Noha Tarek

I would like to begin by thanking Kathryn Sikkink for this wonderful article. It is enlightening to me to read about how in the beginning of human rights discourse, this concept was actually advocated by the Global South and resisted by the Northern states, such as the US, the USSR, and the UK. It is unfortunately widely perceived in Egyptian and Arab media that human rights discourse has mainly been advocated only by the West, and thus it is viewed with much suspicion, as a tool used to enforce cultural imperialism, assert Western states’ soft power, and challenge non-Western cultural traditions.

I especially agree with the view that states are the biggest violators of human rights, but accordingly, I don’t understand how they can also be the biggest protectors of human rights. Whether repression of political freedoms and cultural expressions of minorities in many states in the South and East, or committing mass murders and genocides by the militaries of states in the West and North against the peoples of the South, or structurally repressing the economic rights and opportunities of poor people that is committed by all the states around the world (hand in hand with corporations' managers), the state certainly is the main violator of human rights in our present time.

Sikkink talks about many achievements of human rights organizations and movements but does not explain more about those achievements. Have they really been as transformative as implied? I wonder. The cases where there was an intervention to save human lives and stop genocides were not results of human rights organizations pressures, but rather results of economic and political interests that states in the North wanted to achieve by such intervention. The US intervention in Kuwait in 1991, when it was attacked by Iraq (for protection of oil), the US intervention in Kosovo in 1998 (to strategically balance its regional power with Russia), and NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 (for protection of oil).

On the other hand, in many cases where genocides took place where there was no strategic interest for Northern states, the genocides have continued on unabated—Russian genocide in Chechnya; US genocide in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq; Israel’s genocide in Palestine; Iran and Russia’s genocide in Syria, to name a few.

Even more appalling is the way an intergovernmental organization—the UN Security Council—is used by states to block any international interventions to stop any of those genocides, by using the veto. Even the use of legal instruments like the ICC has been limited to adjudicating war criminals “after” they committed their crimes, and the individuals prosecuted by those institutions are only those that the powers of the international system would “allow” to be prosecuted, for such prosecutions would not damage the interests of those powers. For example, George Bush or Vladimir Putin would never be persecuted as war criminals for their crimes against Iraqis and Afghans or Chechens and Syrians, respectively. Officials from international powers are immune from prosecution.

The infrastructure of human rights organizations and movements seem to be somewhat weak or illusory. Human rights discourse often dominates the media, with organizations carrying out broad media campaigns to try to exert pressure. But nothing of this pressure brings out its desired results unless the “interests” of international powers incidentally coincide with it, and those states “manipulate” this discourse as a cover to legitimate their actions that are done to serve their interests. Meanwhile, if the rights-violating governments have good relations and mutual interests with international powers, they can go on repressing and violating the rights of their people however they want, because they well know that only power balance and national interests direct the international system, and these human rights campaigns are mere “talk.”

It seems to me that that human rights organizations often focus more on private sphere violations than public sphere violations, when it is the public sphere violations committed by states and militaries that are the main factor that provide the structural social, economic, and political grounds and “conditions” that let the private sphere violations thrive and flourish. Although private sphere violations are often attributed to religious scriptures, the roots really lie in the structural conditions that obstruct people from obtaining higher education and awareness, so that they don’t use those scriptures in ways to satisfy their psychological needs for domination and violence. In other words, the scriptures are just cultural tools of justification, the intermediate variable between the independent variable of structural conditions and the dependent variable of rights violations. Of course, this phenomenon is more complicated than this, and it’s not exactly a “linear” causal relationship. There are feedbacks and inter-loops. But what bothers me is that tendency in human rights discourse to focus more on the end product, the violence committed, by, say, Islamist fundamentalist men against women and children, without giving any mention to those agents who created the structural conditions that drive such violations to take place.

Yes, fundamentalist Islamist groups’ men violate the rights of women and children, but who created those groups in the first place? When the US and the UK invaded Iraq in 2003 and committed countless violations against women and children there, unrecorded and hidden violations were ignored by human rights groups although they far exceed any number of violations committed by Islamists. Governments only document violations committed by non-state groups that they fight, but hide their own violations: rapes against women and children; torture of children in secret military places to force their families to talk, tortures that were acknowledged and approved by the highest officials in the US government; the US’s use of nuclear radiation to murder and disfigure many generations of Iraqi children (the nuclear radiation was used against families, mostly women and children, hiding in underground places to escape warplane raids); the US’s intentional role in sparking a deadly civil war in the country and destroying its economy and infrastructure. In such conditions of unbelievable military violence, national degradation, economic destruction, what kind of people do you expect to arise? It is no surprise that for people like ISIS, those people who have witnessed great destruction and violence, their psychological status have become so twisted that they desire to commit the same violence that they witnessed against others.

The same could be said for the case of Russia’s invasion of Syria, the USSR and US’s successive invasions and destruction of Afghanistan since 1979, Sub-Saharan Africa and the destruction of their people’s economic prosperity by present neo-imperialism of the North, etc.

Fundamentalism and violence against women and children at home are not caused by religious scriptures. The books could be used for any purpose; they are caused by wars, poverty, and deterioration of the human living condition, that turns the human psyche into a violent, domineering, and unstable mind. And who is causing this war and poverty in the South? The governments, militaries, and corporations of the North! But sadly, human rights organizations tend to focus the blame on the fundamentalists of the un-modernized societies of the South instead. Perhaps the Western countries are too strong and powerful and internationally-domineering to be blamed!

I don’t want to seem overly pessimistic, but as long as the “national state” occupies the main role on the global scene, and controls power resources, I can’t see how human rights and prosperity—whether individual, collective, or from any perspective—can play a significant role and truly affect peoples’ lives amidst the race for power and resources within and among states.

Noha Tarek
Noha Tarek is a social science researcher studying the interplay of change in political culture and revolution, drawing from her experience as an activist in the Egyptian revolution. Her research reflects Big History perspectives on human cultural evolution and transformation.

Cite as Noha Tarek, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Human Rights," Great Transition Initiative (April 2018),

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