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Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

Happy Columbus Day

[ht:cr] In honor of Columbus Day, here’s a great quotation from the explorer:

They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

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Utterly Indefensible

Foreign policy/war crime issues are generally outside the scope of my competency, but sometimes, the facts can speak for themselves. the Department of Justice released its report on John Yoo, the author os the legal torture memos in the Bush administration. Spencer Ackerman points to what (I hope) is the most galling part of the document (on page 70). Here’s the transcript, which is discussing Yoo’s reasoning in overruling torture statutes that limited some executive excesses:

Q: I guess the question I’m raising is, does this particular law really affect the President’s war-making abilities…

A: Yes, certainly.

Q: What is your authority for that?

A: Because this is an option that the President might use in war.

Q: What about ordering a village of resistants to be massacred? …Is that a power that the President could legally-

A: Yeah. Although let me say this. So, certainly that would fall within the Commander-in-Chief’s power over tactical decisions.

Q: To order a village of civilians to be [exterminated]?

A: Sure.

According to the report, Yoo then defended his decision to include sections giving the President these broad powers.

It’s sickening to imagine that these sorts of folks were running our country for eight years. James Fallows (via Ezra Klein) says that this document is mandatory civil education reading, the Hiroshima of our modern troubled times.

The “torture years” are now an indelible part of our history. The names Bybee and Yoo will always be associated with these policies. Whether you view them as patriots willing to do the dirty work of defending the nation — the Dick Cheney view, the 24 view, which equates the torture memos with Abraham Lincoln’s imposition of martial law — or view them as damaging America’s moral standing in ways that will take years to repair (my view), you owe it to yourself to read these original documents.

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It’s odd (but perhaps not unexpected) that I haven’t written much about Africa since it became my primary job focus. I found this piece by Jason Hickel in MRZine interesting as a follow-up to this poverty and human rights post from last June. In that post, I discussed Bill Easterly’s concerns with using human rights as an entry point for humanitarian aid. I concluded,

I have a hard time disagreeing with [Easterly] on these points. A human rights framework certainly provides ample motivation for fighting poverty, but it is lacking in the “how” area.

I think he misses one key point, though: social rights can inform approaches that emphasize the importance of subsidiarity in aid programs- having decisions made at the most local level possible. Of course, this effort must be combined with political and civil rights that build the capacity so that this type of process can actually happen.

Perhaps we can do better than rights, though. Hickel’s piece discusses South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and the failings of the rights-based approach.

the state conveniently sidelines substantive questions of class…The reformers insist that the failures we sense are due merely to problems of implementation, that “rights” are the solution to social inequality.  South Africa has the most progressive constitution in the world, they remind us: it’s just a matter of realizing the rights that all citizens have been assigned.  If we can manage to beef up bureaucracy and expand service delivery, all will be well; the revolution lies therein.

The rights-based approach, as Hickel argues, reinforces state-based power structures with harmful class divides:

The state can grant people discursively constituted rights with one hand and strip them of the conditions for sustainable life with the other, without ever having to confront the contradiction.

In this sense, “rights” are a safe reformist option for a capitalist state with a progressive image to maintain.

Further, the rights that matter in the context of poverty alleviation are treated ambivalently:

socio-economic rights, however — such as rights to water, food, and housing — are only “progressively realizable,” according to the Constitution, and limited by the resources that the state has at its disposal…

When it comes to things like water and jobs, we need a fundamental paradigm shift, a transition from the notion of “rights” to the concept of “commons.”

South Africa has some basis for moving to this sort of concept. I’m not sure if it’s unique in that regard.

Hints of this hide in the Freedom Charter.  About natural resources it states, in paraphrase: “the national wealth of the country shall be restored to the people, and industry and trade shall be controlled to assist their wellbeing.”  Such words do not rely on the discourse of individual rights.  Nor do they hail the specter of command communism.  Instead, they assert the simple point that none has the right to possess and accumulate that which society holds in common.  Upholding this basic principle would not mean the abolition of private property or industry, but merely that certain public goods must be understood as commons, and that protections, profits, and benefits should accrue to people accordingly.

Conceptualizing socio-economic needs as drawing from a commons leads us to a radically different societal structure. As my former professor, David Ruccio, would often point out, we’ve made a choice as a society to not have explicit markets for things like human organs. Perhaps decommodifying water would also be reasonable. The knee-jerk neoclassical reaction to this idea is that water would then be inadequately provided. However, as many activists around the world has shown, water privatization has failed miserably.

And what about food? I can see the value of a market-based system because of the complexity that food production necessarily entails. However, the commodification of food has made it vulnerable to a host of “exogenous” shocks; many point to US biofeul legislation as the cause of the 2008 food price spike. In years past, OECD agro-subsidies have made it impossible for farmers in developing countries to produce food and expect a reliable return for their effort. I recently read the book Enough, which points out that the host of issues surrounding globally commodified food are the primary reason that Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution hasn’t spread to Africa. Our society seems to be moving the wrong direction. Developed countries are seeking to commodify carbon as well, perhaps a dangerous prospect for technological progress in that area.

Developing countries, for their part, are mostly at the whim of the global economy on these issues. South Africa, because of its size, may be able to address these problems and move to a commons-based approach to basic necessities. Uganda, however, would likely lose conditional aid if it rolled back privatization. Many developing countries simply lack the resources to mobilize desires that their civil societies might have for restructuring their economies. In any case, rights don’t seem to be getting us very far, so at the intellectual level, I’d think we should begin to use the commons as our theoretical basis.

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The idea of human rights has been on my mind lately, and it’s good to know that I’m not alone. Bill Easterly, fresh off his battle in HuffPo with Jeff Sachs, has had a few posts this past week about the topic of poverty as a human rights violation. I think he makes some salient points. (more…)

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Last week, Mark Thoma had a roundup (can’t link the specific post because his page won’t load…) over a three-way heavyweight battle in the aid world (I love applying sports lingo to academia, by the way). It appears to have started when Jeff Sachs had an article in HuffPo called “Aid Ironies,” in which he sort of launched ad homimem attacks on two of the biggest critics of African aid, Dambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly. (more…)

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Costas Douzinas has a lengthy (understatement) article in the Monthly Review that provides another take on humanitarianism and human rights. Weaving together moral philosophy, geopolitics, and much more, Douzinas offers a critique that would make Bono weep. I don’t feel nearly erudite enough to comment much more; you need to take 30 minutes out of your day to read it for yourself. Here are a couple key quotes:

The westerner used to carry the white man’s burden, the obligation to spread civilisation, reason, religion and law to the barbaric part of the world.  If the colonial prototypes were the missionary and the colonial administrator, the post-colonial are the human rights campaigner and the NGO operative. Humanity has replaced civilisation.  ‘The humanitarian empire is the new face of an old figure’ one of its supporters admits.  ‘It is held together by common elements of rhetoric and self-belief: the idea, if not the practice, of democracy; the idea, if not the practice, of human rights; the idea, if not the practice, of equality before the law.’ The postmodern philanthropist, on the other hand, does not need to go to far-flung places to build clinics and missions.  Globalisation has ensured that he can do that from his front room, watching TV images of desolation and atrocity and paying with his credit card.  As Upendra Baxi puts it, ‘human rights movements organise themselves in the image of markets’ turning ‘human suffering and human rights’ into commodities.

The stakes of humanitarian campaigns are high.  Positing the victim and/or savage other of humanitarianism we create humanity.  The perpetrator/victim is a reminder and revenant from our disavowed past.  He is the West’s imaginary double, someone who carries our own characteristics and fears albeit in a reversed impoverished sense.  Once the moral universe revolves around the recognition of evil, every project to combine people in the name of the good is itself condemned as evil.  Willing and pursuing the good inevitably turns into the nightmare of totalitarianism.  This is the reason why the price of human rights politics is conservatism.  The moralist conception both makes impossible and bars positive political visions and possibilities.  Human rights ethics legitimises what the West already possesses; evil is what we do not possess or enjoy.  But as Alain Badiou puts it, while the human is partly inhuman, she is also more than human. [...]

We should reverse our ethical approach: it is not suffering and evil which define the good as the defence humanity puts up against its bad part.  It is our positive ability to do good, our welcoming of the potential to act and change the world that comes first and must denounce evil as the toleration or promotion of the existent, not the other way around.  In this sense, human rights are not what protects from suffering and inhumanity.  Radical humanitarianism aims to confront the existent with a transcendence found in history, to make the human, constantly told that suffering is humanity’s inescapable destiny, more than human.  We may need to sidestep rights in favour of right.

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