Types of Human Rights Violations (7): Unintentional Human Rights Violations

The common view is that there can’t be unintentional human rights violations: only when someone intentionally harms the rights of someone else can we talk about rights violations. In all other cases we should talk about accidents, tragedies or misfortune. However, I’ve never understood this common view. There is criminal liability for accidentally running someone over with a car, but if we unintentionally reduce someone’s freedom or equal standing should that person simply suffer her misfortune rather than seek redress for violations of her rights? That can’t be true. What’s important about human rights is the harm to the victim, not the state of mind of the perpetrator. Rights are about victims, not perpetrators.

So below are a few examples of unintentional human rights violations (you can suggest more in comments).

Criminal punishment is often a very intentional human rights violation. Think of capital punishment and excessively long or discriminatory incarceration. However, let’s assume that there are cases of justified criminal punishment which merely aim to limit some of the human rights of criminals rather than violate them – the difference is that limitations, contrary to violations, are necessary for the protection of rights of others. (This is not an assumption that is evidently true – see here – but let’s leave our doubts at the door for a while).

Justified criminal punishment must be imposed intentionally. Unintentional side effects of incarceration, for instance, should not therefore be part of legitimate criminal punishment. Examples of such side effects are loss of income, loss of education opportunities, prison rape etc. These, unfortunately, are very common side effects, and incarceration thus unintentionally produces rights violations. That is something which should – but never is – taken into account when imposing prison sentences, especially when, such as in this case, the unintentional human rights violations are eminently foreseeable. (More about this here).

Immigration restrictions are imposed not because decision makers in the destination countries want to condemn large parts of humanity to a life of desperation. They are imposed because people – mistakenly in my view – believe that such restrictions serve to protect a national culture, national prosperity or law and order. However, the fact is that immigration restrictions unintentionally perpetuate poverty, and poverty is a human rights violation. Freedom of association and freedom of movement are also violated by immigration restrictions, and those rights violations are also unintentional.

Poverty in general is usually an unintentional human rights violation. Few people deliberately create or perpetuate poverty, and yet there’s a lot of poverty in the world. While some of it is due to natural causes, misfortune or self-destructive actions, most of it is the result of unintentional actions by other people: certain economic policies (such as anti-poor trade policy), or unintentional failure to act charitably. More about this here.

As you can see from all these examples, the absence of an intention to violate rights is not a sufficient reason to negate the reality of violations. It’s also not sufficient to clear people of responsibility. Even if people do not have the intention to violate rights, they should try to assess whether violations are possible side effects of their actions. And in all the examples given, this assessment is relatively easy. If you think about it, you know that you’ll violate rights unintentionally when you lock up criminals, when you stop people at the border or when you implement certain economic policies. Hence, just like the reckless driver hitting someone with his car, you may be held accountable if your actions in the spheres of justice, border control or trade – or in any other sphere for that matter – cause unintended rights violations.

One day I will offer a complete typology of human rights violations. I think…

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (2): Child Soldiers

Human rights policies don’t always work out the way we want them to. Almost any significant action has unintended consequences, and in some cases these consequences can turn out to be the exact opposite of what we intended. As Kierkegaard said, life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards. Some of the best intentioned human rights activism just perpetuates the rights violations it wants to combat, and perhaps even makes things worse.

I now found another example in an interesting paper by Blattman and Beber. The paper is about child soldiering and looks at some of the things governments can do about it. Child soldiers are often recruited by insurgent groups. Governments can decide to increase counter-insurgency efforts in order to stop the insurgents from recruiting children. But this counter-insurgency increases the minimum force size requirement for the rebel group, hence also the rebel leaders’ incentives to abduct children.

Now suppose the government reaction is not to step up hostilities but to develop educational and economic opportunities for children so that children have larger outside choices which make it more likely that they escape from and less likely that they are lured by the rebels. However, according to Blattman and Beber, intermediate levels of development of such choices could push the optimal age of recruitment of child soldiers downwards. And if outside choices increase, the incentives for the rebel group to take over the country also increase. If rebel group incentives increase, the incentives to recruit children also increase.