human rights images

Weaponized Animals, A Collection of Images

We’ve seen before that human imagination knows no bounds, especially when it comes to reciprocal cruelty. For instance, there’s a long history of the use of animals as cruelty enhancers, and weaponized animals are one particularly interesting part of it. A few examples, both old and recent, both real and fanciful:

This illustration from a manual written by the 16th-century German artillery master Franz Helm depicts a cat and a dove with burning sacks strapped to them in order to "set fire to a castle or city that you can't get at otherwise."

This illustration from a manual written by the 16th-century German artillery master Franz Helm depicts a cat and a dove with burning sacks strapped to them in order to “set fire to a castle or city that you can’t get at otherwise.” In this case one wonders how effective these animals weapons were supposed to be. It’s difficult to train a cat, let alone a cat carrying a fiery sack.


The infamous anti-tank dog used by the Russians used in 1941–1942 against German tanks in World War II. Although the original dog training routine was to leave the bomb and retreat so that the bomb would be detonated by the timer, this routine failed and was replaced by an impact detonation procedure which killed the dog in the process. Dogs strapped with explosives were unsuccessfully used by Iraqi insurgents in the 2000s.

The infamous anti-tank dog used by the Russians in 1941–1942 against German tanks in World War II. Although the original dog training routine was to leave the bomb and retreat so that the bomb would be detonated by the timer, this routine failed and was replaced by an impact detonation procedure which killed the dog in the process. Iraqi insurgents in the 2000s also tried to use dogs strapped with explosives, unsuccessfully.

anti-tank_dog_mine weird weapons of war3

Detailed explanation of the lethal mechanism.

The US preferred the bat-bomb: a bomb-shaped casing with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places.

The US preferred the bat-bomb: a bomb-shaped casing with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places.

A United States Marine corporal with an elephant-mounted gun in WWI. The gun is John Moses Browning’s M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun aka Potato Digger. Looks like a staged picture rather than a real tool of war.

A United States Marine corporal with an elephant-mounted gun in WWI. The gun is John Moses Browning’s M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun aka Potato Digger. Looks like a staged picture rather than a real tool of war.

Couldn't find anything useful about this image.

Couldn’t find anything useful about this image.

More here.

These are just the most obvious cases. Mankind has been so kind to develop biological warfare, and even entomological warfare, which is basically the use of very small organisms such as insects or germs, not to shoot or bomb but to spread disease, destroy crops etc. You can do it the old-fashioned way like the Hittites of Asia Minor in 1,50­0 B.C., and sent plague victims into enemy lands or catapult disease-ridden corpses over fortress walls. Or you can try to disseminate the germs through bombs and deliberate contagions (for instance by mailing a postal letter). Some say that biological weapons were used in the genocide of Native Americans.

moral dilemmas, philosophy

Moral Dilemma (26): Killer Robots

killer robots


If you haven’t been following the debate: “killer robots” are autonomous machine combatants which are currently being developed by a number of countries. These machines are different from unmanned ground vehicles and drones. The important difference is not that UGVs and drones are already in use but that they are controlled by human operators, much like any conventional weapon before them, albeit from a larger distance. Killer robots, on the other hand, will act autonomously and will be able to choose and fire on targets of their own will, so to speak, without any human intervention. The only element of human control will be their programming. (Some of these killer robots already exist, apparently). It would be wrong to think that they’ll look like The Terminator but they will be somewhat similar in their mode of operation.

I personally don’t know what to think about this. Most in the human rights community are adamantly opposed, so my priors should push me in the same direction. However, I can see certain benefits, which is why I believe that we’re dealing here with a moral dilemma. Let me try to explain by listing some of the arguments against killer robots as well as some of the reasons why these arguments aren’t really as good as they sound.

  1. We shouldn’t give machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield. But is that really what this is about? The machines would still execute a program that has been written by humans, and it’s these humans who, through the act of programming, decide who should be killed or spared. For instance, it should be possible for robots to recognize civilians – or at least to refrain from acting when there’s reasonable doubt about a person’s military standing. However, one might reply that robots can’t be programmed in such a way that they acquire a subtle understanding of all the different and complex circumstances in which they’ll find themselves. They can only apply general rules in a manner that is more or less blind, i.e. that takes into account only a limited set of foreseeable circumstances. They’ll never fully understand the contexts in which they act, and this lack of understanding is bound to cause civilian harm. But then again, can we rely on soldiers in the heat of battle to fully understand the circumstances in which they find themselves? I think not. If anything, a very selective robot should do better.
  2. Robots lack compassion. Maybe removing the emotional element from combat will turn out to be a net benefit. Human fighters can indeed show compassion and spare the lives of the innocent – or even the guilty. But is it not more common for human fighters to be led astray by their emotions? Stress and fatigue may lead to a loss of control. In-group bias and other prejudices may get the upper hand in the thick of a fight. Robots are obviously immune to stress and fatigue, and it should be possible to program them in such a way that they don’t act on the basis of biases. Even the need of self-defense can cause human soldiers to “spray the lot” in order to get out alive. A robot won’t have that instinct.
  3. Killer robots can be given immoral orders by an immoral chain of command. It’s true that robots can be programmed to kill indiscriminately or to kill all brown people. But history is full of human commanders giving exactly the same kind of orders. If robots are programmed in immoral ways, then that’s an easier problem to solve than the prejudices or emotional failures of scores of individual soldiers and commanders. Of course we’ll have to monitor the people who will program the robots. But is this more difficult than monitoring the immoral orders by human leaders? Obviously it’s not. It’s true that monitoring will be easier in democracies, but if dictators want killer robots there’s not a lot we can do to stop them or to convince them to use robots in a ethical manner.
  4. If one side uses killer robots, the other has to as well. No one can risk a disadvantage in the conduct of war. A robotic arms race will be the result. In a sense, this is nothing new. Warring parties have always wanted new weapons and an advantage over the enemy. That’s what war is about, and has always been about. To the extent that an arms race is deplorable, killer robots aren’t more deplorable than any other new weapon. If the new robotic arms race results in all sides only using robots, then that would even be a net benefit because human soldiers will no longer be needed. We often tend to focus on the harm to civilians in the conduct of war, whereas soldiers are also human beings, and in many cases human beings who haven’t chosen to fight.
  5. With killer robots, there’s less risk, less skin in the game. We’re not even seeing what happens. The result will be more war. This is probably the strongest argument, but again not one directed solely against killer robots. Drones have the same effect.

Given these considerations, in addition to many others I haven’t mentioned,

There’s an interesting podcast on the topic here. If you want to add your voice to previous moral dilemmas, you can do so here.

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

More on Syria. More iconic photos.

human rights violations, satellite evidence of human rights violations

Satellite Evidence of Human Rights Violations (14): Syria

These satellite images depict the Masha al-Arbeen neighborhood in Hama before, during and after the government razed it to the ground:

These satellite images depict the Masha al-Arbeen neighborhood in Hama before, during and after the government razed it to the ground


This image shows the demolition of residential and commercial buildings along the road between Mezzeh air base and the Darayah neighborhood of Damascus:


Thousands of families have lost their homes as a result of these demolitions. All of the affected neighborhoods were widely considered by the authorities and by witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch to be opposition strongholds.

The demolitions were supposedly essential to drive out opposition fighters. Local residents told that government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. They said that they had received no compensation. A clear case of collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion.

More posts in this series are here.

iconic images of human rights violations, photography and journalism

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (122): Casualties in Stalingrad

As Russians are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad – even temporarily giving Volgograd back its old name – here’s a useful reminder of the horror of the event:

Stalingrad civilian casualties 1942

Stalingrad civilian casualties 1942




Read the whole story here. More iconic images of human rights violations.

discrimination and hate, freedom, horror, privacy, terror, war

The War on Terror is 11 Years Old Today, With No End in Sight

wtc burning 9-11 terrorism

(source unknown)

The War on Terror, started by the U.S. government as a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and later joined by other governments, is 11 years old today, with no end in sight. It has had and continues to have grave consequences for the human rights of people worldwide. Osama is dead, and the war in Iraq is over, and yet people are still stuck in Guantanamo, drone strikes are more numerous than ever before and the internal security forces of Western states are increasingly powerful. It’s a high price for an uncertain gain.

However, before I discuss the consequences for human rights, I would like to make it clear that I believe, as any rational human being, that terrorism is evil, that it has to be stopped and that democracies have a right to defend themselves against violent, anti-democratic fanatics (see this post for example).

I also believe that democratic governments should be especially vigilant because the freedoms that they are elected to protect, offer opportunities for those who hate freedom, opportunities that do not exist in other political systems. Potential terrorists find it relatively easy to enter a democracy and operate in it. A democracy is a very vulnerable form of government because of the freedom it gives to everyone, even those who don’t mean well.

The freedoms of a democracy can be and are abused, but this, it seems, has frightened democratic governments to such an extent that they have decided to limit these freedoms up to the point that they are in danger of abandoning them altogether, and hence doing the work of the terrorists for them. It can be acceptable to limit certain rights for the protection of other rights (see also this post), but the right to security seems to have taken on an absolute priority, at the expense of many other rights. There is no reasonable balance anymore.

1. Civil liberties

Governments try to defend their countries against terrorist attacks by limiting civil liberties in their territories.

  • The right to privacy has been limited: CCTV has become ubiquitous, DNA databases have been created, eavesdropping and wiretapping have been legalized etc.
  • “No-fly-lists” have come into force, limiting the freedom of movement of even those who have written critically of the government or attended peace-protests.
  • Hate speech laws have been voted to silence jihadist hate preachers, silencing others at the same time.
  • “Racial profiling” by the police has turned innocent people into possible suspects, often inverting the burden of proof.
  • Habeas corpus has been limited, periods of detention without charge extended, sometimes indefinitely (for “enemy combatants”).

However, in spite of all this, the constraints on a government’s actions within its territory are sometimes still considered to be inhibiting:

  • “Extraordinary rendition” has been covertly practiced, allowing suspects to be tortured outside of the territory by professional torturers in other countries.
  • Extra-territorial prisons have been created, in Guantanamo, but probably elsewhere as well, where suspects can be tortured or held indefinitely and where the Geneva Conventions supposedly don’t apply.

2. Mentalities

The war on terror has also changed people’s minds and attitudes.

  • The media have started to censor themselves. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy have turned many in the media into uncritical supporters of the war.
  • Citizens have turned on Islam and Muslims. Xenophobia and more specifically islamophobia have undermined the ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and have in certain cases even led to hate crimes against Muslims.
  • A “culture of fear” has been created by the terrorist but also nurtured by irresponsible western politicians. This fear has damaged democracy. Not only have the media relinquished their traditional role as watchdogs. Politicians as well, and especially incumbents, have abused the fear of terrorism to harness support. Alert levels seem to go up just before elections.

3. Preemptive war

The US government has elaborated and implemented the strategy of preemptive war, a war

waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war. (source)

The Iraq war was deemed a preemptive war because Iraq was allegedly about to attack the US with weapons of mass destruction, or supply these weapons to terrorists. Whatever the merits of the case against Iraq – and with the passing of time these seem to become weaker and weaker – the war has been framed, correctly or not, as a necessary stage in the ongoing war on terror. It has, however, resulted in massive numbers of casualties on both sides. The human rights violations caused by the war stand in no relation to the violations caused by terrorism or the violations that could have been caused by Saddam.

In any case, you can’t solve the problem of terrorism by violent means only. Terrorism has causes, and there will be terrorism as long as these causes exist. (Mind you, I don’t want to excuse or justify terrorism).

4. Counter-productive

It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:

The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)

The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom, as wellas Islamic radicalization. Apart from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that any of the strategies in the war on terror has done any good (source). Any even this tiny success seems to be far from certain.

5. Misnomer

There is something fishy about the concept of a “war on terrorism”. This “war” is in fact no such thing. There is no well-defined enemy. Anyone can at any time become an enemy. For this reason, there is no conceivable end to the war. And if you claim to wage a war on terrorism, you might as well claim to wage a war on carpet bombing. Both are tactics or strategies, not something you wage war against.

If you insist on calling anti-terrorist actions a war, then you give too much credit to the riffraff you’re opposing. Rather than deranged criminals they can call themselves soldiers. And soldiers defend something. You legitimize them. You turn a crime into a two-sided struggle in which each side defends its positions. This in turn leads to the view that the war on terror is a war of the West against the rest, bringing back images of colonialism, imperialism and the crusades, again legitimizing the terrorists, helping to consolidate their often internally opposed forces, and making them honorable in the eyes of some ordinary citizens.

I can understand that the concept of a “war on terrorism” is useful for some Western governments, because an executive that is at war has more powers, less oversight, more popular support and less criticism, but it’s a meaningless and dangerous concept. Let’s give it up, or let us at least declare victory in the one we’re now fighting for 11 years.

(This post is hoisted from the archives and slightly revised. The original was published on August 6th, 2008 and is unfortunately still relevant today).
philosophy, what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (24): Absolute Rights?


One of the great puzzles in human rights theory is the possible existence of absolute rights. It’s commonly accepted that most if not all human rights are “relative” in the sense that they can be limited if their exercise results in harm done to other rights or to the rights of others. Freedom of speech for example doesn’t offer “absolute” protection for all kinds or instances of speech (see here).

If there are any human rights that do offer absolute protection without exception, the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to suffer slavery would be good candidates. Whereas it seems quite reasonable to silence someone when he or she incites violence or hatred, it’s much harder to imagine cases in which it’s reasonable to kill, torture or enslave someone. I’ll focus here on the right to life.

How would you go about justifying the absolute nature of that right? First, you could claim that life is the supreme value. Life is indeed supreme in one sense of the word: it’s lexically prior as they say. It comes first. You can have life without freedom or equality, but not vice versa. (Of course, there are also other more or less promising ways to argue for life’s supremacy in the universe of moral values. I won’t go there now, and neither will I point to the fact that people often sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the lexical priority of life suffices, in general, to ground life’s supremacy in the system of values).

If life is the supreme value, that means that no life can be sacrificed for an inferior value. You can’t go about killing poor or handicapped people for the sake of aggregate wellbeing. And neither can you execute criminals in an effort to deter future attacks on people’s security rights.

So life is then the supreme value in the sense that it can’t simply be traded against another inferior value. That already makes a lot of potential limitations of the right to life unacceptable, and the right to life therefore moves a significant distance towards absoluteness. However, if life is the supreme value, it’s still theoretically possible to trade the lives of a few for the lives of many others. So not life as such, as an aggregate or abstract concept needs to be the supreme value, but individual life. If individual life is the supreme value, the lives of some can’t be put on a scale to see if their sacrifice could protect a higher number of other lives. Robert Nozick gives the following example to make this point salient:

Robert Nozick

Robert Nozick

A mob rampaging through a part of town killing and burning will violate the rights of those living there. Therefore, someone might try to justify his punishing [i.e. killing] another he knows to be innocent of a crime that enraged a mob, on the grounds that punishing this innocent person would help to avoid even greater violations of rights by others, and so would lead to a minimum weighted score for rights violations in the society. Robert Nozick

So, if you accept the argument made so far, does this mean that you have established the absolute nature of the right to life and that this right therefore can never be limited? It would seem so. If life is the supreme value, it’s hard to find a reason to limit it, since this reason would then have to be a superior value. And if individual life is the supreme value, you can’t play a numbers game to conclude that the sacrifice of some is necessary in order to save a higher number of other lives. (See also, for example, the trolley problem, the organ transplant case, or the ticking bomb case).

However, categorical claims like this always seem to me to make things too easy. Something else is necessary. Take four cases in which lives are commonly sacrificed without universal or often even widespread condemnation:

  • individual self-defense
  • war as national self-defense
  • capital punishment and
  • the murder of a terrorist (and perhaps his hostages) about to kill many others (e.g. the shooting down of a commercial plane hijacked by terrorists and about to be used as a weapon).

In all these cases, the lives of some are sacrificed for the lives of others (assuming that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, which is probably not the case). If the right to life is really absolute, none of these actions would be morally or legally acceptable. In order to make them acceptable, there has to be something more than a mere quantitative benefit in terms of numbers of lives saved. I believe the sacrifice of life is acceptable if in doing so one doesn’t violate these three rules:

  • we should only sacrifice life in order to save life, and not in order to promote other values, and
  • we shouldn’t treat other people as means, and
  • we shouldn’t diminish the value of life.
1916 photograph of an execution by firing squa...

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squad in Mexico. Caption: "Executing an Enemy - Just over the boundary such gruesome sights as this have been of frequent occurrence during the last few years and have kept alive the apprehensions of Americans on the border."

In the case of one of the four actions cited above, namely capital punishment, we do treat other people as means and we diminish the value of life. Murderers are used as instruments to frighten future murderers. Capital punishment is supposedly intended to further respect for life, but in fact normalizes murder. (See here for a more detailed treatment of this issue). In the three other cases, we don’t necessarily use people as means or diminish the value of life. Hence these case can be acceptable limitations of the right to life.

So the right to life is only quasi-absolute: limitations are possible but extremely rare because a number of very demanding conditions have to be met:

  • you can’t kill for the promotion of values different from life
  • you can’t generally count lives and kill people if thereby you can save more lives
  • and if you do want to kill in order to save lives, you have to do it in a manner that doesn’t instrumentalize human beings or diminishes the value of life.
comedy, international relations, political jokes and funny quotes, war

Political Jokes & Funny Quotes (103): A Pole’s Three Wishes

Our Guards 保卫河山有壮士

Image by cnemil via Flickr

A Pole walking along the road happens to spy a lamp. He picks it up, and as it is covered in rust he gives it quick rub. Out comes a genie.

“I’m the genie of the lamp and I can grant you three wishes,” the genie says.

“OK,” says the Pole. “I want the Chinese Army to invade Poland.” Odd choice, the genie thinks, but nevertheless he grants the wish, and the Chinese Army comes all the way from China, invades, and goes back home.

“Right, second wish. Maybe something more positive,” says the genie.

“No,” replies the Pole, “I want the Chinese Army to invade again.” So the Chinese come all the way from China, lay waste to more of Poland, and then go home.

“Listen,” says the genie. “You have one last wish. I can make Poland the most beautiful and prosperous place on earth.”

“If you don’t mind, I want the Chinese army to invade one more time.” So the Chinese army comes again, destroys what’s left of Poland, and then goes home for the last time.

“I don’t understand,” says the genie. “Why did you want the Chinese army to invade Poland three times?”

“Well,” replies the Pole, “they had to go through Russia six times.”

More about Poland, Russia and China. More jokes.

human rights ads, trade, war

Human Rights Ads (36): Landmines

landmine ad ketchup packet rip off feet

campaign against landmines


In New Zealand, the Campaign Against Landmines (CALM) has decided to spread awareness through ketchup packets; he dotted line above is where you tear to open the packet, thus ripping off the child’s foot and letting the ketchup ooze out of the stump. I don’t know what to think of this: disgusting or disgustingly effective? Some would probably call it “badvertising”.

More on landmines. More on the arms trade. More human rights ads.

culture, horror, iconic images of human rights violations, intervention, war

Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (37): Muslim Prisoners in a Serbian Detention Camp

Time Muslim Prisoners in a Serbian Detention Camp

Read the whole story here, as well as the general story of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Other posts on this topic are here. More iconic images of human rights violations are here.

Update January 12th, 2010: commenters tell me that this is a fake…

comedy, horror, political jokes and funny quotes, war

Political Jokes & Funny Quotes (67): Child Soldiers

A funny look at a deeply tragic phenomenon:

liberian militias child soldiers

More on the problem of child soldiers here. Here is a map pinpointing the places in the world where children are used as soldiers. And here and here are adverts that are part of a campaign against child soldiers. Something more general on children’s rights is here. More jokes here.

horror, most absurd human rights violations, war

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (17): Getting Nuked Twice

Tsutomu Yamaguchi

Tsutomu Yamaguchi

Tsutomu Yamaguchi (born March 16, 1916), a Japanese man, is one of the few people who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. He had already been listed as a hibakusha (explosion-affected person) of the August 9 Nagasaki bombing, but on March 24, 2009 the government of Japan officially certified that he had also been in Hiroshima on a business trip during the first atomic bombing. (source, source)

More on Hiroshima. More on nuclear weapons. More absurd human rights violations.

comedy, political jokes and funny quotes, war

Political Jokes & Funny Quotes (57): War

George Carlin

George Carlin


The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done. George Carlin

More on war in general here, and on the arms trade in particular here. More George Carlin.

democracy, globalization, human rights and crime, statistics, war

Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence

Sign o' the times, by Ric Stultz

Sign o' the times, by Ric Stultz


Violence is obviously a human rights issue. Violent actions, either by the state or by fellow citizens, violate our physical integrity and personal security. Several articles of the Universal Declaration protect us against different forms of violence: art. 3 protects our right to life and personal security, art. 4 prohibits slavery, art. 5 prohibits torture etc.

Levels of violence throughout history

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but violence has been in decline throughout modern history.

Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers – which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago – he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. … From the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Steven Pinker (source)

This is true for most kinds of violence: war, ethnic conflict, state violence (criminal punishment, torture, repression etc.), war, one-to-one violence (homicide) etc.:

When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime. Steven Pinker (source)

A cognitive illusion

We tend to believe that the 20th century was the most bloody of all, and that the 21st hasn’t started any better. That’s probably a misconception or “cognitive illusion” fuelled by unprecedented information flows. Today, we have magnificent information systems delivering facts, figures and images instantaneously. (I myself have a blog series running here with iconic images of rights violations). Compared to that, information about the centuries before is by definition more scarce: few images and newspaper reports, no television reports, less systematic historiography, less durable data sources etc.

That doesn’t make the present-day levels of violence acceptable. On the contrary. Rather than looking at history and concluding that man will always be violent, the recent decreases in levels of violence should encourage us to go all the way. And then it’s important to understand why the levels have gone down.

Why has violence declined?

One reason is undoubtedly the development of the modern state and its judicial apparatus. This apparatus can of course be used to inflict violence, but the risk of this happening has decreased as states have become more democratic, more respectful of the rule of law, and more sensitive to human rights. The democratic nature of many contemporary states has also diminished the risk of inter-state violence (this is the so-called democratic peace theory).

Another, and related, point is that

Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short – not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. … These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband. Steven Pinker (source)

Yet another reason for the decrease in the levels of violence is the development of the modern economy. This development has increased the costs of violence. It’s easier to be violent towards your fellow human beings of you live in a subsistence economy and produce everything you need for yourself. When you depend on others for your job and income, your consumption goods, your transport etc. it becomes more costly to act in a violent way towards them. The same can be said of nations: like individuals, nations have become more interdependent in the globalized economy. Acting violently towards other nations has therefore become more costly. Self-sufficiency is no longer an option for nations either.

Yet another reason:

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general. Steven Pinker (source)


Other posts on violence:

citizenship, statistics, war

Migration and Human Rights (22): Number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at All-Time High

Pakistani refugees wait in line for bread at the Yar Hussain camp. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty

Pakistani refugees wait in line for bread at the Yar Hussain camp. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty


According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people internally displaced within their own countries (also called IDPs) has reached a historical high of more than 28 million (see also here for the full report). The numbers of IDPs usually fluctuate a lot and go up and down as a result of the outbreak or settling down of internal conflicts within states. The current increase follows recent events in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The countries with the largest numbers are Colombia (3 million), Iraq (2,5 million) and Sudan (2 million). (There’s an older map here).

More statistics are here.

satellite evidence of human rights violations, war

Satellite Evidence of Human Rights Violations (4): The War Between Russia and Georgia Over South Ossetia

As is evident from the previous posts in this series, monitoring of human rights violations depends sometimes on satellite images. These are helpful for overcoming obstacles such as getting access to and information from crisis areas, war zones, or highly authoritarian countries. (This is the “catch 22 of human rights monitoring“).

This one is from the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia:

AAAS conducted a satellite imagery-based damage assessment of 24 villages around the capital of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. Using commercial satellite imagery providers, AAAS acquired high-resolution satellite imagery (spatial resolution less than 1 meter) from August 10 and August 19, 2008, which allowed a traditional “before and after” comparison of damage. The analysis … revealed destruction concentrated on Tshkinvali and damage to surrounding villages on August 19. (source)

Satellite-based damage assessment from Kekhvi to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia (August 19, 2008)

Satellite-based damage assessment from Kekhvi to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia (August 19, 2008)

(source, click on the image to enlarge)

From these two image, before and after, you can clearly see the destroyed houses left without a roof (some examples circled in red):

georgia before

georgia after

citizenship, statistics, war

Migration and Human Rights (18): Number of Refugees, End of 2008

From The Economist:

At the end of 2008 10.5m refugees were in the direct care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, down slightly from 11.4m a year earlier. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq again caused the largest numbers of refugees to flee to, or remain in, neighbouring countries. Some 2.8m of the world’s refugees are from Afghanistan, most of whom are in Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan hosted almost 1.8m people last year, nearly all from Afghanistan, with Syria and Iran each receiving around 1m people. Germany was the most popular destination among rich countries. But as a share of its population Jordan has by far the highest concentration of refugees.

Countries with most refugees

Jordan’s high proportion of refugees is partly explained by the large number of Palestinian refugees (some of whom were actually born in Jordan).

More statistics on refugees. More on refugees in general.

human rights facts, statistics, war

Human Rights Facts (38): Declining Numbers of Conflicts and Rising Military Spending

military spending


[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].

Following up on this post, some additional information on the evolution of military conflicts and military spending.

Since 2005, the Human Security Report Project (HSRP) publishes reports on trends in armed conflicts and political violence. The reports indicate a decline by around 40% in armed conflicts and political violence since 1992. Another report, the SIPRI yearbook of 2009, counts 16 armed conflicts going on in the world in 2008. In 1998 there were 36, and from 1989 to 1998 there were over 100.

The decline is explained by the end of the two “conflict machines”, colonialism and the Cold War. The increase in international activism, more specifically at the UN, and changes in the nature of warfare have also resulted in fewer deadly conflicts. The wars of today are of a lower intensity, and are fought with lighter arms, predominately between weak government forces and poorly trained rebels. The increasing number of refugees is another reason for lower death tolls, together with a decrease in the number of authoritarian regimes. According to the report, terrorism is the only type of political violence that is increasing, but it still accounts for a small number of deaths. Despite this relatively small number, many politicians still claim that terrorism is the biggest threat.

According to the peace dividend-notion, there should be a reduction in military spending when there is a decline in conflicts. However, SIPRI, which reports on annual military spending, shows, in the 2009 report, an increase in military spending by 45% since 1997. The world now spends more than 1464 billion dollars annually (!) on the military and arms trade. The biggest spender is the United States, which is responsible for almost half of the total world spending, and during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, US military expenditure increased to its highest level in real terms since World War II. In addition to increased spending, there is also an increased concentration of spending with around 15 countries responsible for over 80% of total spending.

More on military spending.

globalization, housing, human rights images

Overpopulation, A Collection of Images

I personally don’t believe overpopulation is an important issue, let alone a human rights problem (at least not on the global level; in isolated, mainly agricultural areas characterized by subsistence farming things may be different). But I know that many people think that so-called overpopulation – or, even better, the “global population bomb” – is the world’s most pressing problem and the cause of a large number of rights violations such as famine, hunger, war, violence, poverty etc. I’ve written about it many times before, so I thought the topic would not be out of place in my “collection of images” series (and it’s also such a rewarding topic for imagery). So here we go.


overpopulation crowded trains

Overcrowded trains prepare to leave for the city after the final prayer ceremony of Bishwa Ijtema in Tongi, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 15, 2012. Thousands of Muslims joined the Akheri Munajat, the final supplication as the first phase of the Muslims congregation concluded by seeking forgiveness and blessings for mankind on Sunday, according to local media. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)


population bomb

(source, click image to enlarge)


thousands of swimmers crowded into a pool in Penglai in Sichuan, western China

thousands of swimmers crowded into a pool in Penglai in Sichuan, western China




Pavel Constantin overpopulation cartoon



religion, war

Religion and Human Rights (17): War and Non-Violence in Buddhism, The Case of Sri Lanka

AN artwork symbolizing non-violence, at the UN headquarters in NY

Artwork symbolizing non-violence, at the UN headquarters in NY


[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].

Though Buddhism is known for its insistence on non-violence and compassion, there have been some Buddhist wars in history (Thompson 1988:102). I will discuss one of these: the conflict between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, which has recently come to an end with the victory of the government over the rebel Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. The island has long known political and economic tensions between Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority of Hindu Tamils (Harris 2003:107). Increased Sinhalese nationalism and emerging Tamil separatism resulted in violence and war in the 1980s. Tens of thousands have since been killed in a brutal ethnic war (Seneviratne 2003:76).

The Sinhalese have justified the war and the use of violence by way of the teachings of Buddha. In this post I will examine the role of religion in this conflict. By showing tensions between Buddhism and Sinhalese politics, I will argue that although the conflict is expressed and justified in religious terms, it is actually part of the state’s nationalistic agenda. I will also argue that this is a typical example of how poverty and a crisis of national identity are misused by a state in order to mobilize ethnic groups for conflict. To prove my argument, I begin by describing the Sinhalese view of the war. Then I examine general Buddhist principles against war, after which I outline Theravada Buddhism to see how the Sinhalese are able to manipulate the principles for their purposes. I then examine to what extent the Sinhalese actions fit the just war criteria. I will take into account other explanations of the conflict and I will discuss how Buddhism can contribute to a solution.

There’s more.