Human Rights: Off the Rails?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer.Use "Back" to return here.

In the 1970's and early 1980's, the United States led the world in thecrusade for human rights. Now we are being criticized for retaining capitalpunishment and for our treatment of Al-Qaida detainees. Has the United Stateslost its way? Or has the human rights movement?

The criticisms of our treatment of Al-Qaida suggest it's the latter. TheHague Convention of 1907 lists four criteria defining prisoners of war: beingsubject to responsible command, wearing signs recognizable at a distance,carrying arms openly, and following the rules of war. Terrorists do none ofthese (they do have a chain of command, but it accepts no responsibility, ormore accurately, permits any actions against its enemies.) Clearly the peoplewho insist on giving the detainees prisoner of war status have no idea what's inthe Hague Convention. The Geneva Convention forbids "unnecessaryrestraints," but clearly restraints are necessary on prisoners who havealready engaged in bloody uprisings against their captors.

What happened? There appear to be two causes at work:

An Example of What's Right and Wrong

The Humana World Human Rights Guide (third edition, 1993) is still a usefuldocument. It would be wonderful to see an update, since the book doesn't includechanges due to the breakup of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia (the cutoff fordata was 1991). Iran, with a very low score in 1991, has probably moved up atleast a bit. On the other hand, large portions are still valid.

The ratings in the book are based on 40 questions derived from UN humanrights declarations, with extra weighting given to torture, capital punishment,slavery and arbitrary arrest. Countries are rated on a scale of 0 to 100. Theglobal average was 62, with Burma (Myanmar) and Iraq tied for bottom rankingwith 17 and Finland in the top spot at 99 (they lost a point for minorinequality between men's and women's wages). 

Countries with ratings of 90 or above were Australia, Austria, Belgium,Benin, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany,Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden,Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay. The encouraging thing aboutthis ranking is how quickly some former Communist countries moved to the toprankings. Portugal, ruled by a fascist dictatorship until the mid-1970's, isalso up there. Spain, long ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco, doesn't quite makethe list but has a very respectable score of 87. Change for the better ispossible.

One thing that is striking about the list is that most of the countries arefar smaller than the United States and most of them are culturally homogeneous.Achieving human rights in a large, culturally heterogeneous country isinherently more difficult than doing it in a small country. When we look at thecountries of more than 100 million population, we find Bangladesh (59), Brazil(69), China (21), India (54), Indonesia (34), Japan (82), Mexico (64), Nigeria (49),Pakistan (42), Soviet Union (54) and the United States (90). Only Japan and theUnited States have good ratings. The U.S. principally loses points for capitalpunishment and for inequalities, Japan for capital punishment, inequality ofwomen, censorship and restrictions on free legal aid.

In view of criticisms of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it's instructiveto compare the ranking of Israel (76) with Egypt (50), Jordan (65), Lebanon (notranked due to chaotic conditions) Syria (30), Iraq (17), Iran (22), and Libya(24). Not only is Israel ranked higher than all its enemies, but there seems tobe a direct correlation between rabid hostility toward Israel and low humanrights rankings. Only Egypt and Jordan, which have fairly moderate stancestoward Israel, have even mediocre rankings. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek(October 15, 2001, p. 36):

Israel treats its 1 million Arabs as second class citizens, a disgrace on its democracy. And yet the tragedy of the Arab world is that Israel accords them more political rights and dignities than most Arab nations give to their own people.

What's Wrong

I need to stress, since I will critique the Humana Human Rights guide in someways, that on the whole it is an immensely useful document, with a soundmethodology, and robust enough that those places where it can be criticized arenot sufficient to diminish its usefulness greatly. In short, while I disagreewith a few of its questions, I can live with the findings.

As useful as I consider the Humana guide, its shortcomings illustrate wherethe human rights movement has gone awry. The questionnaires were distributed toa variety of organizations some of which have their own agendas. There is not,for example, a single religious organization, but there is Planned Parenthood.

The guide's measures break down in several respects. First of all, they donot take into account whether or not the regime is satisfactory to its ownsubjects. Saudi Arabia (29) and Kuwait (33) have pretty low scores. Neitherbrooks dissent, and in Saudi Arabia Islam is mandatory (although they do lookthe other way to some extent with regard to foreigners). On the other hand, wedo not see substantial numbers of Saudis and Kuwaitis leaving, even though manyare affluent enough to go anywhere they want. Singapore's authoritarian regime(60) seems to enjoy wide support among its citizens.

Second, the guide fails to take into account the stresses on a country.Turkey, with a score of 44, is under pressure by leftists, Kurdish separatistsand Islamic extremists (and the situation has gotten worse since 1991). Israel,with 76, has been in a state of siege for fifty years. Czechoslovakia, with ascore of 97, lost a point on judicial independence because - unbelievably - itwas replacing former Communist judges. In other words, replacing a corruptjudiciary caused the country to lose points for human rights.

Finally, scores can be skewed by access to information. This doesn't seem tobe a problem for the Humana guide, which collects data from a wide variety ofsources and critically evaluates the results, but can be for other groups. Ionce saw an Amnesty International report in which the section on Belgium wasalmost as long as on North Korea. It seems that some Belgian soldiers got out ofcontrol on a field exercise and roughed up some prisoners (other Belgiansoldiers) during interrogation. (This, by the way, is why the U.S. militaryexplicitly forbids soldiers from conducting interrogations during maneuverswithout training - it can too easily get out of hand.) So Belgium (96 on theHumana scale) and North Korea (20) were treated nearly the same. The difference,of course, is that Belgium is an open society in which even trivial violationsare revealed, and North Korea a closed society where even massive violations cango undiscovered. The Rodney King beating produced smug feelings of superiorityin many countries where far worse beatings are routine and unreported.

Authoritarian "Rights Supporters"

New human rights documents are enthusiastically signed by regimes thattransparently have not the slightest intent of respecting them. They do so inmany cases to retain or acquire eligibility for aid, but also because corruptregimes have become very skillful at playing the cultural diversity game.

The Humana guide describes some of these complaints

Authoritarian regimes have learned that they can blunt human rightscriticisms by accusing their critics of cultural insensitivity andethnocentrism. They can point to occasional minor lapses in countries that dorespect human rights as evidence that their critics have no moral standing. And,since they have no intention of being held accountable to their obligations,they can then appear to hold the moral high ground against the United States,which gives careful scrutiny to treaties because it does expect to honorthem.

Some blame attaches to the West for this state of affairs because wecarelessly lump "rights" into a single bin instead of settingpriorities. For example, instead of listing "equality of sexes duringmarriage" (Item 37) as a basic right, a question which inherently penalizessome cultures, maybe we should think a bit harder about what we reallyall agree on as a necessary protection for women.

Co-Optation by Interest Groups

One key reason the United States has objected to signing some rights accordsis the inclusion of provisions injected by various pressure groups for thespecific purpose of circumventing or abolishing existing law.

The clearest example of this process in the Humana guide is its treatment ofcapital punishment. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil andPolitical Rights does not prohibit capital punishment, but limits it only to themost serious crimes, requires that the sentence be imposed by a lawful court,permits amnesty or commutation, and clearly encourages abolition. So why isquestion 11 "Capital punishment by the State?" Why doesn't thequestion accurately reflect the ICCPR and ask whether capital punishment islimited only to the most serious crimes, whether sentence is imposed by a lawfulcourt, and whether the legal system permits amnesty or commutation? Clearly thequestion has been tailored to the interest groups that oppose capitalpunishment.

On the other hand, several articles of the Universal Declaration of HumanRights are conspicuous by their absence from any of the questions. Article 29states:

  1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the full and free development of his personality is possible.
  2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations

Could we not say this article is violated by social programs that underminethe work ethic and sense of social duty or create an expectation of entitlement, or by judicial processes that fail to punishcriminals who show disrespect for the rights and freedoms of others? Certainlyevaluation of whether a society arbitrarily intervenes in private affairs has tobe tempered with the right of a society to "meet the just requirements ofmorality." So when the Humana guide points out that "[U.S.] State lawsvary in tolerance of homosexuality and sexual deviants," it is interjectinga very specifically ideological definition of morality to the exclusion of thoseopinions that hold homosexuality and sexually deviant behavior to be immoral.

Article 30 states "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted asimplying for any State, group, or person any right to engage in any activity orto perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedomsset forth herein."

Article 29.3 and Article 30 can be interpreted as effectively stripping theprotections of the UDHR from people who seek to strip others of their rights. Inother words, people who seek to impose dicatorial regimes cannot appeal to U.N.human rights declarations if their government moves against them. Certainlyterrorist groups fall under this rubric.


One of the principal failures of the human rights movement has been aninability to sort out the different categories of rights. Real, inalienablehuman rights are pretty few in number and are mostly listed in the Declarationof Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People have theright to protection from arbitrary punishment and the right to pursue their ownlives subject to consideration for the rights of others.

Most of the rights in the Bill of Rights are mechanisms useful in our societyfor protecting the basic rights: freedom of speech and of the press, trial byjury, right of appeal, and so on. These are not rights in themselves, butprocedures we have found useful, and that seem to be widely applicable. Theremay be other mechanisms that work for other societies.

Then there are "rights" that are nonexistent.

One last observation. A human rights organization that does not make its highest priority the protection of innocent, law-abiding people is not a human rights organization.

Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 1 May 1999, Last Update 20 January 2020

Not an official UW Green Bay site