Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Over-weening state is not the only culprit

'The core concept of human rights is the protection of the irreducible safety and dignity of the individual from the massive and arbitrary power of the state.'


'A man standing alone in front of a tank in Tiannamen Square -- there's a human rights moment. The multitudinous horror of ethnic cleansing, raging warfare in the Congo, the nightmare of North Korea, the acid-tossing at schoolgirls by the Taliban -- there are people all over this world trembling at the might of the state, seeing their lives foreshortened or ruined, subject to unspeakable horrors at the hands of warlords and tyrants and revengeful dictatorships -- these are the fields of real human-rights violations.' [Hat Tip: Instapundit]

While I'm sure Rex Murphy and I would agree with an awful lot, I just don't agree with his primary thesis here. And that he is mistaken in it is really evidenced by his list of human rights abuses. The man in Tianaman Square was indeed providing us with a tragic example of citizen at the mercy of the state. But two of the other three examples don't.

You could say about the Congo, not just now but for many decades, that it is an example of what happens to human rights when there is NO government (or commonwealth as Hobbes might have put it). Gangs of Rwandan murderers roam around murdering and raping as and when they feel the urge. And gangs of Congolese who are meant to be the army but aren't go around murdering and raping when THEY feel the urge. Many Congolese living in Eastern Congo probably spend every evening praying that the Congo will someday have a government which will protect their lives, their property and their dignity.

The Taliban were in no wise 'the government' of Afghanistan. They were a gang of religious fanatics who managed to take over Afghanistan for a few years, build nothing, develop nothing and produce nothing but discontent and quite a lot of dead bodies. But their control of Afghanistan was virtually zero outside of Kabul and Kandahar (and Bamiyan). Everywhere else people just got on with their unchanging lives.

'Human rights' is a very poor tool for analysing society, and whether that society is healthy and free. But I would think even people who disagree about exactly how important the concept of 'human rights' is, would agree that human rights as commonly understood can be threatened by many more things than an over-powerful state. Here is a list off the top of my head: a sadistic oligarchy (medieval Japan), sadistic local warlords (medieval China), uncontrolled criminal gangs (Mexico), ethnic civil war (Sri Lanka and Bosnia), communist insurgencies (India, Columbia), islamist insurgencies (long list, but take Iraq and Thailand as exemplars), class warfare (the Cheka in Russia during the revolution and post-revolution), socialist dystopias (Malawi, Cuba) completely ineffective police (Venezuela, Brazil), extreme poverty aggravated for political reasons (Haiti).

There is no question that human rights, as average people would think of them, are seriously threatened in the circumstances described above. In some of those cases, the government machinery plays at least some role (socialist dystopias) but not because it has complete control of the society in question. Indeed, far more often these situations arise because the state is incapable of effectively policing its own territory.

In America, a big part of the story of the human rights struggles of the fifties and sixties was Federal US power being used to force states to stop trashing the human rights of their black populations. Was that illegitimate? Who would argue that it was. On many occasions in history, centralised power has been more benign than local tyranny.

Blaming a powerful central government for ALL violations of human rights is both over the top and contrary to much of what history tells us. Unfortunately, the real situation is much more troubling. If the wrong men get into power, any effective power structure will give them the capability of ruining peoples lives. They may have power over five thousand people, or fifty million, but for the poor bastards at the receiving end the effect is pretty much the same.

The situation from about 1991 until 2008 was that the world had one superpower, and we were extremely fortunate that it was a benign one. But as human nature is wont to do, many kicked away at the shackles (such as they were) anyway.

What will come next? Will it be a nirvana of socialist/islamist/environmentalist freedom and joy? Or will it resemble the Congo? Who knows... but you better start praying anyway.

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