Thursday, January 06, 2011

Human rights in developing countries

On New Year's Eve Stephen Kinzer contributed an article to Comment is Free accusing human rights charities of tyring to impose Western standards and values on developing countries.

He wrote:
Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party.
But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.
He was well answered the same day by Nkunda, whom I met in New York, on the blog Cry for Freedom in Rwanda:
Rwandans deserves the same right to pursue democratic values as any other country. Rwandans are not “thrilled” by an oppressive regime. If the people were happy as Kinzer wants us to believe, Kagame would not have had to rig elections (he “won” by 93%) and imprison opposition activists. If the people were happy, we would not be having an outraging number of government soldiers marauding with guns in our streets and villages on a daily basis.
The point is that democracy, a free press and other liberal institutions are not luxuries that a state can afford when it has achieved security and prosperity: they are necessary preconditions for achieving those ends.

In a passage I have quoted before Bryan Mageee, writing about Karl Popper in his Confessions of a Philosopher, puts it well:
Before Popper it was believed by almost everyone that democracy was bound to be inefficient and slow, even if to be preferred in spite of that because of the advantages of freedom and the other moral benefits; and the most efficient government in theory would be some form of enlightened dictatorship.
Popper showed that this is not so; and he provides us with an altogether new and deeper understanding of how it comes about that most of the materially successful societies in the world are liberal democracies.
It is not - as, again, had been believed by most people before - because their prosperity has enabled them to afford that costly luxury called democracy; it is because democracy has played a crucial role in raising them out of a situation in which most of their members were poor, which had been the case in almost all of them when democracy began.


Unknown said...

The other reason to criticise Mr Kinzer's view is his wierd separation of rights into "group rights" (which are apparently fundamental) and "secondary rights" (like freedom of expression).

Firstly, where does that leave individual rights? The whole point about human rights is that they protect humans, not just arbitrarily defined groups of humans.

Secondly, how on earth is the right not to be murdered on the street a group right?

His argument is just plain odd.

Unknown said...

The only way I can square his circle is to suggest that he divides rights into one group where enforcing them for one person benefits other people automatically (e.g. good policing protects whole neighbourhoods, not just an individual; clean water is a shared resource). Economists might call these "public rights" on the same basis as the division between public and private goods. His other group seems to be rights that only matter to the individual concerned (like being free to set up a radical newspaper or blog) - "private rights".

The problem with his argument is that both of his examples of "secondary/private rights" are manifestly of concern to more than one individual. For example, if an opposition newspaper is closed down that does not just breach the rights of its publisher but also of all its readers. Freedom of expression is in fact one of the most obviously "public" rights, since a climate of censorship (social or legal) inhibits people from speaking their mind before anyone has done anything against them personally.