What Are Human Rights? (20): Universal Rights

Legally and morally, human rights are universal norms and rules. Almost all countries in the world have accepted international treaties that translate human rights into law, or have accepted membership of international institutions which proclaim to respect human rights or work towards the realization of human rights (such as the UN). Moreover, most if not all national constitutions proclaim human rights to be part of the country’s highest law. Even North-Korea recently changed its constitution in this sense.

The example of North-Korea makes it obvious that legal universality isn’t the same thing as universality tout court. There are in fact three types of universality – legal, moral and factual universality: universal acceptance of legal rules, universal acceptance of moral rules, and universal respect for legal/moral rules. Ultimately, it’s the last one that counts, of course. These three types don’t require each other, but the last one obviously benefits from the presence of the first two:

  • Legal universality. Legal consensus doesn’t require moral or factual universality. Countries can adopt legal rules for other reasons than moral conviction, and legal rules are – by definition I would say, otherwise we wouldn’t need any legal rules – regularly violated.
  • Moral universality: there’s moral universality when human rights are part of the “morality of the world” (or Weltethos), or – in other words – are accepted as peremptory moral rules by all of the world’s cultures, nations, subcultures, religions etc. This doesn’t require legal universality. You can have moral consensus and still have a rogue dictator somewhere who has refused to sign a treaty. Nor does it require factual universality, again because you don’t need a rule – legal or moral – for something that is a fact.
  • Factual universality: human rights are not just norms but facts; there are no human rights violations. Again, this doesn’t require legal or moral universality, since actual respect for human rights may have other causes than legal or moral pressure. However, it’s fair to say that without legal and  – especially – moral universality, factual universality is highly unlikely (although many would say that it’s utopian in any case).

Notwithstanding the prominence of human rights talk in almost all domains of life and all corners of the world, there is no moral universality. There are certain ideologies and schools of thought (yes, there’s a difference) that argue against the universal value of human rights. Either they argue against human rights in general, or – more commonly – they argue against certain elements of the system of human rights: for instance, they may reject certain types of human rights (e.g. economic rights), or they may reject the “absoluteness” of human rights and accept that certain human rights can be bracketed in certain circumstances when higher values are in danger (e.g. the use of torture in emergencies). Examples of arguments against the universality of the entire system of human rights can be found in the theory called “cultural relativism“, or in the view that economic development has priority over human rights.

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

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

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

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

Limiting Free Speech (25): Does Freedom of Religion Require Limits on Freedom of Speech?

The UN Human Rights Council recently passed a Resolution on Religious Defamation. The main concern of the drafters of this resolution is islamophobia, defamation of Muslims, negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam, and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. The main targets are, obviously, western societies where, it is believed, “terrorism hysteria” has caused widespread anti-Muslim feelings.

Of course, no one should accept discrimination and intolerance, and even less islamophobic acts of violence. If there is discrimination and violence, then these human rights violations should be countered, wherever they occur, in the West and elsewhere. However, trying to outlaw defamation and stereotyping is a lot more controversial. While such acts are certainly not helpful in any circumstances, it’s not beyond doubt that they are harmful in themselves or that they are the single most important cause of more harmful acts, such as discrimination and violence.

For the proponents of the resolution, this is beyond doubt. Defamation, stereotyping, derogatory speech, blasphemy etc. are all believed to be harmful enough to justify limiting freedom of speech. The resolution clearly proposes such limits. It talks about

the need, in all societies, to show sensitivity and responsibility in treating issues of special significance for the adherents of any particular faith.

The “provocative or regrettable incidents” it mentions are clearly but not explicitly instances of speech rather than the very rare cases of actual violence and discrimination against western Muslims, namely the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the remarks by Pope Benedict, the Rushdie affair, the attempts of some to equate Islam with terrorism etc. The resolution urges

States to take actions to prohibit the dissemination of… material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence,

and says that

respect of religions and their protection from contempt is an essential element conducive for the exercise by all of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

So in these statements, there are two distinct attempts to justify limits on speech that defames and stereotypes Islam:

  1. The first justification is that such speech is hate speech and speech that incites violence and discrimination.
  2. The second is that it restricts the freedom of religion of its targets.

I dealt with the first one before, in this post (where I argued for a very limited possibility to restrict hate speech), so here I’ll focus on the second one. Of course, the second one can collapse into the first one, if the restriction of freedom of religion is supposed to follow from acts of violence that are caused by speech. Acts of violence can indeed restrict freedom of religion, but this argument isn’t valid in the case of Muslims in the West, who have only very rarely been subjected to islamophobic violence and who therefore cannot claim that hate speech and the resulting violence restrict their freedom of religion. If anything, Muslims have more religious freedom in the West than in many Muslim countries.

So something more is meant by the second justification of limits on freedom of speech. It’s not, however, clear what exactly is meant. I haven’t been able to find examples, given by proponents of the resolution, of ways in which speech can restrict an individual’s freedom of religion. These proponents don’t get any further than the general claim that freedom of religion requires laws against defamation, and most likely also blasphemy, and corresponding limitations of free speech.

The question here, of course, is whether freedom of speech can in any way restrict the freedom of religion. If that is the case, then a trade-off has to be made as in all cases in which different human rights come into conflict. But I don’t think that is the case. On the contrary. Freedom of speech is an essential safeguard for freedom of religion.

Now, let’s suppose that there exists, somewhere, a good argument linking defamatory speech and restrictions of freedom of religion, but that I’m just not aware of it (yet). The problem is that, even if defamatory speech can in some obscure way limit someone’s freedom of religion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that in such a case freedom of religion should automatically take precedence over freedom of speech. When two rights come into conflict, it’s often very difficult to decide which one has priority.

Another problem with this undiscovered argument is the vagueness of “defamatory”. Defamation, according to Wikipedia, means the following:

In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel (for written publications), slander (for spoken word), and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

Defamation – also libel or slander – is the offense of bringing a person into undeserved disrepute by making false statements. (I already discussed the relationship between free speech and defamation or libel here).

This definition, however, doesn’t help a lot because it doesn’t make clear what is or is not supposed to be considered as defamatory. What is defamatory differs from one person to another. And this vagueness of the concept may have far-reaching consequences. Suppose we agree that there are good reasons to restrict defamatory speech for the sake of freedom of religion. Is it not likely that those who have to enforce these legal restrictions will be tempted to use them to stifle legitimate criticism of religion instead of real defamation? Where is the border between defamation and criticism? Or between defamation and alternative, non-official interpretations of a religion? I guess that there will be a rapid transition from concerns about religious freedom to their exact opposite, namely policies to punish heresy, blasphemy and apostasy, and to criminalize dissent in general. It’s not defamation of religion that harms but the measures taken to defend religions from defamation – or, better, the measures that are claimed to be taken in defense or religion, but more often than not are taken in defense of power.

Human Rights and International Law (11): International Law Between Protecting and Obstructing Human Rights; The Rules on Immunity and Intervention

When human rights are violated by people who represent a state – such as a head of state who orders rights violations or carries them out himself – it often happens that the national rights protection mechanisms, such as the courts and the police, do not assume their responsibility to protect. The individuals who have committed rights violations are not prosecuted by their own states, because they represent the state. They have control over the agencies that normally (should) prosecute rights violations.

This is de facto immunity. And this can extend even to the period after they have left power. Maybe they managed to make some kind of amnesty deal with the new democracy, or they just use their influence and their friends in order to pervert the justice system and the division of powers and to escape punishment.

But often these people – even when they have left power, such as former heads of state – enjoy not only de facto but also de juri immunity in national or even international law. Whatever the merits of the rules on immunity in international law, this can never be justified in cases involving rights violations. The theory of immunity says that heads of state or leading functionaries are not responsible for their actions. They 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 always hide behind the “Befehl ist Befehl” principle. They cannot be punished because they follow orders from people who themselves are not responsible.

Only by transcending the 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 Charter of the Tribunal clearly states that individuals have international obligations that go beyond their national obligations or commands. Since Nuremberg, it is no longer possible to claim that international law only deals with “acts of state” and that individuals cannot be punished for the acts they commit as representatives of their state or as executives carrying out orders. Nuremberg has given individuals criminal responsibility in international law.

Citizens are no longer at the mercy of powerful individuals within their states. It has become more difficult for individuals to shed their responsibility and to hide behind their functions, immunities, privileges, or hierarchy. Individuals can be made internationally accountable for their actions if these actions are crimes under international law. The fact that national law is not applied, is silent in the matter, or even explicitly approves or imposes the actions does not guarantee an escape from justice.

One of the characteristics of international law is its priority over national law. Human rights especially, as far as they have become part of international law, have priority over national law. Violations of rights that are not punished by national law or that are explicitly ordered by national law can be crimes under international law, in which case international law has priority. Individuals or states can be sentenced and condemned by organs representative of the international community.

But this immediately raises the legal problem of international intervention, as does the right of international institutions to hear complaints by individuals whose rights are violated and who can’t find redress in their national courts, and the right of international institutions to monitor the human rights situation inside individual states. Intervention is forbidden under international law, and this prohibition is a part of international law which, like the rule on immunity, obstructs human rights. The Charter of the UN, although it mentions human rights as one of its aims, specifically prohibits intervention in so-called internal affairs of member states, in the intra-national relationships between states and their citizens (this is the infamous article 2, paragraph 7:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

This article is often used against attempts to intervene for the sake of human rights. Even merely verbal criticism of rights violations is often supposed to be the type of “intervention” prohibited by article 2, paragraph 7. The “matters” referred to in the article are never precisely defined, so that every state is free to define them. Hence, intervention becomes practically impossible.

However, some acts clearly do not belong to these “matters”: violations of international law; attacks on international peace; and, according to some, systematic and extreme violations of human rights if these violations threaten international peace. Chapter VII of the Charter allows intervention in these cases following a decision by the Security Council, and article 2 explicitly provides an exception for this kind of intervention.

This is important for human rights, and today’s consensus on the definition of “matters” may even include grave violations that do not result in threats to peace. Some “internal matters,” which at first sight can benefit from article 2, paragraph 7, are clearly violations of other provisions of the Charter, e.g., structural violations of human rights such as apartheid (in particular article 55). In that case, some believe that the UN may take measures under Chapter VII (sanctions or even military intervention). Chapter VII can override article 2, paragraph 7, and is perhaps an instrument to enforce certain human rights in certain cases.

Self-determination and sovereignty are very important, but it is obvious that these concepts can easily be used to counter criticism of rights violations. The protection of states requires the doctrine of non-intervention and of the equality of sovereign states. Unfortunately, what is necessary for the protection of states is often harmful to human rights.

Although the views today are perhaps a bit more shaded, it is tradition to assume that the only legitimate enforcement actions of the UN agencies (so-called “collective measures” and “preventive or enforcement action” under Chapter VII) are actions directed at the protection or enforcement of international peace. This is important enough also for human rights, but it only includes actions necessary to enforce respect for human rights when those human rights are directly violated as a consequence of the absence of peace or when their violation may lead to breaches of peace.

What is Democracy? (1): International Democracy

Is democracy possible at a level that is higher than that of the state? A number of problems can only be solved at a transnational level. If democracy is important, then it is important that transnational decisions and organizations are democratic and based on the agreement of the people.

But is it possible ? Democracy is not at its best on a large scale. Efficient participation is difficult in very large groups. On the other hand, international cooperation can stop events taking place without the agreement of the people. If we have international cooperation, we can avoid the situation in which one country takes a decision that has a negative effect in another country (for example, the decision to build a nuclear plant just at the border with another country, without involving the people of this other country; or the decision of one country to start destroying its rain forests, irrespective of the consequence for the global climate). International cooperation in the sense of defense cooperation in institutions like NATO can protect the national sovereignty of individual states and therefore also the right to self-government of the people of these individual states. And finally, international cooperation allows a nation to solve problems which it cannot solve on its own (pollution for example). In everyone of these three cases do we see that international cooperation has a positive influence on self-government.

It is obvious that international organizations, set up to solve international problems and hence to give control to the people, must be democratic, at least when we remember that self-government is among the reasons for solving international problems. Some of these problems inhibit self-government because an individual nation is not able to deal with them. International organizations are set up to recreate self-government by solving problems that inhibit self-government. Therefore, one should not create an undemocratic international institution, because the purpose of such an institution is precisely self-government.

How can we make international organizations more democratic than they currently are? There are not many examples to inspire us. In any case, the people of the different states have to be represented in these organizations and not only in their own states. Direct democracy is also a possibility. Perhaps we can presume that we have a democratic decision from the moment that democratic states, in their position of members of the organization, take a common decision. These states represent the people and hence the people are indirectly involved in the decision. However, do these states have to decide unanimously? Or can we also apply the system of majority rule at an international level? In the latter case, we put aside entire nations. Is this acceptable? It is certainly not acceptable for the nations concerned. The reason why these nations joined the organization in the first place, was to solve problems that escaped their power and to recapture their sovereignty. They will never accept to be outvoted.

The fact that international organizations take away a part of the sovereignty of states in order to be able to solve certain problems, does not have to imply a weakening of democracy. On the contrary, it can imply the rescue of democracy, on the condition of course that these organizations are governed democratically. The people of every individual state have less democratic power because they are minorities in a larger entity, but the “people” of the whole have more democracy because they are now able to solve problems they were not able to solve when they were still divided.

International cooperation can also promote democracy because it implies mutual influence. A state that needs other states in order to solve environmental problems for example will find it more difficult to ignore demands from these other states aimed at an improvement of the human rights situation. The shield of sovereignty loses its strength and can no longer be used to counter criticism of human rights violations, because it is precisely the lack of sovereignty or self-government which forced the states to cooperate.