Juvenile Justice Reform Helps Kids Be Kids

by Pamela Zuber

A pair of young hands gripping a prison fence
Source: Pixabay

While people in many places in the United States and around the world are experiencing human rights violations, the news is not entirely bleak. There are also positive developments. One is in juvenile justice.

How has juvenile justice progressed?

On October 1, 2019, four U.S. states allowed people seventeen years old and under to be tried automatically as adults: Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Members of Michigan’s state House of Representatives and state Senate took steps to change that statistic. They passed legislation in October 2019 that would:

  • Define adults as people eighteen years old and older.
  • Place seventeen-year-olds in family court, not adult criminal court.
  • Assign alternatives such as counseling and monitoring instead of incarceration or help accused youth avoid traditional court procedures entirely.
  • Give prosecutors the option to try people under the age of seventeen as adults if they are accused of violent crimes such as murder or rape if they have court approval.
  • Prevent seventeen-year-olds from being incarcerated in the same facilities as adults.
  • Not apply to seventeen-year-olds who have been previously sentenced as adults.

Legislators previously had trouble reaching agreement on the Michigan bill because of a dispute over funding for juveniles in the state’s justice system. The state of Michigan and the state’s counties currently share such funding responsibilities, but under the 2019 bill, the state would fund the first few years of the new program. The funding arrangement could help ease financial burdens for counties struggling to fund programs relating to health and wellness, law enforcement, and other services.

Known as a raise the age bill, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer signed this bill, Senate Bill 84, into law on October 31, 2019. The provisions in the bill will take effect in 2021.

What are the advantages of charging people as juveniles?

A young man skating along a road on a skateboard
Source: Pixabay

Charging people who are seventeen years old or younger as juveniles instead of adults may produce many benefits. On a short-term basis, it may be safer if accused young people are housed with other young people instead of adults. Young people treated as adults may be incarcerated with people accused of or convicted of violent crimes. The safety of juveniles could be at stake.

Designating people as juveniles also may produce more long-term benefits. For one, it could save money. A 2011 report published by the Vera Institute of Justice stated that raising the age of adult prosecution from sixteen to eighteen could provide millions of dollars in benefits for youth, victims, and taxpayers in the state of North Carolina. Such changes could initially cost money because they would require changes to the youth justice system, but in the long run, they could save money by not engaging the adult justice system.

Proponents of prosecuting children as adults have said that this prosecution could scare youths straight. They claim it could prevent young people from committing serious crimes because they are frightened of the consequences. But studies have shown that such harsh penalties do not deter young people from committing serious crimes.

Judicial system changes may help reconcile what we’re learning about the biology of young people. “Researchers focused on brain development have found that 18- to 24-year-olds—also referred to as young adults — stand out as a distinct developmental group with heightened impulsive behavior, risk taking, and poor decision making,” wrote scholars at the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in 2015.

Teens’ impulsiveness, judgment problems, and desire to experiment may thus make them liable to try alcohol and drugs and engage in other dangerous practices. They could be using such substances to rebel against their parents and other caretakers. After they use drugs or alcohol, the substances may alter their still-developing brains, creating life-altering consequences. Similarly, teens who engage in illegal behavior may face legal consequences. If they’re tried as adults, they may spend years behind bars or face other repercussions that could haunt them for their entire lives.

Who else advocates for juvenile justice reform?

Michigan legislators aren’t the only people and organizations advocating for changes to the justice system for juveniles. Organizations such as the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) are working to stop the prosecution of children under the age of eighteen as adults and end youths’ incarceration in adult facilities. The CFYJ says that this advocacy is necessary. It claims that 95,000 U.S. children are housed in adult prisons and jails every year and that several states and the District of Columbia allow children as young as seven years old to be prosecuted as adults.

Efforts from the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) are also trying to change the juvenile justice system. Like the Campaign for Youth Justice, it wants to end the prosecution of children as adults. The JLC is also working to end harsh conditions and solitary confinement at juvenile correctional facilities. It seeks to stop sentencing youth to serve their entire lives in prison without parole and end economic practices such as fines and fees that keep poor children confined more than more affluent ones. In addition, it also wants prisons and jails to provide educational opportunities for youth that can help them build better lives that prevent them from committing additional crimes and re-entering the correctional system.

On the websites for both organizations, there are sections that allow people to donate to their causes. Both sites also offer updates to keep people informed. The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) site also allows people to share their stories and give testimonials. It provides instructions on how people can contribute to the organization’s initiatives.

Prosecuting teenagers as youths allows people to face the consequences of their actions, but it doesn’t condemn them to serving lifetimes in prison for minor crimes that they committed when they were still growing physically and mentally. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re young. Sensible justice sentencing for juveniles acknowledges mistakes and gives people the time and opportunity to learn from them.

 

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor interested in many topics, such as human rights, addiction and recovery, history, business, and science.

 

Providing Equal Justice for All

By Pamela Zuber

“We have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” – Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy

Inside of a jail, a dark hallway with green jail cells on either side
Source: Pixabay

Money can’t buy happiness, but does it buy justice? Or, more accurately, does it help people avoid justice? Does money provide unfair advantages?

Athlete and actor O. J. Simpson famously assembled a team of some of the most prominent lawyers in the United States to defend him after he was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend. Dubbed a legal dream team, these defenders helped Simpson win acquittal on criminal charges in 1995, although he was convicted of civil charges in 1997.

Wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein could have been convicted of federal sex crimes involving teenagers in 2008 but pleaded guilty to lesser charges in a Florida state court. During his sentence, he was allowed to leave prison for up to twelve hours every day for six days a week. Epstein also had private security and his own psychologist while staying in a private wing of a Miami prison.

After serving thirteen months, Epstein traveled frequently to New York and the Virgin Islands while he was on probation. Epstein committed suicide in prison in August 2019 while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. The trafficking trial continued after his death.

Did Simpson and Epstein’s money, power, and connections help them avoid justice? If so, what does that mean for the average person and can we do anything to change it?

Understanding poverty and imprisonment

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy … the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution

“If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you.”
– Description of Miranda warnings issued to suspects

According to the U.S. Constitution and the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Miranda v. Arizona, people accused of crimes have the right to obtain an attorney for their defense. Wealthier people have the financial resources and social connections that allow them to hire experienced private attorneys. If people cannot afford such legal assistance, they may defend themselves or receive the help of court-appointed attorneys.

Although court-appointed attorneys are sorely needed, the system that employs them has experienced major problems. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “[p]oor people in most jurisdictions do not get adequate legal representation. Only 24 states have public defender systems, and even the best of those are hampered by lack of funding and crippling case loads.”

Even if they secure representation at trials, poor people often cannot afford attorneys to represent them at appeals and other legal system procedures. Well-heeled suspects, meanwhile, can often better afford experienced representation throughout the judicial process and other benefits of such representation.

“People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population,” noted the Prison Policy Initiative. “Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome, as a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates debt, and decimates job opportunities.” Even after poor people leave prison, their punishment continues. Poor people who are convicted of crimes often find it difficult to find jobs, housing, and other opportunities after they serve their sentences.

Much of this prosecution and imprisonment relates to drugs. “Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year on a drug law violation,” reported the Drug Policy Alliance.

While some people turn to selling drugs when they feel they have few other economic opportunities, that is not the case for many people arrested for drug violations. People may face severe penalties just for possessing drugs for their own personal use. If they’re poor, they’re less likely to have access to effective addiction treatment, so they have a greater chance of staying addicted. There is a greater likelihood that the police will catch them with drugs in their possession.

Once arrested, poor people face medical and psychological problems relating to their addiction. They face criminal and financial problems due to their arrest, incarceration, defense, and trial. Such problems often make poor people even poorer.

Making the legal system fairer

Picture of a judge's gavel
Source: Pixabay

Some areas are looking for ways to make justice fair for all, not just the more financially secure. Writing for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio, Emily Hamer and Sheila Cohen stated that “[t]he Wisconsin Constitution states cash bail can be used only as a means of making sure the accused appears for the next court hearing — meaning judges are not supposed to consider public safety when making decisions about bail.”

Similarly, in 2018, former California governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10, a measure that would have abolished cash bail in the state. The state’s bail bonds industry struck back. It collected enough signatures to make this measure a 2020 ballot referendum so voters could determine its validity. Between the 2018 bill signing and the 2020 referendum, some California courts and reformers worked to promote changes to California bail practices and courts.

Representation may be becoming fairer as well. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigated legal representation in the state of Michigan and found it wanting. In response, the state created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission in 2013. The commission pays for staff members and training for cases and creates standards for court-appointed attorneys.

Michigan’s commission also includes a useful FAQ section on its website to help people understand and navigate the court-appointed attorney process. It describes how court-appointed attorneys must visit clients who have been jailed within three days, for example, and explains other rights of the accused.

Investigating laws and how they impact people

U.S. states are also investigating laws to determine if they’re fair to all of their residents. Many states have mandatory minimums, which are mandatory minimum sentences that people must serve if they’ve been convicted of certain crimes. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, during the 2016 fiscal year, African American and Hispanic people were more likely to be convicted of offenses that garner mandatory minimums.

The conviction rates of these groups don’t match their overall representation in the U.S. population. While Hispanic or Latino people accounted for 40.4 percent of the people convicted of mandatory minimum crimes in 2016, U.S. Census estimates from 2018 placed the Hispanic or Latino population of the United States at 18.3 percent. The U.S. census estimated the African American or black population as 13.4 percent in 2018, but people in this group accounted for 29.7 percent of mandatory minimum crime convictions.

Black and Latinx people traditionally have made less money than white people and continue to do so. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2017, the median average income for households who identified as white and not Hispanic was $68,145. For Hispanic households, the median income was $50,486, while the median income for black households was $40,258.

Lower incomes have traditionally meant that people were less likely to afford adequate legal assistance. They were forced to turn to overworked, underfunded legal defense programs for assistance, assistance that may have not had the time or financial resources to investigate and defend their cases. If their legal representation faced better financed opposition, accused people may have been more likely to lose their cases, serve lengthy prison sentences, and endure unbreakable cycles of poverty after their releases.

Changes such as bail reforms in Wisconsin and California and the creation of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission hope to end such unfair outcomes. They strive to make legal representation accessible to all. They aim to make justice truly just.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about various topics, including human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

“Denial” – A Conversation About Justice

An image of power lines, with smoke and smog from factories rising behind the electrical towers.
Electric Towers During Golden Hour. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

On Saturday, September 21st, 2019, the Institute of Human Rights co-sponsored an event with Alabama Young Democrats that featured former Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist. Hallquist’s visit to UAB focused on a screening of her released documentary “Denial” which covers her time as the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative while she advocated for sustainable energy and processed her gender identity.

Upon announcing her 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Morrisville, Hallquist officially became the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor. Her campaign focused on increased broadband access, universal healthcare, and an aggressive stance on climate change. After winning the Democratic nomination, she ran against incumbent Phil Scott and gained over 40% of the popular vote. Though losing the gubernatorial campaign, Hallquist continues to be an activist addressing climate change and being a fighter for all those experiencing discrimination or fear based on gender identity.

“Denial” details the life of Christine Hallquist, discussing two major issues, her gender dysphoria (as David in the film) and the increasing threat of climate change in people’s lives. As the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, Hallquist pushed to promote cleaner methods to produce energy, such as wind turbine farms, solar energy, and smart meters. The movie also explores Hallquist’s transition into womanhood through the lens of her son, Derek, who struggles to accept that his father has transitioned into a woman. Asked by her son as to why she didn’t speak out earlier in life, Hallquist responds by explaining how if she were truthful at 15, she would be placed in a mental institution. If she were truthful in her 20s, then she wouldn’t be married nor have any children. She then spoke about her dream, which was to “spend every waking moment as a woman. But if I went to work in a dress,” she says, “I would be unemployed.” These sentiments speak to the barriers trans people face as they navigate their daily lives.

 

Christine Hallquist, in front of a screen showing her film "Denial" talking to the audience.
Hallquist addressing the audience about her film. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

During the film’s Q&A session, an audience member asked Hallquist what she has done since leaving Vermont Electric Cooperative. She said she became aware that action would be needed at the executive level in order to induce change and propel Vermont to employ cleaner energy practices; by realizing the severity of the crisis, she transitioned from being perceived as a centrist to that of a staunch progressive. As a result, she wrote the North American Solution to Climate Change, which detailed ways in which the climate crisis could be hindered in favor of saving the Earth. She claimed we are “fighting for the future of this country” and that we have to “collaborate across the world to solve the problem. We need to learn how to work with each other!”

 

An audience member, surrounded by other members looking at him, talking to Christine Hallquist about her work for Climate Justice.
An audience member questioning Hallquist about her work for Climate Justice. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Does it take effort and a willingness to accept change in order to make a difference? That is a question that each one of us must answer. Looking at the future, should we all push towards climate action like Hallquist? Or should we take a step back and plan our movements to avoid being too rash? Hallquist raised an interesting point when she claimed that we as humans are not very well used to change. We decide much of the time to stick with tradition and avoid getting out of our comfort zone. Rather, we should embrace change and grow with our own experiences. We can start by teaching ourselves to challenge what we know about gender as well as to learn more about the impacts of climate change. These issues are imperative to upholding our basic human rights because all people deserve to live in a healthy, safe, and welcoming environment.

Due Process: Is It Standard Operating Procedure?

United States Supreme Court  The southern-facing main facade of the United States Supreme Court, overlooking Capitol Hill.
United States Supreme Court. The southern-facing main facade of the United States Supreme Court, overlooking Capitol Hill. Source: Matt Popvich, Creative Commons

I read “The Presumption of Guilt: The new liberal standard turns American due process upside down” the other day. I found this piece presumptuous at worst, and revelatory at best. The WSJ editorial board outlines three core tenets potentially derailing due process in the Kavanaugh appointment, most notably the presumption of his guilt. These core tenets, in the board’s estimation, will defend against a mockery of “the new liberal standard of legal and political due process.” What strikes me most about this piece is the presentation of their core beliefs about the justice system in America: “The core tenet of Anglo-American law is that the burden of proof always rests with the person making the accusation.” What the board revealed is the ever-present reality that populations of color in this country know and experience daily, and this fact is symbolized in the very name of the board’s ideal legal system itself: Anglo-Saxon. The law is not as colorblind or unbiased as the justice system would have us believe. The law is not for the protection of all; it is for the protection of Anglo-Americans. It is a law to the exclusion of everyone else. This blog, using the outlined WSJ tenets as section headers, speaks to the presumption of guilt applied daily to marginalized populations without due process.

Tenet #1: The core tenet of Anglo-American law is that the burden of proof always rests on the person making the accusation. Non-whites do not get the benefit of the doubt, even when video evidence, witness statements, or 911 recordings indicate otherwise. For marginalized persons, few opportunities transpire to make an accusation or offer a defense. Consider any number of non-threatening Sikhs, Muslims, Native Americans, or Blacks who find themselves on the receiving end of the “fear” of a White person for their safety. The accusatory nature of white America against persons of color, especially Blacks, living their lives has become so galvanized that #whileblack is a social media phenomenon.

#WhileBlack spotlights White Americans willingly interfering and causing disruption in the lives of Black people. Whether a politician canvassing a neighborhood or realtor checking on a property or a White grandmother riding home with her Black grandson, White Americans usage of the police as quenchers of irrational fear may result in the death of another unarmed and unassuming citizen. A few months ago, a group of Black women packed their car following their vacation when White residents phoned the police, accusing the women of robbing the AirBnB house where they stayed. Even after pleading their case, the officers did not believe the Black women. A White student at Yale phoned the police on two different Black students on two different occasions because she believed they did not belong on the campus. Colorado campus police detained two Native American students visiting a university when a White parent complained that the boys seemed threatening because they did not say much during the tour. In addition to highlighting the direct and structural violence that non-Whites face over the course of the day, #whileBlack showcases that the mastery of accusation and othering heavily favors the dominant party.

Tenet #2: An accusation isn’t any more or less credible because of the gender, race, religion or ethnicity of who makes it. This tenet suggests that any accusation is worthy of address. Recent history, including accusations against Roy Moore and this current case, tell us that many Americans presume the innocence of white males in the entertainment industry and political arena over white women. Thus, revealing a gender bias. Just ask Bill O’Reilly, Les Moonves, and Louis C.K. Presently the exceptions to this rule are men of color like Aziz Ansari and Bill Cosby.

Accusations of sexual misconduct by women of color are often dismissed or discredited. In 1991, Anita Hill came forward with allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. When Lupita Nyong’o said Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed her, Weinstein denied the possibility of it, despite more than 40 other women making similar and more explicit claims. This tenet, however, is inaccurate if you are Carolyn Bryant or Donald Trump. Carolyn Bryant lied to a judge and jury in 1955. With that lie, she sentenced Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago, to a lynching by Bryant’s husband and other family members. Donald Trump, in 2008, initiated and perpetuated the birther narrative about President Obama. Despite the release of Obama’s birth certificate in 2011, many doubt Obama and believe Trump.

statue of justice
Scales of Justice-Frankfurt. Source: Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons

Tenet #3: The right to cross-examine an accuser. This tenet is the crux of due process as exercised under the auspices of a third party, whether a mediator, a judge, or an adjudicator. “The denial of cross-examination is a major reason that campus panels adjudicating sexual-assault claims have become kangaroo courts.” The right to confront an accuser is a component of justice; however, in many cases of sexual assault and violence, there is an invoking of “boys will be boys” and/ or “that’s just what we did in high school and college” to bypass cross-examination and the potential for prosecution altogether. This flippant attitude is primary to the problem. A double standard has always existed when describing the sexual behaviors of men and women.

In conclusion, what is interesting is for all the chatter of due process in this piece, the WSJ editorial board fail to recognize that due process is exactly what the women who have stepped forward desire. Due process allows the accusers the opportunity to tell their sides of the story and Kavanaugh to tell his side. It allows for cross-examination and a committee of his peers to decide if he should find himself rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Due process should bring about a more just society and system.

If the failure to administer due process signals “the new liberal standard”, how does it apply to conservative-led initiatives? Republicans control the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary – in effect, the Republican party is the chief executor of due process in all branches of government. Are Americans to infer that government officials have not implemented the due process as standard operating procedure? If there is a failure of due process, the burden of responsibility falls at the feet of the Republicans.

Due process seems like an overarching ideal outworked in the request to receive all the documents concerning his judgeship so proper vetting could take place in preparation for the confirmation hearing. It seems like a logical next step when considering the “committee confidential” emails that should not have been confidential; if there is nothing to hide, given the presumption of innocence and blind trust this society is to have for its leaders. Why is a due process so important in this case and for this person but not for others?

Where are the demands for due process for the children stolen from their parents and held hostage by the government as migrant families seek refuge in a country that once held so much promise? Where are the demands for due process when unarmed men, women, and children are murdered in their schools or on playgrounds, or streets or in their homes? Where are the demands for due process for the thousands of survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church? Where are the cries for due process when individuals commit suicide because they experience bullying because of something they cannot change or choose?

Articles 6-12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outline the basic tenets of due process. If Kavanaugh has nothing to hide and believes, as an officer of the court, that the system is just, then he should have no issue facing his accusers, calling a cross-examination, and letting the justice system work. Unless he knows the demands for due process are inequitable because justice is not just.

What is the meaning of “due process” as a component of the justice system, if a potential justice stymies the rights of accusers during his pursuit of a position in the highest court of the land as an executor of the justice system?

Iran and the Conflict Over Human Rights

An Iranian propaganda poster in Tehran.
Teheren_US_Embassy_propaganda_statue_of_liberty. Source: Phillip Maiwald, Creative Commons

Throughout his work, the Iranian poet and academic Hasan Honarmandi vividly illustrated the predominant Iranian view of the West in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In his poem The West is Fast Asleep, Honarmandi claimed “[f]rom the land of glitter all happiness has left / Chains abound, but of faith it is bereft / Naught but numbers fill the Western brain / For joy without anxiety you’ll search in vain / […] No longer has the West a message to convey.” Yet in his own life, the poet failed to take heed of his own message, succumbing to the mind-numbing alienation and atomization he associated with Western modernity. After moving to Paris to continue his studies, Honarmandi, “who never married and lived in a small apartment”, “committed suicide by ingesting sleeping pills and drinking cognac,” forever doomed to slumber in the West.

With the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on the first of February 1979, Iranians believed they successfully defeated the symptoms of modernity to which Honarmandi surrendered. Although many rose up against the monarchical regime of the Shah in protest of its “corruption, repression, despotism, and the plight of the disenfranchised,” the vast majority of the millions of ordinary Iranians from every walk of life that greeted Khomeini upon his return rose up in opposition to the same concepts of modernity condemned by Honarmandi:

The grassroots of society […] opposed the Shah’s Westernization programs, which contrasted sharply with Islamic values. […] Ayatollah Khomeini highlighted the cultural decadence and spectacularly mobilized the masses by a reinterpretation of Shi’a theology fused with anti-Americanism.

As the Shah fled from country to country after the collapse of his regime, Khomeini victoriously proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which would exist in a “permanent state of revolutionary fervor” deemed necessary to ward off “cultural imperialism and […] ‘ethnocide’ at the hands of their Western adversaries.” Khomeini ultimately received his wish, although presumably not in the manner in which he originally intended. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran continually suffers from protests, such as those in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and now in 2017-2018. In all of these instances, the Iranian government employed physical force – ranging from rubber bullets and water cannons to armed militias and counter-protestors – against its domestic detractors, often resulting in deaths and always drawing swift condemnation from its Western peers. However, where the West observes a government violating its citizens’ human rights, the Iranian leadership and its supporters genuinely believe “some Western countries intended to impose on other societies their own social ethical decline, to which they themselves confess, within the attractive package of human rights.”

Ultimately, the differing perspectives of the Islamic Republic and the West demonstrate a crucial question facing the human rights community: Are human rights, in fact, universal? Or, do they differ based on history, culture, and other factors?

Iranian women protest against the Shah.
Iranian_Revolution_Women. Source: Khabar, Public Domain

“No longer has the West a message to convey”

At its very essence, the Western conception of human rights contends such rights apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, or creed. But what if a society rejects core aspects of this conception? If a large enough segment of the human population expresses opposition to many of these rights, can the Western conception of human rights legitimately be referred to as “human” rights? Indeed, at its core, the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran represents a struggle between two, often-contradictory, worldviews.

In the years prior to 1979, the West – in the eyes of many Iranians – sought to impose its worldview on Iran through the Shah, who, for all intents and purposes, served as a Western puppet. Their White Revolution promoted the abolition of the veil, suffrage for women, Western-style judicial and education systems, and neoliberal economic reforms, among other supposed hallmarks of modernity. As noted by Ali Mirsepassi, this resulted in:

ideas of “home,” or being and belonging, [having] very strong resonance in Iran during the rapid modernization program imposed dictatorially by the Shah, and greatly helped to shape the “nativist” philosophy of the revolution in terms of both a “spiritual” sensibility and a defense of “local” culture against universalism grounded in a […] “return” to a “pure source” of being or “authentic” identity.

From the very beginning, therefore, the Islamic Revolution represented a categorical rejection of Western values by the people of Iran. Although the majority of the revolution occurred relatively peacefully, protestors regularly assaulted symbols of Western culture, such as alcohol stores and movie theaters. This opposition to Western modernity continues in the Islamic Republic to the current day, according to Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidsaless, who observe:

Within Iran, there is a debate […] on how to address the issue of human rights. There are some who adamantly believe that the West seeks to impose their own version of human rights at the expense of Islamic values. Proponents of this view are reluctant to accommodate a Western interpretation of human rights and will not succumb to pressure – specifically on issues such as hijab (the wearing of a scarf or veil) and corporal punishment. Another school of thought recognizes the innate differences between Islamic and Western values. […] The focus is on seeking to understand and accommodate such cultural variety.

On one hand, the conservative viewpoint, espoused by figures such as Supreme Leader Khamenei, essentially subscribes to the clash of civilizations theory, contending culturally and ethnically distinct civilizations (i.e. the West, Asia, the Middle East, and so on) will naturally conflict with one another as globalization brings these civilizations into greater contact with one another during the twenty-first century. This political faction, known as the Principalists, view Western Modernity and Islam in terms of an irreconcilable dichotomy – one can possess their “variant and traditional familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, and national identities/attachments” or one can possess “the tediously monotonous materialism of the present age.”

On the other, the moderate viewpoint, as championed by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, believes in a world organized along the idea that societies and cultures should remain separate, but ultimately equal, based on qualities such as mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs. However, unlike the conservative school of thought, the Reformists do not perceive the necessity of conflict between cultures – instead, they stress emphasizing commonalities in order to minimize conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic societies.

Despite their nominal opposition to one another, these Iranian schools agree on a crucial point – both reject the universal conception of human rights as “the Trojan horse of the powerful West.” Indeed, “every political faction in Iran, including moderates,” believes that the West employs human rights, economic sanctions, and other elements of its soft power “either to change the nezam’s identity and impose Western values, or to completely topple it and replace it with a puppet state.”

A rally supportive of the Iranian regime.
Qom_rallies_2018. Source: Mohammad Ali Marizad, Creative Commons

“The West which itself is helpless now, in a torture test”

While the Islam of the Iranian Revolution seeks to “export the revolution” throughout the Middle East, Western liberalism seeks to force its values – including its particular conception of human rights – on the rest of the world. Countries must possess liberal democracy – the choices of the voters, without which democracy does not exist, do not matter if they choose illiberal democracy. The constant attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic illustrate this fact, as does Western support for the military coup against President Morsi of Egypt and European Union threats to sanction Poland over its judicial reforms. Countries must accept the Western conception of human rights or potentially risk a politically motivated, “humanitarian” intervention.

Both Western liberalism and the Islamic Republic – despite their apparent antagonism – exhibit a similar drive towards universalizing their values; however, they also possess drastically different conceptions of values and the world. Different values necessarily result in different conceptions of human rights, especially when “both sides also claim to be champions of universal values, justice, equality, and dignity.”

Ultimately, these arguments weaken the underlying assumption that human rights are universal. Critics of this viewpoint suggest the universality of human rights emerges from the various international documents that codify such rights. Yet this ignores the fact that Westerners – specifically, the Western liberal political elite – overwhelmingly participated in the drafting of these documents. Furthermore, the conception of these documents served an explicitly political purpose – buttressing the post-war, liberal world order as conceived by President Roosevelt and American planners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights played a direct role in crafting the appearance of universality for the Western conception of human rights.

Throughout history, political systems and values developed slowly – city-by-city, region-by-region, and nation-by-nation– over the course of several thousand years. The true radicalism of the modern, Western-conceived human rights regime lies in its attempt to ignore this fact, imposing its rules on the entirety of the globe in barely seven decades. Seeing as many countries only recently received independence from the last Western attempt to impose its values on the world, it should not surprise that many possess little appetite for this latest iteration of Western universalism.

The solution lies in what Guillaume Faye refers to as the “Autarky of Great Spaces” and Samuel Huntington denoted as “civilizations.” Rather than jumping directly from the nation to the globe, this solution calls for the implementation of human rights regimes at the level of civilizational blocs (i.e., Europe, Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, etc.) as an intermediate step. As observable in the Western culture wars and the Iranian-Saudi proxy wars throughout the Middle East, even within civilizations – “defined by common objective elements, such as a language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” – there exist significant divides; therefore, the attempt to engineer a universal, human rights philosophy without intermediary steps towards practical implementation and the negotiation of wide cultural differences represents putting the cart significantly before the horse.

The term “autarky” refers to the idea that “only those things that cannot be produced domestically [by a country] are imported.” Although Faye, as well as most others, employs it in a purely economic sense, autarky also makes sense in terms of values and culture. Different civilizations possess similar core values, yet differ on the implementation and applicability of these values– hence, the clash of civilizations over these values as globalization increases contact between them. Ultimately, these should serve as the basis for the human rights regime of each civilization or Great Space.

For the conflict between the West and Iran, such a human rights philosophy promises to reduce conflict for various reasons:

1) This regime acknowledges human diversity, both in opinion and in culture. Thus, both the West and Iran receive independence in crafting their own, culturally relevant human rights systems.

2) The principles of mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs – often specifically demanded by Iran and other non-Western nations – serve as key components. Emphasizing these principles also addresses non-Western concerns regarding the selectivity the West displays in terms of its use and endorsement of humanitarian intervention.

Only once the intra-civilizational divides on values and human rights reach a sufficient conclusion can inter-civilizational divides hope to receive adequate attention and a truly universal human rights regime formulated. Ultimately, the implementation of this human rights regime could serve as a veritable Peace of Westphalia for human rights.