In Kigali, at Monday’s commemoration ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, Ban Ki-moon said that:
“Our first duty must always be to protect people — to protect human beings in need and distress… We are sure to face other grave challenges to our common values. And we must meet them. We must not be left to utter the words “never again”, again and again”.
Glenn Ford is living proof of just how flawed our justice system truly is. We are moved that Mr. Ford, an African-American man convicted by an all-white jury, will be able to leave death row a survivor.
That’s Amnesty International USA’s Thenjiwe Tameika McHarris, in a statement on the release of Glenn Ford yesterday after nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Apart from the obvious problem of innocence highlighted by this case, the death penalty more generally is racist, arbitrary, unfair, immoral, and a violation of human rights. It is bad public policy and ought to be abolished in the states that have, to this point, stubbornly maintained it on the misguided belief that vengeance and justice are the same thing.
Here’s my lone (and pretty tongue-in-cheek) contribution to the wailing and gnashing of teeth inspired by Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday op-ed about the lack of real world engagement by university professors (especially political scientists).
No word yet from Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth or Kristof on their reactions to my argument. I assume I’ll hear back once they’ve had more time to read and digest the points I made about the way a philosophical grounding that works in a pluralistic society impacts people who want to shore up the idea of human rights and prevent real world abuses.
(via Patrick Jones)
When I was 10 years old and a smiling Dennis Rodman gave me his autograph after the players’ shoot-around before a Pistons game, I certainly never could have imagined he’d end up here, an irate (and possibly ill) man blathering incoherently from Pyongyang in response to questions about an American citizen who has been detained without charge in North Korea:
Defending the behavior of a genocidal regime is the strangest and lowest point in what has been a troubled, troubled life.
What are your feelings on the legitimacy of natural rights outside of a religious framework?joestanley
This question was actually the central motivating question behind my first book (though I talk about human rather than natural rights).
“The fundamental challenge to each and every human rights claim,” Michael Perry once wrote, “is a demand for reasons.” Perry has written a couple of books and quite a few articles in an attempt to examine whether the existing reasons are compelling ones.
As Perry says, “To ask if the conviction that every human being is sacred – the conviction that every human being is ‘inviolable’, has ‘inherent dignity’, is ‘an end in himself’, or the like – is inescapably religious is to ask if the conviction can be embedded in…either an antireligious cosmology, according to which the world is, at the end of the day, not meaningful but meaningless, or a cosmological agnosticism that neither affirms nor denies the ultimate meaningfulness of the world.”
On Perry’s reading, all of the non-religious reasons either fall well short of providing a solid foundation for human rights or are unintelligible.
He begins his argument with a quotation from R. H. Tawney, who argues that “The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another.” Clearly, here, we have an articulation of the basic idea of human rights, that the human person is inviolable. Tawney continues, however, by noting that,“to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.”
For Perry, following Tawney, there is clearly a direct link between a belief in God and the idea of human rights. For Christians, this link can be expressed as follows: “I believe in God, who created all human beings in His image and who instructed us to love one another as He loves us. I have concluded, in believing that we are all created in God’s image, that we are all sisters/brothers and that we are all sacred. I have further concluded, in believing that we ought to love one another, that a life of human flourishing can only be achieved by treating others as sisters/brothers and as sacred. My belief system compels me to recognize the human person as inviolable and to respect the human rights of the Other.”
The argument I make in my book is that in a pluralistic world – one in which most people do not hold the same religious worldview and many hold worldviews that would not fit within Perry’s definition of “religious” – a wider framework is needed, not a narrower one, to ground the idea of human rights.
This is, of course, quite different from showing that Perry is incorrect about religion providing a compelling grounding for human rights and I do not think he is. The language of rights can certainly find a solid foundation in many of the world’s great religious texts, especially – as Perry notes – the Christian Gospels. The language of love and respect for the other, as well as of the equality of persons, provides a strong justification for the belief that people ought to be treated with respect and compassion, and that they ought not be abused or otherwise harmed.
My positive argument for a non-religious grounding for the idea of human rights focuses on the international consensus on human rights and human dignity that sits at the heart of the drafting process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The long version of this argument is can be found in the concluding chapter of my book, but there’s also a shorter version in this blog post.
Ibid, 16. ↩
Ibid., 11. ↩
I use the example of Christianity here only because it is Perry’s primary example of a religious worldview. ↩
This connection might or might not be as explicit in other belief systems as it is in Christianity, but Perry argues that it is assuredly present in each because the concept of a religious worldview has similar features across the many diverse world religions, despite some differences in expression and application. ↩
I really want to be knowledgeable about current events, especially world news, but I feel like I have to know so much background to really understand what's going on and make an informed opinion. Is wikipedia a good resource for this or are there better ones?Anonymous
My recommendation for anyone with an interest in global affairs is to start with a few newspapers, specifically ones with good international reporting. That will give you the basic news.
When you want to get some depth on a given situation or a particular country, then you can turn to Wikipedia for the basics. But you should regard Wikipedia as a first pass, rather than as the conclusion of your journey.
As an example, take the unfolding situation in the Central African Republic. You might see the CAR in the news, then search Wikipedia for the basics, and then go to the experts for analysis. Human Rights Watch has a lot of detail on the situation, as does Amnesty International. And, of course, don’t forget to see what the experts have said. If you want more information, or information on a specific topic, you can also find a lot of good reporting on the CAR online; there’s this piece by my friend Hayes Brown, for example, about Samantha Power and the U.S.’s involvement in the crisis.
Finally, find reporters — international or not — whose work you trust and follow them on Twitter. They’ll keep you updated, not only the issues that originally brought them to your attention but on whatever’s developing.
Beings who recognize themselves as ‘I’s.’ Those are persons.
The New York Times has a piece today — “Considering the Humanity of Nonhumans" — that’s a very interesting read, especially for people with an interest in human rights:
The Nonhuman Rights Project, an advocacy group led by Steven M. Wise, filed writs of habeas corpus in New York last week on behalf of four captive chimpanzees: Tommy, owned by a Gloversville couple; two at Stony Brook University; and one at the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. The lawsuits were dismissed, but Mr. Wise said he planned to appeal.
He believes that the historical use of habeas corpus lawsuits as a tool against human slavery offers a model for how to fight for legal rights for nonhumans.
His case relies heavily on science. Nine affidavits from scientists that were part of the court filings offer opinions of what research says about the lives, thinking ability and self-awareness of chimpanzees.
Mr. Wise argues that chimps are enough like humans that they should have some legal rights; not the right to vote or freedom of religion — he is not aiming for a full-blown planet of the apes — but a limited right to bodily liberty. The suits asked that the chimps be freed to go to sanctuaries where they would have more freedom.
It’s an interesting question; I wrote about this in a very tentative way in my human rights book, in a chapter on human dignity and evolutionary biology. I’ve also written about it here on the blog on a number of occasions.
Ultimately, I think my conclusion fits with what some of the people in the NYT piece are doing, insofar as I argue that personhood (and, in particular, a sense of self over time) grounds our dignity which grounds our rights.
Talking about dolphin rights or chimpanzee rights makes some sense to me; they might not have the precise language to claim their rights, but they could nonetheless conceive of themselves as individuals with a distinct sense of self and we could, on that basis, make a rights claim on their behalf.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 65 years old today!
Celebrate by taking action: Send a letter or two or ten on behalf of prisoners of conscience as part of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Campaign! Sample letters are available to make it ridiculously easy for you and your friends to promote and defend human rights.
Happy Human Rights Day!
What follows is a guest blog post written by my friend and colleague David P. Forsythe, the Charles J. Mach Distinguished Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of more than 100 books and articles in the field of international relations, most recently The Politics of Prisoner Abuse: The United States and Enemy Prisoners After 9/11. Forsythe is widely regarded as having been among the first to help establish the study of human rights and humanitarian affairs in the discipline of political science.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July. It would have been eminently symbolic if Nelson Mandela had died December 10th, International Human Rights Day. No single person better personified the notion of human rights in modern times than Mandela, who passed from this life on December 5 at the amazing age of 95. Despite 27 years of prison which included stretches of hard labor, his body proved as strong and vibrant as his mind. Both were devoted to fighting South Africa’s version of racial segregation.
Mandela’s incarceration was entirely legal under the laws of white minority government in that nation. But the idea of human rights rests on the argument that there is a universal set of personal rights which are fundamental for securing a life with dignity, whatever this or that national law might say. After all, the Nazis had laws too.
How then are we to know what those universal rights are? We could rely on philosophers, whether they believed in natural law or not. A practical answer is that all the states of the world meet and negotiate a set of fundamental personal rights. This is what happened on December 10th in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissenting vote (but with 8 abstentions). Human rights treaties followed to convert diplomatic agreement into law.
Universal human rights do not implement themselves. People like Mandela have to take up the challenge of securing implementation. This he did first through peaceful protest and legal argument, then later through support of armed action when the white authorities increased repression. From jail he continued to lead the opposition to apartheid in the name of the rights of all regardless of color and other superficial distinctions like gender or economic status.
Those South Africans with vested interests in the status quo resisted for a long time with brutal determination. Such elites always do, because human rights are not given. They are wrestled from below in a political process. The white minority South African elite yielded not to superior moral and legal logic, but because they finally recognized that given the pressures they faced, their own self-interests could only be protected in rainbow democracy. All-race elections occurred there in 1994, and a free Mandela voted for the first time in his life.
Americans now praise Mandela, from President Obama to Tiger Woods. But U.S. foreign policy was slow to decisively oppose apartheid in South Africa. Nebraska acted earlier, applying economic pressure through the Unicam as Senator Ernie Chambers led the fight to deny state pension fund investments to companies profiting from racial discrimination in South Africa.
Commentators now sermonize about how South Africans should keep alive Mandela’s memory and his determined but politically shrewd commitment to universal human rights. Americans might do the same as we continue to debate immigration reform, health care reform, and other perplexing questions such as what to do about violation of human rights in Syria. Universal human rights might indeed prove important in shaping national developments. Mandela (and Jefferson) believed in that possibility.
I gave what can only be described as a stirring public lecture on human rights earlier this afternoon, as part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning.
My hour-long session was up against a presentation by a colleague of mine who’s an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, so turnout was obviously depressed. Of my seven attendees, though, five remained awake throughout … so I’m counting it as a pretty successful example of community outreach.
And, yes, I’m also available for weddings, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and children’s birthday parties.
Now that my second book’s been published, I guess it’s officially time to start working on the next one.
This new one’s going to be much more closely related to my first book, on human rights, and to a separate research project of mine on Holocaust education, than to my just-published book on heroism.
There’s pretty much nothing like staring down a dozen gigantic library books on a topic you’re excited to start learning about.
Over the past week or so, a whole bunch of people have asked me when I’m going to write something about President Obama’s proposed intervention in Syria. I suppose the answer is, “Right now.” But what I’m going to write probably isn’t what those people have been expecting.
The reason I haven’t written anything is because there hasn’t seemed to me to be anything useful to write. The situation is horrible, everyone surely knows it’s horrible, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to make it less horrible.
I’m frustrated by all the people who insist they’re staking out some sort of moral position by demanding the U.S. do nothing that involves the military and I’m frustrated by all the people who insist they’re staking out some sort of moral position by demanding the U.S. do something that involves the military. The situation isn’t likely to be improved by getting involved or by not getting involved … and, either way, a lot of people have been and will continue to be killed. Those who see intervention or non-intervention as something clear cut and obvious seem to care much more about their preferred policy than they do about the humanitarian disaster on the ground.
If it seemed clear that U.S. intervention in Syria would lead to a good result for the people of Syria in the long term, I’d support it. I suspect anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows this. But — given the country’s history, demography, and geography; the make-up of the rebel forces; and the results of other recent U.S. interventions — that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
And if it seemed clear that the people of Syria would be able to get a good result in the long term without any sort of intervention, then I’d feel better about arguing for the U.S. to stay out things. But — given the death toll of the past two years; the mass exodus of refugees; and the clear willingness of the government and the rebels to flaunt the most basic human rights norms — that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
In short, the situation is horrible, everyone surely knows it’s horrible, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to make it less horrible.