Why Human Rights Matter
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical
When, on occasion, I get challenged about why I bother with human rights, I’m usually surprised. The questioner must, I am often tempted to reply, be happy for me to come over to their house that night with an armed gang and torture them, and follow that by kidnapping them without trial for an indefinite period, only to be protected under law because I’m friends with the attorney general? (This is all hypothetical, of course.) When I sink to such an artless rejoinder, no one ever says “Yes” and means it. While I concede that the above may be a fatuously extreme thing to say, it raises meaningful points. If we want to be free from unimaginable suffering and injustice ourselves, then we surely have to accept in principle that all human beings should be free from it. It is this notion (the universalist principle, one which runs counter to the intellectual constructs that have so long supported the conceits and whims of power) that is found immovably at the heart of the philosophy of human rights.
Of course, this concept is nothing new. It is so ancient as to be an almost archetypal principle. In this sense, the human rights movement is a meeting place of apparently irreconcilable streams of thought, in that it echoes values common to intellectual movements both modern and ancient–for example, the enlightenment and the Abrahamic religions.
What’s more, it posits an equality of worth for all human beings that political systems devised to empower the poor, such as Communism, failed to grant in practice. Indeed, in some cases, the human rights movement has achieved what the various left-leaning political revolutions have always aspired to bring about: radically positive transformation in the lives of the most needy. Moreover, such advances did not come at the cost of individual freedoms or through the agency of an intrusive and corrupt government, as in many ostensibly socialist societies.
A case in point occurred in India in 2001, when a group of campaigners managed to secure school meals for 50 million children, many of whom suffered from extreme malnourishment. This was achieved through public interest litigation in which the indivisible right to food was invoked. This legally-mandated system already looks set to reach out to a further 50 million children–and is continuing to expand its reach. It is easily the biggest program of its kind in the world.
The central text of the rights movement, the Universal Declaration of 1948 asserts that certain fundamental entitlements are granted to all global citizens, without distinction. This was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The principles it contains were timely and momentous: they prefigured the end of American segregation, the break-up of apartheid and the final collapse of European colonialism. The Declaration, and the codification of the values it upholds, represented a landmark moment in the modern era, one that has helped to form the world that we inhabit now with laws and protections we take for granted. Its span covers all the essential human requirements for life and dignity ranging from freedom from slavery to the right to food.
The declaration also calls for “an international order in which human rights can be fully realized”–something that, to this writer at least, sadly remains an aspiration for the global community, the world being as it is. This is something to which I will return.
Above all else, the great beating heart of the human rights cause is its affirmation of the importance of humanity, its ability to transcend normally incommensurable differences without alienating anyone; and doing so by appealing to that most definitively human of our instincts–our ability to feel compassion for our fellow human beings.
The principles upheld are free from the prescriptions, meta-narratives and/or dictations of any belief or exclusionary creed. Rather, the defining features of human rights law and the values it seeks to honor are drawn from the common cultural treasury of our species: in it we see echoes of the Ubuntu philosophy from Africa, the ancient Manu Smriti traditions from ancient India, the central teachings of the Abrahamic religions and the liberal humanist ideals of the European Enlightenment.
Thus, the human rights outlook encompasses a remarkably flexible, inclusive “consensus narrative.” In this way it is politically and culturally neutral. Because of this, people of humane impulse from all backgrounds have joined the international justice movement, and can find common cause in seeking the implementation of the laws associated with it.
There’s plenty of ground to be made. The human rights project is a work in progress. If we just look at recent years, incidents that occurred during the Global War on Terror, the Sudanese and Sri Lankan civil wars, even the treatment of Bradley Manning by the US are considered serious offenses that remain unpunished.
Despite the fact that some of those considered responsible for the alleged crimes have not been held to account, many human rights abusers live in fear of being sent to The Hague in the future. We can thank the HR community for having brought this far.
Recent victories underline such progress.
As mentioned before, not long ago, Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was sentenced (effectively for the rest of his natural life) for his part in what presiding Judge Richard Lussick described as “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.” Among the many terrible acts believed to have been perpetrated by his soldiers, perhaps the most abominable was the practice of cutting fetuses from the wombs of pregnant women for sport. Rape, maimings, and torture were widespread under his reign of terror.
To the countless victims of the Sierra Leonese civil war, seeing Taylor sentenced was no small matter. What’s more, his arrest and prosecution still stands as a powerful reminder that those who commit crimes against humanity can be made to pay. That’s no small victory for justice. Likewise, several of the big players in the Bosnian genocide have now also been caught and had their day in the dock.
However, it must not be forgotten that great exceptions to the proper adoption of the regime of global justice endure. At the time of writing, several pertinent cases of justice–evasion have passed through the news.
I will first attend to the most striking of such examples. Late last year, the BBC leaked an internal UN report on the international body’s failures during the finale of the Sri Lankan civil war. It makes for a terrifying read, particularly given that it has been estimated that tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed during that time, allegedly by indiscriminate shell fire issuing from government forces.
The UN, it transpires, as Frances Harrison–the BBC’s former Sri Lanka correspondent–put it, had received “unconfirmed reports of 50,000 casualties in a war off limits to journalists” in the late stages of the conflict but did not raise the alarm. This came about, according to the report, because of “a culture of trade-offs” whereby UN workers played softball with Sri Lanka in order to try to influence their behavior in an attempt to improve the situation for the victims.
However, this tactic did not work–and moreover, the numbers of those reportedly killed was so high that it is scandalous that the UN did not speak out. According to Harrison, senior figures received briefings by staff “which showed that almost all the civilian casualties recorded by the UN had reportedly been killed by Government fire” but still did not inform the world about such horrors. To compound the appalling character of the alleged crimes, the fatalities reported were concentrated in “no fire zones” that had been unilaterally declared by the government as a place of refuge for civilians.
Perhaps the strongest complaint about the conditions of the civilians stuck in the “no fire zones” came from the International Committee of the Red Cross who, at the time, stated that an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe” was taking place for the ethnic Tamil civilians there who were deprived of medicine and food–and under fire. Other NGOs would later describe Sri Lanka’s war effort a little under four years ago as having been “an assault on the entire regime of international law”–during which time disregard for human life was so brazen that hospitals got hit repeatedly–in one case, 35 times according to Human Rights Watch.
To this day, no one has been punished for the credibly alleged war crimes that reportedly took place, despite increasing international pressure being brought to bear on Colombo. One of the reasons for this has been the aggressive resistance shown by the government of Sri Lanka to call for an international inquiry undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations.
The government did commission its own internal inquiry, which failed to address many of the worst allegations against it, and which–predictably–exonerated the government. Amnesty International wrote of the probe that it was “fundamentally flawed and provides no accountability for atrocities.” This outcome was itself entirely predictable. An American diplomat expressed in one Wikileaks-released cable “There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.”
“In Sri Lanka this is further complicated,” she continues, “by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership.”
The slow-moving carriage of international justice is easily set off course by sitting governments. While misbehaving politicians maintain their grip on power, it is hard to bring to them to an international court without causing unrest in their native country–or invoking a host of sovereignty issues. Unauthorized military action to remove a criminal regime is itself a crime, and trying to do this legally (as in the case of Assad in Syria) is a torturous process, often impeded by division at the UN Security Council.
This being as it is, war crimes suspects are much more vulnerable when they have left power.
This was the case with Charles Taylor, who, despite all his best efforts, was forced to face up to his crimes after leaving office, albeit a decade later. Likewise, Radovan Karadzic was indicted in absentia by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for his role in crimes that he committed during the Bosnian war. He is currently being held in the UN’s detention center in Scheveningen in The Netherlands, after having been in hiding for decades; in 2008, Karadzic was identified and arrested in Belgrade. Despite having cultivated a long beard, living under the assumed name D.D. David and posing as a “quantum energy healer” in Vienna and Serbia, Karadzic has finally been brought before a court.
Despite such encouraging achievements, there are major obstacles to the universalist principle being applied without exception among the world’s nations where it comes to human rights, especially those associated with the conduct of armies in times of war.
The existing global power structures effectively mean that the world’s elite powers, in particular those that hold the veto on the United Nations Security Council, cannot be held accountable for offenses. The train of justice cannot move up road-blocked channels.
Russia is one example. The United States and Britain are others. When Russia crushed Grozny in 1999 in response to the invasion of Dagestan by Islamist Mujahadeen, a wide range of grave war crimes were credibly alleged to have taken place. Even long after the assault ended, Grozny was described by the UN as “the most destroyed city on earth.” Journalists reported appalling abuses. Mass graves were found. Rights groups criticized “blatant and sustained violations of international humanitarian law” committed by both sides.
Yet the military and political elite in Russia remained unaccountable, given the country’s status in the world. External criticisms could be endured. And domestically, too, because many Russians supported the action, which meant that popular uproar was not a threat; this worked well, as Moscow had achieved her strategic goals and installed a pliant suzerain. The cost-benefit analysis in pure, cynical political terms equated to net gains. By comparison, behaving ethically or proportionately once Russia’s territorial integrity was threatened was not a priority.
Likewise, the questionable conduct of British and American troops in Fallujah in 2004 during the Iraq war attracted floods of criticism but is unlikely to result in any consequences for the military command that oversaw it.
That is not to say that coalition troops planned to go in and behave criminally–it is just that the retaking of Fallujah was probably considered a significant enough strategic goal that a full-scale assault on the city was considered necessary, as in Grozny.
Due to the ferocity of the invasion, however, hell-on-earth was visited upon Iraq’s “City of Mosques.” The city was devastated by an attack that was designed to send a clear message to those forces that opposed the invading party.
This appears to be reflected in the testimony of those who served there. One Iraq veteran told me that “Right before we entered the city, I remember our company commander saying something like ‘all the civilians have left, so be as violent as you need to be to go home in one piece.’ I’m not sure at which level in the chain of command they were genuinely misinformed and at which level they were deliberately lying. Until I was in Fallujah and saw civilians with my own eyes, I believed what my command had told me.”
As the fighting got more intensive, cruel expedients were allegedly deployed. According to the same source, units in Fallujah “used a tactic called reconnaissance-by-fire, which is when you fire into a building to see if anyone is inside. There might have been civilians inside, but the point of reconnaissance-by-fire is that you don’t know what you’re firing at. We used tanks to fire into houses that had resistance fighters inside, and sometimes we used bulldozers to flatten the house on top of them."
“I watched a unit to our right flank flatten an entire neighborhood, one house after another, without checking to see if anyone was inside these houses,” he added. Without going into the full range of legal complications associated with the invasion of Iraq, or the sort of possible offenses described latterly by the source, if Russia leaders cannot be held to account because of the nation’s relative stature in world affairs–how much less so is this the case for the political elites in the US?
Indeed the unlikelihood of an American, or indeed any high-profile western politician, being sent to the Hague underlines the chief criticisms leveled at the international justice system as it currently is. So far, the International Criminal Court has focused overwhelmingly on hosting cases against Africans. Such facts, sadly, remain an enduring testimony to the limitations of the system. Some, like legal expert Chris Mahony, have argued that, in the realm of international justice “the world’s great powers . . . decide who is prosecuted, and who is not.”
This desperately needs to change–yet these are flaws which can be traced to government policies and the realities of the world’s international order–not the designs of the human rights movement.
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