A Killer Argument Against the Quantitative Approach to Human Rights?

Joseph Stalin wasn’t a very nice man. Among his lesser sins was his disdain for statistics: “kill a man and it’s a tragedy, kill a million and it’s a statistic”. What he meant of course was not just that it’s a statistic, but also that it’s not very important. Who cares if Stalin or anyone else killed one million, 10 million or 6,321,012? People care about actual persons, not numbers. (Actually, it’s a misquote; he never really said it).

Regular readers of this blog immediately recognize this as a frontal attack on our main project, the quantitative approach to human rights. I believe that it’s very important to have statistics and other quantitative data on human rights violations if we want to measure progress on human rights. In other words, I do care about numbers. We need to know how many people die of hunger, how many live in poverty etc. so that we can assess the quality and impact of our policies.

Now, I have to admit that Stalin was on to something. Numbers don’t carry a lot of meaning and don’t engender empathy. Powerful anecdotes about the fate of individual persons, testimonies and other narratives about concrete cases make it more likely that people start to care. If you tell school children for example that an estimated 850,000 people died during the Rwandan genocide or that less than 20% of China’s citizens now live on less than $1 a day compared to 80% 30 years ago, they will probably register this information, but they will only really start to care about genocide or poverty when they read about the stories of individuals. If you focus on human rights violations as quantities you may end up viewing human beings as quantities as well, and then you lose the motivating power of the individual story. There’s no room for differences between cases if you focus on numbers, and there are no individual and motivating stories without differences between cases.

The same argument against the abstraction and lack of meaning in numbers can be used against human rights talk in general, and not just quantitative talk. Human rights talk, like number talk, is abstract, devoid of specific personal stories. It’s talk about a biological species and the rights that it has, not about persons. The lists of human rights in treaties and declarations are very general and abstract sentences separated from specific circumstances and people, as they have to be. Human rights make differences between people morally irrelevant, and they have to do so otherwise you end up with privileges instead of human rights. However, we may end up not with the desired equality of rights but with sameness and interchangeable specimens of a biological species. And then we lose the motivating power of very specific and personal stories about suffering and oppression.

The answer to this challenge against number talk and rights talk is obvious, however: one approach doesn’t exclude the other. Numbers and abstractions may not be very motivating but they can help to assess the success of people who are otherwise motivated. And some of us may be motivated by numbers after all.

Limiting Free Speech (39): From Hate Speech to Hate Crime, the Case of Rwanda

Although I take human rights, and especially freedom of expression, very seriously (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise), I also believe that hate speech can produce hate crime. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. This is called incitement to violence. I do understand the problems with this justification of limits on freedom of speech: it can be abused by those who want to muzzle their opponents. If people react violently to criticism, ridicule or insults, then they may claim – wrongly in my view – that the responsibility for the violent acts lies with those making “incendiary remarks”. You can read my objections against this type of argument here.

Nevertheless, I think there are other cases in which hateful words can turn into hateful crimes. The classic example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan hate radio that called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic minority population before and during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (it infamously swept up the Hutu’s to start a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”):

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and called for violence against Tutsis, which many experts believe significantly contributed to the violence. An interesting new job-market paper by David Yanagizawa seeks to determine the precise role that RTLM played in the genocide. Yanagizawa relies on “arguably exogenous variation in radio coverage generated by hills in the line-of-sight between radio transmitters and village” to determine the causal effects of RTLM. He finds that RTLM played a significant role in the genocide: full village radio coverage increased violence by 65 percent to 77 percent. The effects are larger in villages with a large Hutu majority and in villages without access to other information sources i.e. villages with lower literacy rates. In total, Yanagizawa calculates that the radio station’s broadcasts explain 45,000 deaths (or 9 percent of the total death toll). (source)

If this is correct, it’s difficult to maintain the doctrinal position that freedom of speech is always and absolutely beneficial and worthy of protection without exception. Unless of course you claim that freedom of speech is more important than the right to life. I refer to an older post on balancing different human rights.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is absolutely vital, for many different reasons (some as fundamental as thought itself, see here), and no regular reader of this blog can say that I’m ambivalent about it. But what I do object to is the school of thought that believes free speech is the uppermost value, trumping all others in all cases and all circumstances. Maybe this quote from Isaiah Berlin can help to get my point across:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. (source)

This description of Berlin’s value pluralism is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another. Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty; … knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life”; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are”; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand. … “we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others”.

Cultural Rights (11): Genocide

 

Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:

  • the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
  • inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
  • measures intended to prevent births
  • systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)

“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.

The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”

The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.

Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).

Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:

  • dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
  • promotion of narratives of “us and them
  • hate propaganda, polarization
  • criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
  • identification of victims (“yellow star”)
  • concentration of victims (ghettos)
  • mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
  • state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)

The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:

  • long-lasting tensions
  • imbalances in political power
  • imbalances in wealth or economic power
  • scarcity
  • religious incompatibilities
  • indoctrination and propaganda
  • civil war
  • ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
  • ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
  • colonial heritage
  • outside indifference
  • etc.

Migration and Human Rights (6): Xenophobia

Xenophobia, the contempt or fear of strangers or foreign people, often people of a different race or ethnic group, is not considered to be a disease like other “phobias”. It is part of a political struggle against adversaries, much like racism is. (Whereas racism is certainly xenophobic, xenophobia doesn’t have to be racist; it can be directed against groups which are not racially different from the xenophobes).

Xenophobia often takes places within a society rather than between societies. A group present within a society is not considered a legitimate part of that society and has to be expelled or assimilated in order not to corrupt or damage the interests of the rest of society. Hence the link to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Causes of xenophobia include:

  • Ethnically-based nationalism (e.g. xenophobia in the Balkan countries)
  • Migration, although xenophobia may be directed against a group which has been present for centuries, or against very small numbers of immigrants or foreigners (e.g. Japan in the 19th century)
  • Perceived threats to culture or national identity
  • Religious doctrine (e.g. the attitude of some Muslims towards unbelievers)
  • Perceptions of neocolonialism (e.g. present-day Zimbabwe)
  • Political imbalances (e.g. one group holding a disproportionate share of political power, e.g. anti-Tutsi xenophobia in Rwanda before and during the genocide)
  • Terrorism (e.g. anti-Muslim xenophobia following 9-11)
  • Competition for scarce resources
  • A mix of the above.