Guns, Rights and People

Shashi Tharoor is the author of five books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, "India: From Midnight to the Millennium." He is a senior adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Ours is an era increasingly characterized by the intrusion of humanitarian and human rights concerns into the business of politics and the business of business. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to look at world affairs through the amoral lens of Realpolitik, to study the actions of states impervious to the well-being of the people in whose name they act. Violations of human rights by governments, rebel groups and corporations are part of the quotidian concerns of anyone dealing with public policy. We are all more conscious than ever before of the moral standards by which anyone in a position of authority must be judged and of the international laws underpinning those standards. And if we forget, there are powerful incentives from bodies like the now-venerable Amnesty International and the feisty Human Rights Watch to remind us of what we can no longer afford to ignore.

The body of literature that seeks to examine the moral dimensions of these widening concerns grows larger with time. Four recent books and a report by Human Rights Watch, while providing no common theme or overriding conclusion, help us examine the landscape where politics, history, business, society and ethics collide. Nonetheless, taken together, these books suggest that as fast we run toward our future, we can never elude the past. More important, we should never try.


“The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy,” wrote the British philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood, “is to reckon with twentieth-century history.” Collingwood’s autobiographical apercu forms the epigraph to Jonathan Glover’s monumental, though flawed, “Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century.”


Glover, a philosopher who is director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, has attempted “to give ethics an empirical dimension. It uses ethics to pose questions to history and it uses history to give a picture of the parts of human potentiality which are relevant to ethics.” He has filled out an “idea of humanity” on the assumption “that a central part of morality should be concerned with avoiding repetition of man-made disasters of the kind the Nazis brought about.”

History, albeit selective history, is the book’s strength. His argument is wide-ranging, from My Lai to Hiroshima (rather than the other way around), tribal conflict, war again (the two World Wars and the Cuban Missile Crisis), the horrors of Stalinism (with briefer disquisitions on Mao and Pol Pot), all climaxed by an unsparing section on Nazism.

He sets out by laying bare the intellectual sins of Nietzsche (whose mantra “Become hard!” corrupted a generation of Germans), then moves on to discussing warfare. War takes up a substantial portion of his narrative. The numbers of deaths are chilling: A million people killed in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, 2 million in Vietnam, 3 million in the Korean War. Glover estimates that war killed 86 million people in the first nine decades of the century, about two-thirds (58 million) of them in the two world wars. It is a fair guess that the figure went up by another 8 to 10 million in the 1990s. But if “war killed an average of over a hundred people an hour through the twentieth century,” totalitarianism was not far behind: “The numbers of people murdered by Stalin’s tyranny far surpass those killed in Nazi camps. The numbers of Mao’s victims are yet greater. Pol Pot killed a far higher proportion of the population than Hitler did.”

How are war and hatred sustained? Glover extensively discusses the role played by racist demonization of the enemy, and the complicity of the media in perpetuating such images (“You Americans would become nationalists and racists too,” a Serb journalist says, “if your media were totally in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan”). This is essential for cruelty to flourish: “A central part of the torturer’s craft is to make his job easier by stripping the victim of protective dignity.”


While his discussion of Nazism covers familiar ground in analyzing obedience and conformity as factors that permitted barbarism, Glover is particularly interesting on “the erosion of moral identity” that led ordinary people, not just psychopaths, to participate in mass murder. Not only did the Nazis deny any moral standing to their victims, they convinced themselves that their victims had no human dignity to respect: that was what made the killings possible. When the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, was asked, “Why, if they were going to kill them anyway, what was the point of all the humiliation? Why the cruelty?” his answer was, "[t]o condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did.”

Glover holds that “the central lesson Nazism holds for ethics is that a sense of moral identity is not enough. Moral identity needs to be rooted in the human responses.” In a number of instances, he describes what he terms “emotional breakthrough"--the startling recognition of shared nationality, common parenthood or other experiences that suddenly remind the unfeeling torturer or would-be killer of why he cannot go on. “Our inclination to show this respect [for other human beings] and our disgust at someone’s humiliation, is a powerful restraint on barbarism,” says Glover. “Human responses to other people, the responses of respect and sympathy, are the heart of our humanity.” But it is clear from Glover’s accounts that only sometimes did such “breakthroughs” lead oppressors to waver; almost never did the waverer go on to challenge the system that had brutalized him, preferring simply to opt out and let others perform the acts of cruelty he could no longer stomach.

Early in the book, Glover discusses the classic “prisoner’s dilemma,” which establishes the paradoxical truth that “greater altruism . . . serves each [prisoner] better than selfishness.” But mere mortals find altruism difficult. In one effective passage, a Jewish girl who survived the Nazis by hiding in Berlin described Berliners’ responses as their Jewish neighbors, paralyzed by fear, were arrested: “People stopped in the street, whispered to each other, and then quickly went on their way back to safety of their homes, peering out from behind curtained windows to watch what was happening.” Glover observes: “Some Berliners were appalled, both at what was being done, and at the discovery of the limits of their own moral courage. . . . The Nazis coerced people with moral dilemmas. Critics had a terrible moral choice. They could acquiesce in genocide or they could speak out, but this might add their own family to the victims while saving no one else.” In considering the roots of morality, the role of fear must not be underplayed: State terror and the pressures to obey or conform all too often override the sense of moral identity.

The denial of human personality is essential to the perpetrators of cruelty. It also occurs in wars. Lt. John Calley testified at his courtmartial after the My Lai massacre about “an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel and I couldn’t touch[:] nobody in the military system ever described the [enemy] as anything other than Communism. They didn’t give it a race, they didn’t give it a sex, they didn’t give it an age.” And it was evident in the depersonalization explicitly required by totalitarian belief systems. A Stalinist quoted by Glover denies that any of communism’s excesses were immoral: “You see, all acts that further history and socialism are moral acts.” A British Communist asserts that a party member “has no sanctum of private opinions that he is going to hold apart from the collective thinking and the collective decisions of our movement.” Mao “was willing to lose 300 million Chinese people in the atomic war. This would be half the population, but would be no great loss as the country could always produce more people.” Glover observes that, because communist theory “gave all the answers in advance,” the Marxists’ avowedly “scientific” approach was strikingly unscientific. But it made atrocities possible by “overwhelming the moral resources” of its adherents through “pressures to believe, to obey and to conform.” Asked about whether there were ways of circumventing Hitler’s orders, the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann replied, “I can only say that no man is justified in circumventing an order.”


There is much that is excellent in “Humanity,” especially Glover’s lucid summary of the monstrosities of Stalinism--indispensable to any recounting of the history of the 20th century. His analysis of the extensive bombing campaigns of World War II and the factors that made them possible--despite the great destruction they wrought on civilians on the ground--is salutary and remains deeply relevant to more recent events in Kosovo and Iraq.

But there is a certain unavoidable desultoriness in Glover’s treatment: Vietnam gives way to Verdun, Tuol Sleng to Treblinka, unconscionable Nietzsche to a conscience-stricken United Nations. The Rwandan genocide is summarized in three pages, without any analysis or conclusion. And his two concluding chapters “on the recent moral history of humanity” seem tacked on, an after-thought rather than a summation. Glover also argues that “the outbreaks of killing are now especially dangerous because technology makes them a threat to the survival of the whole species.” This is a curiously outdated concern, because global nuclear holocaust is no longer our principal anxiety; indeed, in Bosnia and Rwanda, horrors were perpetrated by low-tech assaults of artillery shells and machetes wielded at close range.

One also wishes Glover had carried further his understanding of the impact of holistic belief systems on human morality; early on he refers to “the collapse of the authority of religion and decline in belief in God” that have characterized the century, but he neither develops the thought nor relates it to the totalitarian ideologies whose evils he so relentlessly catalogues.

A list of the events, episodes and issues neglected or simply omitted by Glover would be considerably longer than the ones he does mention: How is it possible to write a “moral history of the 20th century” that does not mention Mahatma Gandhi, the pre-eminent apostle of morality-imbued politics, who placed moral means in the service of practical ends and led one of the great historic movements of the century? How, for that matter, can a moral history ignore his many followers, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela? Or discuss the horrors of Nazism without even a nod to the great European moralists-in-action, Raoul Wallenberg and Carl von Ossietzky? Moreover, his “moral history of the 20th century” almost entirely overlooks apartheid in South Africa, the Rape of Nanking, the genocide of the Armenians, the evils (and the end) of European colonialism, the Partition of India, Pinochet’s rule and that of the Argentine junta, Idi Amin, the “Emperor” Bokassa, Macias Nguema and their African kin, “disappearances” from Latin America to East Timor, the exactions of the Taliban in Afghanistan and rape and murder in East Bengal, Mozambique and Angola.


Glover anticipates this charge, by acknowledging in advance that his history is “highly selective,” and he claims his book “does not reflect a view that the history of some parts of humanity is unimportant, but rather the limitations of what is well or availably documented.” This is a preposterous assertion, given the wealth of documentation available on most of these episodes. Glover goes on to add somewhat feebly, “It also reflects the much more severe limitations of my own knowledge.” That, alas, is clear, but it does disqualify the grand ambition contained in the book’s title. No one can know everything, but a “moral history of the 20th century” that omits so much is of no more use to a reader looking for what the title promises than a political history of the United States that leaves out half the Presidents and neglects to mention the Republican Party.


There is no doubt that a historical recounting, such as Glover’s, is vital, if only to keep alive our collective memory of the horrors that have disfigured humanity and continue to threaten to do so. As one peruses Human Rights Watch’s catalogue of abuses across the world, there is the fear that one may be numbed by the sheer scale of man’s persistent inhumanity to man, that the details will blur to fuzziness in our overburdened consciences. As Milan Kundera so memorably put it in his “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”:

“The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.”


Human Rights Watch will not allow us the luxury of forgetting, with its detailed accounts of wrongdoing from Angola to the United States (and special sections on arms, children’s rights, women’s human rights and issues such as freedom of expression on the Internet or the campaign to ban land mines).

Forgetting is never really a viable option. The essays in “Human Rights In Political Transitions” treat a vital and all-too-often neglected issue: What do you do after the bad guys have been defeated? The restoration of human rights is an end in itself, but one can never simply shut the door on the past: There must be an accounting, and there must be accountability. Sometimes the former is enough: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been an extraordinary exercise in purging the nation’s collective conscience, allowing torturers and killers to confess to their crimes in exchange for amnesty. But does this process promote national healing, or does it stoke the bitterness of those who see justice denied them in the name of a larger national good?

In Chile, the authorities thought they had answered that question the same way as South Africa had, but they are now discovering that their own people (and now, even their judicial establishment) are not satisfied with that answer. But how does one deny the fact that were it not for the amnesty, the families of the victims would not even be in a position today to lament their victimization? Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch suggests that a distinction must be made between crimes against the state, which a state can pardon in the interests of the state, and crimes against individuals, which individuals have the right to see tried and punished.

Carla Hesse and Robert Post argue that “successful transitions require new democratic regimes to distinguish themselves from the practices and culture of their predecessors.” The essays in their collection treat issues of punishment and reconciliation and also the vital importance of the creation of a culture of the rule of law. They do so somewhat unevenly, running the gamut from a brief and informal interview with a Chilean human rights attorney to the dense and not-always-penetrable scholarly prose of Robert Meister’s exegesis on “Lincoln and the Politics of National Recovery” (which is the only justification for putting Gettysburg in the book’s title). But there is enough valuable material in this volume for both the serious student of human rights issues and the committed activist. And its concerns nicely segue with Elazar Barkan’s tightly-focused, highly readable “The Guilt of Nations.”


Examining the issue of righting past wrongs--Barkan examines, in compelling detail, the growing practice of “restitution"--whether to Native American groups with long-standing land claims or to Jewish victims of Nazism--and offers a concluding, and I dare say conclusive, theory of restitution. The moral and political questions involved are fascinating in themselves--the acknowledgement of guilt goes to the heart of a nation’s perception of itself, as we are seeing today in white Australia’s reaction to aboriginal charges of systematic maltreatment--but the evolution of the practice is also reconfiguring international and domestic human rights policies and standards. Americans are familiar with the argument, advanced most sullenly by white conservatives, that today’s generation should not have to pay for the sins of their forebears: guilt, they say (for slavery, for the conquest of Indian lands, for proto-imperial oppression) should not be inherited. Barkan gives this short shrift. Our identity, he points out, is derived from our history; those who enjoy the riches of the past should also pay their historical debts.

Barkan is both learned and accessible, and he is not above the slyly provocative: “Is restitution devised,” he asks, “so that the rich and powerful who have perpetrated crimes in the past can establish their moral virtue by using resources to ‘buy’ a just and ethical past, while victims are seduced to sell their moral virtue by accepting small recompense as a means to improve their lot?” His own answer appears to be that while this may in part be true, restitution achieves a more fundamental shift in power relations in a society by bettering the political and economic circumstances of the former victims--and by “legitimizing their histories, their stories, their identities.” There is, nonetheless, the risk that restitution will look too much like moral justice for the affluent. So Barkan is wise not to make too extravagant a series of claims for his subject: “Restitution,” he says, “provides a mechanism for moral action; it does not create an ideal world.”


Given such lofty considerations, Karl Schoenberger’s analysis of the human rights policies of Levi Strauss & Co., the classic maker of blue jeans, might seem out of place. But in fact the role of corporations in the global human rights debate has never been more central, and the forces of globalization will ensure that it will matter more to more human beings whether Levi’s has moral standards than, say, whether the Government of Singapore does. The protestors who brought the World Trade Organization’s December 1999 meeting in Seattle to a messy halt were exercised, among other things, by their outrage over sweatshop conditions in Third World factories owned by First World multinationals. Levi’s, long considered a model of American corporate responsibility, was slower than many of its competitors to abandon its American roots for foreign shores, and it adopted a pioneering global code of conduct for its employment practices in 1991. But the challenge of reconciling sound business practice with high moral standards continues, and has been brought into sharp relief on the issue of Levi’s production sources in China. Schoenberger--who, unlike the other writers discussed here, is a journalist, not a scholar--is thorough, well-informed and chatty in his treatment of these issues. His conclusion is intriguing: “In the absence of some kind of moral compass redefining the values of multinational corporations from within,” he writes, “American business risks the real possibility that society will impose its values from the outside. . . . When enough American consumers wake up to the fact that they are as much to blame for the social injustices of globalization as the multinationals that pander to their demand for cheap goods, then things might begin to happen.”


Like Glover, Schoenberger sees hope in the evolution of United Nations policies in this area. “If finding a solution to the injustices of globalization is stalled on account of the infallibility of multilateralism,” he suggests, “then it follows that the solution itself must be multilateral.” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call at Davos last year for a “global compact” between international business and the United Nations system meets with Schoenberger’s approval. Annan’s invitation to corporations to adhere voluntarily to a number of international standards already established by governments--the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO’s workplace standards, the Rio Principles on the environment--does not strike Schoenberger as radical, and it is devoid of any compliance-monitoring mechanism, but “as an exercise in moral suasion, it could help turn the tide against stragglers in the international business community who still hope that the human rights challenge is going to go away and leave them in peace to concentrate solely on profit maximization.” Schoenberger would like Annan “to sell his vision of converging values of commercial and corporate social accountability to the WTO,” but this is not on the anvil. Nonetheless, the Global Compact is a start; a recent meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York, after Schoenberger’s book was published, attracted the CEOs of a significant number of major multinational corporations, from Nike to Volvo.


So, in the end, who or what can bring us closer to an “ideal world”? In his portrayal of our “global village,” Jonathan Glover pictures an international community in which “feuds and vendettas . . . often break into violence. All the inhabitants are armed. The part-time police force is amateurish and weak. It is run by a committee of villagers who rarely agree on what it should do. Powerful neighbors sometimes suppress violence by force. Peace will only come to such a village when the rule of law is imposed. . . . It needs the authority to intervene when the law is broken, even without the support of the great powers. This requires something along the lines of a strong and properly funded permanent UN force, together with clear criteria for intervention and an international court to authorize it.”

Such a vision is not close to realization: Indeed, it is anathema to the majority on Capitol Hill, who refuse even to pay the United States’ United Nations dues in order to curb what they risibly see as the world body’s sovereignty-threatening overstretch. Even so, Glover sees “a political machinery of intervention to prevent atrocities and wars” emerging from international peace conferences, U.N. peace-keeping forces, and international war crimes tribunals. “The international machinery needs to be developed much further,” he goes on, “but it is only part of what is needed. A change in the climate of opinion is also important. International intervention could be stronger if the attitude that war and persecution are utterly intolerable was more deeply rooted. And the atrocities themselves do not just happen: people commit them. In a different moral climate, it could be harder to take part.”


That is precisely the objective of the world human rights movement; as the Human Rights Watch report puts it, “an important goal of the human rights movement is to stop abuses before they multiply, to identify and halt the discrimination and repression that can be a precursor of crimes against humanity. This day-to-day human rights work has helped to build a strong public belief that human rights violations of any sort are intolerable.”

The organization also believes the last year has given us cause for hope: “Behind the advances in international justice and the increased deployment of troops to stop atrocities lies an evolution in public morality. More than at any time in recent history, the people of the world today are unwilling to tolerate severe human rights abuses and insistent that something be done to stop them. This growing intolerance of inhumanity can hardly promise an end to the atrocities that have plagued so much of the twentieth century. Some situations will be too complex or difficult for easy outside influence. But this reinforced public morality does erect an obstacle that, at least in some cases, can prevent or stop these crimes and save lives.”

But where Glover calls for a stronger world system led by the United Nations, Elazar Barkan finds a “global moral force” implausible; he sees no “universally accepted moral principle” and advocates restitution instead as a “voluntary mechanism” which should be applied to the resolution of international and intra-national conflicts. Barkan’s own empiricism is what makes his argument interesting: His approach “replaces the search for universals with a focus on local specific situations agreed upon by the parties to the conflict.” Not everyone will welcome the notion of debating the moral economy of justice, but it is hard to disagree with Barkan that restitution offers a viable way forward, even if all it can do is “to improve on the existing social injustice.”

But can we improve ourselves? We are a species, in Glover’s words, “both brutal and sickened by brutality. This conflict between our cruelty and our aspirations goes as far as we can see back in human history.” In the introduction to their collection, Carla Hesse and Robert Post note that “in the post-Cold War world . . . we have come to realize that our ability to enforce international agreements protecting human rights presupposes political cultures in which law is a meaningful substrate of the social order.” This is far from being the case in many parts of the world. Human Rights Watch’s 2000 report declares that “as the millennium closes, the human rights movement’s ability to capture and marshal the ideals of humanity makes it possible to hope for a future of greater respect for human life and the inherent dignity of each human being.” But such a future will only come if the new millennium strengthens the international institutions of which the United Nations is the core, and also ensures the indigenous embrace of human rights in non-Western countries--if, in other words, it evokes and sustains the kind of local political culture, in societies around the globe, that makes human wrongs harder to commit without suffering both shame and penalty.