband. Steven Pinker (source)

Yet another reason for the decrease in the levels of violence is the development of the modern economy. This development has increased the costs of violence. It’s easier to be violent towards your fellow human beings of you live in a subsistence economy and produce everything you need for yourself. When you depend on others for your job and income, your consumption goods, your transport etc. it becomes more costly to act in a violent way towards them. The same can be said of nations: like individuals, nations have become more interdependent in the globalized economy. Acting violently towards other nations has therefore become more costly. Self-sufficiency is no longer an option for nations either.

Yet another reason:

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general. Steven Pinker (source)

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.).