05 August 2007

05 August 2007 - Human rights and traffic jams

This morning, on my way to work at my human rights program, my bus got stuck in an awful traffic jam. Eventually, the driver advised all of the passengers to get out and walk. Ahead of us was, the intersection—one of the busiest in the city—was blocked by police cars, and there were police officers standing around. Knowing that Sunday morning rush hour is a prime target for terror attacks, I feared the worst.

Then I saw the wheelchairs—dozens of people scooting around in the intersection, waving flags and carrying banners. A few had left their wheelchairs and were sitting on the asphalt. They were protesting against the government’s decision to cancel benefits for polio victims that were recently signed into law. “They are failing to honor our basic rights,” a woman told me, in between taking cellphone calls.

I’m not sure the right to compensation for medical and living expenses constitutes a “basic” right, though it is certainly the time of positive right that states might be morally and politically obliged to create to ensure that no one lives in extreme poverty or need. The problem is that honoring such positive rights costs money, and the finance ministry needs to keep the budget small to protect Israel’s credit rating.

The protest demonstrated how human rights issues are a part of everyday life in Israel. The civil/political right of the disabled to protest—and disrupt the city’s main transport arteries—was honored. They did so in order to protect a socioeconomic right, while the government is trying to sustain economic growth, which in turn gives individuals work opportunities and ultimately funds socioeconomic rights.

At work, I’m involved in four projects that touch all of these kinds of rights. The first is an examination of international law regarding how different countries treat each other’s rulings on changes in family status—for instance, whether and how different countries recognize each other’s marriages, divorces, adoptions, et cetera. The issue has come up in a recent case in Israel involving overseas adoptions.

In 2000, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the government to recognize the parenthood of a lesbian woman who had adopted her partner’s biological child in the United States before the couple moved to Israel. Now there is a move—partly justified by concerns about child trafficking, but partly motivated by the desire to deny future recognition to such adoptions—to re-write Israel’s laws on the matter. My job is to figure out how the proposed changes compare to international practice.

Another project I’m working on involves corporate social responsibility. Israeli companies—and the Israeli government—are employing an increasing number of contract workers, who do not enjoy the same rights and benefits of full-time, permanent employees. Rather than push employers to stop hiring contract workers, it might be better to encourage the adoption of voluntary commitment to labor standards. My task is to look at examples from the U.S. and see how they work.

I’m also involved in another comparative legal study—this one related to the laws regarding the secret service. Israel’s Shabak (General Security Service) operates according to a Knesset law passed in 2002, under which it is directly accountable to the Prime Minister. This makes public oversight difficult, and we’re looking at whether the current arrangement is consistent with that in other countries.

Finally, I’m helping put together a roundup of human rights events in Israel and the occupied territories in the current calendar year. This is actually harder than it sounds. It’s all rather interesting—but I wonder what effect all this work will have.

I had an interesting conversation this weekend with some friends about what I’m doing at work, and about the human rights situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. I guess my critique boils down to this: there has to be a hierarchy of rights, with the right to life at the top. The morally relativistic confusion of rights is partly responsible for the confusion around these issues.

Politics and diplomacy are always about competing interests. Sometimes they are about competing rights, too—and that’s OK. But the trouble when everything is framed in terms of rights is that everyone begins talking in absolutes and resolving conflicts becomes much harder. Add to the mix politicians who promise more from government budgets than they can deliver, and that’s when you get traffic jams.

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