Protecting Human Rights in the Age of Populism

Modernity has created a unique set of human conditions in which peoples’ lives enter a condition of stasis. A leaked document paralyses your life. Geopolitics destroys your business and leaves you frozen under house arrest awaiting an unsafe extradition. An exile that makes your nationalism suspect. An abandonment by your allies kills you. These are cases of law, politics and policy that echo our more general experience of lockdown and occur in the context of a broader political crisis in the west. These are individual lives lived in stasis that form our modern condition of purgatory. Until, or if they are released from purgatory, these lives will remain frozen for months, years and in one case, forever.

At the heart of each of these cases is a profound question of human rights at a time of unprecedented assault on the place of those rights in law, politics, and policy. Each case is defined by a different kind of imposed stasis created by law, media, and politics.

In this series of blogs, which follow-on from the ten blog Covidspring series, I will consider each of the cases in turn:

  • Igor Danchenko the primary sub-source of the Steel dossier on Donald Trump and Russian interference in US elections
  • Arif Naqvi the former CEO of private equity firm, Abraaj, brought down by geopolitics and under house arrest awaiting an unsafe extradition to the USA
  • Emin Millie who was imprisoned by the government of Azerbaijan and now lives in exile in Germany but has been vocal in support of his country in the current war with Armenia
  • Hisham al-Hashemi an Iraqi researcher who worked for the coalition and was assassinated outside his home in Baghdad

In this first blog, I want to consider the terms I am using for the position that law and politics has placed these very different individuals in. My argument is that to understand the real crisis of human rights protection in the age of populism we must look at the many ways in which the collapse in the rule of law impacts on our lives and The Lives of Others. Each of these cases is exceptional in many ways but these stories touch on themes and controversies that are universal.

Lives in Stasis

When surveying the landscape of a word in contemporary use, one soon becomes aware of multiple echoes of past meanings upon which current understandings depend.” Sarah Riviere

Stasis is a complex word with a complex history. The first meaning of stasis is medical. A stoppage of the circulation of any of the fluids in the body. In 1753 Chambers defined it as a stagnation of the humours, or a state of inactivity, a state of motionless or unchanging equilibrium. From this root in early medicine, the word moved in two directions. It remained in use in medicine to describe a blockage of the blood but evolved in Reich’s psychoanalytical theories to be “a hypothetical accumulation of unused or repressed sexual energy”. The stillness represents the “damning-up of sexual energy in the organism, thus the source of energy for neuroses” and, in Reich’s view not just some mental health problems but all mental health problems. But it also developed as a spiritual or artistic moment. As Michael R Moore puts it, stasis is “something we achieve”:   

Stasis in the OED — note how, in rhetoric, stasis is something we achieve — a state we actively work toward, because it both provides opportunities for invention of materials and identifying contexts for change:

b. gen. Inactivity; stagnation; a state of motionless or unchanging equilibrium.

1920   Glasgow Herald 30 Nov. 9   The prevailing mood of Labour is indefinite; a condition of stasis has been caused by the coal strike and the dread of unemployment.

1930   W. Empson Seven Types of Ambiguity vii. 245   He is drawn taut between the two similar impulses into the stasis of appreciation.

1933   T. S. Eliot Use of Poetry vi. 103   Arnold represents a period of stasis; of relative and precarious stability, it is true, a brief halt in the endless march of humanity in some, or in any direction.

1940   E. Muir Story & Fable v. 186   This could be done by so controlling the chemical processes of the body as to produce a self-subsistent balance, an everlasting, living stasis.

1943   Sewanee Review LI. ii. 337   Art, according to Dedalus-Joyce, tends toward the achievement of stasis, which implies a state of contemplation, of detachment from the kinesis of life.

1972   Times Lit. Suppl. 1 Sept. 1020/3   We see him in the moment of stasis before action.

1978   J. Updike Coup (1979) iii. 91   A religion whose antipodes are motion and stasis.

T.S. Eliot, was being sarcastic here. The line before the quote in the OED says:   “Arnold hardly looks ahead to a  new stage of experience; and though he speaks to us of discipline, it is the discipline of culture, not the discipline of suffering.” The review by Solomon Fishman of Joyce and Virginia Woolf quoted from the Sewanee Review in 1943, argues that their views are “diametrically opposed at their source.” Joyce’s aesthetic is “expounded in The Portrait of the Artist: art, according to Joyce Dedalus tends towards the achievement of stasis, which implies a state of contemplation, of detachment from the kinesis of life. In such a state ‘the personality of the artist refines itself out of existence’; the work of the artist automatically released from all obligations except the obligation to the exigencies of its own existence, which is its form.” [Emphasis added]

Life can only work as the art of stasis if the element of choice is present. If it is something we achieve. It cannot be imposed without being a profound containment of our freedom. The stasis of house arrest which is neither the full constraint of incarceration nor the state of freedom, is not a human being taking on a form but being deformed. Stasis is also, in the original Greek meaning, a moment of inaction before action, and action of a particular kind. In the Greek case before a civil war or strife engulfs the city state in a stasis or confrontation between two kindred groups, as Plato puts it in the Republic:

The two parties I mean are, firstly, those of the same house and kindred, and secondly those of different houses and strangers. Now the term employed for hostility between those of the same house is stasis, and for that between those of different houses is war.

Plato’s Republic, 470c

But it is much more than this:

In ancient Greece stasis was recognised as just such an enabler, but one that also set out precise demands of relationship, moderation,  and  reconciliation,  while  holding  the promise of new, energetic onward movement for all parties post-stasis.

God’s Waiting Room

The echoes of past meanings of the term purgatory offer ways of thinking about the possibility of hope and the end of stasis. The Council of Trent 1545-1563, concluded that there was a purgatory and that the souls detained there are benefited by the prayers of the faithful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. That progress through the purification of purgatory is achieved by the practice of prayer for the dead:

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

But the Council outlawed the practice of “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead”, which had been common practice after the notion of a place between earth and heaven was first put forward by Pope Innocent IV in 1284. This sense of purification has been somewhat obscured in contemporary usage by the idea of waiting. Evangelical Christians have adapted a version of purgatory which they call “God’s Waiting Room”, which is also urban slang for Florida. They place this on earth:

It’s the time you go from the call to the fulfilment…It’s the time you go from the promise being made to seeing the promise fulfilled. It could be the time between you praying for your children and them coming to the Lord. It’s the time period where you seek God for something and the delivery of that which you sought.

Growing up Catholic, the image in my mind remains the waiting for prayers to lift me up to the final resting place. But most of all as a child I remember thinking a lot about the waiting. Wondering what would happen if no one prayed for me. Would I wait in that state for eternity? And what was purgatory going to look like?

Four lives seeking Justice

“I said there is no justice as they led me out of the door.

And the Judge said, “This isn’t a court of justice, son, This is a court of law”

I keep telling them that I’m innocent, They just say, “Come on son, in you go….

It’s a cruel unusual punishment that society demands,

Innocent till proven guilty, rotting on remand…

I ended up in this jail, Built in 1882,

When one man to one prison cell, was a Victorian value

You don’t turn criminals into citizens. By treating them this way”.

Billy Bragg – Rotting on Remand

There are worse things in the world happening today than the things that are happening to three out of the four lives I want to profile in these blogs. Hisham al-Hashemi paid the ultimate price possible to pay for intellectual honesty, so his case is different. There are categories of crimes being perpetrated by nation states right now that are worse than the experiences of these men. But I think these lives tell us something deep about the collapse of the justice system in the UK and the US. The idea of a system of law that is based on the achievement of justice is an idealistic one. The idea of an international system that is based on rules and norms is an outdated one. But these are the four conditions of modernity in the context of the rule of law that I want to consider. These people live or lived in states of purgatory, in stasis, for three out of four of them there remains the possibility of release and for Hisham the responsibility to honour his memory by treating others differently.