Waylaid Dialectic

January 7, 2014

Encouraging if you work at a human rights NGO…

Filed under: Conflict,Human Rights — terence @ 11:52 am

The abstract of a new (gated) article by Amanda Murdiea and Dursun Peksen in the Journal of Politics:

Do transnational human rights organizations (HROs) influence foreign military intervention onset? We argue that the greater international exposure of human suffering through HRO “naming and shaming” activities starts a process of mobilization and opinion change in the international community that ultimately increases the likelihood of humanitarian military intervention. This is a special corollary to the supposed “CNN Effect” in foreign policy; we argue that information from HROs can influence foreign policy decisions. We test the empirical implication of the argument on a sample of all non-Western countries from 1990 to 2005. The results suggest that HRO shaming makes humanitarian intervention more likely even after controlling for several other covariates of intervention decisions. HRO activities appear to have a significant impact on the likelihood of military missions by IGOs as well as interventions led by third-party states.

July 23, 2013

The PNG “Solution”

Filed under: Human Rights,Migration — terence @ 11:36 am

Kevin Rudd’s PNG “solution” to asylum seekers who try and reach Australia by boat — sending them to Papua New Guinea — strikes me as profoundly immoral. It is also, as Stephen Howes explains carefully on the development policy centre blog, likely to be – practically speaking – impossible to implement. Nice one Kev.

June 12, 2013

The Bay

Filed under: Conflict,Human Rights — terence @ 11:53 am

It’s hot, there is no wind, and the sun is starting to melt the day. I am sitting uncomfortably on the deck of a large leaf hut. In front of me are the leader of the local church and two village chiefs. They are asking questions in Pijin and I am doing my best to reply. I’m trying to concentrate. I need to concentrate, not just because of the language, but also because I need their permission to interview people about elections. It is less than 10 years since the Solomon Islands’ civil war swept over this part of Guadalcanal and the last foreigners to visit, who weren’t soldiers or police, were missionaries in the 1990s. So I am trying to explain carefully what I want to do and to reassure them. I’m trying, yet my efforts are being overcome by a distraction. An old, familiar distraction.

Behind the leaders’ heads, out beyond the village, across the shingle beach, on the edge of the South Pacific, a line of swell is bending in around a point, steepening on a shelf of coral reef, and starting to break.

I don’t have a board. I don’t surf anymore. And yet, once you’ve learnt how to read the sea, it’s hard to ignore. The swell is clean. The waves are mostly lefts. They aren’t perfect but they look fun.

In my mind I’m surfing: trimming down the line, racing the wall, swooping through a cutback…The church leader notices me staring.
He is a skinny, bumpy man, with a big, bald head and slightly sunken cheeks. His accent is strong and he speaks in anxious bursts of words that outwit my language skills.
“Luk luk long si?” (You’re looking at the sea?) He frowns.

“Um, yeah, um. Mi luk luk lo olketa waev saed go lo san bis?” (I’m looking at the waves on the other side of the beach.)
And then, because this sounds stupid on its own: “Taem mi iang man mi laek ski lo waev.” (When I was young I liked to surf in the waves.) Ski, according to my dictionary, is the Pijin word for surfing.

“Oh,” his mouth bends into a smile. “Iu laek sof? Mifala savi hao fo sof.”
The easiest sentences in another language are the ones I expect. Anticipation helps when matching sounds to words. On the other hand, I struggle when sentences come out of the blue, even if I know the words being used. And in this instance I have no idea what the ‘sof’ means. Sof?

I’m silent, trying to conjure sense from the sounds. And his smile is starting to fold back towards a frown.
Sof? Sof? Surf! He’s talking about surfing.

“Iu laek sof? Mifala savi how fo sof.” (You like to surf? We know how to surf.)

“Savi ski? Lo waev? Usim wanem? Kanu?” (You can surf? In the waves? What do you use? Canoes?)

“Nomoa. Usim sago fo makim ski.” (No, we make boards from sago palms). “Taem skul finis, bae me talem olketa pikinini mekem ski fo iu and soem iu hao fo kasim waev.” (When school’s finished I’ll tell the kids to make you a board and show you how to catch waves.)

I can still remember the first wave I ever caught. I was thirteen. After school one day I took the bus to Nick Coney’s house and we rode pushbikes in our wetsuits through the rain to the local surf spot. Our boards were ‘pollies’: three feet long, surfboard-shaped polystyrene beach toys brought from a department store. The wave was a shore break, inside Wellington Harbour, that only broke in Southerly storms. We paddled out down the beach from the older kids on fiberglass boards and tried to surf. At first the ocean got the better of me: I missed waves; I got caught inside; I wiped out into churning, sandy water. It was icy cold. My lungs started to rattle with asthma.

Then it happened, a steepening chunk of stormy sea rolled towards me, I spun around, and with a flailing paddle coaxed enough speed out of my polly to have a chance of catching it. The wave sucked me back, right to the critical point of its crest, and for a moment I hung there, on the edge of disaster. Then gravity took over and I was let go. Skimming, I flew down the face and out into the flats in front of the exploding swell. The white water swallowed me and then spat me out again. I shot towards the shore, lying prone, clinging to the bouncing piece of styrene foam and travelling faster than I ever imagined a wave would take me. I rode its surge all the way to the beach, where the swash carried me up the pebbly sand. There, I leapt up, giddy with happiness, and ran round in circles hollering victory to myself. I was so stoked. From that moment my path was set.

I surfed my way through high school, getting a fibreglass board and learning to stand on it. I got my driver’s licence and escaped the harbour. I cruised through university choosing courses that left me free to surf. I worked a bit, saved, and spent six months in Indonesia, followed by a winter in the Canaries. I worked in London and surfed wherever I could. Frozen beach breaks in New York, points in New Hampshire, sandy tubes in Mexico, giant green walls in Madeira, hidden lefts in Chile. There were flat spells and broken boards. And there were crowds and long hours worked in lonely, grey cities. But, all things told, it was a good surfing life.

Surfing Escondido 97

Then, in 1999, while chasing waves off beaches of Harmattan-blown sand in the Cape Verde Islands, I caught dysentery, which led to Reactive Arthritis, an auto-immune disease, and surfing was replaced painful uncertainty. Since then ill-health has come and gone along with doctors, diets and medications. At times I’ve been well enough to surf, other times I’ve been unable to walk. Recoveries are slow, relapses happen overnight. And the inflammation has started to damage my body. In 2008 I had open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve, which had been wrecked by inflammation, and an acute relapse in the wake of surgery lead to permanent damage in my hip. I haven’t surfed a short board since then; I’m too slow to my feet. At times I’ve been able to longboard, but two hours of surfing are followed by a two days of pain. Worth it. But hard. By the time I made it to Solomon Islands, my hip and back were bad enough that I wasn’t even really able to longboard. I guess I could have travelled with a body-board, but that didn’t seem like surfing to me. I didn’t even consider it.
Around all this the rest of my life has kept moving. Travel in developing countries sparked an interest in aid, and work for the New Zealand government’s aid programme. From this I became interested in Solomon Island electoral politics, and that became the subject of my PhD. Fieldwork was the start of a road of its own, taking my wife and I weaving from coast to coast and island to island through Solomons. In November 2011 we travelled along the southern shore of Guadalcanal: the Weather Coast.
When it rains on Weather Coast, paths turn into rivers and rivers torrents. Some years it rains nonstop for months. Trade-winds blow clouds against the island’s jungle-tangled dividing range, and the water falls with a fury. The heart of the Coast is hemmed in between mountains and a shoreline of gravel beaches and surf bashed cliffs. There are no harbours and when the swell is big sea travel is impossible. When the winds blow and the rains come, villages become isolated, islands of their own, and people go hungry. Schools close and health clinics run out of supplies. The soil becomes too wet to grow anything except Swamp Taro.

On fine days the Weather Coast is stunning – big, empty, and beautiful. But it is not an easy place to live. It isn’t far from the bustle of Honiara, Solomon Islands’ capital, which lies on the other side of Guadalcanal, but it might as well be another country.

Indeed, Solomon Islands only became a country thanks to the colonial carve up of the Pacific. There was nothing resembling a nation there before the British arrived and drew lines around a bunch of islands north east of Australia, calling it a colony. Bundled into it were speakers of more than 90 different languages. Villages and clans were the only real coherent pre-colonial political entities and there were thousands of these. In Europe nations grew over centuries, in the Western Pacific they were dreamed up in days.

Colonial rule in Solomons wasn’t as cruel or as bloody as it was in parts of Africa but it wasn’t a time of nation building either. Independence was granted in 1978 and shortly afterwards the logging companies arrived, corrupting politics with money. Life for ordinary Solomon Islanders got worse.

In 1998, this led to conflict. Groups of young men from Guadalcanal drove migrants from the neighbouring island of Malaita off land on which they had settled. And the Malaitans formed their own armed groups. The inter-island conflict quickly reached a stalemate but at this point the armed groups of youths morphed into criminal gangs. On Malaita drunk young men with guns terrorised businesses. In Honiara armed groups extorted money from government departments. In rural Guadalcanal the Weather Coast had the misfortune of becoming a base for the most notorious of all the militant leaders: Harold Keke.

Keke’s troops were based first at the eastern end of the Coast but, harried by armed police, he marched them west to a camp close to the surf spot that would distract me eight years later.
I didn’t ask questions about the conflict years while we were on the Weather Coast, and for the most part people avoided the subject. We heard bits – in Keke’s home village our host kept apologising for not having cutlery, hers had all been lost when police burnt the village – but it was only near the village of the surf spot anyone offered me real detail about the time of Keke’s soldiers. Even then it was just one man. He can’t have been any older than me but he had the frail, stooped posture of a 60 year old. He spoke with a quiet, careful voice and one day he started telling me about Keke’s time at their end of the coast.

“He told us to feed his troops, but we couldn’t. We didn’t have enough food for ourselves. When I told him this he lined some of us up on the beach and gave a gun to one of his soldiers and told him to shoot us. But the soldier wouldn’t. He was just a young boy. He didn’t want to murder people. So Keke took his gun, shouted at him and gave it to another soldier, telling him to kill us. But the other soldier couldn’t either. He started crying. So Keke took the gun and threw it to the ground and told us. ‘You are lucky; god doesn’t want you to die today. Go home.’”
“You see the tree, the large one on the edge of the beach. One time some of his soldiers tried to run away, but he caught them. And he tied them to the tree and beat them to death. He made us watch.”

Finally, after nearly five years of conflict, Australia led a peacekeeping mission into Solomon Islands. Australian troops swept up the Weather Coast, Keke surrendered and the militia disarmed. By that point no one wanted to fight anymore, least of all the soldiers, who were just village boys pumped up on power and promises of victory. Militia men went home to their gardens, and a few of the leaders went to jail. Keke is in prison. The conflict stopped, and people’s lives went back to normal. Which on the Weather Coast meant hard and isolated.
When school ended on the afternoon of our first day in the village kids swept past our leaf house laughing and shouting, and pointing at us. Shortly afterwards a group of teenage boys arrived armed with large machetes. There was some hushed discussion in the local Ko’o language, and they raced off into the jungle, returning ten minutes later with the long slender trunks of freshly cut sago palms. Then the machetes were put to work. Trunks were cut into three foot long pieces and their green outer layer sliced off. Underneath, the wood was light, white and soft, a bit like polystyrene. Then they cut long thin ‘nails’ from the branches of another tree and used these to pin the peeled sago trunks together into rafts about 18 inches wide. And then they carefully rounded the fronts of their rafts. The result was three foot long, light and kind of surfboard shaped. A lot like the polly that I had caught my first wave on all those years ago.


“Now they can teach you how to surf” John, the church leader said laughing. I wasn’t sure that trying to go surfing with the local kids was the best way of convincing him that I was a serious researcher. But, on the other hand, he looked happy, and there was still surf. It had been a long time since I’d ridden waves.


A light onshore had come up but the surf looked alright: small and shifting about the reef, bumped up by wind wobble. The young teenagers couldn’t speak much Pijin and I didn’t know any Ko’o but we didn’t really need to communicate what we were going to do next. I grabbed the board I was given and, along with about ten of the teenagers, paddled out into the line-up.

I wish I could tell you about the great waves I got, and how I amazed the locals by getting barrelled on the inside, but the ocean got the better of me that evening. A three foot long 18 inch wide board is fine when you’re thirteen, but I almost sunk mine. Without flippers I couldn’t kick effectively and if I tried to paddle into waves the board would twist out underneath me. I didn’t catch a single wave. The locals, on the other hand, caught plenty. They knew what they were doing, scooting around sliding into anything that broke.

That night, covered in mosquito repellent sitting under the waning light of a solar powered lamp, I asked John who had taught them about surfing.

“No one. Kids here have always known how to surf”. And so it was, one day I spoke to an ancient old man who told me he’d surfed the reef with his brothers just after the Second World War. Each generation of kids would learn from their older siblings. They’d learn how to ride waves when they were six or seven, eventually giving up in their late teens. Surfing wasn’t considered an adult sport, although the older men did still catch the occasional wave in their canoes as they paddled home after fishing.
John and I spoke some more. They’d never seen fiberglass boards or anyone stand on a surfboard. The only other foreigner who’d tried to ride waves there was a missionary in the 1980s or 90s who’d been made a sago palm board like me.


I asked John if they’d ever seen a surfing magazine. They hadn’t. All that they knew about surfing came from a few photos of men riding waves inside a bible printed by Australian Christian surfers, delivered to the village by a friend of the wave riding missionary. It was the bible that had also given them the word ‘sof’, their attempt to pronounce ‘surf’.
That was their sole connection to the rest of the surfing world. Everything else they had learned about riding waves had evolved in isolation.
Convergent evolution is the term biologists use to describe the process through which different species evolve similar features via natural selection. It explains why hummingbird moths look almost identical to hummingbirds. In an environment rich with nectar filled flowers high up trees there is a niche to be filled by a creature that can hover and extract the nectar. So both a species of bird and a type of moth evolved to fill the niche. Bird and moth look remarkably similar. Form follows function. And, I thought to myself, the next afternoon as I tried again to catch waves, something similar to this explained a lot of what I saw around me. Much that would be familiar to a surfer in Wellington, or Cornwall, had evolved in in the village too. The kids would paddle out through the channel behind the peak – the easiest and quickest way to the line-up. When large waves broke in front of them they duck dived exactly as you or I would do. The kids surfed waves too, rather than white water, and they rode along them angling across the face.

Some things were different. No one stood on their boards. And in between waves I was told tales of the crocodile that had moved into the swamp in the next bay. This, I thought anxiously, was something I hadn’t had to worry about back home. The biggest difference though, was how friendly they were. While they despaired of my surfing ability they kept offering tips and they made me a board. There aren’t many surf spots on Earth where a chubby, limping beginner would be welcomed, let alone offered pride of place.

As I mulled this over, my thoughts were interrupted – the tropical sea finally sent a wave straight to me. I barely needed to paddle. The wave pulled me back, up to its crest, where I hung for an instant, and then let me go with the familiar sensation that every surfer knows: the start of a ride. Sago palm bouncing underneath me, I shot down the face, clinging to the board, marvelling at how fast the water sped by, just inches away.
After the first ride, it became easier. Along with my local companions I surfed for hours.

Later, I stood on the beach, holding my board while the evening light folded gold over the mountains behind the village, and I thought about things. My muscles were aching in a pleasant, exercised way. I was stoked. Riding waves lying down would never bring me the same happiness that surfing had but it promised a lot more joy than a life spent trying to forget about the sea. And so I decided that I would become a body boarder for the time being.
As I thought about this, a slender woman with a shock of curly hair strode down to the beach and started shouting at one of the kids still in the water. She waved her hands and he called something back. She shouted some more.
The conversation was entirely in Ko’o but I knew exactly what was being said.

“Get out of the water Henri, you have chores to do, and dinner is almost ready!”
“Ok mum, just one more wave.”
“No! Get out now!”
“Just one more.”

In a world of conflict and poverty, the freedom to surf is a tiny, trivial thing. And yet often it’s the trivial things that thread much of the happiness through our lives. Likewise, the tale of the point and its return from being a place of fear to a surf spot, is a small story when set amongst the on-going struggles of the Solomon Islands. But, small as it may be, it is also a happy story. From war to surfing.
While his mother continued shouting, Henri paddled out to sea, spinning at the last moment to catch a set wave. He sped down the face, turned, and flew past section after section, taking that last ride the length of the point and into the sunset-coloured bay.

[This story was published in the Surfer’s Path earlier this year.]






June 4, 2013

Do Amnesty International Campaigns Work?

Filed under: Human Rights — terence @ 8:27 am

I’ve been a member (if that’s what my donations made me) of Amnesty International in the past and will likely rejoin once I have an income again. I support their view of a world where Human Rights are respected. I have always wondered though whether their campaigning on behalf of political prisoners in repressive regimes ever made much of a difference. Not because I think anything bad of Amnesty but success in this is a very hard ask.

Some suggestive evidence from the latest British Journal of Political Science. (Although, caveat lector, I haven’t read the article yet):

When Is the Pen Truly Mighty? Regime Type and the Efficacy of Naming and Shaming in Curbing Human Rights Abuses
Cullen S. Hendrix and Wendy H. Wong July 2013
British Journal of Political Science, ,Volume43, Issue03, July 2013 pp 651-672

Does naming and shaming states affect respect for human rights in those states? This article argues that incentives to change repressive behaviour when facing international condemnation vary across regime types. In democracies and hybrid regimes – which combine democratic and authoritarian elements – opposition parties and relatively free presses paradoxically make rulers less likely to change behaviour when facing international criticism. In contrast, autocracies, which lack these domestic sources of information on abuses, are more sensitive to international shaming. Using data on naming and shaming taken from Western press reports and Amnesty International, the authors demonstrate that naming and shaming is associated with improved human rights outcomes in autocracies, but with either no effect or a worsening of outcomes in democracies and hybrid regimes.

[ungated version here]

March 26, 2012

Sympathy for the Kristof

Filed under: Development Philosophy,Human Rights — terence @ 11:40 am

There is a lot about Counterpunch that makes me want to puke, so I guess I should have stopped when I saw where the link “Laura Augustin decries Kristof’s poverty crusade” on Chris Blattman’s website went. But, whatever my feelings about Counterpunch more generally, I am open to the idea that Nicholas Kristof needs decrying. So out of curiosity as much as anything else I went and had a look.

And, to be fair, the article – which isn’t about poverty but rather takes Kristof to task about his work on prostitution in developing countries – makes some pretty good points. Particularly about the unintended consequences (what does happen to the young women after their brothels are raided?) and the pomp that Kristof’s adds to the unpleasant circumstances he reports on. Yet at the same time the article possesses an awfulness of its own.

“[S]o many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.”

First, it is just plain stupid to equate what Kristof is doing to imperialism or colonialism. The reason why colonialism and imperialism are bad is because they involve large scale exploitation and harm of people in colonised countries by more other powerful nations. Harm that is facilitated through the dehumanisation of the colonised in the minds of the colonisers. What Kristof is doing may be counter-productive, and he may be self-aggrandising, but it is nevertheless adding faces and stories to the suffering of the people involved. Possibly the images evoked are condescending. Probably the stories told simplify the complexities of the developing world. But the intended end effect is about evoking concern and compassion for other human beings. The whole process may be smarmy and simplistic but it is the exact opposite of that used by imperial powers and colonisers who actively portray the victims of their actions as sub-human, dangerous and of no moral weight. Or who, if they can get away with it, try to stop us from actually being aware of their victims at all.

Second, the passage is underpinned with a cheap and nasty cultural relativism – “interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards”; “Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior”. I’ve explained elsewhere what I think is philosophically wrong with cultural relativism so now I’ll limit myself to one simple point. While Augustin’s arguments sound quite nice portrayed as they are (yeah! what gives those nasty wight men the right to say their beliefs are any better than anyone else’s!) it’s worth spelling out specifically what she’s arguing, which is this:

Nicholas Kristof believes that young women should be allowed a choice as to whether they have to work in the sex industry. People who own brothels in developing countries and who frequent them believe that the young women involved exist only to pleasure them and to provide a source of profit. Nicholas Kristof can not and should not claim that his moral beliefs are in any way superior to those of the people running and frequenting the brothels. He is smug to do so.

Philosophy may be tricky stuff and human rights can be mustered to serve the wrong ends. But you can not seriously tell me that a moral world view that posits women should be allowed to choose their fates is not superior to one that sees them as goods for the trading.

Finally, in this article at least Augustin is guilty of one of the crimes she lays at the feet of Kristoff: presuming to speak for the young women involved, and loudly proclaiming to be their champion. No actual evidence is provided that the women who Kristof claims to have helped actually would have rather that he didn’t. Not a single quote. Find me some of the women who he has dealt with, and get them to say they’d rather he didn’t and I’ll happily sign a petition to get Kristof confined to New York for the rest of his life. But for the meantime spare me the nonsense about moral equivalence and imperialism.

Kristof may be all sorts of things but he is trying to help. And – in the absence of actual evidence to the contrary – my guess is that the people on the other end of that help, as problematic as it may be, actually tend to appreciate it.

June 19, 2011

Meanwhile on the left-most edges of the Lunisphere…

Filed under: Human Rights,Inequality,Social Justice — terence @ 7:16 pm

George Monbiot catches and dispatches left-wing genocide denial by Edward S Herman, along with tacit endorsement from Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. What is with these guys?

I’m more sympathetic to radical left-wing thought than most liberals. I can see the need for it. By any measure (be it utilitarian or justice based) we live in a radically unethical world. Injustices occur all the time and the potential for raising welfare through tackling inequality is considerable.

And yet I find the radical left pretty unconvincing. For three reasons:

First, the alternatives they propose to capitalism tend to strike me as improbable given human nature and the challenges of large scale collective action. And, similarly, I don’t find very convincing their answers to questions along the lines of ‘ok so that sounds plausible, but how do we get there from here?’

Second, much of the radical left is simply disingenuous in the extent to which it plays down differences between the centre-left and the right. Obama may not be great but you-have-got-to-be-fucking-dreaming if you think there is next to no difference between him and the Republican Party in its current permutation.

Third, too many radical left-wing thinkers seem to need to justify their world view through bizarrely one dimensional interpretations of events. People like Chomsky and Pilger often do great work putting paid to the myths of benign Western Foreign policy. That’s great. But it’s hard not to want to part company with them once they start downplaying the crimes of our official enemies, as is occurring in the case of the Herman book. Thoughts with as much nuance as, “we’re pretty bad a lot of the time, yet there are also people out there even worse, and sometimes our foreign policy interventions aren’t totally evil and may have some benefits” too-often seem beyond them.

Of course, the problem doesn’t afflict everyone on the radical left: there’s a tradition including Orwell and people such as Monbiot himself, which is much more consistent in its critique of atrocities. There is also, as Monbiot also points out, plenty of denial on the right too. And, despite their shortcomings, people like Pilger and Chomsky still deserve to be listened to; at times they are bang on. But me personally, ultimately, I find their myopia frustrating.

Of course, to put this in perspective, there are far bigger problems with the world than a few members of the left leaping off into the lunisphere, or the shortcomings of the radical left more generally. But, for what it’s worth, it still bugs me. The radical left ought to have a lot more to offer.

January 10, 2011

South Sudan Votes!

Filed under: Governance,Human Rights — terence @ 7:00 pm

Here in Canberra too. A sign for the ANU polling centre. Set up so South Sudanese refugees can vote in the independence referendum. I can’t claim any expertise on the Sudanese conflicts, or offer any predictions about the new nation’s future (should that be what’s decided on) but it was hard not to watch the voting today and feel on the edge of something, watching the old colonial borders tremble. And it was impossible not to wholeheartedly hope that if a new nation is born its fate is a happy one. Good luck!

I’ve Seen the Enemy and, Believe Me, it’s not those Blokes

Filed under: Human Rights — terence @ 6:43 pm
Tags: ,

One of the many things I like about the Guardian is the diversity of views it publishes. And so now we have Sohrab Ahmari responding to ‘that Kinzer piece.’

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.

Instead we get an attack on the relativist left:

Today – with a century of catastrophic lapses in judgment in hindsight – too many western progressives are still trapped by the same “systematic relativism” that, in Camus’s time as in ours, threatens no less than the “death of intelligence”.


Restaging one of the illiberal left’s favourite shibboleths, he argues that the modern human rights movement has become “the vanguard of a new form of imperialism”.


And consider, too, the impact of this brand of relativism on the moral imagination of the left, which, at its very best, stood firm on the principle that people divided by geography, culture and language can empathise with and express solidarity with each other.

If the isolationist, provincial left manages to convince us that the blessing of liberty is to be allocated randomly – along geographic lines and according to the accident of birth – will the heart still beat on the left?

I guess the relativist left (RL) exists somewhere — a university campus or two, four chaps at a protest, a troll in the comments box at Harry’s Place, and possibly Kinzer — but, trust me, it’s role in the thwarting of human rights around the world is not statistically different from zero. At their worst the RL might spoil your morning’s reading, or keep you up blogging at night, or sour your coffee, but they have no power, least of all in parts of the world where human rights are regularly violated.

To reiterate, and add to my last post on this, the reasons why far too many people around the world are denied human rights are as follows:

1. The majority of people in powerful parts of the world don’t care that much about the rights of people in less powerful parts of the world or, if they do, they simply don’t know about the violations taking place. If they did, the amount of resources devoted to helping would be vastly more than they currently are. What’s more, it would be next to impossible for developed country governments to support rights abusers when economically convenient. After all who would risk the wrath of the voters for some small economic benefit.

2. Some human rights problems are really difficult for external agents to solve. There’s no magic rights wand to be waved and make the world a better place. Instead there are difficult decisions.

3. Some of recent history’s most prominent putative human rights champions have proven to be fair weather friends, to put it kindly (Dick Chaney take another bow). Which means that when Western Powers have intervened in recent years, despite the rights based justifications for these interventions, they’ve all-too-often engaged in rights abuses themselves (Iraq, for example). What’s more, because the interventions were never really about human rights, they were never really geared around them. So whatever chance there was of improving the rights situation through force was often missed as other goals were pursued.

If would be awfully handy if the relativist left really did play a real role in the ongoing human rights tragedies experienced in parts of our planet. We could, after all, just round them up (all 7 of them) and be done with all that suffering. Unfortunately, as always, life ain’t that neat or that easy.

Or, to put it another way, I’m glad I got to read the Ahmari piece, but I’m also hoping that he’s got few more columns up his sleeves. Ones where the real world issues actually get addressed.

[Acknowledgment: any insights in the post above are, in part, the product of a conversation I had with a fellow PhD student here a couple of days ago. I doubt she’s ready for the sheer quantity of fame that would come with being named on Waylaid Dialectic. So, instead, anonymous thanks to her.]

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.)

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