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Naming and shaming of international human rights abuses

Human Rights . . . Here & There
|Written By Sonya Nigam
Naming and shaming of international human rights abuses

With the widespread reporting that our 24-hour news cycle allows, as well as citizen videos and distribution of information through social media, it is hard to deny the occurrence of human rights abuses when they arise. We see the images and hear the sounds, often reported only a few hours after they have taken place — apartment buildings torn apart, maimed children in hospitals, women crying in despair, reports of terror and repression.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International hope if one told the world about human rights abuses using high-publicity “naming and shaming” campaigns, citizens would demand their governments take action to intervene to stop the atrocities. And yet, as we can see so clearly in the cases of Syria and the Central African Republic —even though reprehensible acts are widely reported — they do not cease.

In 2004, Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, reacted to the criticism his organization should pay more attention to economic, social, and cultural rights, like the right to health and education, rather that focusing only on civil and political rights such as torture. He responded by stating the practice of naming and shaming has the best chance of working to effect change when a clear methodology is used: clearly identify the wrongful act, identify the perpetrator of the act, and identify the remedy.

He explained there is little value to denouncing poor conditions related to economic, social, and cultural rights rights if these conditions affect most of the population of a country and no arbitrary or discriminatory treatment of a particular group can be identified. This is because where conditions are generally bad for everyone, the actual problem is a scarcity of resources and the solutions to the problem will rely on moving money from one area of need to another.

It is clear the choice of what violations to denounce and to highlight are carefully considered and selected by Human Rights Watch. Roth writes:

We are at our most effective when we can hold governmental (or, in some cases, nongovernmental) conduct up to a disapproving public. Of course, we do not have to wait passively for public morality to coalesce on a particular issue; we can do much to shape public views by exposing sympathetic cases of injustice and suggesting a moral analysis for understanding them. In the end, the principal power of groups like Human Rights Watch is our ability to hold official conduct up to scrutiny and to generate public outrage.

In addition, the “best” public to target is the one where the abuse is taking place. Other publics outside of the country in question can also be useful to reach if their home countries have a role in to play in relation to aid or trade.

In 2008, the International Organization Foundation published a study that examined governments’ human rights practices in 145 countries from 1975 to 2000 along with international naming and shaming efforts found in news reports, NGO campaigns, and UN reports to see if there was a connection between the two. The author Emilie Hafner-Burton was looking to see if human rights abuses such as indiscriminate killings, torture, and abuses of the electoral process were in fact reduced.

She found governments often improve protections for political rights, but it is rare that stops political terror and in some cases political terror even increases. She states:

Different reasons explain the paradox. One reason is that some governments’ capacities for reform vary by types of human rights violations—it may be easier for some governments to reform their legal or political structures, at least on paper, by holding elections or passing legislation to better protect some political rights, than to stop agents of terror that are out of their direct control. Another reason is that some governments abuse human rights strategically—when faced with global pressures for reform, some despots use terror, such as killings or beatings, to counteract the effectiveness of political reforms they make in response to international pressures, such as holding elections.

In a working paper published in April of this year, Justin Esarey and Jacqueline DeMeritt asked a question very similar to Hafner-Burton’s but instead examined the connection between naming and shaming by the UN Human Rights Council (and its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights) upon the relationship between aid donors and receivers between 1983 and 2004, as well as upon overall aid to recipients between 1979 and 2002.

Previous research that showed public embarrassment will result in cuts to aid by international organizations and multilateral providers. However, this is not necessarily the case when aid is given by individual countries. What they found was that in this case, aid is decreased if the relationship with the receiving country is weak or non-strategic. In some cases, aid is even increased. They write:

. . .We argue that, when an aid recipient is denounced for human rights abuse, a donor state assesses this behavior in light of the political importance of the donor/recipient relationship. Aid relationships that are not politically important to the donor are maintained for charitable reasons or to promote a positive image of the donor state, both of which are negated when the recipients are caught abusing human rights. On the other hand, if the aid relationship provides more tangible benefits to the donor — it satisfies demands of a donor’s domestic public, preserves profitable economic ties, confers a strategic or military advantage to the donor, or politically benefits the donor in some other way--these benefits will weigh against the reputational cost of cooperating with a known offender. The larger the donor’s benefit from the relationship, the less naming and shaming matters. In some situations, a donor might even increase aid to a shamed state in order to compensate it for aid lost from other sources.

While naming and shaming of international human rights abuses certainly has an important role in the promotion of the protection of the dignity of people around the world, one needs to be aware these actions take place in a political context that will trigger reactions — sometimes positive and sometimes negative. There is no easy fix to counter the desire to attain and maintain power at all costs and to grab it at the expense of others.

Yet, despite its complexity the fight for human rights and the domestic and international levels is required, because it is an expression of our undeniable common humanity, which is our only bulwark against much darker times.

This is Sonya Nigam’s final Human Rights . . . Here & There column. We welcome a new columnist in January.

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