U.S. Human Rights Report Condemns Abuses Abroad

On Wednesday, the State Department released its annual report of human rights around the globe. The report claims that human rights conditions are worsening in countries such as Russia and China, where repression of dissidents, journalists, protestors, and religious minorities is rising. The State Department also emphasized the critical nature of the human rights situation in the Middle East, pointing to Syria as an example of the consequences of human rights violations.

The World Cup and Workers’ Human Rights in Qatar. “The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game”

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A new report from Amnesty International slams Qatar for not living up to promises to improve workers’ rights and adds to a growing international criticism of Qatar’s inability to properly implement adopted policies.
World Cup host Qatar and FIFA are in public diplomacy terms back to square one with a just published Amnesty International report that takes the Gulf state to task for failing to implement lofty promises to significantly improve workers’ working and living conditions and the world soccer body for not ensuring that Qatar lives up to international standards.

Are 'democracy' and 'human rights' Western colonial exports? No. Here's why.

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In September 2014, students in Hong Kong gathered in a public square to protest some of the Beijing government’s legislative initiatives. One of their slogans was, “When dictatorship becomes a reality, revolution is a duty,” a declaration attributed to Victor Hugo.

Human Rights and Social Justice Reviewed Globally - and What We Make of It

With our blog we want to shed some light on the differences and similarities between human rights and social justice and their implementation in national, as well as international contexts. We base our thoughts and proposals on current debates and happenings in the U.S., Europe, and China.

What are we talking about? Definitions

First of all, a definition of the two concepts is needed. Matthew Robinson from the “Department of Government and Justice Studies” of the Appalachian State University defines social justice as a concept that promotes “[…] a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.”[1] Social justice implies that all human beings share a common humanity and have the right to equitable treatment. “In conditions of social justice, people are not to be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.”[2] One tends to think that equality and social justice are the same, but they are not. Equality is undeniably part of social justice, but “[…] the meaning of social justice is actually much broader […].”[3]

Human rights, then, are rights which make sure that social justice exists. Among others human rights are “[…] general freedom; dignity; life; liberty; security; equality before the law; fair and public hearings by independent and impartial tribunals; presumption of innocence until proven guilty; freedom of movement and residence; [the] right to seek and gain asylum from persecution; [the] right to nationality; the right to marry and have a family; [the] right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the right to participate in government; the right to social security; the right to work by free choice and to have protection against unemployment; the right to equal pay for equal work; the right to rest and leisure; the right to an adequate standard of living, including ´food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age[...]´; the right to education; the right to participate in the community and ´to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits´; the right to the ´protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which [one] is the author.´ Additionally, people enjoy freedom from slavery or servitude; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; discrimination; arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; arbitrary interference with privacy […].”[4]

Human rights and social justice, as we have seen, are not synonymous - though there is definitely some overlap between the two. Aryeh Neier argues that “ […] human rights is concerned with restraints on the exercise of power whereas social justice is concerned with the redistribution of wealth and resources.”[5] We align with this straightforward distinction to stress the importance of both human rights and social justice and their co-existence.

A Future to Believe in?

With the upcoming 2016 U.S. elections on November 8th and the primaries already being in full swing, there is a chance for human rights and social justice issues in the U.S. to be discussed anew. Let us first focus on how the democrats and one of their candidates, Bernie Sanders, are dealing with these topics.

Ta Nehisi Coates talks about why Bernie Sanders is against reparations in an interview[6]. He argues against Sanders argument and for reparations: “Because the issue of class does not break out in the same way as it does with white and black/brown communities, you cannot make a direct comparison.”[7] You can ask questions causing, with high certainty, some controversy:  Should past (and to-date) racialized policies be fought with anti-racialized or with universalist policies? Should black communities be addressed differently than white communities or should everybody be treated just the same? Does Sanders, but also do Clinton and Obama, avoid the issue of white supremacy, of systemic racism?

As a socialist, Sanders stands for the implementation of social justice more than any other candidate. In his opinion, this does not contradict with countering human rights issues. Sanders follows the more conventional Democratic philosophy of “a rising tide lifts all boats[8], as Ta Nehisi Coates notes. But he fails to address black issues accurately. Are the Democrats failing to address human rights issues while focusing on social justice within their country?

Aligning with the definition of human rights as “ […] restraints on the exercise of power […]”[9], we may imagine human rights as an all-encompassing protective umbrella for social justice to be fully implemented. On this basis we argue all presidential candidates are lacking behind in recognizing the importance of human rights as its own category. America's unique history of disadvantaging ethnic minorities, requires unique policy based on a further approximation to the fulfilment of human rights. Neier reminds us why the human rights framework is never indispensable: “Achieving social justice often involves the exercise of power and not merely placing restraints on power.”[10]

Solidarity and Europe - A tempestuous relationship

The refugee crisis is, without doubt, one of the greatest challenges for the European countries in history. Why might arguments based on social justice be not far-reaching enough in this case? Let us look at how the human rights framework can or cannot be helpful to achieve economic and social justice within a country.

Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in a TV-debate in February 25th:” ’For them you do everything, for us you do nothing’ – I hear such statements frequently these days from our people!”[11] He concludes correctly that this is a “dead dangerous”[12] sentence. As a consequence he proposes less saving and more investments in social projects “for our people”[13].

He wants improvement of social standards, more investments in children’s care and public housing projects, and so forth – but he also had the state elections in 4 of the German states in mind. His intention was to calm the mood and unite people again, to take the wind out of the AfD’s (Alternative für Deutschland) sails. The vice-chancellor may also plan ahead – and we impute noble motives to him that he in fact, wants to include everybody, that he pursues a policy of social justice for everyone. But his message apparently comes too late – The AfD is gaining more and more popularity. This party has been ignored for too long and the AfD and its supporters are only gaining more strength through polarization. One can ask provocatively: Do you want economic equality and social justice for European citizens only? What about the refugees?

Let us have a look at the industrial sector in Germany – corporate management cannot wait to integrate newly arrived migrants into the job sector, skilled workers are needed. But at the same time it is talked about how the minimum wage can be suspended, at least for some time. It seems justifiable, since a lot of refugees first need to qualify and cannot get paid the full salary from the start. Still, out of experience we might ask: Is this a new attempt to recruit cheap labor force? The industry has a long history of lobbying in the two democratic parties being in power right now, saving itself a competitive advantage (SPD and CDU/CSU). Loosening these bonds would be one important step towards a balance of power. Politics should then be able to enforce the right to equal pay for equal work more consequently. The basis for this must be the minimum wage recently pushed through by the SPD (Social Democratic Party).  The future will show – let us hope Germany has learnt its lesson from the “Gastarbeiter” (guest worker) recruitment in the 60s. Max Frisch, a renowned Swiss-born writer, brought the issue to the bottom line when he said: “We called for labor force, humans arrived, though”[14]

What the Western Cultures tend to forget - Human Rights in China

After reviewing this issue from the perspective of the western world, it is also necessary to concern the gap between human rights and social justice in China. Being a major target of international criticism for its human rights record, pragmatic foreign policy and energy-driven activities in the developing world, China gives outsiders the impression that there are still wholesale violations of human rights in this country, and the west has been attempting to tell China how to behave when it comes to human rights.

However, things are changing. Just as Xiaoyu Pu[15], a post-doctoral fellow on the Princeton-Harvard China Program claims, “human rights is no longer a taboo issue in China; justice never was”. His essay on “China’s human rights diplomacy” reveals that China has generally accepted the universality of human rights. For instance, it has joined a number of international human rights forums on racial discrimination, discrimination against women, apartheid, refugees and genocide. Moreover, China is not simply a passive recipient of international criticism on human rights any more. On the contrary, it has applied the international standards to criticize western countries. Although some of its criticism might seem hypocritical, it at least suggests that China is beginning to take the international human rights system more seriously and gradually accept the general concept of universal human rights. In addition, Chinese leaders argue that the promotion of human rights in China should consider its practical conditions. In other words, developing countries should have distinctive human rights priorities with the principle of “seeking common ground while preserving differences”. Accordingly, Pu pinpoints that “China priorities economic, cultural and social rights over civil and political ones, and has demonstrated this by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and signing, but not ratifying, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

What do we make of it?

There are two things we constantly have to keep in mind when trying to achieve more justice in these fields:

First: Both concepts have its faults. The human rights framework is similarly prone to misuse as is the social justice approach – in other words: the flexibility of the two concepts is their greatest strength but also their greatest weakness. Recalling the situations in the above mentioned countries, we can conclude that promoting Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESR) through social justice reforms is in many cases much more tedious than targeting more obvious abuses of human rights such as torture or arbitrary arrest. However, it also became clear that the different countries we looked at have very unique issues to deal with – accordingly unique solutions need to be found. China, for instance, has not had any trouble to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, if we look at civil and political rights in China we tend to judge very quickly.

Second: As long as we speak of the misuse of human rights and social injustices from the perspective of the Western cultures only, we won’t come very far. There is the ongoing need to save ‘other’ countries from themselves, their own ideologies and religious beliefs. How are we possibly solving the so-called social “injustices” around the world imposing questionable values on the Muslim and Arab cultures of the Middle East while denying their human rights of freedom to live, to adequate housing, and to express their religious beliefs and ideals? They are denied their freedom of expression, and the freedom of movement and housing is severely restricted. We bomb their cities take down their governments and then leave them stateless and exiled from their own land, all in the name of seeking social justice and a universal human right; a universal human right that is only as good as those that follow this Western notion of freedom, a freedom driven by capitalism and power.

This is why we think grassroots movements are a more promising way to counter inequality - social media offers new opportunities here. A large number of promising projects already exist in the countries we looked at (BlackLivesMatter, the numerous microbloggers in China, the Chinese Artist Ai Wei Wei, or the newly created solidarity networks for refugees in Germany, to name just a few).

Bianca Furak, Zeyu Li, Christopher Saal (Group 4)



[2] ibidem

[3] ibidem

[4] ibidem



[7] ibidem




[11] (translated from German)

[12] Ibidem (translated from German)

[13] Ibidem (translated from German)

[14] (translated from German)





Human Rights Marauding as Foreign Policy

Human rights marauding as foreign policy


Often derided as a Western invention or a propaganda ploy, human rights seem to be further away from their universalist aspirations than they were at their beginning. While they were founded by idealists who wanted to better the world, human rights seem to have paved the way for a new form of imperialism. At its worst, they are being used to veil interventionist foreign policies in order to gain economic or military advantages and purely serve self-interests under the cover of an absolutist claim of universality.

Western interventionism is the falsified data which is used to draw attention to the methods of certain governments like extrajudicial killing, disappearance of system adversaries and torture against their own citizens. The track of human rights trends usually are published by the U.S. State Department or Human Rights Watch and other similar organizations. This leads to the problem that for example the  CIRI indicator cannot show the exact number of torture being used, because their data was based on the annual reports from the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International. Most of the incidents like torture do not run openly as such which makes it almost impossible to detect all of them and name an accurate number. The concept of ‘political killings’ not only includes murdering political opponents or to keep them at bay using violence and threats, but also excessive police violence and guerrilla groups marauding which are a by-product of these issues. This especially proves a threat for Human Rights organizations and NGOs that are being utilized for economic advantages and have their independence and impartiality compromised. “Rights-based developments” merely become superimpositions of Western standards which might not be applicable in all countries when it comes to economic growth or are culturally and socially irreconcilable.


Human Rights in Central America

U.S. military interventionism in foreign policy has a long and storied history that has been intertwined with U.S. discussions of human rights, to the detriment of the latter’s integrity, for decades. In many cases, proposed human rights protective measures have eroded over time, eventually serving as a flimsy front for U.S. control of other nations. U.S. involvement in Central America has been particularly fraught. Tracing the policy of the Carter and Reagan administrations in Nicaragua and El Salvador shows the movement from human rights to the U.S. being condemned of terrorism in 1986 (Nicaragua v. The United States of America), a pithy example of how a human rights campaign, run by the wrong players, can turn into widespread destruction of human life.

In 1977, Jimmy Carter won the presidency, his foreign policy platform promising to reinvigorate American foreign policy by infusing it with “a new morality” grounded in human rights. Carter aimed to change the traditionally ineffective rhetoric around human rights into tangible action from the U.S. government. Carter’s “absolute” commitment to human rights wavered, however, in the face of the Cold War. Facing pressure to continue his predecessors’ staunchly anti-Communist stance, inculcated into American culture and politics as a necessary defense against the evils of Communism, Carter quickly recast “human rights” in a more politically defensible role, paving the way for Reagan’s military intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua just years later.The early Carter administration lent money and arms to Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third generation dictator of Nicaragua. Somoza was known for embezzling emergency funds after the devastating 1974 earthquake in Nicaragua, building off the brutality and corruption of the dictatorships of his father and grandfather. The latter was responsible for the killing of revolutionary general, Augusto Sandino - the namesake for the Sandinista revolution that created the situation that “forced” President Carter to lend money to a corrupt dictator. In myth if not in fact, he was also famous referred to by FDR as “our son of a bitch”, as in “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” (tellingly, this quote has been attributed to several U.S. leaders referring to Latin American counterparts). In the virulently anti-Communist United States still traumatized by the Cuban Revolution, the leftist revolutionary movement of Sandinistas hit an exposed nerve - so despite all evidence condemning the Somoza dynasty regime, Carter dragged his feet in removing support from the Somoza dictatorship.

If Carter’s explicit human rights foreign policy platform was, at best, ineffective in the pursuit of protecting human life, imagine the impact of Reagan’s foreign policy, which held fewer pretensions in the way of human rights. Reagan simultaneously built off Carter’s apologist precedent while rejecting the human rights dialogue in favor of a more pro-American sentiment - yet the human rights structure occasionally forced Reagan into even more abhorrent actions as president. As human rights “deadlines” approached, Reagan and his cabinet lied more and more about the deaths in Central America - because they had to say “human rights are improving” in C.A. in order to receive more funding for the Contras in Nicaragua and the military forces in El Salvador. In this case, the human rights framework worked to obscure the actual atrocities being committed by U.S. armed and funded forces in Central America.


Operation Babylift

One key example of human rights rhetoric being used to justify Western intervention and neo-imperialism is the objectification of infants. For example, in April 0f 1975, the United States engaged in Operation Babylift, an endeavor to bring South Vietnamese orphans to the United States with the supposed intention of evacuating them from the country and giving them a new life in the West. This mission was largely marketed as a humanitarian effort that would benefit the infants themselves by providing a Westernized lifestyle and potentially saving them from communism. As Yen Le Espiritu demonstrates in her book Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees, many of the supposed orphans that were brought to the United States were not orphans at all, but were infants from low-income families that were coerced by the United States  into giving them to orphanages. In addition, the planes these infants were transported in failed to abide by safety regulations where the children were treated like cargo, leading to at least one plane crash where 138 people (78 of which were children) were killed.

Since Operation Babylift, it has been discovered that some of the infants had even had their names switched during the adoption process to further obscure US coercion, which demonstrates once more that Vietnamese bodies and particularly those of infants were objectified to promote a human rights brand while “[erasing] the role played by U.S. interventionist foreign policy and war in inducing this forced migration” (Espiritu 104). The objectification of children’s bodies can be seen with the media coverage of human trafficking and refugee borderlands as well. While it is true that any form of human rights discourse can and has been used to justify violent and exploitative Western intervention (such as LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights), the use of children’s bodies is a common and reoccurring way to sanitize and obscure imperialistic intervention, as it is the case with exploitative aid efforts in African countries and the presence of harmful American military bases in the Philippines, Okinawa, and other regions of Asia.Overall, the U.S government and its Foreign Policy nowadays covers a wide range of functions- maintaining diplomatic relations with other countries and international organizations like the United Nations. Also, peacekeeping functions are given: Their aim is it to try to work together with the allies to assure regional and international security and arms-control efforts. Regarding for example Iraq and its unofficial Militias supported by the Central Government in Baghdad, and therefore supported with weapons and equipment by America, this does only work to some extent.



This blog was written by Group 5: Flo, Jamin, Jesse, Luisa and Sage






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