A Comment on The Visit of President Kagame to The Centre For The Study Of Human Rights

The President of Rwanda Paul Kagame is my my first guest at LSE this term. His schedule includes an address to the centre on development, climate change and human rights. There has been some controversy around the visit. Some people are critical saying he has committed human rights violations. Why have I invited him to speak at my centre?

The first point to note is that the President has been elected by an overwhelming majority of his people. The Foreign Office noted some problems with that election but overall comments that they were ‘generally well-run and orderly’. The elections were held under a constitution that had been agreed by referendum, again by a large majority. This constitution (2003) followed a long period of government in which power had been shared under the Arusha accords (1993).

While in power, Paul Kagame has overseen the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission. He has also announced a National Human Rights Campaign, and this year Rwanda abolished the death penalty. Though his country remains very poor, the Foreign Office comments that ‘since 1994, [Rwanda] has made significant progress in uplifting the traditionally poor socio-economic indicators.’ Enrolment in primary school is now at 94%.

Of course there is a history of violence in Rwanda. Kagame had to leave the country with his family as a result of attacks on the Tutsi people in the early 1960s. After the 1994 genocide, many of those responsible fled to Zaire (as it then was) from which some at least launched attacks into Rwanda. The Rwandan army invaded the country twice (1996 and again 1998). I appreciate that not all would agree with the entirety of the official claim that Rwandan forces withdrew in 2002, or that these incursions were solely to deal with attacks by exiled Hutus. But that there were attacks and that they were perpetrated by people who had already been intimately involved in the killing of some 800,000-1m people cannot be denied.

President Kagame is not an indicted war criminal, though there are French moves to have him prosecuted. (France has long been involved in the region and the recent opening of archives has revived questions of the exact extent of its support for the leadership that perpetrated the genocide in 1994).

President Kagame comes to the Centre to speak about development and human rights in the context of climate change. He is the African Union spokesperson on climate change. The President has not asked to control the composition of the audience and is aware there is a question and answer session afterwards: I understand he is prepared to answer whatever comes from the floor. In the spirit of open debate I would ask those sceptical of the President to come, to listen and then to make their point.

Can Animals Have Human Rights?

The question seems absurd until you realise that it is an ill-conceived way of putting a deeper point that is harder to refute: what makes human beings so special that they – and they alone among the animals – warrant the protection that flows from being entitled to rights? The usual stock answers to this are not as satisfactory as maybe once they were. First we used to say that humans as possessors of a soul were uniquely special and therefore entitled to things in a way non-humans were not. But the soul idea has taken a bit of a battering of late, and many people who believe in human rights feel they can commit themselves in this way even though they don’t think they have a soul lurking within them.

Often these are the people who turn to the rationality of man/woman as the reason for the uniqueness of this category of animal: unlike the rest of the living things on the planet, we humans can plan our actions, reflect on our life goals and how to achieve them, and generally behave in a thoughtful as well as a feeling way. In other words we have autonomy and as autonomous beings we have an interest in freedom which is nothing like (being far superior than) what other animals can possibly enjoy. This is good so far as it goes but doesn’t deal with two facts. First, many humans are not capable of enjoying their autonomy in this way and yet despite this (perhaps even especially because of this), we persist in thinking of them as human. Second, some non-human animals (eg whales, great apes, but there are others) do show evidence of this kind of personhood, so if this is the criteria that determines which animals have rights, should they not join the human category as rights-holders?

So how do we avoid saying that (certain) animals have rights? Maybe we should not try to. Perhaps there is another narrative under the surface of the religious and rational stories which have linked humans (and humans alone) so indelibly to rights in the past: both faith and reason have been concerned to produce ethical frameworks for good living, and a measure of goodness has in each case being the way we have treated the vulnerable and the weak. Traditionally these have been the human vulnerable and the human weak, but there is no necessary reason why we should allow this species-categorisation unnecessarily to limit our subject. If that is right, then we can talk of supporting the idea of rights for animals as a way of expressing our desire to protect animals from the horrors done to them by the abuse of human power.

Three glosses on this are necessary I think. First, not all animals would enjoy rights in the same way or to the same degree, and certainly the rights aimed at the human animal would not translate automatically to the rest of the animals. It would depend on capacities to feel pain and to engage in rudimentary conscious engagement with the world, in other words (to adapt a phrase while reminding us of the potential exploitation in it) it should be ‘horses for courses’. Second, since many human rights are already susceptible to exceptions based on the greater good of humankind, there should be do difficulty in developing exceptions with regard to particular categories of animals (in the interests of the animals) so as to avoid absurdity. And thirdly, again as is the case with the more ambitious human rights, to frame a right here is not, in the absence of direct enforceable unequivocal legislation, to insist on its immediate application: we can declare and agree animal rights as goals in the way that we already have decided that humans should have a right to food or to shelter: the fact that many don’t is a cause for concern not a basis for refutation.

These thoughts have been provoked by an excellent conference run by Professor Andrew Linzey’s Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics at Keble College Oxford on 18 September. What do you think? Are there gaps in the argument, places where the thesis can be tightened? Or have I got the argument completely wrong? . Is this the right approach for those concerned about animal welfare to take?

Separating Libertarianism and Political Liberty

I wrote an article in the Guardian on Friday arguing that libertarianism and political liberty needed to be kept separate in our minds, and that civil libertarians should be prepared to engage more in discussion than they do about the relative merits of various suggestions for change that affect the first while being extremely careful about any new laws or practices that threaten the second.

The immediate handle for the piece was Sedley LJ’s suggestion that there be a compulsory DNA database covering not only residents but UK visitors as well. What has been interesting has been the level of vitriol his proposal, and my article, have attracted. There is an extremely strong belief among at least a few people that the government really is motivated by bad faith in seeking to deploy technology so as further to invade basic rights and liberties. There is also an equally deeply-held opinion that we live in a society with a very authoritarian-minded government.

Part of the purpose of my article was also to challenge this idea by putting the Blair/Brown administrations in some kind of historical context. In my new book Civil Liberties I do emphasise the law and practice of political freedom which is what I say my subject is about, ie not invididual liberty as such, other than of course as a building block for freedom. This afternoon I am presenting my ideas to the annual conference of the Society of legal Scholars – the UK’s premier gathering of academic lawyers. I shall be very interested to see what their response is.