iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (98): Korean Separations

A North Korean man (right) on a bus waves his hand as a South Korean man weeps after a luncheon meeting during inter-Korean temporary family reunions at Mount Kumgang resort October 31, 2010. Four hundred and thirty-six South Koreans were visiting North Korea to meet their 97 North Korean relatives, whom they have been separated from since the 1950-53 war, for three days. (REUTERS/Kim Ho-Young)

A North Korean man (right) on a bus waves his hand as a South Korean man weeps after a luncheon meeting during inter-Korean temporary family reunions at Mount Kumgang resort October 31, 2010. Four hundred and thirty-six South Koreans were visiting North Korea to meet their 97 North Korean relatives, whom they have been separated from since the 1950-53 war, for three days. (REUTERS/Kim Ho-Young)

More on Korea. More iconic images of human rights violations.

iconic images of human rights violations, international relations, war

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (77): Korean War

Korean war

1950, early in the Korean War, American Marines march through bitter cold down a canyon road they dubbed “Nightmare Alley” during a grim retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. Originally published in the December 25, 1950, issue of LIFE – Photo by David Duncan Douglas

Soldiers comfort each other during the Korean war in the early 1950's

Soldiers comfort each other during the Korean war in the early 1950’s

More on the Korean war, and on human rights in Korea.

data, human rights maps, international relations

Human Rights Maps (165): Some of the World’s Most Fortified Borders

All national borders are the locus of strict enforcement: there is no country on earth where foreigners can just come in as they wish, and all states are eager to defend the integrity and completeness of their territory and the security of their citizens against attacks by other states or by terrorist infiltrators. Some authoritarian states also use force to keep their people inside their territory.

However, certain borders are fortified more than others. The US-Mexican border, the India-Pakistan border, the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea are among the places where the toughest national security and anti-movement policies are in force. Below are some maps and aerial images that illustrate the extent of these policies.

The US-Mexican border

The US is constructing a border fence in order to stop illegal Mexican immigrants – as well as “terrorists” according to some. This fence currently covers about a third of the border. Right wing politicians want to expand it, even though the non-fenced areas are so remote or rugged as to make a fence pointless or impractical. Together with drone aircraft, helicopters, video surveillance, seismic sensors, infrared sensors, private vigilantes and thousands of border patrol guards in all-terrain vehicles and on horse-back, it has indeed driven down the numbers of illegal immigrants – although the recession has also done its bit.

border fence between the US and Mexico

(source, click image to enlarge)

US Mexico border fence

(source, more on SBInet here)
aerial phot of border at Imperial Beach, CA

aerial photo of border at Imperial Beach, CA



Some question the strength of the US-Mexican border, not always without good reason as can be seen from this image:

Americans and Mexicans playing volleyball over the border in Arizona

Americans and Mexicans playing volleyball over the border in Arizona

The India-Pakistan border

The border between these two countries is hotly contested, especially in the region of Kashmir. India is also wary of terrorist infiltration along the entire border. Sometimes called the “Berlin Wall of Asia”, the border has only one road crossing. Half of the border is floodlit, and hence can be seen from space:

India Pakistan border as seen from the International Space Station

India Pakistan border as seen from the International Space Station (southern part to the right side of this image)

India Pakistan border as seen from the International Space Station

India Pakistan border as seen from the International Space Station (northern part on the left side of this image)


india satellite image


The separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories

To so-called Westbank Barrier between the West Bank and Israel will be approximately 760 kilometres upon completion. In some places it’s a concrete wall. 12% of the West Bank area is on the Israel side of the barrier, meaning that parts of the occupied territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 are now “in Israel”. The main rationale for the barrier is protection against terrorist incursions, specifically by suicide bombers. The barrier severely disrupts free movement in the Westbank as well as access to Israel for Palestinians working there. Some Jewish settlers, on the other hand, condemn the barrier for appearing to renounce the Jewish claim to the whole of the “Land of Israel”.

Westbank barrier


Westbank barrier


The DMZ between North and South Korea

Since the end of the Korean war, there’s a country-wide demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, cutting the Korean Peninsula roughly in half along the 38th parallel. It’s 250 kilometres long – plus extensions into the sea – and approximately 4 km wide. It’s the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Korean dmz map

Korean dmz map


The South has discovered four tunnels crossing the DMZ, dug by North Korea. The North claimed they were for coal mining but no coal has been found in the tunnels, which are dug through granite. Some of the tunnel walls have been painted black to give the appearance of anthracite. Not very cunning. The tunnels are believed to have been planned as military invasion routes.

The border is visible from space at night, not because it’s floodlit but because of the large difference in electricity use between the prosperous South and the impoverished North:

North Korea at night satellite image


And, no, it’s not dark because they’re all building tunnels…

Here’s an overview:

fortified borders


border walls and fences map

(source, click image to enlarge)

All these borders are sad reminders of humanity’s penchant for xenophobia, exclusion, parochialism, national hostility and war. And a testimony to almost universally shared misconceptions about property rights over the earth, about freedom of movement and about the value of diversity and equal opportunity.

More human rights maps here. More on satellite images and human rights here.

data, equality, international relations, measuring human rights, statistics

Measuring Human Rights (13): When More Means Less and Vice Versa


I’ve said it a few times before in this blog series: human rights violations can make it difficult to measure human rights violations, and can distort international comparisons of the levels of respect for human rights. Country A, which is generally open and accessible and on average respects basic rights such as speech, movement and press fairly well, may be more in the spotlight of human rights groups than country B which is borderline totalitarian. And not just more in the spotlight: attempts to quantify or measure respect for human rights may in fact yield a score that is worse for A than for B, or at least a score that isn’t much better for A than for B. The reason is of course the openness of A:

  • Human rights groups, researchers and statisticians can move and speak relatively freely in A.
  • The citizens of A aren’t scared shitless by their government and will speak to outsiders.
  • Country A may even have fostered a culture of public discourse, to some extent. Perhaps its citizens are also better educated and better able to analyze political conditions.
  • alexis de tocqueville

    Alexis de Tocqueville

  • As Tocqueville has famously argued, the more a society liberates itself from inequalities, the harder it becomes to bear the remaining inequalities. Conversely, people in country B may not know better or may have adapted their ambitions to the rule of oppression. So, citizens of A may have better access to human rights groups to voice their complaints, aren’t afraid to do so, can do so because they are relatively well educated, and will do so because their circumstances seem more outrageous to them even if they really aren’t. Another reason to overestimate rights violations in A and underestimate them in B.
  • The government administration of A may also be more developed, which often means better data on living conditions. And better data allow for better human rights measurement. Data in country B may be secret or non-existent.

I called all this the catch 22 of human rights measurement: in order to measure whether countries respect human rights, you already need respect for human rights. Investigators or monitors must have some freedom to control, to engage in fact finding, to enter countries and move around, to investigate “in situ”, to denounce etc., and victims should have the freedom to speak out and to organize themselves in pressure groups. So we assume what we want to establish. (A side-effect of this is that authoritarian leaders may also be unaware of the extent of suffering among their citizens).

A recent example of this catch 22 is here. This is also the reason why people often talk about a new set of human rights, namely the rights of human rights defenders.

You can see the same problem in the common complaints that countries such as the U.S. and Israel get a raw deal from human rights groups:

[W]hy would the watchdogs neglect authoritarians? We asked both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and received similar replies. In some cases, staffers said, access to human rights victims in authoritarian countries was impossible, since the country’s borders were sealed or the repression was too harsh (think North Korea or Uzbekistan). In other instances, neglected countries were simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest. With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it made little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there. … The watchdogs can and do seek to stimulate demand for information on the forgotten crises, but this is an expensive and high risk endeavor. (source)

So there may also be a problem with the supply and demand curve in media: human rights groups want to influence public opinion, but can only do so with the help of the media. If the media neglect certain countries or problems because they are deemed “unnewsworthy”, then human rights groups will not have an incentive to monitor those countries or problems. They know that what they will be able to tell will fall on deaf ears anyway. So better focus on the things and the countries which will be easier to channel through the media (see also here and here).

Both the catch 22 problem and the problems caused by media supply and demand can be empirically tested by comparing the intensity of attention given by human rights monitoring organizations to certain countries/problems to the intensity of human rights violations (the latter data are assumed to be available, which is a big assumption, but one could use very general measures such as these). It seems that both effects are present but not much:

[W]e subjected the 1986-2000 Amnesty [International] data to a barrage of statistical tests. (Since Human Rights Watch’s early archival procedures seemed spotty, we did not include their data in our models.) Amnesty’s coverage, we found, was driven by multiple factors, but contrary to the dark rumors swirling through the blogosphere, we discovered no master variable at work. Most importantly, we found that the level of actual violations mattered. Statistically speaking, Amnesty reported more heavily on countries with greater levels of abuse. Size also mattered, but not as expected. Although population didn’t impact reporting much, bigger economies did receive more coverage, either because they carried more weight in global politics and economic affairs, or because their abundant social infrastructure produced more accounts of abuse. Finally, we found that countries already covered by the media also received more Amnesty attention. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

comedy, political jokes and funny quotes

Political Jokes & Funny Quotes (92): North Korea

Two men are talking on a Pyongyang subway train:
“How are you, comrade?”
“Fine, how are you doing?”
“Comrade, by any chance, do you work for the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Have you worked for the Central Committee before?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Then, are any of your family members working for the Central Committee?”
“Then, get away from me! You’re standing on my foot!”

More on Korea. More jokes.

most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (42): Child Starves While Parents Play Computer Game

Kim Yoo-chul, 41, and his partner Choi Mi-sun, 25 (not in the photo), fed their three-month-old baby only on visits home between 12-hour sessions at a neighbourhood internet cafe, where they were raising an avatar daughter in a Second-Life-style game called Prius online, police said.

Leaving their real daughter at their home in a suburb of Seoul to fend for herself, the pair, who were unemployed, spent hours role-playing in the virtual reality game, which allows users to choose a career and friends, granting them offspring as a reward for passing a certain level.

The pair became obsessed with nurturing their virtual daughter, called Anima, but neglected their real daughter, who was not named.

Eventually, the couple returned home after one 12-hour session in September to find the child dead and called police. The pair were arrested on Friday after an autopsy showed that the baby died from prolonged malnutrition. (source)

More absurd human rights violations. More about Korea and gaming.

horror, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (21): The North Korean Famine

The North Korean famine

The North Korean famine


From 1995 to 1997, famine raged in North Korea. According to a report by North Korea’s Public Security Ministry, up to 3 million lost their lives (source). As this isn’t the most neutral observer, real numbers are probably much higher. (See an older post here about not trusting governments with the job of human rights measurement). Still today, the country is in such a state that it won’t take much for famine to return.

It was Kim Il Sung who used to say, “Communism is rice,” meaning the system would succeed by giving the people enough to eat. The famine was caused by mismanagement and the inability to adapt to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic transformation of China.

All that said, Kim Jong Il acted with callous disregard to the suffering of his people. Rather than lose face, the North Koreans denied the food crisis for years and then kept humanitarian aid out of the places it was most needed. The regime executed people who tried to adapt by engaging in private business.

By the way, Kim Jong Il is famous for being one of the biggest foodies in Asia. Throughout the nineteen-eighties and well into the famine, he flew couriers around the world to procure delicacies for his own palate — fresh fish from Tokyo for his sushi, cheese from France, caviar from Uzbekistan and Iran, mangoes and papaya from Thailand. (source, source)

There’s always something absurd about famines in a world where there’s plenty of food, too much even in some areas. But this one was particularly surreal. More on North Korea. More on famine. More absurd human rights violations.

culture, human rights and international law, law, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (20): Universal Rights

the earth as seen from the moon

A few more words on the universality of human rights (following up from here). Legally, human rights are universal norms and rules. Almost all countries in the world have accepted international treaties that translate human rights into law, or have accepted membership of international institutions which proclaim to respect human rights or work towards the realization of human rights (such as the UN). (There’s an overview of the acceptance of the two major human rights treaties here and here). Moreover, most if not all national constitutions proclaim human rights to be part of the country’s highest law. Even North-Korea recently changed its constitution in this sense.

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

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

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

How do we promote moral universality? Read here.

human rights nonsense, intervention

Human Rights Nonsense (4): North Korea Denounces Japan’s Human Rights Abuses

Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il


From the Korean Central News Agency, the state news agency of North Korea (notice the quirky diction):

Some time ago, the second meeting of the UN Human Rights Council heard a report from the UN special rapporteur on racism and racial discrimination stripping bare Japan’s human rights abuses and discussed it. … It is a deserved treatment of Japan, a political dwarf which refuses even to honestly repent of its past crimes including extra-large crimes of human rights abuses. Japan can not evade greater disgrace, isolation and rejection in the international arena, unless it lends an ear to the demand of the times and makes an honest apology for its past crimes and settles them. (source)

“Extra-large crimes of human rights abuses…” That’s almost better than “The U.S. imperialist robbers have stretched their crooked tentacle of crime-woven aggression with wild ambition”. If you want to know where they learn their English, check here.

While no one would claim that Japan is a human rights paradise, it certainly looks like one compared to the other place. And regarding “isolation”, Korea sure knows what it’s talking about.

More on Korea.

data, governance, human rights facts

Human Rights Facts (17): What Dictatorship Does to You, A Comparison of North and South Korea

Needless to say that North Korea and South Korea, since the division of the country in 1948, took very different roads. If we take a look at the two countries now, and see how differently they developed since 1948 – when they started off at roughly the same level – we can see what dictatorship does to a country.

The differences are startling, even if we put aside the horrible famine of 1995-1998 which killed 1 million people, or 4% of the population. (Almost uniquely in history, this famine was as much an urban as a rural famine. Still today, many farmers are forced to eat grass. Even more than usual, this famine was a “government sponsored famine”).

  • GDP per person is more than 17 times higher in the South than in the North
  • International trade is 140 times higher
  • Power generation is 16 times higher, whereas the population is only a bit more than double (see satellite image below)
  • Life expectancy is more than 10 years higher
  • etc.


North Korea and South Korea GDP per capita


Here are two satellite images showing North and South Korea’s Electricity usage in the evening:

north and south korea satellite image

North and South Korea satellite image

Some more data on North Korea:

data on north korea

(source unknown)