The apparent death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey earlier this month should remind us of what is at stake when governments violate basic human rights. Because human rights are flaunted with impunity in many parts of the world, it’s easy to dismiss efforts to reassert their importance as a waste of time, but we do so at our own peril. Violations of human rights norms are inherently destabilizing; they increase the distrust between citizens and governments, weaken institutions and result in fragile states that lack the resilience needed to withstand genuine crises. In our inter-connected global society, such violations should concern us all.
Violations of rights as basic as the right to life represent a regression to the time when governments had and exercised unfettered power over their citizens. It took the horrors of World War II for the world to see the problems with that arrangement and to rectify it by establishing an international human rights regime that limited what governments could do to not just their own citizens, but any human being in their territory. When influential governments persistently flaunt those limits, they make the pre-WW II arrangement appear necessary, even benign. That’s dangerous.
Although it should be obvious at this point in history, it bears repeating that humans need security to thrive. Security frees people to express themselves in the myriad ways humanity finds expression and allows them to be innovative, meaningful contributors to society. When this sense of security is repeatedly violated by a powerful actor who is tasked with safeguarding it, the violation stunts healthy development, corrupts an important relationship, fosters fear and confusion, and inspires the kind of rebellion that is not easily tamed. All governments best remember that.