Where the Human Rights Abuses Are, Daily Brief August 4, 2023

Daily Brief, August 4, 2023.


When asked why he robbed banks, the so-called “gentleman bank robber,” Willie Sutton, replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”

I sometimes get asked why I’m so often writing here about vulnerable people, and why human rights defenders generally are constantly focused on minorities.

Although I’m not keen to compare myself to a bank robber, not even a “gentleman” one, I have to answer in a similar “well, duh” sort of way: because that’s where the human rights abuses are.

It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Powerful people – those with access to money and lawyers and political contacts – are not as likely to be subject to human right abuses. It’s not impossible, but it’s rare, and when it happens, the powerful can defend themselves. By definition.

And I’m not just talking about billionaires here. Even those with more limited means can get satisfaction through legal routes – at least if they live in a country where there are enforceable laws, if the government respects those laws, and the courts basically work. Some big “ifs,” I know, but at least they have a chance.

However, it’s the truly powerless folks who are so often the target of abuses – often by the powerful – precisely because they can’t defend themselves.

Look at one of the most persistently abused groups around the world today: refugees and migrants. These are people who may have lost everything in a war back home: their job, their home, their family. Or maybe they’re escaping extreme poverty.

They set off with little or nothing, searching for sanctuary or a better life, and where they’re living now – or trying to live – they have little power. They can’t vote, and very often, they can’t work legally either. This political and economic powerlessness makes them vulnerable.

Unscrupulous politicians are all too quick to jump on that vulnerability. They tell voters their problems are the fault of those newcomers. And with no refugee votes or campaign donations to worry about, politicians can in some sense target the newcomers “cost free.”

It’s the laziest form of politics, of course: blaming someone else rather taking responsibility and addressing difficult social and economic issues. Bashing the vulnerable is simple; solving problems is hard. But this lazy politics too often works for the politician in terms of media attention and votes.

The same dynamic can happen when it comes to minorities, too, whether ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities. Politicians from majority communities use them as scapegoats to boost their careers in the same way.

And the smaller – and less powerful – the minority, the better for politicians’ purposes. Just take what’s been happening to trans folks, for example.

If a person has a clear head, unbefuddled by the whipped-up fears of shouty TV talking heads, there is no possible way they could objectively say this tiny group of people represents any threat to anyone. And yet, politicians from the US to Hungary to Russia are spending huge amounts of time and effort to bash them in speeches and abuse them with new laws.

Even when it comes to larger minority communities, very often – for reasons of long-term discrimination and unequal opportunities historically – they can find it difficult to fight back. They can be shut out of costly legal pathways to defend their rights, or at least face greater obstacles doing so.

In any case, the message from politicians to the wider public is similar: those people over there, they are the problem. Politicians with power then punish those with less or no power, as if to say: “See, I am doing something about this huge problem I’ve told you you have.” (And please, dear voters, don’t look at anything else, like my corruption or my failure to solve your real problems.)

Sadly, media often play along – in more repressive places because that’s what authorities direct them to do, and in less repressive places because fear and hate are good for business models based on clicks and views. So, too many members of the public accept the sacrifice of the vulnerable – a kind of political sadism – as normal.

It becomes so commonplace, people can even get to the point where they fail to recognize the glaring immorality of things like the EU’s “let them die” policy in the Mediterranean Sea or Texas officials in the US pushing kids into razor wire and deadly river currents.

It’s our role as human rights defenders to remind everyone that this isn’t normal. That it’s completely unacceptable to anyone with any sense at all of human dignity. That politicians are lying to you. And that these vulnerable people they are abusing to boost their political careers are just that: people – with fundamental rights like everyone else.

So, yeah, we work with the vulnerable and minorities a lot, because that’s where the human rights abuses are.