Fighting abuses in existing powers

Although it is certainly of intellectual interest that elites and masses differ in rights awareness, it is uncertain that mobilizing the masses around rights or further informing elites about them will in fact improve rights in practice. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Clifford Bob
24 September 2013

Are “human rights” an elite or mass concept?  Ron, Crow, and Golden’s data on four countries suggests they are an elite phenomenon in Mexico, India, Morocco and Colombia. Elsewhere in openGlobalRights, Neier, Hopgood and others debate whether they should remain that way.

Why should we care? One reason, unstated and empirically untested, is the assumption that when a state’s citizens have more human rights consciousness, the state will be more likely to adhere to human rights principles.  

And yet, elites often violate rights, even when they know what human rights are. Alternately, they may hold the rights of the community over individual rights.  In recent years for instance, some of the United States’ (U.S.) legal elite - constitutional and international lawyers -  spearheaded and rationalized serious violations at home and abroad, based largely on the claim that these violations would secure the U.S. from threat.  

Conversely, mass movements can also perpetrate abuses.  Recent events in Egypt--“liberal” protesters aware of rights principles helping topple a democratically elected government with predictably bloody consequences--underline this.  Similar “liberal coups” against democracy have occurred elsewhere in recent years.

In other words, although it is certainly of intellectual interest that elites and masses differ in rights awareness, it is uncertain that mobilizing the masses around rights, or further informing elites about them, will in fact improve rights in practice.  

An alternative approach requires a better theory about why violations occur. “Elites” may still matter greatly, although a different term, “political powerholders”—those who establish and coercively enforce policies within a jurisdiction—is more useful. 

Why do powerholders sometimes violate rights?  Often, they seek to maintain power by repressing their citizens directly.  In other cases, they spark or stoke fear among one portion of their population to justify violations against another or against foreigners, often as a means of maintaining power.  The first reason occurs primarily in authoritarian societies, the second in both authoritarian and democratic societies.

The modern human rights movement began with a focus on authoritarian states, but has since supplemented this with a focus on democratic states, notably those in which major NGOs are themselves based.  Although violations in democratic countries may be smaller in scale, this refocusing makes sense because campaigners have greater ability to shape their own democracy’s policies than they do a distant society’s.  As Prakash argues, emerging powers such as India have much work to do at home before they can be considered global rights leaders.  The same goes for existing powers such as the U.S. and United Kingdom (U.K .), which like to portray themselves as today’s world rights leaders. Although NGO campaigners should not only focus inward, there is still a great deal of work to be done at home. 

 In campaigning at home, the mass/elite division is again not useful.  Masses and elites are themselves divided on such issues as Guantanamo, drone strikes, interventionism, prior press restraints, whistleblower prosecutions, and surveillance.  It is unlikely that greater rights consciousness among more Americans or Britons will change these practices, particularly because rights-like arguments are often used to justify them.  It is also unclear that the work of rights NGOs alone can turn the tide. 

To fight abuses at home, particularly those related to the Global War On Terror (GWOT), a broader political movement is needed, one challenging the pervasive paranoia ginned up to justify state secrecy, spying, coercion, and violence.  Such a movement would undoubtedly need to focus as much on the costs of the GWOT in blood and treasure, as on rights violations alone.  It would also need to find an effective way of informing the public about how minuscule the risk of terrorism actually is

Whether that will be possible is another matter, although there may be grounds for hope, given bipartisan Congressional anger over NSA spying and British backlash against the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner.  A partisan realignment against foreign policy overreach and fear-mongering, as well as its effects on rights, lives, and the economy, might even be possible, unlikely as that now seems. 

Purists might insist that this would not be a rights movement.  Indeed, its agenda would almost certainly be broader.  But rights are inherently political, and those who support a rights agenda cannot eschew politics.  Such a movement would enforce stronger checks, greater transparency, and increased accountability on powerholders.  If successful, this new movement might reclaim some of the rights lost in our futile quest for absolute safety--even if hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars are gone forever.



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