When Donald Trump stretched his hand across our television screens on Sunday to shake the hand of the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, and then said he had “a great relationship” with him I felt my gorge contracting. Having tasted the great, if sometimes flawed, (remember the totally counterproductive policy of arming the Afghani mujahedeen against the Soviet invaders) campaign of another US president, Jimmy Carter, to put human rights at the centre of American foreign, to see this bald regression is a bitter fruit to swallow.
Duterte recently boasted that he personally killed a man in a fight when he was 16. During his presidential campaign he darkly hinted at other killings he had made and since then has waged a no-hands-barred fight against suspected drug dealers. Arrests, courts, justice? Forget it.
But then under President Donald Trump we have seen presidential support, as we did under President George W. Bush, for torture. (President Barack Obama reversed the Bush policy.)
Winding the clock back to the time of Dumbarton Oaks where the UN Charter was drafted, the US joined the Soviet Union and strongly demanded that references in the draft to human rights be deleted. Fortunately, two years later, when the delegation to the writing of a Convention of Human Rights was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the US pushed for the most inclusive language possible, and the UN ended up with its second most important document.
But then, with the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan and with its tolerance for notorious dictators in Chile, Guatemala, China and Zaire, the US betrayed its own principles.
However, during the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan, the US ratified the UN Convention Against Torture. Yet when important parts of the press and Congress were lambasting Bush jnr. for the use of torture, the Convention was rarely mentioned. The American body politic seemed to have amnesia. Today too it is rarely mentioned.
Despite this, I would maintain that the world as a whole has taken more steps forward on human rights than backwards. For example, the number of countries inflicting capital punishment has fallen dramatically. There is less genocide, there are a declining number of battle deaths and civilians killed in war.
Thanks to the steady coal-face work of Amnesty International the number of political prisoners has declined. The international tribunals to try the initiators of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and East Timor were largely successful. In 1998 there was the founding of the International Criminal Court with most of the countries of the world signing up. (But not China, India, Israel, Russia and the US, although under Bush jnr. and more under Obama it gave it a good deal of practical support.) Now prosecutions and investigations that might lead to prosecutions have a wide reach- the behaviour of some American troops in Afghanistan is under investigation.
So why do many observers conclude that Human rights observance has gone down? According to Harvard professor, Kathryn Sikkink, in her new book “Evidence for Hope”, “humans are ‘cognitive misers’ – because we cannot process all information equally, we prioritize what we are going to process. People spend more time and care processing bad information. One study found that people were more than twice as likely to remember bad events as they were to remember good ones. There may be a good evolutionary reasons for the negative bias- humans who paid attention to and remembered bad things, such as predators, would have been more likely to survive. Humans also have a more detailed and systematic analysis and vocabulary to explain negative experiences and their resulting emotions, than positive ones, which may be related to the fact that we process positive and negative information in different hemispheres of the brain.”
This surely explains why negative books, articles and TV headlines get more attention. We are likely to give more weight to criticism. “We tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events than happy ones”.
I admit on one human rights issue things have deteriorated. That is torture, which in recent decades has spread fast. It is strange that after the Second World War when the Allies arrested many of the German and Japanese leadership they never used torture to extract precious information. The receipt of information came from intensive interrogation and the war crime trials. Today, polls show that 6 out of 10 Americans support the use of torture, particularly against alleged terrorists. Yet in recent years only an average of four people a year have died from acts of terrorism.
Still, there are not many countries, apart from those mentioned above, where there has been a serious deterioration- most important of the declining countries has been China with growing censorship and the persecution of free-speech advocates. Even there executions have sharply decreased.
On balance, we are going forward.