Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Display:
Thanks to all for an interesting discussion. I agree with much of what has been said. But I'd like to add one quick point that (I think) hasn't been made yet.  The notion of human rights, appealing as it may be on the surface, is deeply flawed: not only is it hard to agree on why they might be but whatever we end up will always be limiting. If your list of rights does not include X, then is X ok? To draw a fence around a set of morally protected goods is a dodgy practice. Might be good as an instrumental device (a political slogan to rally people around a cause) but philosophically the notion is a mess. I wouldn't go as far as Alasdair MacIntyre and deny the very existence of rights, but I believe that rights are, at most, the corollaries of a moral system and not its foundations. So then why do we need rights? What's wrong with duty, or virtue, or utility, or categorical imperatives? Take your pick. Rights are like money: they are created for a purpose. So let's stick to the purpose.

Is there a price to pay for appealing to rights? I believe there is one, which the demonization of the enemy. A violator of human rights is, de facto, a subhuman. That's why all  modern western wars are  "just." The enemy is never just "against our interests": it is always evil. Communism was evil, so it was OK to kill 3 million Vietnamese. Saddam was evil, so it's fine if we slaughtered 100K+ Iraqi civilians. Note that this is NOT optional. It's not self-flattery. Because if you remove that protection clause (ie, just-war) then we become "just fucking war criminals."  But, in fact, in Vietnam, we were "just fucking war criminals." Same with Iraq. But a rights theory is what allowed Madeleine Albright to say that the sanction-induced deaths were all "worth the price." When you fight Satan, no price is too high.

Never mind that Gaddafi was cavorting with Sarko and Blair not long ago. Today he's not just a baddie past his expiration date: he's a genocidal evil monster -- the new Hitler. A title he shares with Ahmadinejad. Milosevic was our earlier Hitler. It's wrong to think that we call all our enemies Hitler out of political expediency. We do because it's in the logic of rights-based liberal interventions. We never intervene to engineer a peace resolution between opposing  parties. No, we take sides and declare our side noble and the other pure evil. Milosevic was Hitler and Kosovo was the land of Mother Teresa. It is an outlandish concept that a country, the US, that has killed more innocent Muslims in the last 10 years than all other nations on earth put together should be the one lecturing the world about preventing genocide in Libya. This collective blindness we see everywhere is the result of a rights-based approach to interventions. It so happens that demonizing the enemy (the necessary consequence) often coincides with age-old racism (look at those barbarians!) and entail a huge dose of hypocrisy. Our new Hitlers often were our drinking buddies years earlier.  And I won't get into the lies. "We stopped Gaddafi from killing 100,000!" Yeah, right.

Final point: demonization in war is a terrible thing to do because that's what leads to total war. After all, against evil, no holds barred. Shock and Awe could not have happened if Saddam had not been convincingly labeled as the new Hitler.

by Bernard Chazelle (Bernard Chazelle) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 07:06:42 PM EST
Bernard Chazelle:
But a rights theory is what allowed Madeleine Albright to say that the sanction-induced deaths were all "worth the price." When you fight Satan, no price is too high.
Especially when it's a third party paying the price.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 04:15:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with most of what you say except perhaps the central point of your thesis: that demonisation of the enemy is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of the concept of human rights.

People have been demonising their enemies - think Genghis Khan - since the beginning of time and ascribing all sorts exceptional virtues to their own side for just as long.  Chauvinism or nationalism or tribalism are not new or recent phenomena whereas the concept of human rights wasn't really main-streamed until adoption by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Sure, there were prior philosophical and constitutional echoes in the enlightenment and he United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen but these were enforceable primarily through the state of which a citizen was a member. What distinguished the concept of human rights is that it not dependent on whatever rights of citizenship your state does or does not confer.

Indeed the very concept of human rights - because it is applicable to all humans, even your enemies - is also a powerful rejection of the demonisation of your enemies dynamic and lays down minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners and the avoidance of war crimes etc.  To be even partially enforceable, human rights require a grounding of international law and international institutions and courts because nation states are just as likely to be violators as are various rebel or revolutionary or terrorist groups.

The concept of human rights is thus transcendent of the current political order and is applicable to both sides to a conflict. It relativises the conflict and the actors to that conflict and imposes restrictions on the methods they can use.  Of course the reality is often very different and powerful nation states can get away with violations more or less with impunity because no one can enforce the law against them.  But that is not to say that the development of the concept of human rights and the development of international law and institutions to develop and support it is not a good thing.  Even the USA under Obama is giving it some more consideration, notwithstanding Guantanamo and various egregious violations of the rights of US citizens within their own country.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 06:59:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The notion of human rights, appealing as it may be on the surface, is deeply flawed: not only is it hard to agree on why they might be but whatever we end up will always be limiting. If your list of rights does not include X, then is X ok? To draw a fence around a set of morally protected goods is a dodgy practice.

My inner anarchist quickens! There is truth here, but this truth equally applies to laws, which suffer from the same problem as rights. Perhaps that is why people have noted that sometimes the law is an ass. Then my thoughts turn to babies and bath water. These problem raise the need for looking to the spirit, rather than the letter of the law. But that only helps in those situations where the dissonance between the letter and the spirit of the law arouses public opinion -- on in those cases where one agrees with the judgment.

But I do not think it is appropriate to throw out the concept of rights, which is based on empathy and compassion, because of the vulnerability of so much of the population to the psychological vices of splitting and projecton, which are at the basis of demonization. We have to find some way to save the baby, however foul be the bathwater. Any suggestions on that front?

And it is good to see you on ET again.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 06:07:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Display:

Occasional Series