The bureaucracy and the banality of human rights violations

Here’s an interesting and important piece of news that you will not have heard about. Campaigning NGO Privacy International have secured a court decision in their favour against HM Revenue & Customs over the issue of illegal exports on surveillance software to oppressive regimes.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell. British firms create deeply unpleasant surveillance software—spyware—and sell it to brutal dictatorships. Often this is in violation of trade sanctions against the country in question. HMRC are supposed to investigate and fine those businesses who violate trade restrictions. But when Privacy International requested information from HMRC about these investigations, the agency was unco-operative. The Administrative Court has condemned this behaviour.

This is obviously an important ruling. We are talking about the issue of British companies directly facilitating human rights abuses. It’s something that shouldn’t happen, that we as a democracy should stop. And yet a government agency is blocking such accountability and reckoning. We should be appalled.

But still, it feels like a niche issue. The Americans would call it “inside baseball”. Its not a criminal case, but a complex issue of (mal)administration by a supposed regulator. It was not on the news. It is not a part of our democratic conversation.

I do not note all this merely to complain about the inattention of the media or my fellow citizens. Rather, I think it is a good illustration of how how Britain’s culpability in human rights abuses actually happens, and, in turn, how human rights campaigning actually works.

British examples of what we might term spectacular human rights abuses (i.e. they become a spectacle, something we actually pay attention to) are relatively rare. There are occasional cases of prisoner-of-war abuse by soldiers, and the corporate culpability of Shell in the judicial murder of Ken Saro Wiwa. But there are many more cases such as the one highlighted above, where complex regulations are flouted and quiet requests for obscure information are ignored. There is often quite a distance between these technicalities and the erosion of the liberty of some person in some far off place. No-one connects the dots, and the lives of others are made a little more unpleasant because our democracy does not have the expertise to hold government and business to account.

This also means that the defence of human rights is usually just as technical, obscure and tedious. I work in human rights campaigning, and even I had to re-read the details of this recent judgement a few times to comprehend the significance. The case has come about only because there is a small organisation, operating in this area on an extremely granular level. A professional ‘awkward squad’ who won’t let the matter drop.

One thought on “The bureaucracy and the banality of human rights violations

  1. An interesting piece Rob. Does the judgement mean that they will be forced to give information about their investigations, be forced to investigate or has their behaviour just been “condemned” ?

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