Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Universal Rights: Practicality and Enforcement through Interventions

by Jamie McCall

In “The Romance of the Nation State”, David Luban draws a distinction between the universal rights of all people and the conception of the nation-state through an analysis of Michael Walzer’s essay “The Moral Standing of States: a Response to Four Critics.” Luban proposes that a distinction between the traditional nation-state and universal rights must be made, and that the illusions we have of the philosophical grandeur of the nation-state allow us to do nothing but continue to operate in a vacuum of destruction while ignoring universal human rights. While Luban is certainly correct about our assumptions of the grand nature of the modern nation-state, he is wrong in believing that this view is harmful to universal human rights because he assumes that all nation-states do not appropriately deal with human rights violations. There are certainly those nations which act against human rights in their domestic and foreign policy, but there are many that have taken an aggressive approach to promote human rights. Nation-states are the best current vehicle for dealing with human rights violations, and Walzer’s method of dealing with infractions gives the most appropriate and practical response.

There can be no dispute that nationalism creates a strong bond between a people and their nation. This bond is formed on the basis of common thinking and heritage, and it is the result of the purely human need to find commonality and shared tradition. Throughout history, many horrendous acts have been waged under the broad banner of nationalism, causing the mindless slaughter of millions. However, this is not to say that nationalism is incompatible with human rights, including the universal rights position (Luban 393). Luban makes this logical leap by assuming that Walzer’s thesis regarding the social contract between people and the government is unfounded. The nation state model is far from perfection, it legitimizes many states that are guilty of what the rest of the world could consider horrible rights violations. However, because these violations do not equate to whole-sale slaughter of the citizens, they are legitimate. This is a problem, however again the nation-state model also creates countries that can advocate human rights and put pressure on other sovereign states without turning to interventions. These states can turn to political pressure and economic sanctions and may be able to accomplish just as much as an intervention without directly interfering in sovereignty or causing more deaths.

The problem with the universal rights position is that while it is charming, it presents a multitude of practical problems which simply must be examined when looking at its application. While it is easy to simply proclaim that all humans have certain rights universally, making sure these rights are enforced creates quite a problem. There exists no international agency with power sufficient enough to create a global enforcement of universal rights. Many have tried to put the United Nations into this role, but the simple reality is that time and again the United Nations has shown to be no more powerful those member states who control it and fund it. The attempt is noble, but the current global environment does not have any sort of real agent for enforcement to ensure the universal rights position. Conveniently, there does exist a way to enforce human rights on a nation-state level: the social contract. While not without its imperfections, the social contract provides nations with a methodology for enforcing human rights on a national level. As nations grow in power and stature, their influence (and thus their views on rights) have the opportunity to become more global and reach beyond the borders of its political boundaries. The United States is a perfect example of this in action. While, again, the United States is certainly not without its foreign policy flaws and blunders, it has become the driving force behind many global initiatives to extend its power into human rights on an international level. I acknowledge that examples like the United States are not the examples with which Luban is concerned, but the very fact that these sorts of nation-states do exist presents a different picture of the nation-state concept, and it is one that cannot be ignored even if Luban chooses not to be concerned with it.

There are, of course, many nations who misuse the social contract or use it in such a way to promote a brand of the nation-state that devalues human rights. However, the contract theory as a whole is simply the best vehicle to achieve wide-spread human rights. In these cases, those nations with extended power should assert their political influence on these nation-states in violation of internationally recognized human rights. Even if there were a possibility to create such a powerful moral agent, no long-term rationally thinking nation would choose to get involved. Nations value their sovereign power, and even in those instances where international agencies would be sharing the same values as a sovereign nation, few would choose to simply hand over their own enforcement power to an international organization. Even if those states that respect human rights are granted sovereignty and those who do not respect human rights are not recognized as sovereign as Luban wants to do, we still run into the practical problem of forcing states to voluntarily hand over their political and economic powers to an international enforcement agency. States simply do not like to hand over their authority on matters, no matter how noble the transfer of power would be.

Of course, the claim against this is that creating an international enforcement agency in such a situation is not required, that individual states could act on interventions on all “non-sovereign” states. However, we then create a political climate much like the one we have now in the international theatre: everyone decries human rights abuses, but no one wants to spend the resources or suffer the economic repercussions of stopping it from happening. So, one state ends up doing everything, and then that states stops because it no longer wants to spend its resources when such resources could be spent for its own direct economic and political gain.

Luban’s attack on Walzer’s “as if” principle (216), that we should act as if states are legitimate when there exists a perceived fit between the nation and its people (and that we should only intervene when oppression is obvious and overwhelming), is incorrect. Luban attacks this by saying that Walzer’s assumption that it is often impossible for us to perceive “fits” between the government and the people is unfounded because enough information exists to enable us to make accurate judgments (395). Luban does not really attack Walzer’s main point: that some nations do have a certain fit with the population that the people want that other democracies would find horribly wrong. The argument is centered on what Luban perceives is our ability to make such a judgment due to the plethora of knowledge available (394). I think Luban’s argument here overlooks a simple fact: people are different. Luban claims that those nation states who abuse human rights will always appear to fit, Beyond these things, the cultural, political, and historical environment of a nation is such that it is extremely hard for us to know when the people are repressed beyond what they are willing to accept. What Luban does not take into account is that when a people are oppressed to a level that is highly intolerable, they will almost always fight back against the government. The traditional argument here is that most do not do this because they fear for their life – I would argue that those who are placing a higher value on their life than the repression they are enduring simply do not find the oppression intolerable enough. There is a point for everyone where repression so changes the quality of our life that we are willing to risk our own life to change that. Such revolts against authority would provide a sign to the international community that intervention is required. Not even open rebellions are required to cue other nation-states that intervention are required – things like the mindless slaughter of citizens also qualify. In cases such as these, nations like China who have no open rebellion still qualify for intervention because the government has participated in the slaughter of civilians.

Luban’s claim that Walzer’s justifications for interventions – extreme infractions on human rights (Walzer 214) – sets the standard to high for when intervention is required . However, Lubans standard seems to be very vague and pose the opposite problem of setting the bar to low (Luban 396). Luban proposes that interventions are warranted anytime when a people’s human rights are “systematically” violated (Luban 396). The problem, of course, is that he never defines exactly what that means. Is a systematic violation when several peoples rights are violated, or a hundred? Maybe a few thousand is the number required to sustain a systematic violation? In any case, such would require an intervention which would cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Even if that could be justified, interventions on “systematic” violations could mean that we must intervene in nearly every nation, depending on how you define systematic. The essay is short so he can’t possibly accomplish everything, but to use such a term and leave it undefined does not help his argument.

Luban illustrates his theory by using the Nicaraguan revolution as Walzer does (Luban 396). He proposes that the amount of bloodshed required to obtain a “fit” for the government and the people is so high that it illustrates the need for universal human rights. If we take Luban’s argument to its conclusion, it would seem as though he proposes that Nicaragua would have been better off if someone would have intervened during the very start of systematic human rights violations. No one would argue this normative claim, but actually doing as Luban proposes would have required a crystal ball that we do not have. While in some instances it may be possible, on the whole it becomes very hard to determine exactly when a country beings “systematic” (whatever that means) violations.

Luban concludes by attacking the virtue of Walzer's argument and asserting that human rights should over-ride the nation state (397). While I will not deny that Luban's pattern of thought here is certainly nice, it is in the end impractical. The nation-state is not without its problems, but it is the best mode of extending human rights. No one would really argue that human rights, if they exist, should not be universal if possible. The argument becomes one how to enforce these rights. Lubans argument, while nice, requires a utilitarian calculation that could prove to be impossible to make in many situations.

14 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

Jamie said-
"Conveniently, there does exist a way to enforce human rights on a nation-state level: the social contract." And...
"The nation-state is not without its problems, but it is the best mode of extending human rights. No one would really argue that human rights, if they exist, should not be universal if possible."

This led me to a question- If the social contract between a population and its government determines or defines what rights that population has, then different nation-states would have differing views on what rights are universal rights. Each country would define these differently.
I agree that there is no international organization with the power to enforce universal human rights, but even if there were, should they have that power? Granted, in a country where genocide and extreme rights violations happen and the population in some way revolts or makes known its desire for help, then help should be given. But it doesn't necessarily follow that a nation-state with a social contract where the people have agreed to a lesser list of human rights, should be forced to adopt another nation's (or an international) view of what those rights should be.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

Good question and good point. However, I wasnt necessarily saying that the social contract defines what human rights are, but rather how enforced they are going to be, because Im of the position that we really do all have (certain, limited) universal human rights. But since we are lacking any way of enforcing those, we have to deal with the nation-state model.

So in response to your question - if the people have truly agreed to a lesser list of human rights, then they should not be forced to adopt another nations notion of rights. Other nations should only become involved when the people make their intent clear and/or things that no one is going to agree to (mass slaughters) start happening.

And now we cue those who are going to start pointing out China, small African countries that only some-what participate in slaughters, etc.

To these examples, I point out that once again the nation-state model isnt perfect. And if anyone can propose a model for enforcing national human rights that nations will accept (everyone isnt going to bow down to the United States), then "you win."

3:50 PM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

Overall, I enjoyed your paper. I'm glad that you put in that point about China still needing intervention due to its slaughter of civilians. Even with China falling into that category, I still see a problem with waiting until human rights violations become obvious and overwhelming. In order to qualify for that level, how many people need to suffer or die? As I mentioned, I liked your point with China, but what if another country is extremely good at hiding its killing of civilians? How much does a nation-state have to definitely know before intervention should be allowed? I know that in order to intervene, one must know that there is some reason to intervene, but I think that in human rights issues it should lean more towards prevention. We should prevent as much suffering as possible even if it interferes with a nation-state's sovereignty.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

Good point - but then my question is how do you avoid a situation where your interference results in the whole sale slaughter of people? Where as if, you'd just stayed away, the government would have only continued its small infractions (someones going to latch on to that phrase) and the people might have revolted anyways.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

That's an interesting point that we have to seriously consider. Just waltzing in whenever there is a violation of human rights, on the part of any nation-state, could prove disasterous. While in 'normal' situations human lives shoudn't really have any cost, in this sort of situation, where the number of lives lost in combat, in retaliatory actions by the leaders of the transgressing nation-states, et cetera could accrue to a number significantly higher than that number before intervention.

Interesting statistic for the mind: it costs $3 per land mine, including installation; it costs $100 to remove and they last for an incredible amount of time. Wouldn't it be nice if other products could boast such numbers?

9:21 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I'm still wondering how we determine what those universal human rights are. Are we using a natural rights model where we are granted certain rights by god/nature? Or are we using a social contract model where rights are given from a legal contract? Can either model be argued as universal? Different nations, cultures and religions may differ as to what those rights are. I made a similar argument in a paper to Joe last semester, where I said that the only true natural right is the right to preserve your life, all other rights are granted by legal or social contracts.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

Good essay.
Sounds like Rick is saying sovereignty before human rights?
I can agree with Jamie on this one (again).
"Nations value their sovereign power, and even in those instances where international agencies would be sharing the same values as a sovereign nation, few would choose to simply hand over their own enforcement power to an international organization."

I would say that the perfect example of this would be the UN's relationship with the United States. As we have seen, even if the U.S. backs them up-they do it (at what most in this classroom call) unilaterally.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Mitch,
That's why the use of land mines has become, if not illegal, then extremely discouraged in the international community. Too many children dying years later from mines left and forgotten.

In general,
What has happened to the passion of fighting for freedom and liberty? Have we gone from "give me liberty or give me death" to "better to live under an oppressive regime than not to live at all"?

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

Very interesting paper. Having universal human rights is a wonderful idea but, as you pointed out, we're still left with the problem of defining what those rights are and who gets to define them. Another problem is figuring out how bad it has to get and how many people have to die for someone to do something about it. I think that as soon as something is known about even a possible massive slaughter of civilians, things should be set in motion to either stop or prevent that from happening. Especially because those people being oppressed may not be able to ask for help. It would seem more difficult to fight back or ask for help if your population is decreasing at an alarming rate, usually with the men and boys (the usual fighting force) being killed first. Intervention may piss some people off and be difficult to undertake at times but this could be a situation where the good consequences outweigh the bad ones.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

These days, I'm leaning sort of toward natural rights, namely for the purpose of not being relativistic. Now, how we get to those rights is a problem... I'm, of course, going to say it is an issue of figuring out the whole sociology thing (call me a Comtean as far as this is concerned if you like).

As for intervention, I do tend to think that most folks are going to fall within the liberty or death category... only nominally. The reality seems to be that tolerance differs from situation to situation. That doesn't mean that there are not infractions occurring. That also doesn't mean that we can, in all cases, intervene on the behalf of the people of a nation-state. I do, however, think we are morally compelled to act.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

I'll agree with your conclusion that universal human rights exist and contain a large amount of practical difficulty in enforcement. In some cases, the utilitarian calculus will indeed beyond the scope of our capacity. However, I think it is a mistake to dismiss the idea of intervention entirely because some instances may prove impossible to analyze fully.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous steven grueshaber said...

I agree, because there is no international enforcement of rights that we cannot look at human rights on an international level, ever.

Here's an analogy for you. I want to watch TV, but my TV is not on. Therefore, I cannot possibly watch my TV. Furthermore, nobody ever has and nobody ever will watch my TV.

Just because the TV isn't on, there is not rule saying that we cannot turn on the TV. Is it always practical to do so? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean that TV stations do not exist.

Jamie said: "But since we are lacking any way of enforcing those [univeral human rights], we have to deal with the nation-state model." Do we lack a practical way of enforcing them? (Assuming, of course, that they actually exist) Yes, for the moment. That does not mean that we dismiss the idea entirely, there are sure to be other models to consider.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Can someone list a few examples of these universal human rights? Not legal rights decided by the people/government or social rights where others just agree to leave you alone, nor a solely Western thought as to what rights are, but an actual UNIVERSAL right that all humans have just because they are human.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

but one cant depend on the state all teh time, teh social contact they are speaking of plays a big role but is not writting in stone, different people have different view points on diplomacy and how the state should react. and yes ur right china does need intervention both politically and economically
good paper

1:48 PM  

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