The notion of human rights is relatively a new concept in human history. Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights “All beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (UN General Assembly, 1948: 2) states a universal request for fundamental human rights of individuals to be upheld by state and non-state actors in all circumstances. Owing it to the history of war and violence, particularly to the atrocities caused by Second World War, the concept and understanding of human rights have eventually become embodied in universal consciousness, actively advocated and theoretically guaranteed by numerous international documents and international human rights law. Still, the undoubtable liability to implement human rights standards is the one of the state itself. However, as a powerful and rational actor, state is led by ambition to maintain or strengthen its political power and therefore, sometimes tempted to misuse the state control over power violating basic human rights of its people (Carey, 2010: 128).
With reference to brutal violations of human rights of Rohingyas in Myanmar and UK’s discriminatory counterterrorism measures after 9/11 and 7/7, the purpose of this essay is to highlight and discuss the conditions that might encourage a state to act in an oppressive manner that to such a degree violates human rights of its citizens. First, it will be argued that state’s behaviour primarily depends on the level of perceived threat to its authority. Second, knowing that perceived threat might increase in the presence of particular political and economic factors, I chose to examine the impact of a political regime and poor economic development on human rights’ violation by state. Third, it will be discussed how domestic and international support or indifference might be interpreted by a state as an approval for undertaking repressive measures. And finally, I will point out, one of the greatest challenges of a state in contemporary history, the recognition of terrorist suspects’ fundamental human rights that often come under threat.
Under what conditions do states violate or fail to uphold human rights?
Unquestionably, state’s main responsibility is the protection of lives and welfare of its citizens (Carey, 2010: 128), as well as the prevention of mistreatment of any kind. With its legislative, executive and judiciary bodies at disposal, a state possesses all necessary tools for effective implementation of human rights standards into society. Putting its responsibilities aside, what should be questioned here is what exactly state perceives to be in its own interest. Fortunately, many of them acknowledge human rights as their constitutional and moral priority as well as ”a matter of their national interest” (Harner-Burton, 2013: 179). On the other hand, realists claim that human rights are devalued when compared to other interests such as security and order, wherefore human rights treaties have little effect on state’s behaviour (Posner, 2014: 70).
Furthermore, Neil Mitchell points out three potential motives for violating human rights: “the desire for power, belief system which encourages individuals to inflict violence on those with different belief system and personal interest” (Carey, 2010: 158). It can be argued that state’s actions are primarily led by desire for power, which represents an essential element for further consolidation of its authority. Aware of being a powerful actor with the potential of use of force and the utmost necessity of maintaining the status quo, state is more likely to consider repression and intimidation against its citizens as an attempt to minimize the perceived threat and re-establish their position of dominion. For instance, in the case of persecution of Rohingyas, Burmese government has tried to justify brutal aggression towards its Muslim minority by claiming that their way of living and tendency towards separatist insurgencies pose a serious threat to Myanmar’s already-fragile territorial integrity and security (Jones, 2013: 780). To recapitulate, as perceived threat to political power increases, it seems more probable for a state to be willing to use force, often resulting in violation of human rights.
Regardless of how high the perceived threat is, states act differently in eliminating the danger to their power. In other words, it cannot be asserted that all states would respond with repression when threatened. Moreover, there are particular political and economic factors such as undemocratic political regimes and poor economic development which are most likely to be present within the state in which human rights are undervalued and violated.
First, the record of human rights’ violation clearly differs between states of democratic, semi-democratic and authoritarian political regimes. For example, “governments in semi-democratic or authoritarian countries are less likely to hesitate when using force against their citizens because they will not be held accountable for their actions to any of the state’s bodies” (Carey, 2010: 132). Hence, using violence will not affect the leaders’ political positions nor will they be punished for their wrongdoings. Furthermore, especially in semi-democratic countries that share both democratic and authoritarian characteristics, level of human right’s violations can be extremely high due to the fact that government has not managed to entirely institutionalize democratic system with all of its features. A perfect example of a semi-democracy is Myanmar, “the longest military dictatorship in the world” (Mietzner, 2011: 19), until officially dissolved in 2011, which today formally has a multiparty political system with democratic institutions and free media, but concurrently, the system protects the government by, for instance, restricting activities of influential humanitarian organizations, as done in 2015 when Burmese government banned the activities of Doctors Without Borders accusing the organization of favouring the Rohingyas and depriving them of urgently-needed healthcare service (Oktar and Yahya, 2016: 47). Accordingly, in semi-democracies such as Myanmar, where governments are more susceptible to potential danger of suppressed class and where institutional instruments for solving public’s grievance are not fully-developed, governments tend to be more aggressive in solving their problems to such an extent that they become the primary perpetrator of life integrity violations.
Second, it is often claimed that “human rights are luxuries only rich nations can afford” (Siraj, 2011: 304). Economic factors such as ”poor economic development of a country is often related to high record of human rights violations” (Carey, 2010: 140). It can be argued that poverty indeed weakens the government since it exposes it to a real threat of public discontent. As mentioned before, state’s main responsibility is the welfare of its citizens, which also includes protection of economic rights. Therefore, if economic rights are violated in the sense of food scarcity, expensive education, inaccessible healthcare system and high unemployment rate, government will lose the support of its voters and face threat to its power. Confronted with poor economy and public pressure, it is more demanding and challenging for a government to engage with “democratic culture of negotiation, bargaining, tolerance and compromise” (Rummel, 1997: 101) than to suppress revolts and public demands by brute force and fear.
Furthermore, the domestic and international reaction to state’s violation of human rights can be immensely influential of its future actions. States have accepted the principles of “international human rights law due to the combination of international coercion, self-interest, rule legitimacy, communitarian appeals and socialization “(Jimenez Bacardi, 2013: 128). Furthermore, the impact of civil society group and NGOs pressures state to abide by its international obligations, otherwise it would be widely criticized to such an extent that it might lose legitimacy. However, oftentimes voters of the current government will keep supporting it because “there is a strong psychological bond that ties people to their government” (Neumann & Smith, 2007: 34), that given political leaders undeserved guarantee of authority. Thus, when state’s violent tactics are supported by the vast majority of its population and ignored by international community, it seems impossible to prevent violations. For instance, in the case of persecution of Rohingya Muslims, along with the local Buddhist population, an active role in supporting anti-Muslim rhetoric have had Buddhist monks, who through ultra-nationalist 969 Movement have expanded propaganda of Muslim threat in Myanmar by persuading local population to completely isolate the Muslim minority. Former president Thein Sein’s office issued a statement saying that 969 is “just a symbol of peace” (Marshall, 2013), while Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has kept silent on the long-standing issue. Moreover, the indifferent response that international community had given, until UN report in February 2017, on the brutality of Burmese government and its military forces directed against Rohingya has been interpreted as international approval of the wrongdoings, intensifying mass atrocities and demonstrating the international acceptance of disregard of human rights.
Finally, the last condition concerns state’s violation of human rights of defendants, particularly terrorist suspects. Aiming at the very destruction of security and human rights, terrorism has become the greatest challenge of contemporary times. In their fight against terrorism, especially when confronted with high level of terrorist threat, public exposure and exceptionality of events (Perliger, 2012: 509), some states and “their political leaders have traded civil freedoms for security from terrorism” (Epifanio, 2011: 400) by implementing discriminatory counterterrorism measures, hence denying basic rights of terrorist suspects. Some states have been inclined to repudiate rights to fair trial, extend the limit of pre-charge detention, conduct inhumane activities as interrogation methods or accept insufficient evidence as credible. Compared to France and its normative consensus on zero tolerance approach against supporters of Islamic terrorism, British government has been considerably restrained (Foley, 2013: 251). However, in the aftermath of 9/11, the scandal about the Belmarsh 9 case (2004 UKHL 56) emerged, where the UK was detaining terrorist suspects indefinitely without charge or trial and using extremely high amount of force to control inmates, which led to BBC calling it ”British version of Guantanamo Bay” (Winterman, 2004). Furthermore, after experiencing terrorist attacks on its soil on 7 July 2005, UK government with PM Tony Blair introduced controversial Terrorism Act 2006 which banned groups that glorify terrorism, criminalized the support for terrorism and extended the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 28 days (Terrorism Act 2006, 2006). Law was described as “dangerous inroad on freedom of speech” (Marshall & Thomas, 2017: 227) demonstrating once again how high level of perceived threat, especially related to terrorism, impels states to interfere with human rights.
Driven by its ambition to eliminate potential threat to its power and strengthen regnant position, sometimes state’s liability to protect its citizens is pushed into the background and threaten by severe violations of human rights. To sum up, with reference to violation of human rights of Rohingyas by Myanmar and of terrorist suspects by UK after 9/11 and 7/7, this essay argued that states are most likely to violate human rights under specific conditions such as of high level of perceived threat, undemocratic political regimes, poor economic development and terrorist threat. The primary incentive for human rights’ violation is the presence of high level of perceived threat to state’s power, which if increasing might encourage a state to misuse its control over power against its citizens. Still, even with high level of perceived threat, not all states respond with violence and repression. It is more likely that states under undemocratic political regimes where political leaders will not be held accountable for their wrongdoings, or likewise states challenged with poor economic development, thus public pressure, will consider the use of force to eliminate the threat. What appears obvious nowadays, as countries are being menaced by terrorism, is the deprivation of terrorist suspects’ fundamental human rights. When faced with high level of terrorist threat, prior experience and public exposure, states are more prone to establish discriminatory counterterrorism measures disregarding the fact that by simply being humans, all individuals, even terrorists, are entitled to human rights. Ultimately, although demonstrating that certain conditions do have an effect on a state being more susceptible to human rights’ violations, it is certainly not implied that, indubitably and always, under these conditions a state would be emboldened to violate human rights.