Waylaid Dialectic

January 3, 2011

Human Rights and Wrongs

Filed under: Human Rights — terence @ 9:44 am

What is it about dilemmas? Why does the first whiff of complexity cause pundits’ brains to implode? Be it aid to dictatorships (which had William Easterly plying the history of intellectual thought to discover that Gunnar Myrdal did it) or sweatshops (which are either completely morally unproblematic or reason to abandon globalisation altogether depending on one’s point of view) if it can’t be packaged into a cute little narrative with obvious villains and an obvious solution it can’t be pundited, it seems.

Today’s case in point Stephen Kinzer in the Guardian who has discovered that, lo and behold, advancing human rights isn’t entirely simple and, who has, as a consequence, collapsed onto the page gibbering about imperialism, and universalism.

It’s a miserable column but the underlying dilemmas are real, interesting, and worth considering.

We have profound intuitions towards human rights, I think, because history has shown us that when they are violated significant suffering ensues. We favour rights because they decrease the risk of such suffering for ourselves and because most of us are moral enough, most of the time, to be saddened by the suffering of others[1].

Viewed this way, there is a strong case for the universality of human rights, simply because the same things cause human beings to suffer the world over. And it’s very hard to think of any reason why the suffering of people in the ‘East’ should be of less concern than the suffering of those in the ‘West’.

The real challenges with human rights in development work are as follows:

1. Rights violations cause people to suffer, but they aren’t the only things that can do this. Illness for example. Or extreme poverty. Or conflict. And it’s possible for regimes to be successful at addressing these issues (Cuba, China, and Rwanda respectively) while repressing rights. For aid agencies the challenge here is guessing the counter-factual: if they withdrew their aid would respect for rights increase, and would health care/poverty reduction/peace decrease. For rights advocates it’s less of an issue. Unless there’s real reason to believe that realising rights will impede other gains, simply keep lobbying. After all, it’s good to be fed, it’s better still to be fed and free to speak.

2. What, though, if there is reason to believe that realising some human rights will impede other gains (often including rights)? Then you have a real dilemma. Plausibly, and this is one of Kinzer’s arguments, if Kagame allowed full free speech and political participation in Rwanda the country would return to strife. I’m not so sure if the argument is correct in this specific case, but I can see the potential dilemma. Indeed, although no one ever talks about it in this way, it’s one we’ve muddled our way through it in most of the developed world when it comes to free speech. We circumscribe the right to free speech in instances of libel, incitement to murder and, in some countries, hate speech. One right is truncated to protect either other rights or things that contribute to our welfare. The difficulty here, as witnessed by debates about hate-speech, is where to draw the line. Or, in the Rwanda case, to try and figure out just which of Kagame’s actions (if any) might be legitimate and which are simply there to serve his own personal objectives.

3. The third dilemma is, other than criticism, what to do? Sanctions can be counter productive; invasions disastrous. All manner of interventions can make things worse. This isn’t insolvable, but it usually involves muddling though and here the perfect is often enough the enemy of the non-catastrophic.

4. Finally, the appeal of human rights can and is often appropriated by people with no real concern with human rights (Dick Cheney take a bow).

Combine all of these together and you get a complicated world. But if you really want to solve global problems, as opposed to merely venting your spleen, or selling newspapers, that’s exactly the world you have to deal with.

fn 1: (Above and beyond empathy and sympathy, logical consistency, as well as social-contractualism, can be mustered to make a persuasive case for the argument that any right you wish to claim for yourself you ought to afford to others.)


  1. Love the post. I think the important point to be made is regards to the specifics of any given situation. Although I am wary of the Western tendency to declare various human rights “universal”, as a Western liberal I am ever warier of denying of supporting denying them to anyone, but …

    In, say Rwanda, the question we should ask is not simply whether Kagame is denying people basic human rights (what on earth does Kinzer mean by the pernicious term “secondary rights?!?) but whether criticising him will do any good, and whether or not there is a better alternative? Obviously, Kagame’s antics are partly designed to ensure there is no credible alternative, but in my somewhat naive understanding Kagame is at least extremely popular there. Other figures might claim the mantle of repressed opposition, thereby generating sympathy from all the human rights people, but might be rather more divisive figures in country. (I really have no basis for authorative comment on this.)

    If the alternatives don’t look so rosy, we are left with the option of trying to keep a government as close to honest as possible. I do think that organisations like HRW and Amnesty have a potentially important role there, but even then it needs to be wielded carefully. For instance, I always felt that every time a British political leader opened their mouths about Mugabe it was counter-productive. In doing so, it seemed to me, they were responding more to domestic political pressures than any expectation their condemnation of matters in Zim would change anything. How was that domestic political pressure achieved? In part through human rights lobbying.

    So yeah, its a complicated world all right, and too many of these dilemmas are such precisely because there is no obvious best course of action.


    ps. Also see my previous posts on the Kagame dilemma here and here.

    Comment by MJ — January 3, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

  2. Election cycles (even in Rwanda’s rigged election process) are there to “contest political ideas and approaches”

    Often the lack of alternative and the risk of returning strife in Rwanda are cited as sound reasons for continuous support for Paul Kagame’s rule by western diplomats. However, Kagame might like it or not, the Rwandan elections did give us some insight into Rwandan political landscape. We learned that human rights violations by the ruling RPF are part and parcel of its poitical ideas and approaches.

    This is not something new for those who have followed great lakes politics for the last two decades. It illustrates the failure by the RPF to develop from an extremely dangerous revolutionary movement into a political party that respect parliamentary democracy. The anti-western rhetoric which we regularly witness (from Rwandan RPF supporters online) illustrates the apparent inability to grow into a political party.

    Comment by Vincent Harris — January 3, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

  3. The world is much more complex than we’d like it to be. Unfortunately, the reality of issues aren’t as sexy as the extremes. So we have headlines “We need more sweatshops” or “Sweatshops are Evil.” Accepting an extreme is easier than thinking about reality.

    Comment by Kelsey — January 4, 2011 @ 12:13 am

  4. Seems to me one problem is trying to decide which ‘right’ to advocate for and which can be postponed in any given circumstance. One thing in a context where most people have most rights, quite an other where almost nobody has any.

    Comment by Joe Turner — January 4, 2011 @ 12:26 am

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Owen Barder and KelseyTimmerman, Matthew Greenall. Matthew Greenall said: A good discussion on human rights and development, referencing the awful Kinzer Graun article on "imperialism" last week: http://is.gd/k12He […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Human Rights and Wrongs « Waylaid Dialectic -- Topsy.com — January 4, 2011 @ 12:40 am

  6. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll try and reply more fully later in the day. One thing I should make clear: I don’t know much about the situation in Rwanda (I just used it as an example as it was one of Kinzer’s). Thinking about it some more though (my limited knowledge not withstanding) I think that Kagame’s actions have gone beyond what could be justified in terms of ‘protecting one right by violating another’ (even as I think the dilemma did probably initially exist). The big dilemma for outside actors remains of course: what to do? Kagame may be bad in some areas, but would the alternatives be any better? And what changes can we, as outside actors realistically bring? (These aren’t rhetorical questions by the way, I’m definitely interested in hearing others thoughts…)

    Comment by terence — January 4, 2011 @ 7:50 am

  7. One thing I think is missing from the argument so far is the degree to which these rights are felt to be important by the citizens of the country concerned. Let’s the citizens of country X (for example) are not very concerned about freedom of speech, but are very concerned about water, food and security, and the government is poor on delivering the former, and excellent at delivering the latter. And this makes the citizens of country very pleased with their government. Under what moral guise are foreigners then going to wade into the governance of this country? In particular, note that in the United States, free speech is well protected, but one in five children live in poverty, water is polluted with carcinogens and medical drugs, nutritional value of the food supply for most Americans is poor, and many parts of the country are insecure?

    I’m all for freedom of speech. I’m all for clean water. I think they’re both benefits I want to enjoy. On the other hand, I don’t think that freedom of speech has any essential priority over clean water, and if the citizenry of one country chooses to prioritise one over the other differently than I do: big deal. In a sense, that’s their right. Right?

    Comment by David Week — January 4, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

  8. Great points David. In the freedom of speech case I’d say it’s essential, everywhere: if it doesn’t exist then you’ll never know how the citizens of country X feel about the relative importance of other rights?

    Under what moral guise are foreigners then going to wade into the governance of this country?

    I’ve no problem with it ethically but only if it works. i.e. if we as outsiders can get country X to respect both freedom of speech and provide water than I’m all for whatever intervention can do that. On the other hand, I’m also aware it’s really difficult and, in the end, we may create a situation where people end up with neither. Which, I guess is why it’s complicate for me.

    Comment by terence — January 5, 2011 @ 9:04 am

  9. Hi Terence,

    You make an interesting and highly logical point about the necessary primacy of freedom of speech, but I doubt that is how other societies might view it; they are likely to have alternative strategies to release social tension. E.g. if ‘harmony’ is considered extremely important (which I kinda gather it is in China) then they might reasonably counter that a quiet word with the local boss is actually more appropriate. Obviously this might get you into trouble, and strategies may have to be even more indirect where ‘face’ is at stake. And of course all societies seem often to have a remarkable tolerance for bad leaders, at least for a time, how else to explain that Berlusconi still remains in power?

    All of which is to say that I am 100% in favour of freedom of speech, but only 10% in favour of ramming it down other peoples’ throats. Unfortunately I have no idea what the other 90% should consist of.

    Comment by MJ — January 5, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

  10. Hi MJ,

    Sure – it would seem paradoxical to ram free speech down other people’s throats. But my guess is that it really wouldn’t have to be imposed. Most people will take the opportunity if it’s offered.

    As for free speech and stability, personally I think free speech is rarely the root cause of instability or that any instability that you might see in a country with free speech would probably have occurred any \how. As far as I’m aware (and I’m no expert on the topic) there’s no meaningful correlation between free speech and instability, even when controlling for other characteristics.

    Or, to put it another way, I think the dilemma you out line is conceptually correct (the trade off between different rights) but, in practice, in this instance, I don’t think it’s a real issue.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by terence — January 7, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  11. […] Given the Kinzer article left me wondering whether being literate really had added that much to my life afterall, I was anticipating enjoying Ahmari’s writing. In the end not so much. It’s an ok critique of Kinzer, but ultimately unsatisfying in addressing the real challenges associated with advancing human rights. […]

    Pingback by I’ve Seen the Enemy and, Believe Me, it’s not those Blokes « Waylaid Dialectic — January 10, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  12. […] Given the Kinzer article left me wondering whether being literate really had added that much to my life afterall, I was anticipating enjoying Ahmari’s writing. In the end not so much. It’s an ok critique of Kinzer, but ultimately unsatisfying in addressing the real challenges associated with advancing human rights. […]

    Pingback by I’ve Seen the Enemy and, Believe Me, it’s not those Blokes « Waylaid Dialectic — January 10, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  13. […] Human Rights And Wrongs *The frustrations and complexities of incorporating human rights into development work. It’s not […]

    Pingback by Wednesday Round Up #144 | Neuroanthropology — March 3, 2011 @ 6:20 am

  14. I think we also have to be careful here when talking about “priorities of the citizenry” as if the citizens of some country were necessarily homogenous and all had the same concerns. For example, the citizens of a country under human-rights-violating government when taken as a whole might prioritize stable food sources and clean water over freedom of speech, but an unpopular or oppressed religious minority within the country might value freedom to practice their religion openly over their more “basic needs”. You can even imagine these things intersecting: the religious minority’s dietary rules might render them more or less susceptible to various food shortages & thus food unavailability might make the right to practice their religion more of a pressing issue for them than in times of food security.

    While I definitely advocate listening to a community as to what their needs are and not shoving whatever human rights issues that outside advocates think are important down a community’s throats, we have to be careful that we are listening to ALL members of a community and not just the opinion of its most privileged members. This is what I take human rights to be at its core, I suppose: making sure that the “little guy” doesn’t get stepped on regardless of who carries the power. The problem is, I guess, that in some or even most cases it isn’t possible to implement policies that can benefit all persons equally and that providing one form of aid or advocacy often occurs within an existing structure which may seriously disadvantage some members of the target community in some other way.

    So yeah, it’s complicated. ):

    Comment by kat — March 3, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  15. Thanks Kat – that first point’s a great one.

    Comment by terence — March 3, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

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