Human Rights: Off the Rails?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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In the 1970's and early 1980's, the United States led the world in the crusade for human rights. Now we are being criticized for retaining capital punishment and for our treatment of Al-Qaida detainees. Has the United States lost its way? Or has the human rights movement?

The criticisms of our treatment of Al-Qaida suggest it's the latter. The Hague Convention of 1907 lists four criteria defining prisoners of war: being subject to responsible command, wearing signs recognizable at a distance, carrying arms openly, and following the rules of war. Terrorists do none of these (they do have a chain of command, but it accepts no responsibility, or more accurately, permits any actions against its enemies.) Clearly the people who insist on giving the detainees prisoner of war status have no idea what's in the Hague Convention. The Geneva Convention forbids "unnecessary restraints," but clearly restraints are necessary on prisoners who have already engaged in bloody uprisings against their captors.

What happened? There appear to be two causes at work:

An Example of What's Right and Wrong

The Humana World Human Rights Guide (third edition, 1993) is still a useful document. It would be wonderful to see an update, since the book doesn't include changes due to the breakup of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia (the cutoff for data was 1991). Iran, with a very low score in 1991, has probably moved up at least a bit. On the other hand, large portions are still valid.

The ratings in the book are based on 40 questions derived from UN human rights declarations, with extra weighting given to torture, capital punishment, slavery and arbitrary arrest. Countries are rated on a scale of 0 to 100. The global average was 62, with Burma (Myanmar) and Iraq tied for bottom ranking with 17 and Finland in the top spot at 99 (they lost a point for minor inequality between men's and women's wages). 

Countries with ratings of 90 or above were Australia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay. The encouraging thing about this ranking is how quickly some former Communist countries moved to the top rankings. Portugal, ruled by a fascist dictatorship until the mid-1970's, is also up there. Spain, long ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco, doesn't quite make the list but has a very respectable score of 87. Change for the better is possible.

One thing that is striking about the list is that most of the countries are far smaller than the United States and most of them are culturally homogeneous. Achieving human rights in a large, culturally heterogeneous country is inherently more difficult than doing it in a small country. When we look at the countries of more than 100 million population, we find Bangladesh (59), Brazil (69), China (21), India (54), Indonesia (34), Japan (82), Mexico (64), Nigeria (49), Pakistan (42), Soviet Union (54) and the United States (90). Only Japan and the United States have good ratings. The U.S. principally loses points for capital punishment and for inequalities, Japan for capital punishment, inequality of women, censorship and restrictions on free legal aid.

In view of criticisms of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it's instructive to compare the ranking of Israel (76) with Egypt (50), Jordan (65), Lebanon (not ranked due to chaotic conditions) Syria (30), Iraq (17), Iran (22), and Libya (24). Not only is Israel ranked higher than all its enemies, but there seems to be a direct correlation between rabid hostility toward Israel and low human rights rankings. Only Egypt and Jordan, which have fairly moderate stances toward Israel, have even mediocre rankings. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek (October 15, 2001, p. 36):

Israel treats its 1 million Arabs as second class citizens, a disgrace on its democracy. And yet the tragedy of the Arab world is that Israel accords them more political rights and dignities than most Arab nations give to their own people.

What's Wrong

I need to stress, since I will critique the Humana Human Rights guide in some ways, that on the whole it is an immensely useful document, with a sound methodology, and robust enough that those places where it can be criticized are not sufficient to diminish its usefulness greatly. In short, while I disagree with a few of its questions, I can live with the findings.

As useful as I consider the Humana guide, its shortcomings illustrate where the human rights movement has gone awry. The questionnaires were distributed to a variety of organizations some of which have their own agendas. There is not, for example, a single religious organization, but there is Planned Parenthood.

The guide's measures break down in several respects. First of all, they do not take into account whether or not the regime is satisfactory to its own subjects. Saudi Arabia (29) and Kuwait (33) have pretty low scores. Neither brooks dissent, and in Saudi Arabia Islam is mandatory (although they do look the other way to some extent with regard to foreigners). On the other hand, we do not see substantial numbers of Saudis and Kuwaitis leaving, even though many are affluent enough to go anywhere they want. Singapore's authoritarian regime (60) seems to enjoy wide support among its citizens.

Second, the guide fails to take into account the stresses on a country. Turkey, with a score of 44, is under pressure by leftists, Kurdish separatists and Islamic extremists (and the situation has gotten worse since 1991). Israel, with 76, has been in a state of siege for fifty years. Czechoslovakia, with a score of 97, lost a point on judicial independence because - unbelievably - it was replacing former Communist judges. In other words, replacing a corrupt judiciary caused the country to lose points for human rights.

Finally, scores can be skewed by access to information. This doesn't seem to be a problem for the Humana guide, which collects data from a wide variety of sources and critically evaluates the results, but can be for other groups. I once saw an Amnesty International report in which the section on Belgium was almost as long as on North Korea. It seems that some Belgian soldiers got out of control on a field exercise and roughed up some prisoners (other Belgian soldiers) during interrogation. (This, by the way, is why the U.S. military explicitly forbids soldiers from conducting interrogations during maneuvers without training - it can too easily get out of hand.) So Belgium (96 on the Humana scale) and North Korea (20) were treated nearly the same. The difference, of course, is that Belgium is an open society in which even trivial violations are revealed, and North Korea a closed society where even massive violations can go undiscovered. The Rodney King beating produced smug feelings of superiority in many countries where far worse beatings are routine and unreported.

Authoritarian "Rights Supporters"

New human rights documents are enthusiastically signed by regimes that transparently have not the slightest intent of respecting them. They do so in many cases to retain or acquire eligibility for aid, but also because corrupt regimes have become very skillful at playing the cultural diversity game.

The Humana guide describes some of these complaints

Authoritarian regimes have learned that they can blunt human rights criticisms by accusing their critics of cultural insensitivity and ethnocentrism. They can point to occasional minor lapses in countries that do respect human rights as evidence that their critics have no moral standing. And, since they have no intention of being held accountable to their obligations, they can then appear to hold the moral high ground against the United States, which gives careful scrutiny to treaties because it does expect to honor them.

Some blame attaches to the West for this state of affairs because we carelessly lump "rights" into a single bin instead of setting priorities. For example, instead of listing "equality of sexes during marriage" (Item 37) as a basic right, a question which inherently penalizes some cultures, maybe we should think a bit harder about what we really all agree on as a necessary protection for women.

Co-Optation by Interest Groups

One key reason the United States has objected to signing some rights accords is the inclusion of provisions injected by various pressure groups for the specific purpose of circumventing or abolishing existing law.

The clearest example of this process in the Humana guide is its treatment of capital punishment. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not prohibit capital punishment, but limits it only to the most serious crimes, requires that the sentence be imposed by a lawful court, permits amnesty or commutation, and clearly encourages abolition. So why is question 11 "Capital punishment by the State?" Why doesn't the question accurately reflect the ICCPR and ask whether capital punishment is limited only to the most serious crimes, whether sentence is imposed by a lawful court, and whether the legal system permits amnesty or commutation? Clearly the question has been tailored to the interest groups that oppose capital punishment.

On the other hand, several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are conspicuous by their absence from any of the questions. Article 29 states:

  1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the full and free development of his personality is possible.
  2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations

Could we not say this article is violated by social programs that undermine the work ethic and sense of social duty or create an expectation of entitlement, or by judicial processes that fail to punish criminals who show disrespect for the rights and freedoms of others? Certainly evaluation of whether a society arbitrarily intervenes in private affairs has to be tempered with the right of a society to "meet the just requirements of morality." So when the Humana guide points out that "[U.S.] State laws vary in tolerance of homosexuality and sexual deviants," it is interjecting a very specifically ideological definition of morality to the exclusion of those opinions that hold homosexuality and sexually deviant behavior to be immoral.

Article 30 states "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group, or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein."

Article 29.3 and Article 30 can be interpreted as effectively stripping the protections of the UDHR from people who seek to strip others of their rights. In other words, people who seek to impose dicatorial regimes cannot appeal to U.N. human rights declarations if their government moves against them. Certainly terrorist groups fall under this rubric.


One of the principal failures of the human rights movement has been an inability to sort out the different categories of rights. Real, inalienable human rights are pretty few in number and are mostly listed in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People have the right to protection from arbitrary punishment and the right to pursue their own lives subject to consideration for the rights of others.

Most of the rights in the Bill of Rights are mechanisms useful in our society for protecting the basic rights: freedom of speech and of the press, trial by jury, right of appeal, and so on. These are not rights in themselves, but procedures we have found useful, and that seem to be widely applicable. There may be other mechanisms that work for other societies.

Then there are "rights" that are nonexistent.

One last observation. A human rights organization that does not make its highest priority the protection of innocent, law-abiding people is not a human rights organization.

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Created 1 May 1999, Last Update 02 June 2010

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