By Invitation: Why human rights activists must be unreasonable

Because it is not for them to provide solutions

By Salil Tripathi

[Background: This is Salil’s response to the criticism that “human rights folks, at least in India, are terribly context insensitive. In practice, you can’t even talk about enjoying human rights (as opposed to possessing them) unless the state is capable of maintaining rule of law. By relentlessly criticising the government, and not having much else by means of a positive solution (beyond platitudes), human righters are hampering what capability that already exists. That’s contradictory. That they have for company, intellectuals who condone and incite political violence in the name of whatever cause, makes them all the more suspicious.”]

Human rights folks will be unreasonable, everywhere, to restrain the state. This is not to defend them, but to explain where they come from. The moment they become “solution providers” they have to begin modifying the message and make it more context-specific. Once they do that, the moral sharpness of their message—that the victim is most important (and they sometimes exalt victims to a holy status)—is lost. This is not to judge victims or human rights groups.

Whether it is ACLU or the Center for Constitutional Rights defending the indefendable folks in Guantanamo Bay cases, or Liberty supporting some committed Jihadists in Belmarsh jail in London, they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t get caught out. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail. (Pastor Nimoller’s poem about not speaking out when they came for
gays, leftists, Jews, etc).

Guantanamo prison, like Abu Ghraib, has many bad people. But it also has some innocent people. The state should not be allowed to get away with that.

I remember reading about Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident, who had to leave China – after several years in jails. In “Bad Elements” Ian Buruma paints a very gripping and vivid picture of him—of Wei driving through red lights in America, ignoring traffic discipline; smoking in places where smoking is banned. He is stubborn, because the only way he can deal with authority that he has known—China—is by being uncompromising. It does make him look “uncouth” in civilized company.

And yet, unpleasant though he might be, Wei matters. Just as Solzhenitsyn matters even though when he came out of the Gulag, and once he started talking about Mother Russia, he sounded like an embarrassment.

The point about human rights activists in India is that like Teesta Setalvad, Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen and others, should remain unreasonable. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.

Think Franklin.

This is, again, not to defend or condemn the human rights brigade, but to explain why they are the way they are. In some ways, they are like evangelists, which makes them suspect for some, saviors, for others.

However, there is some awareness growing among human rights folks, that they should not forget victims of terror. If you see Amnesty International, they issued a statement after Jaipur blasts in which they condemned those who committed the acts. They called 9/11 “a crime against humanity”. At a recent human rights seminar in London, two important things came out: one, that if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is
bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualize terrorism? Why do they call it “the weapon of the powerless” when those who perpetrate terror are extremely powerful, often woman-hating neanderthals (my words)? Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honored? Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured. But they need not be on a pedestal. Merely because you were in Gitmo does not make you qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I suppose it is that correlation/causality argument again, right? Joyce, his hand, kiss, writing, doing a lot of other things?

19 thoughts on “By Invitation: Why human rights activists must be unreasonable”

  1. So by your logic, activists should be out in the streets for the killer of Graham Staines ? How about those who died in the train in Godhra ? Kashmiri Pandits ?

    Do they not have ‘human rights’? The activists are extremely selective in their causes which makes one all the more suspicious of their motives.

  2. There are several flaws in Salil Tripathi’s argument. One of them is that he considers it an uncontested fact that human rights activism is genuinely a movement for protecting human rights, unsullied by financial interests and political agendas. Well, people get to do salaried work in the cause of this ‘movement’. There are newspaper advertisements selling training courses in Human Rights and even promising jobs in the human rights industry. Teesta Setalvad, the “unreasonable” human rights “activist”, becomes extremely reasonable when it comes to recent state-sponsored violence in West Bengal, and issues statements defending the government. But this is all a political argument and I’ll save it for another day.

    Let us take a scientific, rational approach to human rights instead. Let us assume that all activists are sincerely striking a blow for public weal. What then ought to be the objective of human rights activism? I suppose it is to work towards minimizing the number of human rights violations and maximizing the number of innocent poeple who would otherwise have fallen victim to human rights violations. Any problem with this objective?

    Point is, human rights activists are NOT working towards that objective. Evidence on the ground suggests that the maximum violation of critical human rights violations are today perpetrated by non-state actors like terrorists and Maoists. How many innocent people were shot dead by the police in the last one year, if you discount West Bengal? (I think the number of those killed in terrorist incidents is 4000). If rights activists managed to influence these non-state violators with their moral persuasion, there would be a drop in these killings, and in statistical terms, there would be a great improvement in the human rights situation. They do not even need to do this to the exclusion of focus on alleged rights abuses by the state — the activism doesn’t have to be “either or”. But in practice, we see them completely excluding the bigger contributors to rights violations from their ambit of activism. How can they then claim to be defending human rights? They are NOT being unreasonable in a principled manner; they are being unreasonable in a nonsensical way! Furthermore, there’s no great morality or principle either in arguing that human rights victims of non-state violators do not deserve to be exalted to a ‘holy status’, as Salil puts it, but that only the state’s alleged vicitm do.

    Whichever way you slice it, the model of human rights activism suggested by Salil doesn’t seem grounded in either a solid moral argument, or a rational, results-oriented approach.

  3. Solzhenitsyn didn’t just sound like an “embarrassment”; he actually became an “embarrassment” after he started advocating for post-Communist Mother Russia with an open coloration of anti-Semitism.

    Tripathi’s argument seems to be that while the ‘activists’ are working to avoid Niemöller scenario they want others to make precisely the same error: make an exception for the ‘activists’. So, while advocating no exception to the state or others, they do seek one for themselves. What follows is not atypical: a case for such an exception, a case to be considered reasonably “unreasonable.” The token concessions made for 9/11 and select other terror attacks seem more out of a need to preempt public disdain than borne of any principle. At least we’ve the liberty to eject those ruling the state at any time. With these “activists,” we possess none.

  4. Is Sri Tripathi becoming soft living in London for too long? Won’t that be unfortunate. 🙂

    If there was point to this is response, I’m not sure what it is. So are we supposed to take the unreasonableness of so-called HR advocates and conspiracy peddlers at face value because they are useful in other ways.

    BTW, HR groups offer solutions to HR problems, real and imagined – they propose enacting/withdrawing laws and who to fight and who not to – all the time.

    It’s nice to see Amnesty International condemning Jaipur blasts – it’s like pulling teeth to make AI condemn Islamic terrorism in India. May be now they can come to the defence of the victims of terror rather than the terrorists. They can still work to capture the right terrorists, and spare the innocent, by fighting for the victims. After all the victims want to punish just the guilty too….we can just see the army of HR advocates defending the police, who lost their lives in the Parliament attack, and their family, who btw got shorted changed by GOI, rather than the terrorists and conspirators. But then who is going to give those HR advocates peace prizes?

  5. The conflating of different moralities and philosophies is resulting in some confusion. Human rights activists are humanists, who believe in the inviolability of human rights. They are not utilitarians who believe in maximizing whatever utility of society is relevant. Thus what they are doing is not unreasonable, it is eminently reasonable.
    It is like saying why is a below poverty line mother with two children clamoring to feed both children improperly instead of feeding just one child properly. Can’t just insert in utilitarianism as the moral code of people where it is not.

  6. What Salil is then saying is from a meta perspective, necessarily outside the view of a humanist: that the world needs people with the humanist moral code to be a pillar against an otherwise inevitable erosion of civil liberties. Obviously these shouldn’t be the only people since the humanist moral code is not “stable”, we need more conservative people who in turn push the wall in the other direction. But this meta perspective is necessarily utilitarian, and we are rejecting the authority of the humanist moral code as well as other traditionalist moral codes on the other side.

  7. There has been a lot of discussion about how terrorism is a special case. That we must give up some of our civil liberties for some time while we fight the scourge of terrorism.

    This might have been true for the US after 2001. However, it is emphatically not true for India. We have been fighting terrorism for the last 15+ years. We will be fighting it for 15+ more.

    So the real question is.. Do we want to give up our civil liberties for the next 15 years?

  8. I don’t see what can be the moral argument against wanting to minimize rights violation and thereby benefit the greatest possible number of potential victims. This is not “utilitarian”, but is the most reasonable thing to do. To claim, on the other hand, that activists will focus only on 10 out of the 100 violations to the exclusion of the rest is indeed unreasonable — unreasonable both in an illogical and unprincipled sort of way.

  9. Salil raises some good points, though I don’t agree with him that human rights activists are (or must remain) “unreasonable”. Let me illustrate by talking about “terrorism”.

    1. Salil writes: Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honored?

    I can’t think of any Gitmo prisoner who’s been “honored” (one possible exception could be Sami Al-Haj, Al-Jazeera cameraman held for 6 years without any charge, recently released after a year and a half of hunger strike). Leaving that aside, Salil’s dictum
    Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured

    is enough and all that the serious human rights activists (like the Center for Constitutional Rights in the Gitmo case) are asking for. Give them a fair trial. Give them access to lawyers and so on. Don’t torture them. If that isn’t “reasonable”, I don’t know what is.

    2. Salil writes: …if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualize terrorism?

    Well, as evidenced by Nitin’s title “Amnesty sounds like Al-Qaeda”, there’s a conflating between explanation and justification. I don’t think a single serious human rights group would justify the bomb blasts (just like Salil notes everybody condemned 9/11). But, it’s just elementary sanity to try to find some explanation of the crimes and to the extent that we can do anything about it, we should take steps to address those. Again, to explain is not to justify. You can argue that the explanation is wrong, but it’s wrong to say that they’re “justifying” terrorism or there’s some kind of “moral equivalence” (itself a meaningless notion).

    As for contextualizing terrorism, if we stick to the definition of terrorism (here the UN General Assembly, for example has passed many resolutions on terrorism, which defines it), the official definition itself contextualizes it. In the case of the UN (since it is an agency of states), it dealt with state-specific qualifications.

    For example, the resolution contains a crucial paragraph which notes that (after condemning terrorism in all its forms and so on),
    Nothing in the present resolution will prejudice the right of self-determination…to struggle…under racist and colonial regimes and foreign occupation

    Again, the principle is the same. While condemning terrorism, the resolution upholds certain rights. Exactly the same principle should be followed by serious human rights activists.

    As an interesting remark, the resolution was passed 153-2-1 (Honduras abstaining). Guess who the 2 were.

  10. Nitin,

    More importantly, do you want to be fighting it for 15+ more?

    It can be seen from many many other countries that draconian laws and human rights violations do not reduce the duration of a terrorism conflict. In fact there is some evidence that it only prolongs the duration of the conflict.

    I would guess that we will be fighting terrorism, in one form or another, for the next 15 years. It would be best if we do it right.

  11. Anand wrote:

    >>Well, as evidenced by Nitin’s title “Amnesty sounds like Al-Qaeda”, there’s a conflating between explanation and justification.

    Spurious logic. Both seem to be the same thing when done by human rights activists.

    Unless backed by solid evidence and data, “explanations” are nothing more than speculations. And when these speculations further the interests of vested interests, they become justifications. On the one hand, human rights activists claim that it is not for them to suggest solutions. On the other, they reserve the right to arrive through speculations at “solutions” that ought to warm the cockles of some of the biggest violators of human rights today: terrorists, maoists etc.

    >>It can be seen from many many other countries that draconian laws and human rights violations do not reduce the duration of a terrorism conflict.

    How so? Draconian laws and tough measures have prevented terrorist attacks on US soil after 9/11.

    Moreover, human rights activism that functions as the overground face of underground terrorists — as it does today — cannot curb rights violations either. Your logic would then imply that rights activism should cease in order to improve rights situation.

    >>I would guess that we will be fighting terrorism, in one form or another, for the next 15 years. It would be best if we do it right.

    Callousness towards victims of rights violations does not serve the interests of human rights activism. What you’re suggesting is that human rights activists couldn’t care less if a few thousand people get bombed to death by terrorists. Just what people suspect their activism is all about!

  12. How so? Draconian laws and tough measures have prevented terrorist attacks on US soil after 9/11.

    9/11 was the only major Islamic terrorist attack on US soil. Apart from the 1993 WTC bombings, I do not remember jihadis attacking the US mainland.

  13. OldTimer,

    It can be seen from many many other countries that draconian laws and human rights violations do not reduce the duration of a terrorism conflict.

    How so?

    Let us take a few examples. (Note that I am not making a comment on the legitimacy of the struggle. Just on the duration and the methods adopted to crush it)

    a) Palestine – From the first Intifada this has gone since 1987. Israel has adopted very draconian laws and human rights violations. However that has not helped and the struggle goes on.

    b) Ireland – The Provisional IRA started in 1969 to fight for Irish independence. The British committed human rights violations but not as severe as other cases. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and disarmament came in 2005.

    c)J & K – Militancy in J & K started in 1989. The army was called in. Terrorism is still going on in the valley.

    You can also look at the list of terrorist outfits. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_designated_terrorist_organizations. Most of them are decades old. A few are 30+ years old.

    Callousness towards victims of rights violations does not serve the interests of human rights activism. What you’re suggesting is that human rights activists couldn’t care less if a few thousand people get bombed to death by terrorists. Just what people suspect their activism is all about!

    All I am suggesting is that the fight against terrorism is going to be a long drawn out one. We should not kid ourselves that any loss of civil liberties would be one that would be temporary. In fact it would most likely be semipermanent to permanent. And so we get back to my original question.

    Do we want to give up our civil liberties for the next 15 years?

  14. Hello Rishi,

    >>Palestine – From the first Intifada this has gone since 1987. Israel has adopted very draconian laws and human rights violations.

    Give the specifics of draconian laws that Israel adopted. I suspect they were really not draconian enough. In my opinion Israel has been way too civilized in the face of human rights violations of its citizens by Palestinian terrorists. Still, it has had far better success at protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks than India with our vote-bank-driven opposition to POTA has resulted in. What are the terrorist incidents per capita in Israel today, and what is it in India?

    >>J & K – Militancy in J & K started in 1989. The army was called in. Terrorism is still going on in the valley

    Yes of course terrorism is still going on because we don’t have draconian laws and strict policing. That’s the point.

    >>Do we want to give up our civil liberties for the next 15 years?

    I think we should not be driven by paranoid rhetoric like the above. Leave that to those making a living from human rights. A level-headed question to ask is: How many human rights violations were perpetrated by terrorists and how many people “lost” civil liberties because of POTA? Also, you should speak for yourself. *I* did not lose any civil liberties because of POTA. There’s a lot fatter chance of I falling victim to a terrorist bomb blast than getting wrongly confined under POTA. Where did you get this fancy notion that you may end up in jail because of POTA? why? (Note that I am actually in favor of a reasonable curb on some of the rights. Terrorism is war, and at war time, civil liberties are indeed suspended.)

  15. By the way, you didn’t answer MY question: why do you want to see terrorist kill more and more innocent people for the next 15+ years?

  16. Draconion or not I would prefer to see the terrorists thrown in the street with right hand and left leg chopped off. Yes I don’t mind curbing some of my rights to fight terrorism because they are refusing the right to live. I peronally am blind to all allegations and discussions that are against the better future of my country.
    I do think the so called humanists are sponcered by external agencies. They are not willing to discuss the rights of all the Kashmiries who have fled Kashmir. All have to note one thing there were one million Hindus in Kashmir in 1900 now only a few hundred remain. They too are in constant fear.
    Please read link

    This is a foreign national who has written this.

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