When governments violate human rights norms

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.

A Reflection on Poverty, Migrants, & International Responsibility

In November 2017, CNN broadcast its report on the auctioning of migrants in Libya (the International Organization for Migration first reported the exploitation of migrants in 2016). The images were particularly offensive and jarring because they depicted a practice thought long gone in a world where “human rights” is the professed global ethic. Sans auctioneers, the images were quite familiar—disheveled, visibly tired and emotionally and physically battered dark-skinned men, many of them young, with eyes registering empty stares or that dignity-sapping combination of shame and helplessness. The world had seen some version of them in Australia (and Papua New Guinea), Israel, northern France, along the US-Mexico border, and so on. They had elicited pity and, depending on other contextual factors, sparked moments of outrage. The persistent poverty and desperation behind the images, however, have yet to spark the kind of outrage that might be needed to compel change.

Despite reports of significant progress in reducing poverty (mostly in China, Indonesia, and India), 11% of the world’s population, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, still lives on less than $1.90/day, the international poverty line (IPL). Moreover, even states designated (low or high) “middle income countries” like India, continue to have high poverty rates. Last year, the World Bank added two new poverty lines of $3.20 (lower middle-income IPL) and $5.50 (upper-middle income IPL) to capture the “relativity” of poverty. A 2016 study showed 32 lower middle-income countries having a median poverty line of $3.21/day and 32 upper middle-income countries a median poverty line of $5.48/day (29 high income countries had a median line of $21.70/day).

The problem with these metrics, and statistics on poverty generally, is that they give only an impression of the extent of deprivation; they convey nothing of the lived and felt experience of poverty. It is one thing to know that 815 million people are food insecure and quite another to experience hunger persistently; to know that some countries have unemployment rates of 30% or more and to experience persistent unemployment in a poor country where there are no social safety nets; or to know that children in poor states continue to die from preventable disease and to experience illness in a country without viable healthcare systems. Moreover, outside the world of economic development research, it is difficult to discern the difference between “poverty” and “extreme poverty” in global context, whether such distinctions are justifiable, and if a person experiencing one would find it qualitatively different from the other. It is apparent, however, that poverty breeds desperation; the kind that compels people to get on flimsy boats or poorly ventilated vehicles with unscrupulous smugglers and take their chances on rough seas or through scorching deserts. The inability to convey that felt experience of poverty in numbers often causes those removed from it to understand it with clinical detachment, obscuring the urgent need for redress and consistent international cooperation.

For a long time, human rights proponents have tried to persuade governments that not only does poverty make people vulnerable to human rights violations, it is the most scandalous of them all. While acknowledging the complexity of its causes, they have argued that poverty is not just some unfortunate reality, but also the result of policy choices made at both domestic and international institutional levels; that the mismanagement of economic globalization exacerbates the problem by increasing the level of economic/income inequality within and among states and is a potent source of continuing injustices; and that it does matter that others have more, especially in cases where it can be shown that few have much more precisely because others are deprived (directly and indirectly), not in spite of it. For their part, governments have largely rejected the idea of poverty as a human rights violation citing the difficulty of assigning clear duties and obligations. The adoption and widespread ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has done little to change the fact that governments still largely view these rights as social or development goals rather than as rights. Together, these realities have not only compromised the international system’s ability to hold actors, be they state or non-state entities, accountable for actions that cause widespread economic deprivation, but they have also reinforced the deeply problematic view that global poverty reduction efforts are only a matter of charity rather than justice.

The manifestation of the challenge of poverty within the migration context at a time when nationalist sentiment is surging in most parts of the developed world has been unhelpful. Political narratives of “economic migrants” coming to “take our jobs,” “bring crime,” or “destroy our culture” have drowned serious discussion in the public square about the root causes of global poverty and meaningful solutions. This has an unfortunate double-edged impact: it further marginalizes vulnerable people, deepening their insecurity and desperation and entrenches the problematic belief that rich states have nothing to do with their condition. Although there are many bases for assigning international responsibility for poverty reduction, to far too many, it is improper to suggest the developed world bears any responsibility for the condition of today’s global poor. “Slavery and colonialism are over, deal with your corrupt leaders, get yourselves together, and move on already,” the popular argument goes. If only it were that simple.

While it is indeed true that poor states bear responsibility for improving their condition, they do not and cannot bear it all.

The world is more economically-integrated than ever. This integration has ensured, for better or worse, that the policy choices of a single influential state can have global impacts. Developed states dominate global economic fora and direct the vast and complex arrangements undergirding the global economic system. They use that influence to enforce their preferences often with little regard to their potential impact on the wellbeing of people in less economically developed states (LEDS). Though certainly not without controversy, some notable examples of these realities include the adoption of intellectual property rules that compromise poor states’ ability to provide affordable medicines to their populations (whether the 2017 amendment to World Trade Organization’s IP rules is making a difference is yet to be seen); the granting of agricultural subsidies to farmers in prosperous states that negatively impact global food prices and the livelihoods of farmers, who represent a large share of the population, in poor states; the excessive competitiveness pushed by corporations and adopted by influential governments in international fora that tends to negatively impact labor standards in LEDS; the adoption of policies favoring privatization, also pushed by states at the behest of powerful domestic special interests, that sometimes hinders access to essential goods in poor states; and the long-term unemployment suffered by segments within LEDS upon implementing WTO-driven trade liberalization policies in vulnerable industries.

There are also cases as when the increase in the production of biofuels by the European Union and United States resulted in a dramatic increase in world food prices, reportedly plunging an estimated 100 million people into hunger. Other related concerns include how influential banks in developed states continue to receive and use ill-gotten funds from corrupt leaders from poor states despite the widespread ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which prohibits illicit financial flows; how developed states contribute significantly to global emissions of carbon dioxide and are making investments to protect themselves from climate change’s many risks while offering LEDS that have contributed least to the problem a pittance, leaving them bearing the brunt of the consequences (economic or other); and the myriad ways through which some developed states have destabilized the politics of targeted LEDS for their own political ends and the resulting economic impacts.

The aforementioned cause considerable damage. To then characterize “helping poor countries” only as an act of charity is problematic. In fact, these realities suggest “development aid” is but a binky—necessary because it soothes, but ultimately, without also addressing substantive structural injustices, changes little. Arguments that things will get better in the long run if we continue implementing the same policies are unpersuasive because of the indeterminacy of the “long run.” Are we not already in it?

When the United Nations was founded in 1945 the world’s conscience had been sufficiently pricked by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust that states committed to work together in good faith to not only maintain peace, but to also promote human rights and global economic stability and well-being. It is way past time to take the latter commitment a lot more seriously, especially as it relates to LEDS. A good starting point is acknowledging controversial inconvenient truths, the most significant being that an unfair global economic system may indeed account (not to a negligible degree) for the large disparities in wealth between nations. This must be followed by the hard work of compelling the creation of mechanisms to hold all governments accountable for the myriad ways through which their actions or omissions result in persistent economic deprivation. Or, we can pretend “it’s their problem” and simply sigh the next time we hear about the exploitation or deaths of some poor migrants in some hot desert, some place in the world…


How to Increase Worldwide Support for Human Rights

In a speech delivered at the Jacob Blaustein Institute in New York this month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed concerns about the “growing belief . . . that somehow human rights are inconsistent with the world today.” Citing what he called “the growing flirtation with realism” (or is it “principled realism”?)—which presents power as the ultimate determinant in international affairs—the Commissioner warned that the world had already seen the devastating consequences of this worldview, particularly when it is combined with “chauvinistic nationalism,” balance-of-power politics, and a belief in the effectiveness of threats of violence and ultimatums. With leaders increasingly sidelining human rights concerns, he argued the solution was in expanding worldwide popular support for universal human rights by better informing the public of their critical importance and role in upholding global peace. To succeed, however, the Commissioner’s strategy must be combined with a concerted effort to address three problems now deeply embedded within the international human rights architecture.

First, the human rights system must improve its enforcement mechanisms. Human rights norms are notoriously underenforced. The existence of nine core human rights treaties, an expansive system of treaty bodies, and review/monitoring mechanisms has done little to change that. This problem has delegitimated human rights norms in the popular imagination, making them seem, instead, like rainless clouds—everywhere but offering nothing. The many human rights reports submitted to treaty bodies for country reviews and to the Human Rights Council for its universal periodic reviews consistently show that underenforcement is largely the result of the vast power gap between governments and their citizens and the lack of effective mechanisms to hold governments accountable for violations. Because there are significant structural obstacles to improving enforcement, universal human rights proponents must devote more resources to finding innovative ways to reduce the impunity gap. Without improvements in enforcement, the system fails to answer the “so what” question, making it irrelevant to many.

Second, the system must promote social, economic, and cultural rights. For too long, civil and political rights have been emphasized at the expense of socioeconomic rights. In so doing, the human rights system has not only downplayed a central concern of two-thirds of the world’s population, but, given the contentious history of the human rights Covenants, it has also unwittingly reinforced the perception that it prioritizes the preferences of the West. It is significant that the individual complaint mechanism for the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was created in 2008 at the adoption of its protocol (entering into force in 2013) while that of civil and political rights was created in 1966 (entering into force in 1976). Although the system recognizes the problem and has instituted Special Rapporteurs and independent experts on various aspects of socioeconomic rights, these efforts do not go far enough. The political debate about the validity of socioeconomic rights may persist, but the question is settled in international human rights law. The universal human rights agenda ought to reflect this in bolder ways.

Third, the movement must become more inclusive. The Commissioner correctly noted the persisting view that human rights are an “esoteric stream of international law, promoted mainly by Western idealists, leftists, liberals…” That view, which is held not only by some government leaders, as the Commissioner indicated, but also by a significant proportion of laypeople worldwide, speaks to not only why some shun or ignore human rights norms, but also to the sense of alienation that is increasingly accompanying them. The leading scholars, lawyers, and policymakers at the vanguard of the most influential human rights-promoting institutions tend to indeed lean left, and in many ways fit the common description of “elite.” This is having a two-fold impact: it is increasingly (a) slanting the universal human rights agenda left and (b) alienating a significant percentage of the world’s population whose values lean right, dampening their enthusiasm for a regime whose many norms would ordinarily fit their own value systems. This point should not be mistaken for a repackaging of the cultural relativism argument; it is rather an observation about the narrowing of the human rights lens. This should concern the movement not only because it robs it of significant voices as it fights to assert its relevance, but also because it represents the loss of the political ambiguity that once accounted for the broader, though imperfect, support the idea of human rights enjoyed in the aftermath of WW II. If the movement does not become more inclusive, the universal human rights agenda will lose rather than gain popular support.