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Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

St Peter's SquareAn unbecoming dodge that sovereign human rights violators attempt in trying to evade responsibility for their actions was recently attempted, by of all parties, the Vatican. It is a dodge that was similarly attempted by the Bush administration in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, and was picked apart for the irresponsible maneuver that it is.

First, some background. Periodically parties to the major human rights conventions face review before a committee of experts, one committee for each treaty. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has a matching Committee on the Rights of the Child. These committees receive reports from states, discuss the reports with an official delegation from the reporting state, make observations on the reports, and make general recommendations to all states on how to interpret the treaty. Earlier this month the Holy See delegation presented their report before the Committee Against Torture (stewards of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

The crux of the dodge is that the convention applies here and not there. How a sovereign makes their pitch: You, the human rights analyst, must keep your gaze fixed upon this certain zone here – a zone I, the sovereign, have conveniently identified for you. Do not shift your gaze to that zone over there; I haven’t pointed out that zone over there as worthy of your scrutiny. Focus exclusively on my conduct in the zone I have outlined for you. Over in that zone there I can conduct myself in whatever way I please, without consequence or criticism from you. Why? Well, because that zone is over there and you should be focusing on this zone here.

Anyone interested in upholding human rights is bound to ask, well what exactly is going on over in that zone there? What precisely are you, the sovereign, attempting to hide in that zone there? Slicing the world into zones in this manner, what’s more allowing the sovereign under scrutiny to do so, can only lead to serious trouble for upholding human rights.

With the Bush administration, the claim went that federal courts do not have jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay; thus the executive can conduct itself as it pleases without scrutiny from the federal courts. Rasul and Boumediene saw that argument off, criticizing the view advanced by the Bush administration as meaning “the political branches may switch the Constitution on or off at will”. Just as that interpretation would spell trouble for constitutional rights, that interpretation vitiates obligations undertaken by states when they accede to the human rights conventions.

The Vatican recently attempted to make a case that rhymed with these accountability evading Bush administration claims. The Holy See urged, look at the city-state, not the global institution over which we preside. Rightly, the Committee Against Torture took a dim view of this argument. One expert, Felice Gaer, said (Guardian),

show us that, as a party to the convention, you have a system in place to prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment when it is acquiesced to by anyone under the effective control of the officials of the Holy See and the institutions that operate in the Vatican City state

The international human rights regime is about applying exacting scrutiny to sovereigns’ behavior, and Gaer applies the correct standard. Sovereigns don’t get to wriggle out of responsibility in this manner. The public, civil society, human rights experts, and other parties to the convention are correct in demanding more than excuses unworthy of a toddler, let alone a sovereign.

(A contrary view at the WSJ, Using a ‘Torture’ Claim Against the Catholic Church)

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Palais des Nations, United Nations Office at Geneva (via Wikipedia)

Palais des Nations, United Nations Office at Geneva (via Wikipedia)


Let no one say the US has not tried the diplomatic track with Syria.

We’re nearly two UN-Arab League envoys into the conflict, with Lakhdar Brahimi paving the way for stepping down in the coming months (Kofi Annan having resigned in August last year). The US also clearly warned the Assad regime against the use of chemical weapons late last year with Obama’s remarks: “red line”, “That would change my calculus”, “That would change my equation.” (NYT). At the time, it seemed successful. But now, the UK, France, and Israel claim Syria has used chemical weapons. The US too claims that Syria has used chemical weapons, though couching its view in the most hesitant of language, writing to Senators, “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” (HuffPo).

Likely a retreading of territory already covered in a prior diplomatic effort last June (Geneva Communiqué, 6/30/2012, pdf), the coming Geneva conference on Syria should be the end of the line for diplomacy with the Assad regime. There should not be yet another ineffectual Geneva Communiqué, several thousand more deaths, several thousand more refugees, and yet another meeting in Geneva a year hence to resurrect a political transition in Syria. Each delay has seen both deterioration in the conditions in Syria and escalation in the brutality. Gross violations of human rights and the laws of war have piled atop one another culminating in the recent allegations of chemical weapons use. (Let alone the fact that Syria borders three strategic allies of the US.)

Even prior to claims by the US and allies on chemical weapons use, assessments of the situation in Syria have been grave. Briefing the UN Security Council in April, senior UN officials offered grim assessments (pdf). Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos, “The situation in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe…”. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, “Re-reading what I said in my last intervention [before the Security Council], in February, I am almost tempted to limit my present statement to just 10 seconds. Everything that I said last time is still true, but it has all got much worse. If nothing politically dramatic happens, things will go on getting worse for the months to come.” The Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Children and Armed Conflict (Leila Zerrougui) and the SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Zainab Bangura) offered similarly sober assessments. None of these senior UN officials can offer anything but sober assessments with 1 million refugees and 2.5 million internally displaced (pdf).

"A U.S. F-117 Nighthawk taxis to the runway before taking off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, on March 24, 1999" (via Wikipedia)

“A U.S. F-117 Nighthawk taxis to the runway before taking off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, on March 24, 1999” (via Wikipedia)

For more evidence, if any is needed, read through the Human Rights Council reports on Syria. I wouldn’t really encourage it though; reading those reports is to browse through a catalogue of cruelty and depravity: torture of children, summary execution, military attacks on civilians, the list of violations goes on and on. Altogether, Syrian government misconduct meets the “shock the conscience of mankind” test. To their credit, both the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly have passed resolutions on Syria. To its discredit, particularly the shameful stances of China and Russia, the UN Security Council has failed to pass sufficiently strong resolutions against Syria.

Notwithstanding the positions of China and Russia, it is time for the final warning to the Assad regime, much like the stance taken against Slobodan Milošević in 1999. If it continues to yield humanitarian catastrophe by way of failure to protect civilians, the diplomatic track must end in the last argument of kings.

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Neat box, but do you respect human rights?
(the Apple Store, Fifth Avenue. Via Apple)


A discussion of Steve Job’s tenure as Apple CEO and workers’ conditions at Apple supplier Foxconn prompted an Andrew Sullivan reader to highlight a 1997 Paul Krugman piece in Slate, In Praise of Cheap Labor. The Sullivan commenter accurately summarizes, “what OECD residents perceive as gross maltreatment of workers ($4/day wages, long hours, poor work conditions) is actually raising living standards in these places, compared to subsistence farming.” Indeed, Krugman argues that given the alternatives of rural poverty or life as a cheap laborer, life as a laborer is better.

Krugman explains, cheap labor is only the first rung on the ladder of an export-led growth strategy, opening opportunities for broader economic advancement throughout society. Look at South Korea and Taiwan, Krugman urges us, they have met success traveling down this path. Of course Krugman is not the only one making this argument about awful working conditions being a steppingstone to future prosperity. Using similar arguments his fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has repeatedly praised sweatshops and co-authored a book that opens with similar arguments (Thunder from the East: portrait of a rising Asia). Krugman closes by saying it is our moral duty to think things through. Let’s.

One paragraph stood out in the Krugman piece, particularly given the closing reference to our moral duty:

Workers in those shirt and sneaker factories are, inevitably, paid very little and expected to endure terrible working conditions. I say “inevitably” because their employers are not in business for their (or their workers’) health; they pay as little as possible, and that minimum is determined by the other opportunities available to workers.

Inevitable?
(Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 1911. Via Wikipedia)

That “inevitably” deserves a great deal more scrutiny.

Leaving aside the false choice of sweatshops equal development while no sweatshops equal no development, the rather forgiving attitude expressed towards employers who abuse their workers should disturb us all. Profit at the expense of workers’ health is profit at quite a high cost. Isn’t profiteering at the expense of the well-being of others price gouging?

The fact that the alternatives for workers present such dire hazards should make us even more sensitive to their vulnerability to exploitation by factory owners. The consequent use of factory owners’ superior bargaining position at the expense of their workers’ welfare is certainly not a cause for celebration. Structures that (re)produce this relationship do not deserve our praise.

Instead of celebrating the sweatshops, we should be focusing on the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” (pdf). I’m aware that the Guiding Principles expressed as such did not exist in 1997, but Krugman’s interlocutors were expressing the underlying values of one of the principles, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.

Briefly, the Guiding Principles were developed under the leadership of John Ruggie as a UN Special Representative on the issue; they are the result of six years (2005-2011) of research and consultations. They propose a three part framework: Protect, Respect, and Remedy.

the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication.

the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved.

the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.

[pdf link above]

UN Human Rights Council
(UN Photo)

There is a sentence from the Guiding Principles whose meaning should resonate with anyone analyzing sweatshops, “the corporate responsibility to respect because it is the basic expectation society has of business in relation to human rights;”. Krugman and company have set their basic expectations of corporate conduct far too low.

It is our moral duty to expect more.

(The UN Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles in June this year.)

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"Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text." (via Wikipedia)

Proponents of the responsibility to protect (R2P) have confronted the meaning and consequences of the post-World War II body of international legal texts for the international system. They find consequences for both states’ conduct towards each other and states’ conduct towards their residents; the chief consequence being circumscribing state sovereignty. Critics of R2P have not grappled with these same texts; they have not explained why this international human rights project was undertaken. What were the aims and purposes of establishing these institutions, codifying these principles on human dignity (and common humanity)? Were all those politicians, diplomats, lawyers, and activists simply wasting their time composing the laws of war, the Nuremberg Principles, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the core international human rights conventions?

Should the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights just shut up shop now, what does the Vienna Declaration and Program for Action mean anyway? All the treaty-monitoring bodies cease making general recommendations and reviewing states’ reports? Were all the participants from non-Western states merely puppets of the humanitarian interventionist, R2P advancing, neo-imperialists? What are we to make of more than six decades of explicit international human rights law? Is it a nullity? What are the consequences of the proposition that everyone has human rights for international affairs? I have not read opponents of R2P tackle these issues. Answering these questions does not inevitably lead to supporting intervention in Libya, but I would find their objections more weighty if non-interventionists attempted an answer rather than crying national interest, neo-imperialism, imperfect information, or state sovereignty.

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The last argument of kings
Ultima Ratio Regum inscribed on a cannon in Vienna, Austria. (via Wikipedia)

[In 2001], after the Atlantic Monthly excerpted [Samantha] Power’s chapter on Rwanda, a National Security Council aide sent a memo to President Bush summarizing her argument and detailing the Clinton administration’s reluctance to act. President Bush’s four-word response to this failure to stop genocide, which he jotted in the memo’s margins, could not have been clearer: “NOT ON MY WATCH.”
The Age of Genocide, Derek Chollet

Bush’s marginalia is the only conscientious response to mass slaughter taking place anywhere at anytime. Not only is intervention the right thing to do, it is our duty to intervene to stop mass murders.

Thus Libya requires intervention along the lines of plans floated by a number of analysts, diplomats, and human rights groups. Essentially the United Nations Security Council needs to be convened in emergency session to condemn the violence, implement sanctions against the regime, and establish a (NATO-enforced) no-fly zone over Libya to prevent warplanes from massacring protestors and prevent Qaddafi from importing mercenaries; Libya should also be removed from the UN Human Rights Council.

The Genocide Convention’s full name is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; the word “prevention” is there for a reason. The international community ought not dither. We need not linger on the question precisely how many dead protesters constitute a crime against humanity. I take Seif Qaddafi at his word when he vowed to “fight till the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.” Libyan diplomats and military personnel have already described the situation in terms to warrant international action.

Action to stop mass murder must be more swift, more diligent than those seeking to perpetrate mass murder.

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Courtroom, UK Supreme Court (Crown Copyright)

Even sex offenders. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom unanimously ruled that the irreversible, unappealable retention of names on the sex offender registry is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 8 privacy provisions (R and another v. Sec. of State Home Department, decided April 2010, pdf). As a consequence, Parliament will have to create a system whereby sex offenders, after a period, have an opportunity to appeal being named on the registry. One possibility under consideration, 15 years after release from prison a sex offender may lodge an appeal to be removed from the registry, such proposals envision a high bar for such appeals to be successful.

Given the cascade of criticism emanating from parliament one would think the Supreme Court announced the official deity of the UK as Satan with the human sacrifices beginning Thursday. At Prime Minister’s Questions David Cameron said he was appalled by the decision. At the Home Secretary’s statement immediately following PMQs, Theresa May echoed Cameron’s revulsion at the ruling. Labour MPs too put their shock and horror on the record. A Conservative MP, Philip Hollobone, said,

Residents in my constituency are absolutely fed up to the back teeth with human rights legislation and the way in which it is being used to promote the rights of bad people over the rights of good people. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that when the commission on the Bill of Rights is established, an end date will be published. May I urge her to urge the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary to choose an early end date, which we need so that legislation can be introduced in the House in this Parliament, so that the issue can be resolved once and for all? (Hansard)

So we should divide the world into two parts, the good people and the bad people. The good people have human rights, the bad do not. What’s more, we are going to have a vote on who fits where! What could possibly go wrong? The idea that the government can make a one time, irreversible, unreviewable, decision as to an individual should trouble any observer. Despite the hyperventilating of MPs and the tabloid press, the Supreme Court only ruled the right to have listing on the register reviewed, not an automatic delisting form the register.

Watching the debate in the House of Commons reminded me of a CNN story, Florida housing sex offenders under bridge. Because of laws barring sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of places children congregate, some sex offenders’ official residence is the Julia Tuttle Causeway; probation officers visit them under the bridge as the probation terms prohibit the sex offenders from leaving their residence between 10pm and 6am. One interviewee argued as a consequence of Miami’s conditions sex offenders have an incentive to break the law and abscond. A narrow conceptualization of human rights yields absurdities like this, inhumane conditions and incentivized lawbreaking.

And how many votes did you get?
(Justice by Pierre Subleyras)

The ongoing UK episode does little to recommend an elected judiciary, weak judicial review, or sovereignty fetishism. Given an elected judiciary, judges would be similarly situated to politicians. Then judges too would look to marginalize the already marginal to win votes. Systems without strong judicial review leaves said politicians to trample all over human rights of the “bad” and “undeserving”. After all, why should the unpopular have human rights?

Sovereignty fetishists seeking to pull the UK out of the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisdiction face the fact that in this case the UK Supreme Court made the decision, and yet there is the same outcry of judge made law, privileging the pedophiles over the law abiding, and even criticisms of the “foreigness” of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Supreme Court was applying the Human Rights Act which incorporated the ECHR into UK law). Time for a UK Bill of Rights to displace the ECHR, these critics argue. If a UK Bill of Rights guts due process and proportionality then it won’t be worth the paper it is written on.

Because these positions are sometimes ascribed by less charitable readers, let me make clear that, obviously, sex offenses that land one on the sex offender registry are odious crimes often committed against the vulnerable. Asserting that everyone has human rights is not to minimize the crimes, make excuses, or draw equivalences between offender and victim. Ultimately, our decision making in this area should not be guided solely by the heinous nature of the crimes. Our decision making should be guided by the principles that animate the ECHR, proportionality, due process, and above all the universality of human rights.

Finally, to politicians I say, beware riding the populist tiger. Like Fortune’s Wheel, one moment you’re on top, the next you’re underneath it. Also, you can’t call for intelligent discourse one minute then brew a toxic nonsense the next. Populism should carry the warning: May corrode the intellect.

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European Court of Human Rights

Even prisoners. The simplicity of the universality of human rights sometimes yields political difficulties. This week the UK Parliament will debate a European Court of Human Rights ruling challenging wholesale prisoner disenfranchisement (Hirst v. United Kingdom, 2005). As I understand it, the ECtHR held some prisoners are entitled to vote (12 votes for the opinion, 5 dissents); the Court found the UK’s practice of depriving prisoners of votes amounted to “disproportionate” disenfranchisement without regard to “the length of the sentence or the gravity of the offence”, and further “that the results were arbitrary and anomalous, depending on the timing of elections.” Cue politicians (and tabloid papers), both Conservatives and Labour, denouncing the decision as absurd, undemocratic, and worthy of ignoring or withdrawing form the European Convention on Human rights over.

Heaping opprobrium on an already marginalized group is easy business for politicians. The group may be prisoners, immigrants, the unemployed, or those with low incomes, if you have low social/political capital you are a target for further marginalizing (educational opportunities for prisoners for instance). What’s more, politicians can take shots without the prickly pushback that comes from attacking groups better situated to defend themselves; bankers for instance can count on the Mayor of London to rise to defend their wounded honor. We need an international human rights regime precisely because some groups are such easy targets for populist demagoguery. One step removed, the European Court of Human Rights offers an additional layer of human rights protection not equaled by any solely domestic institution. Even liberal democracies like the UK (and US) need human rights oversight.

The European human rights regime is undemocratic in the same ways that a constitution is undemocratic; the regime acts as a set of pre-commitments marking the boundaries of the democratic process. Like a constitution, these pre-commitments were not arrived at undemocratically. In addition to UK jurists being represented at drafting the Convention, Parliament, the UK’s elected representatives, acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951 (BBC). Finally, the UK is entitled to withdraw from the Convention (and take the attendant consequences).

That last bit, the attendant consequences, is probably meant to sound at least a little ominous. As a supporter of the European human rights regime in general and UK participation in particular, here is the parade of horribles for UK withdrawal. First, most ephemerally, the esteem of the UK would take a hit. It is fair to say that the international human rights and internal legal scholarly communities would classify the UK as an outlier in Europe for withdrawing from the Convention. In soft/normative power terms the UK would not be strengthening its position by withdrawing from the widely ratified Convention.

Second, withdrawal has knock on consequences for UK participation in other major regional institutions, specifically the Council of Europe and the European Union. The Council of Europe and European Union are distinct organizations, the Council has a wider membership and far fewer supranational powers. Accession to the European Convention on Human Rights is a requirement of Council of Europe membership. In addition, the EU has acceded to the Convention, so it is unclear that the UK would escape its human rights obligations by merely withdrawing from the Convention without also shifting its relationship with the EU. (Though the view I present here is certainly not the only view, right of center UK think tank Policy Exchange presents evidence to the contrary, Bringing Rights Back Home: Making human rights compatible with parliamentary democracy in the UK, pdf).

This web of international organizations exists as a legacy of the two World Wars. These organizations (like the UN System) represent the post-war commitments to human dignity. Does “never again” mean “never again will Germans kills Jews in Europe in the 1940s” as David Rieff starkly challenges? If so, “never again” is a pretty hollow commitment. The international human rights regime is meant to have far broader applicability, standing as a break against states taking even one step down the path to the dystopian annihilation of our common humanity.

Echo and Narcissus
John William Waterhouse, 1903

There is a particular strand of narcissism that afflicts the UK (and US) conception of human rights, a kind of “Hey, we invented this stuff!” perspective that identified human rights violators as exclusively illiberal undemocratic regimes. Yes, Anglo-American philosophers and jurists made major contributions to the development of the international human rights regime. But so did scholars and legal traditions from around the world. Now this is an impossible task, cramming several thousand years of thinking on human dignity from non-Western traditions in a portion of a blog post, perhaps I’ll just point to excellent sources, like Mary Ann Glendon’s outstanding book A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also good sources on this topic – are human rights a Euro-American preserve? – Amartya Sen, Human Rights and Asian Values, and Susan Waltz’s Universal Human Rights: The Contribution of Muslim States in Human Rights Quarterly (2004). This subject deserves another blog post, later.

The strand of narcissism afflicting the UK (and US) others human rights violators. Under this line of thinking, human rights violations are perceived as exclusively the domain of authoritarian regimes. Yes, autocracy violates civil and political rights. But heinous violations abroad should not mask human rights violative practices domestically. Witness the UK’s policies towards Northern Ireland or Jim Crow laws in the US. A policy does not become compliant with human rights by virtue of the fact of its implementation by a liberal democracy. Liberal democracies are not immune from scrutiny for compliance with human rights.

Imagine a spelling test, one student may have spelled every word wrong while another has spelled only two words wrong. The incorrectly spelled words of the second student are no less incorrect because of the other misspellings in the class. Similarly, North Korea’s human rights violations are worthy of denunciation, so are the human rights violations of every country irrespective of regime type – criticizing does not create equivalence between regimes like Burma and North Korea on the one hand and the US and UK on the other. A human rights violation, anywhere, deserves criticism and correction.

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