Posts tagged ‘human rights’

February, 2014

World Government: Not Quite an Idea Whose Time has Come, but No Longer So Far from the Academic Mainstream

Dr Luis Cabrera

I can say without much reservation that I am one of the most avid students of world government alive today. Of course, I’m careful when and where I say that…

Actually, even in my relatively brief academic career (12 years, if you count from the PhD award date), there has been, if not a sea change, certainly a surprisingly strong trend toward serious academics taking the world government ideal seriously again.

Consider this: when my lead PhD supervisor and I were trying to put together a doctoral supervisory committee in the mid-1990s, we approached a staff member at the same US institution who had a solid global reputation as an international relations theorist. He was known for his cutting edge theorization of relations between nation-states. Yet, when approached about helping to supervise a thesis exploring the contemporary case for world government, he came back with a very rapid ‘no.’ It just wasn’t a topic he saw as meriting serious scholarly consideration, he said.

Now, such a response would likely be much harder to give. The past two authors to win the International Studies Association’s prestigious ‘Book of the Decade’ award, Alexander Wendt (2000) and Daniel Deudney (2010), have made world government enquiry a clear part of their work. Wendt, who is enormously influential for his work on how ideas and ideology can shape nation-states’ behaviour, has argued for the ‘inevitability’ of a world state – in 200 years or so. Deudney argues that the continuing threat from nuclear weapons remains so great that world-government creation is a necessity, though a weakly empowered one narrowly focused on weapons control.

Wendt and Deudney are only two of a range of IR scholars, economists, international sociologists and moral theorists who have recently explored the feasibility and desirability of full global political integration. Many others have taken up international institution building on a smaller scale, but still one that would require states to cede significant powers upward.

This might, in fact, be thought of as a second ‘heyday’ in world government thought. The first can be dated roughly from 1945-50. It was spurred by the US nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. What had been unimaginable in war was suddenly cold reality. This prompted many to think that political realities must be reconceived as well.

This wasn’t  just a fringe few, either. Leading academics – including Albert Einstein – authors, jurists, political figures and civil society leaders around the world called for, or at least expressed openness to, a world government capable of meeting the awful new threat.

The following quotation from Birmingham-area MP Henry Usborne gives a sense of the urgent rhetoric of the time. In his maiden speech to Parliament in 1946, Usborne outlined a plan for Britain to lead the way to a security and political union with like-minded democratic countries that could evolve into full world government:

‘I imagine that this proposal would meet with a great deal of opposition. That I do not mind. I am quite certain that if we doubled the opposition we should get 10 times the enthusiasm from the common people all over the world in support of a proposal such as that. Is the proposal fantastic? Is it Utopian? Yes, it is both fantastic and Utopian. It is just as fantastic as the atomic age in which we now live; it is just as Utopian as the hope of world peace.’

They ‘heyday’ period ended almost as quickly as it had begun, with the advent of the Cold War and fears of Soviet global domination.  Though some academics and others continued to make the case for world government, they remained mostly on the fringes for about the next 50 years.

Today’s resurgence of academic literature on world government, spurred in part by globalization, is distinguished by the range of disciplines involved and the prominence of some of those involved. Their arguments tend to fall into three camps. In the first, authors such as Deudney highlight continuing threats from world government, as well as terrorism and other security issues, as reason to pursue comprehensive forms of integration between nation-states.

The second camp is concerned with democratic rule. Here, ‘cosmopolitan democrats’ argue that, in an age of intensifying globalization and global economic integration, domestic democracies are losing their powers to live under laws of their own making. Thus, democratic decision making should be shifted upward, generally to include all of those who are affected by specific processes of globalization, or by the decisions of global bodies such as the World Trade Organization. Few of these authors would claim the world government title for their work, but several do advocate the creation of powerful, binding global institutions with broad powers to tax and spend for the common good.

A final camp is concerned with the promotion of justice and human rights globally. Here, authors argue that state sovereignty throws up predictable barriers to actually realizing justice or securing the rights of all persons, so forms of integration should be pursued between states. My own work would be situated here. I have argued in a couple of books and several articles that the current global system will routinely underfulfill individual rights: That’s because it leaves states as the final judges in their own cases about obligations. Imagine if we were all left to judge which rules or laws we would prefer to follow, or especially how much tax we’d like to pay. We’d mean well, but chances are we would see other priorities repeatedly getting in the way of ‘donating’ the tax voluntarily that would be needed to maintain social institutions.

Like most students of world government, I take a very long term view. If it ever will be possible to create global institutions capable of routinely protecting the rights of all persons, I have suggested, we shouldn’t expect to see them develop for many hundreds of years. My recent work has been concerned with the kinds of integration and related changes that might be possible in the near term, and yet would conceivably contribute to the long-term aim. I have considered in particular some potentially rights-enhancing forms of regional integration.

I have enjoyed being able, as this week’s Saving Humans ‘guest blogger’ to share some thoughts on recent developments in democracy and human rights. To recap: on Monday, I discussed a new organization, Academics Stand Against poverty, that is dedicated to strengthening the academic voice and direct positive impact on poverty issues globally. On Tuesday, I discussed my own work on global citizenship and immigration, with emphasis on field research among unauthorized immigrants, and with anti-immigration and migrant-rights activists.

On Wednesday, I talked about current work on human rights and prospects for, or possible reasons to purse, trans-state democracy. I looked there at how India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights had sought to reach out to the global human rights community to bring pressure on its own government to do more against caste-discrimination. Thursday’s entry drew connections between the theoretical concerns there and in the struggle by opposition leaders and activists in Turkey to maintain a free, open democracy, against the backdrop of possible accession to the European Union. Today’s entry took the much longer view on rights and integration.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Democracy, Rights and European Hopes in Turkey

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of individuals being able to both chasten and challenge political leaders. Constitutionalized liberal democracy, I suggested, is valuable primarily – though not solely – as a means of doing this. The right to vote in regular elections, along with rights to assembly, speech, protest, and closely related rights to bring formal challenges in courts, all are means of holding those who govern us to account.

Today I want to shift the focus from India and the Dalit (former untouchables) human rights struggle to Turkey. The two may not be obvious cases to treat in the same book or blog series, but in fact, some important issues intersect in both. In the Dalit human rights case, activists struggling on behalf of a category of persons within a country assert that those persons’ rights are being systematically violated. They believe that India’s democratic institutions and courts remain stacked against Dalits, despite anti-discrimination laws on the books. At the same time, the Indian government strongly resists ‘outside interference,’ or outreach by such activists to global human rights actors. It reserves the right to interpret rights standards and rights fulfilment to itself.


Protestor, Turkey, July 2013

In the Turkish case, similar claims are heard about democratic institutions and leaders who are increasingly unresponsive to opposition voices. Turkey has long been noted as a secular country, observing strict separation between state and Islam, the religion ascribed to an overwhelming majority of its population. One of the consistent complaints from opposition and activist leaders has been that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced ER-doh-WAN) has been incrementally introducing religious values and behavioural restrictions into law. Activists also complain of a creeping authoritarianism, on which more below.

The Turkish case, like the Indian one, has a significant international, or supranational, angle. Where the Dalit human rights activists have sought to reach out to the global human rights community in the absence of anything like a Global Court of Human Rights, Turkey has long held hopes of joining the still-expanding regional governance project just beyond its own borders.

For me, the Turkish case has been of great interest for the ethical questions it raises about obligations across borders. My basic presumption has been that Turkey stands to receive the same human rights benefits as other less-rich countries had on joining the European Union in the last several decades. These would include particularly Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. Spain and Portugal were not only relatively poor countries at the time of accession, but they also faced steep challenges to democratization and democratic consolidation. Many observers see European Community membership as an important factor helping them develop stable, rights-respecting democratic institutions.

Of course, few would suggest that membership in the now-European Union is a cure for all political ills, or that the EU itself has developed into a fully defensible set of democratic institutions. EU leaders are still dealing with the fallout from the global economic crisis, which revealed some cracks in institutional design that may need more than a quick plaster-over. Yet, longtime EU observers will note that this is far from the first crisis, and that in fact the EU’s demise has been predicted many times.


Istanbul Police lined up, July 2013

In relation to Turkish accession, my presumption remains that it would deliver significant additional rights benefits to Turks. It would further integrate the country into the EU common market, give it a much stronger political voice in helping to shape and set the direction for that market, while enhancing economic opportunities for individual Turks, not least free movement across borders. It also should help to better ensure robust democratic rights.

I went to Istanbul for the first time last summer, to interview government officials, activists and think-tank representatives about prospects for Turkish accession. Full accession for Turkey has long been a controversial issue in some EU states, of course. This is because first, important issues remain unresolved around EU member state Cyprus. Turkey holds half of Cyprus’ territory in circumstances that continue to draw protest from several quarters. Turkey also would become the second largest EU country, behind Germany, giving it instant political clout in the union. And, a factor which is generally whispered about except by far-right factions, which tend to shout about it, Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country in the EU. Even so, there is significant support for Turkish accession within the EU, along with opposition, notably within Germany and France.

When I arrived in Istanbul, after an earlier trip to Brussels to interview Turkish and EU officials, I found that few had EU accession foremost in their mind. Rather, they were focused on the flashpoint of Gezi Park. That park – an urban oasis in a city notably lacking in greenery – had become the focal point for demonstrations against the Erdogan regime, stemming from plans to let developers raze it for a shopping plaza.

I took a hotel near the park, which had been cleared of activists not long before in a police crackdown which saw three protesters and one police officer killed. The government response brought harsh criticism from the European Parliament. That was rejected by Erdogan, who questioned the Parliament’s legitimacy and blamed the protests on outside influences.

I spent several days interviewing leaders of activist groups that were focused on democratic governance, with emphasis on those which also interacted with EU institutions, as well as some political party and policy officials. On two nights, I joined the protesters who still filled the streets of the posh shopping district near Gezi Park. In interviews, they expressed their anger at what they saw as authoritarianism and religiosity gradually but relentlessly taking over their political institutions. Few mentioned the EU without prompting. Support for accession in polls of Turks has steadily dropped in recent years, as frustration has grown over the slow pace of accession talks – even while Croatia, which was given permission to move toward full membership at the same time as Turkey, was admitted. Yet, when asked, most saw EU membership as providing additional resources to challenge the government.

After a few dozen interviews, and being water cannoned and tear gassed by police, I decided I had collected enough from the protesters themselves (!) I did, however, join them another night, after they had quietly walked back into Gezi Park, police standing by, and turned it again into a site for singing, chanting, and expression of views.


Protestors filling Istiklal St., July 2013


Woman in goggles, July 2013

Now, six months later, EU leaders are again laying charges of authoritarianism, this time in response to a stringent law pressed by the Erdogan government on internet usage. Critics charge that the law amounts to bald censorship. At the same time, there were hopes for progress on EU accession talks, after years of virtual standstill. The struggle to shape the country’s democracy undoubtedly will continue, though it remains to be seen whether it will be conducted more firmly in the EU context.

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

October, 2013

The right to adequate housing: the UK and the spare room subsidy

Last month there was great controversy when the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing commented on the spare-room subsidy. Raquel Rolnik caused a furore by daring to criticise the UK for human rights violations rather than focusing her efforts on graver situations elsewhere in the world. She commented on the coalition’s policy that is designed to charge council house tenants for supposedly under-occupying homes based on numbers of residents and bedrooms. Ms Rolnik claims that the policy could violate the right to adequate housing, not least owing to the shortage of one and two bedroom council housing. She also noted that the subsidy may impact the realisation of other rights, particularly where people were forced to choose between housing, food and heating.


The UN Special Rapporteur used a human rights lens to view the spare room subsidy. She did not say anything that has not already been discussed in the UK media. Yet Ms Rolnik’s comments hit a raw nerve with the government. Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman, sent a letter of complaint to the United Nations, demanding an apology and an explanation for her comments. He accused Ms Rolnik of bias and political motives. He questioned why she had visited the UK, accusing her of conducting her fact-finding mission without permission.

In fact, Mr Shapps appears to have been badly briefed or perhaps not briefed at all. UN Special Rapporteurs cannot visit a country without permission. The UK has issued a standing invitation to all UN Special Rapporteurs. Even then, if one wants to visit s/he must liaise with the government before arriving on these shores. Any visit requires a great deal of coordination with the country’s government in order to set up meetings with ministers and opposition party members, national human rights institutions, citizens, and any other actors. It is never the case that a Special Rapporteur just turns up unannounced. Ample opportunities exist for a country either tacitly or expressly to block a visit. Indeed, many countries have blocked visits. Some have simply ignored requests to coordinate visits; others have refused to issue visas; while some states have failed to comply Special Rapporteurs’ terms by blocking access to state and non-state actors.

Ms Rolnik’s visit to the UK, then, was not an intrusion. It was a carefully planned and coordinated visit to which the UK government had consented. So, why was there such uproar?

UN independent experts on human rights are part of a broader mechanism called Special Procedures. The system is crucial for fact-finding, information-sharing, monitoring, reporting and providing recommendations on human rights. Individuals are appointed for fixed terms and given a mandate to examine a specific human rights issue. Mandate holders are independent experts, usually academics or former human rights activists. They undertake their duties part time and are not paid by the UN. They are independent from both the Organisation and its member states.

Some mandates focus on all human rights within one specific country. Others focus on one specific right across the world. Each mandate holder chooses where to conduct visits, of course depending on the consent of the countries concerned. Those visits then lead to reports and recommendations for that country. Mandate holders also produce reports that outline broader issues, best practices, and provide general recommendations. They provide countries with guidance, assistance and concrete steps to follow when implementing human rights.

The UN Secretary-General has described Special Procedures as ‘the crown jewel’ of the UN human rights machinery. Because Special Rapporteurs are independent and expert their reports carry significant weight and are afforded a great deal of respect. Little wonder, then, that a country like the UK would be up-in-arms when criticised by a Special Rapporteur.

The UK is not the first country from the Global North to criticise a Special Rapporteur for reporting on human rights issues within its territory. Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, suggested that the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food had wasted UN money by visiting his country in 2012. The US accused the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty of bias and political motives for visiting that country in 2005. Those other Global North states, have voiced concerns about why they have received visits when the experts could have gone to other countries with far more acute problems. On the face of it, that argument has some merit, but scratch below the surface and it does not stand up to scrutiny.

At the heart of international human rights is their universal nature. Rights apply to all individuals regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic. All countries can improve their human rights records. From Sweden to Somalia, from Norway to North Korea, there is a need to protect and promote human rights. If the UN only focused on states with the most acute problems, then individuals in more developed countries would be afforded no protection. And, crucially, if the UN only focused on some states or regions then the legitimacy of the Special Procedures system – based on its universality – would wholly be undermined.

Of course no country likes to be criticised publicly or to have information shared about violations on its soil. But the UK, which has been at the fore of international human rights since its creation, would have done well to remember its obligations and commitments when Ms Rolnik visited its territory.

Follow Rosa Freedman on Twitter: @GoonerDr 

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October, 2013

Human rights, like Ronseal, are exactly what they say on the tin…


On 3rd October this year a boat caught fire and capsized. On board were more than 500 Eritrean men, women and children. 155 people survived. While this disaster has grabbed media attention across the world, it is only one of many such stories over recent years. Lampedusa has become the landing point for thousands of migrants seeking to enter Europe. The Italians islanders stand out as compassionate and caring towards the boatloads of new arrivals. They seem to understand that these people arrive on the shores seeking a better life than the ones they left behind. That approach stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric across much of the Global North.

The issue of migrants, particularly irregular migrants, increasingly dominates our newspapers and politics. No one knows whether irregular migration is increasing or decreasing. Unsurprisingly, we have no statistics on the actual numbers of people who cross borders in irregular ways. Yet the prominence of the topic in daily life might make one think that a tidal wave of irregular migrants has arrived in Europe. And that rhetoric increasingly dehumanises irregular migrants. This increased and increasingly-negative attention might be owing to financial pressures – history shows us that with recessions and depressions comes the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. It may be based on security concerns and the global threat of terrorism. Regardless of its basis, the result is a general failure to acknowledge let alone uphold the human rights of migrants.

Human rights, like Ronseal, are exactly what they say on the tin. The rights are held by all individuals by virtue of them being human. A person does not lose his status as a human simply because s/he is an irregular migrant. Crossing a border in contravention of a law does not dehumanise an individual. Yet the total disregard that Global North countries have for the rights of irregular migrants undermines the central notion of human rights.

If we examine the resources devoted to securitising the issue of migration, we can see that significant time and money is used for activities that abuse the human rights of migrants. Detention without charge; lack of access to justice; failure to ensure adequate housing, food and healthcare; failure to ensure that children receive education are just some of the systematic violations that occur across Europe, Australia, and North America. Headline news is made where a migrant dies during deportation, as occurred with Mr Jimmy Mubenga in 2010. Occasionally investigative journalism focuses on Yarls Wood, or other similar detention centres abroad. But the daily systematic violations are swept under the carpet.

Efforts are being made at the international level to protect and promote the human rights of migrants.

In 1990, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The central feature of the Convention on Human Rights of Migrants is to protect all migrant workers and their families irrespective of their legal status. 46 countries have ratified the Convention. This falls far below the 120 states ‘for which migration is an important feature, either as origin, transit or destination countries’. None of the states from the West or from the rising global power of BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have signed or ratified the Convention. Without those heavyweights, politically and economically, the treaty largely has failed to get off the ground. Over 20 years after its creation, the Convention is spluttering along. The countries that most need to be bound to protect the rights of migrants are the ones that are studiously avoiding signing up to its provisions.

States from the Global North are the leaders in the human rights game. They control the money and resources, and therefore hold the power. Typically, they have been at the fore of developing, promoting and protecting human rights. It seems strange, to say the least, that those same countries refuse to ratify the Convention on human rights of migrants. But remember that those countries are the most affected by migration, not just in terms of the numbers of people seeking to enter their territories but also by the political implications of being seen to be ‘soft’ on that issue.

There is a structural deficit of electoral democracies where it comes to migration. Irregular migrants do not have a vote. Politicians in electoral democracies require votes to be re-elected. Focusing efforts on a vulnerable group that do not have the right to vote, and who cannot mobilise to form pressure groups or to place pressure on the government, is political suicide. Politicians know that by speaking out on behalf of migrants, let alone seeking to change the laws on migration, they will place their own careers on the line.

But it is not all doom and gloom. At least these issues are now being discussed. Great efforts have been made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. Mr Francois Crepeau has sought to focus global attention on Europe and migrants’ rights. He reported on that region last year, with a particular focus on Italy and Greece as the first port of call for many migrants entering Europe from North Africa. Crepeau’s recommendations have been discussed widely at the highest levels. Media attention on Lampedusa and other horrific tragedies helps increase the pressure on Global North countries. It is only when those states start seeing irregular migrants as humans rather than security concerns, protecting their rights will always be the lowest priority and tragedies will continue to occur. 

Dr Rosa Freedman, Birmingham Law School

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