philosophy, trade, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (48): Something That Can Be Bought?

surrogacy advert

surrogacy advert

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Take a look at this list, helpfully compiled by Michael Sandel:

  • In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a prison-cell upgrade costing $90 a night. This gives them access to a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to “disturb” them – read: rape them.
  • Couples believing that their infertility impedes their right to a family life can buy an Indian surrogate mother for $8,000, less than one-third the going rate in the United States. Similar transactions take place between patients in need of organs and willing donors, the latter of course very often poor and desperate.
  • In the U.S., patients who want easy access to a good doctor can buy their doctor’s cellphone number for $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees.
  • People wanting to emigrate to the U.S. can do so when they invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment. This makes them eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.
  • A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead.

In all of these cases – and probably in many others I’m not aware of – people pay money or sell themselves – or parts of themselves – in order to have their rights protected, or they get paid in order to help others secure their rights.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s distraught by this. It’s true that rights protection costs money – a lot of money – and a large proportion of what we pay in taxes is used by governments to protect our rights (taxes pay for a police protection, judicial protection, welfare, healthcare, education and other rights). So why shouldn’t individuals be able to bypass the state and use their money to secure their rights when the state or others fail to do so? (By “others” I refer to NGO’s, international institutions, private charities etc.). After all, everyone should be happy with better rights protection, no?

Well, yes, unless we start something that will lead to systematically unequal rights protection. We don’t want the wealthy to have better rights protection than others, or to be able to continuously improve their marginal protection (e.g. a gated community as a defense against unlikely attackers) while the poor are left with almost no protection at all. Slightly modifying the meaning of a standard expression: might shouldn’t be right. The advantage of outsourcing rights protection to the state is that we pool resources and use them where they are most needed. The market isn’t always the best place to allocate rights protection.

Even the rich will consent to this. After all, they may be able to buy some of their rights, but not all of them and not all of the time. Participating in government protection mechanisms will secure their rights when their money can’t.

Another problem caused by individuals buying their rights is that we may see crowding out of moral motivation. If other individuals, companies or governments can get money for securing rights, they’ll stop securing rights for moral reasons. And finally, the concept of rights will be corrupted. Rights are not something which should have to be bought. They are something people have a moral duty to give. Allowing rights to be bought and sold corrupts the value and meaning of rights.

More posts in this series are here.

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most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (117): Segregation of HIV-Positive Prisoners

prison rape

(source)

South-Carolina is now the only US State where HIV-positive prisoners are segregated in separate housing units with unequal program opportunities, inferior mental health care and fewer work options.

There’s absolutely no reason to do that, unless you want to maintain the reign of sexual terror that is still widespread in US prisons. AIDS is almost exclusively transmitted by way of sexual intercourse and needles. Segregating HIV-positive prisoners makes it easier for prison rapists to pursue their hobby. If you don’t know who’s positive and who’s not, you’ll think twice about raping someone. In the “HIV wards”, since they contain only HIV-positive prisoners, there’s also no more reason to refrain from rape.

Things like this make it hard to believe that legislators and prison authorities are not intent on making prison as horrible as possible.

More absurd human rights violations.

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most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (112): The Tagging of Prisoners With HIV

Jew in Paris, wearing the star

Jew in Paris, wearing the star

(source)

You can’t tell by looking at someone whether he or she is living with HIV. That is, unless you catch a glimpse of a man who’s living with HIV in the state of Alabama’s prison system.

There are over 200 male prisoners living with HIV in Alabama. The Alabama Department of Corrections requires each of them to wear a white armband at all times, making their health status obvious to other inmates, prison staff, and visitors. The practice is a huge affront to prisoners’ privacy and confidentiality. (source)

Let’s list some of the other things that are wrong with this:

  • Why on earth would anyone want to protect prison rapists? Or is it true that the modern day prison system is merely a sanitized front for the perpetuation of medieval punishment?
  • Measures such as these nourish the stigma of HIV patients.
  • They promote false beliefs about HIV transmission.
  • Etc.

More absurd human rights violations.

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measuring human rights, statistics

Measuring Human Rights (27): Measuring Crime

violence

(source)

A number of crimes are also human rights violations, so crime rates can tell us something about the degree of respect for human rights. Unfortunately, as in most cases of rights measurement, crime measurement is difficult. I won’t discuss the usual difficulties here – underreporting by victims or relatives, lack of evidence, corrupt or inefficient police departments etc. Instead, I want to mention one particularly interesting problem that is seldom mentioned but possibly fatal for crime rate statistics: most reductions in crime rates are not really reductions, especially not those reductions that come about as a result of tougher law enforcement and higher incarceration rates. When we imprison criminals, rather than bringing crimes rates down, we just move the crime from society towards the prisons:

the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. (source, source)

And there’s no way to correct for this and adjust overall crime rate statistics because quality statistics on crime rates inside prison are even harder to get than statistics on “normal” crime rates – given the quasi lawlessness of prison life.

More on prison violence here and here.

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annals of heartlessness

Annals of Heartlessness (18): Gays in Texas Like Prison Rape

Prisoner with mirror (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

Prisoner with mirror (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

(source)

Texas justice has rarely been kind to homosexuals. Take, for example, the case of Calvin Burdine, who was sentenced to death in 1984 for the murder of his male companion. Burdine’s court-­appointed lawyer, when not dozing, referred to his client as a “fairy.” The prosecutor, meanwhile, demanded the death penalty by arguing that gays actually look forward to the rewards of prison life. “Sending a homosexual to the penitentiary,” he claimed, “certainly isn’t a very bad punishment for a homosexual.” Astonishingly, a federal appeals panel first upheld the verdict on the grounds that nothing in the law guarantees a defendant the right to a fully conscious attorney. Burdine eventually won a new trial, at which he was again convicted, but this time sentenced to life in prison — a veritable candy store, it was said, for a “pervert” like him. (source, source)

More in the annals of heartlessness.

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international relations, law, poverty, trade, types of human rights violations

Types of Human Rights Violations (7): Unintentional Human Rights Violations

banana peel slip

(source)

The common view is that there can’t be unintentional human rights violations: only when someone intentionally harms the rights of someone else can we talk about rights violations. In all other cases we should talk about accidents, tragedies or misfortune. However, I’ve never understood this common view. There is criminal liability for accidentally running someone over with a car, but if we unintentionally reduce someone’s freedom or equal standing should that person simply suffer her misfortune rather than seek redress for violations of her rights? That can’t be true. What’s important about human rights is the harm to the victim, not the state of mind of the perpetrator. Rights are about victims, not perpetrators.

So below are a few examples of unintentional human rights violations (you can suggest more in comments).

Criminal punishment is often a very intentional human rights violation. Think of capital punishment and excessively long or discriminatory incarceration. However, let’s assume that there are cases of justified criminal punishment which merely aim to limit some of the human rights of criminals rather than violate them – the difference is that limitations, contrary to violations, are necessary for the protection of rights of others. (This is not an assumption that is evidently true – see here – but let’s leave our doubts at the door for a while).

Justified criminal punishment must be imposed intentionally. Unintentional side effects of incarceration, for instance, should not therefore be part of legitimate criminal punishment. Examples of such side effects are loss of income, loss of education opportunities, prison rape etc. These, unfortunately, are very common side effects, and incarceration thus unintentionally produces rights violations. That is something which should – but never is – taken into account when imposing prison sentences, especially when, such as in this case, the unintentional human rights violations are eminently foreseeable. (More about this here).

Dr Strangelove

scene from Dr Strangelove, probably the best movie ever about unintended consequences

(source)

Immigration restrictions are imposed not because decision makers in the destination countries want to condemn large parts of humanity to a life of desperation. They are imposed because people – mistakenly in my view – believe that such restrictions serve to protect a national culture, national prosperity or law and order. However, the fact is that immigration restrictions unintentionally perpetuate poverty, and poverty is a human rights violation. Freedom of association and freedom of movement are also violated by immigration restrictions, and those rights violations are also unintentional.

cultural sensitivitiesPoverty in general is usually an unintentional human rights violation. Few people deliberately create or perpetuate poverty, and yet there’s a lot of poverty in the world. While some of it is due to natural causes, misfortune or self-destructive actions, most of it is the result of unintentional actions by other people: certain economic policies (such as anti-poor trade policy), or unintentional failure to act charitably. More about this here.

As you can see from all these examples, the absence of an intention to violate rights is not a sufficient reason to negate the reality of violations. It’s also not sufficient to clear people of responsibility. Even if people do not have the intention to violate rights, they should try to assess whether violations are possible side effects of their actions. And in all the examples given, this assessment is relatively easy. If you think about it, you know that you’ll violate rights unintentionally when you lock up criminals, when you stop people at the border or when you implement certain economic policies. Hence, just like the reckless driver hitting someone with his car, you may be held accountable if your actions in the spheres of justice, border control or trade – or in any other sphere for that matter – cause unintended rights violations.

One day I will offer a complete typology of human rights violations. I think…

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data, human rights and crime, human rights violations, law

Crime and Human Rights (12): Prison Rape in the U.S.

prison rape

(source)

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year. According to the department’s data, which are based on nationwide surveys of prison and jail inmates as well as young people in juvenile detention centers, at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint. (source)

Given the incarceration statistics for the U.S. – more than 2 million U.S. citizens are in jail – this means that one in 10 inmates is sexually abused in prison. Approximately half of all sexual abuse in detention is committed by staff, not by inmates (source).

More in prison rape here, here, here and here. More human rights facts here.

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data, freedom, human rights and crime, human rights violations, justice, law, privacy, statistics

Crime and Human Rights (10): Does Being Tough on Crime Reduce Crime?

The human right issues created by incarceration are evident, I think: locking people up means taking away a number if not most of their liberties, most obviously their freedom of movement, freedom to work, political freedom in some cases, and privacy. Other rights violations are also common, even in the prisons in rich countries such as the U.S.:

  • juvenile incarceration
  • the substandard conditions in which many prisoners are kept (Federal prisons in the U.S. hold 60% more prisoners than they were designed for)
  • the forced and unpaid labor prisoner often perform
  • the common occurrence of prison rape (see here and here).

Some people clearly deserve to be put in jail, and often that is what is required in order to protect the human rights of their (possible) victims.

However, I mentioned before that the “tough on crime” policies enacted in the U.S. and the resulting explosion in the numbers of U.S. citizens who are in prison (the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world) go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims. The causes of this explosion are numerous.

  • There’s the war on drugs, of course, which leads to excessively tough penalties, sometimes even for victimless crimes (the illegal sale of prescription painkillers for instance). Some of the penalties for drug “crimes” are tougher than the sentences for violent crimes.
  • There are other acts that are in essence victimless and need not be criminalized, and yet result in incarceration in the U.S. (e.g. importing rare orchids).
  • Sentences in the U.S. are too long. Many crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences, taking away judges’ discretion and their ability to take into account the specific circumstances of a crime. “Three strikes and you’re out” lead to life sentences for sometimes trivial crimes.
  • Some laws, especially laws regulating the conduct of businesses – are so vague that people have a hard time steering away from crime.
  • Prosecutors are often allowed to slice up a crime into a series of different crimes, each coming with a minimum sentence.
  • Parole conditions have been toughened, and people are regularly put back in jail for non-criminal violations of these parole conditions.

The cause of all this is probably the race to the top going on between politicians who are all promising to be tougher on crime than the next guy. Some judges in the U.S. are elected and engage in the same kind of bidding.

The prisoner's dilemma is an example of game t...

Image via Wikipedia

The question is: what are the benefits of this toughness, and what are the costs? Regarding the benefits, the homicide rate has been going down in the U.S., but it has since two centuries and it’s not clear that the tough policies introduced during the last decades have contributed much to the decline.

Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Piehl of Rutgers University estimate that a 10% increase in the number of people behind bars would reduce crime by only 0.5%. In the states that currently lock up the most people, imprisoning more would actually increase crime, they believe. Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals. And raising the incarceration rate means locking up people who are, on average, less dangerous than the ones already behind bars. (source)

Regarding the costs: the prison system in the U.S. is extremely expensive, sucking away funds that could be used much more productively elsewhere, particularly on policies protecting human rights such as education. It’s also money that can’t be spent on better crime detection and better policing. It’s well-known that swift justice and high “catch rates” deter more crime than harsh penalties. If you want to be tough on crime, you shouldn’t necessarily choose the option of putting a lot of people away for a long time. And questioning the high incarceration rates in the U.S. doesn’t mean you’re weak on law and order.

High numbers of inmates also reduce the chances of rehabilitation: more prisoners means relatively less prisoners who can take advantage of the limited resources dedicated to vocational training and other activities that make it more likely that prisoners can become normal and non-reoffending members of society once they get out. Together with the phenomenon of prison as a “school for criminals”, this is likely to create a perverse effect: being tough on crime can actually increase crime. People should think hard on the way in which they choose to be tough on crime, and should consider if some crimes need to be crimes at all.

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human rights quote, law

Human Rights Quote (78): Prison Abuse

I often discuss the human rights implications of incarceration: prison rape, overpopulation in prisons, juvenile incarceration, racism in incarceration rates, the social cost of incarceration, voting rights for felons and other related issues regularly make an appearance here.

Here are two other fine quotes admonishing the violence that occurs in prisons, even in so-called developed countries, and the high incarceration rates in the U.S.:

Prison will always be prison: Every society has to live with some level of institutional violence in the worlds it builds to confine its most dangerous elements, and there’s an inherent cruelty to incarceration that cannot be refined away. But there has to be a limit, as well. And what Americans have learned to tolerate (or rather, ignore) inside the walls of jails and prisons ought to churn our stomachs, shock our consciences, and produce not only outrage, but action. Ross Douthat (source)

Sentences in the United States are eight times longer than those handed out in Europe, Justice Kennedy said. California has 185,000 people in prison at a cost of $32,500 each per year, he said. He urged voters and elected officials to compare taxpayer spending on prisons with spending on elementary education. Justice Kennedy took special aim at the three-strikes law, which puts people behind bars for 25 years to life if they commit a third felony, even a nonviolent one. The law’s sponsor, he said, is the correctional officers’ union, “and that is sick.” (source)

Some prison statistics here (not only for the U.S.).

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data, human rights and crime

Crime and Human Rights (8b): Sexual Violence in U.S. Prisons

I’ve written before about the abomination that is the U.S. prison system (see here, here, here and here). Some more data:

  • 12% of juveniles in U.S. prisons are sexually abused each year, compared to “only” 4% of adult prisoners. Juveniles are three times more likely to be abused. No surprise that there’s a lot more rape going on in prisons than in the outside world, but the numbers are still scary: 0.3% of US non-prisoners report rape each year, versus a world median of roughly 0.05%. 60,500 adults are victims of rape or sexual misconduct in prisons each year.
  • Prison rapes are perpetrated by fellow inmates or prison staff. 10.8% of males and 4.7% of females reported sexual activity with facility staff. 9.1% of females and 2.0% of males reported unwanted sexual activity with other youth.
  • The US is world champion in incarceration rates: it has 0.7% of its population in prison, vs a world median of roughly 0.1%. (source)

More posts about incarceration are here. More posts about sexual violence here and here. And then there’s something about violence in general.

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human rights quote, law

Human Rights Quote (76): Sexual Abuse in Prison

prison-escapes-image-6-368516258

(source)

Americans generally take it for granted that corporal punishment, Singapore- or Saudi Arabia-style, is inhumane. We don’t just chop people’s hands off or tie them to a post and beat them. In practice, however, being sentenced to a U.S. prison in effect is a sentence to physical abuse. But rather than the level of abuse being determined by a judge and by the law, it tends to be determined by the vicissitudes of chance and gang affiliation. Read, for example, Carrie Johnson’s writeup of a recent report on sexual misconduct in federal prisons. Matthew Yglesias (source)

More on prison rape and prison conditions.

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horror, human rights images, poverty

Prison Conditions, A Collection of Images

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. Fyodor Dostoevsky

No matter how much we agree that putting people in prison is often necessary, we shouldn’t forget that in doing so we limit their human rights. Such limits are not impossible in the system of human rights, but should be kept to a minimum necessary for the protection of other rights or the rights of others. Hence, arbitrary arrest, or arrest for “crimes” which do not violate other people’s rights – such as political “crimes”, speech “crimes” etc. – is unacceptable. Moreover, in those cases in which imprisonment is an acceptable measure in view of the protection of the rights of others, there’s no reason to accept prison conditions that add human rights violations to the human rights limitations already inherent in the fact of incarceration itself.

Inhumane prison conditions are often the result of the general poverty of a country. A poor country will have poor prisons. But poverty doesn’t explain everything, as is shown by the problems in some of the prisons in relatively wealthy countries. Prisoners are often viewed as subhuman, deserving not only imprisonment but imprisonment under any condition. However, such a view is self-defeating: bad prison conditions create subhuman behavior. The ripple effects of bad prison conditions do not stop at the prison walls; they reach every corner of society. Not a lot of imagination is required to see what happens when prisoners leave the hell holes that are used as prisons in some countries. Or better, if they leave. If they leave, it’s often in a coffin, or at best with their mental and physical health destroyed.

More on prison conditions here (on overpopulation in prisons), here (prison conditions in Iran), here (prison rape), here (again on overpopulation), here (solitary confinement), here (juvenile incarceration). Here are some statistics. And here’s an collection of images on prison conditions, past and present:

illustration of the prison conditions abord the wretched Prison Ship Jersey

illustration of the prison conditions abord the wretched Prison Ship Jersey

(source, read the full horror story about this prison ship, used by the British during the American Revolutionary War)
A prison cell in Tbilisi, Georgia, photo InterPressNews

A prison cell in Tbilisi, Georgia, photo InterPressNews

(source, full story here)
prison conditions in Iraq, prisoners say that some have to stand to make room for others to sleep

prison conditions in Iraq, prisoners say that some have to stand to make room for others to sleep

(source, full story here)
rodrigo abd associated press a dead inmate is seen at the local morgue after a prison riot caused by a fight between rival gangs in Escuintla Guatemala

Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press, a dead inmate is seen at the local morgue after a prison riot caused by a fight between rival gangs in Escuintla, Guatemala

(source, full story here)
prison slave labor

prison slave labor

(source, read more on prison labor here)
juvenile incarceration, photo by Steve Liss

juvenile incarceration, photo by Steve Liss

(source, read more about children in prison here)

Other collections of human rights images are here.

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horror, law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (5): The Rape of Young Iranian Girls Prior to Their Execution

Rape, by little pretty

(source)

From the Jerusalem Post:

Founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 as a “people’s militia”, the volunteer Basiji force is subordinate to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and intensely loyal to Khomeini’s successor, Khamenei.

[Members of the Basiji] temporarily marry young girls before they were sentenced to death. In the Islamic Republic it is illegal to execute a young woman, regardless of her crime, if she is a virgin… Therefore a “wedding” ceremony is conducted the night before the execution: The young girl is forced to have sexual intercourse with a prison guard – essentially raped by her “husband”. (source)

More absurd human rights violations.

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human rights quote, statistics

Human Rights Quote (73): Prison Rape

prison rape soap

(source)

The Federal Prison Rape Elimination commission released its report on elimination and prevention efforts regarding the biggest social problem nobody wants to talk about: prison rape.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 60,000 prisoners — the great bulk of them male — fall victim to sexual abuse in prison each year. A fair number of these men are “punks” who are subject to frequent, even daily, male-on-male rape for years on end.

The nation’s prison-rape problems can’t go away overnight for at least two major reasons. To begin with, the racial supremacist gangs that control many prisons use rape as a tool for keeping other prisoners in line and, in some cases, prison officials may turn a blind eye towards sexual abuse when it keeps prison populations more orderly. Second, the understandable widespread social distaste for people in prison has lead to a widespread attitude that’s frankly inhumane. It is one thing to say that prison shouldn’t be fun and quite another to say that detainees “deserve” rape. Nobody does. But, somehow, prison rape remains a perfectly acceptable topic for sitcoms, widely trafficked websites, and late-night comedians. Eli Lehrer (source)

More on prison conditions.

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