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Human rights, state responsibility and transitions to democracy

States operating with a power-to model are responsible for defending human rights and for passing and enforcing laws that promote human rights. Ideally, they act to prevent ethnic conflict rather than promoting pogroms by supporting or condoning the actions of a favored group or allowing politicians to polarize people along communal lines. i They use laws to further rights. Although laws in themselves do not achieve rights, they may establish a base for the personal and administrative actions that can achieve rights. Thus, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that called for the elimination of school segregation provided a moral base that encouraged the nonviolent sit-ins that actually ended segregation and furthered the struggle for racial equality. Likewise, labor laws can establish norms for working hours and workplace safety that function when they are supported by an adequate staff of inspectors. We need to support human rights by insuring strong viable democratic states.

Where there is no common agreed upon authority in a territory some political leaders, war-lords, or plain gangsters exercise a power over others to advance self-interest with little regard for the welfare of others. In the absence of a tribal or state rule there is a state of lawlessness or civil war until one party manages to consolidate power and control. When tribal, ethnic, or religious divisions prevent a sense of social unity it is difficult to have governance without domination, and when domination ceases disorder may return. When the Soviet Union collapsed, hundreds of violent groups emerged that Volkan notes “…intimidated, protected, gathered information, settled disputes, gave guaranties, enforced contracts and taxed.” He observes that these entrepreneurs of violence created organizations that were essentially, “violence-managing agencies.” However, the more successful gradually became legitimized by becoming involved in pro-social activities and absorbed in the process of state formation. ii When power is eventually consolidated, unless there is a sense of social unity the state that is formed is apt to be more characterized by power-over rather than power-to rule with a relative absence of human rights.

Many nations with poor scores on both negative and positive rights are characterized by having failing or collapsed states. When different ethnic groups are involved, governmental control may be achieved with brute force and a complete disregard for human rights. Those without power may do whatever they can to seize power themselves or to enact a system of authority that uses a power-to model. One important approach to strengthening human rights is to find ways to strengthen failing states. Democracies often attempt to do this by using military power to support particular groups that they see as potential allies. This promotes a power-over model and often simply intensifies violence. Instead, compassionate governments, churches, and NGOs can make use of a number of different tools, as, for example:

  1. Use neutral third-party NGOs to mediate a peace agreement as was done in Mozambique. Conflicting parties may engage in warfare, but when there is little hope for victory and enough political-social unity they may agree to elections and substitute political for military campaigns. Of course, this is easier said than done. The electoral system must be designed in a way that offers sufficient power to different groups and when political parties are based on ethnic groups, electoral campaigns may disintegrate into violence

  2. Provide neutral observers to objectively report conditions. For example, distrust can be allayed by the monitoring of voting by external authority. The Carter Center has been able to provide observers for over a hundred elections

  3. Unify peace groups. Since the media tends to focus on violence and political leaders most people do not realize the extent to which there are numerous groups who are working for peace in war torn lands. It is often possible to hold conferences that enable these groups to meet, raise the visibility of peace efforts, and renew ways for civil society to contribute to peace. (For example, see )

  4. Encourage the use of methods of reconciliation to create cooperative economic ventures and alternatives for youth among conflicting groups. See, for example, the problem solving workshops described under tools of negotiation.)

  5. Create a system of shared sovereignty. Rather than providing military aid to governments whose militaries are responsible for the abuse of human rights it may possible to establish a shared sovereignty with the government of a poorly governed state. For example, a state’s export revenues can go in a foreign escrow account managed by an external board that can encourage environmental protection and social services. There are a number of incentives that could encourage arrangements that are mutually beneficial to the government of a weak state, international corporations, and those concerned with human rights. iii Thus, one way those of us living in relatively fortunate conditions can advance global human rights is by encouraging our own governments to accept responsibility for working to create arrangements of shared sovereignty that promote human rights in weak state systems.

  6. Support people who are involved in human rights work or campaigns of nonviolent resistance (See tools of nonviolence).

These are just some of the alternatives to the military way to secure failing states. But the advancement of human rights and protection of vulnerable groups requires more than the strengthening of weak state systems because there is not an invariant relationship between state strength and human rights. There are some relatively strong states with relatively weak records of human rights, states with governments characterized with rule by law rather than rule of law. Even when elections are relatively fair, a government may lack the ability to control criminal elements. Organized crime (to say nothing of legal corporations) cannot be controlled by simple military power. Rather underlying economic considerations must be addressed. When political power does not correspond with economic power or when political elites are too alienated from their constituents, the social system lacks governability. It is difficult to maintain a power-to model under these circumstances. Hence, it is important to continually monitor human rights in all states and support the publication and publicity of the reports issued by the UN’s Commission on Human Rights.

The UN’s office on human rights has mandated reporting requirements on how each nation is addressing its challenges to human rights within the nation. However, most people have no knowledge of these reports and how their governments have responded to them. Those committed to furthering human rights may wish to be involved in these reports and to help their dissemination within their own country and even how their country might support human rights workers in other country. Amnesty International (2000), for example, has enumerated a 12-point program to eliminate torture. These include calling for every nation to officially condemn and enact laws against torture, refuse evidence obtained under torture and make the location of all prisoners known. It further calls for allowing prisoners to communicate and to have all allegations of torture investigated by an authority independent of the prison system, have authorities clearly state their opposition to the use of torture, punish torturers and compensate victims. Such procedures are not in effect in numerous countries and securing them requires international attention.

Although governmental structures and policies are indispensable for the defense of rights, we cannot rely on states to secure them. They ultimately depend on the solidarity of societies and how persons act and communities behave. Thus, the protection of human rights depends upon our building cultures of peace and using the tools for the power-within model that resolve conflicts nonviolently and link governments with the affective ties and human relations that constitute civil society. iv

i The criminals involved in some of the ethnic riot killings in India were protected by local politicians and had strong media connections so they were never prosecuted.

ii Volkov (2000, p 709) in Social Research, Vol 67, No.3 (Fall, 2000)

iii Krasner (2007). Sharing sovereignty: New institutions for collapsed and failing states. In C. A. Crocker, F. O. Hampson, & P. Aall (Eds.), Leashing the dogs of war (pp. 653-678). Washington, DC: U. S. Institute of Peace Press.

iv de Rivera, J. (2009) Building cultures of peace that protect human rights. Psyke & Logos, 30 (1) 14-27.

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