Measuring Human Rights (13): When More Means Less and Vice Versa

Human rights violations can make it difficult to measure human rights violations, and can distort international comparisons of the levels of respect for human rights. Country A, which is generally open and accessible and on average respects basic rights such as speech, movement and press fairly well, may be more in the spotlight of human rights groups than country B which is borderline totalitarian. And not just more in the spotlight: attempts to quantify or measure respect for human rights may in fact yield a score that is worse for A than for B, or at least a score that isn’t much better for A than for B. The reason is of course the openness of A:

  • Human rights groups, researchers and statisticians can move and speak relatively freely in A.
  • The citizens of A aren’t scared shitless by their government and will speak to outsiders.
  • Country A may even have fostered a culture of public discourse, to some extent. Perhaps its citizens are also better educated and better able to analyze political conditions.
  • As Tocqueville has famously argued, the more a society liberates itself from inequalities, the harder it becomes to bear the remaining inequalities. Conversely, people in country B may not know better or may have adapted their ambitions to the rule of oppression. So, citizens of A may have better access to human rights groups to voice their complaints, aren’t afraid to do so, can do so because they are relatively well educated, and will do so because their circumstances seem more outrageous to them even if they really aren’t. Another reason to overestimate rights violations in A and underestimate them in B.
  • The government administration of A may also be more developed, which often means better data on living conditions. And better data allow for better human rights measurement. Data in country B may be secret or non-existent.

I called all this the catch 22 of human rights measurement: in order to measure whether countries respect human rights, you already need respect for human rights. Investigators or monitors must have some freedom to control, to engage in fact finding, to enter countries and move around, to investigate “in situ”, to denounce etc., and victims should have the freedom to speak out and to organize themselves in pressure groups. So we assume what we want to establish. (A side-effect of this is that authoritarian leaders may also be unaware of the extent of suffering among their citizens).

You can see the same problem in the common complaints that countries such as the U.S. and Israel get a raw deal from human rights groups:

[W]hy would the watchdogs neglect authoritarians? We asked both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and received similar replies. In some cases, staffers said, access to human rights victims in authoritarian countries was impossible, since the country’s borders were sealed or the repression was too harsh (think North Korea or Uzbekistan). In other instances, neglected countries were simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest. With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it made little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there. … The watchdogs can and do seek to stimulate demand for information on the forgotten crises, but this is an expensive and high risk endeavor. (source)

So there may also be a problem with the supply and demand curve in media: human rights groups want to influence public opinion, but can only do so with the help of the media. If the media neglect certain countries or problems because they are deemed “unnewsworthy”, then human rights groups will not have an incentive to monitor those countries or problems. They know that what they will be able to tell will fall on deaf ears anyway. So better focus on the things and the countries which will be easier to channel through the media.

Both the catch 22 problem and the problems caused by media supply and demand can be empirically tested by comparing the intensity of attention given by human rights monitoring organizations to certain countries/problems to the intensity of human rights violations (the latter data are assumed to be available, which is a big assumption, but one could use very general measures such as these). It seems that both effects are present but not much:

[W]e subjected the 1986-2000 Amnesty [International] data to a barrage of statistical tests. (Since Human Rights Watch’s early archival procedures seemed spotty, we did not include their data in our models.) Amnesty’s coverage, we found, was driven by multiple factors, but contrary to the dark rumors swirling through the blogosphere, we discovered no master variable at work. Most importantly, we found that the level of actual violations mattered. Statistically speaking, Amnesty reported more heavily on countries with greater levels of abuse. Size also mattered, but not as expected. Although population didn’t impact reporting much, bigger economies did receive more coverage, either because they carried more weight in global politics and economic affairs, or because their abundant social infrastructure produced more accounts of abuse. Finally, we found that countries already covered by the media also received more Amnesty attention. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Limiting Free Speech (40): The Chilling Effect of Political Correctness

A few days ago, a senior US journalist by the name of Helen Thomas expressed the view that Jews needed to “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to their countries of historical origin (she named Germany and Poland, as well as “America”) (source).

Subsequently, a lot of folks expressed the view that she should resign or else be fired (source). She swiftly agreed. Now, forcing someone to resign because of an opinion, however stupid or disgusting this opinion may be, is likely to have an adverse effect on free speech, not only the freedom of speech of the person in question but of anyone else who may believe – rightly or wrongly – that his or her livelihood may be at stake because of certain opinions.

The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.

Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in the subsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.

But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling. (source)

(More on the chilling effect and on political correctness). A social chilling effect produced by political correctness may be as effective as state imposed censorship.

Of course, given her age (89), Helen Thomas may in fact not suffer any serious consequences from her forced retirement. But what happened to her can happen to others, and the mere risk of such a thing happening may be enough for some people – those with more to lose – to think again and decide that it’s perhaps better to shut up.

Now, none of this defense of Helen Thomas should be understood as a defense of what she actually said. Here’s a good quote explaining what exactly is wrong with what she said, if that isn’t immediately clear:

why the big deal over batty Helen Thomas? What is so especially offensive about her comments (comments that now seem to have gotten her fired)? I think the answer is fairly obvious. While it is one thing (not a good thing, of course) to argue in euphemism for the destruction of Israel by invoking the so-called one-state solution, it is quite another to advocate for the “return” of Israeli Jews to their German and Polish homelands, not merely because such advocacy is almost comically absurd and cruel (or, at the very least, stunningly ignorant of recent European history) but because this argument denies to Jews what Helen Thomas, and people like Helen Thomas, want to grant the Palestinians: Recognition that they comprise, collectively, a nation.

The Jews, of course, are an ancient nation, a nation whose history took place in a sliver of land called Israel. Helen Thomas’s argument, if you can call it an argument, centers on the pernicious belief that Jews are strangers in a place called “Palestine.” Palestine, of course, is the name that was given by the Romans to the Land of Israel precisely in order to sever the connection between the Jews and their homeland. Helen Thomas, and people like her, are thus soldiers in a (Roman-inspired) war against history. This particular war is not as offensive to most people as the war against the memory of the Shoah, but it is rooted in the same grotesque motivation: To deny to Jews the truth of their own history. (source)

One additional remark: none of this should be interpreted as implying that people’s free speech rights entail a right not to be fired for what they say. More posts in this series here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (28): Torture and the Ticking Bomb

In 1987, a judicial commission of inquiry headed by former [Israeli] Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau had reported that “moderate physical pressure” [by the Israeli General Security Services G.S.S.] was defensible in cases in which an interrogator “committed an act that was immediately necessary” to save lives from grave harm. Israeli human rights organizations had monitored G.S.S. interrogations and concluded that some eighty-five percent of Palestinians interrogated had been tortured – subjected to methods almost identical to those currently being used in American military detention – and questioned whether such an enormous percentage of detainees were indeed “ticking bombs”. If those being tortured were all “ticking bombs”, why, asked an Israeli human rights organization shortly before the Supreme Court hearing, did interrogators take weekends off? “The lethal bomb ticks away during the week, ceases, miraculously, on the weekend, and begins to tick again when the interrogators return from their day of rest.” (source)

Whatever you think about the persuasiveness of the ticking bomb argument in favor of torture, or even it’s relevance to actual cases of torture, it’s difficult not see the risk of a slippery slope, especially given evidence like this. 

Limiting Free Speech (2): Holocaust Denial

In the introductory post of this series, I summarized the dangers of limiting free speech while at the same time granting that such limits are necessary in some cases. One case is Holocaust denial, or Holocaust revisionism as it is referred to by its supporters.

What is Holocaust denial?

Holocaust deniers only rarely claim that the Holocaust didn’t take place or that no Jews were killed by the Nazis. Rather, they claim that either or all of these facts are lies:

  • The Nazi government of Germany had a policy of deliberately exterminating the Jews
  • Over five million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis
  • The extermination was carried out with tools such as gas chambers.

Instead of outright negation, there is trivialization. Moreover, Holocaust denial claims that the holocaust is a deliberate Jewish conspiracy created to advance the present-day interest of Jews and Israel.

Most historians and scholars reject Holocaust denial as a pseudo-science that fails to respect the rules of historical evidence and that is grounded in hatred rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Holocaust denial is characterized by the distortion or falsification of historical documents and the selective use of sources.

Holocaust deniers are mainly far-right, neo-nazi types and antisemites, but there are also far-left deniers, islamic deniers etc.

How can we justify the limits on free speech inherent in laws prohibiting Holocaust denial?

Nothing that went before is in itself sufficient to justify laws limiting the right to free speech of Holocaust deniers. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post in this series, one has to show that some rights are violated by Holocaust denial, and that this violation is worse than the violation of the rights of Holocaust deniers which would result from Holocaust denial laws.

There are a few possible kinds of justification:

1. Antisemitism

There is antisemitism inherent in Holocaust denial, although it is not necessarily obvious or immediately apparent. It is often implicit rather explicit antisemitism: the Holocaust is an invention of Jews, a tool to make them look like victims instead of criminals, and thereby gaining some sort of immunity for their vicious acts. Or a tool to make financial claims on Germany.

However, the mere antisemitism of Holocaust denial is not a sufficient reason to prohibit it. Antisemitism as such should enjoy the protection of the freedom of speech. Only when antisemitism explicitly incites to violence against or discrimination of Jews can it be forbidden. And Holocaust denial is rarely this explicit.

The offensive nature of Holocaust denial does undoubtedly inflict harm on Jews, especially the survivors of the camps, but no harm in the sense of rights violations. One could claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates and encourages antisemitism and therefore increases the likelihood of antisemitic attacks on individual Jews. But it would be a tough job establishing the causal links.

One could also claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates negative stereotypes in society, and thereby contributes to the marginalization of Jews. Again, difficult to prove.

In general, Holocaust denial is such a marginal phenomenon that it’s difficult to claim that it makes a substantive contribution to violence and discrimination. But in some countries or subcultures, the balance can be different.

2. Offensive speech

Justifying the prohibition of Holocaust denial merely on its offensive nature, would open the floodgates to a massive number of possible limitations of free speech, especially in the field of blasphemy. This would lead to an excess of political correctness and ultimately to “thought police”.

3. Libel

A justification based on the harm to the reputation of Jews would make Holocaust denial similar to libel. However, libel is traditionally designed to protect an individual’s reputation, income, and honor against abusive and harmful accusations. I fail to see how Holocaust denial can be directly harmful to individual Jews. Group defamation is highly controversial and could lead to the same problems cited in the previous point.

4. Democratic self-defense

Sometimes limits on rights are necessary to protect a rights-supporting community against anti-democrats who use democracy against democracy. A democracy is a particularly vulnerable form of government. The freedom it delivers can easily be misused by those who want to take it away. Anti-democratic and illiberal forces are free to use rights, freedoms and democratic procedures for the promotion of tyranny and oppression. The purpose of many holocaust deniers is the resurrection of Nazism, and a condition for this resurrection is the denial of the Nazis’ greatest crime. There can be no hope for acceptability of far-right policies as long as the Holocaust stands in the way. German Nazism, of course, is notorious for the way in which it misused the imperfect Weimar democracy.

Seen in this light, the criminalization of Holocaust denial is a self-defensive act of democracies in their struggle against extremism. Holocaust deniers use the freedoms of democracy in order to overthrow it. One cannot reasonably force democracies to abstain from self-defense. No system can be required to cherish the seeds of its own destruction.

To the extent that Holocaust deniers aim to overthrow democracy, they are hardly in a position to complain about limitations of the freedoms they would like to destroy:

One has no title to object to the conduct of others that is in accordance with principles one would use in similar circumstances to justify one’s actions towards them. A person’s right to complain is limited to violations of principles he acknowledges himself. John Rawls

You should not ask something for yourself that you are planning to deny to others. This, according to me, is the strongest justification of Holocaust denial laws, even in those countries were the revival of Nazism of highly unlikely. It may be unlikely precisely because of measures such as Holocaust denial laws.

5. The defense of Israel

Some extreme Islamists use Holocaust denial in their campaign against Israel. They hope that when they negate the Holocaust, they can remove one of the moral foundations of the state of Israel (as a refuge for the survivors). This negation, they hope, can help their efforts to destroy Israel.

However, whereas this justification may be useful in some circumstances, it is difficult to use it for an outright, worldwide prohibition on Holocaust denial since Holocaust denial outside of the Middle East can hardly be linked to the possible destruction of Israel.

6. The special case of Germany

In Germany, there may be an additional justification available. Holocaust denial laws can there be seen as part of a package of reparative justice, a kind of “sorry” issued by the state, a public acknowledgment of responsibility.

7. The interest of historical truth

Whereas truth is very important, it seems wrong to use laws to enforce the truth. Truth should be based on proof and sound argument, and using the law to punish “lies” only encourages those who believe the lies. They, and others as well, will think that there must be something wrong with the “truth” if it needs the law for its protection.


There is a case to be made for Holocaust denial laws, but one should be very careful and limit the prohibitions to cases and circumstances that really require them. Not all forms of Holocaust denial is equally pernicious, and not all circumstances are equally dangerous. Moreover, one should take into account the counterproductive effects of stigmatizing a certain group: persecution by the law can encourage them, can increase the number of sympathizers, and can give them more publicity than they would otherwise receive. Ignoring Holocaust deniers rather than criminalizing them could often be the most successful strategy. And some justifications should be avoided because they can create a dangerous precedent.

Countries with laws against Holocaust denial

Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland (source: here or here).