Thursday, June 4, 2015

Rewards for Ratification?

by Leslie Wexler

Lesley Wexler photo


The new article Rewards for Ratification: Payoffs for Participating in the International Human Rights Regime ( by Richard A. Nielsen and Beth A. Simmons presents empirical data strongly contesting the hypothesis that states reward other states for human rights treaty ratification. They contend that neither tangible, material rewards like aid nor intangible benefits like belonging, praise, acceptance, respect or inclusion motivate ratification decisions. This paper, published in International Studies Quarterly, should be of particular interest to our readers because the authors suggest studying alternate reasons states choose to ratify human rights treaties.


Many of these theories could help guide advocates in trying to bring human rights home. In particular, Nielson & Simmons point to Andrew Moravcsik’s theory that human rights treaties are “useful for domestic political objectives; they help sustain democratic momentum and lock in fairly recent rights gains.” They also suggest looking to Thomas Risse and Katherine Sikkink’s spiral model that views ratification as “a tactical concession to rights proponents at both the domestic and international levels.”


U.S. advocates urging the domestic ratification of treaties like the Convention on the Ratification of the Child, the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities might consider whether this study suggests new strategies for reframing the ratification push. While the United States is not similarly positioned to most other non-ratifying states in its need for tangible assistance or perhaps intangible rewards like respect and acceptance, it is worth thinking through whether they are similarly positioned in terms of domestic political objectives.



June 4, 2015 in Global Human Rights, Lesley Wexler | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Human Right To Die?

by Lesley Wexler

With high profile death of cancer patient Brittany Maynard who argued for the right to die; the touching account of Dr. Paul Kalinithi on how to continue life in face of an imminent death; and most recently, the Atlantic’s article on rising support for legalizing the doctor’s role in assisted suicide, I am wondering whether the so called right to die and attendant rights like those of physicians to assist might be productively cast as a human right.

While domestic legal fights have focused on constitutional issues and statutory prohibitions and protections, the questions underpinning a right to die might also be addressed by foundational principles in International Human Rights Law.  As Jordan Paust’s thoughtful essay on this topic points out, International Human Rights Law recognizes the “general, fundamental, and enduring right of each person to human dignity” along with rights to privacy and liberty all of which are implicated by the right to die.  The right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to effective social and medical assistance might be implicated in individual cases as well.

Given the sensitive issues at stake and the polarized options, the right to death is hardly low hanging fruit for an international human rights movement and I wouldn’t expect this to emerge as a UN human rights treaty any time soon. But there may be advantages to framing this issue within a human rights narrative.

In so doing, I think domestic advocates need to think about whether it is worthwhile to compare those denied the means to control the timing and nature of their death to others who suffer violations of their human rights. Similarly, would it make sense to connect the stories of terminally and chronically ill patients who seek to make end of life decisions to hunger strikers and other political activists who use their health and the risk of death to express a political opinion? Should right to die advocates seek to find connections between poster child Brittany Maynard and hunger striker Shaker Aamer; between doctors that want to assist ALS patients and members of the military who refuse to force feed Guantanamo hunger strikers?

I think asking such questions now, when the issue is so salient, might be productive in thinking about how to generate wider acceptance of this social movement. I believe that human rights language and thinking can help inform this debate even if it doesn't directly shape much of the legal landscape. But these are just some early thoughts, so I welcome comments and suggestions.


April 1, 2015 in Health, Lesley Wexler | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Whiplash: Viewing Torture Through a Movie Lens

by Lesley Wexler

     One of 2014's best movies might be viewed as a meditation on torture. While a literal viewing of Whiplash concerns itself with the relationship between a jazz drummer and his mentor, one might read it more broadly as part of the contemporary debate over torture. Whiplash asks the viewer to consider when, if ever, successful but abusive methods are morally justified. Should society judge the process at least partially by the end result?

     By way of background (and some spoilers), a quick synopsis follows. In order to get the best performances out of his already exceptional students, conductor Terence Fletcher engages in physical and emotional abuse. While the conductor's behavior might not quite reach the legal definition of torture, slapping, throwing chairs, employing sleep deprivation, and harassing students with regards to family, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, and sexual preferences is cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. And yet it seems to work. Fletcher’s cruelty propels student Andrew Neiman into a career making performance. Given the eye contact between the two that closes the movie, both Andrew and Terence seem to agree that such a spirited and technically accomplished performance wouldn’t have happened in the absence of extreme emotional abuse. Fletcher also claims credit for Sean Casey, a former student that played for several years in Wynton Marsalis’ band. While the movie is cut like a thriller, focusing the viewer on whether Fletcher will extract the desired performance, it does not shy away from the emotional toll that Fletcher's method exacts. Andrew obsesses over winning Fletcher's approval and in so doing, isolates himself emotionally, practices until he bleeds, and experiences a serious mental break. Sean presents an even more extreme case, hanging himself after several years of a highly acclaimed jazz career.

    Does creating great performances and great artists justify abusive methods? Substitute "extracting information" for "creating art" and the same debate rages on in the national security context. Of course, Fletcher's students' ability to opt out is a significant difference. But leaving aside consent issues, both settings invite the empirical question of whether abusive methods can uniquely motivate desired behavior and the moral question of whether society should limit successful methods. Moreover, the debate in both settings often relies on the exceptional or extraordinary case. While we might disdain these methods generally, is torture justified for the ticking time bomb or is abusive teaching justified to produce the greatest artists? And advocates often seem to rely on the empirical presupposition that if a little cruelty produces desired results, then ratcheting up the cruelty will work even better.

     In pondering these questions, Whiplash's main characters conclude that extreme cruelty works. Both Fletcher and Neiman view the defining moment in Charlie Parker's career as occurring when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker for losing the beat during a early performance. Without that event, Charlie Parker never would have become Bird. And thus, in Fletcher's mind, if a single thrown cymbal motivates, then more violent methods will motivate more. Even after Fletcher learns of his former student's suicide, he doesn't change his approach. He explains to Neiman that his goal was never to produce good students, but to create truly great ones. And the movie concludes with Fletcher inducing a potentially career ending humiliation that spurs Neiman on to a Bird like performance. By ending on this note, the movie forces the viewer to confront the moral question directly. While for Fletcher and perhaps Neiman as well, the ends justify the means, the movie quietly raises other points of view. To Neiman's father, nothing, including a brilliant performance, could justify his son's treatment. And Sean Casey's grieving parents seek to prevent Fletcher from pushing other students as he pushed their son. They prompt an investigation that results in the conservatory condemning and firing Fletcher.

    Whiplash focuses on the moral limits on the relationship between cruelty and performance. It is most decidedly not a movie about law, justice, or retribution. None of the characters seek Fletcher's punishment through criminal or civil litigation. Neiman's father and Sean Casey's family only want Fletcher removed from power. This too may mirror much of the public debate over torture. While lawyers care deeply about the illegality of torture, most lay people seem to view the moral and empirical questions as the decisive ones. Similarly, while many lawyers may favor punishment for torturers, the heart of the public debate seems to be forward looking in deciding what behavior to allow rather than backward looking in deciding what behavior to punish. Whiplash provides a compelling and highly entertaining context through which to return to these questions.

January 5, 2015 in Lesley Wexler | Permalink | Comments (0)