The Causes of Human Rights Violations (44): Corruption

Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is immoral and bad in numerous ways, but it’s not a human rights violation. At least not as such. To my knowledge, human rights law doesn’t contain an explicit right not to suffer the consequences of corruption. However, it is the case that corruption causes various rights violations. For example, it can often be viewed as a form of theft and hence a violation of the right to private property. And in the case of corruption in the justice system, the right to a fair trial is violated.

Moreover, corruption has a negative impact on GDP – mainly because it’s a tax on investment – and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between GDP and poverty reduction). And there is a right not to suffer poverty. Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries. It’s obvious that individuals – especially those who are poor or near the poverty line – can make better use of the funds that they have to spend on bribes.

Furthermore, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. The rule of law is also harmed directly by corruption, namely by corruption inside the judiciary and the police force, and this has an immediate impact on human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions. It can therefore destroy democracy, and democracy is both a human right and a means to protect human rights in general.

So, if we can agree that corruption is a cause of various human rights violations, then the question is: who is responsible for corruption and hence for the rights violations occurring because of it? I would say that it’s the government officials taking bribes (and possibly the banks safeguarding the proceeds) rather than the private persons or companies paying the bribes, at least in general. The latter would presumably prefer not to pay bribes and often find themselves in situations in which they have no choice.

Now, you could say that some corrupt officials, especially those at the lower levels of government, don’t have a choice either: without the proceeds of corruption they may well end up in poverty. Demanding bribes is then the alternative for a failed economy and a failed state. However, I think it’s fair to claim that they still have, in general, a wider set of options than many of those having to pay bribes. If you’re stopped by the police and they ask you for a bribe, it seems that your options are more constrained than the options of the police asking for the bribe. It seems easier for the police to find additional non-corrupt sources of income than it is for you to escape the demands of the police. Of course, this isn’t the case in all types of corruption. For example, a large multinational company may find it relatively easy to pay a bribe, and may have more options than the official who’s asking the bribe (and it may very well solicit the payment of the bribe in the first place as a way to outsmart competitor companies).

Next question: what to do about it? Everyone agrees that corruption is bad, and many believe that it’s bad for human rights, but almost no one seems to know how to stop it. And it is, indeed, a problem that is as old as history. One thing we could do is spell out the issue of corruption more clearly in terms of human rights. However, human rights claims by the victims of corruption are probably not very effective, since one consequence of corruption is the weakening or destruction of the judicial institutions necessary for the enforcement of human rights. In that sense, linking corruption and human rights may seem futile or at least of limited practical use.

However, human rights claims aren’t just legal claims that depend on functioning and non-corrupt institutions to be enforced. They are also moral claims and they can have some effect as such. They can be used to denounce widespread systems of corruption and thereby help to change a culture and a mentality, especially over the long run. But moral claims will not destroy endemic corruption by themselves. Countries that suffer high degrees of corruption probably need external help in institution building. Also, economic development will probably reduce corruption, given the correlation cited above between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption. Helping countries to develop will then also help them to fight corruption.

This is an interesting talk about ways to fight corruption (the relevant part starts around the 5th minute):

More on corruption. More posts in this series.


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.

Economic Human Rights (34): The Cost of Human Rights, and of Economic Rights More Specifically

Human rights cost money. It’s often claimed that economic human rights aren’t really human rights because they are so expensive for many governments in the world that they can’t realistically impose duties: governments of poor countries can’t be expected to respect a duty to provide healthcare, housing, food, work etc. Ought implies can. You can’t be under an obligation if there’s no way you can honor that obligation. It’s claimed, therefore, that economic rights are mere aspirations rather than rights.

Yet, the same argument can be made about the supposedly more distinguished and respectable freedom rights. It’s strange, many countries in the world can’t manage to create the institutions and the governance to enforce freedom rights, simply because they don’t have the means (and sometimes the willingness), and yet this fact doesn’t make people think twice about the reality of freedom rights.

Providing effective and non-corrupt police forces and judiciaries is expensive. Probably just as expensive as providing a good public healthcare system. True, rights have to be enforceable, and duties shouldn’t be farcically unrealistic. But I fail to see the ontological difference here between freedom rights and economic rights.

We also shouldn’t overestimate the cost of economic rights. The purpose of these rights is not to have a government that gives healthcare, food, work etc. to every single citizen. That would destroy the economy. A system of economic rights will require that most people provide these goods for themselves through work and economic activity. It will also require that citizens show generosity and help each other. Economic rights also create duties for fellow-citizens. The government supplies the goods in the remaining cases, when self-help and mutual help are not enough.

As a result, the cost of economic rights isn’t as high as a cursory reading of these rights would imply. Conversely, the cost of freedom rights is often higher than one would conclude at first sight: true, these rights often require abstinence and forbearance (“don’t invade my privacy or inhibit my speech”) and that’s something cheap. But the enforcement and equal protection of those rights and the enforcement of forbearance requires an efficient government, which is expensive.

Something about another cost issue related to human rights, namely the relative cost of freedom and dictatorship, is here.

Limiting Free Speech (37): Incitement to Murder and Death Threats

Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.

In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),

a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).

Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

Human Rights and International Law (9): Impunity

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

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

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

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

Reasons for impunity

Here are some of these reasons for impunity:

1. Self-Preservation

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

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

2. The solidarity of tyrants

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

3. The law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Institutional problems

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

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


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

Cultural Rights (9): Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is the violent displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory in order to create an ethnically “clean” unit, i.e. a territorial unit composed of only one ethnic group. The means used to achieve ethnic unity are:

  • direct military force
  • police brutality
  • genocide
  • the threat of force
  • intimidation
  • rape
  • pogrom
  • demolition of housing, places of worship, infrastructure
  • discriminatory legislation or policies
  • tribal politics
  • economic exclusion
  • hate speech, propaganda
  • rewriting of history, fabrication of historical resentment
  • a combination of the above.

Given these various “tools”, it is not correct to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. There are more or less violent forms of ethnic cleansing, although all forms contain some kind of force, otherwise one would speak merely of voluntary migration. Deportation or displacement of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group.

Given the element of force it is correct to denounce all forms of ethnic cleansing, not only on the grounds of some kind of ideal of multiculturalism, but also on the grounds of the self-determination of the people involved, of their right to settle where they want, their freedom of movement etc. It is defined as a crime against humanity.

The best known cases of ethnic cleansing are:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
  • Iraq during the Iraq war
  • India and Pakistan during their partition
  • The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict
  • Rwanda during the genocide
  • The relocation of Native American peoples from their traditional areas
  • The forced removals of non-white populations during the apartheid era
  • The Palestinian exodus
  • Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II
  • Darfur
  • etc.

However, it seems that this tactic has been known to humanity since a long time. Some even believe that the Neanderthals were victims of ethnic cleansing.

Some of the justifications given in defense of ethnic cleansing are:

  • To remove the conditions for potential and actual opposition. According to Mao Zedong, guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water. By draining the water, one disables the fish.
  • To create a separate state for one ethnic group. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because one assumes that in such a state it is inevitable that some groups are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting-pot world with no clear territorial separation of groups within states, is the use of force.
  • To redeem a society that is literally “unclean” and “sick” because of the presence of inferior humans.