Human Rights as a Political Football

The UK recently declared that they would not allow any individual, including State leaders, to enter the UK for the Olympics if “there is independent, reliable and credible evidence that an individual has committed human rights abuses.” As someone who cares about human rights and doesn’t like it to be used as a political weapon, I’m against this. The main issues are who gets to decide 1) which human rights will matter in the decision, 2) what qualifies as human rights abuses, and 3) who gets a pass from evaluation?

The answer to all three questions is the Foreign Ministry of the UK.

If the Olympic committee teamed up with the regional human rights courts, then I may be able to support this. In this case, the UK is acting as judge, jury and executioner when deciding who can and cannot enter.

Evaluating States for their human rights abuses occurs all the time. Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Report, Transparency International’s Corruption Index Report, even the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report all evaluate States and often quantify or summarize their evaluation as a number or category such as “Free/Partially-Free/Not Free” or “Tier 1/2/3.” The difference here is that these organizations winnow down the number of issues they look at to be able to compare apples to apples in deciding who the worst of the worst is.

Human Rights as defined by politicians

When all human rights are considered (which, in theory, is what the UK says it will do), it will be impossible to balance the different rights as essentially every state has violated some human rights. Freedom of speech is undoubtedly a fundamental human right, but if you are literally starving, left weak and enfeebled with possibly only days of life left because of lack of food, would you rather your country respect freedom of speech or the “fundamental right to be free from hunger” as stated in Article 11 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights? For a population that’s starving, I would say that it’s not just appropriate but the government ought to focus on economic rights rather than on political rights (assuming, artificially, one had to choose between them).* If a causal connection is found between grain commodity speculation and starvation, will the UK ban the heads of Goldman Sachs? (See question #1 above).

The West has always respected civil and political rights more than economic, social and cultural rights, but even among civil and political rights, it’s likely that UK will pick and choose which rights to respect. Labor organizing is long established as part of the freedom of association, but what are the chances that the UK will block Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, because of Colombia’s massive number of killings of trade unionist (about half of the known killers being state forces)? I doubt that violations of the freedom of association of this type will qualify unlike violations involved with violently braking up protests in Bahrain. (See question #2 above).

Now, let’s assume an understanding of Human Rights that only encompasses the grossest violations of civil and political rights. If this policy existed at the last Olympics, would it not have been appropriate for China to block George Bush and Tony Blair for US and Brittan’s involvement in torture? The West would howl.

Unfortunately for the UK, this isn’t a theoretical issue. Obama did not order torture of Guantanamo detainees, but he also didn’t investigate and prosecute the torturers. Obama has the obligation to detain and prosecute anyone that is suspected to have committed torture under Article 6.1 of the Convention Against Torture. What are the chances the UK will not allow Obama to enter? (See question #3 above)

In contrast: Eurovision and Baku

What does this have to do with Armenia? Tomorrow’s Eurovision Finale in Baku. Take one guess what Armenians think of Eurovision in Azerbaijan.

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The rest of the world isn’t absolutely against Azerbaijan and is willing to watch Eurovision and likely learn something about the small landlocked Muslim country. Local and international NGOs have used this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of Baku. The government of Baku is obviously annoyed by this but fortunately hasn’t expelled foreign reporters that publish negative stories. Here, human rights are being promoted for their own sake and aren’t being used as a tool of politics, and I am in support of what the NGOs are doing.

* The problem with many dictators is they establish policies that perpetuate the crisis setting and thus it never becomes “the right time” to develop civil and political rights.

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Filed under Current Events, Human Rights Framework

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