Saturday, January 8, 2011

Human rights imperialism?

On the last day of 2010, Stephen Kinzer offered a scathing attack on "human rights imperialism" in the Guardian. In this exceedingly odd piece, Kinzer criticizes Human Rights Watch and other organizations for "imposing western, 'universal' standards on developing countries."

Kinzer makes two key points, related but not identical. First, he believes that the human rights movement "has lost its way" and is using "human rights as [its] excuse" for undermining governments of poor countries and building support for American military interventions worldwide. In other words, the movement is lending itself to becoming used for foreign policy goals that are not driven by human rights considerations.

Second, he suggests that many of the most prominent human rights NGOs "promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call 'universal'."

There is little or no evidence to support either of those points. Kinzer's claims are hardly novel — human rights activists have long struggled with the danger of succumbing to either of these risks. (Consider, for example, Michael Ignatieff's excellent Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, published in 2003, which, as the title deals with precisely these two issues.) As a result, it is silly to suggest that the leading human rights NGOs have now succumbed wholesale.

The key problem is this: in any given issue area, multiple human rights are at stake, and the United States is likely to have a strategic interest. Any HR organization will thus need to think carefully about the relative priority of different rights, and the risk of appearing to be pushing for change that — for different reasons — fits US strategic goals. Difficult choices are unavoidable.

Kinzer apparently disagrees with some of those choices, and translates this disagreement into a wholesale condemnation of the human rights movement. His two specific disagreements are very poorly chosen, however. First, he argues that human rights organizations in Darfur have served as "useful idiots" to extend a conflict by reacting to massacres strategically provoked by rebel groups.

This claim is pernicious for three reasons. First, Kinzer implies that massacres in Darfur were, from the very beginning, strategically provoked, which is a severe accusation for which I do not believe there is evidence (not only that — given the degree to which the world ignored the conflict in South Sudan, which festered for decades and cost about two million lives, Darfur rebel groups would have to have been rather stupid to count on useful involvement from the outside). Second, he suggests that massacres that have been "provoked" (he does not specify how) cannot constitute serious human rights violations worth monitoring and protesting. Third, he seems to believe that any group that cannot win on the battlefield cannot have a human rights complaint worth getting involved in — realpolitik at its worst.

Kinzer's second complaint is no less problematic: He takes issue with complaints about Paul Kagame's increasingly authoritarian rule in Rwanda, given that Kagame's government has brought peace, stability, and economic growth back to Rwanda far more successfully than anybody could have dared hope fifteen years ago.

Again, there are three serious problems here. First, I am not aware that any human rights organization denies Kagame's achievements. The "evidence" Kinzer's online article links to in support of the claim that "Human Rights Watch... portrays the Rwandan regime as brutally oppressive" simply documents official intimidation of opposition parties; it does not state nor imply that HRW thinks "giving people jobs, electricity, and above all security is not considered a human rights achievement." Second, the evidence is fairly straightforward, so Kinzer's opposition to publicizing it suggests that he feels Rwanda's economic and security achievements have earned it a free pass to commit a range of "minor" human rights violations. Third, Kinzer takes a primordial view about Rwandans and their "ethnic hatreds", suggesting, with no evidence whatsoever, that all opposition parties that are being intimidated by the Kagame regime a) are connected to genocidaires, and b) would, if they came to power, unleash another genocide.

Judging by his website, Kinzer seems like an interesting and fairly thoughtful guy. He must have been in a particularly sour mood around the holidays to pen such a profoundly misguided attack on the entire human rights movement. I hope he comes to his senses in the new year.

Estonia's euro bet

Just a brief follow-up on my earlier mention of Estonia's adoption of the euro. The Economist's last Charlemagne column of 2010 discussed "Why fiscally prudent Estonia wants to join the troubled euro." In addition to the standard economic reasons — reduce interest rate premiums, lower transaction costs, attract investment — Charlemagne also mentions Estonia's goal of tying the country ever more closely to (Western) Europe (and underscoring its separation from Russia). I suppose there is some symbolic value in adopting the euro, but I am not so convinced that "[t]o many Estonians, the euro also means security" in the sense of protection from Russia. Currency policy is important, sure, but not that important.

Charlemagne acknowledges that Estonia was able to attain this milestone in part by implementing severe austerity policies when the global economic crisis hit. Its economy shrank by 1/7 during 2009 alone, and the unemployment rate averaged about 17.5% in 2010. Not many governments are secure and stable enough to survive that kind of an economic shock. As Charlemagne suggests, it may be all the more difficult for those states that have already adopted the euro and face similar calls for austerity.

Estonia may calculate that even if such countries end up forced out of the euro, a rump euro-zone will continue, participation in which will continue to be valuable. This is not such a bad guess to make; after all, the Estonian kroon has been pegged to the German mark and the euro since its re-introduction, and apart from the recent (admittedly severe) economic shock, the country has benefited nicely from this choice.

P.S. As an interesting side-note, the author of the column has evidently read (or read about) Timothy Snyder's excellent new book Bloodlands, about Stalin's and Hitler's murderous regimes and what they did to the areas that lay between Germany and Russia. The book has nothing to do with monetary policy, but does bear reading for anyone interested in that region (which includes the Baltic republics). Two informative (and glowing) reviews are here and here.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ireland and sovereignty in an integrated Europe

Geoffrey Wheatcroft discusses the non-existence of Irish independence in a brief article in the Dec. 30 issue of The New Republic (partially gated). Protesters in Ireland have been bemoaning the fact that their government appeared to be "handing over our sovereignty", but as Wheatcroft notes, there was never that much to hand over. Or, to put it differently, the idealized notion that sovereignty means a state has full control of its own fate is utterly unrealistic for any country actively involved in the global political economy, let alone one that has joined joined the European Union and adopted the euro as its currency.

The problem for Ireland is that it is particularly sensitive about its sovereignty and its independence, for understandable historical reasons. Norway is in a similar position, which is one of the reasons it has not (yet) joined the European Union. Wheatcroft draws a parallel with a different Nordic country, Finland, arguing that "Finland has achieved the things that Ireland aspired to": its own language, real neutrality, and economic success.

Wheatcroft overplays the comparison a bit. Finland may have resisted Soviet military aggression for four months in 1939, but it was severely constrained in its international relations from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, in ways that Ireland wasn't. I am sure many Finns would have been happy, at any time between 1945 and 1989, to exchange their "neutrality" for Ireland's. Nor is it fair to suggest that Ireland's economic success amounted to little more than the combination of a construction bubble with striking corruption.

Nevertheless, the parallel does raise an interesting issue. Finland was not able to join the European integration project until the end of the Cold War, because the Soviet Union would not have allowed it. Perhaps the experience of real political constraints has made the Finns more realistic about which features of sovereignty and independence are important, and which are not. One could argue Finland gave up one form of dependence for another when it joined the EU, but this was a dependence that was voluntarily chosen, and it was one that offered great benefits as well (unlike the dependence on Soviet goodwill).

In Ireland, in contrast, public debate is deeply focused on sovereignty as an end in itself; the issue comes up every time the European Union treaties need to be revised. It is a serious failure of the country's political leaders that they have never conducted an honest debate about what sovereignty means in a globalizing economy, nor what its value or purpose are in an ever more closely integrated Europe.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eurozone grows

With all the doom-saying about the euro, it is worth noting that January 1st saw an expansion of the eurozone, with Estonia officially adopting the euro. Its fellow Baltic republics Lithuania and Latvia are also eager to join, and aim to meet the prerequisites by 2014 at the latest

Estonia's conversion was easier than most, since its national currency, the kroon, had been pegged to the euro since 2002. Still, having the same currency as neighbour (and linguistically closely related) Finland ought to provide an economic boost. In Finland, there were some immediate benefits, as the Mint of Finland had received the order to mint Estonia's euro coins earlier this year.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The greatest curiosity in the world

The release of diplomatic cable traffic by Wikileaks has occasioned an enormous amount of discussion about the implications for diplomacy if communications cannot be guaranteed to remain secret. This is hardly a new problem: for centuries, innovations in cryptography were generally driven by attempts to keep diplomatic messages secret.

Sooner or later, encoded messages became publicly available anyway. However, the kind of semi-confidential gossip that distinguishes the cable traffic released by Wikileaks was often not considered important enough to encrypt or keep confidential.

For example, the Dutch newsweekly Vrij Nederland noted in its December 4th issue (gated, sorry) that John Adams, on a tour of Europe, wrote to Abigail on Sept. 15, 1780 offering some opinions on the Netherlands. Vrij Nederland displays a facsimile of the letter, which unfortunately I could not find reproduced online. Amusingly, the Pieter Groet, the author of the accompanying note, has trouble with Adams' handwriting, and believes that Adams called the Netherlands "the greatest country in the world." Adams' handwriting is quite legible, however, and it is quite clear that he considered it "the greatest curiosity in the world" (emphasis mine).

Adams' complete assessment reads:
"The country where I am is the greatest curiosity in the world. This nation is not known any where, not even by its neighbors. The Dutch language is spoken by none but themselves. Therefore they converse with nobody, and nobody converses with them. The English are a great nation, and they despise the Dutch because they are smaller. The French are a greater nation still, and therefore they despise the Dutch because they are still smaller in comparison to them. But I doubt much whether there is any nation of Europe more estimable than the Dutch in proportion. Their industry and economy ought to be examples to the world. They have less ambition, I mean that of conquest and military glory, than their neighbors, but I don't perceive that they have more avarice. And they carry learning and arts, I think, to greater extent."
On balance, Adams was pretty positive — a good thing, since he would become the U.S.'s first official ambassador ('minister plenipotentiary', actually) to the Netherlands two years later. The quip about language is only partially correct: as continues to be true today, almost nobody but the Dutch speaks Dutch.

But the Dutch have always reacted to this by learning multiple languages, even back then, making it possible for them to converse with more people, not fewer. Indeed, Dutch poets of the age revelled in writing poems with words or phrases in multiple languages (Constantijn Huygens' "Olla Podrida" contains 8 languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek).