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.
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.)