Moving Beyond ‘Victim’

The normative value of universal human rights is constantly scrutinized both within the academy and in the field alike, as has been previously featured on the Institute for Human Rights Blog. Universal human rights, codified in international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, are writ large by a group of representatives operating at the international level and are ideally enjoyed by everyday citizens on the societal level. Human rights are both universally created and culturally applied. Problems arise when specific, codified human rights directly contradict cultural norms of a particular society. Examples of this contradiction include female genital cutting, the right to return of refugees, and international tourism.  The underlying tension is this: how can the local / global communities reconcile cultural beliefs with universal norms? Can human rights activists and scholars find a third way- marrying the universal with the particular? To evolve the conversation surrounding these issues, this blog uses the incidence of human trafficking in Benin to illustrate the discursive dimension of human rights advocacy and to counter the notion that universal human rights are incompatible with culturally particularistic beliefs.

Picture of a harbor in Cotonou, Benin
Shubert Ciencia, Creative Commons

Benin & the US: Bound by Cotton

Benin, formerly known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, is located in western Africa between Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo. Benin’s capital is Porto-Novo, official language is French, and has a population of almost 10 million individuals. And finally, according to the United States’ annually published Trafficking in Persons Report (US TIP Report), Benin is grappling with a human trafficking crisis. According to the 2017 TIP-Report, vast numbers of Beninese girls and boys are:

“… subjected to domestic servitude or sex trafficking in Cotonou and across Benin’s southern corridor. Some families send children to wealthier families for educational or vocational opportunities, a practice called vidomegon; some of these children are subjected to domestic servitude.”

(Emphasis in original document)

However, before we may contextualize human trafficking trafficking in Benin, the political motivations of the TIP-Report must be unpacked.

Every year, the US compiles all available data on the incidence, prevalence, and efforts to combat human trafficking worldwide. This information is provided from policy analysts, field researchers, first-hand testimony, and a vast array of informants working with or for the US State Department (among other national agencies). Once this information is analyzed, the US labels each country a 1, 2, 2-Watchlist, or 3 Tier ranking. The lower a country’s rank, the more successful efforts a country is undertaking to prevent trafficking in general, protect trafficked persons, and prosecute traffickers. Once a country reaches the Tier 2-Watchlist (in some cases) or Tier 3 designation, the US has precedent to curtail or eliminate monetary aid and other diplomatic exchanges with the state. Danger occurs when political instrumentalism and lack of awareness of cultural beliefs thrust themselves into this ideally ‘objective’ designation process.

As an example of political gaming,  China receives low rankings, despite a sprawling human trafficking plight, to maintain polite integrity of US-China relations. In the case of Benin, ignorance of cultural mores and beliefs fundamentally redefine what trafficking is and looks like on the ground; this fact is not internalized by the US State Department. Hence, Benin’s designation of Tier 2-Watchlist.

This designation means the US believes Benin is making active strides to combat trafficking, but these efforts do not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking within the country as a whole. Massive structural issues complicate Benin’s anti-trafficking process, including: sweeping inequality, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, and a national economy unable to withstand price gauging from foreign actors. The last issue is particularly germane to the incidence of trafficking in Benin, as Howard (2012) explains:

“In Benin, cotton is the major cash crop. It accounts for around 5 per cent of the GDP and almost 40 per cent of the country’s export receipts… [I]t is a household industry and provides income for thousands of families… When prices are high, people benefit… [C]otton prices have been at record lows for over a decade, in large part due to illegal US subsidies.”

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

According to Oxfam, the US raised cotton subsidies, which decimated many economies in Western African dependent on cotton production from local farmers. Benin’s economy in particular is crippled; many rural and agrarian workers are unable to sell their cotton products at a fair cost. Therefore, they must turn to alternate means of income – in some cases, trafficking. This oft-unexplored antecedent of trafficking cases is the pressing economic demands of both the trafficked person and others (such as the trafficker, buyer of services, etc.) involved in the process (Bales, 2012). Here is the paradox: the US classifies Benin a Tier 2-Watchlist country on the TIP-Report (a supposed human rights-promoting mechanism) when US economic policy vampirically saps Beninese resources, thereby increasing the occurrence of trafficking in the Beninese state. The US indirectly causes trafficking in Benin and simultaneously uses diplomatic pressure to punish Benin for its trafficking “problem”. So what does this disingenuous relationship look like to human rights activists in Benin and the populations they wish to serve?

Politics in Trafficking Discourse

In his ethnographic portrayal of the lives of working Beninese adolescents, Howard (2012) explores the motivations and incentives of young Beninese persons attempting to make a livelihood for both themselves and their families. He interviews young men who often work in gravel pits in western Nigeria and young women who opt to work for families in major coastal cities within Benin itself. According to Howard’s interviews with anti-trafficking NGO workers, two concerning issues surround the designation of these young men and women as ‘trafficked persons’:

  1. The young men and women seeking employment are underage. International law decrees childhood ends and legal consent begins (for most individuals) at age 18. In Benin, societal tradition prepares adolescents for work before age 18, and many adolescents (highly aware of their dire economic need) opt to work to support themselves their families. Due to these definitional inconsistencies, one persons trafficking survivor is another’s entrepreneur.
  2. Many of these young men and women do not consider themselves as trafficked persons, despite using 3rd-party cooperation to cross borders to find work. Here is a conversation that exemplifies this issue:

 

(Howard): Have some of you ever been away to do holiday work?

(Young Man): Yes, every single one of us! This is what allows us to continue at school! You can go to Nigeria or Savé and earn 30,000 or 40,000 FCFA in a summer!

(Howard): Do NGOs, white people or the government come here and say that’s bad?

(Young Man): Yes, loads.

(Howard): Why?

(Young Man): Because they can see that it can be hard, but they offer us no alternative.

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

The young man in this exchange, in addition to others interviews by Howard (2012), expresses frustration the Beninese government cannot aid employable citizens to find livable wages and jobs in their home communities. These individuals now must make long and arduous journeys to find work to sustain themselves and their families. This complicates the ‘victim-mentality’ all too common of anti-trafficking efforts; in many cases, anti-trafficking NGO’s see trafficked persons in need of ‘rescue’. However, via testimony from these so-called ‘trafficked persons’, these Beninese adolescents are exercising agency and ingenuity to pursue economic stability. They are not ‘victims’ of trafficking; they are victims of structural violence, in part propagated by the US government. In one fell swoop, the US government not only crippled the Beninese economy but also victimizes many Beninese workers through human rights discourse. What does the discursive process mean for human rights research and advocacy?

Notes on top of the written text of Michel Foucault
James Shelley, Creative Commons

Discourse, in a Foucault-ian sense, describes the process of transferring one’s worldview to another via communication (Howard, 2012). When we engage in dialogue, we construct a momentary reality for the person with whom we are engaged. They do the same. These conversations are laden with our worldview, power (a)symmetries, and culture; each of us brings these elements to the table. Therefore, the way in which we speak about a subject not only tells us about the subject itself, but it also of speaker(s). To speak of someone as a victim in need of rescue is to deny them agency and autonomy. This tactic may additionally heighten the moral authority of the speaker. This power asymmetry is epitomized by the dyad of the Beninese worker & US government.

Returning to the young man’s quotations above, we may infer he is an individual seeking agency and economic independence within a state that is unable to provide these opportunities. The state, Benin, is laden with political and financial woes; in part from price gauging by the United States. The US, also according to Howard’s ethnographic research, finances and sends NGO humanitarian aid workers to Benin to aid in anti-trafficking efforts. These aid workers, when pressed about why their Beninese ‘trafficking survivors’ were unable to find work within their homeland, often had no idea about the cotton subsidies or other reasons why the Beninese economy is suffering (Howard, 2012). Without a nuanced understanding of the structural barriers compelling Beninese adolescents to seek work in foreign lands, US aid workers revictimized Beninese citizens through discursive patronage and an inability to shoulder the burden of the US’s involvement in crippling the Beninese economy.

A Beninese woman balances a gourd above her head
AdamRogers2030, Creative Commons

A Challenge for Human Rights

Human rights are universal. The notion that all persons, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other identifying characteristic, deserve their dignity and personhood honored and protected is a key mainstay of modernity. The protection of human rights should be implemented by transnational actors such as the United Nations. Human rights should also be protected by states, such as the United States of America and Benin. Finally, human rights have to be guarded be ordinary people living in societies all over the world.

Conversations about human rights inform us about the speaker and how they conceive of rights. In the case of US aid workers in Benin, they considered Beninese adolescents in need of saving and as involuntary trafficking survivors falling prey to a malicious trafficker. And indeed, this is the case for many Beninese. From the other perspective, through the eyes of impoverished Beninese young women and men, earning a livable wage to support their family is paramount. They do not see themselves as victims; they see the aid-workers as misinformed. This begs the question: how do human rights activists and the communities they wish to serve negotiate power-sharing in discourse and social / economic / cultural equality within the doctrine of human rights?

A fundamental challenge within the realm of human rights is the negotiation between two groups of people who have (sometimes radically) different interpretations of what human rights mean. Eastern vs. Western, secular vs. religious, North vs. South, these are illusory differences propagated by individuals who directly benefit from antagonistic discourse between these (and many other) groups of people. Sometimes, is it not the conversation itself that is the important part; it is what each speaker is bringing to the conversation.

We see a conflict of interest between aid-workers in Benin and Beninese adolescents looking for jobs. Neither is wrong in their pursuit; both are merely taking radically different approaches to protecting the rights and fortunes of themselves and of those they care about. These differences of opinion on the interpretation of rights do not, as my colleague has written, weaken the foundational argument for the existence of universal human rights. These differences throw down the gauntlet for human rights activists and researchers to expand the table large enough for all vested parties to have an equal opportunity to negotiate a culturally-practical implementation of universal norms. It is a challenge to dismantle structural barriers to human rights (such as the US’s involvement in Benin’s cotton industry). It is a challenge to marry non-Western and Western conceptions of justice and peace. Human rights as a normative prescription of beliefs and behaviors is still in its infancy. These ideals still need an anthropologically-informed ethic, a moral system steeped in cultural pluralism through a globalized mechanism of implementation, in order to realize the full potential of universal human rights and a shared global identity of what it means to be human.

 

References

Bales, K. (2012). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Press Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Howard, N. (2012). Accountable to whom? Accountable for what? Understanding anti-trafficking discourse and policy in southern Benin. The Anti-Trafficking Review, 1, 43-59.

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.

The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier

Human beings often use words without understanding their full semantics or definition. Torture is one of those words. The reality of torture, in its actual definition and context, will remain an unknown experience for majority of humanity. Torture, for some, is part of their new normal. The purpose of this blog is to look briefly at the human rights violation of torture through the lens of cultural relativism and moral universalism.

a photo of a prison
Prison. Source: daily sunny, Creative Commons

A similar story

In 1994, 19-year-old American Michael Fay lived in Singapore. He made international headlines when a conviction of vandalism and sentencing to six lashes by caning became his punishment. Caning is a part of the corporal punishment system in Singapore. Most recently, a Saudi diplomat received caning lashes for molestation. At the time of Fay’s arrest, President Clinton described the punishment as too harsh, and the Singaporean government reduced the lashes to four. Fay received his lashes and returned home. I mention Fay as an entry point for Otto Warmbier.

I followed Warmbier’s case when it began in January 2016. He was a student from the University of Virginia, sentenced by the North Korean government to 15 years of hard labor over offensive behavior while on a backpacking tour in the country. The accusation brought against him of trying to steal a sign from the hotel where he was staying, resulted in an immediate conviction, considering the action as a “hostile act” and attempt to hurt the working class of Koreans by undermining solidarity. Theft in the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), regardless of object or size, often results in a public execution or beatings in prison camps and schoolyards as a means for deterring future behaviors. He is an enemy of the state.

Amnesty International notes North Korea’s propensity for arbitrary arrests and detentions. The US State department, at the time of his arrest, called for his immediate release, stating the punishment is “unduly harsh” and if he had been in any other country, the incident would not have resulted in this treatment or conviction. Warmbier, after 18 months as a prisoner in North Korea, died on June 19 in Ohio, following a “humanitarian gesture” of release by the North Koreans.

My initial interest in Otto was his reasoning/logic for travelling to the totalitarian “hermit kingdom” without knowledge of the culture. Yes, due to the fact, he is an American citizen, an appeal for his release and return was a correct gesture by the State Department at the time. However, if he was released in January 2016, what would he or anyone else have learned from that exchange? As Americans, we have cultivated and bought into an American exceptionalism ideology that often highlights our ignorance of international cultural norms and behaviors, thereby positioning us with the short end of the stick. Our American exceptionalism repetitively accuses other countries of torturous treatment of prisoners and other Americans, yet we somehow fail to see the plank in our own eye.

Cultural relativism

The men in both cases were accused, convicted, sentenced, and received punishment in accordance of the laws in the nations where they were guests. The US government described both punishments as torturous or unfair treatment. Many comments and explanations made and given spoke of the men’s character; however, no one mentioned about their knowledge of the culture of the country’s they visited (lived in, in Fay’s case) or the choice each man made that resulted in a behavior that was punishable by law. Perhaps these men are innocent of the crimes; only they know.

Sally Engle Merry suggests the misunderstanding over culture and human rights narrows to whether the application of rights is culturally relative or universal. She asserts that “Rights are understood as a uniquely Western idea… Culture, on the other hand, is understood as homogenous, integrated system of belief and values attached to a relatively small and isolated group of people. It was this conception of culture which spawned relativism as a moral perspective. Cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences – of mutual respect.” She concedes our understanding of culture informs our knowledge of rights. The notion of human rights found their basis in the identification and protection of civil and political rights, as determined by cultures willing to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since 1948, human rights have expanded, and continue to expand, to include the global collective of humanity, framed and spoken in “the preeminent global language of social justice. The changes correlate with some fluid elements of national cultures like McDonaldization, the use of smartphones and social media; changing and adapting to global influences like globalization. In other words, globalization and the application of human rights are determined by and dependent upon the pliable features of a national culture. PRK remains a significant outlier because of national sovereignty.

In “Human Rights along the Grapevine”, Mark Goodale agrees with Merry using a clarifying caveat. He points out that the writers of the UDHR did so with an “anti-internationalism” delegation in mind. To Roosevelt, the understanding and implementation of the UDHR for citizens in countries closed to creating laws that protected human rights, “a curious grapevine” would bring to pass the information about the new normative system. As individuals learned about their human rights, they could initiate a change in culture, from the bottom-up, which cultivates a new national culture that honors the universality of human rights, through the respect and honoring of human rights on a national level first. He suggests the UDHR provides a standard by which global humanity can identity and measure the protection or violation of human rights under specific governments, particularly regarding repression and subjugation. It is important to know that the UDHR does not and cannot override national sovereignty. National sovereignty reigns supreme when it comes to what takes place within the borders of a country. Do human rights require acceptance on an individual country basis—culturally relative–or should they find recognition and protection through global application? Returning to the Warmbier case, let us look at the accusation of the torture by the US.

a picture of the inside of Port Arthur Prison
Prison at Port Arthur. Source: Dushan Hanuska, Creative Commons.

Torture: Pot meet kettle

Torture, for Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson, is the most significant human rights violation because it not only violates the individual but also instills a system of fear within a society, removing a sense of security. Several international law, covenants, conventions and declarations conclude that torture is a direct violation of a person’s rights and dignity. Article Five of the UDHR states, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article Two of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) reads, “Each state party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The United States is a state party to the CAT, yet even in the declaration of agreement, there is a stipulation that invokes national sovereignty:

That the United States considers itself bound by the obligation under article 16 to prevent `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, only insofar as the term `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

It is tempting to think totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are uniquely guilty of torturous actions. Bobby Sands of Ireland as well as former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), and the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib are reminders that democratic governments, including the US, can also perpetrate human rights violations. Let us briefly discuss Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as examples of how America treats enemies of the state and prisoners of war based upon the conditions the government stated within the CAT.

“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture…” Ahmed Errachidi

Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson observe that for the Nazis, the removal of Jews to concentration camps brought about an ‘out of sight, out of minds’ perspective to the population. Apuzzo, Fink, and Risen assert the denial of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” positions the US as an entity that contradicts its values by employing tactics that stand in direct opposition to those values. In their article, they present the case that the US frequently conducts arbitrary arrests based upon nonexistent or flimsy evidence. Arrests regularly fails to provide due process to those in custody, flagrantly participates in behaviors where the lines remain blurred as “amounted to torture or succeeded in extracting intelligence”, and discard prisoners without explanation or charges to return to their home countries and families as shells of who they once were.

Gitmo is synonymous with the torture of prisoners by the US. Testimonies of former prisoners, interrogators, physicians, and medical and government documentation speak to the humiliating and abusive tactics utilized by American soldiers and CIA personnel to obtain “information” which could be used to capture and prosecute additional enemies of the state. However, as mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview, torture may not result in the victim providing useful information. The prisoner simply says what is necessary to end the suffering.

Former President George W. Bush determined waterboarding, a technique that stimulates the feeling of drowning and induces stress, does not constituting torture. President Obama in 2009 disagreed, banned its use by the US, and sought to close Gitmo during his presidency. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump promised to reinstate waterboarding and torturous acts, stating, “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The collection of stories in the NY Times piece is consistent with the photographs from Abu Ghraib. The photos taken by American soldiers reveal the dishonoring, degrading, and torturous action inflicted upon prisoners of war in American custody. Given our treatment of prisoners, whether actual enemies of the state or someone arrested due to mistaken identity, America has little credibility when attempting to call out PRK on torture.

The line between cultural relativism and universality is thin. The United States, as active perpetrators of torture and degrading punishment including waterboarding, stands cheek-to-cheek with the country it seeks to name and shame into submission. The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier challenges the authority of national sovereignty and cultural relativism in the light of human rights and their universal application. The call to protect human rights is an all or nothing call; there is no in-between. To stand on the values of truth, justice, and law for one person, one area or country, you must stand for it for all persons, areas or countries.