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date: 22 April 2018

Contemporary Sources of Human Rights Violations

Summary and Keywords

Given the systematic threats facing humanity, there is an urgent need for new thinking about the human rights project. The most prevalent form of global abuse exists in the form of violence against women and children. Sexual violence has been considered the most pervasive, yet least recognized human rights, abuse in the world. Equally prevalent among the modern sources of threats to physical integrity rights are the pervasive practice of torture and the issue of poverty and the threats it poses to human dignity and human rights. Individual civil-political rights and the rights of minorities, including women, ethnic and religious minorities, and indigenous people have been protected at times and violated at other times by states. Moreover, some observers argue that group rights should be properly understood as an extension of the already recognized collective rights to self-determination of people. But this broad spectrum of human rights violations can be organized into two categories: domestic and international. The domestic sources include both local and national sources of human rights abuses, and international sources entail international and global dimensions. These analyses are interconnected and reinforcing, but they can be contradictory at times. Understanding such complex interrelations is a necessary condition for describing factors and processes leading to abuses. In an applied sense, this understanding is essential for suggesting how we should proceed with the protection of basic human rights. Although there is agreement on the most pressing problems of human suffering, there is no consensus over the answers.

Keywords: human rights, human rights abuses, human rights violations, torture, poverty, physical integrity, sexual violence, group rights, individual rights, basic human rights


At a time when human rights violations are widespread across the globe, and their nature varies from the deliberate policies of the state to ethnic strife and sectarian cleavages to the corrosive effects of globalizing markets, it is imperative that we address these issues. Academics in both Europe and North America have unabatedly discussed the question of why human rights violations consistently occur. In recent decades, the Asian debates have reflected non-Western discussions of human rights based on moral relativism and cultural legitimacy by southern scholars and practitioners (Mahbubani 1997; An-Na’im 1999; Othman 1999). Western experts, in contrast, have turned their attention to wide-ranging sources of human rights violations, including the state apparatus and sovereignty issues, power rivalries, ethno-nationalism, patron–client networks, cultural traditions, autocratic regimes, and external intervention.

Within academic circles and communities, a wide variety of explanations have been suggested as causing systematic violations of human rights: (1) political explanations focus the attention on real or perceived threats to regimes emanating from dissent, intra- and interstate wars, separatist movements, and terrorism, as well as lack of civilian control over militaries; (2) socioeconomic explanations account for the social exclusion of poor and minority groups, pace of change, level of development, and inequalities associated with modernization and globalization; and (3) cultural-ideological-psychological explanations highlight such broad factors as local traditions, customs, intercommunal hatred, and sectarianism (Arendt 1951; Cranston 1964; Moore 1966; Shue 1980; Arat 1991; Falk 2000; Schmitz and Sikkink 2002; and Eide 2006).

Without understanding the sources of human rights violations, international human rights standards will do little to ensure their realization across the globe. Yet it is unrealistic to search exclusively for general laws and discernible patterns of human rights violations that could be held across all cases. While it is possible to systematically explore both proximate and underlying causes of human rights violations, such an analysis must be grounded in theory. Historically the theory of human rights has been based on philosophical justifications of a basic claim: that there is a moral universalism, and there exists a rationally identifiable moral order. The English philosopher John Locke (1632 to 1704) and German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 to 1804) provided a means for justifying human rights as the basis for self-determination grounded in the notion of life, liberty, and property, as well as the authority of human reason (Kant 1959).

Human rights thinking in the contemporary world largely shifted from philosophical claims to those of everyday life and active politics. Hannah Arendt (1906 to 1975) argued that equality was neither innate nor granted, but achieved through gaining citizenship. This meant that, by becoming a member of a group, an individual was recognized and included as such and had the right to life, liberty, and happiness (Arendt 1951). Arguing that universal truths do exist and are manifested in our action, neo-Kantian thinkers, such as John Rawls (1972), have called the attention to the underlying universals that are grounded in equality and justice. Similarly, Ronald Dworkin (1978) has also noted that the realization of human rights trumps other alternative socioeconomic and political considerations. Treating human rights as such means all individuals are equal. Under international and national laws, human rights have increasingly moved to the realm of legal rights – that is, those rights that exist under the rules of legal systems and customs. The evolution of rights doctrine in modern times is reflected in the way some experts (Rorty 1991) have framed the issue of human rights in global politics. These scholars insist that human rights are not rationally and morally defensible; rather, human rights, they claim, can be justified on the basis of an appeal to the sentimental vision of humanity. Others have traced the evolution of human rights from the “violation approach,” which has been primarily concerned with civil and political rights, to a “social provision approach” or a “human rights-based approach to economic development,” which is largely concerned with the right to protect and provide (Landman 2005; Abouharb and Cingranelli 2007; Donnelly 2008). The latter approach dovetails nicely with the emerging global economic downturn that will likely create common interests across states.

This essay’s purpose is twofold: (1) to focus on the range of violations, including violations of rights enunciated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; crimes of international concern such as crimes against humanity, genocide, and violations of the Convention against Torture (CAT); and (2) to examine two broad categories of human rights violations: domestic and international. The domestic sources include both local and national sources of human rights abuses, and international sources entail international and global dimensions. These analyses are interconnected and reinforcing but at times contradictory. Understanding such complex interrelations is a necessary condition for describing factors and processes leading to abuses. In an applied sense, this understanding is essential for suggesting how we should proceed with the protection of basic human rights. Although there is agreement on the most pressing problems of human suffering, there is no consensus over the answers.

Modern Threat to Human Rights

The most prevalent form of global abuse exists in the form of violence against women and children (Watts and Zimmerman 2002; UN General Assembly 2006). Sexual violence – either in armed conflict, as manifested in systematic rape, or because of discrimination, marginalization, and prejudice – has been called “the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world” (UNFPA 2000). That is why the Vienna Human Rights Conference (1993) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) gave priority to this issue, which jeopardizes women’s lives, physical health, psychological integrity, and freedom.

Equally prevalent among the modern sources of threats to physical integrity rights is the pervasive practice of torture. Despite the anti-torture treaty, the practice of torture remains pervasive. Equally contentious are the issue of poverty and the threats it poses to human dignity and human rights. Some analysts even view the prevalence of threats to livelihoods as occurring on a greater scale, arguing that the most pervasive abuse of human rights worldwide is poverty. Nearly 1.4 billion people lack access to clean water. A total of 3 billion people live without access to basic sanitation, and 2 billion people live on “less” than two dollars a day (UN Millennium Project 2006).

Individual civil–political rights and the rights of minorities, including women, ethnic and religious minorities, and indigenous people, as enunciated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have been protected at times and violated at other times by states. Plural democracy requires at least minimal minority rights in cultural, educational, religious, and linguistic matters beyond those of equal citizenship. Some observers argue that group rights should be properly understood as an extension of the already recognized collective rights to self-determination of people rather than as a departure from internationally recognized individual rights. Given the systematic threats facing humanity, there is an urgent need for new thinking about the human rights project. The new century has inherited numerous global crises. These include poverty, widening inequality within and among nations, genocide, ethnic cleansing, HIV/AIDS, refugee crises, commercial sexual exploitation, child labor, and environmental degradation.

The human rights community must now engage the debate over the opportunities and perils of globalization as it turns to the question of socioeconomic rights and ways of including developing countries in the benefits of the global economy. The language of human rights is now more currently juxtaposed to the language of human responsibilities than at any time since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948. The current human rights talk is as much about universal rights as it is about universal responsibilities, insofar as both state actors and individuals are concerned (Falk 2000).

In the following sections, I shall examine crimes against humanity and the use of torture as a deliberate state policy. The essay next turns to addressing two recurring themes: (1) how the threat of terrorism has replaced the Cold War politics but retains the same conventional concept of state security that leads to the diminution of civil–political rights; and (2) how globalization leads to economic growth but accentuates and exacerbates inequalities.

Crimes Against Humanity

Marked by two major world wars, totalitarianism, fascism, terrorism, genocide, and ethnic cleansing, the twentieth century witnessed unprecedented cruelties and crimes against humanity. Paradoxically, it was a century that laid out the global foundation of modern international human rights, giving birth to the language of human rights in world politics. While the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948 helped institutionalize that language, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 introduced human rights into the mainstream of US–Soviet relations and consequently into the entire gamut of international relations (Donnelly 1999). Increasingly, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) directed their energies toward shaping policies (Welch 1995), as well as addressing the systematic mass atrocities and setting agendas at domestic, regional, and international levels to deal with such crimes (Risse et al. 1999).

On a broader level, international law placed more teeth in implementing strict standards against such crimes against humanity as genocide. The term “genocide” emerged in the early 1940s as the Nazi Holocaust perpetrated crimes against European Jews. In subsequent years, a new legal discipline of international criminal law emerged from the 1948 UN Genocide Conventions and the Nuremberg trials. Since 1998, International Criminal Tribunals have convicted perpetrators for acts of genocide committed in both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The internationally recognized definition of genocide is also enshrined in the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), created in 2002 and, as of March 14, 2008, ratified by 108 states.

The contemporary history of genocide can be traced back to China under Mao, the USSR under Stalin, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the reactionary violence of Hutu in Rwanda, or Serbs against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia. In all these cases, the common sources of genocide included racial and religious hatred, a bitter sense of lost ethnic dominance, patriotic conceptions of ancient and modern glory, ambitions of territorial expansionism, and romanticism. The tragic and violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s reminded us of the new threats to the continuing quest for human dignity and universal rights, particularly those that are caused by ancient cultural identities and practices. The existence of simplistic and parochial perceptions of Bosnian Muslims – portrayed as “extremists” – and Islam – depicted as a “malignant disease threatening to infect Europe” – blocked a Western military intervention in Bosnia to protect Muslims against the well-armed Yugoslav troops. The refusal of European governments to either defend Bosnians against mass atrocities or allow them to obtain arms to defend themselves was predicated largely on such issues as the use of force without a specific Security Council mandate, difficulties and uneasiness with the concepts of sovereignty and nonintervention, and misplaced expectations that UN presence and “safe haven” would be sufficient (Stover 2005; Kiernan 2007).

In the case of Rwanda, experts note that the ultimate cause of genocide there was the growing imbalance in land, food, and people that led to starvation, periodic famine, and fierce competition for land to farm. Hunger and malnutrition are endemic among all peasant societies in East Africa. Because of rapid population growth throughout the region, emigration or flight of people from one country to another only transfers the problem from one place to another. Many of those Hutu who periodically fled into Rwanda to avoid death at the hands of Tutsi in neighboring Burundi actively participated in the slaughter of Rwandan Tutsi. Likewise, those Rwandan Tutsi refugees who fled north clashed violently with Ugandans over land for pasturage, farms, and settlements (Magnarella 2005).

Likewise, the ethnic and tribal conflicts in the Darfur region of western Sudan seem to revolve around the combination of drought, desertification, and overpopulation. Some nomads searching for water have to take their livestock further south, to the land which is mainly occupied by Black African farming communities. The atrocities perpetrated in Darfur today stand as testament to a massive failure of the global community to preclude and redress one of the most reprehensible human rights abuses of our times. After a conflict of almost five years, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 4 million people – two thirds of the population of Darfur – depend on humanitarian assistance. The Darfur crisis has killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million in western Sudan. Humanitarian operations continue to be shackled by insecurity. In June 2007, one in every six relief convoys that left for provincial capitals came under attack, by Janjaweed militias, rebels, or bandits. A total of 12 humanitarian workers were killed in the first nine months of 2007 (Human Rights Watch 2008:168).

The Sudanese government continues to intensify this conflict by giving money and arms to different groups. Keeping such weapons under government control has become increasingly difficult. Khartoum’s involvement is more about politics than about ethnic cleansing. The Sudanese government has in the past armed Janjaweed militias to suppress a rebellion in South Sudan. But its failure to compensate tribes who lost fighters, along with the realization that they had been used, caused the militias to switch sides. The militia eventually joined the rebels, forcing the government to sign a peace agreement in November 2006. The peace agreement calls for the deployment of international peacekeeping forces (Totten and Markusen 2006).

Meanwhile, pressure is ratcheting up for UN sanctions, asset freezes, and criminal indictments. Some Sudanese officials and militia leaders have been charged by the ICC with numerous counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In a dramatic legal move that could pit the stability of Sudan against the regime’s long-term accountability for murder and mayhem in Darfur, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity by the ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. These charges are in fact the first against a sitting head of state. Critics argue that The Hague’s move to indict Sudan’s president for war crimes may undermine peace, and that the UN must suspend an indictment of President Omar al-Bashir if this might bring a negotiated settlement.

Some experts of international human rights laws, such as David P. Forsythe (2006), have asserted that the application of criminal justice in places like Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Poland, and Iraq has interfered with, or failed to achieve, other desirable goals such as peace, stability, reconciliation, consolidation of liberal democracy, or full closure for affected individuals. Accordingly, the pursuit of legal justice should at times take a backseat to defining objectives in less criminal terms. Criminal justice is not the only way to promote human rights, and human rights discourse is not the only way to advance human dignity in international relations. In a similar respect, after the apartheid era in South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and others felt that the most effective way to build a multiracial and rights-protective society there was to avoid criminal justice as far as possible. Some experts have noted that, while apartheid was a crime against humanity, atrocities were committed by all sides, government and resistance, and that all such conducts should be renounced. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa documented atrocities on all sides, and this sharing of responsibility and blame provided a basis for dialogue and ultimately reconciliation (Gibson 2004).

Increasingly, the use of torture in the post-9/11 era was justified in the interest of security. This trend intensified the debate over the proper limits to the so-called “war on terror.” In the following section, we turn to the practice of torture and explore how it became a routine practice as a matter of policy in the Bush administration.

Torture: A Deliberate Policy

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, as well as the subsequent attacks on Madrid and London, placed a new focus on how to balance human rights and security concerns in the Western world. Western pressure on China to honor human rights – though never effective or consistent – stopped almost entirely. Chinese support for the war on terror has ensured Western silence about repression in the Xinjiang region. Likewise, some Western leaders, presented with evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement in Chechnya, called for a “differentiated evaluation” of Russian policy there. They chose to ignore the fact that Moscow’s war against terror has actually been waged against a whole people, costing tens of thousands of lives (Ignatieff 2002).

Balancing human rights concerns with security considerations in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US has become a daunting task, raising a wide range of moral and political questions: What are the morally appropriate responses to terrorism? What is the most effective way to combat terrorism and yet at the same time protect fundamental freedoms that have been the cornerstone of Western democratic societies for so long? What are the costs and consequences of failing to balance human rights and security? And can the use of torture be justified in the interest of security?

These questions in particular have spurred the debate over the proper limits to the so-called “war on terror.” The study of modern torture (Roth et al. 2005; Rejali 2007) has revealed that the practice of “clean techniques” exercised by the police and the military in the major democracies has spread all over the world. After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration attempted to bypass diplomatic and legal measures negotiated in the CAT – a treaty that came into force in 1987 and was ratified by the US Congress in 1994. This treaty, which lacks an enforcement mechanism, has become the target of attack and opposition by the US government on the assumption that optimizing tactical practices of the war on terror would invariably entail such consequences as applying torture in certain cases, as well as restricting certain civil rights and freedoms. The Bush administration’s systematic use of coercive interrogation techniques involving torture was indicative of the move to ignore its international treaty obligations under the rubric of promoting security, a practice that invited much controversy both inside and outside the US.

The Bush administration argued that these consequences were warranted in a “hard bargain” whereby the diminution of certain rights and liberties became imperative in order to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. Such a bargain means that risks undertaken in such circumstances – including torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, and the suspension of habeas corpus – will bring tangible benefits to citizens in the long run. The temptation is great to disregard the human rights abuses not only at home but also in other states as long as they are actively supporting anti-terrorism efforts. This marginalization of human rights in American foreign policy, facilitated by a new geopolitical vision and ideological crusade, has striking analogies to its Cold War predecessors. As during the Cold War, security and human rights are again widely regarded as competing rather than reinforcing concerns (Donnelly 2007).

Terrorism, as human rights scholars remind us, has succeeded in destroying democracy when a national security state, without its citizens’ consent or knowledge, spies on them, tortures and kills detainees, runs secret prisons, kidnaps foreign nationals and deports them to third countries to be abused, imprisons asylum seekers, and impedes freedoms of movement, association, and expression (Brysk 2007). The Bush administration used “the war on terror” to justify a massive expansion in the jurisdiction of the federal government. The USA Patriot Act widened the use of wiretapping of telephone calls and emails, and also authorized the Attorney General to detain foreign nationals on mere suspicion, without due process and normal legal protections under the US Constitution.

As a result, 650 alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects were held from late 2001 at a US military base at Guantanamo Bay, without trial, charge, or access to lawyers. The Bush administration argued that inmates held there were not “prisoners of war” with rights under the Geneva Conventions, but “enemy combatants.” International law experts (Art and Richardson 2007; Ratner 2008) argue that terrorist suspects captured on the battlefield must be prosecuted according to the standards of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Bringing accused terrorists to justice according to the procedures of a court-martial will both protect America’s security and uphold its values. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, ensuring the barest minimum standard of forbidding commitment of outrages upon personal dignity, is not just a matter of human rights, but, like many laws of war, it is about good war-fighting practice.

The bottom line is that denying the application of Common Article 3 to the “war on terror” will have negative consequences. “If we want an act that was committed against an American to be a crime,” one observer notes, “it also has to be a crime when it is committed by an American.” With respect for the Geneva Conventions being absent, it is only a matter of time before other countries will exploit such tactics to avoid a fair treatment of captured suspects. The fact remains that human rights violations erode national security and democracy. Torture of detainees is against the Geneva Conventions. Experts concur that torture, illegal detention, and rendition of detainees to other countries that use torture represent an ineffective counterinsurgency strategy. Human rights abuses of detainees will undermine international cooperation against terrorism. A broad consensus holds that torture will lead to further terrorist actions and violence in the long run and that it undermines the rule of law and corrupts democratic institutions.

Encouraging voices of moderation, religious tolerance, social justice, and democratic reforms – in both Western and non-Western worlds – will contain, if not entirely eliminate, global terrorism over the long haul. It is important to recognize that multilateral arrangements are more likely to bring a semblance of order and justice to such turbulent situations. There is no denying that the progress in human rights and the rule of law will help reduce the extent to which terrorists recruit members in the Muslim world. Human rights advocates have grown wary of the consequences of the practice of torture in the name of national security. Such practices would further embolden and empower dictatorial regimes around the world.

All liberal democracies now encounter the additional challenge of a post-neoliberal securitization of state identity, in which the shrinking welfare state redefines its role as a guardian of national security and public order. But when security from an unconventional threat, such as terrorism, overwhelms the rule of law, national insecurity paves the way for human rights abuse. By contrast, preserving the rule of law, human dignity, and social justice is humanity’s greatest tool in the war on terror. Although states are likely to remain the key players on the global scene, only those states that closely adhere to international human rights norms will have the moral authority to lead (Mertus 2004). The just war perspective (Walzer 1977) holds that people must observe those specific restrictions on the conduct of war that are assumed to be in self-defense. According to this view, states must avoid the “end justifies the means” mentality espoused by the utilitarian rationale. The problem with the utilitarian view is that it could legitimize certain activities – including excessive violence and retributive acts – when used in the name of self-defense. Not surprisingly, the same logic is used by terrorists who defend sacrificing human lives in the name of the greater good. Such instrumental justifications are utterly immoral. The utilitarian view will result in an ever-increasing loss of liberties without making society any safer in the long run.

Before the US military invasion of Iraq, the importance of the distinction between choice and necessity – between weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and broader US policy goals in the region – hinged on the consistency of war within international legal norms. Since the signing of the UN Charter, prevailing international legal norms have discouraged the use of war as a foreign policy tool. War is understood as being legal only as a last resort and only for defensive purposes. This norm, however, does not mean that there is no room for the right to self-defense. Europeans have internalized these values to a much greater extent than Americans have. When the Bush administration made a case for war based on the presence of WMD and a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, it did so in order to justify war in terms of necessity – not choice. But this failed to bring key European allies on board in what was termed a defensive action. The US failed convincingly to make that case at the time. Now that argument appears to be even less valid (Ricks 2006).

Globalization: Promises and Uncertainties

Developing countries, with their stark financial and technological inequalities, have found themselves the most vulnerable to the dominance of multinational corporations, and the increasing globalization of financial capital. The ways in which transnational companies and international financial institutions (IFIs) control global finances are increasingly coming to light with the new communication and information technology provided by the internet. In response to the call for transparency and accountability, both nationally and globally, issues such as poverty, social vulnerability, exclusion, and the marginalization of weak members of the global community are exposed through a variety of means and mechanisms (Meintjes 2000; Monshipouri et al. 2003). In a world as integrated and interdependent as ours, the call for social justice and sustainable development becomes increasingly crucial. This global exposure confirms the observation made by some experts who contend that economic and social rights are conceptually different from civil–political rights, and present a more fundamental challenge to existing norms of nonintervention and sovereignty (Brown 2008:516).

To the extent that globalization has intensified the problems of destitution and inequality both within and across borders, the issue of economic justice has permeated the current polemics over international human rights. The more global market forces have come to dominate transnational and interstate activities, the more economic concerns and a host of other related issues have been given higher priority in the governments’ political agenda. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, Mary Robinson (2006), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, underscored the importance of economic rights to the UN General Assembly: “The elimination of poverty and social exclusion may well be the most important human rights objective of the coming century.”

Furthermore, the processes of globalization have led to contradictory consequences, generating a search for new ways to protect and promote international human rights on the one hand, and opening the way to objectionable inequalities in power and wealth on the other. Some observers have argued that economic and financial globalization has left policy makers with little choice but to cut spending on social protection programs. The increasing harmonization of tax policies worldwide – resulting from tax competition in order to attract foreign direct investment – will place downward pressures on tax rates and further erode governments’ ability to use tax revenues to finance social welfare programs (Tanzi 2001).

To the extent that globalization facilitates trade worldwide, and drives improvements in overall economic growth, it can also produce democracy, and potentially an improvement in civil and human rights policies. To be sure, trade has a direct impact on both security and subsistence rights, but only if the governments of these countries can develop or maintain an infrastructure that supports this development (Callaway and Harrelson-Stephens 2004). It should be noted that in developing countries greater wealth does not necessarily equate to a reduction in state repression. The overall patterns indicate that the influence of trade on human rights demonstrates a bright prospect for the future. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had in the past tended to give structural adjustment loans (SALs) to states with more respect for workers’ rights. This was done in part because such rights had been observed to be more conducive to economic growth (Abouharb and Cingranelli 2004).

Likewise, the tripartite structure of the International Labor Organization (ILO) – involving employers, trade unions, and NGOs – has led to new opportunities to hold multinational corporations (MNCs) accountable to international workplace standards. At least partially because of tripartism, as Edward C. Lorenz (2001) notes, American labor, abandoned by its allies except the churches, was unable to maintain the integrity of the ILO until a new potent group of modern human rights attorneys organized support for new labor standards. From this point on, the ILO became one of the prime battlegrounds between multinational businesses and a global human rights coalition. The ILO’s successes were attributed largely to the fact that tripartism fostered and assured that a variety of perspectives beyond those of nation-states and privileged business elites were heard. Increasingly, when justice is at stake, the special role of the NGO public interest institutions within the ILO has proven the value of tripartite pluralism in international relations. The second part of this essay will shift its focus from thematic issues to a level-of-analysis approach, which expounds on internal and external sources of human rights violations.

National Sources of Abuse

The national sources of human rights violations involve local, rational, structural, and cultural explanations. At the local level, archaic traditions and cultural sources of discrimination against particular classes or stigmatized minority groups or communities constitute the main reason for human rights violations. In the post–Cold War era, some nonstate actors have resorted to decentralized and privatized warfare in defiance of government authority. Crimes committed by private individuals, as well as the rising use of small arms and light weapons, have been the leading causes of other localized forms of violence. At the same time, hostilities characterized as internal conflict (e.g., civil wars, genocide, and rape as a terror campaign) are increasingly marked by the abuse of innocents. Consider, for example, internal strife and genocide in the cases of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and the former Yugoslavia and the frequency with which such nonstate actors have fueled civil wars. This has renewed the belief in the legitimacy of the modern state to provide security for its citizens, even as this entails restricting certain civil liberties.

But, more importantly, scholars need to be cognizant of the fact that the context within which states operate poses obstacles to the consistent enforcement of certain laws. In both Bangladesh and Mexico, for instance, the most obvious impediments to the use of laws against child labor are structural and cultural. There is clearly a gap between principles or moral foundations embedded in laws and their feasibility to be ensured (Hertel 2006). Under such circumstances, adopting a human rights approach to the elimination of poverty is a desirable but all too often difficult and paradoxical task given that freedom from child labor and socioeconomic rights continue to be conflicting concerns in such poor countries as Bangladesh. Despite a wider consensus on the goal of eliminating the most abusive forms of child labor, the question of how to enforce laws against the variety of forms of child labor remains unanswered. Because of the persistent structural and cultural obstacles to eliminating child labor – such as economic necessity and social legitimacy – laws against child labor have failed to forestall the practice. But local conditions and cultural traditions reflect, to some extent, the underlying economic and political organization of a society, which is why the national level of analysis merits particular consideration.

In international law, the responsible party is generally the state. Even those pragmatic–liberal scholars who argue that state sovereignty is being transformed by the human rights discourse point to the continued centrality of states. Needless to say, the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) has evolved in an attempt to challenge the state as the main national source of human rights violations. Progress on human rights has become inextricably intertwined with the responsibility to protect from and respond to mass atrocities. The term “responsibility to protect” was initially coined in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in December 2001. The Commission had been formed in response to the question of Kofi Annan, then UN General Secretary, of when the international community must intervene for human protection purposes. The Commission addressed the question of when state sovereignty must yield to the protection against the massive and the most systematic violations of humanitarian and international law, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Of particular relevance to national sources of human rights violations are state–military relations. In many Middle Eastern countries – such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and Iraq prior to the US invasion in 2003 – primordial allegiance to tribe, sect, and ethnic group accounts for control over the military. In the long run, military intervention in politics has only fostered upper-bourgeois interests while undermining the state-building process. Governments dominated by the military have proved the least likely to respond to the needs of the poor majority.

The roots of repression, discrimination, and crimes against humanity are often traced to genocidal state conduct (e.g., the former Yugoslavia), which is frequently supported by the military. Likewise, in many Muslim countries, whether under secular or under Islamic law, states may use religion as a means of justifying the oppression of women. Some scholars of Islam argue that political structures explain most human rights violations in the Arab world and that Arab leaders perpetrate political and religious pathologies. Islam, they insist, “is neither responsible for rights violations nor the core basis for advancing rights” (Chase and Hamzawy 2006:21).

The widespread global concern with environmental issues has bolstered the interaction between environmental and human rights. The conceptualization of environmental protections and a sustainable healthy environment has fostered increased government accountability on matters relating to environment. Yet in most cases states, as Barbara Rose Johnson (2000) has argued, have failed to confront life-threatening situations related to the exploitation of the world’s resources and the degradation of the biosphere. The failure to respond favorably to violations of environmental rights has contributed to the rise of social movements and advocacy groups.

International Sources of Violations

To underscore the importance of the international dimension, it is critical at the outset to distinguish between international and global sources of human rights violations. International relations stand in contrast to strict economic globalization. The former are shaped by the structural arrangement of power, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations, and enduring and powerful ideologies. There is also compelling evidence that international trade has a positive influence on both security and subsistence rights. Increases in trade lead to improvements in economic development, which facilitates democracy and ultimately leads to the realization of human rights (Callaway and Harrelson-Stephens 2004).

Despite the growth of international regimes, interactions, and obligations, a more complex power relationship has developed at both regional and international levels. One example of such complexity is the issue of arms transfers and their impact on human rights. Critics assert that “arms transfers contribute to increased repression and the decreased civil and political rights” (Miller 2004:76). As a country imports more weapons, there is greater likelihood that the government will engage in repressive measures and withdraw civil liberties and political freedoms. The imported arms provide the necessary tools for the government to deny human rights. We are likely to see greater militarization of the state, which in turn enhances the likelihood of repression and the possibility of the restriction of civil–political rights. The trade-off between security and human rights, as manifested in arms transfers, lies at the heart of the suppression of human rights in developing countries. The massive infusions of military aid into the Middle East, experts remind us, have complicated rather than alleviated problems of political development. Arms transfers have not only deviated attention and resources away from the central issue of development but have also tended to fortify the forces of security at the expense of liberty and participation (Bill and Springborg 2000:17).

Another controversial issue is coercive diplomacy at the UN: deploying sanctions while protecting human rights. Human rights advocates argue that imposing sanctions does more damage to innocent populations, while leaving the ruling elites largely unscathed (Shagabutdinova and Berejikian 2007). The result is an ineffective policy that could rise to the level of human rights violations. Smart sanctions, they insist, might provide an alternative for the delivery of effective and humane sanctions that both promote compliance and protect fundamental human rights.

Pitfalls and Challenges Ahead

There is relatively little prospect of eliminating all obstacles to protecting human rights in the twenty-first century. The record of compliance with human rights law is erratic, and states appear reluctant to assign a top priority to the actual protection of human rights. Even the most ardent advocates of criminalization of human rights abuses admit that such laws may not deter violence against women, torture, crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. In a similar respect, the issue of finding a right balance or trade-off between peace and justice may never be settled. Some countries may face a difficult – and perhaps even a tragic – choice between justice and peace. Competing interests may lead either to the relegation of justice to a lower priority or to trading it for peace, as demonstrated in the cases of South Africa and Sierra Leone.

The politics of human rights aside, one must acknowledge the fact that applying universal human rights standards across the globe is far from simple. To better understand the complexities of compliance and enforcement, and without giving states a powerful tool to deflect pressure to uphold human rights, there is a need for a realistic assessment of human rights conditions across the globe that addresses both pitfalls and challenges ahead. One of the most daunting tasks facing the international community is how a commitment to the full range of human rights is possible given a country’s unequal economic circumstances and priorities. Global standards must be enforced while taking into account the complexity and diversity of socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Because of enduring barriers to eliminating child labor – such as economic necessity and social legitimacy – laws against child labor have failed to forestall the practice. For the present, the best hope for effecting change is to support welfare programs and universal primary education aimed at closing the gender gap. Ultimately, economic progress and desirable structural conditions are an integral part of any long-term solution to the child labor problem.

It is important to remember that one of the most prevalent perceptions in the developing world is the most paradoxical one as well. Many people in developing countries consider the state both as a source or agent of human rights abuses and as the guarantor of human rights. They hold the state accountable for protecting social, economic, and cultural rights, as well as for safeguarding the rights of minorities and the most vulnerable – women, children, and the poor – from a sense of powerlessness and uncertainty about globalization. At the same time, they experience the state as a force that abuses their rights.

Although some experts have forecasted the gradual erosion of the state, the post–Cold War order remains built on a foundation of sovereign states, posing a critical question: do internationally recognized human rights pose an unprecedented challenge to state sovereignty? The idea of states as independent actors is under siege, even as the nation-state has a keen instinct for survival. Today, many NGOs monitor state action as well as lobby, protest, and boycott states that violate human rights. South Africa provided the starkest example of a state’s authority being undermined due to its human rights violations. Without economic security and with minimal levels of development, elections and expansion of civil society are likely to become potentially unpredictable factors, increasing security risks worldwide. As the politics of the Cold War era demonstrated, cozying up to a variety of friendly but unsavory regimes is counterproductive in the long term, causing blowback on a host of issues. Perhaps the appropriate starting point is to provide incentives for states in developing countries to observe human rights and apply sanctions on them whenever severe abuses occur.

This essay has explained a diverse range of threats to human rights, claiming that protecting human rights is a difficult task but one that is largely within the purview of the state authority. Yet the behavior of nonstate actors – transnational or domestic – could positively affect and enhance human rights conditions. While protecting all human rights at all times is an immensely difficult task, the case for human rights remains both practically and morally a potent one. This is true if for no other reason than the fact that human rights provide us with a common framework for shaping conditions under which a dignified life can be sustained. Adapting and responding to the new threats of terrorism and the abuse of human rights in counterterrorism efforts, or, more accurately, in extralegal counterterrorism programs, poses a serious challenge to human rights laws of our time. Constraints within which democracies must fight terrorism, such as legislative and judicial measures, must be balanced against utilizing security measures and political instruments aimed at counterterrorism (Art and Richardson 2007).

How do we pursue important avenues for future research, given that, in the recent past, the research on civil and political rights has received a great deal of attention? The continued poverty and the complexities emanating from globalization have revealed the pitfalls of excessive occupation with civil–political rights. The social and economic rights-based approach deserves equal if not more attention. This approach is not without its own complexities, as nobody can underestimate the importance of political and civil liberties to the overall improvement of human rights conditions throughout the world. Future researchers must emphasize the need for a post–Washington Consensus in which a new model is sought that would seek to adopt a focus dealing simultaneously with advancing the living standards of people, and promoting equitable, sustainable, and democratic development. Human rights scholars, lawyers, and policy makers would be well advised to adopt a balanced approach toward advancing human rights causes and devote due attention to the concerns and interests of people living in abject poverty and under inequitable economic conditions.


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