The terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing abductions of Boko Haram in Nigeria bring to mind this fact of life: systematic, large-scale abuses of human rights are on the upswing. Hardly a day passes without some report of atrocities, repression, or denial of basic dignities somewhere in the world. Why is this happening? Among the reasons are the persistence of poverty and consequent hopelessness, the rise of fanatical nonstate movements, the development and use of inhumane weapons and technologies, exploitation in the global economy, and political leaders’ recourse to repression of their own people. The scope of that list suggests just how central and lasting human-rights problems are going to be for our and later generations.
We should be mindful that major human-rights abuses occur in widely different locations and types of political systems, in some cases (like Boko Haram) with only passing notice by world leaders and Western-dominated media. Here are five recent examples.
First is torture, recounted in the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation techniques with prisoners in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The report prompted many criticisms from around the world, including China, whose official media accused the US of hypocrisy in preaching respect for human rights and practicing quite the opposite. A foreign ministry spokesperson told journalists on December 11 that the US should cease having a double standard on human rights—criticizing China’s human rights conditions (which have had “great achievements”) while committing serious violations of human rights at home, such as racial discrimination and cruel treatment of prisoners.
But China itself is a second example. The Chinese leadership’s disrespect for people’s rights has been on display for some time, barely beneath the surface of its economic explosion that garners most of the publicity. President and party leader Xi Jinping has been engaged in a concerted effort to silence critics, particularly journalists and lawyers, and lock up ethnic and other actual and potential dissidents—all while also carrying out a campaign to selectively punish high-ranking officials guilty of corruption. Use of torture in Chinese prisons is routine, as a UN investigation found about four years ago. So Beijing has no basis for criticizing others. (In the same vein, a Chinese group of uncertain origins has awarded Fidel Castro its annual Confucius Peace Prize. This award began in 2008, clearly motivated by Norway’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize that year to Liu Xiaobo, China’s leading political dissident. Vladimir Putin was a previous recipient of the Confucius Prize, which gives you some idea of the group’s valuation of peace and human rights.)
A third abuse of human rights is the rising number of people who are enslaved through forced labor, trafficking (mainly of women and children), and prostitution. The UN estimates that the greatest number of enslaved people are in India (14 million), China (3 million), and Pakistan (2 million). (See www.nytimes.com/2014/12/03/opinion/modern-slavery-grows.html.)
Fourth is the plight of so many of the world’s 2.2 billion children. UNICEF’s annual report, “The State of the World’s Children: Every Child Counts” (www.unicef.org/sowc2014/numbers/documents/english/SOWC2014_In%20Numbers_28%20Jan.pdf), documents the horrific numbers of children at the mercy of wars and traffickers, early marriage and forced labor. These children are denied health, education, and other basic amenities guaranteed to them under various UN conventions and national laws. To be sure, average levels of child mortality, health, nutrition, and literacy show improvement on an overall global basis. But grinding poverty, civil and international conflict, and cultural practices still cut deeply into children’s rights. As just one example from the report: “Some 6.6 million children under 5 years of age died in 2012, mostly from preventable causes, their fundamental right to survive and develop unrealized.”
Appropriately, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize went to two very deserving protectors of children’s rights: Malala Yousafzai, the amazing teenage advocate of children’s education from Pakistan; and Kailash Satyarthi of India, long known for his work against child labor. The Nobel has sometimes awarded people who are particularly undeserving from the standpoint of human rights, such as Henry Kissinger; but more often than not, truly magnificent individuals, such as Liu Xiaobo, Kim Dae-jung (South Korea’s former president), and Muhammad Yunus (the Grameen Bank), have received the prize.
Fifth, we return to the terrorism of states and groups. From a human-rights point of view, the terrorism cycle is especially worrisome: outrageous attacks by militants that may lead to disproportionate responses by police and military forces, feeding the public’s fear, galvanizing hatred of the militants, and providing a rationale for new terrorist attacks down the road. We are witnessing the start of this cycle in France, where the massacre at Charlie Hebdo is creating a severe backlash of anti-Muslim sentiment, not just in France but probably throughout Europe.** There will probably be new restrictions on immigration, increasing assaults on Muslim mosques, shops, and individuals, and stronger support for extremist political parties (www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/europe/paris-attack-reflects-a-dangerous-moment-for-europe.html). The French premier’s declaration of “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam” may sound appropriate, but doesn’t it have a familiar ring? It’s 9/11 in miniature: making a despicable act into a war cry, and thus giving license for increasing the power of the state at the expense of civil liberties and civic decency.
The fundamental problem in Europe as in other place, such as occupied Israel, is that the more hatred takes the place of reasoned dialogue and the longer aspirations for a better life by the young and the poor are quashed, the more violent will daily life become for everyone and the more will politics be dominated by appeals to “us” versus “them.”
Sadly, there are few heroic efforts at resistance to the widespread assaults on rights, though we may take heart from the Occupy movement in Hong Kong (quashed for now, but sure to arise again), Peace Now and other groups fighting for mutual understanding in Israel and Palestine, mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared in Nigeria and elsewhere, and the ongoing demonstrations for police reform in the US. To these we should add, as we witness events in France, the individual journalists and journalist organizations that have stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and Muslim community leaders who decry violence and condemn jihadism. These efforts show that it is grassroots organizing and everyday heroics, not high-level preaching and parades, that have the best chance to improve and defend human rights.
*As Mr. B. Mosi of AfricanConstitution.org points out, Boko Haram’s abductions and killings are far more outrageous, destructive, and constant than the actions of a few terrorists in Paris. Yet look at the difference in (Western) media attention to the one as opposed to the other.
**Feeding such sentiment is the large gap between public perceptions in Europe of Muslim populations and the actual number. See the map provided by my friend Gil Latz: https://mobile.twitter.com/DougSaunders/status/553379701520363520/photo/1.