The Ethics of Human Rights (40): Human Rights of Future Generations, Ctd.

Do future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive? Can we who are currently alive violate the human rights of future generations? And if so, what should we do to avoid it?

Future generations – as opposed to past generations – can incur harm following our actions, and can therefore, prima facie, invoke rights claims against us (namely for those types of harm that are rights violations).

One thing to keep in mind when discussing the rights of future generations is the following assumption: future people have the same values and preferences, and the same impediments to these values and preferences. Human rights are in essence tools to realize values and preference, and often take away impediments to values and preferences. Following this assumption, future generations can be said to require human rights to the extent that those currently alive impede their values and preferences. However, that need not be the case. Maybe future generations will have other values or preferences, or maybe they will face different impediments that can’t be removed by human rights, or maybe they’ll have found other ways to remove certain impediments. Maybe in the future there won’t be religion, scarcity, states or animosity, but different values and impediments. Still, I’ll keep the assumption in place, both because I think it’s likely that future generations will be much like ourselves, and because the concept of “human rights of future generations” wouldn’t make any sense if that is not the case (and I really want to write this post).

Actions which affect the human rights of future generations

The easy thing to understand about the harm we, the present generations, can do to future generations is the consequentialist part: it’s fairly obvious that, given the stated assumption, some of our – potential and real – current actions can or will have negative consequences for future generations, and that some of these consequences can become worse as time goes on (see this post on the effect of time on rights violations).

Take resource depletion for example. If we now squander all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it’s likely that future generations, and particularly those generations somewhat further in the future, will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights (again, given the assumption that they need fossil energy because their preferences haven’t changed or because they haven’t found an alternative).

Present generations therefore exercise power over future generations, much like a state exercises power over its citizens. And much like a state, the present generation can be said to be bound by the human rights of those who are subjected to its power. With the exercise of power comes the duty to respect the rights of those who are subjected to power.


There may be a problem with all this, however. Contrary to the harm that is inflicted on currently living people, by their state or their powerful fellow citizens, the harm inflicted on future generations is rarely if ever a certainty, and never verifiable.

If we again take the example of resource depletion (but many other examples would do just as well), it may be the case that future generations will have invented the technology necessary to adapt to a world without oil. The chances of this happening may be small or may be large – we just don’t know and so we can’t take it into account in our considerations as to whether to adapt our behavior as a way to respect the rights of future generations.

We may assume that our actions (or inactions) can lead to rights violations in the future, but we’re never certain. So should we adapt our current behavior or not? We can verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the present, and – if they do – consequently adapt our behavior. (If lowering taxes increases poverty then we should avoid that policy). We can never verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the (distant) future. We can only guess that there’s a risk, perhaps based on similar past or present experiences. But the quality of those guesses remains uncertain.

Hence, it would seem that future rights violations can’t have the same moral standing as present and real rights violations. Or maybe they’re not even rights violations at all. Indeed, we normally don’t view the risk of a rights violation as equivalent to or as equally damaging as a real violation. Or maybe a very, very high risk of a future rights violation – assuming a good guess – equates an actually occurring rights violations?

I think all this is to some extent moot. When faced with a risk of a rights violation – or better the perception of a risk – the moral thing to do is to try to avoid the rights violation from occurring in the future, and adapt one’s behavior, in the same way as one would do when faced with a risk of causing a violation of the rights of people currently living. So the uncertainty of violations of the rights of future generations makes them no different, in some respects, from violations of the rights of current generations. Also the latter are – ex ante – uncertain, and the moral thing to do is always to adapt one’s behavior in order to minimize the risk of immoral behavior.

Some would claim that comparing future violations of the rights of living people to future violations of the rights of future generations is a mistake. Living people have rights which can – given a certain risk – be violated in the near or distant future (depending on the lifespan of those people) by our current behavior. Future generations on the other hand don’t exist, yet (and may never exist, see below), and hence can’t have anything, including rights. However, they will have rights in the future, when (and if) they live. To claim, as I do here, that we can violate future rights now doesn’t mean that we have to claim that these future rights have to exist now.

Tradeoffs between the present and the future

What to do when faced with a tradeoff between violating the rights of future generations and violating the rights of present generations? It depends on the best risk estimate of either, as well as the gravity and the number of people involved in either case, keeping in mind the fact that risk, gravity and number estimates of violations of the rights of present generations are probably better (because we can test them). Given this relative ease, we should give additional weight to the simple fact that we are dealing with really existing people as opposed to potential future people.

For example, we know that closing down an opposition newspaper is very likely to stifle free speech for a significant number of currently living people. We’re not absolutely sure of this consequence, but the risk is very, very high. We know this risk because we or others have tested it in the past. Now, suppose that we should choose between this policy and another one, for example allowing a substantial increase in green house gasses. Suppose also – I know, it’s weird but bear with me – that these two policies are, for some unspecified reason, mutually exclusive. The policy of increasing green house gasses risks putting future generations in danger of survival. When comparing the costs of both policies, we conclude that the level of risk is roughly similar (say 90% probability that the expected consequences – respectively stifling free speech and increased global warming – will indeed occur), but the gravity of the consequences is obviously much greater in the case of the second policy, as are the number of people concerned. Yet, we may still reasonably choose to implement the second policy and avoid the first because we’re more certain of our risk estimate for the first.

Actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations

Let’s take another example of current actions that have an impact on future generations: in this example, our actions do not deplete resources but have an influence on the very existence of future generations. We may destroy the earth for instance, making the very existence of future people impossible. Or we may intervene in procreation in such a way that future people will be completely different people than those who would have lived had we not intervened (that’s Derek Parfit’s so-called non-identity problem).

In both cases, our actions affect the very existence of future people, rather than their rights. And an effect on the very existence of people can’t, in itself, be considered a rights violation since there’s no right to exist. I’ve argued elsewhere why this is the case. (Of course, actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations can have, additionally, other consequence beside the existence or composition of future generations, and some of those other consequences can imply rights violations).

In other words, only the rights of actually existing persons – whether they exist now or in the future – are important. Potentially existing persons who will never exist because of our actions, do not count. Or, putting it in yet another way: the non-identity problem is not a problem in this context. The fact that the very existence or composition of future generations depends on our actions doesn’t have, in itself, any consequences for the human rights of future generations. The impact of our current actions can result in rights violations of future generations, but not if this impact is limited to the existence or composition of future generations. And the reason for this is the absence of a right to existence.

Duties instead of rights?

In order to avoid the problems created by talk of rights of future generations – namely the problems of uncertainty and of tradeoffs – it would perhaps be better to abandon all talk of rights of future generations, and focus on the duties of present generations towards future generations. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect the promises I make to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (9): The Resource Curse

If we value democracy, then it’s interesting to know

  • how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones
  • why other societies have failed
  • and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition.

This knowledge will help us to promote and sustain democracy in the future. Something we already know is that this isn’t simple. There are a huge number of factors at play and there’s no silver bullet. Some of the most widely discussed factors are economic development, levels of education, and religion and culture.

I’ll bracket two important issues here: what kind of democracy are we talking about, and how do we measure transition or development towards democracy? If you want to know what promotes or inhibits democracy and act on this knowledge in order to further the cause of democracy, you can’t avoid these questions, but discussing them here would take us too far.

What I want to focus on here is the so-called resource curse. This curse is believed to be a phenomenon that blocks countries’ development towards democracy. Promoting democracy means lifting the curse. Now, what is this curse, and is it real or just another simplistic explanation of the course of history?

Countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights. Resource wealth can trigger corruption and grabbing, can give autocrats the means to retain power by buying off opposition or building a repressive state apparatus, or can tempt democratically elected leaders to cling to highly beneficial positions of power.

This sounds good but even a cursory glance at reality reveals some counter-indications. There are many resource rich countries that are governed very well and are pinnacles of democracy (take Norway). Still, that may only disprove part of the resource curse. It may be the case that democracies benefit from resources and are able to solidify themselves, while non-democracies are doomed to remain as they are because of resource abundance. Resources then only create a curse when democratic institutions are absent. So we shouldn’t worry about democracies failing because of resources, but about autocracies failing to transform because of them.

However, there’s an article here claiming that

resource wealth is positively associated with both economic growth and institutional quality.

Much depends, it seems, on how to measure resource abundance. There also is a reversal of the direction of causation, a common mistake in statistics:

There is no evidence that resource-dependent countries end up with slow growth and bad institutions. Rather, countries with bad institutions attract little investment, and as a result they grow more slowly and remain dependent on exports of commodities.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (16)

We usually distinguish between three different origins of human rights violations:

  • The state. States commit rights violations for different reasons. Rulers may believe that such violations are necessary in order to maintain power, undermine or destroy the opposition, and impose some world view or economic organization of society. Or they may think that some types of violations are necessary evils when faced with certain risks. For example, torture or indefinite detention can appear to be a reasonable price to pay in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. States can also violate human rights unintentionally: lawmakers can draft a legal system that unnecessarily encroaches on private freedom (e.g. the “nanny state”). And, finally, a state can violate rights, not – as in the previous cases – by doing something it shouldn’t do, but by failing to do what it should do: a state that doesn’t provide an efficient judiciary or police force will be unable to protect the rights of its citizens and will be an accessory to rights violations.
  • Selfishness. In the case of economic human rights – such as the right not to suffer poverty – it’s often greed, lack of compassion or generosity, or the absence of sufficient and adequate aid and intervention that causes rights violations. Selfishness can cause both individuals and states to violate rights. States, for example, can uphold international trade structure or protectionist legal systems that favor the local economy at the expense of relatively poor exporters elsewhere.
  • Culture. Some say that certain elements of cultures and religions lead to practices that violate human rights. And then usually we get a mention of Islam, Shari’a, muslim misogyny etc. Here as well, we see that both states and individuals can use culture as a reason to violate rights.

Regarding the last point, there’s an interesting paper here (or here) claiming that it’s not Islam but oil that causes gender discrimination in Muslim countries.

Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. Michael Ross

Oil production and export crowd out other exports, and hence artificially restrict the manufacturing sector. Compared to oil production, manufacturing uses relatively large numbers of low wage workers, which is why manufacturing has always and everywhere been a booster for female labor participation. Female labor participation in turn has always and everywhere promoted female political representation and women’s rights. The paper shows that, in the Middle East, countries without much oil (like Morocco and Tunisia) do relatively well on gender equality, compared to oil-rich countries. The same is true when comparing oil-poor and oil-rich countries outside the Middle East.

If that’s correct, then it’s still cultural and religious practices and beliefs that cause gender discrimination, but these beliefs are themselves caused by or at least promoted by economic fundamentals. Sounds quite Marxian to me (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!).

Papers looking into the cultural and religion causes of gender discrimination can be found here and here (thanks to the Monkey Cage for the pointer).

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (3): The Resource Curse

Why do countries with lots of natural resources tend to do worse than countries with less resource wealth, both in terms of economic growth and in political, social and human rights terms? We see that countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights.

There are many possible causes of this curse (also called “the paradox of plenty”):

1. Lack of economic diversification

Other economic sectors tend to get neglected by the government because there is a guaranteed income from the natural resources. These sectors therefore cannot develop and cannot become an alternative when the resources are taking hits. The fluctuations of the international prices of the resources can cause extreme highs and lows in national economic growth. This is bad in itself, but also makes it difficult for the government to do long term planning, since the level of revenues cannot be predicted. Dependence on one economic sector means vulnerability.

Another disadvantage of concentrating the economy on one resource sector, is that these sector often provide few jobs, especially for local people. The oil industry for example needs highly specialized workers, who are mostly foreigners. On top of that, these sectors do not require many forward or backward connections in the economy (such as suppliers, local customers, refiners etc.), which again doesn’t help the local job creation.

Even if the government tries to diversify the economy, it may fail to do so because the resource sector is more profitable for local individual economic agents.

Resource dependent countries also see their best talents going to the resource industry which pays better wages than the rest of the economy or the government sector. As a result, the latter are unable to perform adequately. See point 4 below.

2. Corruption

Corruption tends to flourish when governments own almost the entire economy and have their hands on the natural resources. More on corruption in a future post.

3. Social division

Abundance of natural resources can produce or prolong violent conflicts within societies as different groups try to control (parts of) the resources. Separatist groups may emerge, trying to control the part of the territory most rich in resources. This is often aggravated by existing social or cultural division. Division may also appear between parts of the government (e.g. local government vs central government, or between different parts of the central administration).

The resources therefore may cause divisions and conflict, and thereby cause deficiencies in government, economic turmoil, and social unrest. But the resources may also prolong conflicts because groups which manage to take control of (parts of) the resources may use these to arm themselves or otherwise gain influence and power.

4. Government’s unaccoutability and inefficiency

Countries which do not depend on natural resources are often more efficient in taxing their citizens, because they do not have funds which are quasi-automatically generated by resources. As a result, they are forced to develop the government machinery in an efficient way, hence a reduced risk of government break-down. The citizens in return, as they are taxed, will demand accountability, efficient spending etc.

Conversely, the political leaders in resource-dependent countries don’t have to care about their citizens. They create support by allocating money, generated by the resources, to favored interest parties, and thereby increasing the level of corruption. And if citizens object, they have the material means to suppress protest. They don’t appreciate an effective government administration as this carries the risk of control, oversight and other anti-corruption measures (see point 2). So they have an interest in bad government.

It is obvious that bad government, rights violations and economic stagnation have many causes. The resource curse is only one. There are countries which are blessed with resources and which do well at the same time. And there are mismanaged countries that don’t have any resources. As in all correlations, the causation may go in the other way: bad government can create dependence on exports of natural resources.

“When a country’s chaos and economic policies scare off foreign investors and send local entrepreneurs abroad to look for better opportunities, the economy becomes skewed. Factories may close and businesses may flee, but petroleum and precious metals remain for the taking. Resource extraction becomes ‘the default sector’ that still functions after other industries have come to a halt.” (source)

What to do about it?

Leif Wenar has argued that a strict application of property rights could help reduce or correct the resource curse. When dictators or insurgents sell off a country’s resources to foreigners or multi-national companies, while terrorizing the people into submission, they are in fact selling goods that they stole from those people. They have no right to sell what they don’t own. The natural resources of a country belong equally to all the people of that country. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.


“the people, whose resources are being sold off, become not the beneficiaries of this wealth but the victim of those who use their own wealth to repress them”. Leif Wenar (source)

One could take legal action in western jurisdictions to try to enforce the property rights of the citizens of resource cursed countries and to charge multinational corporations with the crime of receiving stolen goods.

Western countries, investors and consumers could also boycott companies that invest in resource-cursed countries, or try to pressure campaign them to get out of these countries, or they could stop to invest in these companies.

When people finally get a grip on their resources, they open the path to better government, a better economy and better protection for human rights. Perhaps then they will not have to die trying to recapture a tiny part of the resources that are their lawful property, as happened in many cases in Nigeria, for example, where people often try to tap some oil from the pipelines channeling their property to the west. In doing so, they risk their lives. As a consequence of their actions, the pipelines can explode.