human rights cartoon

Human Rights Cartoon (81): Free Speech



It can’t possibly be true that XKCD is reading my blog. And yet I’ve had posts detailing almost every single line in this comic:

The only thing the comic gets wrong is that it suggests that only the government can violate people’s free speech rights. That’s not true. Our peers can just as effectively shut us up.

More cartoons are here.

ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Place of Human Rights in Morality

Morality can be divided into three parts:

  1. the good thing to do
  2. the proper thing to do
  3. and the right thing to do.

1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t. 

2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it. 

3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it. In some cases, this duty is based on someone else’s right. You must do something because someone else’s right requires you to do it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block because that person has a right to a decent standard of living; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.

However, not all moral duties in this sense have a corresponding right. For example, you have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises. Hence, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights.

So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.

Morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights. 

[This post has been slightly edited post-publication after a remark by ]
lies and statistics, statistics

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (46): Technical Advances in Graph Manipulation

You’ve probably seen this one already, but it’s just too good to ignore. Maybe it’s even too good to be true. I mean, can anyone really believe people would fall for this?




If it’s a spoof, I’d be interested to know if there have been serious attempts to do this kind of thing and actually manipulate people.

Go here for other posts in this series.

philosophy, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (43): Positionality and Transpositionality

different perspective


Human beings are inescapably positional. We understand the world from the position in which we are. In the words of Amartya Sen, what we observe and how we observe it depends on our position vis-à-vis the object we observe. ”Object” can also be person, an idea etc., and “position” can mean your physical location – if you see a horse from behind you may think it’s a donkey – but also your mood (you see things differently according to your mood), your priors etc.

Another characteristic of human beings is that we want to observe the world as accurately or objectively as we can. “Objectively“ here means focused on the object we observe rather than on the position from which we observe it. The problem is that we always observe something from a certain position and that this positionality can make accuracy or objectivity hard to achieve. We need human rights, and not just our own rights but the rights of others as well, to correct our positionality and achieve something close to objectivity. Someone else may be looking at the horse from the front, and can tell us – using her rights – that from her perspective the horse looks like a horse, not a donkey. Someone with a better mood about someone else can tell us that our view of that person is negatively influenced by our mood. And so on. People exercising their rights can help us achieve objectivity.

different perspectivesBut our own rights also help us a lot. If we don’t have rights, then we can’t move about – physically or intellectually – as easily as we have to in order to see things from other perspectives. If our fellow human beings don’t have rights, then they can’t easily tell us about their different perspectives. In both cases, the accuracy of our observation of the world suffers. Accuracy or objectivity require that we look at the whole object (or person or idea or problem etc.) rather than just one side of it. Without rights it’s difficult to do that. More fundamentally, without rights it may not even occur to us that there’s more than one side because we don’t hear about other sides. Not only is it hard in a world devoid of rights to move and occupy other perspectives or to hear about other perspectives; it’s hard to know that there’s a problem at all.

Objectivity is then a kind of transpositionality: an approach to the world which doesn’t really transcend our positionality – we can’t do that because we can’t look at things “from nowhere” – but which nevertheless liberates us from a limited form of positionality that may be detrimental to accuracy.

Of course, accuracy and objective are not to be taken in an absolute sense. Even in a world with full respect for rights and with people willing and able to occupy many different positions and perspectives and to talk to each other about those perspectives, it may not always be possible to achieve an accurate observation of the world, or even to improve our accuracy. For example – and this is Sen’s example – if we all look at the moon from our own perspective and share our different perspectives among ourselves, we may still conclude that it’s a rather small disk up there in the sky. As long as we haven’t built telescopes or moon rockets, our human rights won’t help us achieve an accurate understand of that part of our world. We may achieve transpositionality but not objectivity.

The good thing is that this is probably an exception and that our rights will normally help us in many cases to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the world. After all, ideas, persons and everyday objects don’t require sophisticated tools to be examined from different perspectives. But they do require human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

comedy, statistical jokes

Statistical Jokes (49): Statistics Are Dangerous

An engineer, a chemist and a statistician are working in a lab when a fire beaks out in a wastebasket. The engineer says: “We need some water to put out the fire!”, while the chemist says: “We don’t need water, we just need to cover the waste basket and prevent oxygen from getting to the fire, and it will go out.”

A heated argument between the engineer and chemist ensues over the better method of putting out the fire. Meanwhile, the statistician, having listened intently to the other two, begins running around the lab setting more fires. On realizing this, the engineer and chemist say to the statistician, “Wait! what are you doing!! You will burn the whole building down!!!”.

The statistician replies, “Look guys, if you really want to know which method works better, you are going to need a larger sample size.”

More on sampling. More jokes.

citizenship, international relations

Migration and Human Rights (50): Rebooting Nationalism

Like young children have to learn what dreams are so as not to be afraid of them, we will have to unlearn what the nation is so as not to be infatuated by it. Pride in a nation is not what the nation is. Be proud of yourself and your children because being proud of something without the ability to take credit for it is plagiarism. Nationalists are serial plagiarists. They appropriate the good of their nation (while the bad in their nation often appropriates them).

Nationalists defend this plagiarism by way of the notion of national identity. They assume that certain cherished traditions of the group and certain accomplishments of members of it derive at least in part from a national identity shared by all. This common identity is believed to cause the good in the nation, and because it is shared by all members it allows all to claim a share in the good. That is what national pride is. You claim to be proud of being Flemish because of all those great Flemish painters. But unless you remove in some way the difference between you as a person and the Flemish painters as persons – and you attempt to remove that difference by positing a common identity, a national identity – your pride would be nothing more than appropriation of someone else’s greatness.

The notion of national identity is what lies behind a lot of animosity towards foreigners. Arguments against immigration for example are fundamentally about identity, even when they appear to be about more mundane matters. Talk about protecting jobs and social security are not what they seem to be. We are a nation separate from others, and we should protect our identity. That means resisting foreign influence in all matters. We are masters of our realm, and we don’t want people coming here because if they do they will start to influence our being, our identity. That’s what separates tourists from immigrants. The former are harmless, but the latter, because they work here or enjoy our social benefits, will want to stay. And if they stay, they will change us. Talk about labor shortage or unaffordability of social security is just a front for identity politics. This is obvious from the fact that data on the economic effects of immigration has never supported the economic arguments against immigration, and yet these arguments continue to be expressed. Something deeper must be at stake.

We should instead view a nation as a cooperative arrangement for mutual benefit, both internally and against legitimate foreign threats. It has a number of traditions that are valuable because, and only because they improve the mutual cooperation. Forget about national identity. It’s not even clear that there is a thing called individual identity. You want to be proud of something? Do something noteworthy. You want to belong? A mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement is a nice thing to belong to. And if you have to, be proud of that arrangement to the extent that you contribute.

immigrant-bring-more-crime-daily-expressSo, by all means, make your borders. A cooperative needs a delineation. You need to identify the cooperators and give them a cooperative say on the matters of the whole (a democracy works best in small, separate groups). But don’t exclude people for imaginary reasons or in the absence of real threats to the cooperative. There’s no national identity that immigrants can come to destroy. Do they disrupt your mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement? Are they criminals for example? Go ahead and exclude them (incarceration may, however, be a sufficient form of exclusion). And keep your eyes open to the many ways in which immigrants enhance the mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement. For example, they create jobs, they allow natives to move up the job ladder, they pay tax money (often more than they take), they have interesting food etc.

Don’t remove your borders, because you may face real threats. But open them, because opening them will in all likelihood benefit your cooperative. And even if there’s no effect, you must do it to respect the rights of the newcomers. Rights can only be limited when that is necessary for the rights of others. And it’s normally very hard to argue that limiting the rights of immigrants is necessary in order to protect the rights of natives. Hence you often see a heavy thumb on the scales: the rights of both parties are not given equal weight when the rights of immigrants are on one side of the equation.

How should this balancing work in general? When the rights of two parties are in conflict with each other, respecting the rights of one party usually means limiting the rights of the other party. Think of the journalist claiming his speech rights in order to violate the right to privacy of a politician. Someone – often a judge but we can all make the call - has to decide which party’s rights should give way. The normal criterion is the damage done to the rights of either party. In my example, unless the private fact that the journalist wants to publish is very important for the work of the politician, the latter’s right to privacy should prevail over the speech rights of the journalist who undoubtedly has many more important stories he can cover without harming the rights of others.

The same is true with immigrants versus natives. Both have rights, and immigration can perhaps, in some circumstances, cause violations of the rights of natives. However, it normally doesn’t. Which means that the right to movement of the immigrants should prevail. It’s only when the natives have a very strong case showing massive rights violations on their part caused by immigration that immigration can be stopped or limited. Don’t forget that on the immigrant side of the equation there’s not only the right to free movement but also rights such freedom of association, the right not to suffer poverty etc. You need a lot to outweigh those rights, and a lot is typically not available. In most cases there’s not even a bit.

More on nationalism here. More posts in this series here.

moral dilemmas, philosophy

Moral Dilemma (25): Gone Baby Gone


First a quick reminder of the purpose of these posts. I’m trying to collect data on people’s views on moral dilemmas. This is the 25th dilemma I post. You would do m a great favor if you could answer the questions below, after having read about the dilemma. I promise that one day, I’ll publish a big analysis of all the data I have collected.

[Spoilers ahead.] Gone Baby Gone is a movie about two private investigators hunting for an abducted four-year-old girl from Boston. The two investigators get on the case after witnessing a televised plea by a woman named Helene McCready for the return of her missing daughter Amanda, who was abducted with her favorite doll “Mirabelle”.

It turns out that a police officer had conspired to stage a fake kidnapping in order to save Amanda from her mother’s neglectful parenting. The investigators do indeed find Amanda living happily with the officer and his wife. One of the investigators threatens to call the authorities, but the police officer attempts to convince him that Amanda is better off living with them than with her mother. The officer is later arrested, and Amanda is returned to her mother amidst heavy publicity.

The investigator responsible for the arrest later visits Amanda as Helene is about to leave on a date with someone she met during the publicity over her daughter’s disappearance. Helene has no babysitter for Amanda. The investigator volunteers to watch Amanda, who is holding her old doll and watching television. Patrick asks Amanda about Mirabelle, only to hear Amanda inform him that her doll’s name is “Annabelle” — implying that Helene did not even know the name of her daughter’s favorite toy.

If you want to add your voice to previous moral dilemmas, you can do so here. I would be eternally in your debt.

why do we need human rights

Murky Yet Suggestive Evidence That Democracy Promotes Economic Growth

Cross-country analysis often shows only a weakly positive correlation between democracy and economic growth:

democracy gdp correlation


The correlation is weak because there are some authoritarian countries that have strong growth figures. Most notably China of course. The impressive growth rates of a few oppressive regimes has successfully undermined the once popular theory about democracy’s positive effect on growth, and has even fostered the opposite belief: that authoritarian government is necessary for growth. (The story goes somewhat like this: authoritarian rule means longterm planning, discipline in production and consumption, national harmony and popular respect for often difficult decisions, which in turn means efficiency and productivity, and hence growth).

However, those non-democratic countries that do indeed show high growth rates shouldn’t be viewed as typical: there are just as many authoritarian countries with very weak growth figures. It’s a bit silly therefore to derive a general law about authoritarian economic success when that supposed law can be so easily falsified. Here are some numbers:

gdp growth and authoritarian government

gdp growth and authoritarian government 2

(source, the growth rate here is the geometric average of per capita growth per year for the years between 1960 and 2008; the source for the democracy data is Polity IV)

The success of China and a few other authoritarian countries doesn’t warrant a general conclusion about the beneficial effects of autocracy on growth. Bill Easterly in his “Tyranny of Experts” has argued that the prosperity of successful autocracies may not be due to a lack of freedom. Most of those countries experienced a recent move towards relatively more freedom and democracy. It was only after China started to soften its horrific totalitarian rule that prosperity began to rise. It’s not crazy, therefore, to assume that a more rapid liberalization would have resulted in even higher growth rates. Furthermore, most autocracies start from nowhere. It’s relatively easy to produce good growth figures when baseline prosperity is very low, as was China’s some decades ago (not in the least because of authoritarian rule). It’s relatively easy, even - one is tempted to say - for fools and autocrats.

The low baseline from which most autocracies start shows up when we compare not the growth rates but the level of GDP between countries. The correlation between democracy and GDP is stronger when we look at the level rather than the growth of GDP. Richer countries (with the exception of most wealthy Muslim countries) tend to be or become democracies:

democracy and income correlation

democracy and income correlation


Because the graph above plots income in 1971 against democracy scores in the following decades, you can see that the causation seems to go from income to democracy. A high level of GDP predicts a flourishing (or at least continuation) of democracy. However, this could again be used by the authoritarian growth crowd. They can use this to argue that poor countries need autocracy in order to kick-start growth, because democracy can only come when the level of GDP is sufficiently high (the “democracy as luxury” argument). It’s probably true that prosperity fosters democracy (for the obvious reasons: democracy requires money, leisure, education etc.). But it’s good to see some evidence of causation in the opposite direction, from democracy to growth – if only to undermine self-congratulatory autocrats. For example, here’s a graph plotting current income against older democracy scores, suggesting that democracy also promotes growth:



Here are some more correlations between the levels of GDP and of democracy:

gdp and probability of democracy correlation

political rights and gdp correlation


democracy and gdp

(source, scatter plot covers all countries with population larger than 1 million and with fuel exports less than 50% of export revenues)

These graphs are less interesting because they only show correlations without any effort to infer causation. If, however, we accept that there is indeed a causal effect of democracy on the level of GDP, how exactly does that effect occur? Perhaps transparency, the rule of law, accountability, property rights and other characteristics of democracy are good for growth.

If we want further evidence of a causal effect of democracy on growth, we can do an in-country analysis. This paper examines the effect of democratic transitions on economic growth. The encouraging conclusion is that countries which have experienced a transition to democracy experience higher average growth after the transition.

The graph below, from the paper, plots the evolution of real per capita GDP growth in the years surrounding a successful democratization (the year of the democratization being T), compared to the global growth rates in each year. The average growth is the purple dashed line. The graph also shows that the transition itself may imply economic costs, but in the longer term democracy pays off.

gdp growth around permanent democratizations


I should also mention a recent paper by Acemoglu et al that points in the same direction.

human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (134): 10 Year Old Rape Victim Prevented From Aborting Twins

A 10-year-old girl [not in the image above] who is pregnant with twins after she was raped by a neighbour has been forced to continue with her pregnancy after human rights campaigners lost their fight to secure a legal route to abortion.

The plight of the girl, who is five months pregnant and lives in Ziguinchor in the south [of Senegal], highlights the heavy cost women and children are paying for a Napoleonic law on abortion that is still in force in the former French colony.

“She is going to have to go through with the pregnancy,” said Fatou Kiné Camara, president of the Senegalese women lawyers’ association. “The best we can do is keep up pressure on the authorities to ensure the girl gets regular scans and free medical care.

“Senegal‘s abortion law is one of the harshest and deadliest in Africa. A doctor or pharmacist found guilty of having a role in a termination faces being struck off. A woman found guilty of abortion can be jailed for up to 10 years.”

Forty women were held in custody in Senegal on charges linked to the crimes of abortion or infanticide in the first six months of last year, official figures show. According to estimates, hundreds of women die every year from botched illegal terminations.

“For a termination to be legal in Senegal, three doctors have to certify that the woman will die unless she aborts immediately. Poor people in Senegal are lucky if they see one doctor in their lifetime, let alone three,” Camara said. (source)

Brings to mind this older case. Now, I personally have doubts about the permissibility of abortion in a lot of circumstances, but this is pretty clear I think, and it should be clear even to those who are more staunchly opposed to abortion than I am. Other posts in this series are here. More on abortion rights here and here.

citizenship, international relations

We Are All Immigrants

Or at least descendants of immigrants:

Spreading homo sapiens

This map depicts the widely accepted “out of Africa” theory – or the single-origin hypothesisdescribing the early migration of modern humans. Members of one branch of Homo sapiens started to move out of Africa between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago, and over time they replaced “native” human populations such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

Is it silly to think that the idea of our common immigrant origins can make us more supportive of present-day immigrants? A bit like the fact that race is a social construct unsupported by genetics can perhaps help to combat racism? Maybe it is silly. After all, our common immigrant ancestry doesn’t seem to matter to the people who oppose immigration. If you believe, incorrectly, that present-day immigrants destroy your culture, then you can point to the fact that immigration is now different from the out-of-Africa migration. Cultures in their current form didn’t exist 50.000 years ago. The same is true for those who worry, also incorrectly, that immigrants come to steal our jobs: there weren’t any jobs 50.000 years ago. Rinse and repeat for the anti-immigrant arguments based on welfare tourism, crime etc.

Hence early human migration is irrelevant to opponents of present-day immigration. It’s not because early migration was harmless or even beneficial that the same is true for modern migration. You can oppose modern migration and at the same time acknowledge the benefits or early migration. Perhaps we are indeed talking about two different things altogether: migration today versus migration in a stateless world, in a world without borders, jobs, welfare or highly developed cultures.

And yet, if we are the descendants of people who traveled thousands of miles in order to look for a better life then we still profit, to some extent, of their efforts – even if millennia have passed since. And then it seems inconsistent to deny other people and their descendants the same opportunity. In addition, I’ve argued before that the differences between ancient and modern migration aren’t that important after all: immigrants today are just as big a threat to the jobs, welfare, culture or safety of natives as their predecessors were dozens of millennia ago. Meaning no threat at all.

human rights and crime, law

Crime and Human Rights (22): Blame Is So 20th Century

Blame is useless in criminal punishment. We don’t need it. Rather than blaming the criminal, as we so often do, we should pay sole attention to criminal actions. It’s those actions that are the problem. Crimes are bad - i.a. because a lot of crimes result in rights violations - and whether criminals are bad is of secondary importance. What we need to do is put an end to rights violations and crimes. In order to do that we have to focus on actions: on the consequences of certain harmful actions, and on ways to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Blame doesn’t help us to stop harmful actions. At least not immediately. (One could argue that blame teaches people about morality, but that’s a longterm goal). What does help, in some cases, is a focus on character. However, the purpose of this focus on character is not to build a case for blame. An understanding of a criminal’s character - of his or her general viciousness or dickishness – can help us avoid future crimes and rights violations because this understanding can tell us something about the need for incapacitation. A bad person poses a higher risk of recidivism than someone who has made a mistake or has committed one intentional evil act. However, this punishment of incapacitation isn’t the result of the criminal’s blameworthiness. The only reason to incapacitate a criminal is the risk of future harmful actions.

What we tend to do is the opposite. If we speak about a criminal’s character, it’s usually because we want to blame the criminal beyond what we would normally think is necessary. There are at least three stages of blame: people are blamed for doing something wrong accidentally or stupidly; people who do something wrong intentionally are blamed somewhat more; and people who do something because of their nasty character are blamed even more. (In criminal trials it’s common that judges take into account past actions as either aggravating or mitigating circumstances).

blameWe often want to impose additional blame on someone who has done wrong and has a history of doing wrong because we believe that blame should be about character. Bad people should receive more blame than people who do one thing wrong. If two people commit the same crime but one does it because he or she is a bad person and the other for opportunistic reasons for example, then the former should receive more blame simply because he or she is a bad person. A bad character is worse than one bad intentional act.

What I want to do is sever the link between blame and character, and use a person’s character not as a source of blame but as a means to assess the likelihood of future wrongdoing and to avoid crimes and rights violations. Rather than use people’s character as a source of blame – which is very hard anyway given what we don’t know about genetics, early childhood experiences etc. - we should do character assessment, to the extent that it is possible, because it teaches us something about the need for incapacitation as a means to avoid harmful actions.

Obviously, this has consequences for the types and severity of the criminal punishments we can impose. (A person’s character or habitual behavior shouldn’t be an aggravating circumstance in itself, irrespective of the need for incapacitation). However, what I’m arguing here may have consequences beyond the realm of criminal punishment. It may be true that we blame too often and too much in general. A child who is blamed for wrongdoing may thereby learn the rules of morality; a worker who is blamed for misconduct may become a better worker, etc. But we should admit that we usually don’t have a good reason for blaming people. People’s intentions are hard to figure out. And it’s even harder to judge someone’s character, except in a few extreme cases. We’re also in the dark about what drives people: are their actions really the result of blameworthy choices, or is there something deeper such as their genetic make-up or early experiences that makes them do what they do? Hard to tell, and yet blame seems so easy.

More posts in this series are here.

philosophy, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (52): Legal Rights, and Something More

Ask a lawyer and she will say that human rights are a kind of law that people can appeal to in a court of law. Ask a member of Amnesty International and she will say that human rights are moral claims about what people – all people, everywhere – are entitled to on the basis of their humanity, even if the laws of their country don’t give them what they are entitled to. Ask an anthropologist and she will say that human rights are moral or legal claims that are part of a certain culture somewhere.

And all of them are right, of course. I’ve tried to put this in a drawing:

types of human rights

Human rights are, in many cases, legal rights, together with other legal rights which aren’t human rights (for example the right to acquire a driver’s license at the age of 18). However, some human rights in some countries in particular aren’t yet recognized in the local legal system. In that case, rights are “mere” moral claims, rhetorical claims one could say, with an uncertain effectiveness compared to legal rights. Perhaps these moral claims are “legal rights in waiting”. Indeed, many moral claims are uttered in an attempt to turn them into legal claims if at all possible. An example could be the right to free speech in China.

However, not all moral claims have this intention. It’s not always obvious that the law is the best means to foster respect for moral claims. The right to work, for instance, may be better served by sound economic policy than by its transformation into a legal right. In the case of some moral claims – and now I turn to point 3 in the drawing above – it’s even wrong to try and turn them into laws. A woman’s right to equal standing and voice in her household for example – which is a right based on the right not to be discriminated – should probably not be turned into a legal right because we don’t want the law to mess with people’s households.

The fourth point in the drawing refers to morality not in the prescriptive but in the descriptive sense: rights can be part of a culture’s accepted ethical standards. In which case it may or may not also be part of that culture’s legal system (if the right is deeply entrenched in the culture it may not be necessary to recognize it in law).

Each of these four types of human rights are equally “real”. You sometimes hear the argument that only legal rights are “real” rights, and that moral rights – or natural rights, or human rights or whatever – are “nonsense upon stilts“. This is a strange assertion, when you think about it. Moral claims can be quite effective. Amnesty International and others have done great work over the years. Conversely, many legal rights are less effective than we tend to think. Most jurisdictions have incorporated the right to life through laws against murder, manslaughter, aggressive war etc. And yet murder and war are still quite common.

The four types of rights are connected and interdependent. Human rights are both the children and the parents of law. Law is often an effective means to make rights real, and in that sense rights are the children of the law. But laws are often legal translations of pre-existing moral claims, which makes rights the parents of the law. Human rights are also the children and the parents of culture. It’s undeniable that rights have developed in cultural contexts that were amenable to rights (and I’m not only talking about the West, by the way). Conversely, it’s equally true that rights create their own culture. Something similar is the case for morality: rights are the children of morality because they are means to realize certain moral values, but at the same time they become moral values themselves.

More posts in this series are here.

ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (90): Rights and Virtue Ethics


At first sight, virtue ethics seems irrelevant to human rights. Rights are about what people do to each other and what the state does to people. They’re about rules and consequences, not about people’s good character or virtuous dispositions. Deontological or consequential ethics look like they’re more adequate from a rights perspective. Whether or not people possess the right virtues can of course make a difference with regard to the level of respect for rights. Courageous people will sometimes use their courage to help others in need and help them protect their rights. Honest people will not steal from each other. Compassionate people will assist the poor. Judges and police officers with a sense of duty will help to right wrongs.

However, it’s risky to depend on virtues. Virtues are a rare commodity, and if we need virtues in order to have rights then rights as well will be rare. That’s why some who call themselves realists about human nature argue that we should economize on virtue. Better, they say, to mobilize people’s self-interest as a means to enhance overall respect for rights. For example, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be in their self-interest to cherish the rights of others as well, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. It’s also the case that most rights don’t make a lot of sense if they’re not widely spread. It’s quite useless, for instance, to be the only person on earth having the right to speak. We speak with each other. So if it’s in our self-interest to have a right to speak, our self-interest will automatically favor the same right for others.

Opponents of a strong focus on virtues do not only turn towards enlightened self-interest but also insist that we can do a lot by trying to improve institutions rather than individual dispositions. Good institutions do not only protect people’s rights but also promote virtues. Examples of institutional solutions are courts that reliably protect people’s property rights and personal security rights. Or trade agreements and immigration rules that don’t aggravate global poverty. Once these institutions are in place people will recognize their benefits and develop the virtues necessary to keep them in place. Virtue ethics, according to this view, has things backwards.

However, I do think virtue ethics has something interesting to say about human rights. Virtue ethics focuses on character, not on the rules we should follow or on the good consequences of some rules or some ways of acting. And the advantage of focusing on character is that we introduce a sense of reliability. If human rights depend on frivolous self-interest and fragile institutions – the same self-interest and institutions that so often destroy rights – then they are precarious. If, on the other hand, we argue with virtue ethicists that the consequences of acting in a certain way or of following a certain rule have in themselves no ethical content unless our actions or obedience to rules are preceded and caused by virtuous dispositions and good character (similar to Kant’s “good will” for example), then we can build rights on a firmer ground. Virtues, by definition, are reliable and permanent. Our character doesn’t depend on who we are today, but on who we are predictably. (Although one can of course cultivate one’s virtues and become more virtuous over time).

Maybe human rights activists have a tendency to promote rules over motivations and good outcomes over good intentions. While we can have good outcomes and rules that are respected without also having people acting on good intentions, perhaps it’s true that we’ll have more secure outcomes and rules when we find a way to promote virtues and good intentions. A virtue ethicist will of course claim that we need our virtues for their own sake and not for their instrumental role in rights protection, but he or she will not object to that role. Of course, everything I’ve said here depends on the controversial claim that we are indeed able to promote virtue.

By the way, there’s an interesting parallel between virtue ethics and confucianism.

More posts in this series are here.

capital punishment, human rights violations, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (133): Egypt Industrializes the Death Penalty



Egypt today [Monday, March 24, 2014] sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for their roles in violent riots in Minya, in Upper Egypt, last August.

The riots broke out following a crackdown on sit-ins in support of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, which left hundreds of supporters dead.

The Minya riots left one police officer dead – a crime all 529 defendants are accused of. (source)

And it’s not just the massive number of sentences issued at the same time that evokes the image of an industrialized form of “justice”. The trial started on Saturday and ended on Monday…

More on capital punishment and Egypt. More posts in this series are here.

ethics of human rights, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (89): Anti-Consequentialist Consequentialism

trolley problem


There are two words in “human rights”. “Rights” are claims that override the claims, wishes or welfare of a government, a majority, or even the totality of a population minus one. In other words, they are claims that need to be respected whatever other claims are present, such as the claims of law, morality, welfare, religion etc. Rights should be respected irrespective of the law of the land, of someone’s legal status, of someone’s religion, race, gender, citizenship, country of residence or moral conduct. That’s where the other word comes in: all “human” beings have rights and these rights should be respected simply because human beings are human. No other reason is required. No law, no conduct, no welfare consequences. These two words – “rights” and “human” – are connected: both are about priority, overriding importance and lack of conditionality.

This would seem to imply that human rights are the ultimate anti-consequentialist morality. We are not to enslave, torture or murder one person even if that would increase total welfare. Forcibly removing one eye from a series of two-eyed people in order to give blind people one eye would clearly increase overall welfare since the gains for the blind are greater than the losses for the others. And yet human rights prohibit coercive organ transplantations. However, it’s not entirely correct to view human rights as anti-consequentialist. Human rights are also, and somewhat paradoxically, consequentialist. In two ways:

  • First, the welfare of the majority or of the “society” can to some extent be defined as respect for human rights. Torturing one terrorist in order to discover and defuse a ticking time bomb would allow us to safeguard the right to life and bodily integrity of a large number of other people or even of society as a whole. Rights need to be balanced against each other, and when more rights or more important rights for a large number of people can be safeguarded by way of a violation of the rights of one, then that’s the result or the “consequence” we should favor over the alternative, which is protecting the rights of one to the detriment of the rights of many. The balance is clearly in favor of the many, and that’s a consequentialist calculus. (I have to say here that these are not, in practice, the only alternatives and ticking time bomb arguments are often very misleading. But as a theoretical example it will do. I have a separate discussion of the limits of this kind of calculus here).
  • Second, human rights are means to achieve some goods or values. We don’t have rights because it’s good to have rights. We have them because they have good consequences. I need a right to free speech because having free speech results in certain things that are good for me: knowledge, self-development etc.

There’s considerable tension between the consequentialist and anti-consequentialist strains in human rights. It’s a tough problem. I’ve tried to come up with ways to relieve this tension in some older posts.

More posts in this series are here.

capital punishment, iconic images of human rights violations, law, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (158): The Last Public Execution in France

Eugen Weidmann (1908-1939) was the last person to be publicly executed in France in June 1939. He was guilty of multiple murders. Executions by guillotine in France continued in private until September 10, 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was the last person to be executed.

Weidmann’s execution was photographed and even filmed. Here are some of the photographs:

24 Jun 1939, Versailles, France. Shirt pulled down over his shoulders to prevent interference with the guillotine's knife, Eugene Weidmann is being led into the courtyard of Saint Pierre Prison in Versailles to his execution on the guillotine. The basket which was to receive his dead body is shown (partially) at left.

24 Jun 1939, Versailles, France. Shirt pulled down over his shoulders to prevent interference with the guillotine’s knife, Eugene Weidmann is being led into the courtyard of Saint Pierre Prison in Versailles to his execution on the guillotine. The basket which was to receive his dead body is shown (partially) at left.

Here he is being put on the table and held by his feet

Here he is being put on the table and held by his feet

Eugen Weidmann execution

Here’s the film (careful: it’s upsetting):

This is the man in better times:


For comparison: the U.S. performed it’s last public execution three years earlier, in 1936, and is of course still killing criminals in this day and age.

More on capital punishment. More iconic images of human rights violations.

human rights and the environment

World Water Day Links

world water day


Today is World Water Day. Water is perhaps not an obvious human rights issue. And, indeed, the word doesn’t feature in any of the major human rights declarations or treaties. You’ll have to go to UN Resolutions to find a right to water. Elsewhere, it’s only implicit (such as in the right to a decent standard of living).

Some links:

activism, human rights promotion

Human Rights Promotion (19): A Game Theory Approach

Photo by Karl Robertson

Photo by Karl Robertson

Game theory is a useful tool for trying to understand the interaction between the struggle for rights and the countervailing forces (often states). Let’s look at a few examples. In the case of popular protests and revolutionary reaction against oppressive regimes, an important decision both sides have to take is whether or not to use violence. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. In other words, protesters may have reason to escalate their expression of discontent, just to make sure their point comes across and those in power realize that things are serious. On the other hand, the violence of protests or revolutions can easily escalate beyond what is necessary or effective. Difficult to keep violence under control, and the ultimate outcome of a violent revolution may not at all be what the protesters initially desired. We see that all too often. (Present-day Egypt is a case in point).

From the perspective of those in power, things look quite similar. Again, some violence can be a good thing (from their point of view), but it shouldn’t be too much. Oppressive regimes have reason to use a certain amount of violence in order to stay in power, but if they go beyond that amount they risk violent reaction. However, it’s not just violent reaction that may be a problem. While moderate violence helps an autocrat to retain control, he doesn’t want to engage in violent repression for a very long time. Long term violence, even moderate violence, renders public discussion and persuasion impossible. As a result of this destruction of the public space (in the Arendtian sense), support from the people is increasingly harder to come by and opposition is more likely. That’s not in the interest of the regime.

And it’s not just autocracies; democracies as well have to engage in strategic decision games. Take for instance border controls. There’s an interesting story about migration from Suriname to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Netherlands and the Surinamese people could travel back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. The Netherlands wanted to stop this migration, but the result was that the Surinamese rushed to “beat the ban” and moved in massive numbers. Half of the population of Suriname ended up in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with the 1962 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely and also produced a rush to “beat the ban”.

Two young Creole girls on the streets of Amsterdam, photo by James Whitlow Delano

Two young Creole girls on the streets of Amsterdam, photo by James Whitlow Delano

It’s often the case that the numbers of permanent immigrants jump up just before the imposition of border controls between countries that had free movement arrangements. Migrants who previously moved back and forth, depending on the job market or the state of the economy both at home and in their destination countries, decide to stay in the destination countries because once they go back home they can’t return. Border controls have the same effect on “illegal” immigrants who often decide to stay because they can’t risk the dangerous border crossing more than once. So states that want to limit the numbers of migrants should, paradoxically, open their borders at least to some extent. Not too much, probably, but not too little either.

From the perspective of the migrants: if we want to promote freedom of movement – which is a right – then we may do best to go steady and not open the “flood gates” all at once. High numbers of migrants may reduce native support for immigration. When natives are allowed to make up their minds about the pros and cons of immigration gradually, then there will be “natural” growth in support for increased immigration as people start to see the benefits and get over their preconceived ideas about disadvantages. (See also this).

You can of think of literally thousands of games like these: a new democracy transitioning from a violent authoritarian regime has to decide how much forgiveness and unpunished injustice it can afford, and how much justice and discontent among the ranks of the old regime it can afford; Ukraine and the international community have to decide if they can afford to give up the Crimea and risk further annexations by an emboldened Russia, or if they can afford to push back and risk conflict with Russia. The list of cases can go on and on.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.43.14 PMThe interesting question is this: which general lessons for human rights promotion can we take away from this? Apart from the obvious and rather boring lessons that game theory taught us long ago – try to understand unintended consequences, take into account your opponent’s incentives, anticipate his moves etc. – there’s the lesson about multiple equilibria. Zero border restrictions will tend to move towards an equilibrium of high restrictions because tribal fears will create a backlash. These tribal fears will perhaps only be swayed by a learning curve based on and made possible by gradualism. But very strict migration restrictions will also make this learning curve impossible since very few migrants will come and people will not get the opportunity to revise their prejudices about immigration. Immigration restrictions are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best equilibrium seems to be the gradual expansion of freedom of movement.

Something very similar is the case for transitional justice. A strong focus on prosecution of the old guard will – like instant open borders – can create a backlash among the often numerous supporters and collaborators of the old regime. This backlash may undermine the new democracy and lead to a restoration of the pre-democratic equilibrium. The opposite strategy, no attention to transitional justice at all, may also undermine the new regime as the victims of the old regime will have no reason to give support to the new one. Gradual prosecution of the top cadre of the old regime, combined with truth commissions, atonement and forgiveness looks likely to provide a stable “learning curve” for the new democracy.

And you can write your own paragraphs about cases like violent protest, the Crimea etc. The stories will all be quite similar. Human rights promoters should in general think harder about the expected equilibrium of their actions. The lesson is probably that among different possible strategies the gradual one wins from the all or nothing approach because the equilibrium that results from all or nothing tends to be nothing (also in the case of oppressors by the way). Gradualism of course doesn’t preclude ambitious long term goals.

More on game theory and rights here and here. More posts in this series are here.

(image source)
human rights and crime, law

Crime and Human Rights (21): A Proposal For a Better System of Criminal Punishment



Like many of you, I’m in favor of a radical overhaul of our criminal justice systems. We’ve made tremendous progress over the centuries, and yet the way we treat criminals today is still an abomination for which future generations will rightfully scold us. I was therefore pleasantly surprised – initially at least – to learn about a revolutionary proposal coming from Rebecca Roache. There’s a write-up here, and the headline sure grabs the attention: “Prisoners could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours”. The proposal:

Future biotechnology could be used to trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking they have served a 1,000 year sentence, a group of scientists have claimed.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives.

Speaking to Aeon magazine, Dr Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners’ minds into thinking time was passing more slowly. “There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence,” she said.

A second scenario would be to upload human minds to computers to speed up the rate at which the mind works … “If the speed-up were a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours … Uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time.” (source)

These innovations – or should I say imagined innovations since the technologies aren’t available yet – are defended on the basis of cost, humanity and proportionality.

  • Radically reduced prison sentences are cheaper for society, and more humane for the prisoner.
  • By tricking prisoners’ brains into believing that they serve a very long time while in fact only serving a short time, we’ll make it possible to offer them a life after prison.
  • By making it possible to impose very, very long sentences – or rather the chemically induced experience of very long sentences – one could make punishment truly proportional and retributive. Retribution is currently limited at life sentences (for those civilized countries that don’t impose the death penalty). When drugs will make it possible to impose sentences that last much longer than a lifetime, one can punish the very worst criminals proportionally to their crimes. Hitler could be locked up for ages. Roache writes about a particularly horrendous crime punished by an “almost laughably inadequate” sentence of 30 years in prison. “Sufficient punishment” is what this is about, and Roache is quite explicit in adopting the retributive and proportionality approach to justice.

There’s an obvious contradiction between these justifications. While it’s certainly good and humane to give prisoners a life after their sentences – no matter how long these are (or are perceived to be) – tricking people into believing that they are hundreds of years in prison is actually kind of cruel. And there’s no need for this cruelty. I’ve argued elsewhere that the role of retribution, proportionality and desert in criminal punishment should be strictly limited, and certainly not expanded as in Roache’s proposal. The number of months or years a person is to be imprisoned should be determined by the need to incapacitate him or her and to protect society from harm. Tricking people into believing that they have been in jail for thousands of years and then setting them free after a few hours will only create resentful human beings in the prime of their lives, willing and able to take revenge on the society that has punished them in this way. Of course, the endorsement of retributivism is not a necessary precondition for favoring the proposed technologies, and with some tweaking the technologies may actually do some good. We’ll see, perhaps.

More posts in this series are here.

cultural rights

Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession

vladimir putin

vladimir putin


I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t remain silent when everyone else is talking about something. So, a few words about the situation in Crimea. The Russian government and some of the Russians in Crimea are making the argument for secession on the basis of national self-determination and the rights of Russian speakers in the region. It may be useful to have a look at the moral merits of that argument, first in a general and theoretical sense and then applied to the specific case of Crimea. (I’m not discussing the legal merits here).

Ideally, the right to secession shouldn’t exist. An ideal state grants individuals and cultural or ethnic groups all the rights they require, including (limited) self-government and self-determination. Even a very large and diverse state could – and probably should – do that. That is why the right to secession can only have a place in non-ideal theory. But what place? I believe it won’t be among the priorities. In the non-ideal world – the current one – the right to secession should not be the first option, mainly because other, less risky means to realize certain rights would often be available. For example: devolution, agitation, representation etc.

Secession is, most of the time, a one-sided decision that doesn’t have the approval of the state from which a territory wants to secede. Hence the risk of violent conflict, and this risk should be balanced against the possible benefits of secession, especially when non-secessionist and therefore less risky means can yield the same benefits. But even if we’re dealing with a mutual decision, secession may not be the optimal solution because the seceding entity can become the kind of state that doesn’t guarantees all the rights of the new minorities living within its new borders. I wouldn’t even call a mutually agreed separation a secession, by the way.

Of course, there will be cases of extreme oppression that warrant unilateral secession on the grounds that other, less risky means are simply unavailable. For example, it’s difficult to make the case that a secession of part of the territory of North Korea – even one that turns violent and deadly – is not the right thing to do, morally speaking. Both the specific right to self-determination of the seceding Koreans and their other rights would seem to warrant a certain cost.

secessionSo what are the reasons that make secession the morally right thing to do? If we agree to limit the concept of secession to a one-sided decision then a secession is justified when:

  1. the purpose is the realization of the human rights of a group of people – including their right to self-government – and this realization is impossible by any other, less risky means within their current state (secession for the purpose of a power grab is then not justified);
  2. the new political entity will most likely grant a higher level of protection of human rights within its territory, including the rights of the new minorities;
  3. and the secession decision is approved by a majority – or perhaps a super majority – of the seceding group. (Self-government is one of the rights that may justify secession, and so it can’t be violated by the act of secession itself).

There may be more necessary preconditions for secession to be ethical, but I believe the combined presence of these 3 are a bare minimum. (The same preconditions would have to be present in the case of bilaterally agreed “secession”, with perhaps the added condition that also a majority of the remaining state should agree. But I’m not sure about that).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is by definition unknown beforehand. The group that wants to secede knows the rights violations it now endures, but doesn’t know the possible effectiveness of non-secessionist means or the possible risks of secession. The nature of the future government of the new political entity is unknown as well, and it’s therefore uncertain how that government will perform regarding the rights of both the new minorities and the majority.

Let’s now return to the case of Crimea. I’m obviously not an expert on the region, but as far as I can tell, none of the three conditions for justified secession are present. It’s clear that the Russian speaking majority in Crimea (if it is a majority) has (or had?) at its disposal other non-secessionist means to further its cause. The upheavals in Kiev did not make long term improvements regarding the rights of the Russian speaking majority in Crimea impossible. There was no reason to believe that the new government of the Ukraine would engage in massive rights violations in Crimea. And, in any case, it’s not clear that the inhabitants of the Crimea – including the non-Russians – will have a higher level of rights protection in the Russian state or in a separate, new state under the tutelage of Russia. If anything, the opposite is more likely. (If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, that would mean even better prospects for the rights of all Ukrainian citizens).

The second condition for justified secession is equally absent. Whether Crimea will become part of Russia or a separate state in Russia’s sphere of influence, past experience with minority rights in Russia or its dependencies isn’t reassuring.

And with regard to the third condition, we can all agree that the referendum was a sham. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible to know whether or not a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea are genuinely in favor of secession from Ukraine. A rushed referendum under the threat of violence doesn’t tell us anything apart from the fact that even Putin craves the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps a year ago we could have known. But not anymore.

More on secession here, here, here and here. More on cultural rights here.

economics, equality, income inequality

Income Inequality (30): A Primer on Inequality and Economic Growth

Countries that are more equal in income terms are also richer:

income inequality and gdp


But how about the relationship between inequality and economic growth? The classic causal story, based on work by Simon Kuznets,

Kuznets curve

Kuznets curve

maintains that there’s an inverted U-shaped relationship over long periods of economic development. As emerging economies grow they initially become less equal as the few with high financial endowments profit off of their ownership of key productive resources, like land. Then, as industrialization evolves, much more of the population has the chance to participate in higher value-added work which reduces inequality. (source)

In this argument, growth determines inequality: first growth drives inequality up, and then it gradually reduces it.

However, this Kuznetsian view has come under fire recently. Thomas Piketty for instance, in his “Capital in the Twenty-First Century“, has criticized Kuznets’ view that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own given increasing growth. According to Piketty, increasing wealth concentration is a likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Kuznets findings were based on a historical anomaly. And indeed, the lines in this graph do not turn downwards to form an inverted U-shape:



Which is why it’s perhaps better to look at the causation in another way: maybe inequality or equality determine growth rather than vice versa. For example, there’s this study arguing that high income inequality is likely to inhibit growth, especially in developing countries:

gdp per capita growth and gini developing countries

gdp per capita growth and gini rich countries


Inequality inhibits growth, especially in developing countries, because

high income inequality can discourage the evolution of the economic and political institutions associated with accountable government (which in turn enable a market environment conducive to investment and growth); and … high income inequality can undermine the civic and social life that sustains effective collective decision-making, especially in multi-ethnic settings. (source)

This study comes to a similar conclusion. It argues that, in general, more inequality endangers the sustainability of growth. Long consistent spells of economic growth are correlated with low levels of income inequality:

income inequality and gdp growth


A growth spell in this graph is a period of at least five years that begins with an unusual increase in the growth rate and ends with an unusual drop in growth.

It may seem counterintuitive that inequality is strongly associated with less sustained growth. After all, some inequality is essential to the effective functioning of a market economy and the incentives needed for investment and growth … But too much inequality might be destructive to growth. Beyond the risk that inequality may amplify the potential for financial crisis, it may also bring political instability, which can discourage investment. Inequality may make it harder for governments to make difficult but necessary choices in the face of shocks, such as raising taxes or cutting public spending to avoid a debt crisis. Or inequality may reflect poor people’s lack of access to financial services, which gives them fewer opportunities to invest in education and entrepreneurial activity. … [S]ocieties with more equal income distributions have more durable growth. … [A] 10 percentile decrease in inequality (represented by a change in the Gini coefficient from 40 to 37) increases the expected length of a growth spell by 50 percent. (source)

Some additional support for this view: redistributive policies – which are anti-inequality policies – don’t actually harm growth:


(source, source)

Redistribution doesn’t help either, according to this graph, but maybe it counteracts the negative effect of inequality on growth given that it counteracts inequality. In that sense, it does help.

More posts on income inequality are here.

iconic images of human rights violations

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (157): Palestinian Punishment for Collaborators

Palestinian gunmen ride motorcycles as they drag the body of a man, who was suspected of working for Israel, in Gaza City November 20, 2012. Palestinian gunmen shot dead six alleged collaborators in the Gaza Strip who "were caught red-handed", according to a security source quoted by the Hamas Aqsa radio on Tuesday. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinian gunmen ride motorcycles as they drag the body of a man, who was suspected of working for Israel, in Gaza City November 20, 2012. Palestinian gunmen shot dead six alleged collaborators in the Gaza Strip who “were caught red-handed”, according to a security source quoted by the Hamas Aqsa radio. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem


More on Israel and Palestine. More iconic images.

political graffiti

Political Graffiti (242): Free Speech Enforcement

A clever Banksy on Canal Street, Chinatown, New York City:

banksy graffiti is free speech




If the title of this post isn’t immediately clear: the rat graffiti is the expression; the painter – who is a painted painter (look carefully) - represents government censorship (anti-graffiti laws can be seen as censorship but if you want you can see the painter as a mere metaphor for censorship); and the scissors are the enforcers of expression. In a sense, this is anti-anti-graffiti graffiti (no typo).

More generally, it’s true that in many cases people – like the rat – can only count on themselves to enforce their rights.

More Banksy. More graffiti.

human rights nonsense

Human Rights Nonsense (45): Having a Right Doesn’t Mean Having It Everywhere

Man with Megaphone by William Kentridge

Man with Megaphone by William Kentridge


A social studies teacher at a Florida high school is claiming that his “right to free speech” was violated when school administrators barred him from a recent appearance of President Barack Obama.

Coral Reef Senior High teacher Randall Scott had said that he “would rather dine in Hell with Satan” than shake the president’s hand, and described himself as a “virulent anti-Communist and hater of Obamanism.”

Scott told his side of the story in a letter he posted on Instagram. “I’m a conservative Republican who uses social media to express my views,” he wrote. “At the last two faculty meetings our principal had strongly advised us not to post anything. As a citizen of this great country I chose to ignore her advise [sic] which now in retrospect seems more like a veiled threat.” (source)

The right to free speech doesn’t imply the right to speak wherever you want. As long as Scott has the possibility to express himself at alternative venues – his preferred soap box is Twitter apparently – his exclusion from one particular, non-public venue doesn’t violate his rights. If it did violate his rights, then I demand an op-ed column in the NYT. In the same vein, his right to private property doesn’t give him the right to all the property he might want; his right to free movement doesn’t allow him to wander into my bedroom at night; and his right to privacy doesn’t extend to domestic violence if that is something he would be inclined to.

There’s an interesting complication in this story: Scott’s employer apparently advised him to shut up. That may have been awkward and unwise, but the school administrators had every right to do so. They also have speech rights. And of course Scott had every right to ignore them, as he repeatedly did. As long as were dealing with mere advice and not a threat backed up by a real risk of financial or professional consequences – which it wasn’t given the fact that he is still employed – there’s no chilling effect and Scott can’t argue that there was an attempt to silence him. On the contrary, this whole episode has functioned as a megaphone.

More on free speech at work is here. More posts in this series are here.

law, vagaries of moral progress

The Vagaries of Moral Progress (20): Gender Equality and Children’s Rights in Iraq

Martin Rowson on democracy in Iraq, 2008

Martin Rowson on democracy in Iraq, 2008


So, let me get this clear. We’ve had a military intervention in Iraq and a massive, decade long war, all in the name of democracy and rights, during which the US

[d]efeated a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world(source)


offer[ed] democracy and freedom to [Iraq’s] 25 million residents. (source)

But instead of all that, we now have pending legislation that would restrict women’s rights in matters of inheritance and parental and other rights after divorce, make it easier for men to take multiple wives, and allow girls to be married from age nine (9!).

It includes provisions that prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslims, legalizes marital rape by stating that a husband is entitled to have sex with his wife regardless of her consent, and prevents women from leaving the house without permission from their husbands. The law would automatically grant custody over any child age two or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and fifteen for boys, and even allow girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. … The draft law violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Iraq ratified in 1986, by giving fewer rights to women and girls on the basis of their gender. It also violates the Convention on Rights of the Child, which Iraq ratified in 1994. (source)

Thank you very much! Really worth the trouble.

More posts in this series are here.

causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (57): Some Clues From the Broken Windows Theory?

broken window


The Broken Windows Theory (henceforth BWT) was first described by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 article. The idea is that social disorder – exemplified by a neighborhood where many windows are broken – fosters crime. Disorder sets certain destructive norms and signals that those norms are OK. Broken windows, even a few, that are left unfixed will soon come to represent a lack of accountability and judicial redress. Unrepaired broken windows are a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. Hence people will not refrain from breaking more and you’ll have a vicious cycle of disorder. This is a kind of lawlessness that will eventually also lead to bigger crimes.

If, on the other hand, a part of town is well-maintained, people will be less likely to engage in acts of vandalism there because they know that they will be held accountable if they do. The same is true for other types of antisocial behavior such as littering. Throw one thing away in a clean environment, and you’ll have the police at your door. Throw something on an existing pile and you’ll feel better.

The BWT can perhaps explain certain human rights violations. I see two ways in which it can: it explains crime, and most crimes are human rights violations; and perhaps the same broken window logic applies to human rights violations themselves: one rights violation that goes unpunished may start a sequence of impunity and repeated violations.

However, this means assuming that the BWT is more than just a theory and can be supported by facts. There’s some controversy as to whether it can be.

NB: Wilson’s Broken Window theory should not be confused with Bastiat’s theory.

More posts in this series are here.

art, equality, ethics of human rights, justice

The Ethics of Human Rights (88): Justice and Proportionality



The notion of proportionality is central to many theories of justice:

But why should “things” be proportional? Perhaps it’s some kind of esthetic ideal: a beautiful body is a proportional one; a tasty dish is one with the right proportions of ingredients. So maybe justice is merely about beauty and taste. The world is just if things are not out of proportion, because if they were that would insult our esthetic taste. The word “fair” in “fairness” – often a synonym for justice – also means beautiful.

But I find that hard to believe. People want justice for other reasons than a desire for beauty, and demands of proportionality are about something more than esthetics. But whatever the reasons, proportionality has it’s place in theories of justice, and it would be illusory to try and get rid of it. The notion seems deeply engrained in moral intuitions.

However, while we should in general accept that proportionality plays a role in justice, we should also criticize some uses of proportionality. It’s hard to deny that more serious crimes should be met with more serious punishments, but it’s equally hard to deny that there should be an upper limit to this (you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times) and that criminal punishment should also serve other goals than people’s desire to have things in proportion. Punishment is used in order to protect the public against the criminal, and if a non-proportional punishment serves this goal then maybe we shouldn’t insist on proportionality for proportionality’s sake.

It’s also possible to criticize the use of proportionality in discussions about economic rewards, redistribution, poverty relief etc. If you want to argue that people who are more deserving have a claim to more compensation – and that undeserving people should receive less or nothing – then you need a good account of desert. However, such an account is elusive if not outright impossible. Effort and skill may not be signs of desert but rather the product of undeserved genetic inheritance. Difficult to know, and very intrusive if you want to find out. Proportional distribution as a method of realizing an idea of justice based on desert depends on desert being a good basis of justice. If it isn’t, proportionality may lead to injustice rather than justice because it may leave the poor to starve.

There’s a third case in which proportionality can undermine justice instead of promoting it. Governments may want to limit certain rights because they believe that this is necessary for a public good such as protection against terrorism, in which case they often make claims about proportionality. The possible consequences of terrorism are supposedly so severe that limitations of people’s right to privacy or right not to be tortured are proportional responses, even if these limitations are far-reaching. You can’t lift a heavy rock with an elastic band. The tool should be proportional to the end you want to achieve, and a world without terrorism requires some heavy tools. But again, proportionality as a method to achieve justice – a just world is a world without terrorists killing innocent people – may achieve the opposite. The harm caused by limitations of rights is often greater than the harm of terrorism (some numbers here about the relative harm imposed by terrorism).

A final example of the way in which proportionality can lead us astray when thinking about justice. Many of us tend to believe that we owe more to those close to us and that justice is in the first instance something between members of the nation state. And it is indeed common to see concerns about human rights violations diminish in proportion to the distance between those who are concerned and those whose rights are violated. However, if ideas about closeness are overemphasized in thinking about justice – and they often are since patriotism, nationalism, racism and other forms of in-group bias are quite common – then proportionality will again cause injustice rather than justice.

The point of all this is not to criticize proportionality as such but the manner in which it is used. Proportionality is one method to achieve justice, and can, given some prerequisites, help us to achieve justice. You can’t fight terrorism with good will alone. You shouldn’t impose life sentences for traffic violations. And you shouldn’t give everyone equal economic rewards. But let’s not overemphasize one very peculiar method to achieve justice, a method moreover that is often based on shaky assumptions such as desert, the moral relevance of closeness or the effectiveness and necessity of certain policies.

More posts in this series are here.

causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (79): Poverty Traps



Many among us will experience short spans of poverty at some stages in our lives. I lose my job or my unemployment benefits, I have a catastrophic but transitory health problem, an extreme weather event destroys my crop, or an economic crisis forces me to declare bankruptcy. As a result, I have to live off my savings or my parents and friends will have to lend me money. Still, in time I find another job; my health improves as I benefit from cheap healthcare (perhaps provided or subsidized by the government); the weather returns to normal and I can resume my profitable farming activity; or I can start a new business under the protection of bankruptcy laws that don’t burden me with debt.

However, I may also be what’s called a “structurally” poor person, meaning that I’m poor for most if not the whole of my life. Perhaps I was even born into poverty. The reason may be that I find myself in a “poverty trap”, a self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist. In other words, I’m poor because I’m poor. And because I’m poor I’ll always be poor. I’ll die without ever having had an “adequate” standard of living, all the while passing on my poverty to my descendants.

Here are some examples of poverty traps:

  • I have a job, but the wage is low. As with many low wage jobs, I have almost no control over my work schedule. That means I can’t take on a second job and I can’t send my kids to child care. I have to spend time, money, effort and other people’s good will to take care of my kids. My job is physically hard and so I tend to have some health problems. My life is relatively expensive and it’s hard to find a better job. My salary doesn’t really cover my spending needs, hence I’m poor.
  • I can’t afford to pay the security deposit for a rental apartment, so I’m stuck in an expensive motel or I have to live with my parents who can barely afford their own survival. I also don’t have a refrigerator or a microwave, so I have to buy more expensive food. I have to wash my clothes by hand because… you guessed it. This takes a lot of time, time that I can’t spend on wage labor.
  • I don’t have tap water or heating because those aren’t things that people have where I’m from. I use wood for fuel like everyone else. The result is deforestation, soil degradation, lower crop yields and yet more poverty. My children have to help me – which is why I have a lot of them – to the detriment of their education. My kids will probably inherit my poverty because of this.
  • A lot of the things I’m forced to do because I’m poor are illegal. The lights of my car broke down, and I got a fine. I should have made the financial sacrifice and get them replaced, but I gambled on not being caught. I couldn’t pay the fine and my car was repossessed. Now I have to take public transport but can’t pay for that either. So I often get a fine for that as well. I know some homeless people who get a fine just for being homeless.
  • My calorie intake is too low to give me the strength to work. The quality of work I’m able to offer is inadequate for obtaining the food I require, and the food I do get isn’t enough to allow me to deliver quality work. My productivity is low, my earnings are low, and ultimately I can’t even keep a job or work the farm. My low calorie intake levels lead to health problems. My inadequate housing makes those problems even worse. My ill health, caused by my poverty, makes my poverty worse. I’m more likely to catch a disease, and also less likely to recover from it.
  • Like many poor people I have a low credit rating, making it difficult to get credit. The credit I do get is very expensive, which sort of defeats the point. Now, I do need the credit because I don’t have any savings. People say that I exhibit a high discount rate, that I’m too present-oriented and that I’m unable to delay gratification. Instead of borrowing money at high interest rates as a means to satisfy my unrealistic consumption desires, I should moderate myself and save for the future. But I’m present-oriented because I live in an environment in which I can’t trust people. Better to consume what I have than to save it and lose it later.
  • People also say that my issues with gratification extend to my sex life. I was indeed a teenage mother, and my education suffered as a result. This in turn affected my job prospects and my income. But this wasn’t just stupidity on my part. Being a mother gave meaning to my life. Other meaningful options just didn’t seem realistic.

So, there you have it. I think a lot of these stories are very real, and the problems that poor people face are often self-reinforcing. Of course, I don’t want to deny human agency. There are people who, even in the face of the worst possible circumstances, can fight their way out of poverty traps. So “trap” may be too strong a word. Individual responsibility still plays a role. Yet, let’s not forget that a poverty trap is sometimes intergenerational, as I’ve said before. Some children are born into a trap, and you can’t insist on responsibility and agency when we’re talking about children. A child growing up in a poor family may suffer in its early development. Undernourishment for instance can have a lasting impact on learning ability and earnings as an adult. Children of the poor are perhaps even more affected than the parents because the latter need a minimum calorie intake to work. They have to eat first. If they choose not to eat first, they will only make the poverty of the household worse.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about an entire economy or country being stuck in a poverty trap. If you were expecting a post about that, I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I’m not wading into the treacherous debate about the necessity of large foreign aid injections to break the cycle of poor nations that can’t save enough to finance investment necessary to growth.

This post seems to be going on forever, so I’ll limit myself to a description of the problem. The solution – how to get out of poverty traps – is a topic for another day.

More on poverty traps here and here. More posts in this series are here.

annals of heartlessness

Annals of Heartlessness (57): Dehumanizing the Poor



At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s count the many ways in which this is wrong. Rachel Johnson, sister of a wealthy goof who thinks poor people are innately stupid, starts off well enough with a desire to learn about the lives of poor people. However, rather than just going out and meet some of them, she decides to participate in a reality TV show. You’re probably not wrong to conclude that it’s all about her instead. The poors whom she encounters – from a safe distance – are then subjected to a kindergarten version of sociological analysis: they are “human waste”, fat “battery hens” living “like animals”. But enough about them. What’s important is that SHE has learned the value of money and that HER friends are envious of HER because SHE went on a “poverty safari” looking at those curious creatures which are normally hidden away from proper society.

More in the annals of heartlessness.

capital punishment, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (132): The Difference Between Life and Death is One IQ Point

Freddie Lee Hall

Freddie Lee Hall

For Freddie Lee Hall, a difference of one IQ point could be the difference between life and death.

Hall, 68, has been on the US state of Florida’s death row for 35 years for his involvement in the 1978 murder and sexual assault of a pregnant woman and the related murder of a deputy sheriff. Despite finding that Hall had been “mentally retarded” his entire life, a state trial court sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

Today, the US Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in Hall v. Florida to resolve whether Hall’s death sentence violates the constitutional ban on executing people with intellectual disabilities (the preferred term today).

In 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that executing people with intellectual disabilities constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” prohibited under the US Constitution. The justices provided general guidance for defining intellectual disability but ultimately left implementation to the states, an omission that now lies at the heart of today’s arguments.

In the aftermath of the Atkins decision, Hall appealed his death sentence, but Florida’s supreme court denied his appeal. The state’s requirements for intellectual disability set a “bright line” cutoff IQ score of 70 or below. Hall, having presented IQ scores between 71 and 80, missed the cutoff by a single point.

The Supreme Court will need to decide whether this bright line cutoff violates Atkins. (source)

I wonder: is it that difficult to fake an IQ test – or several tests – and make yourself appear less intelligent than you are? Just fail to answer a few questions. Of course, even if you can’t fake an IQ test the Atkins system remains absurd. As a general rule, it’s OK to account for diminished criminal responsibility of the intellectually disabled, but in the case of the death penalty the difference between diminished and non-diminished is life and death. Criminal justice shouldn’t be about life and death. There’s no good reason for the death penalty, for anyone.

More on capital punishment and IQ. More posts in this series are here.

activism, housing, human rights images

Protest and the City

Protests don’t have to be mass protests. Individual actions like this one can be very high profile. Or you can go subtle, like this:

A small Ukrainian flag in the middle of Red Square, Moscow

A small Ukrainian flag in the middle of Red Square, Moscow


However, I think it’s fair to say that mass protests are usually more effective, not necessarily in the sense of achieving the stated ends but in the sense of achieving something. Hence the recent spate of massively popular urban demonstrations. Maidan, Tahrir, Taksim… The list goes on and on. Someone counted the number of protests during the last couple of years and there’s indeed a steady increase:

number of protests

37 of the 834 events counted had one million or more protesters!

Analysis of these protests often focuses on the role of social media, but just as interesting and somewhat forgotten is the role of urban planning and architecture. Most mass protests take place in and around central squares of large cities and it’s easy to see why these are favorite protest spots:

  • Public squares allow large numbers of people, sometimes very large numbers to congregate at the same spot. Centrally located in capital cities, they typically have many access routes. They are also Schelling Points (“a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special or relevant to them”).
  • There’s often some kind of symbolic meaning to these places (maybe they’re named after national heros). They tend to be close to the institutions of power, which isn’t merely symbolic: it’s those institutions that are claimed to be responsible for the grievances of the masses and that need to hear the message.
  • Large numbers of people are also more difficult for security forces to attack, in the sense that an attack would be very visible and public and therefore potentially embarrassing – at least for those rulers who aren’t beyond embarrassment. The importance of large numbers of protesters doesn’t lie in the fact that the police or the military have a larger force against them – they usually have the means disperse even very large groups of people and a sense of safety in numbers is therefore mostly illusory among protesters. The problem with dispersing large groups is that it doesn’t look good on TV.
  • The ease of TV coverage is itself a reason for holding mass protests in large open spaces in capital cities (reporters often don’t venture outside of the capital). Protesters need to be seen together and when they take over central squares in capital cities – places that are normally buzzing with economic activity – then the world takes notice. The choice of location enhances the impact of protests.
  • And finally, large groups enhance the intensity of the protest through solidarity, mimicry etc. Physical unity translates into intellectual unity, and physical unity is easier in large open spaces.

A particular urban setting – intentionally designed or grown over the course of history – can promote the occurrence and intensity of mass protests. It’s no surprise therefore that the urban planners of dictators try to design cities in such a way that potential protesters are discouraged. Focal points such as large squares are not designed away – a dictator needs them for the theatre of power – but they are policed and fenced. Small streets that could be used by protesters to escape and barricade are demolished and replaced by wide avenues:

December 5, 2011 in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Nay Pyi Taw is the capitol city of Myanmar, formally in Yangon until the Burmese government created a new secluded capitol closed off from much of the world until recently. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

December 5, 2011 in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Nay Pyi Taw is the capitol city of Myanmar, formally in Yangon until the Burmese government created a new secluded capitol closed off from much of the world until recently. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

These avenues can then be used to send in the troops if need be. For example, Beijing’s avenues were instrumental in the attack on Tiananmen square.

The model of pro-autocratic urban design is of course the rebuilding of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. Baron Haussmann turned a medieval city full of narrow streets into a rational, centralized, geometrically ordered system with grand boulevards that would be both harder to barricade and easier for troops to march through. The hope was that this would stop the revolutionary fervor in France. Here’s a before/after image of 19th century Paris:

Before and after the renovation of the Bastille area

Before and after the renovation of the Bastille area

All dictators ever since have tried to replicate this model, if necessary by way of the construction from scratch of new capital cities in the middle of nowhere. If international embarrassment becomes less painful than a fall from power, the central squares and large avenues can be used to crush dissent. In Tiananmen the crushing took place by way of tanks, but usually the means are less extreme:

A protestor is hit by water sprayed from a water cannon during clashes in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, 11 June 2013. Police used water cannons and tear gas as they moved into Istanbul's Taksim Square, where two weeks of protests have been held, as some demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails.

A protestor is hit by water sprayed from a water cannon during clashes in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, 11 June 2013. Police used water cannons and tear gas as they moved into Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where two weeks of protests have been held, as some demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. Photo: KERIM OKTEN/EPA

Photos of a woman in a red summer dress, being sprayed with teargas by a masked policeman, has become a symbol for Turkey's protesters.

Photos of a woman in a red summer dress, being sprayed with teargas by a masked policeman, has become a symbol for Turkey’s protesters.

Teargas at Tahrir Square

Teargas at Tahrir Square


So you have your classic double edged sword: large open spaces can facilitate protest, but also the reaction of the state.

Some bonus pictures of the Majdan protests in Kiev:

Majdan, before and after

Majdan, before and after

Majdan, before and after

Majdan, before and after

capital punishment, iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (156): Execution in Tehran




A young man being executed in Tehran a few nights ago. Some reports say that the witnesses in the first image were the family of the person executed, others say that it’s the family of his victims. Makes a big difference in interpretation of the image, obviously. Maybe they’re both there.

More on capital punishment. More on Iran. More iconic photos.

citizenship, international relations

Migration and Human Rights (49): Rights and Non-Rights Based Reasons to Favor Open Borders



It’s fairly easy to make a rights-based case for open borders – or, more realistically, for reduced immigration restrictions: human beings have

All of these rights depend, in some cases, on the possibility to migrate. And there’s no reason to believe that the actionability of these rights stops at the border (maybe the legal actionability stops there, but not the moral one).

Sure, you can have rights-based reasons to limit immigration, but those are relatively weak. People have a right to private property and to exclude others from their property, but it’s a stretch to argue that a nation of people has a “property” right to a territory. It’s also true that people have a right to democratic self-government, but again this is not a good reason to limit immigration (you can allow immigration and refuse to grant immigrants the right to vote, although you probably shouldn’t). What about the right to cultural identity? Relax. A culture that can’t survive the presence of neighbors is probably not worth saving.

The best right-based reason to limit immigration is perhaps freedom of association: although this right can be used to argue in favor of immigration – when a native and an immigrant decide to associate in, for example, a business relationship, then who are we to stop them? – it can also be interpreted as a right to exclude. A right to associate includes the right not to associate with certain people. One can make the case that allowing people to live in a country is a form of association that people who already live there can accept or refuse. However, is a nation really an association? Anti-patriots and cosmopolitans exist, and yet they are not excluded from the nation. Hence, it’s doubtful whether a nation is an association in the relevant sense. If it’s not, then it doesn’t have a right to exclude, at least not a right to exclude that is similar or equal to the right of proper associations.

So, we do have robust rights-based reasons in favor of open borders, but these aren’t the only reasons. Here’s a list of some types of people who normally don’t use rights as the basis for their thinking but who nevertheless have good reasons to favor open borders (or at least reduced immigration restrictions):

  • Hayekians: In most current immigration systems, governments exclude “bad” immigrants and admit “good” ones. E.g. they exclude criminals, terrorists and economic refugees but try to attract high skilled geniuses. However, Hayekians should doubt that governments have the knowhow that is necessary to do this. Better to remove immigration regulations and leave it to the market – i.e. immigrants and their employers – to sort this out. The government should then focus on keeping out the criminals and the terrorist.
  • Christians/Jews/Muslims: The Abrahamic religions remember the Exodus. If some children of God suffer an injustice for the simple reason of living somewhere rather than somewhere else (a present-day example of such an injustice would be the place premium) then the adherents of one of the Abrahamic religions have a moral obligation to rectify this. Charity can be one option, but open borders seem to be a much more effective remedy.
  • Economists: All those who favor GDP growth should favor open borders which could lead to a one-time boost in world GDP by an estimated 50 to 150%.
  • Law-and-order people: The average immigrant is less likely to commit crime than the average native-born person.
  • Socialists/Social-democrats: Left-leaning folks are primarily concerned with the poorest social classes. Hence, they also should favor immigration because there’s evidence that low-skilled native workers may be able to move up the job ladder when low-skilled immigrants arrive (some low-skilled natives will lose the wage competition but can then be compensated by the welfare state to which a lot of migrants contribute through the taxes that they pay).
  • Etc.

More posts in this series are here.

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (155): Food Aid in Yarmouk, Damascus

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014


Yarmouk, a Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus, has been under siege by the Syrian army since July 2013.

At least 55 people have died from hunger and the majority of children are suffering from malnutrition, according to a Palestinian activist living in Yarmouk.

About 20,000 people are currently besieged in Yarmouk. The regime of Bashar al-Assad says “terrorists” are holding people hostage. Beyond the tactical starvation, Syrian jets have also been bombing the area.

This picture, published by United Nations Relief Workers Agency, shows a seemingly endless line of people waiting for food aid.

More on Syria. More iconic photos.

economics, measuring poverty, poverty, statistics

Measuring Poverty (16): The Capabilities Approach and the Unstraightening of the Poverty Line



We usually define poverty as a level of income or financial assets below a certain “poverty line”. This poverty line is set, often implicitly, at a level that is supposed to make the difference between decent survival and a life unworthy of human beings. The line is typically a single line, identical across all individuals – or even across nations. The best example is the $1 a day line. This is a single, universal line, adjusted only for purchasing power parity. Many national poverty lines are also fixed and identical for all citizens.

The problems with these fixed and uniform lines have been noticed by many, notably by Amartya Sen. According to Sen – and he’s right I think – being poor means being unable to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing, for example the state of being sufficiently nourished, of being mobile, of being free of disease and ignorance, of being sheltered against the forces of nature etc. Poverty is about what people are or are not able to do and about who they are able to be. Poverty is capability-deprivation.

A poverty line only makes sense if it’s set at an amount of money, income or resources that is sufficient to guarantee the required capabilities. A first problem: it’s not at all clear that existing poverty lines are indeed set at a level sufficient to guarantee this. $1 a day in particular seems low, intuitively. Of course there are pragmatic reasons to set the line at a low level (one has to make priorities in life and help the worst off first). But then you’ll have a hard time calling it a poverty line, given the definition of poverty as the inability to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing. Call it a survival line instead.

A second, and more serious problem arises from the fact that poverty lines are fixed and uniform. People, however, are obviously not uniform. Different people require different things in order to achieve the same capabilities. A pregnant women or a young mother needs more nutritional resources than the average person in order to achieve the state of being sufficiently nourished. A physically handicapped person needs more resources to achieve the capability of being mobile. If you focus on the average person – which is what you do with a uniform poverty line – then you’ll fail to identify some as being poor, while erroneously identifying others as being poor. And the environment also plays a role. A person living in unsanitary conditions may be forced to drink infected water. This affects his or her calorie absorption, implying a larger than average amount of food necessary to be sufficiently nourished. Cold weather means more effort to protect against the environment. And so on.

Identical capabilities require different levels of resources or income. A single, fixed poverty line obscures this reality. The only good poverty line is individually specific. However, that’s completely impractical. Differentiation across demographic groups, regions, occupations, lifecycle etc. might be more feasible, but at the cost of simplicity. Be that as it may. I would already be happy with increased awareness that there is indeed a problem. Talk of a “line” reduces this awareness, but I’m realistic enough to understand the appeal of something as simple as a line.

More posts in this series are here.

human rights images, lgbt rights, photography and journalism

Homophobia, A Collection of Images (2)

This may seem like a good time to publish some illustrated commentary about homophobia. It used to be the case that in most countries of the world, homophobia meant outright legal prohibition of homosexuality. And that’s still the case today in some countries. The often grotesque punishments make it even worse. Uganda is now in the spotlight for it’s recent anti-homosexuality legislation. The risk of vigilante violence against Ugandan gays is not unreal when you have newspaper headlines like this:

The Red Pepper tabloid is one of Uganda's biggest selling newspapers

the faces were not pixelated in the original

This is the Red Pepper tabloid, one of Uganda’s biggest selling newspapers:

A Ugandan tabloid has named the country’s “200 top homosexuals”, a day after President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill toughening penalties for gay people.

Red Pepper’s list appeared under the headline: “Exposed”, raising concerns of a witch-hunt against gay people. … Homosexual acts were already illegal in Uganda, but the new law bans the promotion of homosexuality and covers lesbians for the first time. (source)

Another Ugandan newspaper also openly called for the persecution of homosexuals a few years ago:


One of those listed in the now defunct Rolling Stone, David Kato, was subsequently murdered.

Homophobia is also on the rise on Russia lately. Putin has masterminded a series of laws discriminating against homosexuals, which have resulted in this amusing protest:

putin gay

A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin sporting makeup is carried during the Vancouver Pride Parade in Vancouver, on Sunday August 4, 2013. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he’s concerned about what Russia’s new anti-gay law will mean for Canadian athletes and spectators at the Winter Games in Sochi. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Of course, there’s homophobia even in countries that don’t make homosexuality or the promotion of homosexuality a crime. And it doesn’t have to be less painful. For example, there’s been the infamous Matthew Shepard murder in the US, somewhat of a cause célèbre of homophobic hate crime:

matthew shepard

However, some doubts have been raised as to the nature of the crime. Perhaps it wasn’t a hate crime after all. Whether or not it was, there have been numerous other cases that most definitely were. Here’s an example:

A Charlotte couple says they were attacked and beaten on the street, left bloody and bruised. And they say – it’s all because they’re gay. Mark Little and his partner, Dustin Martin, visited Asheville a few weekends ago. The couple say they were walking down the street when people in a passing car began harassing them. Little told WBTV, when they asked the people to stop, a passenger jumped from the car and attacked them. Little says he and his partner are concerned police aren’t taking the crime seriously. Asheville Police are still searching for suspects. If they are caught, they could be charged with simple assault. North Carolina’s hate crimes law does not cover sexual orientation.

A Charlotte couple says they were attacked and beaten on the street, left bloody and bruised. And they say – it’s all because they’re gay. Mark Little and his partner, Dustin Martin, visited Asheville a few weekends ago. The couple say they were walking down the street when people in a passing car began harassing them.
Little told WBTV, when they asked the people to stop, a passenger jumped from the car and attacked them. Little says he and his partner are concerned police aren’t taking the crime seriously. Asheville Police are still searching for suspects. If they are caught, they could be charged with simple assault.
North Carolina’s hate crimes law does not cover sexual orientation.

More on homophobia here and here.

human rights images, photography and journalism

Xenophobic Newspaper Headlines, A Collection

Let’s start with an unintentionally ironic one:

Helen Mirren's dad was a Russian immigrant, Cowell's grandmother was Polish & Cliff was born in India

Helen Mirren’s dad was a Russian immigrant, Cowell’s grandmother was Polish & Cliff was born in India

This one is fun as well:


“Ethnics” doesn’t make good noun, if you ask me.

Following the recent floods in the UK, someone thought it was a good idea to use development aid money to help UK flood victims, because fellow citizens whom you’ve never met before are obviously more important than desperately poor people born on the other side of an imaginary line on the ground:


It’s hard to understand, but there are apparently people who want to send back all immigrants:

MoS2 Template Master

Your respectable xenophobe usually limits himself or herself throwing out the criminal immigrants:


Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to private and family life - is now in force in the UK, and some “foreign criminals” have won appeals against deportation based on this article. This has led to a backlash in the UK against the Convention and against “human rights” and “Europe” in general. As if deportation is necessary for the fight against crime. I mean, they do have prisons in the UK, don’t they?

Here’s an older clipping, from the US this time, with a review of a book about the “celebrated” Dred Scott decision:


The Dred Scott case, rather than celebrated, is now infamous for upholding slavery. The “prognathous race” is the African race, by the way. Prognathous means having a projecting lower jaw or chin, and this was believed to be typical of blacks:

prognathous race

You might ask, what has Dred Scot to do with xenophobia? Isn’t that a simple although horrible case of racism? Well, part of the Supreme Court decision was the ruling that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. In other words, they were strangers – xenoi – forever.

human rights images, photography and journalism

The Human Zoo, A Collection of Images

Human zoos, euphemistically called “ethnological expositions”, were quite common between the mid 1800s and the beginning of the 20th century, although they already existed during the Renaissance. Actual people, mostly from Africa, were brought over to Europe and displayed in monkey style cages or recreated villages, often side-by-side with the more traditional animal exhibits. Entire families were recruited from the colonies and paraded for the entertainment of western spectators. One can only guess how many made it back home.

Selk'nam natives on their way to Europe for being exhibited as animals in zoos. Circa 1889. The Selk'nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people, were an indigenous people in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be encountered by ethnic Europeans or Westerners in the late 19th century.

Selk’nam natives on their way to Europe for being exhibited as animals in zoos. Circa 1889. The Selk’nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people, were an indigenous people in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be encountered by ethnic Europeans or Westerners in the late 19th century.

Although she personally was never part of a “zoo” exhibition, Sarah – or “Saartjie” – Baartman (not her real name of course) is probably history’s most famous human exhibit. She’s standing in the middle here:

Sarah was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in early 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus — “Hottentot” was the then-current name for the Khoi people. “Venus” because of her body shape. After she died impoverished at a very young age, her body was dissected and her remains displayed. For more than a century and a half – until 1974! – visitors to the “Museum of Man” in Paris could view her brain and skeleton until they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; a cast of her body was still shown. In 2002, she was peacefully laid to rest in her homeland South Africa.


Saartjie Baartman’s body cast and skeleton in the “Musée de l’homme” in Paris

Scene from a movie entitled Black Venus, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Yahima Torres as Sarah, released in 2010. It also shows the infamous French naturalist Georges Cuvier who examined her while still alive and dissected her body.

Scene from a movie entitled Black Venus, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Yahima Torres as Sarah, released in 2010. It also shows the infamous French naturalist Georges Cuvier who examined her while still alive and dissected her body after death.

The remains of one very interesting human zoo can still be visited in the Vincennes woods of Paris. Over a 100 years ago, in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale a public exhibition was held to promote French colonialism.

In 1907, six different villages were built in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, representing all the corners of the French colonial empire at the time– Madagascar, Indochine, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia and Morocco. The villages and their pavilions were built to recreate the life and culture as it was in their original habitats. This included mimicking the architecture, importing the agriculture and appallingly, inhabiting the replica houses with people, brought to Paris from the faraway territories. … Entire families recruited from the colonies were placed in replicas of their villages, given mock traditional costumes and paid to put on a show for spectators. (source)

Here’s one of the “attractions”:


I think this is from the same “Jardin”:



Here’s another, very “cheap” looking replica village (I don’t know where this image was taken):


Human zoos were comparable to the much more common “freak shows”. Both focused on the display of “exotic” or strange body shapes:


More on animalization here.

human rights cartoon

Human Rights Cartoon (79): Emigration Will Not Help the Poorest of the Poor



I’ve argued, along with many others, that migration and open borders are some of the best means to reduce global poverty. This cartoon reminds us that it takes money in order to be able to attempt a better life elsewhere. Hence, open borders will not help everyone, and perhaps not those who need help the most. Fortunately, those who can emigrate often send money back home.

More cartoons.