What is Democracy? (67): The Form of Government That Offers the Best Protection Against Human Rights Violations

There is a clear correlation between the presence and quality of democratic government in a country and the level of respect for human rights in that country. That may sound obvious but it’s good to have some measured results. This paper for instance offers some clear evidence:

There is a substantial body of research devoted to understanding the relationship between democracy and government human rights performance. Most research centers on physical integrity rights but does not analyze the broader civil liberties encompassed by the category of “empowerment rights.” The dynamics of the relationship between the degree of democracy in a state and protection of empowerment rights might be different and improvements may take longer to emerge. This study examines the effects of democracy and democratic duration on empowerment rights scores, and it also uncovers time thresholds at which different scores are attained. The results show that regime type is more critical to the protection of empowerment rights than it is to physical integrity rights. Even in the earliest years of democracy there is a positive relationship between democracy and empowerment rights, but empowerment rights strengthen as countries gain democratic experience. …

Thus, countries with more institutionalized democratic regimes, as determined by the quality and longevity of democratic experience, are significantly more likely to respect both fundamental human rights and broader classes of civil liberties. … [A]lthough human rights protection is present in early years, it will usually be even greater after countries have had extended experience with democracy. (source)

Here are some interesting data to back this up.

The interesting thing about all this is not that there is a correlation – anyone following the news could have guessed as much. What we should care about are the reasons why there is a correlation. From the studies cited above we can see that the most important causal link is the one going from democracy to respect for human rights. In other words, there is a correlation because democracy causes respect for human rights. Vice versa may also be possible, although the argument is probably weaker. And then there may also be a hidden variable that can partially explain the correlation. For example, it may well be that prosperity and high GDP promote both democracy and human rights.

But then the next question is: how does democracy cause higher levels of respect for human rights? I guess this can happen in several ways:

  • Democracies are more likely to be systems based on the rule of law and the rule of law is necessary for the protection of human rights.
  • Democratic rulers know that they can’t get away with repression. They’ll be voted out if they try, or, worse, they’ll suffer the consequences of the rule of law, imposed on them by other branches of power in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers.
  • Democracies have systems of judicial review which allow courts to void legislation that contradicts basic constitutional rights.
  • Democracies have powerful non-violent mechanisms for dispute settlement, such as well-functioning courts. People don’t need to take the law into their own hands. Internal peace and limitations on violent behavior have beneficial effects on a number of human rights.
  • Democracy is correlated with high levels of prosperity, and prosperity makes it easier to promote respect for human rights. Rights cost money.
  • Democracies need human rights to function adequately (no democracy without free speech, free assembly, free association etc.), so they have an added incentive to respect them.

None of the above is meant to imply the following:

  1. That we can delay the implementation of human rights norms in non-democratic states. Remember the remark at the beginning that the causal link probably goes in two opposite directions and that human rights can promote democratic government. After all, if people are allowed to express themselves, they will express themselves about the workings of their government, and that is the first step towards democracy.
  2. That rights are never violated in democracies or never respected in non-democracies. It’s merely a matter of probability.
  3. That there are no elements other than democracy that promote human rights. Of course there must be. I mentioned prosperity a moment ago. Democracy is not a sufficient condition, although probably a necessary one, at least in the long run, for the full set of human rights and for the equal enjoyment of all rights by all people.
  4. That the beneficial effect of democracy on human rights is equal for all human rights or for all types of democracy. Well-developed and long-lasting democracies do better, as mentioned above, but perhaps also deep democracies, meaning democracies that provide a wide range of opportunities for democratic say.

More about the link between democracy and human rights here, here, here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Cultural Rights (14): Tolerance, a Model

To be tolerant means to accept the existence of and to avoid interfering coercively with beliefs, actions or practices that you consider wrong and objectionable. It means that you do your best to co-exist with people who are very much different from you, and different in a negative sense. You allow or permit these people to remain who they are and what they are. You consider what they are, what they do and what they believe to be wrong and objectionable, but not wrong enough to be intolerable and subject to prohibition, legal or otherwise. You tolerate them because you believe that what they do or believe should not be prohibited, or perhaps because you believe you’re not in a position to effectively prohibit. However, I would personally prefer to call the latter option “endurance” rather than tolerance and limit tolerance to the voluntary acceptance of things you could prohibit if you wanted to.

“Acceptance” here should of course be understood, not in the sense of a positive moral judgment, approval or agreement, but in the sense of a practical, pragmatical accommodation. The negative judgment remains but isn’t strong enough to warrant repression or prohibition.

We may decide to tolerate something for a variety of reasons:

  • We may have a strong general sense of respect for other people and for their identity. We may respect people’s moral standing as agents able to choose their own vision of the good life. We disagree with their choices but we respect them as agents able to choose.
  • We may be motivated simply by a general respect for the law, and the law happens to prescribe tolerance.
  • We may believe that tolerance is necessary for the preservation of civil peace and public order, and these considerations outweigh our disgust for other lifestyles. In other words, we hate conflict more than we hate other people.
  • We may be motivated by an expectation of reciprocity: if we show tolerance we expect to be tolerated. Maybe our own group isn’t in the majority either, or risks not being a majority in the future, and hence we may some day profit from tolerance.
  • We may believe, as did John Stuart Mill, that even false opinions lead to social learning.
  • Etc.

Those reasons can imply either equal or unequal relationships between those who tolerate and those who are tolerated.

Below I offer my own petty model of tolerance. I situate tolerance on a continuum going from what I call guidance on one side to prohibition on the other. Guidance means the attitude of emulating certain practices which you view as being important enough to guide your life and your fundamental opinions. Prohibition, the other extreme, means the attitude of suppressing certain practices which you view as being so depraved that they should be forbidden and eliminated, if necessary with violence.

One level below guidance I situate the attitude which I call positive acceptance. People accept things in a positive way if they consider them to be moral, but not necessarily moral enough to be the guiding light of life. One level below positive acceptance is indifference, which marks the boundary between things that are moral and things that are immoral.

Below indifference is negative acceptance, which means viewing things as being immoral yet not immoral enough to suppress them using the law or any other violent means. As stated above, I distinguish between two types of negative acceptance, endurance and tolerance, the difference being that tolerance means accepting something and yet having the ability to suppress. Endurance means you tolerate despite not wanting to tolerate: you tolerate because you don’t have a choice. If you had the power to suppress or prohibit, you would. You don’t suppress or prohibit and you tolerate because you don’t have the power to suppress or prohibit. Real tolerance means that you have that power but voluntarily choose not to use it, for any (combination) of the reasons mentioned above.

Some would also call endurance a type of tolerance. Personally, I want to keep it separate. (Which is why it is in light gray rather than dark gray in the image below). I distinguish three types of tolerance: people can tolerate things unconditionally, they can tolerate things if they happen only in private, or they can tolerate things that happen in public but only conditionally.

I also place all these attitude, including tolerance, on a moral scale, assuming that people decide to accept, reject, tolerate or prohibit acts or beliefs according to the moral value they attach to these acts or beliefs.

Terrorism and Human Rights (39): Targeted Killing and Democratic Peace

Democratic peace theory states that democracies are less likely to engage in war with each other, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is the fact that in a democracy, the people vote, and the people are also those who shoulder the cost of war. In a regime in which the people can influence the decision to go to war, such a decision will only be taken very reluctantly. Conversely, a regime that doesn’t need to listen to its people can easily impose the cost of war.

What’s the link with targeted killings of terrorists? Let’s limit the discussion to drone attacks in the context of a war. Killing terrorists in any other context amounts to extrajudicial execution, since those terrorists are criminals rather than combatants and therefore have a right to a trial (unless killing them is the only way to stop an imminent attack). In the context of a war, targeted killings carried out by unmanned drone aircraft are supposed to have certain advantages compared to “normal” military engagement with the enemy. Two of those advantages are that

  • drone attacks are said to be more precise and hence less likely to result in civilian casualties, and that
  • you can avoid putting your own soldiers in harms way.

The supposed precision of drone attacks is contested, since it’s often difficult to judge from thousands of miles away whether the target is real, whether the informants on the ground are reliable and whether there’s no risk to innocent bystanders. There have been reports of civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks, although the true extent of this problem is difficult to measure since there’s no public information on those attacks.

In some cases, troops on the ground may be better able to judge these things. It’s also not commonly accepted that it’s ethical to focus on troop safety over and above the risk of civilian casualties. This focus is, of course, understandable in the case of a democracy engaging in a war. Public opinion is powerful in a democracy and doesn’t like it when troops are put in harms way – that’s one of the origins of the democratic peace theory. (It’s sometimes called the body bag syndrome). Hence, a democracy may be particularly tempted to use drone attacks and targeted killings, since a more traditional war is difficult to sell to a powerful public opinion.

If indeed a democracy is tempted to use targeted killings, then the price to pay may be the loss of democratic peace. Targeted killings remove one of the most powerful causes of democratic peace: the high cost of war. By making war less costly on the party initiating the war, targeted killings make war more likely.

[T]o me the reason to prefer human to robotic war is a cold and brutal one: because it brings war home to the citizenry in the form of the dead and wounded, and the citizenry may then be less likely to support future wars except out of clear necessity. (source)

More on targeted killings here.

Children’s Rights (12): Child Soldiers, Why and How?

Why are children recruited for warfare? Why not just use adults who are likely to be more capable and reliable soldiers? There’s an interesting paper here looking at some of the reasons:

  • Children are relatively easy to abduct, subjugate, and manipulate. They are more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination, and their moral development is incomplete and malleable.
  • They are also seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership.
  • Children, despite their a priori disadvantages in terms of fighting skills, may have a particular functional value. They may be suitable for menial logistical support of the armed group, or they may even have certain tactical advantages: they can slip through enemy lines unnoticed, making them effective spies and bomb carriers. Also, the proliferation of inexpensive, lightweight weapons has made it easier to use children as soldiers. These small arms are easy to transport and use with little training.
  • Rebel groups also make simple cost-benefit analysis: children require less food and no payment. Punishment of children is also less costly. Child soldiers are financially attractive. Rebel groups may be extremely resource-constrained and forced to recruit children.
  • The use of child soldiers can present a moral dilemma to enemies: should they kill children?
  • Rebel groups may recruit children in order to signal seriousness, commitment and ruthlessness, and thereby instill fear in the enemy.

How are child soldiers recruited? Patterns of recruitment of children vary according to the context. It’s usually a mix of punishment, promises of rewards and indoctrination.

  • The recruitment of children is facilitated when they are forced to participate in an assassination (perhaps of one of their relatives, parents or friends). The objective is to break their will. The forced killing of relatives also destroys a child’s outside options: if the child were to flee, it has no place to go to, or the community may reject the child because of what it did.
  • Armed forces will also destroy other outside options for children: schools, villages, farms etc.
  • Armed forces abuse children’s feelings of desperation and traumas resulting from previous situations of extreme violence.
  • Armed forces also abuse certain motivations of children: children may join armed forces because of the desire to take control of events, or because of the protection offered by being at the shooting end of a gun.

What is Democracy? (48): One Man, One Vote, Ctd.

It is well known that states are overrepresented in the U.S. political system. For example, Wyoming has 0.2% of the U.S. population but has 0.6% of the Electoral College votes for President, and 2% of the U.S. senators; while California has 12% of the population, 10% of the electoral votes, and still only 2% of the senators. To put it another way: Wyoming has 6 electoral votes and 2 senators per million voters, while California has 1.5 electoral votes and 0.06 senators per million voters. … the 21 smallest states have the population of California but 42 Senators compared to California’s two. … We have looked at other countries (Mexico, Canada, Japan, Argentina, Thailand…) and found similar patterns. Andrew Gelman (source)

To some extent, this has been done on purpose, especially in the U.S. When forming the federation, small states had bargaining power and wanted to have an equal vote – equal compared to larger states – in the federal arena in order to protect their interests and to avoid being outvoted by simple population based majorities. This was called the Great Compromise: the Senate became the “State’s House”, and the House of Representatives the “People’s House” (because it has a more proportional type of representation).

Such systems violate the principle of “one man, one vote”, a basic principle of democracy (which is why some prefer to call the U.S. a republic rather than a democracy), not only because it gives some voters more influence than others, but also because, in extreme cases, it can lead to the rule of the minority: a minority can get its proposals translated into legislation or policy, or can at least block proposals for change.

However, these systems aren’t always detrimental to democracy. In some circumstances, arrangements like these are necessary for the peaceful coexistence of different groups in relatively large states. When certain minorities don’t get certain safeguards, democracy and even the state as such may turn out to be difficult to maintain. There is a type of democracy called pacification democracy or consociational democracy (more here). This type of democracy is characterized by the will to eliminate permanent minorities as much as possible and to create mechanisms to guarantee a certain degree of participation for every group. Some of these mechanisms are:

  • A guaranteed number of representatives (e.g. Senators in the case of the U.S.), government ministers, civil servants etc. from each group (disproportional representation).
  • A second parliamentary chamber exclusively for the representation of minorities.
  • Two-thirds majorities or even larger majorities for important decisions, which guarantees that at least most of the groups participate in these decisions.
  • Veto-powers for important decisions. Each group, even a minority group, can block decisions that are contrary to its fundamental interests. In very heterogeneous and divided societies, this creates a de facto consensus-democracy instead of the classical majority-democracy. This may be necessary to avoid the “dictatorship of the majority” and the systematic exclusion of certain minorities. This system always tries to have the consent of all important groups in society, especially for important decisions.
  • A high degree of local self-government (federalism).

All these things violate the principles of “one man, one vote” and simple majority rule, but sometimes this violation is necessary to have a stable and peaceful democracy. I argued elsewhere that democracy is always more than mere majority rule.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

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

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

Levels of violence throughout history

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

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

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

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

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

A cognitive illusion

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

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

Why has violence declined?

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

Another, and related, point is that

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

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

Yet another reason:

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

What is Democracy? (42): A Luxury That Some Countries Can’t Afford?

Are some countries better off with a dictatorship? With a strong man able to make tough and unpopular decisions without fear for the next election? Are some populations willing to accept this and trade some political freedoms for more security and physical safety?

However, in what way is democracy deficient in delivering security? And is dictatorship better equipped? Let’s look at these two questions in turn.

Democracy and human rights are said to promote discord, chaos and even violence, especially in ethnically or religously divided countries. Indeed, rights such as free speech can be used to incite communal hostility and violence, and democratic elections cannot function if there is no division and contest between groups. The adversarial aspect of democratic elections often results in communal tension and even violence, especially in what we could call immature or imperfect democracies.

The argument for stability and security seems stronger when it is used against democracy than when it is used against human rights. It is evident that most groups that use violence do so because they feel that their rights are somehow violated; respect for human rights will therefore diminish rather than increase violence.

Regarding democracy, it is obviously adversarial and it does divide society into different, antagonistic groups. However, it does not push divisions to such an extreme that living together peacefully becomes impossible or undesirable. The unwillingness to live together is not caused by democracy but by fundamental convictions concerning religion, morality, justice etc. Democracy does not even enhance this unwillingness. On the contrary, it offers ways to bridge fundamental differences between groups (e.g. it offers places of discussion and negotiation) and it creates mechanisms which guarantee peaceful coexistence when it is impossible to bridge differences (such as federalism, power sharing, tolerance, religious freedom etc.).

We can see a two-way causation at work here: although democracy undoubtedly needs national unity, it is also a prerequisite for this unity. A group will question the national unity, will revolt, will cause violent conflicts or will try to separate only if it is discriminated against, if its human rights are violated, if it does not enjoy tolerance and respect for its difference, if it is excluded from power or if it is not granted local autonomy. If, in other words, it does not live in a democracy. National unity, the conviction of belonging to the same group and of sharing the same destiny whatever the differences, can only arise as a result of debate. Freedom of expression and elections can indeed be dangerous in a divided society, but without it, it is hard to see how divisions can be overcome or accommodated, as opposed to merely suppressed.

And this suppression is precisely the so-called major advantage of authoritarian regimes, compared to democracies. An authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.

Democracy is necessary in a divided society because the alternative – oppression – only reinvigorates what is tries to eliminate.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (4): Real Theoretical Life

(please read part 1, part 2 and part 3 first)

In the ideal Platonic society, led by thinking people who use force to train others to become like them, there will be wellbeing because spiritual life, free from the slavery of nature and desires, is the only good life. It means freedom, the satisfaction of knowledge, and peace because the desires and passions of people are the main reason for strife. Also other reasons for strife, such as scarcity, will be eliminated by a planning state taking care of population and birth control. The number of citizens will no longer cause scarcity, envy, territorial expansion and other reasons to go to war.

So Plato started from an initially attractive premise, the importance of a thinking life compared to consumerism, but then issued a whole range of proposals to protect and promote this life which invariably lead to dictatorship. In all this, he is perhaps the classic example of the way in which the combined hostility to nature, materialism and the plurality of society causes hatred for democracy.

But even his premise is questionable. Is solitary reflection of the general, free from appearances and the particular, really the road to wisdom? Perhaps it is more correct to say that sense perception, expression, and hence the use of one’s body and the interaction with other bodies is the best way to gain knowledge. Much of science is still very material, and discussion, argumentation, deliberation and the testing of opinions through expression and discussion protected by human rights can radically improve our opinions.

We need interaction and communication with other people in order to think correctly, and even to think at all. Would we think without our parents and teachers, without speaking and listening to anyone, without engaging in the world of appearances? And would we be able to think more or less correctly without public interaction protected by a democracy and human rights, without venturing in the bigger world of appearances and without leaving our own small and private group of people? Thinking needs the public use of reason (see also this post on Kant). Thoughts are not something you develop on your own, not even in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many freely expressed thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts, and then you need to test your own thoughts in confrontation with others.

By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of himself.

The world of appearances, so disliked by Plato for its volatility and imperfection, actually improves the quality of thoughts because of the range of sources of information and opinions, because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of the a posteriori testing and objecting by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights can help to achieve this. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question and therefore it is difficult to understand how a theoretical life can benefit from the elimination of the world of appearances.

Knowledge can hence be defined in a way which is completely different from the Platonic, passive, lonely, anti-social, introvert, non-discursive contemplation. More on the problem of knowledge and politics here.

Parts 1, 2 and 3

Human Rights and International Law (3): Humanitarian Intervention

This post focuses on one type of humanitarian intervention only, namely so-called armed humanitarian intervention (although I’ll drop the “armed” for easier reading). Humanitarian intervention is an armed intervention in one state by another state or states with the objective of ending gross violations of human rights, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Whereas the moral case for such an intervention is very strong, it remains controversial because of the fact that violence is used and that the national sovereignty of the “receiving” state is violated. One could easily justify the breach of sovereignty since the fate of the victims is obviously more important than sovereignty. Furthermore, this breach is inherently temporary because neither annexation nor interference with territorial integrity is at stake. But the use of violence is more difficult to justify.

It seems that humanitarian intervention is only justified when certain conditions are met:

1. Legitimate authority

The states that act cannot unilaterally decide that intervention is necessary. There must be some kind of general conviction that the situation is serious and that some kind of forceful intervention is warranted. A Security Council resolution can be the authority.

If there is a general conviction that action is necessary but there is no explicit Security Council approval of intervention – because of the veto or because of other reasons – then we have to be careful. If states can unilaterally decide to intervene, even against world opinion, then we have international chaos. Everybody takes the law in his own hands, and states will quickly find human rights excuses to intervene wherever they want. Some legitimate authority must have expressed something close to a world opinion regarding the necessity of intervention. Individual actors cannot decide autonomously. An approval of the General Assembly may indicate that there is consensus, but a Security Council resolution is better because this will guarantee that the intervention will not cause superpower conflicts.

2. Collaboration

As an elaboration of the previous point, one must demand that the intervening states be as numerous as possible in order to avoid accusations of self-interest, partiality and power politics. Collaboration also increases the chance of success (see condition 4.)

3. Right intention or appropriate goal

The main goal of the intervention must be the protection of human rights. The accusations that often accompany US-led interventions are generally unhelpful, except of course when they are true.

4. Probability of success

There must be a real chance that the intervention can be successful.

5. Last resort

Other and more peaceful means must have been tried first, although the urgency of the matter can make immediate military action acceptable.

6. Proportionality

The intervention must be proportional to the evil it is meant to destroy. Not enough intervention can cause more harm than before without a real chance of solving the initial problem. Too much intervention will also cause more harm than before. The costs must not outweigh the benefits. We must prevent more harm than we cause, although one must be careful when making utilitarian calculations. Violence always results in rights violations. Hence the rights violations one is willing to accept as a consequence of violent intervention cannot outweigh the violations that originally caused the intervention. How many rights violations can one cause when fighting rights violations? Theoretically, one cannot sacrifice certain people’s rights – for example, the rights of innocent civilian victims of air bombardments – for the sake of other people’s rights – for example, the victims of the dictatorship that is the target of the bombardments. However, most of us believe that in extreme circumstances, it is acceptable to sacrifice some rights or the rights of some in order to protect many more rights or the rights of many more. This means that violence is only acceptable in extreme cases, namely when the rights of many or many rights are violated.

7. Ius in bello

The laws of warfare must be respected.

8. Peace

If there is a threat to international peace, then the intervention will have a stronger claim to legality. But this is not a necessary condition.

What is Democracy? (23): Democracy is Peace, Ctd.

Tyrannies, compared to democracies, are more likely to cause wars. Tyrannies violate human rights and these violations make it very difficult to maintain the rule of law (different human rights institute the rule of law, and the indivisibility of human rights means that the whole body of human rights is in danger when some human rights suffer). Without the rule of law, it is very hard to maintain a justice system which that can channel conflicts away from violence. As a consequence, these conflicts can escalate and can become violent. People start to take the law in their own hands. They start to steal, to compensate for goods stolen, and to murder, to compensate for murder. Revenge is seen as the only alternative for justice, and revenge tends to escalate. Large-scale conflict and civil war become a very real threat. And civil wars have a tendency to become international wars.

Moreover, violations of human rights create anger, frustration and revolt (this is true for all types of rights, economic rights included), and can therefore be a direct cause of civil war. And civil war can lead to international war.

However, there is an even more direct link between rights violations and international conflict. Rights violations can create tensions with neighboring countries because of refugee flows, which result from rights violations or civil war. Neighboring countries can decide to intervene in these rights violations or in a civil war, to protect their own safety and prosperity. This intervention can, of course, lead to an international conflict. It is, however, the internal situation in a country and not the intervention from the outside, which causes the conflict. It is the country in which human rights are violated, which creates international instability.

The Causes of Poverty (5): Overpopulation

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. The areas of the world which are inhabitable and useable for agriculture are too small compared to the number of people living in them. These people are followers of Thomas Malthus or of malthusianism, and often even predict major catastrophes which will reduce the population significantly. They also advocate some quite draconian measures for limiting the human population.

In scientific terms: overpopulation occurs when an organism’s numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat; carrying capacity = [available sustainable resources > current and projected needs of the organism].

For example, imagine a population of 10 living in a habitat of 10 square kilometers. These 10 square kilometers can produce food, drinking water, shelter etc. for 15. Then there is no overpopulation. But if the population grows or is expected to grow at a rate of 10% annually, without an equal or superior growth in resources, then overpopulation threatens. There would also be overpopulation if the material resources are adequate but other needs such as space, privacy etc. are not met. For example if the available space is too small to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

So overpopulation can result from changes in the population (increased births, reduced deaths, better healthcare, migration etc.) or from changes in the resources – material or psychological – in the habitat (for example desertification, natural disasters, technological innovations etc.), or from a combination of both.

The current state of the world’s population is the following:

  • Present world population – 6,500,000,000 but unequal distribution of world population (see graphs below). The main population clusters are East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe.
  • Average world growth rate – 1.4% annual, but also unequal distribution of growth rates: fastest growing areas are the Middle East – over 4.0% annual – and the slowest growing areas are Central and Eastern Europe – 0% or less. Southern Africa even sees negative growth rates as a result of the HIV epidemic.
  • Forecasts are notoriously difficult but the world’s population is expected to rise by 40% to 9.1 billion by 2050.



Blaming everything on overpopulation is misguided and reductionist. Problems such as poverty and war have a complex set of causes, including in some but not all cases overpopulation, government policies, cultural factors, repercussions from colonialism, religion etc.

One can also question whether there is indeed a problem of overpopulation. Per capita food production has risen the last 50 years, and poverty (expressed as the number of people living on less than 1$ a day) has decreased while the population has increased. So poverty and war may not have anything to do with the size of the world’s population. However, ecological problems may have something to do with it. If so, the solution would surely not be population control, which is much too difficult and often dictatorial. Changes in consumption patterns are a much more promising route.

What is Democracy? (19): Democracy is Peace

The democratic peace theory, stating that democracies do not wage war among themselves, is one of the main arguments in favor of the international promotion of democratic governance. It has been around since Immanuel Kant who, in his essay Perpetual Peace, postulated that constitutional republics, or what we now would call democracies, was one of the necessary conditions for a perpetual peace. Recently, this theory has been abused by the US government in order to justify a war against a non-democracy – Iraq – in order to bring lasting peace to the world, but this abuse has not diminished the strength of the argument.

Democracies do not wage war among themselves mainly for the following reasons:

  • Democracies are able to make and keep international agreements and to create mechanisms which make it possible to solve international conflicts in a peaceful way. Publicity, as we find it in a democracy, tends to enhance respect for agreements because it makes it harder to cover up violations of agreements. A mentality of respect for the law, which is typical of a democracy because the rule of law is typical of a democracy, promotes respect for international agreements.
  • Democracies are able to avoid civil strife because they have judicial systems for solving conflicts between persons or between groups. Civil strife often spills over to other countries and can cause international conflicts (international violence is often the consequence of internal violence). Therefore, avoiding civil strife means avoiding international conflicts. Tolerance, respect, religious freedom and non-discrimination, as guaranteed by human rights and democracy, also protect civil peace and therefore international peace.
  • Democracy promotes peace because it provides mechanisms for the peaceful transition from one ruler to another. There is no need for a violent succession struggle which can have international consequences. Opposition movements do not have to resort to extreme tactics in order to prove their point or to take over power. Leaders do not need to engage in dangerous international adventures in order to increase their legitimacy etc.
  • Governments which treat their own people with tolerance and respect tend to treat their neighbors in the same way.
  • Governments which cannot force people to do something against their will, will find it much harder to go to war. The people most often do not want to go to war, because it is they who suffer in the first place. To some extent, a tyranny does not need the agreement of the people to start or continue a war.

What is Democracy? (15): The Willingness to Live Together

Democracy is impossible when there is fundamental hostility between large groups in the state, when one group fears that a political victory of another group will harm its fundamental interests and when, as a consequence, groups are unwilling to live together. The tensions between communities resulting from this kind of situation makes the functioning of democratic procedures impossible and can lead to rights violations and even to civil war.

To some extent, national unity is a prerequisite for the preservation of any form of government, although an authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to survive in a situation of communal hostility and to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. If you hit me, I will hit you back and if I hit you back, you will hit me back again, and so on. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (3): Physical Security

Those human rights that protect a person’s security, bodily integrity and life, and that prohibit physical assault, dismemberment, torture, cruel punishment etc., acknowledge deep-rooted needs such as the wish to survive and to avoid pain.

Now, if it is reasonable to presume that some or even all people will not always be able to avoid violence and that it is preferable to avoid having other people revenging violence, then it is also reasonable to create an impartial institution that is above the people and that is strong enough to counter violence. This institution is the state. In many cases, the only way to eliminate or avoid violence is to threaten and punish the perpetrators. In order to be able to threaten and punish, you must be stronger. Citizens are seldom stronger than other citizens because even the strongest have to sleep. Only a state can be strong enough to counter or avoid violence by way of punishments. It can act as a third party which restricts the conflicting parties. It is above the parties, both because of its impartiality and because of its superior power. This superior power makes it able to enforce a decision on the conflict. Its impartiality means that it is not involved in the conflict and that it has a clear and impartial view of the problem and the possible solutions. The state uses the “security-rights” to control conflicts.

The state controls or limits conflicts and protects the life and body of its citizens in different ways, by punishing violence, but also by using systems and institutions that formalize, ritualize and soften conflicts, for example court proceedings or the democratic power game (the discussions in parliament and the ritualized changing of leaders in a peaceful way make it possible to avoid revolutions and other violent reactions of opposition movements). Security, peace and the protection of life are the first mission of the state and especially of the judicial power and the police, because this mission, once fulfilled, makes all other human activities possible.

Of course, the state has other missions as well. Some of them, such as public life, justice and freedom, are even more important, albeit perhaps less urgent. Urgency, however, is a debatable matter. One could say that public life, freedom or justice should come first because they promote peace and security. Furthermore, it often happens that missions that are more important than peace and security – because they correspond more to human life (after all, animals also want peace and security) – are overshadowed by peace and security (as for example in the theories of Hobbes and Kissinger). This is of course reprehensible, and self-destructive. Too much attention to peace and security can endanger peace and security.

People whose economic rights or whose right to free expression are violated because the rulers think that these rights are less important than peace and security, or that they should be sacrificed for the sake of peace and security, will revolt, and revolt automatically creates insecurity.

The problem is that human rights should do more than just regulate the peaceful coexistence of people with conflicting ideas. They should also regulate public interaction (e.g. culture, art, education, science). For this reason, we should avoid concentrating too much on security. Human rights protect security, not for the sake of security but for the sake of our public life, which of course needs security. However, security alone is not enough, and neither are those human rights that explicitly protect security. Human rights in general and the state acting as guardian of human rights do more than just guarantee peaceful and secure coexistence.

Concentrating too much on security also leads to a narrow view of the nature of citizenship. Citizens are more than people who try to achieve contradictory private interests, who come into conflict with one another, who cause violence and then require a state and rights in order to regain their security. They also create relationships and groups, they try to convince each other, they debate, they express themselves and they try to find a common interest. The state makes sure they can do so, both by limiting violence and by creating the structures in which debate and common actions are possible (structures such as elections, parliaments, court procedures, human rights etc.).

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (3): Absence of Peace

If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known. George C. Marshall

Peace or the absence of war and violent struggle is, of course, another important prerequisite for democracy and human rights. Human rights and the principles of democracy are heavily violated in times of war and this is even necessary. And although many human rights violations committed in the course of a war are not necessary, it is impossible to insist that all human rights and democratic principles be fully applied in a war situation. A war, because of the urgency it creates, makes it very difficult to respect certain democratic habits, such as the consultation of large parts of the population, the thorough examination of all alternatives etc. A strong, individual leadership seems better adapted to the urgencies of war. On top of that, the war effort and the war industry require a unity of vision and a high level of cooperation without dissent. Dissent can harm the struggle for survival. It weakens the effectiveness of common actions and it can be exploited by the enemy. In a state of war, society and politics take over many of the undemocratic habits of the military, such as unity of command, discipline, strong leadership, the absence of criticism, uniformity instead of diversity and so on. Needless to say that a war also means human rights violations. The war industry as well can harm human rights, for example the rights concerning free choice of labor, good working conditions etc.

A right to peace would, therefore, be very useful. Here I argue that democracy and human rights do a lot to create and maintain the peace they need for their own functioning.

Cultural Rights (1b): Tolerance

Tolerance as such is not a recognized human right, but it is closely connected to human rights. Why have the right to free speech or freedom of religion if your speech or religion is not tolerated?

Another person, another opinion or another way of life is not just something we have to tolerate like we tolerate bad weather. Social life is not completely negative or meaningless. The company of other people is not only a burden we have to tolerate. The company of others, especially the public company of others, is beneficial because it is necessary for thinking and knowledge. See my post on Kant.

The other person is a necessary part of each human life. We not only tolerate the other person, we also use him, follow him, contradict him, discuss with him, help him etc.

Diversity and tolerance of diversity can be very beneficial because they make it possible for us to learn from others, to debate with others and take into account their objections and counter-arguments, whereby we can come closer to the truth. We can take advantage of diversity and of tolerance of diversity, because diversity means other opinions and criticism of our own opinions. The school of tolerance teaches people to reap the benefits from conflict and difference, and makes people suspicious of all efforts to eliminate conflict or to let it degenerate into violence. Tolerance is more than just a restraint on violence. It contributes in a positive way to life.

Diversity is not, however, something static. Tolerance does not mean accepting diversity as it is and as it will always be. The purpose of tolerance is not to make opinions coexist without interaction of any kind other than bare acceptance, and acceptance is more than an armistice necessary to keep the peace between interests of which no single one is strong enough to impose itself. It must be possible to convince other people, to create a common will, a general interest or even a consensus that is limited to a small group. The function of tolerance is not to separate people and opinions, nor to maintain differences as they are. Its function is to make confrontation between opinions possible. Tolerance keeps aggressive people out of each other’s way; it does not keep people as such, let alone points of view, out of each other’s way. Confrontation can, of course, modify points of view and can eliminate (or enhance) differences. We have opinions on opinions, we judge, we convince, we become convinced, and we change our opinions accordingly. That is why difference in a tolerant world is something dynamic.

It is not because we tolerate someone or some point of view, that we do not have the right to say that this person is mistaken or the right to try to convince this person. Without the possibility to convince, the right to free expression loses much of its meaning. The pleasure of expressing an opinion, showing off and expressing our identity are not the only reasons for expressing an opinion. In most cases, we express an opinion because we want to convince other people. However, taking into account the importance of convincing could lead to another aberration. Tolerance should not be considered as something temporary, necessary as long as opinions differ. Opinions will most probably always differ, and we will therefore always need tolerance.

Given the importance of convincing, we should not blame people for being intolerant when they criticize or even laugh at another point of view. You can be tolerant and “politically incorrect” at the same time. After all, tolerance is there to make criticism possible. Without tolerance, there is only unity. And unity implies the absence of criticism. You are intolerant only when you suppress opinions or customs, when you persecute, physically attack or discriminate people who have another opinion or custom, or when you use force to change people’s opinions or customs.

Tolerant people therefore do not have to leave things as they are for the love of peace, because of indifference, lack of power, or whatever. If you want things to be different, go ahead and argue. You should not be accused of intolerance. Tolerance is sterile when it is no more than putting up with each other or avoiding to persecute people with different beliefs. Tolerance should lead to relationships based on the benefits of difference, criticism and public life.