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Hillary illustrates perils of fuzzy human rights concepts


There is an interview with Hillary Clinton in today’s Wall Street Journal. Matthew Kaminski of the Journal asked her:

Why push human rights and democracy so hard in Africa, and not in Russia or China? Some see a double standard.

Excellent question! Hillary answers:

First I think it is important to stress that human rights remain a central driving force of our foreign policy. But I also think that it’s important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It’s a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment.

Uh oh. Is Hillary saying:

Don’t emphasize so much the traditional human rights where you can actually hold someone like Chinese and Russian rulers accountable – like the right for dissidents not to be tortured, jailed, and killed –

Because we are going to add fuzzy human rights where you can’t hold anyone accountable—rights to jobs, shelter, education, health?

Rights to basic needs have enormous moral appeal, but do they work? Progress on the first kind of human rights has happened because you could hold somebody accountable, while there is little evidence that second kind of human rights has pragmatically contributed anything to better employment, shelter, education and health (as this blog previously argued). So shifting emphasis from the first to the second slows down progress on the first, while doing little on the second.

And if the second acts as an excuse to not speak out on the first kind of traditional human rights,as Hillary seems to say…NOT good.

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  1. SS wrote:

    ref.: Accountability, survey?

    When will you have the blogs on what works effectively, so demanded by your readership?

    One suggestion for starters is the book Radio: A Post Nine Eleven Strategy for Reaching the Poor, University Press of America,. There are many examples of radio reaching the poor and the information having resulted in documented positive change in their lives. Note the book is co-authored by myself, a development economist and one of the leading practitioners of development radio. Any royalties from sale of the book will be donated.

    May I also suggest ordering directly from the Publisher. You receive a discount and for some reason I don’t entirely understand, it is much, much quicker than Amazon, unless they have used copies in stock now.


    Posted August 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Alanna wrote:

    Way back when I was a high school student, I was an active participant in Model United Nations. When I represented China, we used to give that exact same answer when pushed on human rights. Almost word for word. I don’t think the US should be taking China – or high school students – as its guide to human rights.

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Bill Easterly wrote:

    SS: watch this space Sunday at midnight EDT

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Alanna, Yes, it also struck me that this defense on human rights is often used by tyrannical rulers.

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  5. Moussa wrote:

    Here is what I read from Hilary’s mind as her true answer:

    “Dumb question! Above all, you should know that this is a simple empty diplomatic rhetoric that makes us look good. Do you think that the US really wants democracy in places like Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and DRC? Who want to renegotiate the profits of our big companies in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea or DRC? Even Ghana gets to be careful for their so-called democracy now that they found oil. Now, to answer your question as of why not use the same empty rhetoric for China and Russia, you know there is nothing we can do to significantly alter the behavior of countries like Russia or China without hurting our own interests. They have nuclear weapons, they have veto power at the UN, and we are mutually economically dependent. Remember our allied Georgia? And do you know how much we owe to China? So, such empty rhetoric to China and Russia will make us look ridiculous and actually could make us loose some of our interests.”

    But poor Hilary cannot say those words. However, smart Hilary is trained to dodge tough questions.

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  6. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Now I see why she was recruiting Farmer…

    Memo to Hilary: Entitlements aren’t rights. Confusing the two doesn’t increase anyone’s access to food, healthcare or education.

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    interesting post — it got me thinking about the effectiveness of speaking out on human rights in general and what results are produced. off hand, i thought of mary kaldor’s work on ‘global civil society,’ the helsinki accords, and the impact on eastern europe. at the same time, i can also think of a large contingent of work (especially coming from IR) that would say those leaders (china, russia, etc) cant be held accountable because of their powerful position in international politics, anyway — so what’s the point? also, i am curious– what would “accountability” look like — a conviction in the ICC? an ‘intervention’ a la Saddam Hussein and Iraq? it seems that “human rights” as a concept in general can be pretty fuzzy one.

    Posted August 16, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  8. Matthias wrote:

    Yet another disappointing take on the issue of human rights.

    First, it is not a fair account of what Hillary said, in the interview you quote. For instance, she follows the comment you object to with:

    “we have very strong differences with the Chinese. We have stood up and talked about that and pointed it out and they will continue to disagree with us. We know that”

    Furthermore, your take on Hillary’s position avoids the crucial point made in that interview: that the US’s foreign policy goals with China and Russia are varied, and that this administration is ‘re-engaging’ with these great powers on matters of crucial importance, from nuclear non-proliferation, to economic issues. There has been progress in that, which would not have taken place if the US continued the previous administration patronizing and inconsistent ‘human rights rhetoric’ (and I call it rhetoric because, as a matter of fact and of policy, the previous administration had very little regard for human rights at home or abroad).

    Second, your post simply ignores the breadth of the US diplomatic agenda, and acts as if the focus should be, predominantly, on human rights issues. As much as I would like to have a US foreign policy promoting human rights vigorously and consistently, I realize that this is not – and never has been – the case.

    What can be accomplished through negotiations depends not only on interests, but on the relative positions of different players: the US has considerably more clout in Africa than it has in China. What purpose does preaching human rights to China actually accomplish? Does it further the cause of human rights? Not really. But it certainly makes engagement with China on a range of other, equally imperative issues less likely. Diplomacy is not ‘moral discourse’ by other means.

    Third, you consider that it is the promotion of other rights – to shelter, food, or decent working conditions – that is diluting the effectiveness of US foreign policy. You seem to imply that ‘if only’ Hillary kept preaching about real rights, the US could make a difference. That is patently absurd.

    China will ignore US criticism on rights because, unlike most of Africa, it can afford to. This is not because the the US has embraced ‘fuzzy social rights’ rather than real civil and political rights. If the US were to criticize China on the right to health, it would be ignored just the same.

    Finally, I think it really is time you overcome this fixation with the idea that it is not possible to hold someone accountable for violations of rights such as shelter, or food. Not only is it possible, but it has been done by both national and international adjudicatory bodies, repeatedly.

    Finally, you make an empirical claim that — for someone who prizes fact-based knowledge — is somewhat surprising in its scope:

    “…shifting emphasis from the first to the second slows down progress on the first, while doing little on the second…”

    I would really like to know your empirical basis for claiming that (i) there is a shift in emphasis between categories of rights; (ii) that this shift entails slower progress on civil and political rights; and, (iii) that affirming economic, social and cultural rights has ‘done little’ to promote better access to those entitlements.

    PS. Since you seem to be interested in the role of rights, I strongly recommend you read this book:

    Posted August 17, 2009 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  9. Gonzalo Schwarz wrote:

    I didn’t know I have the right to a good job, I might as well stop my graduate studies and forget about specialization of labor and make Mrs. Clinton accountable of finding me a good job without the effort that many bottom up searcher endure.

    Posted August 17, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  10. Matthias wrote:

    You don’t have a right to a good job.

    You do have a right to decent work, however. That means you have the right to be protected by the territorial state from practices such as forced labor, slave-like work conditions, and work in unsanitary, hazardous conditions. The State should protect you from such things.

    So don’t drop out of your graduate studies just yet. But while you’re at it, do try to spend more time reading up on subjects you don’t know enough about, before commenting blindly on them.

    Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  11. George wrote:

    Hmm. I like most of Mattias’s posts (except the last one – sarcasm bypass?), but find it much easier to agree with Prof. Easterly.

    What is a universally accepted definition of “slave labour”? Does it include a minimum wage?

    Posted August 17, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  12. SW wrote:

    Why does this blog disregard second-generation rights? Just because you assert that there is no institution to hold accountable for the failure to deliver health, education, or good work does not make it true. On an institutional account of rights, rights exist exactly when there are institutions that are structured to promote and protect those rights. The state is the obvious institutions to be held accountable for these rights. It is strange that you can make such a cavalier dismissal of second-generation rights when you seem to barely understand basic introductory principles of political philosophy.

    Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  13. Matthias wrote:

    What is a universally accepted definition of “slave labour”? Does it include a minimum wage?

    There isn’t one. There isn’t a universally accepted definition of what is torture, or due process either. That doesn’t mean any of those stop being rights.

    Terminological ambiguity in the law is unavoidable. It is true of domestic law as it is of international law. It has to do with the texture of language itself, and unless you hope for a wittgensteinean, tractatus-like ‘scientific language’ to emerge, this will remain so for the foreseeable future.

    More importantly, however, a certain degree of ambiguity serves two positive purposes. One is to guarantee to states ratifying (human rights) treaties enough flexibility as to how to implement legal obligations in accordance with national preferences. So even if all European countries have healthcare, and consider it a human right (European Social Charter), each has established different systems of delivery, and achieve different levels of satisfaction of the right.

    The other positive function of ambiguity is to guarantee to the judiciary a role in balancing conflicting rights, and principles. Although couched in absolute terms, most fundamental rights allow for restrictions in the interest of ensuring other rights or reasonable public policy goals (one notable exception is the prohibition of torture). There would be no space for such balancing of conflicting principles if the ‘language of rights’ were absolutely unambiguous (or there would have to be built in conflict of norm rules, and these would reintroduce ambiguity).

    And to answer your second question, a minimum wage is not a consequence of the prohibition of slavery (although there are international treaties that establish a right to ‘fair remuneration’ for a job). But even if a minimum wage were a human right, it would tell us nothing of the level of wages, or who would be entitled to it. These are fundamentally interpretative and policy questions, that are routinely discussed by the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.

    It’s funny how ambiguity in other sectors of legal regulation — say tort law — receives so little attention, as compared to human rights. And yet, the law of torts is directly applicable to every single person in the territory of the state, has serious individual and social consequences, and entails (litigation) costs for both private actors and the state. Why do we treat these areas of legal activity so differently?

    Posted August 18, 2009 at 5:04 am | Permalink
  14. Carla wrote:

    Human rights have traditionally been understood as civil and political rights but economic, social, and cultural rights are essential to allow individuals to exercise their civil and political rights. How is it more beneficial to a society to allow people to vote but to have an illiterate and starving population?

    The problem with accountability in most developing nations is that there is no real relationship between a citizen and the government. In America, we don’t have that problem but if you go elsewhere in the world where you have nations that have been colonized or occupied for years and they gain independence, you have NGOs and nonprofits who manage the food, shelter and healthcare. With international aid, the relationship between state and citizen is not allowed time to develop into one in which they can be held responsible.

    Posted August 20, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  15. Tracy W wrote:

    Matthias, all you are saying here is that the State has a duty to protect you from being enslaved, which I think fits under the traditional conception of protecting rights.

    So therefore you presumably agree with Gonzalo Schwarz that he doesn’t have a right to decent work.

    Carla: the idea behind freedom of speech, voting, etc, is that the right to vote plus freedom of speech will encourage governments to stop people from starving to death, with the intent of avoiding being thrown out of government. Amatrya Sen’s observation is that famines don’t happen in democracies. This implies that foreign entities should push for politically-responsive governments (eg voting, freedom of speech, etc). That’s enough work to be going on for.

    Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink
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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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