Monthly Archives: January 2014

Refugee rights are the canary in the human rights coalmine

I just realized I neglected this blog throughout all of 2013.  What better way to start up again than commenting on this scathing article, “The End of Human Rights” by Stephen Hopgood in The Washington Post.  He argues that the idea of a worldwide, secular human rights regime, that he says began in the 19th century, is now on the decline, as more and more of the world turns to religious conservatism and policies in world powers such as China and Russia put pragmatism and control over secular ideals of civil and political rights.  As disturbing as his thesis is, I think he is basically right.  Europeans were at the heart of what they tried to establish as a worldwide movement for civil and political rights, growing out of the European Holocaust and in response to – which Hopgood doesn’t mention – the strength of the Soviet and Chinese blocs.  The wars of liberation in the colonized countries were also significant, though they were rebellions against the European powers who were denying human rights in places like British India, Dutch Indonesia, and English, French, Belgian, and Portuguese Africa, to name a few. And as a result, in fact, refugee protections under African treaties are greater than in the rest of the world, at least under law.

So on the one hand, there were these regimes, some with the help of intergovernmental agencies like the U.N., some through the work of non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch (which started as Helsinki Watch, aimed at pointing out human rights abuses in the Soviet bloc) and Amnesty International, promoting civil and political human rights.  On the other hand, the great and waning European colonial powers and the Americans were actively committing human rights violations on a grand scale in places like South Africa, Rhodesia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.  And, the question of economic, social, and cultural human rights – the other half of the full human rights spectrum – which was never emphasized in the capitalist West – was skirted as Western European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and to a much lesser extent the United States, were able to establish the safety net of the welfare state.

Several things happened historically in ways that are more complex than Hopgood is able to outline in just this article. I’m looking forward to reading his book.  First of all, the rise of deregulated and liberalized capitalism rammed through in legislation by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s undermined the notion of economic and social rights in the Western countries.  That domino effect, which we never discuss as such, put a greater strain on the ability of governments to provide for their poorest and most vulnerable.  In a word, economic redistribution moved from the poor to the wealthy at unprecedented levels and the gap between rich and poor is wider now than at any time in world history.  So forget economic and social rights, governments could now say (with voter approval), we can’t afford them, we can’t afford to redistribute riches back down to the poor.  The wealthiest figured out how to write tax laws so that they could consolidate their wealth, and leave the greatest tax burdens on the so-called “middle class,” which then saw itself as having the fiscal responsibility to bail out the poor (which came to include a lot of immigrants and people who no longer looked like Europeans).  So immigrant economic and social rights were the first to go out the window, and that started happening in the secular Western countries like the U.S. and Australia in the mid-1990s.  Both countries decided they could no longer afford the demands of the Geneva Conventions to provide asylum for all the world’s refugees, and that the Conventions required only legalistic protection and not sustenance, so refugees could be held offshore in refugee camps indefinitely as long as their “civil” rights were protected and they weren’t being sent back to persecution under grounds that have been historically narrow – expanding in a few areas (such as gender and sexual orientation based claims), but declining in others (such as ethnicity and political opinion in countries in the midst of widespread violence such as Afghanistan and Colombia). Now thirty years after Reagan we are seeing an emboldened right-wing launching attacks on voting rights in the U.S., actively and explicitly seeking to disenfranchise certain members of our society. Movements like this are bankrolled by the very rich, who are getting their legislators to rewrite campaign and voting laws, and to change the nomination process for judgeships, thus tainting a supposedly disinterested judiciary.

In other words there is a link between human rights and the economic status of civilians, particularly voters. This is not the same as saying human rights can exist only when we can afford them. I am saying there is a connection between perceptions of scarcity and the protection of human rights. The discourse of rights essentially exists to protect those vulnerable in some way. The very rich don’t need to worry about this. The very poor and marginalized do, but they can’t afford on their own to make structural changes, though they have people power behind them. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. – one of the most significant movements for human rights in the West – was based on this idea. But structurally, at the policy level, it is up to the people somewhere in the middle – those whose basic needs are met and have professional choices about how to spend their leisure time and earn their living – who have the time and resources to work systemically towards institutionalizing rights. When they themselves are scraping by economically, they are more likely to abandon their ideals for the sake of pragmatic decisions, and rather than turn against the invisible rich with whom they have more cultural commonality than the very poor, they retrench and close the gates to the fortress.

Hopgood is also right at shining the light on the role of organized religions in restricting rights, not only by being “moralistic” according to their narrow interpretations of theocratic law, but by demonizing others. But he doesn’t fully exploit the irony (although some would say it is not irony, but in fact why religious hierarchies were established in the first place) that we are sold the idea that religion is about morality, when in fact in most cases major religions in their most orthodox pronunciations espouse a morality that is in direct conflict with the civil, political, cultural, and social rights of all but the most privileged or the most compliant – especially of non-believers and others, but even among their own.

The secular West’s role is hardly pure.  We (if I can put myself in that category) are always the first to point fingers at genocide, but seldom use those fingers to pull back the curtain and see the actors behind the scenes whose actions have contributed to the build-up.  One of the other things Hopgood doesn’t distinguish in the article – maybe he does in his book – is that there was space in the secular West, since no country is monolithic, for some people and forces to be responsible for human rights abuses while others work earnestly for the promotion of human rights.  The roles were easily conflated by governments that wanted to use accusations of human rights abuses as a political tool, but in fact here are huge differences between, say, a George W. Bush and Noam Chomsky, though both are equally products of the U.S. or between a Quisling and a Nansen.  In other words there as an official discourse of human rights emanating from the statements and incremental actions of diplomats (even though as Hopgood points out, even the U.S. didn’t sign several of the most significant international covenants), another discourse of human rights at the level of NGOs, who, being privately funded cannot offend their donors, and still yet another level on the ground. What governments pronounce, and what they actually practice, is of course inconsistent, and it is in the area of refugee policy we see arguably the greatest hypocrisy of all. This discussion of rights can also become co-opted when an independent academic figure, like Samantha Power, is first brought into the military-state-official academic power fold and then ends up as a government representative at the U.N., forced by professional protocol to subsume her own personal morality to the demands of the State. This is very troubling.

What has also happened though is that the ability to participate in discussions of diplomacy and law-making has become, in a more economically stratified society, more the purview of the privileged, those least likely to have to demand their rights. This leads to an apparent paradox: those with the task of defending worldwide human rights and the political access to do so are the least likely to need to defend their own rights. (Artists, intellectuals, sexual minorities, and women of privilege in certain countries may be the exceptions.) The task of repression begins by cutting their resources, and this is exactly what has happened.

In this situation, universities as sites of learning, investigation, and youth have a special role to play.  It is no accident – this may seem like I digress for personal reasons – that university funding would be cut under the likes of Reagan and Thatcher (and most recently North Carolina governor Pat McCrory), while multinational corporations buy up the international property rights to the food and energy supply. The ideal becomes a corporatized university of the early 21st century whose role becomes preparing young people for the workforce, rather than allowing or encouraging the free investigation and expression – and of course questioning – of ideas.  Illich was right in more prophetic, longterm ways than he could imagine about how we are all “schooled.”

I can’t help seeing this through a personal lens.  It’s facile to trivialize humanities targets, but what about the relationship of the humanities to policy? There are relatively few university positions in subjects like human rights and migration (refugee studies has one multidisciplinary university program in the entire United States, with precisely one faculty member), so that researchers with direct, empirical experience in subjects like human right like myself end up sitting on the sidelines, teaching as underpaid adjuncts without access to research, travel, communication, and other academic privileges (such as, say, young audiences, as well).  This is no accident – a whole class of human rights academics is being sidelined by the lack of university opportunities, and it is the next generation that is deprived of education in this important tradition. There, too, Hopgood’s thesis may prove even more correct.

A serious omission – as there often are in liberal democratic critiques like this – is his failure to discuss South America, which over the past twenty years has been emerging from U.S.-backed dictatorships and has elected progressive, secular governments that have challenged in many ways the dominance of the Global North. While the rights of indigenous people especially, and the poor as well to a lesser extent, have not been respected, that is one part of the world where the expression of human rights is actually on the increase, not on the decline. Torture, extrajudicial killings, prisoners of conscience, forced exiles are all way down, and truth and reconciliation commissions are making progress. But of course recognizing that would mean taking seriously the existence of left-leaning popularly elected governments, and acknowledging the role of the U.S. in undermining human rights in Latin America on a grand scale while it was promoting human rights during the Cold War. Recognizing the legitimate energy of human rights advances in South America, though not without flaws, is something that makes the wealthy Euro-American capitalist powers uncomfortable to say the least. South America is conspicuously absent from his discussion. There too, though, internal and external migration due to poverty and economic displacement remains a huge challenge for all of us.

Finally, the implicit question is what we do about it. If we leave it to politicians and the ruling classes, not to mention the religious leaders – with possible glimmers of hope from the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis notwithstanding – Hopgood’s predictions may well come to pass. Ultimately, as Frederick Douglass would have commented, it is up to the people to demand – no, protect – their own human rights. It’s not that human rights concerns in the West have been pushed off the table (and sometimes, as in the case of refugee rights, criminally neglected in countries like Greece and Australia), it’s that there’s been a disconnect between the actions of governments and the role of the people in asserting their human rights. The conversation needs to be about the role of States, as he suggests, but it also needs to include questioning nationalism and religious chauvinism disguised as orthodoxy, and it needs to include the question of people power and whether in precarious economic times people turn their backs on their neighbors or defend the rights of one another from assault. It can go either way.

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