There’ve been murmurings in Washington about a new “dignitarian dialogue.” Perhaps this is code for a renewed interest in discussing the elusive concept of human dignity? There’s even angst being expressed about human rights, such as the wringing of hands associated with Prof. Hopgood’s assertion last year that the global human rights framework is collapsing all around us. In Hopgood’s words, a “150-year experiment in creating global rules to protect and defend individual human beings is coming to an end”. Despite all of these wheels spinning, the actual focus on global human rights remains largely where it has been for many years – on violations, laws, and trade-offs.
The sobering, endless task of cataloguing the vast array of assaults upon human dignity in the form of human rights violations is essential, if only to hold up the prospect that some legal recourse may at some point be forthcoming. In practical terms, the growing volume and intensity of such violations, and the impunity under which so many authoritarian regimes and extremist elements operate using such tactics, together undercuts any argument that monitoring violations will ultimately lead to a change in human behavior or to an improvement in governance standards. In fact, it can lead us all to conclude that humanity is basically rotten.
Naturally there’s much more to global ethics and the “good” of good governance than tabulating egregious human rights violations, and regularly publicizing statements of outrage. That I should even be making this observation is noteworthy; while there are well established professions in legal and medical ethics, there’s no institutionalized demand for the advice of any equivalent group of development or foreign affairs ethicists. The few people with relevant normative expertise largely remain hunkered down within academia, where they at least have some prospect of a salary. Efforts to gain employment as an international development ethicist with government, civil society, aid donors, globally-focused foundations, or foreign affairs think tanks are at best premature. Continue reading The Missing Ethicists
It’s been a year since Justice Michael Kirby and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) that he led submitted their report on serious human rights abuses in North Korea. Justice Kirby, who formerly served on Australia’s High Court, has brought significant gravitas and a very high level of competence and care to the work of this COI, and the findings of the resulting report should be read as authoritative.
Justice Kirby has been in Washington, DC this week, and I had the opportunity to join a very small group to hear him reflect on what progress has come out of his Commission’s report and to offer an evaluation of the COI process itself. While the intensity, scale, and gravity of the abuses had never been quite so well delineated before this report, earlier warnings had been issued. Former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay raised the alarm a full year earlier in January 2013 when she joined others in calling for this COI. She asserted that North Korea’s extensive network of punishment camps employ “torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment, summary executions, rape, slave labor and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity”. Ms. Pillay also noted that the self-imposed isolation of North Korea under Kim Jong-un had “allowed the government to mistreat its citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century.” Justice Kirby’s COI has translated Ms. Pillay’s warnings into a sobering report of extremes of human suffering and abuse, venal leadership by Kim Jong-un, a burgeoning refugee population of North Koreans who have fled to neighboring countries, and very little hope of any positive change in the short term. So, what happens now? Continue reading Human dignity after North Korea
In the numerous descriptions and lists of human rights, which human rights come first?
This isn’t a new debate. Philosophers have argued this for centuries; most agree that the human right to life is fundamental, but in 1980 Henry Shue made a persuasive argument that there is a subset of “basic rights” including the right to minimal subsistence. By subsistence rights, Shue was referring to a minimum level of well-being, now more commonly referred to as economic rights. Continue reading Human rights and international development – time to change!