Why Do We Need Human Rights? (15): Is Human Rights Talk Mere Signaling?

There’s certainly a lot of signaling going on in human rights talk. People who engage in human rights talk don’t necessarily have as a first priority the goal of improving respect for human rights, but rather want to convey some meaningful information about themselves and use human rights talk to do that.

For example, it’s possible that some of the people who are very expressive about perceived discrimination of a particular minority group may be primarily motivated by a possible leadership position within that minority group. Their human rights talk signals leadership aspirations. Some allegations by torture victims may not be intended to stop a torture regime, but to signal extremist credentials to like-minded people. Also regarding torture, I’ve written not so long ago about a study suggesting that some governments sign torture conventions, not to rid the world of torture, but to signal ruthlessness: they sign the convention and just continue their torture methods, thereby telling their victims and their population in general that they are so powerful that they can voluntarily submit to laws and then deliberately and openly break them in the face of impotent international opprobrium.

Another example is the ritualistic condemnation of China’s human rights record. Western leaders, when visiting China or playing host to Chinese leaders, are expected to repeat some standard phrases about human rights in China. That’s what their national constituencies expect from them, and they grudgingly comply. It has become part of protocol, like kissing the Pope’s ring. It’s utterly meaningless because real action to pressure China is completely lacking. China knows this, but goes along and issues its equally ritualistic counter-claims of national sovereignty blah blah. The West signals that it cares about human rights; the Chinese leaders that they don’t.

Something similar is happening with universal jurisdiction. Countries engaging in universal jurisdiction often start court cases against foreign dictators, without the slightest hope of actually punishing and imprisoning those dictators, but at least they signal that the “world community” doesn’t silently accept atrocity. And perhaps they also signal their own country’s moral superiority. A lot of human rights talk seems to be about moral superiority.

Karl Marx already identified signaling as a important function of human rights, although he pushed his point a bit too far. Human rights, according to him, are an ideology. An ideology pretends to be a description of the world but in reality it masks certain key aspects of it in order to maintain the economic status quo. It is an instrument in the continuation of the existing social order. Those who may threaten the status quo in a revolutionary way can be convinced by the ideology of human rights to work within the system and struggle for equal rights. However, these equal rights, according to Marx, can only deliver formal equality, not real equality. Only a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can achieve the latter. Human rights signal equality but in reality serve to maintain class rule.

Those who benefit from the existing order and who are therefore part of the ruling class, will tend to produce and propagate ideologies. Religion is another example of an ideology, and one that works in much the same way as the ideology of human rights. Desires that can harm the existing order and the status quo – such as desires for equality – must be neutralized. The idea of the Christian paradise expresses certain desires for a better world but makes it impossible to realize them and to threaten the existing order. By convincing people that these desires can only be realized in the afterlife, the idea or better ideology of paradise pacifies relationships in this life. Why revolt if you know that equality and happiness are there for the taking in a future life? Especially when you will only get paradise if you respect morality in this life and when morality is often and conveniently incompatible with the consequences of revolt.

Religious ideology neutralizes desires by situating them in the afterlife. Religion is opium for the people, a drug that makes them forget the pain of this world, or at least convinces them to accept this pain, because pain can lead to revolt and those in power never like revolt. Something similar is inherent in the ideology of human rights. The use of force or coercion by the state in the defense of the right to capitalist property, for example, is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that property is a human right which is in their interest, rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.

All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights signal freedom and equality, and give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality, but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights, according to Marx, give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.

Human rights, he says, are a set of false ideas that have to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain.

I think that view is far too pessimistic and takes the signaling thing way too serious. It ignores the transformative power of human rights. There is signaling going on in human rights talk, but a lot of other stuff as well. Some talk is really aimed primarily or exclusively at a real transformation of reality toward a higher level of human rights protection. And a lot of that talk really works in the sense that life is changed by speech. Sometimes human rights aren’t about human rights, but often they are.

Human Rights and International Law (16): In Defense of Universal Jurisdiction

Universal jurisdiction, according to Wikipedia, is:

a principle in international law whereby states claim criminal jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting country. The state backs its claim on the grounds that the crime committed is considered a crime against all, which any state is authorized to punish. (source)

Universal jurisdiction departs from the standard principle that there should be some kind of connection between an act and the state asserting jurisdiction over it. In other words, the normal rule is that states exercise justice in relation to crimes committed on their territory or crimes committed by their nationals abroad. Indeed, this departure is the main criticism of universal jurisdiction: by allowing a state to prosecute individuals who are not its citizens, and who have committed crimes in other states, against people who are citizens of other states, we in fact allow this state to violate the right to self-determination of other states.

However, universal jurisdiction is nothing new, and most countries accept some kinds of universal jurisdiction. For example, few now oppose the right of Israel to judge Adolph Eichmann. The discussion, therefore, centers on the proper extent of universal jurisdiction. Human rights activists claim that states should be able to exercise universal jurisdiction in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, war crimes and slavery.

The reason behind this list is also the main justification of universal jurisdiction. These crimes affect all of us, the whole of humanity, and not just the immediate victims. Those who commit these offenses are hostis humani generis, enemies of humanity. And this has to be taken literally: these crimes are attacks on humanity, not just on individual human beings. The torturer dehumanizes his victim, but also himself. And he infects the society in which he operates. A society that allows torturers in its midst, can no longer be called a society. The same can be said of genocide and the other crimes in the list.

Universal jurisdiction is the act of reclaiming humanity. It is a statement by different parts of the world community, claiming that humanity does not accept such crimes. It is, therefore, an expression of humanity against those who attack humanity. And it’s a powerful expression of humanity precisely because it emerges from different parts of humanity, different countries and nations which all have an interest in the preservation of humanity.

I can imagine that some would object to all of this and would insist that crimes are committed against individuals, and not against an abstract entity such as “humanity”. But then I would invite those people to explain how they differentiate between a single anti-semitic murder and the holocaust. Or between a single case of an individual torturing another individual, and a case of state organized torture. I do believe that the concept of “crimes against humanity” makes sense, and that universal jurisdiction is a good way to respond to those crimes, maybe not from a purely legal point of view (universal jurisdiction isn’t the most effective jurisdiction) but from a human point of view.

Human Rights and International Law (15): Human Rights and Business, and the Problem of Legally Enforceable “Corporate Social Responsibility”

Something more on the impact of businesses or companies on human rights.

What is “Corporate Social Responsibility”?

Companies, like any other human entity with the power to act and influence people’s lives, should respect human rights and should do all that is possible in order to avoid that its activities somehow violate human rights. This is part of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). The concept of CSR describes the responsibilities of corporations or companies to the wider social environment in which they operate. These responsibilities go beyond the interests or needs of shareholders, workers, employees and customers, and include care for the natural environment and for the human rights of people who are affected in some way by the activities of companies.

Potentially, CSR is of a global nature, because a company can affect the environment of places far away, and the human rights of people in distant countries. Transnational companies (TNCs) especially may have such a global impact, but other kinds of companies as well. For example, an arms producer doesn’t have to be a TNC in order to be complicit in rights violations in different parts of the world.

How can companies violate human rights?

So, human rights are part of corporate social responsibility. The activities of companies can violate human rights in various ways. Just a few quick examples:

  • Workers and employees can be forced to accept labor conditions which violate the rights described in articles 23 and 24 of the Universal Declaration. These labor conditions can even amount to slavery (violating article 4) or child labor (violating article 26) and should include the labor conditions in the supply chain and in companies that work as subcontractors (including outsourcing).
  • A company’s products and services can be harmful to the health of its customers, violating articles 3 and 25.
  • Apart from directly violating human rights, a company can also be complicit in violations committed by others. It can, for example, sell arms and other commodities to authoritarian and dictatorial governments, or governments engaged in an unjust war.
  • Its economic activity in a country can be beneficial to a dictatorial government and can prop up this government (e.g. buying diamonds from a government exploiting its people).
  • Etc.

Making companies responsible for human rights violations?

Many companies have already adopted a code of conduct, voluntarily or forced by public opinion or consumer action (see here for an example). But others haven’t. And there are still numerous companies actively engaging in activities which they know contribute to rights violations. So the question has been raised if companies should be forced to respect human rights. Or, in other words, if corporate social responsibility in general and corporate responsibility for human rights in particular, should be made legally enforceable. And, if so, how this should be done.

Of course, many laws, including human rights laws, already apply to companies and can be used to force companies to respect human rights (for example laws on labor standards, safety, non-discrimination etc.). However, perhaps it would be better to say that many such laws apply to individuals within companies rather than to companies themselves. And that’s ok, because most of the time, human rights are violated by individuals. Someone, somewhere in a companies always decides to sell arms to a warlord, to invest in a dicatorship, to impose grossly inadequate labor conditions etc. So it’s possible to find someone who’s legally responsible. (The ICC, for example, can prosecute individuals acting in their capacities as directors, employees or agents of corporations).

Some problems and solutions

However, there are two problems with this kind of reasoning. One problem is that enforcement of laws is difficult in the case of TNCs or other companies with activities abroad. A company may have its headquarters in one country, which, as it happens, is a country with good laws and good enforcement mechanism. But it’s activities generate rights violations elsewhere in the world, in countries that cannot do much about it, either because they are afraid to scare away the TNCs, or because the governments there are complicit in the human rights violations. So there’s a problem of enforcement.

And the second problem: it may not be so easy to determine exactly which individual(s) within a company are responsible for the harmful activities of the company.

A few solutions to these two problems have been proposed.

  • The first is to use international law and international enforcement mechanisms (in the style of the ICC). I have no problem with that.
  • A second potentially useful solution is to include extra-territoriality in national legislation. Companies can then be prosecuted by the country in which they have their headquarters, and under the law of this country, even if the violations have occured elsewhere. (One can even imagine some kind of universal jurisdiction).
  • A third possible solution is more troublesome: make companies separate entities punishable by (international) law, like individuals and states already are. I see some problems with this one. It would allow individual perpetrators to hide behind their companies and escape responsibility. And it would mean, in some case, that people are punished for the misbehavior of their company. For example, if a company is held liable for rights violations, and forced to pay damages which lead to bankrupcy, the company’s employees would suffer, even though they carry no responsibility for the actions of the company (or for the actions of those in the company making the decisions). That would be collective punishment, which is a morally odious concept.

Human Rights and International Law (2): Universal Jurisdiction

Some countries have granted their courts so-called “universal jurisdiction” in certain matters. Traditionally, courts only have national jurisdiction and can only punish crimes committed on the national territory; crimes committed elsewhere should be handled by the courts of the country in question or by international courts. Laws of one country are also generally understood to be applicable in that country only. Universal jurisdiction in effect leads to extra-territoriality of the law. Some laws are valid outside the territory as well and national judiciaries can apply these laws to acts committed elsewhere.

Belgium, for instance, at one time allowed its courts to prosecute genocide, even if the crime of genocide was committed abroad and no Belgians were involved either as perpetrators or as victims. This was a commendable initiative from a moral point of view, but there are several reasons why universal jurisdiction is not very effective and cannot replace national and international law.

  1. The victims of genocide, or the representatives of these victims, if they already know that Belgian courts can possibly help them, will find it difficult to go to Belgium to plead their case. These people will probably live in some Third World country and will not have the financial means to start court proceedings in Belgium (where the hell is Belgium anyway?)
  2. The perpetrators are mostly not in Belgium and can therefore not be punished by the Belgian courts. If convicted, they will simply avoid Belgium and it is unlikely that they will be extradited by their home state since they generally occupy a leading function in the government of their state. The only tangible result is a number of diplomatic crises between Belgium and other states, sometimes traditionally friendly states.
  3. The Belgian courts quickly find themselves in the position of Atlas, carrying the whole burden of global suffering. There is no way in which these courts, already suffering serious delays, can handle all submitted cases.
  4. Political agitators will use the Belgian law to make publicity for their case. They will be tempted to file spurious charges against their political enemies. For example, friends of Saddam Hussein filed charges against President George W. Bush and some other leading members of his administration for waging war against Saddam. The Belgian courts, of course, could not refuse these charges without examination. So an investigation was launched, which deeply upset the Americans, who even threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Belgium, supposedly to protect American officials visiting these headquarters. After all, the Americans know that they are no saints and that Belgian courts can one day decide that there is a case to be made against some of their officials, and can try to arrest them.
  5. What if several states decide to start cases simultaneously against one and the same offender, each using its right to universal jurisdiction? That would create judicial uncertainty and many practical problems.

However, in the absence of effective national or international jurisdiction, universal jurisdiction may be the only alternative. And even if it’s not effective for the reasons given above, it sends a signal.