Marx, Substructure, Superstructure and Human Rights

The substructure, according to communism, is the mode of production or the nature of productive activity. Productive activity means the production, in interaction with nature, of goods necessary to survive. This production requires, on the one hand, means of production (materials, machines, land, tools, labor etc.) and, on the other hand, relations in which production takes place (relations of co-operation or ways of organization such as relations between masters and slaves, employers and employees, landowners and farmers etc.). The combination of means (or forces) of production and relations of production is the mode of production.

The available means of production determine the relations of production. A certain degree of development in the former necessarily produces a certain degree of development in the latter. This idea is the basis of the historical evolution of society that is so important in communism.

In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place. These social relations into which the producers enter with one another, the conditions under which they exchange their activities and participate in the whole act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. With the invention of a new instrument of warfare, firearms, the whole internal organization of the army necessarily changed: the relationships within which individuals can constitute an army and act as an army were transformed … Thus the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, change, are transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, the productive forces. K. Marx, Wage Labor and Capital

These social relations are therefore independent of the will of the participants. They depend on technology, the availability of land etc. Each major change in the relations of production and the organization of production, caused by changes in the means of production, leads to a major change in the type of society we live in.

The combination of means of production or productive forces on the one hand, and relations of production on the other, is the substructure and determines the superstructure or the collection of different forms of consciousness, such as law, morality, religion, philosophy, politics etc.

The substructure is “the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”. “Economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch”.

Politics and law are parts of the superstructure which are determined by the substructure. They are formed by the interests of those who have economic power and they serve to defend these interests. “Political power … is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another”. “Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones?” The quintessential example is the right to private property. Owners can use this right to defend their interests against the poor. They can appeal to the judiciary and the police force to defend their property and hence to maintain existing class relations and modes of production.

The right to private property makes it impossible for large groups of people to have their own means of production and hence to be economically independent and self-sufficient. In other words, it makes it impossible for people to be free.

However, the law is not only something that can be used to justify the use of force for the maintenance of the status quo. The use of force by the state for the defense of the right to property is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that this right is in their interest, that it is a human right rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.

All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.

Human rights, according to communism, are “an illusory sense of community serving as a screen for the real struggles waged by classes against each other”, an ideological veil on reality, a set of false ideas that has to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain. Again we see how the ruling class uses ideology rather than mere force to maintain its rule. It tries to instill certain beliefs in its victims and to use these beliefs as a drug, an opium to pacify them.

Like the protest inherent in the Christian ideology of a future paradise must be maintained but stripped of its ideological content, so the ideal of equality inherent in human rights must be maintained but in such a way that it becomes real equality in a real and worldly paradise, and not some kind of formal equality of rights that only aggravates real inequality and postpones paradise to the afterlife. The poor must become conscious of the fact that their formal equality only covers up their real inequality. This consciousness will be an important step in their liberation. However, as we will see later, this consciousness is conditioned by and can only come about at a certain time in the evolution of exploitation. It cannot result from education or political agitation alone.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (13): Rights Suffering Under the Law, The Problem of Legal Human Rights Violations

This post is about the law violating human rights. I understand that this is only one of many ways in which rights can be violated, and certainly not the most important one. Genocide, poverty, torture, war etc. are all major human rights violations, but only rarely if ever do they occur because a law instructs people to kill, maim or impoverish their fellow human beings. On the contrary, many human rights violations result from breaking the law, and the law has often been the last refuge for human rights.

So we have two different types of rights violations, illegal and legal violations.

1. Illegal violations

Illegal violations are acts that violate human rights and at the same time break laws that make these violations illegal. This type of rights violation always implies some kind of inefficiency in the national justice systems. These justice systems are supposed to prosecute illegal rights violations, but often fail to do so, for two possible reasons: inability or unwillingness. They may be grossly inefficient, or they may be corrupt and complicit with the rights violators. So illegal violations may be divided into two subtypes:

1.1. Illegal violations caused by government incompetence

These violations occur because of the government’s inability to stop them. An example would be robbery or murder.

1.2. Illegal violations caused by government complicity

These occur because of the governments unwillingness to stop them. The judicial and police systems are covering for the rights violators. An example could be torture in Guantanamo.

2. Legal violations

Legal violations, on the other hand, are rights violations that are condoned or imposed by the law and by the justice system. This type as well can be further divided into two subtypes:

2.1. Violations that are imposed by the law

Some examples: capital punishment, jim crow, some aspects of Islamic law, blasphemy laws, lèse majesté laws, homosexuality laws…

2.2. Violations that are not punished by the law

These are acts which are not illegal because the law remains silent on them, but which violate human rights. This type can be further divided. Violations are not punished by the law

  • either because it is believed that these violations should not be considered a crime (the contrary act is then often believed to be a crime) (case 2.2.1.)
  • or because it is difficult to determine the party responsible for the violations (case 2.2.2.).

Some examples of case 2.2.1.: in some countries there is no legal concept known as marital rape; other countries do not outlaw abortion (for those who agree that abortion is a human rights violation). Some examples of case 2.2.2.: poverty, famine…

One caveat, however. “Legal” in this setting means “legal according to national law”. One could justifiably claim that there is no such thing as legal human rights violations since international law makes all violations illegal and renders national laws condoning or imposing violations, null and void. However, this is theory. In practice, national legal systems continue to impose and enforce, sometimes quite effectively, laws which either condone or impose violations.

The Ethics of Human Rights (15): Justice After Genocide

A new political regime that is installed in a society that has recently suffered human rights violations on a cataclysmic scale, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing (Rwanda and Cambodia are examples), always faces the problem of justice. What to do with the crimes of the past? This is a problem because the crimes in question usually haven’t been committed by a few individuals can that be identified and tried, but by a large majority of the citizens. You can’t put the majority in jail.

The new regime runs the risk of falling into the trap of collective guilt. One particular ethnic group or one class of society is singled out as the perpetrator (e.g. Hutus in Rwanda, forgetting that many victims were Hutu), and those members of this “criminal group” who aren’t put on trial suffer from social stigma. Collective guilt is unjust, and – worse even – mirrors the practice of the genocidaires.

But there’s another trap as well. Mark Drumbl, for example, has coined the phrase “the myth of collective innocence”. By punishing a few perpetrators only, even if they are guilty and perhaps even the “brains” behind the genocide, the impression is given that the large masses didn’t participate, whereas the genocide was only possible because of mass participation. It’s also a well-known fact that selectivity in the application of justice erodes justice. It gives the impression of unfairness, prejudice, nepotism, double standards etc. Why me and not the other guy? Society as a whole may come to see the justice system as seriously flawed. Justice, after all, should be equal.

On the other hand, selectivity is a fact in all justice systems, and in all types of crimes (in the U.K., for example, only 3 % of all crimes are prosecuted). And in the case of genocide, selectivity is perhaps even necessary. The new regime cannot afford to alienate a large part of society. There has to be some kind of national reconciliation. The demands of the victims and their claims of justice for the past, have to be balanced against the future needs of a stable, reconciled society.

Genocide offers a justification for this selectivity. During the “implementation” of genocide, individual culpability is sometimes eroded. In a genocidal situation, social pressures to participate in mass violence can be enormous. Contrary to violence in ordinary crimes, violence in a genocide becomes the norm, the moral thing to do, precisely because it is so widespread. Refusing to participate is morally abhorrent, deviant, and can expose an individual to extreme risk. And we see that individuals quickly internalize this new “morality” and start to act accordingly. (On a smaller scale, this is apparent in the phenomenon of littering. Once it starts to be seen as “normal” to litter somewhere, the littering will become normal behavior). The notion of voluntary participation in genocide becomes problematic.

This doesn’t absolve people from guilt, but it can be attenuating, and it can justify the prosecution of only a handful of planners and organizers. And this in turn can be helpful for national reconciliation. The others may be subject to a more restorative kind of justice, compared to the retributive kind imposed on the important few. Truth commissions can play an important part in this process.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (12): The Scope of Criminal Law in Different Countries or Cultures, and Its Effect on Human Rights

Different countries and different cultures make different choices about the appropriate scope of criminal law. Some actions which are legal in one country are illegal in another.

The two tables below list a number of action types (certainly not all) and whether they are legal or illegal. This table can be used to classify countries or societies according to the degree of freedom that they grant their citizens. The legalization of some actions makes countries more free, the legalization of others less free. (And the same for the choice whether or not to criminalize certain actions). This table can therefore be used to distinguish between countries or societies that are more free or more “liberal” than others which are more authoritarian or more “illiberal”.

The distinction between countries can be made by attributing a certain score to each action and then making the sum. The scoring could be done like this: add a point when a country or society is best described by the right column, and subtract a point for the left column. Countries with high marks are then liberal, countries with low marks illiberal.

For example, if we would like to score the U.S., this country would be given one point for allowing gun ownership, making it a bit more “liberal” (I know this label doesn’t really fit U.S. politics, in which a favorable view of gun ownership is a rather more “conservative” than “liberal” position. But “liberal” here should be understood not in the context of U.S. politics but simply as meaning “more free”). However, the U.S. would lose a point because it has allowed torture. Done for every type of action, this scoring should then give an overall impression of the country, or of any other country.

I don’t intend to attach any moral significance to these terms, “liberal” and “illiberal”. One isn’t necessarily good or the other bad. More freedom isn’t always a good thing. The terms “liberal” and “illiberal” merely describe the degree of freedom in a country.

Now, the interesting thing from the point of view of human rights, is that liberal societies, in general (as can be seen from the tables) are more favorable to human rights than illiberal ones. So the table can be used to classify societies according to their respect for human rights (and then the distinction does take on a moral character). But this isn’t completely true, for two reasons:

  • Some human rights issues, such as health or poverty, aren’t included in the table, because they aren’t relevant from the point of view of criminal law. But they can and should change the score: a society that scores as “illiberal” from the point of view of criminal law, can improve its score as a “human rights respecting country” when it offers its citizens good health care and income (but of course this doesn’t excuse the human rights violations resulting from its criminal law). Or vice versa.
  • It’s debatable whether more freedom for certain actions results in more respect for human rights. One can think of pornography or abortion. So an extremely liberal society is perhaps not the best one from the point of view of human rights.

A correct distinction between more or less liberal countries should not only include the scope of criminal law, but also the severity of punishment when a crime is committed. Societies that have the same scope for criminal law as others, but use capital punishment, corporal punishment, mutilation, stoning or torture as methods of criminal punishment, should be classified as less liberal.

Separation of Powers and Human Rights

The theory of the separation of powers traditionally differentiates between three branches of power:

  • the legislative power (parliament)
  • the executive (the government, the administration and the police)
  • and the judiciary.

Separation of powers means independence of powers with regard to each other. The three powers are separated and divided organizations of the state. No power can assume the competence or functions of another power or can interfere with another power’s business. A few examples:

  • The executive should not vote laws (the so-called “government by decree”).
  • The legislative power should not appoint or dismiss the government or the head of the executive (this should be a prerogative of the people).
  • The judiciary should be able to work without political interference from the legislative power or from the executive, and should be able to judge cases in an independent and impartial way. The judge should not be an instrument of politics or a “political worker” who executes the decisions of the executive, as was the case in Soviet Russia for example. He is subject only to the law, and the law, contrary to an order by Comrade Stalin for example, cannot be used to influence verdicts because it is general and neutral.
  • Judges should not interfere in legislation or politics (they enter the stage when the work of politics is already accomplished; they apply the law as it is voted by the legislative).

However, this is not the end of the story. Independence does not mean that a power can do as it likes without accountability. The independence is limited because one power can control, correct, rebuke, limit or stop another power if there is an abuse of power or a violation of rights.

Some interference is necessary. Separation does not mean isolation. Powers are separated precisely because then they can check each other. If all power is concentrated in the same person or institution, then this power cannot be checked. There is no higher power than the state and hence the state must control, limit and correct itself (the “international community” is still very weak). If power has to limit itself, then it has to be divided into different parts. There must be powers and counter-powers, checks and balances. Every power moderates the other powers because every power holds the reins to force the other powers in a certain direction. A citizen must be able to go to one power in order to claim redress or compensation for violations of rights by other powers. Power protects against power and power can contradict and correct power.

Violations of human rights by one part of the state must be corrected by another part, otherwise human rights remain words without reality. Judges can control the laws of the legislature and the actions of the executive. If they find that these laws or actions are incompatible with the human rights included in the Constitution or in an international treaty, then the judges can declare these laws to be invalid or these actions to be unlawful, even if these laws and actions are supported by a democratic majority (which is normally the case in a democracy).

The power of the legislative, the executive and the majority is limited. The judiciary makes sure that both the legislative power and the executive act according to the highest law of the land, which is, after all, also an expression of the will of the majority (at least in an ideal democracy, because an ideal democracy allows the citizens to vote on the Constitution and on international treaties). Human rights and the Constitution can be used against the legislator in order to counteract the tyranny of the majority (also known as democratic oppression). When judges do this, they engage in what is called “judicial review“. The legislator can be wrong and laws can be oppressive. The law is more than just the will of the legislator. A valid law has to conform to certain requirements at the level of content, independently of the will of the legislator. A law cannot be anything, otherwise the rule of law would be a meaningless concept.

I mentioned a moment ago that the judiciary should not interfere with politics or legislation. However, is judicial review of legislation not a part of legislation? Controlling and invalidating laws, overruling the legislative power by way of a veto-right, creating a certain coherence in legislation, making sure that ordinary laws conform to the higher law (the Constitution), is this not legislation? And is it not legislation enacted by a non-elected minority which imposes its will on the majority of the people as it is represented in the legislative power, and which takes its decisions outside of the public debate? Should not an ideal democracy reject judicial review? In other words: is it not impossible for an ideal democracy to protect the rights and freedoms of the minority?

These questions are based on a false hypothesis. When a judge controls the conformity of an ordinary law and a higher law, he does not engage in legislation. He or she only makes sure that the higher law is strictly applied and respected. And as the higher law is the supreme expression of the will of the people – in an ideal democracy, the people can vote the Constitution – a judge only makes sure that the will of the people is strictly executed. There is nothing undemocratic about this and it has nothing to do with legislation. A judge who is confronted with a law which contradicts the Constitution cannot apply this law because otherwise he or she would be acting in an unlawful manner. The higher law has priority over the lower law. A lower law has to conform to the higher law, otherwise it is invalid and non-existing, “null and void”. A judge can declare the illegality of a law and can destroy a law without engaging in legislation.

The judge remains subject to the law and is not above the law or above the legislator when he or she invalidates a law. The judge remains subject to the higher law. Judicial review does not imply that the judiciary is more important or more powerful than the legislative power or than the will of the people. It only implies that the higher law is more important than the lower law and the higher legislator is superior to the lower legislator. Judicial review does not imply an exaggerated or a predominant political or legislative role for the judiciary compared to the role of the legislative power, at least as long as we consider the framing of a Constitution to be part of the legislative power. A judge can never decide on fundamental social problems or political conflicts. He or she can only apply the law, first the higher law and then the lower law.

Human rights possess a threefold significance: they are themselves standards of behavior; they constitute criteria for assessing the lawfulness of other rules (since they override all other norms, which are null and void in case of conflict); [and] they embody “instructions and guidelines” … for the creation and development of other rules. Antonio Cassese.

Individuals whose rights are violated can coerce the state – even though most of the time it is the other way around – but only on the condition that there is a separation of powers and that one power can be used against another.

However, this means that judges should not be predominantly in favor of one political party or one political philosophy, because otherwise they will review the laws from one and the same political perspective. If the judiciary is predominantly conservative, for example, then it will treat liberal laws in a very critical way and it will tend to systematically invalidate these laws because of their conservative interpretation of the Constitution.

Judicial control of the constitutionality of laws and government actions is only one example of a power limiting another. Here are some other examples:

  • A judicial verdict applies the law and is therefore dependent on the law. A judge cannot decide what is contrary to the law, which means that the legislator de facto limits the actions of the judiciary.
  • The executive is accountable to and is controlled by the legislative power. It has to give account of the way in which it has applied the laws. However, the legislative power cannot dismiss the government as a consequence of this control, at least as long as the government is directly elected, which is the case in an ideal democracy.
  • A president often has a veto-right and can block certain laws voted by the legislative power. This is acceptable on the condition that the president is directly elected.

Limiting Free Speech (20): Flag Burning and Flag Desecration

Flag burning (or other types of desecration of national flags) is a form of speech. It may not be a very refined or profound expression of opinions or ideas, but it is an expression nevertheless. Flag burning expresses disgust and hatred for a certain country or a country’s government and policies. It’s typically a very emotional form of speech, devoid of rational argument and reduced to simplistic slogans, and most often used in a setting of mass protest.

Given that it is a form of speech, it should, a priori, enjoy the protection of the right to free speech. However, in certain exceptional circumstances there’s a rationale for prohibiting it. It is a form of hate speech, and the rules governing limitations of hate speech apply here as well. In a nutshell: hate speech can be prohibited when it incites violence.

Now, it’s not impossible to imagine cases where flag burning can incite violence (burning the flag of Israel in front of a surrounded Jewish enclave when a pogrom is imminent, for example), but I guess that most cases of flag burning are much less harmful. So a general law forbidding flag burning doesn’t seem justifiable. There have been several attempts in the U.S. Congress to vote for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow a ban on flag burning:

On June 27, 2006, the most recent attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states. (source)

Much of this is of course political posturing of politicians trying to be the most patriotic. Given the rarity of flag burning in the U.S., it’s also a typical example of a solution in search of a problem.

Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself. Richard Savage (source)

The fact that patriotic people are offended by flag burning isn’t a sufficient reason to ban it. (I’ve argued here against a right not to be offended).

Limiting Free Speech (18): Lèse Majesté

Lèse majesté (a French expression but originally from a Latin expression meaning “injury to the Majesty”) is a legal rule making it a crime to say or write things that offend or insult a king or queen, or violate his or her dignity.

Fortunately, this kind of limitation of freedom of speech has become extremely rare. Most countries have done away with the archaic institution of the monarchy and hence also their lèse majesté rules. Or they have relegated their monarchies to the domain of symbolism and celebrity. Absolute monarchies or monarchical dictatorships are the exception nowadays. Oppression has become a distinctly “republican” affair. (Some of the remaining absolute monarchies are Brunei, Qatar, the southern African Kingdom of Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia).

Most of the monarchies that continue to exist have no strict practice of limiting free speech on the grounds of lèse majesté. They may have some legal rules, but they aren’t applied rigorously. So, on a global level, it’s difficult to claim that lèse majesté is a big problem for freedom of speech. However, some monarchies do impose the rule and thereby violate the right to freedom of speech to a large extent. I’m thinking of course of Thailand. The law there states:

The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action. Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen or the Heir-apparent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. (source)

Moreover, a precise definition of defamation of or insult to the king is lacking, making the net very tight. As a result, the law has shown itself very useful for political vendettas. There have been numerous cases of censorship, self-censorship and imprisonment, often as a consequences of rather ridiculous faits divers:

Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz refused to switch off a reading light on a Thai Airways flight he shared with two Thai princesses and was jailed under lèse majesté for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok. He was acquitted after apologizing to the King. (source)

But the consequences of many cases have been much more serious than the causes. Writers and academics have been jailed, thousands of internet sites are blocked, books and magazines such as The Economist have been banned etc. It’s not impossible that the site you’re reading now will suffer the same fate.

Thai law goes well beyond protection of the royal family. It has been used and abused to protect and justify an entire ruling elite, an autocratic and conservative social system, and even military coups.

Other monarchies are much more tolerant. It’s worth mentioning that some non-monarchies also have rules prohibiting insults to heads of states. In October 2006, a Polish man was arrested in Warsaw after expressing his dissatisfaction with the president and prime minister by farting loudly (see here).

Lèse majesté laws in one form or another, especially in countries where the beneficiaries of such protection are relatively powerful, is undemocratic. They can stifle large areas of political journalism and debate, and make it impossible to expose official wrongdoing and corruption.

Limiting Free Speech (16): Fighting Words

Fighting words are written or spoken words expressed to incite violence. This is related to the topic of hate speech, but it isn’t quite the same thing. Hate speech isn’t necessarily intended to incite violence (just simple hate in some cases).

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (in 1942), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that “fighting words”, words that tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, are among the

well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [which] the prevention and punishment of have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

Speech that merely causes anger, offense, insult or outrage does not amount to fighting words. Fighting words must present an actual threat of immediate violence or must “reasonably incite the average person to retaliate.”

It’s not true that certain words inevitably provoke violent reactions by individuals. Rather, one should take into account the context in which the words were uttered, not merely the content of the words themselves.

Given the rules for limiting free speech described in this post, the case of fighting words is rather simple. Inciting violence leads to violations of individual rights to security and bodily integrity, and in many cases these rights should take precedence over the right to free speech. It seems difficult to accept that hurting someone is a lesser evil than limiting someone’s right to speak and threaten.

Limiting Free Speech (14): Religious Education in Public Schools

There can be nothing wrong with educating children about religion. And I say this as an agnostic. But religious education must include information about all the world’s main religions, and about atheism as well. And it also shouldn’t avoid mentioning some of the problems caused by religion. Children benefit from seeing all sides of the coin.

Even public schools, i.e. schools instituted, organized and funded by the government, should provide this kind of religious education. Banning religion from public schools is wrong, but not because it would be a limitation on the freedom of speech of religions, as some religious activists claim. It’s not because you’re not allowed to speak in a certain place that you’re not allowed to speak (freedom of speech does not include the right to say anything anywhere; if it would, then newspapers would be forced to print everything everyone asks them to print). Such a ban is wrong for another reason: it would be stupid and a disservice to children.

It would be politically and legally wrong to have public schools teach only one religion, or emphasize one religion. The separation of church and state does not allow agencies of the state – such as public schools – to be hijacked by a particular religion, even if it is the religion of the majority of citizens (I would even say, especially when it is).

If this were allowed, then a religion could then use its privileged position to compete unfairly with other religions, and the result would be the abolition of religious freedom. The choice of religion would then no longer be a free one. Children would be led to one religion. Rather than complete information on all religious options, necessary to make an educated choice between religions, children would have a one-sided view on religion.

For the benefit of their students, private schools are of course also advised to teach all religions. But since many of these private schools are religious schools, it is only fair to allow them to focus on their own religion. It would indeed be an unjustified encroachment on religious freedom if religions and churches were not allowed to organize their own system of education according to their own rules (even if it includes teaching that Darwin was wrong and that Dinosaurs and men walked the surface of the earth together – but evidently they wouldn’t do their pupils any favors).

As long as parents have a choice to send their children to such a religious school or to another, public school, then there is no problem. But this must be a real choice of course. If the public schools are of inferior quality, or difficult to reach, then there isn’t really a choice.

School prayer is quite another matter. Praying is not learning, and the demand of inclusiveness mentioned above does not appear to work in the case of prayer. Starting lessons with different prayers of different religions seems awkward. Hence, school prayer in public schools looks like the kind of hijack that is contrary to the separation of state and church.

Limiting Free Speech (12): Obscenity

The words “obscenity” (from the Latin obscenus meaning “foul, repulsive, detestable”), “salaciousness” or “salacity”, are legal terms describing acts or cases of speech that are prohibited because they offend a society’s prevalent sexual morality. As such, these prohibitions are limitations of the freedom of speech and often include censorship of obscene material, punishment for obscene acts or distribution of obscene material etc. The question is whether such prohibitions are legitimate in light of the importance of the right to free speech.

What is or is not obscene differs from society to society, from individual to individual, and from time to time. What used to be considered obscene may today be banal. This makes it difficult to establish what is and is not obscene, and this difficulty has consequences for those wishing to make rules prohibiting obscenity.

Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States famously stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced but I know it when I see it.

The Supreme Court does use a somewhat more precise rule, called the “Miller test“, to establish if something is obscene and hence doesn’t merit protection under the First Amendment:

  • whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  • whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Most forms of obscenity aren’t speech: walking naked in a shopping mall, for instance, or performing sex acts in public toilets, aren’t acts intended to transfer information or opinions. Hence they cannot be protected by the right to free speech (whether or not these acts need to be protected at all, and how, is not the topic of this post).

Obscenity can, with some credibility, claim protection under freedom of speech when it is in the form of printed material (including publication on the internet), because then it is a form of speech. In many cases, obscenity in such a form can be equated to pornography (although not all pornography is obscene and not all obscenity is pornographic). In many jurisdictions, this kind of obscenity is also traditionally considered as a justified limit on freedom of speech. But is it really justified?

In a previous post in this series, I discussed pornography and the possibility to limit the freedom of speech of pornographers. I concluded that this possibility exists in certain cases, namely those cases of pornography that cause harm. For instance, child pornography, pornography in which violence or force is used against the participants in the pornographic material, pornography that is associated with human trafficking etc.

The rule should indeed be: does it harm anyone? Whether it appeals to the “prurient interest”, or whether it lacks “some artistic interest”, is essentially irrelevant. Does it cause harm in the sense of rights violations? Of course, this kind of harm isn’t always easy to establish. It is in the case of child pornography. But many feminists make a convincing case that pornography, even pornography depicting consenting adults and consumed by consenting adults, dehumanizes women, solidifies mentalities in which women are second class citizens, and glorifies violence against women.

However, depicting violence is not necessarily the same thing as incitement of violence. The latter causes harm, the former not necessarily (otherwise we would have to ban all detective stories).

Limiting Free Speech (11): The Right to Libel, Defame and Slander

A libelous statement (or a defamatory or slanderous statement, which are more or less synonymous) is a lie, a statement that can be disproven by facts (and therefore not merely an opinion), which has a direct impact on someone’s reputation and image. This impact results from the public nature of the lie and the likelihood that some people believe the lie is in fact not a lie.

Most systems of law provide legal measures to deter libel and provide compensation (financial or otherwise) for libel once it has been committed.

A related but slightly different problem is the public revelation of private information which is not of public concern. This information is not necessarily false, but may be embarrassing and hence may have the same effect on someone’s reputation as libel has.

A lie as such should of course not be prohibited, and is not a sufficient reason to limit freedom of speech. Neither should the revelation of private information. Sometimes, privacy is less important than other values. Regular readers of this blog will remember the rules for limiting free speech set forth in the introductory post of this series. Some rights can harm other rights – in this case freedom of speech and privacy – in which case one of the rights has to be limited for the sake of the other right.

This choice between rights is never easy, but one rule could be the relative harm done by limiting one right or another. If the harm caused by free speech is simply embarrassment, a slightly deflated reputation, or a feeling of dishonor, then the case for limiting free speech isn’t very strong. However, many so-called libelous statements do not only cause embarrassment. People whose reputation is destroyed, either by lies or by the disclosure of irrelevant private information that is of no public concern, may lose their livelihood. So the right that is affected by libel is not only the right to privacy, but also the right to a certain minimum living standard, the right to work etc.

Human Rights and International Law (11): International Law Between Protecting and Obstructing Human Rights; The Rules on Immunity and Intervention

When human rights are violated by people who represent a state – such as a head of state who orders rights violations or carries them out himself – it often happens that the national rights protection mechanisms, such as the courts and the police, do not assume their responsibility to protect. The individuals who have committed rights violations are not prosecuted by their own states, because they represent the state. They have control over the agencies that normally (should) prosecute rights violations.

This is de facto immunity. And this can extend even to the period after they have left power. Maybe they managed to make some kind of amnesty deal with the new democracy, or they just use their influence and their friends in order to pervert the justice system and the division of powers and to escape punishment.

But often these people – even when they have left power, such as former heads of state – enjoy not only de facto but also de juri immunity in national or even international law. Whatever the merits of the rules on immunity in international law, this can never be justified in cases involving rights violations. The theory of immunity says that heads of state or leading functionaries are not responsible for their actions. They represent their states and all their actions are “acts of state,” and therefore the state is responsible for these acts. Lower ranking officials are not responsible either because they can always hide behind the “Befehl ist Befehl” principle. They cannot be punished because they follow orders from people who themselves are not responsible.

Only by transcending the principles of immunity and command can individuals be punished for violations of human rights and can human rights be protected (punishing states is very difficult and is not fair because it is a kind of collective punishment). This has been the main achievement of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The Charter of the Tribunal clearly states that individuals have international obligations that go beyond their national obligations or commands. Since Nuremberg, it is no longer possible to claim that international law only deals with “acts of state” and that individuals cannot be punished for the acts they commit as representatives of their state or as executives carrying out orders. Nuremberg has given individuals criminal responsibility in international law.

Citizens are no longer at the mercy of powerful individuals within their states. It has become more difficult for individuals to shed their responsibility and to hide behind their functions, immunities, privileges, or hierarchy. Individuals can be made internationally accountable for their actions if these actions are crimes under international law. The fact that national law is not applied, is silent in the matter, or even explicitly approves or imposes the actions does not guarantee an escape from justice.

One of the characteristics of international law is its priority over national law. Human rights especially, as far as they have become part of international law, have priority over national law. Violations of rights that are not punished by national law or that are explicitly ordered by national law can be crimes under international law, in which case international law has priority. Individuals or states can be sentenced and condemned by organs representative of the international community.

But this immediately raises the legal problem of international intervention, as does the right of international institutions to hear complaints by individuals whose rights are violated and who can’t find redress in their national courts, and the right of international institutions to monitor the human rights situation inside individual states. Intervention is forbidden under international law, and this prohibition is a part of international law which, like the rule on immunity, obstructs human rights. The Charter of the UN, although it mentions human rights as one of its aims, specifically prohibits intervention in so-called internal affairs of member states, in the intra-national relationships between states and their citizens (this is the infamous article 2, paragraph 7:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

This article is often used against attempts to intervene for the sake of human rights. Even merely verbal criticism of rights violations is often supposed to be the type of “intervention” prohibited by article 2, paragraph 7. The “matters” referred to in the article are never precisely defined, so that every state is free to define them. Hence, intervention becomes practically impossible.

However, some acts clearly do not belong to these “matters”: violations of international law; attacks on international peace; and, according to some, systematic and extreme violations of human rights if these violations threaten international peace. Chapter VII of the Charter allows intervention in these cases following a decision by the Security Council, and article 2 explicitly provides an exception for this kind of intervention.

This is important for human rights, and today’s consensus on the definition of “matters” may even include grave violations that do not result in threats to peace. Some “internal matters,” which at first sight can benefit from article 2, paragraph 7, are clearly violations of other provisions of the Charter, e.g., structural violations of human rights such as apartheid (in particular article 55). In that case, some believe that the UN may take measures under Chapter VII (sanctions or even military intervention). Chapter VII can override article 2, paragraph 7, and is perhaps an instrument to enforce certain human rights in certain cases.

Self-determination and sovereignty are very important, but it is obvious that these concepts can easily be used to counter criticism of rights violations. The protection of states requires the doctrine of non-intervention and of the equality of sovereign states. Unfortunately, what is necessary for the protection of states is often harmful to human rights.

Although the views today are perhaps a bit more shaded, it is tradition to assume that the only legitimate enforcement actions of the UN agencies (so-called “collective measures” and “preventive or enforcement action” under Chapter VII) are actions directed at the protection or enforcement of international peace. This is important enough also for human rights, but it only includes actions necessary to enforce respect for human rights when those human rights are directly violated as a consequence of the absence of peace or when their violation may lead to breaches of peace.

Human Rights and International Law (10): Why Do Human Rights Need International Law?

Human rights law has globalized during the last decades. And it has done so in two ways:

  • human rights have become part of most national constitutions
  • and have been enshrined in widely accepted international treaties.

In this post, I will look at the relative usefulness of these two movements. The conclusion will be that ideally human rights protection should be a national matter, but in an imperfect world, with failing national protection, international human rights protection is a necessary alternative for human rights protection.

Originally an invention of the French and American revolutions in the eighteenth century, human rights have now become part of a global legal consensus. Although there are many violations of human rights and some philosophical, ideological, cultural, or religious objections to some human rights, the fact is that these rights are part of internationally recognized legal documents (mostly treaties) accepted by the overwhelming majorities of countries. At the same time, they are included in nearly all municipal legal systems (mostly in constitutions). Human rights are the law of mankind, even though they are widely violated. They have been enshrined in the law because they need the law to be adequately protected.

Why do human rights need international law? Isn’t national law enough? These questions may seem strange and perhaps even somewhat useless. Is not the immense effort that has been invested in international human rights law during the last fifty or sixty years proof enough of its utility? I’m not convinced because there is a strong argument in favor of the assertion that the protection of human rights should be first and foremost a matter of national law and national judiciaries.

International law is far removed from ordinary citizens, and if they want to complain about human rights violations they will most likely want to use their national law and their national judiciary. Their own judiciary is closer and hence more accessible and more able to understand and punish. The first responsibility of the international community, therefore, is not regulation or the administration of justice, but assisting countries to reform their national laws and judiciaries in order to make them more compatible with human rights.

However, what if this fails? National law and national judiciaries do not always effectively protect human rights, either because of the absence of adequate national laws or because of the ineffective protection and enforcement of national laws by judiciaries and/or executive powers. And outside assistance and pressure do not always succeed in solving this kind of problem. So, if there is international law protecting human rights, this law can step in when national law fails. Local judges can invoke international law at the expense of inadequate national law. And if not the national law but the national judges are inadequate, international human rights law also provides global mechanisms and institutions allowing citizens to complain about their state’s conduct.

Imagine that such institutions would not exist. That would mean that citizens could only complain to a national organ, an organ of their own state, an organ which may be ineffective, corrupt, incompetent, or perhaps even implicated in the rights violation. And even if these national organs are effective, they are quite useless if there are no international rules for them to apply in place of inadequate national ones. So there is a strong case in favor of international human rights law combined with international monitoring of national human rights situations, and with international complaints institutions to which citizens of a country can turn in order to denounce rights violations by their country.

Ideally, international human rights law and monitoring are unnecessary, and even undesirable, because human rights protection is best carried out on a national level by a state that can correct itself. But this implies the existence of an ideal state with a well-functioning national division of powers, a national “trias politica” in which one power can control and correct the mistakes (e.g., rights violations) of another. As long as not all states are ideal states some national judiciaries need the assistance of international law when their national human rights laws are insufficient or nonexistent, and some citizens need the assistance of international monitoring and enforcement institutions when their national division of powers is insufficient or nonexistent.

As long as we are some distance from Utopia, international law and international monitoring and enforcement institutions are necessary for the universal protection of human rights and should complement national rules and institutions. Countries should be encouraged or, if necessary, pressured to accept international human rights treaties so that citizens can invoke international laws in the absence of national ones. International human rights law traditionally includes the right to monitor and to complain about human rights violations internationally, and this means, in theory at least, that individuals or groups do not have to trust their own state to correct itself and to punish its own crimes. They can involve international monitoring and complaints institutions to further their cause when their national judges are incompetent, unwilling, or unable to implement national rules. Countries should therefore also be encouraged to accept the authority of such treaty institutions wherever this acceptance is voluntary.

Furthermore, the existence of international law makes it easier to reform national law. An international system of law makes it impossible for states to take the law into their own hands and to decide autonomously what is and what is not part of their law. International law is traditionally superior to national law and it can force national law to be compatible with it. It is therefore an additional means to ensure that human rights are part of the law everywhere. By improving national law, international law makes national protection mechanisms more effective. And when it is not the national law but the national protection mechanism and institutions which are defective, international law replaces these mechanisms with global ones, or at least tries to do so (the best global complaints and enforcement procedures are still less effective than the best national judiciaries).

The individual right to denounce violations before an international judicial or quasi-judicial institution gradually took root after World War II. Today, the treatment of citizens by their state is no longer the exclusive competence of the state in question. The days are gone when states could treat their citizens as they liked. Individuals now have a right to speak in the international community and they are no longer confined to national law. They have international law to help them and international stages to voice their protest. International organizations in turn have a right to poke their nose into national affairs and in some cases even to enforce respect for human rights.

This means that citizens are no longer at the mercy of their states and that they can look for outside help if their state does not respect their rights, does not control and correct itself, does not provide mechanisms to enforce their rights (such as laws and the division of powers), or does not make sure that these mechanisms function adequately in all cases.

Most violations of human rights are the consequence of state actions or of actions by representatives of the state. Unless there is a highly effective division of powers, it is unlikely that a state will prosecute itself or its representatives, and it is necessary to have international protection. But national protection within a highly effective system of division of powers must be the first choice. Ideally, national protection is close to the people, easily accessible, legitimate, acceptable, and knowledgeable of local circumstances. It is also close to the perpetrators, which is why effective punishment is more likely than in the case of protection by another country or by an international institution, which may even fail to see the perpetrators, let alone punish them.

National protection is the best option, but also the most difficult one. The perpetrator is often the state or its representatives, which is why national protection can only function within a highly effective system of division of powers. Unfortunately, but not accidentally, most of the more serious violations of rights take place in those states that do not have such a system. National protection can only protect us against relatively minor violations because it can only function in a country with a tradition of separated powers, rule of law, etc.; in a country, in other words, that is unlikely to suffer serious violations of human rights. But still, it is a model that should be used as a universal ideal, even or especially in those countries where it is as yet far from reality. In the meantime, international jurisdiction takes the place of the ineffective national jurisdiction.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (3): Freedom, Poverty and Public Life

Freedom and poverty

Is the problem of the contradiction between freedom and equality solved by limiting freedom – limiting the freedom of the strong, thereby providing security against the freedom of the strong, and this equalizing freedom? Not quite. I can see at least three problems remaining. The first one is poverty. Poor people can’t do what they want and the laws which protect their physical security against the free actions of others will not help them. Their situation is not primarily caused by the limitations imposed on them by the free actions of others. And the provision of social security is much more controversial than the provision of physical security, which is bizarre given that both kinds of security have the same purpose, namely the equalization of freedom in the sense of the ability to do as you want.

We see here that the state, by intervening and reducing poverty, can promote freedom. People whose basic needs are met have a whole new world of choices and opportunities opened up to them and can move on to more complicated needs. “Freedom from” (in this case freedom from want) creates “freedom to”.

Freedom and public life

A second problem with limited freedom is revealed by the bigot. Take the example of the bigot who isn’t poor but doesn’t want anything else in life than watching sport, drinking beer and shouting to his wife. He can do as he wants, but is he free? Here we see that it may be necessary to redefine freedom and not only to limit it. Freedom means not only the ability to do what you choose, but also, and in the first place, the fact of having significant choices, the ability to expand the options you can choose from, the ability to make an educated choice between examined options and to choose the options which are best for yourself and for the people around you. In other words, freedom is the ability to choose the options which make ourselves better persons and allow us and our fellow-humans to develop.

Now, how do you widen the available choices, and check if what you want is really what you want? Only if all possible options and choices are flooded with the light of publicity and education. When you see which options are available, when you hear people discussing the merits of different options and objects of volition, only then can you make an educated choice.

Freedom and human rights

This publicity, and hence freedom as the possibility to develop your self, requires a legal system. Legally protected human rights for example open up the world of culture, art, science, history, education, etc. They open up the options, show the merits of all options and hence can improve your volition. Constraining rules are also enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior they make other behavior possible, for example public discussion of objects of volition. Only in a public space protected by legal rights, where everybody is equal and where everybody can speak and listen in an equal way, can we examine our opinions and options and can we self develop. So we see that freedom needs equality in the sense of the equal participation in public life.

The law is necessary for freedom because if there is no external control, then rights will be violated, security rights but also rights which protect the public space in which choices can appear. Some people will be victims of others and will not be free, not in any sense of the word. They cannot do as they like and they have no public life in which to determine what they like. And we can all be victims in certain circumstances. Laws and obedience are not just obstacles or impediments, limits on our freedom or elements of oppression. They are prerequisites for public life and therefore prerequisites for freedom as well because freedom needs public life.

Laws do not only limit the actions of people; they also link the actions of people because they create a public space. And these links make freedom possible. Laws are rules for public life and should not disappear. The state is a mechanism to coerce people, but this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, coercion creates possibilities. The state creates, by way of coercion, the prerequisites for public life — such as security and human rights — and therefore creates the possibility of freedom.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (2): Limited Freedom

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like

In the previous post in this series, I described the ways in which freedom and equality can be incompatible. I also mentioned that the reason for this opposition has something to do with the way in which we normally define freedom. In the current post, I want juxtapose this standard definition with another one.

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. Hobbes gave one of the canonical descriptions:

By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.

This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions (limits imposed by other human beings, by the state, by nature or perhaps even by our own passions).

Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. Hobbes clearly understood this.

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like, within limits

That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited.

Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want.

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Limiting the limits

However, because of the importance of freedom as the ability to do as you like, the proponents of limited negative freedom want to keep the area of the law and the state as small as possible. Libertarians and conservatives generally believe that the only way in which the state can promote freedom is by guaranteeing the physical security of the weak. The state should only protect the weak against the strong. In this way, it makes it possible for the weak to do as they want. It puts the freedom of the weak on the same and equal level as the freedom of the strong who can do what they want even without protection.

For the rest, they say, the state should not do anything and should keep itself as inconspicuous as possible. It should create an area which is free from state coercion and in which people can do as they like. In a certain sense, this freedom is a stateless freedom even though the state must act to protect it. The area of non-interference must be as large as possible in order to allow freedom to become as comprehensive as possible. Freedom and politics can only go together because and insofar as politics guarantees freedom from politics.

Contrary to anarchists, libertarians and conservatives believe — correctly I think — that the area of freedom or non-interference cannot be unlimited because this would result in insecurity, chaos and war. But in a sense they all believe in unlimited freedom. For anarchists it’s an ideal for the future, for libertarians and conservatives it’s something which belongs to a perhaps mythical past (before the time of the “contract”) and which can only be desirable in the unlikely event that human beings learn to behave and to respect each others security.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (9): Overlegislation and the Big State

I agree that a complex contemporary society needs a complex system of law, and I’m the last one to adopt a libertarian philosophy in which the state is evil (necessary evil or not) and should be kept as small as possible. I accept that the state has a role to play in poverty reduction and redistribution, for example. Laisser-faire leads to injustice.

However, the more rules there are, the more restrictions on individuals’ freedom to act. The rule of law, as opposed to a simple system of legislation, was designed precisely to limit the realm of state action and to open up a realm of society, distinct from the state, in which freedom can rule and laws do not apply. The more laws, the smaller this space of freedom (although one very general and vague law can also reduce this space to nothing). A big state is an enemy of freedom.

The rule of law limits the state and opens up the realm of society in the following way. It limits the number and scope of laws because it allows only laws that are discussed, voted and published according to formalized procedures, and that stay into force until the same procedures result in another conclusion. Moreover, laws in a system of rule of law must respect the fundamental laws, the constitution, and cannot go beyond what is allowed by the constitution (for example civil rights, in a democratic constitution). So the rule of law creates a legal system in which laws are limited and stable. The rule of law therefore creates freedom (from the law) and is incompatible with an ever expanding system of law.

By comparison, the legal system in an autocratic rule by a dictator (as opposed to the rule of law) can result in whatever law the dictator decides, and whatever change in the law he decides (if he bothers at all to use laws for the purpose of his rule). Such a system is inherently unstable, unpredictable, unlimited and expanding.

Another reason why laws should not be too numerous, distinct from the concern for freedom, is that an extensive system of law makes it very difficult to respect the law and without respect for the law, there is no rule of law. People should be given the opportunity to plan their lives in such a way that they can respect the law and can avoid running foul of the law. That’s very difficult when there are too many laws.

Knowing what things the law penalizes and knowing that these are within their power to do or not to do, citizens can draw up their plans accordingly. One who complies with the announced rules need never fear an infringement of his liberty. Unless citizens are able to know what the law is and are given a fair opportunity to take its directives into account, penal sanctions should not apply to them. John Rawls

For the same reason, i.e. giving people the possibility to respect the law, it is also unacceptable to have secret laws, retroactive laws (laws that punish acts that have occurred before the law came into force) and unstable laws (laws that change all of the time). Bad law as well is unacceptable, again for the same reason (by bad law I understand complex, incomprehensible and contradictory law, which are types of law that make it impossible for citizens to respect the law).

The Ethics of Human Rights (5): China, Confucianism and Authoritarianism

Confucianism, the traditional Chinese ethical and philosophical system based on the teachings of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), is often blamed for the lack of freedom and the authoritarian and anti-democratic form of government in China. This post examines the merits of this attack.

Confucianism is not a religion, although many believe it is, perhaps because of its emphasis on morality and the extent to which it has shaped and become synonymous with the culture of much of East-Asia, including of course China but also Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and many other countries with large Chinese communities. It is rather a philosophy and a culture.

Although vigorously attacked by the Chinese communists, it is beyond doubt that Confucianism still remains a strong force in Chinese thinking.

Arguments against the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Confucianism does not have to lead to authoritarianism. Indeed, Confucianism places more value on internalized morality than on external repression of deviant behavior:

Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. (source)

The exercise of rituals or rites (not in the religious sense but in the sense of everyday ritual actions or routines) teaches people to internalize norms and respect them voluntarily, not because of fear of punishment. Formalized behavior through rituals becomes progressively internalized. Laws and governmental power are relatively unimportant to Confucianism.

Another reason why Confucianism is not necessarily autocratic is the teaching that the king’s personal virtue spreads a beneficial influence throughout the kingdom. With a virtuous king, the need for the use of force is limited.

Arguments in favor of the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Rituals are not only used to internalize morality and to instill a sense of propriety or politeness, but also to assign everyone a place in society, a kind of relationship to others and a form of behavior towards others.

While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. (source)

This leads to a strict hierarchy in society, which is opposed to equal rights, universality of rights and the equal influence that is found in a true democracy.

Social harmony is the ideal that results from every individual knowing his place in society, assuming his role and responsibilities towards others and establishing the right kinds of relationships and forms of behavior. However, this social harmony is clearly opposed to adversarial democratic politics.

There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. (Confucius, Analects XII, 11).

There can be no objection to filial duties and filial piety. But the duty of benevolence and concern of the older towards the younger, and the extension of this duty to the rulers with regard to the people, can lead to paternalism and an infringement of the right to chose one’s own style of life.

Confucianism sees a moral role of government, and a responsibility of the government for the physical and moral well-being of the people. Filial piety is extended within Confucianism to political loyalty of the subjects of a state or even outright submission to authority. This leads to political inequality and elitism which is hard to reconcile with democracy.

However, the original teachings of Confucius forced the subjects to obey only as long as the rulers showed moral rectitude and responsibility for the well-being of the people. When the rulers assume their duties, strict obedience is required. But when they fail, the people can rebel. So no “might is right” or absolute power. Later rulers of course interpreted Confucianism in a more authoritarian way, for their own benefit.

Other aspects of Confucianism, such as the priority of the state and the community over the individual, meritocracy etc. make it hard for a democratic culture of freedom to take root.

Incompatibility of Confucianism and democracy, human rights and freedom?

Democracy, rights and freedom are not the exclusive product of the West and they are compatible with all cultures and religions. However, all cultures and religions also contain elements that inhibit the development of freedom. But it is possible tochange these elements.

Other causes of authoritarianism

One should also be careful not to overstate the importance of culture. First of all, culture is often used by rulers to justify themselves, and in doing so they tend to distort the real meaning of the culture in question. As is evident from the examples above, many elements of Confucianism cannot justify authoritarianism. Secondly, authoritarianism has other, non-cultural causes. In the case of China: the legacy of communism, the priority accorded to the economy (a priority that is supposed to warrant human rights violations) etc.

Limiting Free Speech (3): Hate Speech

Hate speech (or antilocution, or fighting words) is speech that incites other people to hate a certain group in society defined by common characteristics (race, gender, religion etc.). It usually also incites to commit violence and discrimination based on hatred.

The most famous case is that of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. These cartoons led to worldwide protest and expressions of anger and hate, not only against the cartoonists in question, their newspaper or their country, but against liberals and democrats in general.

However, hate speech is by no means an exclusively Muslim matter. It can be found everywhere where there is hate: it can be racist, anti-gay, islamophobe, etc. It can also be framed in anti-terrorist language: many western countries have initiated legislation outlawing hate speech that is part of Muslim mobilization of terrorists (in militant mosques for example).

Given the importance of freedom of expression, it is not universally accepted that hate speech can be legally prohibited. There is of course article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which outlaws hate speech:

Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

However, contrary to hate crimes, such as attack on gays or muslims or writers/movie makers/cartoonists critical of Islam etc., the basic rule should be that speech as such is not a crime, even speech expressing or inciting hatred, violence or discrimination. Speech is protected by the right to free speech.

However, this right, like many human rights, is not absolute and can be limited when it endangers other human rights (like the right to life and bodily integrity, the right not to suffer discrimination etc.). The general defense of hateful speech has therefore some exceptions. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. Hate is taught. The example of the Muhammad cartoons protests is again telling in this respect. Many protesters were encouraged by some Muslim leaders to commit acts of violence.

But much depends on the circumstances, the context and the manner of speech. Islamophobia in front of a crowded mosque is obviously not the same thing as islamophobia in an obscure publication. Examples of speech, in the wider sense of the word, such as hanging a noose in a tree in the front yard of the house of an African-American family, or spraying graffiti on someone’s car or house, are more of a problem than posting a picture of a Koran in the toilet on a blog or a website. The first examples are clearly intimidation and can force people to sell their houses and move somewhere else. This has human rights implications (freedom of residence and property rights), which the latter examples don’t have (it’s difficult to argue that a photo of the Koran in a toilet, although undoubtedly an expression of hatred, harms anyone’s freedom of religion).

When speech has implications for the rights of some people, it is legitimate to consider limiting this speech, according to the rules set out in the introductory post of this series.

An important distinction here: all this is about hate, not about speech that is merely offensive, insulting, ridiculing etc. That’s the topic of another post. The distinction, however, can be blurred. What is hateful and what is merely offensive is a matter of personal conviction, it differs between groups and it changes over time. Some groups may be more sensitive than others. If one decides to legislate the matter, this can complicate things.

Moreover, what to someone can be seen as hate – for example homophobia – may be a central tenet of someone else’s religion and therefore protected by the freedom of religion. However, the freedom of religion is not absolute either.

And finally, some examples of speech that were once considered to be hateful – such as “nigger” – have been reclaimed by the groups that were previously targeted, and are sometimes even used as a badge of pride.

Another distinction: it is perhaps possible to imagine hate speech that is not directly or indirectly inciting violence and/or discrimination. Obviously, this kind of hate speech is less dangerous. However, like derogatory speech or offensive speech it does create a problem. It perpetuates negative stereotypes, devalues collective identities, deepens social cleavages and conflicts, makes it more difficult for the community to accept new identities, and it makes debate more difficult. So it makes it more difficult to create and uphold a tolerant, diverse society in which there can be civilized debate and discussion leading to better knowledge.

However, is this reason enough for a legal prohibition on hate speech? I don’t think so. Is it reason enough to combat hate speech with other means? Sure. The remedy for harmful speech is not necessarily prohibition but counter-speech, and sometimes it is best to just ignore some kinds of speech. Engaging the hate mongers, let alone prosecuting them, gives them legitimacy, publicity, and under-dog or victim status.

Human Rights and International Law (9): Impunity

I deeply hope that the horrors humanity has suffered during the 20th century will serve us as a painful lesson, and that the creation of the International Criminal Court will help us to prevent those atrocities from being repeated in the future. Statement made by Luis Moreno-Ocampo on the occasion of his election as first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court by the Assembly of States Parties in New York on 22 April 2003.

Many gross violations of rights such as genocides, state oppression, torture etc. are committed by the political class of a country, and in particular by the political leaders. And if they don’t personally dirty their hands, they organize, order, facilitate and protect the executors. They view rights violations as a necessary element in the exercise of power.

For many reasons, legal and practical, these leaders often enjoy impunity, meaning literally “without punishment”. The “Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity” describes impunity in this way:

The impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account ’96 whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings ’96 since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims. (source)

Reasons for impunity

Here are some of these reasons for impunity:

1. Self-Preservation

A first reason for impunity is the fact that the perpetrators are in power and have subjected the justice system and the judiciary to their command. They have, in other words, destroyed the division of powers or failed to institutionalize it. Because they are so powerful, most of them die in the saddle and only have to fear a Higher Judge.

But some do not and end their reign (or see it ended) during their lifetime. But even then they manage to protect themselves. If they still have enough influence to stay in the country, they can either negotiate immunity or amnesty (take the case of Pinochet), or they have enough friends in high places to dispense with such formalities (take Deng Xiaoping, the butcher of Tienanmen).

2. The solidarity of tyrants

If their exit from power is somewhat acrimonious, they may have to flee to another country where a friendly dictator will do everything to avoid a precedent of justice and will harbor the criminal until the end of his days (take Karadzic). How beautiful solidarity can be.

3. The law

Sometimes the national justice system can’t help, and at other times the international solidarity of tyrants hinders an otherwise able and willing justice system. Also the law can come to the rescue. State functionaries (sometimes even former functionaries) claim to enjoy legal immunity in national or even international law for acts carried out while in office. Individual perpetrators hide behind their states. Heads of state or leading functionaries are said to represent their states and all their actions are “acts of state”, and therefore the state is responsible for these acts.

Lower ranking officials are not responsible either, because they can hide behind the “Befehl ist Befehl” principle. They cannot be punished because they follow orders from people who themselves are not responsible either.

Only by transcending these principles of immunity and command can individuals be punished for violations of human rights and can human rights be protected (punishing states is very difficult and is not fair because it is a kind of collective punishment.) This has been the main achievement of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The Nuremberg tribunal was the first tribunal to judge the crimes of political leaders and to refuse to grant them immunity for war crimes and gross violations of human rights such as the holocaust. The charter of the fledgling International Criminal Court (ICC) also rules out defenses based on immunity:

Immunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person, whether under national or international law, shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person. (source)

Charles Taylor of Liberia was indicted in 2003 while still in power, and is now in the dock in The Hague. Milosevic went before him and others will follow. But they have to be extradited. Political leaders will not extradite themselves, and after they leave office they will continue to enjoy some protection at home. Taylor was arrested because he first agreed to accept exile in Nigeria.

Moreover, countries have to sign up to the ICC treaty. Zimbabwe for example has not signed up, so Mugabe will not have his day in court, unless there is a referral to the court by the Security Council. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is now indicted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes over the slaughter in Darfur, but will probably remain comfortably in his seat.

Some claim that the possibility of being handed over to the ICC after the end of their reign, forces tyrants to cling to power and use ever more violent means to do so. But then you could as well grant amnesty to all hostage takers out of fear that they would otherwise do more harm to their hostages.

4. Institutional problems

The impunity of ordinary civil servants or members of the police is often the consequence of under-developed state institutions. Judiciaries that are malfunctioning or corrupt, policemen who are underpaid or have a lack of training etc.

Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations. (source)

Data

The Committee to Protect Journalists has an impunity index in which countries are ranked according to the number of murder of journalists that are unresolved. More statistics are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (3): Civil Disobedience

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil disobedience is non-violent and public disrespect for a law which one considers to be unjust, accompanied by a willing acceptance of the consequences of this disrespect. The purpose of civil disobedience is to highlight the injustice of a law and hence to work for the abolishment of the law. The assumption is that actions which highlight an injustice can contribute to its abolition, which is an reasonable assumption at least in a democracy. In a democracy, there should be other procedures to abolish injustices, such as representation, free speech, freedom of assembly and association etc., but no democracy is perfect and therefore a more extreme measure such as civil disobedience may be necessary. The American Civil Rights Movement, which operated in a manifestly imperfect democracy, was an example.

However, civil disobedience is a dangerous thing. Laws are important, because without laws and judges and police forces to protect them, human rights are just moral claims, unenforceable and at the mercy of those who are stronger and more powerful.

So you have to be careful when allowing yourself to defy the law. Civil disobedience is not the same thing as the freedom of conscience. You do have the absolute legal right to believe what you want and what your conscience forces you to believe. But it is another thing to be able to act according to your conscience and to break the law because of your conscience; or not to act because of your conscience, as is often the case with conscientious objectors. If you state that everything, even a breach of the law, is allowed as long as it conforms to your conscience, then you go down a very dangerous path.

The freedom of conscience is something different from the right to do or not to do something because of objections based on conscience. You may be forced to do something that goes against your conscience while retaining your freedom of conscience and your beliefs about wrong and right. You can even force yourself to act against your conscience, perhaps because of a sense of duty or because of respect for the rule of law. You only lose your freedom of conscience when you are forced to believe something, which can only happen in extreme circumstances.

Conscience as the ability to know wrong from right is a kind of self-legislation. But because this is fallible (in German they say, “das Gewissen ist kein Wissen”, conscience is not knowledge), and more fallible than common legislation (more fallible because you are alone – two people know more than one – and because you miss the opportunity to learn from discussion and arguments), it should not determine actions when it is incompatible with the laws that are valid in a well-functioning democracy. Only if the external law, as opposed to the internal law, is clearly dysfunctional or unjust as in the quote above, can there be a reason to appeal to your conscience and engage in civil disobedience.

However, civil disobedience is an individual choice, and can it be allowed that individuals decide for themselves whether a system of law is “clearly dysfunctional”? It is dangerous at least, which is why civil disobedience should be an emergency measure only. The risk of anarchy can sometimes convince us to accept a supposedly dysfunctional law or judge, even if our conscience tells us to rebel. Civil disobedience should only be tried when everything else has failed.

What Are Human Rights? (12)

Human rights are rights which belong to humanity, to all persons of all cultures, nations, states, color, gender etc., whether or not the legal system in which they live explicitly protects these rights. And which belong to all of us equally. No one has more or less rights than the next person.

Human rights are therefore essentially moral claims, and claims which are superior to the legal rules which happen to be in force in the country in which one lives. If necessary, they can be used to challenge these legal rules.

In many countries, these moral claims have been incorporated in the legal rules, often even in the supreme legal rules such as the constitution. This means that people can go to court to have their rights enforced in case of violation, violation either by way actions committed by the government or fellow-citizens, or by way of legislation. In the latter case, a constitutional court may decide that certain laws are invalid and “null and void”.

Different human rights are interdependent. They need each other. Freedom of expression can be quite useless without education and food. But the struggle for social justice also requires freedom of expression.

Rights can be limited. The system of human rights is not a harmonious whole. Rights come into conflict, even in a country that tries its best to respect all rights. Freedom of expression can harm the right to privacy of someone, for instance. Then there has to be a decision: which right takes precedence?

An important characteristic of human rights is their link to democratic government. One right which humans have is political participation. And a democracy is the best way of guaranteeing this participation. Read also art. 3 of Protocol I to the European Convention:

“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature”.

But the link to democracy goes further. All human rights must be respected, and respected simultaneously, in order to have a proper democratic process. Many tyrannies allow the existence of opposition groups and even, sometimes, a limited degree of political participation, but these groups are harmless because they do not have equal access to publicity, because they do not have the freedom to organize as they wish, or because the people lack the material or intellectual resources necessary to be able to choose wisely among candidates.

It is apparent from this enumeration that the link between democracy and human rights (all human rights) is quite intense. Choosing political leaders is the expression of an opinion. There is obviously a reason for the etymological link between the words “vote” and “voice”. Democracy is the application of human rights to the field of government. Human rights are democratic rights because they are necessary for democracy, just as democracy is necessary for human rights.

The latter is also hinted at in the considerations preceding the articles of the European Convention:

“those fundamental freedoms which . . . are best maintained . . . by an effective political democracy”.

But human rights are not just a necessary prerequisite for democracy. They bring about democracy. When you have the right to express your opinions and to call all kinds of things into question, why would you stop at the government? You will automatically express an opinion on the government and call the government into question. And because it is futile and sad to express an opinion that has no consequences in the real world, people will begin to claim the implementation of their political opinions, which will be the birth of democracy.

Democracy and human rights cannot function separately. They need each other and reinforce each other. Where you have one, you also have the other. And where you have one without the other, there is something missing in what you have. A democracy without human rights is not an ideal democracy, because it cannot function adequately. Human rights without democracy are not complete because one of the most important uses of human rights – calling into question the work of the government and creating a common point of view on the work of the government – is not allowed, or, if it is allowed, does not have any useful consequences because it is impossible to have a democratic vote.

Human rights are not politically or ideologically neutral. They require democracy and are required by democracy. This supports the statement that human rights are not something primarily directed against politics or a way to limit politics. There are an essential part of democratic politics.

What is Democracy? (18): Self-Government and Self-Legislation

Self-government (the equality of rulers and ruled, government of the people by the people instead of government of the people by an elite sprung from the people) is an important value because it gives people control over their own lives. Most people want to be masters of their own lives and want to be involved in the creation or transformation of the conditions and circumstances of their lives.

These conditions and circumstances include, of course, legislation. You have self-control and self-government only when the laws you have to obey are laws that you agree with; “quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus approbetur”, what concerns all has to be approved by all. And the best way to have this kind of approval is to allow the people to make the laws themselves or at least to allow them to participate in the process of legislation, for example by way of the election of the legislators.

What Are Human Rights? (2): Rights Before and Above the Law

You are a human being. You have rights inherent in that reality. You have dignity and worth that exists prior to law. Lyn Beth Neylon

Rights do indeed exist before and above the law. However, the role of natural rights in moral claims, important as it is, is not enough. Only the state, by way of the constitution, the laws, the judges and the police can effectively guarantee human rights and can enforce them with a good chance of success (something which cannot always be said of moral claims; power is often more successful than persuasion). We can enforce and therefore enjoy our natural rights only because the state creates and protects legal rights and gives everybody a legal personality – a legal person is an entity subject to the law and holding legal rights and duties enforceable by a judge – on top of everybody’s natural personality (the latter is the basis of the common values used as a justification of human rights).

The state gives a tangible reality to our rights because it translates our natural rights into legal rights which can be enforced by an executive and a judicial power.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (1): The Free Market

The relation between economic freedom and political freedom is that initial growth in either political freedom or economic freedom tends to promote the other. Milton Friedman in The Wall Street Journal, February 12th, 1997.

This post examines the links between the free market and democracy, especially the causal links. I believe that an increase in the level of one causes an increase in the level of the other. This may be helpful information for those who want to promote democracy around the world without the resort to violence.

I’m sure Karl Marx would have appreciated the irony of finding one of his favorite concepts at the beginning of a post defending the free market: dialectics. There is, in fact, a dialectical relationship between democracy and the free market. They may often contradict each other: the uneven distribution of wealth which one can often find in a free market system tends to falsify democratic political processes because wealth means influence; and democratic decisions often impose restrictions on a free market. However, democracy and the free market often also encourage each other.

Let us first take a look at the way in which a free market can promote democracy. A free market loosens the control of authoritarian states over their societies. If states give up control over the economy, then perhaps they will also give up control in other fields. If a state does not control all economic means, then people will have more freedom to oppose the state because the state cannot as easily take away their jobs or put them out of their houses. A planned and regulated economy usually means a planned and regulated society

A free market also promotes democracy because it requires:

The rule of law

In itself, a free market does not guarantee the rule of law but, in a certain way, it does help to promote it. Private companies like predictability. They want their investments to be protected by the law, they want a state that protects their goods and their personnel, and they want to be able to use the judiciary to enforce their contracts. Companies moreover like to have an international rule of law. They want the same rules applied everywhere. For example, if labor regulations are not the same everywhere, then companies in certain countries have an unfair competitive advantage, because they have to pay their workers less, they have to invest less in safety etc. “[T]he rule of law enforced by an independent judiciary is a condition for modern market economic relations . . . ‘Markets need laws’ claimed a businessman . . . criticizing the pervasive inefficiency and corruption of the judiciary” * . Because the free market requires the rule of law, and because the rule of law is best protected by democracy (this is an empirical fact **), one can conclude that the free market will strive towards democracy.

A limited state and a free society

Both the free market and a democracy require a limited state and a free society. Only a free society can serve as a base for the democratic control and criticism of government, and an unlimited state is the main characteristic of tyranny. The free market promotes a limited state and a free space for society because it limits state regulation and intervention in the economy. The free market is the freedom to produce, to buy and to sell and this kind of freedom promotes freedom in general.

Transparency and free flows of information

Businessmen need free flows of information in order to be able to make the best economic decisions. Hence, a free market promotes democracy, the most transparent form of government and the form of government most dependent on free flows of information.

Means of communication and transportation

A free market economy promotes the development of the means of communication and transportation. It is difficult to image a democracy without means of communication and mobility. Furthermore, increased communication and mobility weaken the power of habit and tradition, which in turn can weaken the grip of traditional authoritarian structures and forms of power.

Social mobility

Traditional authoritarian social structures, and social structures in general, are less stable in a free market, and subject to the free choice of individuals.

International trade

The free international circulation of goods can promote the free circulation of ideas. Inter-cultural communication between people who can trade freely with one another can promote democracy because it can allow people to question their habits, customs and traditional power structures. After all, you start to realize that things can be different when you see that they actually are different elsewhere in the world. In cultures that cannot trade freely and therefore do not communicate much with the outside world, most habits are considered to be self-evident and are accepted without questions. Undemocratic habits are then difficult to change. If we eliminate international trade barriers, then we can open up traditionally closed societies.

A democracy also tends to adopt a free market system. A democracy is a limited state because it necessarily (or ideally) adopts the rule of law and hence creates a space for free economic activity, exchange and competition between a variety of groups and persons. A democracy also – ideally – respects human rights and many human rights, such as the right to private property, promote the free market. It is difficult to imagine a free country, a democracy which guarantees all civil liberties, but does not allow the freedom to produce, to buy and to sell goods and services. However, a democracy may find it necessary to limit the free market, or correct for some of its injustices. It may want to redistribute some of the wealth created by the free market to those of us who cannot use their freedom to become economically successful.

There have been numerous studies measuring the degree of political freedom (or democracy) and measuring economic freedom. If you combine these measurements you can see the correlation.

* F. Panizza, in Beetham, D. (ed.), 1995, Politics and Human Rights, Blackwell, Oxford, p. 179.
** There are also many theoretical reasons to defend the link between democracy and the rule of law.