This is of course a reference to the famous Thomas Jefferson quote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. (source)
More cartoons by Boligan here. More cartoons about modern slavery are here. More information about modern slavery is here and here (more about slavery in general is here). More about labor conditions is here. And here‘s more about sweatshops. Some statistics on modern slavery are here. And here are some more human rights cartoons.
What a delightful way to expose the lack of seriousness with which world leaders address human rights in China. Other cartoons about human rights and China:
- About China’s support for rogue states
- About China’s role in Africa
- About China and Tibet; see also here and here
(source, cartoon by Angel Boligan)
Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is not a human rights violation as such (there is no right not to suffer the consequences of corruption), but it is the cause of various rights violations. Notably, it has an impact on economic growth (see here) and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between growth and poverty reduction, see here). Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries (and there is a right not to suffer poverty). It’s obvious that individuals can make better use of the funds that they (have to) spend on bribes. As depicted in the cartoon, those that are forced to pay bribes are often people who are already vulnerable.
Moreover, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions.
As the topic of abortion is back in the news, with the horrible killing of – indeed, terrorist attack on – Dr. Tiller*, maybe it’s useful to link back to one of my older posts on abortion (where I also explain why I believe this is a human rights issue). My position is basically anti-abortion, but I do regret the disdain of many pro-lifers for the rights of the mother. They don’t seem to understand that the rights of the mother should sometimes take precedence (for example when the health or the life of the mother are at risk) and that a tragic choice between mother and fetus should sometimes be decided in favor of the mother. They prefer the simplicity of moral idealism and ignore the tragic nature of a lot of morality in real life.
And neither do they seem to care about the consequences of criminalization of abortion. This quote says it well, I think:
When imagining a future abortion black market and the inherent dangers such a market would introduce to mothers and fetuses alike, I find myself worrying. I worry that it might make matters worse. The life of the mother is sacred, too, and in a black market the most desperate mothers – and especially the poor and the young mothers – would be at a much higher risk then they are now. This hardly seems just. E.D. Kain
We can see what this means in countries where abortion is illegal:
Abortion is illegal in Tanzania (except to save the mother’s life or health), so women and girls turn to amateurs, who may dose them with herbs or other concoctions, pummel their bellies or insert objects vaginally. Infections, bleeding and punctures of the uterus or bowel can result, and can be fatal. Doctors treating women after these bungled attempts sometimes have no choice but to remove the uterus…
Worldwide, there are 19 million unsafe abortions a year, and they kill 70,000 women (accounting for 13 percent of maternal deaths), mostly in poor countries like Tanzania where abortion is illegal, according to the World Health Organization. More than two million women a year suffer serious complications. According to Unicef, unsafe abortions cause 4 percent of deaths among pregnant women in Africa, 6 percent in Asia and 12 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. (source)
The rights of the mother that have to show up in the equation aren’t necessarily limited to health and survival. The right to self-determination of the mother, or her right to decide without government interference what to do with her own body, is perhaps, in some cases, also important enough to override the right to life of the unborn child.
More on abortion and maternal mortality.
An old cartoon that has become relevant again. The defunct Bush administration decided that its war on terror not only required torture and two wars, but also large scale wiretapping of American citizens. (I posted a nice cartoon about this here). How exactly and why they (and others) did it can be read here.
The war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil rebels seems to be at an end now. While the war itself was probably and to some extent a just war, given the atrocities committed by the rebels, the way in which it was fought certainly wasn’t very just. The government forces caused many unnecessary civilian casualties, especially in the latter stages of the war. Given the outcome of the war, it is now up to the Sri Lankan government to win the peace, and do something about some of the legitimate concerns of the Tamil people:
And now the hardest part: can the Sinhalese majority bring itself to treat the defeated Tamil minority charitably after a quarter century of brutal war and nearly 100,000 deaths? Stay tuned. Kevin Drum (source)
For example, will it be possible to grant the region some kind of autonomy?
In all wars, it’s extremely difficult to find out what is happening, but in this case the government seems to have done all it could to make it as difficult as possible (including murdering journalists). Satellite pictures had to come to the rescue.
In general, it’s important to be able to monitor rights violations and to get as much information as possible in the press. Read more about how human rights depend on the media here and here. And more on the problematic relationship between the media and human rights violations is here.
In a democracy, political parties and candidates need money to get elected. And, in the U.S. in particular, they need a fortune. In most democracies, their funds are a mix of government subsidies and private donations. It’s a continuing worry that these private donations will somehow falsify democratic procedures. Outright corruption – “I give you money for your campaign if you adopt/repeal this or this law/policy” – is relatively rare in democracies, given a well-functioning free press. But donations can result in excessive influence. There’s always a lurking feeling that a candidate, once elected, has to do something in return in order to compensate for donor generosity. And in a democracy, everyone should have equal influence, irrespective of campaign contributions.
I have a very detailed post on the subject here.
The belief that members of different castes cannot speak to each other is a gross exaggeration. The English word “caste” does have a connotation of strict separation. It’s from the Latin word castus, “pure, cut off, segregated” (see also castration), but in caste societies such as India there is a lot of interaction between members of different castes. It’s true that the Indian caste system still results in some level of segregation and discrimination between castes (even if the Indian Constitution has outlawed discrimination based on caste), but nothing like what is suggested by the above cartoon, which is almost racist and certainly a denigration of India. See this previous post for a more in-depth analysis of the Indian caste system.
(source, Paresh Nath, The National Herald, India)
I know that it’s wrong to generalize, and that Africa is not a single, undifferentiated entity. I also know that many good things happen there, and that many people have a decent and happy life. Still, all indicators of human rights point to the fact that Africa, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is a human rights disaster and ranks at the bottom if we compare it to other regions in the world. There are many reasons for this, and most of them are beyond the responsibilities of African themselves. I will not attempt to deal with all of these reasons here, and I will certainly not given any solutions. This post just gives a summary of the different indicators.
- In Sub-Saharan Africa, GDP per capita shrank 14 percent and poverty rose from 41 percent in 1981 to 46 percent in 2001, and an additional 150 million people were living in extreme poverty. Almost half of the people still have to live on less than $1 a day. The proportion of children who are underweight is somewhat better than in South-Asia, but is still 1 in 3. And calorie intake numbers for both children and adults are very low.
- Africa has known some of the worst recent famines and genocides.
- Many of the counties in African are burdened with foreign debt. Most of the so-called Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) are in Africa.
- Africa receives almost half of the world’s development aid budget. Aid can be around half of GDP for some countries, making them dependent on aid.
- The practice of female genital mutilation occurs mainly in Africa.
- The rate of maternal mortality is highest in Africa. As is the rate of infant mortality, although it has been falling dramatically over recent decades.
- Not surprisingly therefore, life expectancy rates are lowest, mainly because of poverty and AIDS (HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death on the continent; three-quarters of all IADS deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa). Uniquely, life expectancy rates even went down during the last decades.
- Africa has the lowest density of health workers.
- Child labor rates are highest, even higher than in South-Asia.
- It has a very large number of child soldiers.
- Only half of the children receive primary education, the lowest level in the world. Also the rate of secondary and higher level education is the lowest in the world.
- Together with the Middle-East and South-Asia, it has the harshest penalties for homosexuality and the lowest approval rates in public opinion.
- 5 from the top 10 refugee producing countries are in Africa. And some of the top refugee receiving countries are in Africa as well.
- Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa has had most wars and battle deaths during the last decades.
- Most of the failed states are in Africa. And so are many of the most corrupt governments.
- Many authoritarian governments in Africa are propped up by foreign governments (e.g. China, see also here) or by the so-called resource curse.
- Africa has, together with Asia and the Middle East, the worst freedom and democracy rankings.
And this could go on for a while. It’s obvious that Africa should be THE priority for all those concerned about human rights.
In addition to its widespread disregard for human rights at home, China has now become the main supporter of some of the world’s most loathed dictators. The governments of Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran, North-Korea, Burma and many others regularly receive Chinese support in many different ways:
- China uses its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block the liberal West’s efforts to impose sanctions.
- It offers other means of diplomatic support.
- It gives unconditional economic aid.
- It sells arms.
- It invests.
- It trades.
To some extent, it does all this with its narrow economic and political self-interest in mind:
- It needs the resources that these dictatorships can provide.
- It profits from trade with these countries.
- It profits from banding together with these countries and forming strategic alliances against the U.S.
But there is more to it: resisting the tide of freedom abroad helps to stem it at home.
China of course isn’t the only nation with bad friends. The U.S. has long supported dictatorships in South-America for instance, and continues to sell arms to Saudi-Arabia and others in the Middle East.
During the last decade, China has been showing an increasing interest in Africa. In almost every corner of Africa there is something that China needs to fuel its enormous economic growth: metals, minerals, oil… Trade between Africa and China has grown rapidly:
Is history repeating itself? China’s involvement in Africa brings back the worst memories of Europe’s colonial domination. In its efforts to secure access to African natural resources, China tries to ingratiate itself with African dictatorships. The result is often aiding and abetting. For example, on several occasions, China threatened to use its UN Security Council veto to block the adoption of sanctions against Sudan over the Darfur conflict. It rewards its African friends and suppliers with arms sales, diplomatic support and financial and military assistance. It has no qualms to support the most brutal governments and sell them their weapons of oppression, and it thereby helps to sustain the resource curse.
Part of the ingratiating process is China’s strong belief in “no-strings” aid, a marked contrast to Western donors who – justifiably I think – impose human rights conditions on aid. China’s only demand for entering into commercial relations is a complete break of links with Taiwan. Understandably, given its own performance, it refrains from lecturing African governments on democracy and human rights. This has emboldened governments, allowing them to ignore Western calls for reform.
The rise in the price of agricultural products is also due in part to China’s growth because China is dependent on imports. And since African countries are as well major importers of those products, China’s rapid development and the concomitant price rises have negative consequences for African consumers.
On the bright side, China’s growth and involvement in Africa have given African countries a new export outlet and increased the price of raw materials on which these countries so heavily depend. But this is a theoretical bright side, given the resource curse (see above). China is also in the process of giving Africa a new infrastructure. It employs large numbers of local workers, although the wages they offer remain low and many Chinese companies prefer to use Chinese workers. Still, those Africans that are employed have an income that is often above the African average, and they learn new skills and knowhow.
When criticizing China for aiding and abetting, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the West often makes the same mistakes. While it’s unfair to silence the West because of it’s colonial past – it’s current criticism of China is in no way invalided by its own mistakes – it’s also unfair to blame China for all the evils in Africa. Africans themselves are partly to blame. And so is the colonial heritage, the apathy of the West and many other factors.
(drawing by Bill Mauldin)
Here’s a short overview of different types of equality (I’ll come back to this in future posts):
1. Equality before the law
This concept is linked to the concept of non-discrimination. Laws must be equal for everybody and should not discriminate between people. Everyone should be protected and punished by the law in the same manner. The law is equal for all and all are equal for the law. The law cannot favor or harm a particular group or person. It can only favor or harm everybody in the same way. It has to be neutral with regard to persons. The legislator cannot make a law against or in favor of a particular person or group. A law should never apply to a limited group of people and should never treat people in different ways. It should by definition, be general. The same laws apply to everybody in the same way, including the legislator.
This neutrality is a requirement for both the content and the application of a law. A neutral law can still be applied in a selective way. Breaches of the law can be prosecuted or punished in an unequal and discriminatory way (take for example, the demography of death row in the US). That is also why the testimony of all persons is counted with the same weight. If that would not be the case, the equal application of the law would be impossible.
2. Equal human rights
This is also linked to non-discrimination. Every human being has equal rights, wherever he or she lives, whether he or she believes in a God or not, is rich or poor, or whatever. Human rights are rights of all people at all times. If everybody has equal rights and if, as a consequence, nobody should be discriminated against in the use of his or her rights, then human rights are universal. It is unacceptable that some people enjoy more human rights than others, or enjoy some human rights more than other people enjoy them.
3. Material equality, equality of income or wealth
4. Political equality
This is expressed in the democratic rule of “one man, one vote” designed to give all citizens equal influence. Political participation is an equal right. Everybody has the same right to participate and to rule, irrespective of class, status, race etc. Many social distinctions are politically irrelevant. Everybody has one vote and is politically equivalent. Every vote is as important as the next one, no matter whose vote it is. Of course, political equality can be undone by economic inequality and inequality of wealth. That is why a democracy should also protect a certain kind of material equality.
5. Equal opportunity
See this post. Equality of opportunity is often contrasted with equality of outcome or condition, i.e. the equality of income and wealth.
Beside these distinctions, others are also often used: equality of procedure, absolute vs relative equality, inequality for equality (affirmative action)…
I’ve written about privacy before on this blog (here, here and here), with a particular attention to the importance of private property for privacy. The current post deals more generally with privacy.
There’s no light without darkness. By recognizing the right to keep certain thoughts, relationships and communications secret, one automatically recognizes the right to make other thoughts, relationships and communications public. The right to privacy is a negative version of the freedom of expression, but is, of course, also a value in itself. Privacy is not only important because it protects publicity. It is also important in itself. Nobody can spend his or her entire life in public. People need to have privacy, a space of their own, protected against the intrusion of other people.
This private space has a literal and a figurative meaning.
- It is, first of all, your own house and your own, secret and protected place in society, and hence it is linked to private property and the right to property (an example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights). Privacy in this sense means absence of physical intrusion.
- Secondly, and still rather literally, the private space means the privacy of your own body. Nobody should intervene with your body or intrude into your biological space. In this sense, one can speak about the right to own your body, a right to not have other people violate or harm your body, or use it as a means for their profit, like for example in slavery or – less harmful but still a violation of privacy – the commercial use of one’s name or likeness without one’s agreement. The latter, like slavery but less painful, turns a person into a commodity that serves the profit of others. Privacy in this sense means absence of appropriation.
- Thirdly, your private space means, figuratively, the space of your personal thoughts, feelings, belief and actions. For example, the public disclosure of embarrassing facts about you, government intrusion into your correspondence etc. Privacy in this sense means absence of mental intrusion.
Article 12 of the Universal Declaration gives people their privacy right:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Privacy in a way depends on development and technology, on good housing, mobility (distance) and a good income (related to smaller families and economic independence). But, on the other hand, technology makes it also easier for governments in particular to invade people’s privacy (CCTV, email monitoring, telephone taps etc.). In the current anti-terrorism panic, governments are more likely to invade privacy because they consider this to be a necessary price to pay for security.
I’ve stated before that sometimes one can indeed be forced to limit a right for the protection of another. But this motivation often gets derailed, either because the threat to another right is overestimated or exaggerated, or because governments find it a convenient excuse for the exercise of their power.
Here are some data on countries’ performance in the field of privacy protection for their citizens:
Some countries use economic sensibilities to escape condemnation of their human rights record. China is a notorious example of a country with such an appealing market that export countries dare not insult the Chinese government. This government knows all too well that a mere hint of economic consequences is enough to silence most criticism. This is another reason to create powerful international institutions for the protection of human rights and democracy. Such institutions are less vulnerable to economic blackmail than states. Self-interest does not hamper them, but does not incite them either.
Countries that give up human rights promotion for the sake of their short term economic self-interest rationalize this choice in two ways:
- Firstly, by saying that the maintenance of economic relationships promotes economic freedom, which in turn promotes political freedom. This may not be entirely false, but more often than not it is a badly disguised excuse for passivity. It is also an example of the theory of the invisible hand. My
economic self-interest serves the interests of the victims of rights violations. The problem with all invisible-hand theories is that reality would be different if they were true.
- Secondly, by saying that the maintenance of economic relationships increases the likelihood that there can be a fruitful dialogue with the oppressive regime. Again, not entirely false, but a waste of a precious means for an uncertain result.
Rights become a good that can be traded for economic advantages. We promise to keep silent on rights, and we get paid with investment opportunities, export markets and import licences. As a result, we have selective indignation and double standards, which can be used against us by those who are not fortunate enough to be able to buy their way out of human rights criticism. Those who fight for human rights are continuously reminded of the inconsistencies of human rights politics.
Why is China economically so successful? So successful indeed that all talk about human rights suddenly disappears when China signals to other states that criticizing its human rights record means losing interesting contracts. Well, the answer is complex and should take into account many factors such as Chinese labor ethics, business sense, culture, undervalued national currency, neo-colonial exploitation of Africa etc. One important factor which should not be overlooked is unfair competition. They have cheap products as a consequence of degrading labor conditions, violations of economic rights and forced labor by so-called “criminals”.
I mentioned here that a democracy must regard all citizens as equally valuable human beings. But why are all people equally valuable? Or why do all people have an equal value?
This seems to be something we believe intuitively. It is an idea with a long history. Christianity, for example, is based on it (all people are children of God and created in His image). Everybody understands the importance of being recognised and treated as a human being with a certain value equal to that of all other human beings. No one wants to be treated as an inferior being, as an animal or a thing. If this belief in universal equivalence were absent, then it would be acceptable for one man to treat another as a means, an animal or a disposable thing. Man would be allowed to subjugate other men. The will of one would be a duty for another.
Violations of human rights must be countered by way of international intervention of one kind or another. This intervention in the internal affairs of states may take place without the consent of the state where the intervention takes place, especially when this state is the primary violator. However, it must also take place when violations are not caused by the state but by private groups or individuals, and when the state is unable or unwilling to prosecute.
How can one seriously try to forbid intervention? (At least as long as no violence is involved. Force is perhaps acceptable only in the case of gross violations such as genocide). After all, states decide autonomously with whom they want to trade or who should be the beneficiary of their aid. And I fail to see why a state which has signed a treaty and therefore committed itself to respect human rights should object when the international community protests about the failure to honor this commitment.
It is unacceptable that countries intervene only when their economic, strategic or other interests are at stake, or that they do not intervene when abstention better serves their interests. Some countries in particular can use economic sensibilities to escape even condemnation. China is a notorious example of a country with such an appealing market that export-countries dare not to insult the Chinese government. This government knows all too well that a mere hint of economic consequences is enough to silence most criticism.
More on double standards.
Regarding poverty and underdevelopment, there are doubts about the need for state intervention. The problem is always one of distribution rather than the existence of resources once you take a global point of view. There are enough resources to give everyone a decent life. National or international redistribution can then solve the problem. To a certain extent, this redistribution takes place automatically, through market processes or charity. This is the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith (see also here). But not always, in which case, distribution policies based on taxation are necessary.
If a single state is unable to eliminate poverty in its territory, and self-support is not possible, then there has to be mutual assistance. Other states or the international community have to help. Governments do not only have duties towards their own citizens and citizens do not only have duties towards their fellow citizens. Development aid, if necessary based on taxation, is one way to fulfil international duties, although voluntary assistance and measures leading to self-support are preferable. Preferable, but probably insufficient. One can be too naive about moral motivation or about involuntary and automatic systems.
Human rights promotion suffers from double standards. All too often we blame the other guy for the same things which we do wrong, or we intervene in some places but not in others (because our national interest is at stake, because there are just too many problems etc.).
And if not, we treat one adversary harsher than the other. We promise to keep silent on rights, and we get paid with investment opportunities or import-licenses.
As a result, we have selective indignation and double standards, which can be used against us by those who are not fortunate enough to be able to buy their way out of human rights criticism.
If it is wrong to give the culture of the West an absolute value and to impose it beyond its original territory, then it is equally wrong to give cultural relativism and diversity an absolute value. Cultures and cultural diversity are not the highest values. Other things count as well and may sometimes even override culture. Some cultural practices should not enjoy absolute protection just because they are cultural and just because other cultural practices that were harmless from the point of view of human rights, were once needlessly attacked by an arrogant, pretentious and imperialistic western culture.
It is not arrogance, pretentiousness, imperialism or western shortsightedness to condemn mutilation as criminal punishment for example. It is only a judgement on the incompatibility of universal, not western, human rights standards and certain cultural practices (although one can question whether these practices are really cultural), and on the priority of one or the other. Also western practices must be judged in this way, and if this happens consistently, it becomes much harder to denounce rights promotion as imperialism.
Sovereignty remains an important concept. The sovereign nation state still is an important guarantee for democracy and human rights. Precisely for this reason, what we may call new sovereignty does no longer apply to all states.
Non-democratic states or states which harm human rights should no longer be able to hide behind their sovereignty. Some evolution in the legal rules that are applicable is required in order to attain a new kind of sovereignty.
This new sovereignty will be an absolute sovereignty for democracies that respect human rights, and a conditional sovereignty for all other states. These states will lose a part of their sovereignty in proportion to the gravity of the rights situation in their territory. They will lose their sovereignty completely in the worst cases, only partly in other cases.
Which doesn’t mean that someone, the US for instance, should go in “guns blazing”, wherever there’s something wrong. Limitations of sovereignty should be organized internationally by an authoritative body.
The purpose of state sovereignty is not the possibility for a state to oppress its people without outside intervention. Only freedom can be allowed to benefit from sovereignty because freedom in the sense of human rights and self-government is the purpose of sovereignty. The current definition of sovereignty as the absolute freedom of states to do as they like, has become an anachronism. States are less free than ever before. Interdependence has become the rule. Sovereignty is de facto limited. So why not de iure?
If citizens violate human rights, then the victims can call on the state to act. If the state violates human rights, either in its actions or laws, then the citizens can use one part of the state against another. However, what if both the legislature and the judiciary are disfunctional or outright irresponsible? What if the law is a bad law and the judges fail to invalidate it, because of incompetence, underfunding or perhaps even connivance with the legislature?
Or what if the law is OK but is not enforced by the courts? International law and law enforcement can perhaps help, but states still have means to repel international intrusion. Civil disobedience or, in structural cases, revolution then seem to be the only options left.
The economic, educational or social backwardness of certain minorities, such as colored people in the USA, laborers, single mothers etc., motivates some to accept positive discrimination or “affirmative action” (a euphemism).
In theory, applying individual rights to these people would be sufficient. There would be no need to look for a solution in special minority rights or certain group advantages – like quotas for school admissions etc. – because everyone has the same rights – to education in my example.
However, in practice, these people may suffer from the accumulative effects of discrimination over generations. A simple right to equal education may be quite useless if your family situation is burdened by generations of poverty for example. So favoring this group deliberately or treating it deliberately in an unequal yet positive way in order to help it advance and gain a status equal to the rest of the population may not be wrong.
However, it means accepting the failure of human rights. If the members of the group were able to enjoy and enforce their individual rights, there would be no need for positive discrimination.