Thursday, September 6, 2012
Human Rights and Human Realities
Here's William Hague, telling the FSA they had a responsibility to respect human rights:
"There have been reports of atrocities on the opposition side in Syria, which we condemn just as we condemn atrocities, the many atrocities carried out by the regime."
"A British official said that one of the main messages Wilks had taken to FSA representatives in Istanbul was to urge them to focus on their human rights obligations. "It is important to send the message to the political arm of the FSA to say you have got responsibilities. We are saying: be careful, you are being watched very carefully."
Hague's impertinent preaching is a good starting point for looking who needs to do what about which of those rights -it is typical of the unreflective sanctimony that almost always infuses human rights talk. An analysis of these rights leads to something less sanctimonious.
Human rights, both legal and moral, are real, but encounter severe limitations when they make the acquaintance of reality. They are sometimes thought mandated or protected or validated by international law. They are also seen as moral imperatives. These are at most half-truths.
Human rights as international laws
Something like international law is often invoked by the promoters of human rights. No surprises here: laws are thought to have authority, and authority commands respect in the sense of obedience. But this sort of advocacy encounters an enemy, common sense.
The issue here is not whether human rights ought in some sense to be respected, but, specifically, whether the mere fact that they are mandated by international law supports this claim. It does not, for several reasons.
For a start, international law doesn't have anything like the authority of national law. National laws have authority because - and to the extent that - there is a well-functioning mechanism for their enforcement. The enforcement mechanism is a government. International laws benefit from no such mechanism. There is no world government.
The UN may aspire to be such an institution but it seems that, the more it aspires, the more it brings itself into contempt. Since its members are national governments, many themselves of dubious legitimacy, it cannot be considered representative of its purported citizens or subjects, the world's population. Since it is controlled by the five permanent members of the Security Council, it cannot be considered representative even of the world's nations. Since it is often laughably ineffective, it cannot even have the authority imparted by force. It can't possibly lend significant authority to international law.
Since there is no world government, the various international courts and tribunals suffer from similar defects. These tribunals are themselves upheld by agreements and conventions that certainly have not been endorsed by the world's population. No authoritative body - such as a world government - has validated their procedures. They are clearly dependent on the more powerful nations of the world, who also lack the legal and moral authority to validate such dependence. So these institutions are no more capable of validating human rights than the UN.
This is not to say that the UN, or the international tribunals, are a bad idea. It would be great if we had a legitimate world government and/or authoritative tribunals to protect the world's population. Perhaps these imperfect institutions are a valuable step towards the real thing. But this in itself can't lend authority to their proceedings. A bunch of half-crazed vigilantes might also, in a post-apocalyptic world, be a valuable step towards restoring national law, but that wouldn't make their deliberations legitimate.
Even if international law were just as legitimate as national law, this wouldn't lend any moral authority to human rights. Laws, whoever makes them and however legitimated, can be wise or idiotic, just or unjust, good or evil. They can themselves contravene moral rights and they can have morally disastrous consequences. Suppose that some international body was constituted by free and fair elections the world over. Suppose too that, on the advice of respected jurists, it passed a law requiring the execution of redheads. That law would have no noticeable moral authority. Moreover we would certainly feel that moral authority trumped any other sort of authority the law might possess. So the mere fact that international law mandated human rights could never of itself support the claim that those rights must be respected.
Human rights and international conventions
Since human rights can't really be validated by international law, they can be mandated only by various international conventions. Like international tribunals and the UN, these conventions may be - probably are - a valuable first step towards the real thing, in this case genuine respect for some valid code of human rights. But again, the mere fact that human rights are endorsed by these conventions can't support the claim that such rights must be respected.
International conventions have even less legitimacy than international law, for similar reasons. The world leaders who endorse such conventions include, as we know, crooks, dictators, war criminals, and idiots. What legitimacy could derive from the mere fact that they've agreed to something?
Even if the conventions were legitimate, they could not apply to such groups as the FSA. Conventions and agreements apply only to their signatories. The FSA was not a signatory, nor does it represent any country that signed. So appeal to these conventions is misplaced. In fact it's not clear that the FSA is any sort of entity that could be held responsible for anything. As Julien Barnes-Dacey (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/10/britain-aid-syrian-opposition-groups) put it, "There is no such thing as the FSA in any organisational form, just different groups on the ground that identity themselves as the FSA." So there is no entity of the sort to which the conventions apply.
Again, maybe these conventions are a good start. And maybe woman's kidnapping quickly produces a good marriage: good starts don't necessarily confer legitimacy. They are only beginning of a process that may or may not produce a legitimate outcome.
If human rights can't gain much standing from international laws and conventions, how do they fare as moral rules?
Rights have limits
The whole notion of human rights has been discredited by a deadly combination of two bad ideas - rights-inflation, where you get a right to everything nice, and the failure to acknowledge that even the most important human rights are not absolute.
Rights-inflation has conferred the status of a human right on virtually anything we might suppose all human beings out to have - education, for instance. The problem here is not the idea that all humans should have access to education. It's how this is to interact with other moral imperatives, like 'all humans should have enough to eat'. When human rights are conceived as absolute, this can produce nothing but silly pieties: "oh, what a terrible dilemma, we need to educate our young people, yet others need food!"
So human rights need to be limited. It's easiest to see this as rights having limited extent, rather than that they are stomped on by other rights. My right to education does not extend to cases where it can be honoured only by violating the right of others to eat.
Once it's accepted that human rights must be limited, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the limitations have to do with the overall consequences of the choices that must be made. Suppose, for instance, a right conflicts 'with itself'. Here's a case where the nauseating righteousness of human rights discourse needs to go away. What if it takes torture to make a secret police agent reveal the location of an interrogation centre where dozens of people, including small children, are horribly tortured to death, daily? Anyone who refuses to accept that there really can be such a dilemma, and that a choice really has to be made, simply prefers his own illusions of purity over actual morality. After all, if in this actual situation you 'refuse to chose', it means you have chosen to let the centre continue its operations. And to pretend that such situations can't arise is nothing more than unfounded dogmatism about the real world. The fact that people often violate human rights on the basis of false beliefs - 'this guy is a dangerous terrorist and hundreds of lives hinge on the information we can force out of him' - does nothing whatever to exclude the very real possibility that hard choices exist. So, contrary to the preachy version of human rights, we really do have to limit them based on consequences, sometimes in very ugly ways.
Taking consequences into account isn't some descent to a lower form of ethics; it's just required to make ethics coherent. Consequences include one thing even to the most saintly proponent of human rights must consider - violations of human rights. What if, to respect my right to life, you must allow thousands of violations of others' right to life? To insist on the observance of human rights regardless of consequences is to invite absurdity.
Once we uses consequences to determine when a right applies, why not just look at the act and say, according to its consequences, that it's right or wrong? We could do this. Speaking of rights is shorthand for something like: "In our experience, the consequences of doing this (e.g. killing someone) are almost-never/rarely/generally unacceptable, or (e.g. education) desirable." "In our experience" is needed because the world could change radically and what is almost never acceptable/unacceptable becomes less or even more unacceptable. The scope of a right depends on constantly changing facts about the world.
This doesn't mean that speaking of rights is unimportant. It may be very necessary to give people the idea that certain types of actions are normally immoral, or that certain people morally ought to have certain things. Maybe people behave better then. But to preach rights is at least to oversimplify, possibly to deceive in a good cause.
Politics and human rights
Human rights are both more and less than alleged. More, because they are no 'fraud' or 'sham' perpetrated by intervention-crazy neocons. Less, because they are subject to limitations whose extent can only be determined by the consequences of particular decisions. The political implications of this situation are extensive.
On the one hand, the poo-pooing of human rights by smarty-pants left-wing commentators is a foolish, even contemptible mistake. It represents a complete abandonment of moral common sense. The commentators apparently believe some things are right or wrong; why else do they condemn intervention? But in their world, the worst sort of torture, conducted by régimes whose service to humanity is nil, gets a microsecond long cover-your-ass reference to 'atrocities', lost in long, snarky perorations on Western 'hypocrisy'. One can only marvel at a sensibility which obsesses over a character defect in the face of assaults on the tissue and organs of living children.
Tellingly the foundation of this perverse outlook involves a patently dimwitted calculation of consequences. The idea is that the West, which like every previous hegemony has committed various crimes at various times and places, is certain to commit more crimes even when it has no reason to do so. No oil riches, no strategic necessities, no dreams of conquest need loom on the horizon; the bad character of world leaders is quite enough. In a pinch, dark predictions about future sectarian slaughter are trotted out, claims which in other contexts these same commentators would ridicule as imperialist bunk. This is weighed against a true certainty, horrible crimes actually committed in the world's eye. If this is an honest assessment of consequences, it speaks volumes about the depths of self-deception that infuse much contemporary left-wing ideology.
On the other hand, the sanctification of human rights has produced a completely unbalanced reaction to the crimes 'of the FSA' - scare-quotes because there is no centralized authority to whom these crimes can reasonably be attributed. This is partly a matter of harping on international conventions whose minimal authority extends to states, not resistance movements. Yes, it is a good idea to promote such well-intentioned expressions of wishful thinking as the Geneva Convention, but to do so in these inappropriate contexts will simply bring the Convention into disrepute. Some parts of the Convention, in effect exhortations against torture, would be better served simply by condemning torture. Other parts, having to do with the treatment of prisoners, make sense only for nations which can fight wars in the old style. Certainly the FSA should take prisoners wherever possible, but it is mere insolence to preach as if this luxury is always available to small groups of fighters in the most desperate circumstances. Would these same preachers have been so quick to pass judgement on the Jewish resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto? Or this this just the sort of thing you declaim against those bloodthirsty Arabs? The preachers should bear in mind that the Syrian resistance arose and fights precisely to minimize human rights violations, which the régime perpetrates on the most massive scale. The idea that the fighters should risk their lives and the success of the resistance to take prisoners even in the most desperate circumstances isn't high-minded moral sensibility. It is immoral prissiness that would never have passed muster in the days of the Second World War.
To put it in strictly moral terms: the Syrian people were faced with a choice to revolt or not to revolt. What they ought to have chosen depended on what they could expect to happen. When they chose revolt, if they had reasonable foresight, they knew that any such activity would inevitably involve, not simply human rights violations, but completely unjustified ones. But they could also reasonably expect that a revolt would minimize human rights violations overall, because it would overthrow a régime for whom human rights were not even on the horizon. (Yes, it was possible that what replaced the régime would be as bad, but those in revolt had no reason to assign a high probability to such an outcome.) So even in terms of human rights, the decision to revolt, despite the fact that it would involve unjustified human rights violations, was morally obligatory: on reasonable expectations, it would have by far the best consequences. (Another caveat: yes, there would be terrible loss of life, but the same would be true if the Assad régime stayed in power.) This is worth remembering when people moralize about the failings of the FSA.