Why Do We Need Human Rights? (37): The Right to Life

Of all human rights, the right to life is probably the least controversial. It’s almost universally accepted and it’s supposed to have absolute or quasi-absolute power: most of us have a hard time accepting or even imagining justifiable limitations of this right. Hence, the question of the justification of the right to life seems relatively uninteresting. Compared to some other rights, it’s clear why we need it: we all want to live, or at least decide for ourselves whether or not we want to live.

If, for instance, you ask people why we need the right to free speech, or why violating this right is wrong, then they’ll have a much harder time coming up with a solid answer (even though there are solid answers). They’ll also assume that they would somehow be able to live without it. Life would perhaps not be pleasant or fulfilling, but it would go on. Not so without the right to life.

So why talk about the justification of the right to life? Well, because on closer inspection things aren’t so simple. If you ask yourself why killing is wrong, the answer is surprisingly difficult. The best attempt to answer the question has some unappealing results. We can argue that killing is wrong because living allows you to do things, be someone, become someone etc. (See here for instance). It’s because life is this fundamental prerequisite and this necessary condition for everything else that a right to life is basic, quasi-absolute and easy to justify in the minds of most people. It’s a justification without which there are no other justifications. It’s axiomatic. You can’t not take it for granted.

But if killing is wrong not because it takes away a life – living in itself is not valuable – but because it takes away the ability to act and be, then it’s OK to kill off people in an irreversible coma, harvest their organs etc. The harm imposed by killing can’t be the mere fact that life stops; a person whose life is ended by way of killing can’t experience the harm of absence of life. This person can’t experience anything. A dead person can no longer have any experiences, and taking away people’s ability to experience, in other words their ability to do things and to be someone, is indeed an imposition of harm. A special harm, yes, but a harm nonetheless. Contrary to the usual type of harm, this harm does not imply the experience of harm – how can it? – but rather the harm of absence of experience.

So it’s the imposition of complete and irreversible disability – the complete and final lack of the ability to do things and be someone – that is at stake, that makes killing wrong, and that justifies a right to life. Not the absence or the taking of life as such: the mere absence of life is not a harm. The disability has to be irreversible, because anesthesia for example has the same disabling effect, but in a reversible manner. That is why killing the anesthetized and harvesting their organs is still wrong.

This answer to the question of the wrongness of killing is discomforting. Many of us would shudder at the conclusion that killing off people in an irreversible coma is right because it doesn’t mean imposing harm (the harm – complete and irreversible disability – has already been done). It doesn’t sound right. We sense that we would still impose a harm. But which harm? It can’t be a harm that they can experience, given that they can’t experience anything (so we’re not talking about cases of locked-in syndrome here). Hence, irreversible coma is the same harm as death. Killing people in an irreversible coma does not mean imposing extra harm. It’s not the loss of anything valuable that hasn’t been lost already by the event of the irreversible coma.

And yet, this still sounds unsatisfactory. Many of us would try to keep comatose people alive. After all, what looks like irreversibility may not be so in the future. But even if irreversibility is a certainty, we still wouldn’t be OK with pulling the plug. I’m afraid I have no solution. I’m stuck. And the absence of a solution complicates the justification of the right to life: if killing off irreversibly comatose people is not wrong, then the right to life loses part of its meaning.

More posts in this series are here.

What’s So Special About the Holocaust?

History has seen many genocides and large scale killings. Some of those resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust. So why is the Holocaust special? It’s special because it was the first and last example of the industrial production of corpses. It was, quite literally, a murder machine. The murders were not the actions of specific individuals who did what they did because of their identity, motives or pathologies. They were not like the brutalities of the Roman Emperor Nero, which were clearly his. Nor were they like the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any other identifiable criminal. In the case of the Holocaust, it was impossible to recognize an identity in the deed. The killers were impersonal, insignificant, loyal, conscientious and hardworking civil servants operating together in an organized, efficient, systematic and planned extermination, characterized by division of labor and the industrial production line. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and often that was a very small part of the process. Shared responsibility is often seen as diminished responsibility, and makes it easier to produce corpses. The detailed planning, organization and execution of the project sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides. Eichmann protested against spontaneous pogroms in the east, not because he was a humanitarian but because those unorganized interventions messed up his bookkeeping and made it difficult to count how many exactly were killed by the otherwise machine-like operation.

The Holocaust was not the action of an individual or a small group of people. Nor was it motivated by egoism, the will to power, money, hate, rage, revenge, sadism, war or the elimination of opposition. The victims were not guilty of opposition or even crime. The perpetrators weren’t motivated by self-interest (for example, the Nazis prohibited private confiscation of Jewish goods for personal use). Neither was it primarily the hatred of Jews that led the Nazis to try to exterminate them. It was the love of humanity – or better what they considered to be true humanity – and the need to protect it. The Holocaust wasn’t a war crime either and wasn’t part of the normal atrocities of war. It started well before the war and the German war effort suffered substantially from it: potentially useful labor forces were eliminated, soldiers and other means that could have been used in the war were diverted to the extermination effort etc. The Jews were murdered, not because that would have allowed soldiers to fight rather than guard prisoners, but because they were Jews. The extermination continued even in the final days of the war, when Germany was losing and all military resources should have gone to the war effort. And, finally, the purpose of the Holocaust wasn’t to instill fear. Normal state terror serves to scare the population and convince it to submit and to behave in ways that are acceptable to the rulers. Not in the case of the Holocaust. Fear had become useless because it couldn’t serve to guide actions and to steer away from danger. Danger would have found you anyway. Everyone knew that you were a Jew, and tactical maneuvering motivated by fear could have helped you escape only in very few cases.

Self-interest, power hunger, sadism, revenge or other utilitarian motives were seen by the Nazis as diversions from the genocidal operation that was undertaken for the benefit of mankind. As was the military self-interest of Germany’s success in the war. The project of extermination of the Jews and the protection of mankind was more important than the risk of a possible military defeat of Germany. Pity as well could not stand in the way of the demands of nature and history. The pleas of the victims were not heard and people convinced themselves of the historical and natural necessity of the Holocaust. Like pity, the taking of money from a victim as a bribe for letting him or her live was a betrayal of nature. Germans had to be the superhumans that they were destined to be, free from all that makes us ordinary humans: pity, self-interest, hate and the will to power.

The Holocaust wasn’t a crime. A crime is a deed that goes against social order and established law and that challenges the powers that represent social order. In this case, we have an atrocity that emanated from the state and that had become the moral and legal law. Murder had become a form of government. Evil no longer had to fight the Good, and no longer had to hide and to be hypocritical. Evil ruled. There was only evil. The world was without a horizon, without hope or salvation. Another reason why the Holocaust can’t really be called a crime is the fact that the perpetrators didn’t have criminal motives. They just carried out the verdict of nature and implemented the laws of nature. A deeper legality defined the actions of government. Murder had become the law of nature as well as the legal law and the law of morality.

More on the Holocaust here.

Capital Punishment (44): The Retribution Argument Against Capital Punishment

Retribution is the last refuge of those seeking to justify capital punishment, given the failure of other arguments (deterrence, incapacitation etc.). Retribution is a punishment that fits the crime: the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Intuitively, therefore, retribution should justify capital punishment for murder. Only death is a punishment that is as severe as murder. The Latin origin of the word “retribution” indicates that something should be given back or returned: someone “gives” death and hence death should be returned.

However, in theory, retribution does not necessarily mean that the punishment has to be strictly equivalent to the harm caused by the crime: some claim that retribution simply means that we must punish severe crimes more harshly than less severe crimes. Yet we see in practice that capital punishment as punishment for murder is defended on retributivist grounds.

Retributivists, ancient and modern, have always been lured by one or another form of lex talionis. (source)

There’s often an element of desert introduced in retributivist arguments. A murderer should be put to death because this punishment fits the crime, and because this punishment fits the crime, the murderer deserves to die.

So, given this “natural” tendency of retributivists to favor capital punishment for murder, how can it be possible to construct an argument based on retribution against capital punishment, as the title of this post suggest? Thom Brooks has made a highly interesting attempt here. It’s based on a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff ( in US v Quinones):

What DNA testing has proved, beyond cavil, is the remarkable degree of fallibility in the basic fact-finding processes on which we rely in criminal cases. In each of the 12 cases of DNA-exoneration of death row inmates referenced in Quinones, the defendant had been guilty by a unanimous jury that concluded there was proof of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and in each of the 12 cases the conviction had been affirmed on appeal, and collateral challenges rejected, by numerous courts that had carefully scrutinized the evidence and manner of conviction. Yet, for all this alleged “due process”, the result in each and every one of these cases, was the conviction of an innocent person who, because of the death penalty, would shortly have been executed (-some came within days of being so-) were it not for the fortuitous development of a new scientific technique that happened to be applicable to their particular cases. (source)

This should even convince retributivists that capital punishment has to be rejected. Even if you adopt the moral rule that murderers deserve to die you, shouldn’t apply the death penalty in practice because you can’t be certain that a particular defendant is really guilty of the crime and hence deserves to die. And there’s no point arguing that the systematic use of DNA testing gives you this certainty: first, it’s not always possible to use DNA tests, because the crime has to be of such a type that DNA traces are potentially available, and even if they are potentially available they may not be actually available; and second, we don’t know if DNA testing is accurate enough and won’t be discredited in the future.

You could also argue that the same lack of certainty is the case for all types of crime, and that rejecting capital punishment because of a lack of certainty implies rejecting criminal punishment tout court. Not quite: all other types of punishment allow for the possibility to correct mistakes resulting from uncertainty. Capital punishment rules this out.

And there’s another kind of uncertainty that militates against capital punishment and that should convince retributivists to reject it. The desert of a criminal is usually based on more than mere physical evidence of his actions. Intent also plays a part. Take the case of someone who caused the death of someone else by his actions – and let’s assume that we are certain about this, e.g. we have DNA evidence and we know that no future scientific developments will cast doubt on this evidence – but did not intend to kill. Many would argue that he doesn’t deserve to die. However, intent is impossible to prove because it requires reading someone’s mind, and hence we can never be certain that someone intended to kill. A desert based argument for capital punishment is void if desert includes intent.

Measuring Human Rights (26): Measuring Murder

Murder should be easy to measure. Unlike many other crimes or rights violations, the evidence is clear and painstakingly recorded: there is a body, at least in most cases; police seldom fail to notice a murder; and relatives or friends of the victim rarely fail to report the crime. So even if we are not always able to find and punish murderers, we should at least know how many murders there are.

And yet, even this most obvious of crimes can be hard to measure. In poorer countries, police departments may not have the means necessary to record homicides correctly and completely. Families may be weary of reporting homicides for fear of corrupt police officers entering their homes and using the occasion to extort bribes. Civil wars make it difficult to collect any data, including crime data. During wartime, homicides may not be distinguishable from casualties of the war.

And there’s more. Police departments in violent places may be under pressure to bring down crime stats and may manipulate the data as a result: moving some dubious murder cases to categories such as “accidents”, “manslaughter”, “suicide” etc.

Homicides usually take place in cities, hence the temptation to rank cities according to homicide rates. But cities differ in the way they determine their borders: suburbs may be included or not, or partially, and this affects homicide rates since suburbs tend to be less violent. Some cities have more visitors than other cities (more commuters, tourists, business trips) and visitors are usually not counted as “population” while they may also be at risk of murder.

In addition, some ideologies may cause distortions in the data. Does abortion count as murder? Honor killings? Euthanasia and  assisted suicide? Laws and opinions about all this vary between jurisdictions and introduce biases in country comparisons.

And, finally, countries with lower murder rates may not be less violent; they may just have better emergency healthcare systems allowing them to save potential murder victims.

So, if even the most obvious of human rights violations is difficult to measure, you can guess the quality of other indicators.

Limiting Free Speech (47): Incitement to Commit Suicide

An interesting story in the press some time ago:

A former nurse from Faribault, Minn., was convicted of two felonies Tuesday when a judge ruled he had used “repeated and relentless” tactics during Internet chats that coaxed two people to kill themselves.

Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville found that William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, “imminently incited” the suicides of Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Ontario. Drybrough, 32, hanged himself in 2005, and Kajouji, 18, jumped into a frozen river in 2008.

In a 42-page ruling that found Melchert-Dinkel guilty of two counts of felony advising and encouraging suicide, Neuville wrote that it was particularly disturbing that Melchert-Dinkel, posing as a young, suicidal, female nurse, tried to persuade the victims to hang themselves while he watched via webcam….

Neuville, in rejecting the free-speech defense, noted that inciting people to commit suicide is considered “Lethal Advocacy,” which isn’t protected by the First Amendment because it goes against the government’s compelling interest in protecting the lives of vulnerable citizens. (source, source)

I guess that’s correct, even though the case doesn’t really fit with any of the commonly accepted exceptions to free speech rights. We’re not dealing here with incitement to murder or a death threat – standard exceptions to free speech, even in the U.S. And neither is it speech that incites illegal activity – another accepted exception. Suicide isn’t murder and isn’t illegal (anymore). Abstract and general advocacy of crime and violence is – or should be – protected speech, but not the advocacy or incitement of specific and imminent crime or violence if this advocacy or incitement helps to produce the crime or violence. If speech intends to produce specific illegal or violent actions, and if, as a result of this speech, these actions are imminent and likely, then we have a good reason to limit freedom of speech. Examples of such speech:

None of these forms of speech should be protected, and laws making them illegal are perfectly OK. On the other hand, claiming that all politicians deserve to die or that people shouldn’t pay their taxes are, in most cases, forms of protected speech because they probably do not incite or help to bring about imminent lawless activity.

The problem is that none of this is applicable here. Suicide isn’t illegal, and neither is it violence as we normally understand the word. So, the commonly accepted exception to free speech rights that I just cited can’t possibly justify the conviction of Melchert-Dinkel. He did of course advocate, incite and cheer on his victims, and his advocacy, incitement and cheering probably helped to produce their suicides. But a suicide is not a crime or an act of violence. At least not as such. One could argue that the encouragement of a suicidal person should be viewed as a form of murder. And if that statement goes too far for you, you may want to consider the fact that causing someone else’s death is in general a crime, whichever way you do it. Moreover, if the victims in this case were suffering from depression or a mental illness, the state has a duty to provide healthcare, and allowing someone else to worsen their depression or illness to the point that they kill themselves is not consistent with this duty.

So, while the encouragement of suicide in general, the teaching the methods of suicide or the claim that non-suicidal people should go and kill themselves (“you don’t deserve to live”, “why don’t you just go and kill yourself”) are all forms of protected speech, the same is not the case for speech that encourages specific suicidal people to kill themselves.

Capital Punishment (33): It’s Not What You Do, But What You Do to Whom

In the U.S., and probably also in other countries that still use the death penalty, not all murders are alike. Ostensibly, the death penalty is the supreme punishment for the supreme crime, i.e. murder. But some cases of the supreme crime are more likely to result in the supreme punishment than others. For example, it’s well-known that a black person who has committed murder is more likely to be executed than a white person, even if the details of their crimes are very much alike.

It seems that the moralistic justification of capital punishment – that the worst of crimes should be met with the severest of punishments – is just talk, applicable in some cases but not in others. This inconsistency is incompatible with moral talk, since morality is precisely about general and blind rules. The inconsistency becomes even more clear when we consider that it’s not just the race of the perpetrator that makes it more or less likely that horror is answered with horror. People who murder whites are much more likely to be executed than those who murder blacks.

I don’t want to sound conspiratory, but it does seem like the death penalty is an instrument in the continued subjugation of blacks and the protection of whites.

On top of the race issue, there’s also a class issue:

A defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death if he or she kills a “high-status” victim, according to new research by Scott Phillips, associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver (DU).

According to his research published in Law and Society Review, (43-4:807-837), the probability of being sentenced to death is much greater if a defendant kills a white or Hispanic victim who is married with a clean criminal record and a college degree, as opposed to a black or Asian victim who is single with a prior criminal record and no college degree.

“The concept of arbitrariness suggests that the relevant legal facts of a capital case cannot fully explain the outcome: irrelevant social facts also shape the ultimate state sanction” Phillips says. “In the capital of capital punishment, death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high status victims. Some victims matter more than others.”

Phillips research is based on 504 death penalty cases that occurred in Harris County, Texas between 1992 and 1999. (source, source)

More on capital punishment is here.

Capital Punishment (31): The Incapacitation Argument For Capital Punishment

Capital punishment is usually defended on the basis of a theory of deterrence or retribution, but another common argument is incapacitation: killing criminals guarantees that they cannot commit further crimes. It’s likely that this argument plays an important role in many decisions to impose capital punishment, since members of juries may fear, mistakenly, that life imprisonment without parole actually means something like “on average 10 years in prison” (see here).

The obvious counter-argument is that life imprisonment, when it really means “life”, is equally incapacitating. True, say the proponents of capital punishment, but criminals may kill when in prison. In particular, they may kill fellow inmates. OK, so let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that we don’t use the death penalty for murder, but incarcerate murderers for life, together with only fellow murderers. The only killing they can do is of their fellow incarcerated murderers.

Would that kind of killing be objectionable to proponents of capital punishment? I think it shouldn’t be, since the victims of this kind of killing would also have been killed under a regime of capital punishment. Maybe opponents would object that this system doesn’t treat all murderers the same: some get killed, others not. However, I fail to see what difference it makes to a murderer if she is killed by fellow inmates rather than by the state, or if she is killed while others aren’t. She’ll be dead, and in no position to complain about others being still alive. (And don’t tell me murder by the state is preferable because it’s more “humane”). Moreover, our existing regimes of capital punishment don’t manage to kill all murderers either. And finally, non-murderers can also kill while in prison. Should we execute them preemptively?

For opponents of capital punishment, it does make a huge difference whether murderers are killed by the state or by their colleagues: murder by the state means the instrumentalization of human beings, whereas murders between inmates are regrettable and to be avoided, but not more or less than murders in general.

More on capital punishment here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (34): Human Rights, Moral Universals, and Cultural Relativism

The universality of human rights is arguably their most important attribute. I won’t repeat my arguments in favor of this claim. “Universality” here obviously means something like “universal value”, “universal importance”, “universal moral claims” or “universal desirability”, not factual universality. Human rights aren’t universally protected. If they were, we would hardly need them. I also won’t repeat what I’ve said before on the means to go from merely moral or legal universality to actual universality.

Now, I’ve gone so far as to claim that human rights not only should be universal values (for reasons specified elsewhere), but in fact are universal values. The fact that they are regularly violated doesn’t change the equally salient fact that they are universally recognized as important moral goals.

However, claims of the existence of so-called moral universals, and especially claims that some moral values should be universals, immediately provoke the counter-claim of cultural imperialism. Supposedly, different cultures have developed their own moral codes, adapted to their own identity, circumstances and history, and moral diversity is a more important goal than moral universals. This counter-claim is often categorized under the heading of cultural relativism.

Personally, I believe that moral diversity and cultural identity are indeed important values, but also that moral diversity and relativism can be and often are used as a justification for rights violations that are contingently rather than culturally motivated (see here and here for my criticism of cultural relativism). And anyway: the existence or the promotion of moral universals in some areas of life doesn’t have to exclude moral diversity in other areas. It’s not because some values are or should be moral universals that all other values, cultures or identities are in danger of disappearing altogether. We can have both: moral universals and moral diversity. And both can reinforce each other if we manage to argue convincingly that some moral universals aren’t just export products, or the result of colonialism or of the omnipresence of the western type of state. Indeed, I believe that globalization, assimilation, colonialism, trade and universality of the modern nation state all contributed to the existence of moral universals, but also that some universals are the product of a global convergence of genuinely local moral rules. (I’ll try in a future post to give an overview of the origins of human rights in different cultures of the world). If we can show that all or most cultures in the world have independently arrived at the same or similar moral rules, then we have moral universals that are build on respect for moral diversity and not just on the export and imposition of one morality on the rest of the world.

However, that’s extremely difficult to prove. It’s relatively easy to show that some moral values are in fact moral universals, but it’s much harder to show why they are moral universals: are they because they have been imposed through colonization, promoted through trade etc. or because they have grown “organically” from within the different cultures that have converging rules? Still, what we can argue is that when there are universals, the burden of proof is on those wanting to argue that they are not genuine but the result of external imposition. The existence of universals is a prima facie argument for their “genuineness”. Also, what’s genuine? Even values that have been imposed or imported a long time ago can have become the genuine morality of the people concerned.

Some evidence of the actual existence of moral universals comes from a paper about a comparative law investigation into the universality of the prohibition of homicide. Such a prohibition is an indication of the moral value of the right to life. The paper shows that this prohibition is in fact universal. Of course, the paper focuses on the law, and the law is at best an imperfect witness of morality (Marx would argue that it is rather an instrument of immorality). But the law is easier to find than morality. And – again – the burden of proof is on the opposing side: if the law indicates universality – as it does in this case and in many others – then it’s up to those claiming non-universality to give counter-evidence.

Capital Punishment (28): Extreme “Tinkering With the Machinery of Death” in the U.S.

The title of this blog post refers to a famous quote by former US Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. It’s my belief that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its desire to both uphold capital punishment and simultaneously limit its scope, has maneuvered itself into an incoherent position. It has “tinkered with the machinery of death” to such an extent that the application of capital punishment in the U.S. should be viewed as a complete mess, even by those of us who don’t have an instinctive repulsion for capital punishment, who don’t make a philosophical or moral argument against it, and who don’t agree that there are so-called “systemic problems” in the application of capital punishment in the U.S. (as opposed to the moral problems of capital punishment per se), such as

  • the racist component
  • the discussions about non-cruel methods
  • the failure of legal representation
  • the extensive appeals procedures
  • the sadistic death row phenomenon
  • or the lack of deterrence.

(For irregular readers, I’m personally convinced that there are moral reasons not to apply the death penalty, and that these are sufficient reasons. I view both the systemic problems cited above and the inconsistent reasoning of the Supreme Court discussed below as supplementary reasons for those who are difficult to convince with moral reasons alone).

Here’s an overview of some of the contradictory judgments of the Supreme Court. There’s a tendency, among many supporters of the death penalty in the U.S., to extend its reach beyond homicide. (I believe that’s a natural tendency, especially for those counting on a deterrent effect. If the main objective of capital punishment is the deterrence of crime, then why stop at homicide? There are many other heinous crimes that could possible be reduced with an effective deterrent and if it can be argued – but I doubt it – that capital punishment is such an effective deterrent, then why shy away of it?).

In Coker v. Georgia, the Court had to decide whether the crime of rape of an adult woman warrants the penalty of death. The Court argued that it doesn’t, since rape does not mean taking a life. Again, in Enmund v. Florida (does a homicide accomplice who does not kill or attempt to kill deserve the death penalty?), the Court judged that capital punishment should not be a possible punishment for crimes that do not involve the death of another human being. (This is part of the doctrine of proportionality, see below).

And yet, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court stated that crimes against the state, such as treason and espionage, but also terrorism and drug kingpins etc. may be deserving of death even if no loss of life was involved. I find this distinction highly arbitrary. From the point of view of an opponent of capital punishment such as me, it’s obviously good that the Court imposes some restrictions on the sentence, but doing so in this arbitrary way just serves to undermine the legitimacy of these restrictions and opens the door to future reversals.

Another restriction imposed by the Court is based on the degree of culpability of offenders and their capacity to evaluate and control their actions. In Thompson v. Oklahoma for instance, the Court examined the constitutionality of executing child offenders (under the age of 16). The Court decided that children are generally less culpable for their crimes because, compared to adults, they are

  • less able to judge the consequences of their actions
  • more emotional and less able to control their actions
  • less prone to “cold calculation” and therefore there is less reason to assume a deterrent effect.

Moreover, the Court assumed that offenses by the young represent a failure of society, school and the family:

youth crime as such is not exclusively the offender’s fault; offenses by the young also represent a failure of family, school, and the social system, which share responsibility for the development of America’s youth. (source)

Again, nice to see the Court limiting the scope of the death penalty, but why assume that adult criminals don’t also represent a failure of society? If young people offend because of failure of the educational system for instance, is it safe to assume that these causes magically disappear after a certain age? (Of course, I don’t assume that “society” causes all crime, but crime does, in certain cases, have causes beyond the decisions of the criminals). And are there really no adults who are relatively less able to judge the consequences of their actions and act in a non-emotional and calculated way?

Yes, says the Court, but at the same time it limits this category of adults in a somewhat arbitrary way to the mentally retarded (for example Atkins v. Virginia). I believe the reduced culpability of the mentally retarded is obviously a good thing, but why stop there? Aren’t there any “non-retards” who also can claim diminished culpability? And, anyway, where to put the border between the retarded and the rest? There’s always going to be a gray zone, and hence arbitrariness.

Furthermore, recent judgments of the Court tend towards undoing the restriction on capital punishment based on diminished culpability. Scalia for instance (dissenting in Atkins v. Virginia) claimed that culpability and deservedness depend not only on the mental capacity of the criminal but also on the depravity of the crime. One can read this as a justification of capital punishment even for children or the mentally retarded if their crime is depraved enough.

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court also expressed contradictory views on deterrence. Deterrence has always been an important justification for the Court, but in Kennedy v. Louisiana the Court decided that in the case of child rapists, capital punishment would encourage rather than deter the crime. It claimed, correctly I think, that the death penalty for this crime could encourage non-reporting. A third party, for example the wife of the rapist, could decide not to report the offender for fear of capital punishment, which then leads to the continuation of the crime, and hence the failure of deterrence.

Again, a welcome restriction from the point of view of an abolitionist, but also a highly arbitrary one. The same non-reporting effect of the death penalty can occur in other types of crime. Moreover, the consideration of counter-deterrence effects in this case is very unusual for a Court that consistently ignores evidence against the deterrent effect.

Finally, the argument of proportionality cited above and used against capital punishment for crimes such as rape (see also Gregg v. Georgia) is a welcome limit, but it also is an argument that’s used very selectively and arbitrarily by the Court. In non-capital cases, the Court often refuses to consider the lack of proportionality as a reason to undo decisions of other courts. In Rummel v. Estelle for instance, the Court refused to see anything wrong with a sentence of life imprisonment for obtaining $120.75 by false pretences!

All these inconsistencies and arbitrary limits and restrictions in the Supreme Court’s handling of capital punishment have turned this sentence into a shambles. Many of us think it’s much worse than that, but a shambles may be a sufficient reason for others to review the practice.

Human Rights and International Law (18): Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

The “Responsibility to Protect“, or R2P in U.N.-speak, is a humanitarian principle that aims to stop mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It refers initially to the responsibility of states to their own citizens, but in case states can’t or won’t protect their own citizens, other states can step in, respecting the Security Council procedures. However, this is a last resort, especially if the intervention is of a military nature.

The concept is closely linked to, if not indistinguishable from, humanitarian intervention. Often it’s also called the principle of non-indifference, a sarcastic pun on the principle of non-intervention. Some for whom national sovereignty and non-intervention is still the main and overriding rule in international affairs, see R2P as an excuse for Western interference. Noam Chomsky is a notable if unsurprising example. You can read his arguments here. He is joined by a number of governments that risk being a future target.

However, most in the West aren’t jumping the queue to enter into a legal obligation that can force them to undertake expensive and risky interventions in the name of humanity. The fact that these interventions aren’t only expensive and risky but often also without collateral benefits, doesn’t help either. R2P is not yet a legal rule, more a quasi-legal rule. Some legal or quasi-legal texts include the concept. The Constitutive Act of the African Union includes “the right of the Union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the African Union assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The same is true for the Security Council of the UN. The concept was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, so it can be argued that the principle is part of international common law (i.e. international law established by coherent and unanimous state practice).

Terrorism and Human Rights (20): Targeted Killing of Terrorists

Are governments, or even private individuals, allowed to kill terrorists when killing them is the only way to prevent a terrorist attack? Intuitively, I would say “yes”, but only if certain conditions are met: the attack must be imminent, and no other solution is possible. In fact, these conditions limit the possibility to cases such as killing a terrorist with explosives clearly visible, and seen – from a distance – to be moving towards a target.

Most cases will be different and will make it possible for the police or bystanders to disable the terrorist in some other way, short of killing him or her, and without putting themselves at risk. I never understood why the British SAS needed a policy to target and kill IRA terrorists when they were not engaged in an imminent terrorist attack and when they could easily be arrested (see here for the story).

Now, one could reply to this with this question: why should we treat terrorists better than soldiers? In a war, soldiers can be killed almost at will. If an army spots enemy soldiers, it can kill them without violating any law of war, even if these enemy soldiers are not engaged in an imminent attack. So why can’t we kill terrorists in the same way? In fact, we should treat soldiers better, since many of them are conscripts who do not target innocent civilians. Terrorists are (normally) volunteers who target innocent civilians. That makes two aggravating circumstances.

In answer to this, we could state that terrorism isn’t a war; it’s a criminal act. Some things are allowed in a war which aren’t allowed in peacetime. And terrorism is horrible and not peaceful at all, but not everything that is horrible or a breach of peace is necessarily a war. If we are allowed to stop the crime of terrorism with targeted killings – even if the crime is not imminent – then why not normal murder as well? For example, we may know that someone is about to commit (a non-terrorist) murder, but the act is not imminent. If you accept the SAS tactic, you also have to accept the preventive killing of normal murderers.

Some go even further, and accept not only targeted killing in cases without an imminent threat, but also killing after the fact. They would accept the killing of Osama bin Laden, even if he wasn’t planning a non-imminent attack. They would justify this killing based on his past actions. (Another example is the targeted killing by Mossad of the people involved in the Munich Olympics killings, made into a movie by Spielberg). I think that’s just as unacceptable as the targeted killing SAS style. It’s punishment without due process.

Hate (5): Why Do We Need Hate Crime Laws?

We punish the crimes of murder, kidnap, and battery. Why isn’t that enough? … It strikes me as weird that the mere utterance of a racial slur during a violent act automatically makes it worse. Ta-Nehisi Coates (source, part of this quote is actually Coates citing someone else)

Doesn’t the concept of hate crime imply a punishment of expression and thought? And isn’t it therefore essentially a thought-crime, and as such objectionable to people who cherish freedom of thought and speech? Shouldn’t someone’s convictions and expressions be immaterial to their punishment? And shouldn’t we just focus on what someone did rather than what he or she was thinking or saying when he or she did it?

Not really. Intent, motive and state of mind have always been crucial to punishment, hence the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. Killing or hurting someone because of race, gender or sexual orientation is worse than mere killing or hurting, and should incur a more severe punishment because it is meant not only to harm the victim but to terrorize an entire community.

Religion and Human Rights (9): Honor Killings

An honor killing is a murder, carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonor on the family. The acts which are the cause of dishonor can be

  • refusing an arranged marriage
  • being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
  • seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
  • committing adultery or fornication
  • pre-marital sex
  • flirting
  • etc.

Men can also be targeted by honor killings, but more rarely (for example in the case of homosexuality).

Causes

  • The practice is mostly associated with Muslim cultures (sometimes in minority Muslim groups in the West), although there is no support for the act in Islam. And it does occur in other cultures as well. In India, more than 5.000 brides are killed annually because their marriage dowries are considered insufficient. (However, one can argue that honor is not the main motivation in such cases). It also occurred in some Latin cultures (“crime of passion” is often still a “mitigating circumstance”). In Muslim countries, the practice is seen by some as a justified enforcement of religious rules, and therefore not strictly a matter of honor. This is corroborated by the fact that sometimes the killings are perpetrated against women by individuals who are not close relatives, but who claim enforcement of religious rules as their motive. In Iraq, for example, honor killings are conducted by armed insurgent groups on politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
  • There is a strong correlation between honor killings and illiteracy rates.
  • Men often use honor killings to assert their dominant patriarchal status. Women in the family may support the practice in order to preserve the honor of other female family members and to preserve their chances of getting married in the community. It’s a kind of purge or purification.
  • Some claim that the practice goes back to ancient motivations based on anxieties about reproductive power. Women, who were considered by the tribe to be a factory for making men, were forced through “honor” killings to obey the man’s family planning and not to reproduce outside of the tribe or the extended family.
  • In a society where marriages are arranged by fathers and money is exchanged, a woman’s desire to choose her own husband is a financial problem, one which can be “translated” in terms of honor.

Consequences

Apart from the obvious consequences (death or lifelong disability), the practice of honor killings also forces women to stay in abusive marriages or to avoid reporting rape. If the women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and the community denies that they ever existed. And if they don’t die, the chances of receiving justice are minimal as many governments fail to prosecute the crime. And even when there is a trial, it’s the woman’s behavior that becomes the focus, not the defendant’s. As a result, the women sink deeper into shame and often don’t take the trouble of reporting the crime.

Numbers

Because the murders frequently go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished, it is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon. Estimates range between hundreds and thousands of women each year. In Pakistan, it is estimated that every day at least three women are victims of the practice.

What can be done?

Some say that the backwardness of the tribes where most killings take place makes it very difficult to do anything. However, education can work. The fact that the Koran does not prescribe the practice should be explained and taught. Honor killings are just one instance of gender discrimination and education should focus on women’s rights and the equality of women. Where the practice is linked to arranged marriages and dowries, one should first tackle these problems.

The judiciary and the police should be forced to intervene. Penal codes should be modernized, and the economic dependence of women should be dealt with.

Related phenomena

Related phenomena are acid attacks (instead of killing women, acid is poured on them) and honor suicides. People can be forced by their community or by their feeling of guilt to kill themselves. Relatives thereby avoid penalties for murder.