causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (50): The Weather?

The plundering of the Judengasse, 22 August 1614

The plundering of the Judengasse, 22 August 1614


[T]he persecution and expelling of Jewish people by pre-modern European states is linked to agrarian variations. Based on historical weather data, evidence suggests that during the 15th and 16th centuries, colder temperatures made it significantly more likely that a Jewish community would be expelled. … [A] Jewish individual from the 15th or 16th century, who lived to 50 years old, faced roughly an 18% chance of being expelled during their lifetime. This risk was almost twice as great during a cold year. (source)

Apparently, persecution of Jewish groups follows from the economic hardship that in turn follows from colder temperatures during the growing seasons (that is, April to September). Agrarian economies were more vulnerable to weather shocks, and these shocks produced negative economic outcomes which then led to the scapegoating of minorities. Cities with poorer quality soil also saw an increased chance in the occurrence of expulsions of Jewish groups.

Interesting, but I doubt it has much relevance for the problems of today.

More posts in this series are here.

culture, equality, freedom, hate, law, philosophy, privacy

Hate (8): Tolerance and Hate Speech

1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob; soon after, many of his followers migrate to Utah

1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob; soon after, many of his followers migrate to Utah

(source, source)

Jeremy Waldron claims that tolerance is more than merely the absence of violent assault on people who have adopted beliefs and practices we don’t like, and more than simply abstaining from persecution and legal sanction. He says that tolerance also implies the absence of hate speech and a legal prohibition of hate speech. Members of minority groups whose beliefs and practices are strongly disapproved of by the rest of society, have a right to go about their lives without the threat of constant hatred, vilification, insult and humiliation. They have a right to visit the shops and restaurants they want to visit, and to generally interact with others without being treated as pariahs.

And, indeed, that sounds quite reasonable. People undoubtedly have and should have such rights. But others have rights as well: hate mongers have a right to free speech, and racist shop keepers and restaurant owners have a right to ban whoever they want from their private property, under certain circumstances.

When the rights of the haters and the rights of despised minorities come into conflict, the different rights have to be balanced. I argued before that the right of private property of racists, or the freedom of association of prejudiced groups wanting to exclude homosexuals for example, should no longer be protected when these racists and bigots have become so numerous and authoritative that the objects of their racism or bigotry no longer have any alternative options and risk having their own rights violated. In the Jim Crow era, for example, it was very difficult for blacks to move around, find decent housing etc. because there were so many transport companies and landowners discriminating against them that their options were seriously diminished. Hence their rights were violated, and violated to such a degree that limitations on the rights of their tormentors were justified.

Similarly, in our current example, hate speech should only be banned and the right to free speech of hate mongers should only be limited when there’s an impact on the rights of their targets. Claiming, as Waldron seems to do, that a tolerant society generally requires such bans and limits will not do. That’s just not enough as a justification. For example, writing blood libel on an obscure blog that nobody reads should probably not be prohibited. On the other hand, burning crosses in the front yards of black people and forcing them to move elsewhere is a violation of their right to freely choose their residence. The same is true if people dare not walk the streets because of the risk of being constantly cursed at. These two cases of expressions of hate speech can and should be banned because they result in rights violations. Other expressions of hate speech should be protected. A general claim that tolerance requires not just constraints on coercion and violent persecution but also a general respect for people’s dignity and a social atmosphere free of hatred, insult and defamation, goes too far. It would be nice if the world was free of hate and if respect for dignity was the normal attitude, but there’s no right to such a world. Nor should there be.

If we were to adopt such a right, we’d run the risk of terminating debate altogether. If tolerance includes a general ban on hate speech it’s likely that it will also imply banning vehement discussion of other people’s supposed errors. You don’t need to engage in hate speech in order to have a vehement and lively discussion and criticism of others, but a lot of such criticism can be readily understood and perceived by its targets as an expression of hate and an insult to dignity. These targets can then use the power of law to shut down the debate, and that’s not something we want. Ideally, specific instances of speech should not be judged as inadmissible instances of hate speech and proper objects of legal sanction simply on the basis of the feelings or perceptions of the targets, but only on the basis of the objective consequences for the rights of the targets. Tolerance that includes a ban on all hate speech is a tolerance that in the end may silence us all.

More on tolerance, hate speech, defamation and insults. More posts in this series are here.


Migration and Human Rights (5): Public Opposition to Migration

restricting migration


The public in most developed countries (or rich countries) is often opposed to immigration:

restricting immigration pew


There are two main reasons for this opposition. Opinions about immigration are closely linked to perceptions about threats to a country’s culture, for example the language. We see a lot of anxiety in the US about English as the first language and the only official language of the country.

Another perceived problem is employment: some fear that the immigrants will take away jobs from local people. Immigrants are relatively poor and accept lower wages and less developed labor regulations, which gives them an “unfair advantage”. Especially illegal immigrants are tough competition. On the other hand, some state that migrants do the jobs local people are unwilling to do.

In any case, the discussions often border on xenophobia and almost always exclude the point of view of the migrants. For migrants, migration can mean the difference between oppression, suffering or poverty on the one hand, and freedom and wealth on the other.

When asked why people leave their country to live in another country, solid majorities in a Pew survey say it is for job opportunities. This is probably a correct assessment. But even if most migrants do not flee persecution, genocide, war etc., they still try to escape violations of their human rights, namely their economic rights and their right not to suffer poverty.

More on migration here.


Migration and Human Rights (4): Asylum

This post on asylum is a follow-up on a previous post on refugees, which was in itself a follow-up on a post about the broader topic of migration.

Asylum is a form of protection that allows individuals to remain in a country, provided that they meet the definition of a refugee. Eventually, they may become permanent residents or even nationals.

People seeking asylum in another country do so because they have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They usually petition for asylum when they enter a country, and the government of the country decides on a case-to-case basis, according to its own rules, whether or not to grant asylum to a particular person. A person has to fulfill certain conditions before being granted asylum. These conditions differ widely from one country to another. Some countries have a very restrictive policy.

When asylum is denied, states usually deport the asylum seekers, back to their own country or to a third country. During the period leading up to the decision whether or not to grant asylum, states often detain the asylum seekers (and their families and children) in special prisons. Nevertheless, many failed applicants manage to remain illegally in the country. However, whether deported or gone underground, failed asylum seekers often lead miserable lives. And then we forget all those that didn’t make it to the country of application. Asylum seekers often undertake hazardous and fatal journeys.

People have a right to asylum (see article 14 of the Universal Declaration). It’s a very old legal notion (e.g. the medieval church sanctuaries). The grounds for asylum are however, rather limited. There should be some kind of persecution. An important question is whether economic refugees should be given asylum. I think they should. Poverty is just as much a violation of human rights as forcing someone to change his or her religion.

However, unrestricted economic asylum does not seem to be possible. Flooding rich countries with millions of economic refugees will not help anybody. It will destroy economic welfare in the few places where it exists, without offering any real improvement for the disadvantaged.

The same is true for other kinds of refugees. In principle people should be protected, whatever their origin. But of course, a state is no longer obliged to grant asylum if the applicants are so numerous that accepting all of them would lead to chaos and economic problems in the receiving country. Accepting them anyway would mean sacrificing the rights of the people of the receiving country without being able to do much in favor of the rights of the refugees.

Combating human rights violations in the country of origin is the best way to solve refugee problems. Most people do not want to flee, so accepting them as refugees is not the best solution from their point of view, even though it is still better than not accepting them and it makes it possible to protect their rights.

Here are some data on asylum in the world. The number of asylum seekers varies over time, depending on the number and severity of crisis situations around the world, on the application and immigration policies of the receiving countries etc. However, an upward trend can be seen from the available data:

trend of asylum applications

The top receiving countries are the following:

asylum top destinations

When we plot this against the size of the receiving countries (which is a good measure of their “level of saturation”), we get the following picture:

asylum destinations by number of inhabitants

Asylum seekers come mainly from the following countries (one notices a shift between 2003-4 and 2006-7):

asylum countries of origin

asylum countries of origin 2

citizenship, human rights poem

Human Rights Poem (36): Statue of Liberty

statue of liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus, inscription on the Statue of Liberty (or rather the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World)

More on asylum here.


Migration and Human Rights (3): Refugees

angelina jolie unhcr

Angelina Jolie

In countries where people have to flee their homes because of persecution and violence, political solutions must be found, peace and tolerance restored, so that refugees can return home. In my experience, going home is the deepest wish of most refugees. Angelina Jolie

In a previous post, I talked a bit on the problem of migration and how it’s linked to human rights. I also tried to give a classification of types of migrants. One type is the refugee, and according to the classification the refugee is an involuntary migrant and a “push-migrant”. It’s the situation in the home country – usually war, famine or persecution or a combination – which forces or pushes him or her to migrate abroad, usually to one of the neighboring countries. The refugee is different from other types of migrants, such as the people who feel the “pull” of economic opportunity which, voluntarily or involuntarily (in the case of extreme poverty), drives them abroad.

Refugees who flee war, famine or oppression but do not leaev their home country are called internally displaced persons.


According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), there were roughly 20 million refugees in the world in 2005, and 33 million in 2006. This is an underestimate because the numbers don’t include the Palestinians refugees, many of the Afghan refugees etc. Amnesty International place the number of worldwide refugees last year at just over 36 million. Three quarter of these come from Asia and Africa. The top refugee producing countries are:

refugee producing countries


The country with the largest number of internally displaced persons is Sudan, with over 5 million. Pakistan is the top host country in the world for refugees:

refugee receiving countries

And these are 2007 data, with an interesting breakdown between international refugees and internally displaced persons:

refugees top receiving countries


Countries’ responses

Countries have an obligation to accept refugee on their territory. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. 2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

However, this obligation is often rejected by countries. Countries often subject

“refugees to arbitrary arrest, detention, denial of social and economic rights and closed borders. In the worst cases, the most fundamental principle of refugee protection, non-refoulement, is violated, and refugees are forcibly returned to countries where they face persecution.” Human Rights Watch (,2)

The states that create the refugee problem also have obligations. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Therefore, countries have an obligation to create or restore the circumstances which make it possible for people to return home. It’s up to these countries, with the assistance of the international community, to address the root causes that force people to flee.

refugees under the protection of the hcr

refugees under the protection of the hcr