Amnesty International: is it true to its mission?

Amnesty International has a moral mission: ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’. Could that be an impossible mission for an organisation that calls for military intervention on human rights grounds? This question arises from an attempt to understand Amnesty International’s role in the war in Syria.


Critics have argued that by justifying military action against the legitimate government of Syria, Amnesty International was complicit in producing an avoidable humanitarian catastrophe:[1] this is not to say those state powers seeking regime change in Syria waited on Amnesty’s blessing; but their action was lent legitimacy in the public’s eyes by Amnesty’s clear support for it.

Whatever one thinks of the criticism, I believe we have reason enough to ask: did Amnesty International do more harm than good for human rights in Syria?

That will be the question for my next blog, but I meanwhile have something to say as a prelude to that fuller inquiry.

As a decades-long supporter of Amnesty International, I would never wish to undermine its moral mission. As a troubled observer, though, I have concerns about how Amnesty pursued its mission in Syria (and recently I suspended my support for that reason). As an investigative philosopher, I believe the problem can usefully be analysed by reference to the mission itself.

Amnesty’s mission – ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’ – is perhaps really not one mission, but four:

– to undertake research focused on ending grave abuses

– to undertake action focused on ending grave abuses

– to undertake research focused on preventing grave abuses

– to undertake action focused on preventing grave abuses.

The two undertakings focused on ending abuses were foundational for Amnesty International. To identify and bear witness to cases of wrongful arrest and inhumane treatment, particularly of prisoners of conscience, was the original research aim, as most supporters understood it. The findings of the research were then the basis of actions aimed at putting public moral pressure on the perpetrators to end the abuse. There are limits to the effectiveness of moral pressure, to be sure, and there has always been debate within Amnesty about its stance towards more forceful kinds of persuasion. Such debates can be difficult ones. But difficult is not the same as impossible.

The third undertaking is not impossible either: a competent research team can engage in investigations aiming to identify impending threats to human rights. It is perfectly possible to engage in research so focused, although whether the findings will be proven correct, of course, is quite another matter. The nature of the research will centrally involve the methods and approaches of social scientists, and this sort of research does not generate exact predictions. If the third undertaking is difficult rather than impossible, though, it is because of its relatively modest ambition. It is modest in relation, specifically, to the fourth.


The fourth undertaking, ‘action focused on preventing grave abuses’ could mean wildly different things. Simply doing research into causes of potential abuses might be regarded as a kind of action; it is certainly an activity. On a starkly contrasting interpretation, the action could be very decisive and material. Even military intervention is included under a hawkish interpretation of action focused on a purported responsibility to protect against grave abuses.[2]

So which interpretation should be taken to define Amnesty’s mission?  I dare say some supporters of the organisation may assume its moral mission does not include the promotion of harmful force. Yet the interpretation allowed by the organisation today does not preclude even the promotion of war.

In allowing that interpretation, Amnesty International must answer the question of what ethical criteria, exactly, it invokes when it decides whether to advocate for a war.

I think this is an impossible question in a practical sense because every specific context in which it would arise will have myriad distinctive complexities, as well as uncertainties and imponderables. Any general guidelines set out in advance will need to be adapted to the specific case, which means you’d need to have criteria for permissible adaptations, and then guidelines for them, and so on.

It is also impossible in a more fundamental moral sense: for the question is about the conditions under which action focused on preventing grave abuses of human rights can permissibly violate human rights. I believe Amnesty International’s ordinary members and supporters generally think the organisation should not be in the business of assessing which human rights violations are permissible. They will assume that none are. If I am right in the reasoning here, then, by allowing a hawkish interpretation of its fourth undertaking, Amnesty renders its own mission impossible.

I wonder if the millions of ordinary honest men, women and children who support the moral mission of Amnesty International might want to think about taking a stand in relation to the organisation itself.

In my next blog, I shall turn to a question that might encourage that thinking. It is the question that prompted these preliminary thoughts: how well has Amnesty International fulfilled the overarching moral imperative of protecting people’s human rights in Syria?



[1] Full references for the relevant criticisms will be provided in the main discussion that will follow in the next blog. Here I would just like to thank those who, following my recent discussion of the testimony of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Syria, encouraged me to press a related question about Amnesty International. The fellow investigators I’ve learned a great deal from are numerous, but I’d like to mention particularly Tim Anderson, Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Patrick J. Boyle, Jean Bricmont, Tony Cartalucci, Adrian D., Joe Emersberger, Jan Oberg, Gunnar Øyro, Rick Sterling.

[2] See, for instance, the paper by Suzanne Nossel who, at the time of its publication, was Director of Amnesty International USA, ‘Advancing Human Rights in the UN System’, IIGG (International Institutions and Global Governance Program) Working paper May 2012.

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How We Were Misled About Syria: the role of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

msf-blamesI have unbounded admiration for the doctors who volunteer for the invaluable and often dangerous work of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The question concerns MSF’s policy of ‘bearing witness’. MSF will speak out – even against governments – when it thinks a humanitarian situation could and should be dealt with differently by those it holds responsible.[1] It has done so in Syria.

But if none of MSF’s international doctors have been on the ground in Syria’s war zones since 2015,[2] how can MSF claim to bear witness for what is happening there?

MSF has relayed reports from the rebel-held areas to which, exclusively, its supplies and support have been dispatched. The reports – including allegations of government attacks on hospitals and civilians – come from people working with the permission and protection of such groups as Al Nusra, Isis and other foreign jihadis and mercenaries. These anti-government forces are known to exercise a rule of terror and to be not overly concerned about ordinary citizens’ access to medical attention. That is precisely why the MSF doctors withdrew from the areas under their control.[3] So there is scope to ask who the medics on the ground were, and who they were treating. russi-plus-asad

My question, though, simply concerns the reliability of uncorroborated witness statements coming from potentially compromised sources. For while press statements have been issued from various MSF offices around the world, it appears MSF had no independent access to verifiable information from Syria.

In fact, the public unavailability of detailed or verified information is a matter of record: even John Kirby of the US State Department could only assert that ‘relief agencies that we find credible are levelling these accusations’.[4]

The most prominent relief agency, and visible in all video footage linked to the alleged bombings, is the White Helmets.  It is a matter of record that the White Helmets are funded by the NATO and Gulf states whose avowed aim is regime change in Syria; or-38096it is generally believed that they work closely with terrorist organisations (how else could the Netflix documentary have shown them roaming so freely in a zone where MSF and Western journalists dared not set foot?[5]). Their independence and integrity are widely questioned.[6]

So while MSF has often been cited as an independent source of support for White Helmet testimony, its press statements have in fact merely repeated White Helmet claims![7]

Whether intending it or not, MSF thereby became complicit in purveying a particular narrative that suffused the Western media during the period from 22 September to 22 December 2016.[8] Before September, the media had been perfectly clear that the citizens of eastern Aleppo were being held captive, effectively as human shields, by forces dominated by jihadist terrorists.[9] That changed following the uncompromising statement by Samantha Power to the UN Security Council, in which she invoked the White Helmets as victims and witnesses of Russian and Syrian aggression.[10]

Western governments and media re-designated the terrorist groups as ‘moderate rebels’.[11] Concurrently, anti-government activists like Lina Shamy started tweeting in English, the celebrated twitter account in the name of the child Bana was created, and there followed a flow of ‘famous last webcams’ from purported ordinary civilians voicing fears of impending massacre by the Syrian government.

Those of us in the West who were uncertain about the authenticity of all this social media activity in a zone lacking basic infrastructure, let alone wifi,[12] were coaxed to accept the mainstream narrative because a respected organisation like MSF apparently bore witness to it.[13] Few of us realised that MSF was merely repeating White Helmet testimony, not independently verifying it.

The consistent testimony now coming from the people who have been liberated in eastern Aleppo suggests a quite different story from the one that Netflix and our media have promoted.[14] The Helmets themselves appear to have melted away with the departure from Aleppo of the jihadists and mercenaries. If there were any genuinely independent doctors working with them in Aleppo, they too have yet to be heard from. But most telling, in view of White Helmet claims to have saved some 70,000 lives (or whatever exact number we are invited to believe), is that not a single person interviewed in liberated Aleppo has thanked them.

So, in seeking to bear witness against the Syrian government, MSF has made claims on a basis that is uncertain and contested.[15]  By so publicly associating itself with the White Helmets and their narrative it may have risked compromising the reputation it relies on to attract international doctors.

Those of us who deeply appreciate the service to humankind of MSF’s international doctors are left to hope the organisation coordinating their work can be more sure to avoid bearing false witness.[16]

The problem with the false narrative is no trivial one, for it perpetuates a fundamental misrecognition of the causes of the war – and thus of all the casualities the doctors have to deal with.  A false narrative not only gives impunity to the guilty but it supports them in moving ever onwards with their murderous designs. It distracts from the ethical truth, too, that the jihadis and the states supplying them with arms and opportunity are in fundamental breach of the law and morality of just warfare.



[1] The background for this founding principle – of témoignage (‘bearing witness’) – is cited on their website: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Biafran war because of a deliberate government policy. On their return from the region, a group of young French doctors were frustrated and outraged by the inability of the Red Cross to say publicly what had happened.’

[2] MSF Voice from the Field in Syria: Dr. Nathalie Roberts

[3] Dr Nathalie Roberts has described how in the earlier days of the war in Syria, MSF had followed its usual working procedures in opposition-held areas but with the arrival of Islamic State group that became impossible: “they were not allowing all the patients to access the hospital”, they then started appropriating MSF supplies and even kidnapping MSF staff. They could not continue to work in a place where the occupying groups would not allow the doctors to do their medical job. (Dr Roberts interviewed on 13 March 2015)


[5] I personally first became curious about the White Helmets from viewing the Netflix documentary (, and the question I mention in the text here is the one I simply could not get past. I was therefore not surprised to find that others had already offered powerful critiques of the organisation.

I also had trouble imagining how people working in such desperate conditions would have the leisure to keep up with the latest Western craze of the Mannequin Challenge, and also the insensitivity to do a facsimile rescue for the purpose. The video of this PR own goal was quickly removed by the White Helmets’ promoters but remains available elsewhere at time of writing, e.g.:

A discussion of it is here:

[6] The critical sources now on the internet are far too numerous to mention, but indicative examples include:

An especially thorough investigation, with detailed consideration of a range of perspectives, not only the critical ones, is provided by Jan Oberg:

[7] The spokespersons bearing MSF witness to the public are quite numerous and remote from Syria. They seldom make explicit the source of their information, but when they do we find it is the White Helmets.

Sam Taylor, for instance, who is Syria communications coordinator for MSF and is based in Jordan, uncritically reproduced White Helmets material: ‘The civil defense, also known as the White Helmets, said the hospital and adjacent buildings were struck in four consecutive airstrikes.’ ‘Video posted by the White Helmets showed lifeless bodies, including children, being pulled from a building and loaded into ambulances amid screams and wailing. Distraught rescue workers tried to keep away onlookers, apparently fearing more bombs.’

Taylor does mention another authority: ‘Shortly after midday Thursday, new airstrikes in rebel-held areas killed at least 20 people in two neighbourhoods, the Syrian Civil Defense and the Observatory said.’ By ‘Observatory’, he presumably means the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Although this sounds like an independent organisation, it is in fact a single individual named Rami Abdulrahman (sometimes referred to as Rami Abdul Rahman) living in Coventry in the UK; and he is presumably as independent as one can expect from an opposition exile whose small network of informants in Syria consists largely of anti-government activists. Certainly, he is no more directly a witness than is MSF’s spokesperson. Needless to say, the Observatory’s credibility and independence is disputed:;;
Despite this lack of verified independent evidence, Taylor was prepared to state on behalf of MSF that a hospital attack ‘was deliberate’ While the basis for the accusation is not given, the cumulative effect of this sort of public statement is evident. Pablo Marco Blanco, MSF’s Operations Manager for the Middle East in Barcelona, effectively endorsed the accusation, while admitting that the basis of the information was unconfirmed. Similar communications came from Muskilda Zancada, ‘MSF head of mission in Syria’ in Barcelona. Zancada also stated that ‘civilians are targeted’ Paul McPhun, Executive Director MSF Australia, speaking from Australia (10 October 2016) likewise makes categorial statements about targeted bombings in Aleppo, but without indicating the source of his knowledge.
It is even possible that the accusations are true. Yet it is also possible that they are not. The fallibility of MSF sources has been illustrated by how Teresa Sancristoval, Head of MSF’s Emergency Unit for Aleppo, was clearly being fed her information in Barcelona from people with an oppositional stance towards the Syrian Government because they were ‘afraid of the retaliations they can suffer’ (see note 7).

While I have no doubt that all MSF statements are made from a standpoint of agonised human sympathy, and in good faith, they take on a life of their own when picked up by the media and disseminated for further purposes.

In the end it is clear that what matters from the humanitarian point of view is that the bombing should stop. When MSF call for all sides to stop, they can claim to speak for humankind. When they complain of ‘targeted and indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian and Russian armed forces’ ( they create unnecessary controversy: if bombing both targeted and indiscriminate is to stop on the government side, that is as much as to say – from the government’s perspective – that it should simply allow the ISIS and Al Nusra terrorists free rein over the people and sovereign territory that it has a duty to defend. MSF do not want to say exactly this, I assume, but my point is that the organisation seems not to have a firm enough grip on its communications policy or a sufficiently coherent approach to defining its extra-medical mission.

[8] MSF statements from Syria condemning the Syrian and Russian governments have been demonstrably lacking in certainty or detail. For instance, in relaying reports of attacks on hospitals around Aleppo in May they note that ‘one was the MSF-supported al Sakhour hospital in Aleppo city, which was forced to suspend activities after being bombed at least twice on consecutive days.’ ( An inexact statement like this – being equivocal as to whether the number of bombings was two, three, or some other number – may or may not be true; it cannot claim to have been properly verified, since a verification would make clear whether or not a third or further bombings had occurred.

MSF uncritically accepted the veracity of the ‘famous last webcams’ coming out of besieged eastern Aleppo. As late as 14 December 2014 MSF wrote on their own website: ‘Whatever hope remained is rapidly dissipating. People are terrified, almost certain that their own deaths are near. Messages in which they say goodbye to their love ones are proliferating.’ ]

MSF do not appear to have known as much as one might hope or expect about the doctors they supported in terrorist-held Aleppo and whose words they relay to the public. The doctors communicating from terrorist-held Aleppo whose testimony the MSF publicly cited just prior to the liberation of Aleppo were apparently not looking forward to the end of the siege, and MSF even believed that their forebodings were shared by the ordinary people of Aleppo: ‘Like the rest of the population, “doctors are terrified and losing hope,” says Teresa Sancristoval, Head of MSF’s Emergency Unit for Aleppo. “They are afraid of the retaliations they can suffer. For the last two days, our exchanges have been more about goodbye messages and requests for evacuation than anything else. They feel abandoned to their fate and with no way out.”’
[10] As Stephen Cohen has pointed out, the sea change came with the breakdown of negotiations between Obama and Putin.
The view was then forcefully asserted against Obama by Samantha Power.
In her speech to UN Security Council she singled out the White Helmets as victims and witnesses of Russian and Syrian attacks. She declared: ‘This is not the day, this is not the time to blame all sides, to draw false equivalencies. It is not the time to say that “airstrikes took place,” or “civilians were killed.” It is time to say who is carrying out those airstrikes, and who is killing civilians.’
[11] Some insights into the unreliability of the mainstream narrative have occasionally been heard from within mainstream media outlets. For instance: (‘Tulsi Gabbard tells the truth about Syria’ on CNN)
Carla Ortiz Speaks about her Experience in Aleppo and The Little Syrian Girl
Criticisms have of course been extensive in the Russian media. Since promoters of the Western narrative do not regard the Russia Today (RT) channel as a reliable source, I mention just a couple of interviews that they might concede have some credibility – one from a Church of England clergyman and one from a former UK ambassador to Syria:
‘Consistent stories of brutality at the hands of the Syrian rebels’ – Rev. Andrew Ashdown
US effectively siding with Al-Qaeda in desire to get rid of Assad – former UK ambassador to Syria
[12] Common sense scepticism on this point is supported by the first hand testimony of Carla Ortiz about trying to get internet connections in Aleppo

[13] I have seen MSF cited as a source to discredit the account of Syria given to the UN by Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett
In fact, I was first prompted to do the research that led to writing this blog because a respected and well-informed friend on Facebook invoked MSF as a refutation of Bartlett’s claims. I believe it has since become clear that events have entirely vindicated Bartlett.

[14] Some examples of interviews with newly liberated citizens in Aleppo:

[15] Stronger criticism of MSF than I am making is found in Miri Wood’s ‘Guide to Understanding How ‘Unhospitals’ Cannot Be Bombed’ ; MSF’s relationship with the Syrian Government is known to be an uneasy one:

[16] MSF takes a certain pride in fostering debate and allowing some plurality of political views to be aired within the organisation: it does not attempt, as ICRC does, to hold a single public line. (Rony Brauman, ‘Médecins Sans Frontières and the ICRC: matters of principle’, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 888, 31 December 2012:

Yet the public hears MSF-branded messages and thinks they represent the honest and considered position of a respected organisation. They are encouraged to do so by the fact that press releases and comments are issued by the organisation and not as independent opinions of particular members.

While it is not my place to tell MSF how to conduct its affairs, I would say that their internal plurality of opinion is not necessarily a virtue: if they cannot agree on certain matters of principle about bearing witness, then the wise option might be simply to refrain, as ICRC do. At any rate, some of their internal philosophical debate strikes this reader as unhelpfully verbose and analytically unclear. More specifically relating to Syria, it is reasonable to believe that the geopolitics of the region and the machinations of its various protagonists are as complex and challenging, in their way, as are the medical emergencies in a war zone. Even the most judicious political analyst would not be much use in dealing with the latter. The people in MSF offices might reflect on whether the converse does not also apply.

We are not in a position to know if Syria or Russia should answer any charges in respect of the conduct of war.  We do know that their enemies must, and, more crucially, that they face the more fundamental charge of having attacked Syria and its people without just cause.

I find a rather bitter irony in the MSF position that they distinguish themselves from the ICRC in not being willing to patch up victims simply in order to make possible further harm to them; for that could be said to be what they are doing by wishing that a sovereign people should not use full lethal force against merciless invaders on its soil.

Posted in Syria, Uncategorized, war | 21 Comments

Water: a human right?

Is there a human right to water? Nestle’s CEO once notoriously suggested that the idea is an extreme one put about by NGOs.[1]


Just this week, the same corporation has sparked controversy in a municipality of Ontario by outbidding the local community for control of a local water supply. That water now stands to be packaged and sold for profit while the local people’s future water security is compromised. This local situation illustrates a global problem of profits taking priority over people’s vital interests.[2] Meanwhile, the availability of freshwater is now – like our climate – reaching its ‘planetary boundaries’.[3]

Surely, if one accepts the framing of vital moral imperatives in the language of human rights, then one only has to understand the vital importance of access to water in order see sufficient reason for it to be counted among them?[4]

But even supposing that is so, what would follow? This is a question examined in my newly published article on ‘A Global Right of Water’.  Some thoughts from that follow.

The moral purpose of invoking a human right might be interpreted in different ways. Some have invoked the right to water to resist privatization of water supplies. Bolivian protesters, for instance, issued the Cochabamba Declaration: ‘water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes.’[5] A contrasting view is that ‘water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.’[6] But if those two views are at odds, the spirit of the first can be maintained without necessarily refuting the second. For one can maintain that a human right should trump any mere right of property, in the event of a conflict between them, while still allowing private sector involvement on condition that it is entirely constrained to respect human rights principles. Where people have little reason to trust in the will or power of their government to enforce such constraints, though, the Cochabamba position would seem morally and politically justifiable.

The unresolved questions about the status of a human right to water, then, are not so much about its moral justification as its status in international law. There are questions such as whether international law generates such a right, what precisely it would mean, and what difference it could make. This is still relatively uncharted territory, since only recently have such questions become live ones.[7]

The uncertain legal status of a human right of access to water is in significant respects similar to that of a right to an adequate environment (Boyle 2012). These ‘new’ rights do not readily fit into inherited understandings of human rights as fundamental freedoms. Nor can they straightforwardly be assimilated to recognized social and economic rights.

Water is not a social good like healthcare, education, shelter and food that can be produced by labour: there can feasibly be obligations to produce and distribute those goods as required. Water, as a resource in sufficient supply to sustain a human settlement, cannot be produced, but can only be found; and if it cannot be found anywhere suitably accessible, there is nothing anyone can feasibly be obliged to do within the scope of social and economic duties. What would have to happen would involve geographically shifting the community (e.g. move somewhere more fertile) or transforming natural geographical features (e.g. divert a river). Either of these more radical shifts is liable to have knock-on effects for other communities whose own access to water (and other territorial resources) will thereby be affected. In fact, transboundary conflicts over water have become increasingly familiar in recent years as populations and their resource demands augment.

Thus, in virtue of its environmental dimension, the just implementation of a right of water is subject to further challenges than are social and economic rights. A particular challenge is that the duties involved in making them good can be about not only ensuring adequate fair access to goods but also constraining aggregate demand on resources.

A question of justice, then, is who has duties to do what in order to assure a right of water is fulfilled for all.

While we do need to know where water is physically to come from, we should not assume that duties to bear the costs of ensuring its supply, where needed, necessarily fall on those with territorial rights over locations with water resources. In fact, we should not assume that the water must come from an unused territorial source at all, rather than from a reduction in others’ demands on the available sources.

We should thus also reflect on what to assume is involved in ‘making good’ human rights deficits with regard to water. Actual patterns of water use around the world are affected by a variety of factors. As Hoekstra and Mekonnen (2012) helpfully summarise, water used can be of three distinct kinds – surface or ground water, rainwater, and polluted water. While the uses of direct concern for human rights are in hydration and hygiene, a great deal of water is used in industrial production, and by far the largest proportion of global water use is in agriculture. Water embedded in agricultural products can be exported, and so a wealthy country that imports this ‘virtual water’ can have large ‘external’ footprint. Large amounts can also be used in poor countries, though, due to inefficient agricultural practices.[8] In view of this, what needs to be done to secure sufficient access to water resources to support human rights is likely to involve quite complex considerations about not just the material location of water but also about the political economy of its use.

To meet these points, I propose, we should adopt the alternative understanding of what it means to think of a country – or, indeed, any other entity for which a water footprint might be calculated – as availing of more than its fair share of the Earth’s freshwater and thus as presumptively carrying the greater burden of obligation. If we grant the premise that no individual has a greater right to water than any other does, then we can allow a defeasible presumption that a just distribution can make reference to per capita water use. On this basis an entity with a larger water footprint per capita can be designated a presumptive over-user. Over-users may be under presumptive obligations to make do with less water.

Adopting the perspective I have commended, we would identify as potential sources of water not only territorial reserves but also those amounts of water that are currently subtracted from territories. Industrial production, and especially agricultural production – which accounts for the vast majority of water consumption globally – use water extensively in the production of their goods. Many of these are exported and thus serve the interests of non-residents of those territories. The water thereby absorbed into the footprint of foreign businesses that could potentially be released may or may not be sufficient to supply the entire need – since demographic and climatic changes may also affect patterns of need – but there are several reasons for thinking it an avenue worth pursuing before recommending mass migration as a solution. In general, to prevent a problem, by removing its cause, is better than having to remedy its effects. When doing so means allowing people to stay in their homelands and preserve their accustomed livelihoods rather than have to make their way in foreign and not necessarily so hospitable parts, it also has more to commend it in terms of basic human values.*

* A fuller version of this argument has just been published as Tim Hayward, ‘A Global Right of Water’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 40.1 (September 2016): 217-233. Open access pre-print available on my Academia page.



Boyle, Alan 2012. “Human Rights and the Environment: Where Next?” European Journal of International Law 23: 613–642.

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2002) General Comment 15, The right to water (Twenty-ninth session, 2003), U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2002/11.

Hoekstra, A.Y., Mekonnen, M.M. (2012) The water footprint of humanity. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences 109, 3232–3237.

Rockström, Johan, et al*. 2009. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’.” Nature 461: 472–5.

Salzman, J.E. (2005) ‘Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water’. SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 869970). Social Science Research Network, Rochester, NY.

Shue, H. (1980) Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Vörösmarty, C.J., McIntyre, P.B., Gessner, M.O., Dudgeon, D., Prusevich, A., Green, P., Glidden, S., Bunn, S.E., Sullivan, C.A., Liermann, C.R., Davies, P.M. (2010) ‘Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity’. Nature, 467, 555–561.



[1] Brabeck’s statement having provoked public outrage, Nestle ‘clarified’ his view:

[2] Not only is consumption globally increasing, but interdependence of consumption patterns also affects the situation: ‘about one-fifth of the global WF in the period 1996–2005 was not meant for domestic consumption but for export. The relatively large volume of international virtual water flows and the associated external water dependencies strengthen the argument to put the issue of water scarcity in a global context’ (Hoekstra and Mekonnen, 2012: p.3236)

[3] (Vörösmarty et al. 2010) (Rockström et al. 2009)

[4] The moral demand, put simply, would be of a right of access for everyone to such water as is required for the possibility of a healthy life. This would be a basic right, in the sense of Henry Shue (1980), because non-enjoyment of its substance would preclude enjoyment of any other rights whatsoever. See also the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (2002), Art. I.1: ‘The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.’

[5] (In Salzman 2005: p.2)

[6] This is from the Dublin Statement, issued by governments represented at the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment declaring (Salzman 2005: p.2n15)

[7] Water did not feature in authoritative statements on human rights until, in 2002, the United Nations’ Committee on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights referred, in its General Comment 15, to a human right to water that ‘entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.’ (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2002: Art. I.1) Subsequently, in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized rights to water and sanitation; and in the same year the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution acknowledging those rights to be implied by the right to an adequate standard of living.

[8] Some countries may have large per capita footprints because their agricultural use of water is inefficient. For instance, ‘For Niger, the consumption of cereals per capita is 1.4 times the global average, but the WF of cereals per ton is six times the world average.’ (Hoekstra and Mekonnen 2012: p.3234)]

Posted in climate change, ecological space, environment, environmental ethics, fair trade, global justice, health, human rights, political philosophy, responsible investment, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Flu Vaccine for Kids: an offer you can refuse?

C0179059-Nasal_spray_seasonal_flu_vaccine-SPL-20140715104758311Our six year old came home from school with a request for parental consent to a flu vaccination for him. I wondered if it was needed or useful, and I wondered out loud on facebook. Several friends offered their thoughts in posts and private messages. (These replies came from researchers in immunology, public health, and policy-making as well as practising doctors and nurses.) The upshot of this quick survey was that flu viruses are constantly evolving, so the generic ‘flu’ is a moving target, and vaccines aimed at a selection of strains have a limited hit-rate. They can have some side effects. There is also some uncertainty about long-term effects.

Promoters of the vaccination programme offer speculation about how attacking the virus in kids – the most liberal spreaders-around of the disease – can have wider social benefits, especially over time. But the evidence to date on this is thin.[1]

Interestingly, the only consistent definite finding from the academic research on this subject is that we need more research.   That conclusion obviously suits the researchers, but it is also used as a basis upon which to propose ever wider and more extensive trials and roll-outs. In one academic paper we can read ‘it could conceivably prove that viral vaccines are as useful in the prevention of bacterial otitis, pneumonia, sepsis and even meningitis as bacterial vaccines are—but if we do not look, we will not find out.’[2]

So at present it is unproven and uncertain. Meanwhile ‘looking in order to find out’ involves mass experimentation on our children. Research to date is interpreted as suggesting that pressing ahead will probably do little harm and could on balance do a little good across society as a whole. But it is not known for sure, and it does not have the degree of assurance associated with vaccinations of proven usefulness. Vaccines against meningitis and other series diseases were developed in response to a clear and pressing clinical need. But while the early use of flu vaccines itself was directed to protecting groups at clear clinical risks to themselves of morbidity and mortality,[3] the subsequent roll out to groups at minimal individual risk appears to have a different sort of rationale.

Given the pressures on resources both for schools and the health service, why is such priority accorded to this programme? The clinical case does not seem particularly powerful; and such public concern as may have started to arise in recent years seems to have been manufactured by communications from the parties involved in promoting the vaccines.

Here in Scotland, the supplier of the vaccine[4] appears to be the large pharmaceutical company Sanofi, a company that pools early stage research with Astrazenica. These are massive companies with a shared business interest in expanding their joint market area. In this business environment, it would not be any surprise to find that their strenuous promotion efforts have leached through into an increasingly business-driven health service and been abetted by lobby-able politicians.

Clearly, if you have a product that has to be purchased year on year for huge numbers across a population, then you have a good opportunity for making profits, and if you plough some of these back into further research and development you can probably make the case for extending your roll-out still further. The entire 18-65 age group is there awaiting the picking.

Meanwhile, what should we parents think? The accompanying leaflet my child brought home is called ‘Child flu immunization – what you need to know’. To be told by a faceless authority ‘what you need to know’ is to be subject to an assertion of unaccountable power. What I need to know is for me to decide! For starters, I’d like to know who exactly is promoting this programme within NHS Scotland and Scottish Government, who decided to award Sanofi this contract, and on what basis. Then we’d know who to expect authoritative answers from. I guess I’ll send these questions on to my MSPs.


[1] Osterholm, M.T., Kelley, N.S., Sommer, A., Belongia, E.A., 2012. Efficacy and effectiveness of influenza vaccines: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 12, 36–44.

[2] Thors, V., Smith, C., Finn, A., 2013. Should all children be immunised against influenza? Arch Dis Child 98, 846–849: p.848.   [The article comes with this declaration of interests: ‘VT is an ESPID Research Fellow and is currently undertaking research partially funded by a grant to the University of Bristol from Astra-Zeneca. AF undertakes consultancy and clinical research for all the main vaccine companies including most of those manufacturing flu vaccines. All funding related to these activities is paid to his employers, the University of Bristol and University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust. He receives no personal remuneration related to these activities and has no other financial interest in these companies or any related intellectual property.’]

[3] The National Flu Immunisation Programme 2016/17 UK Gov.

[4] NSS National Procurement, Flu Vaccine Distribution Arrangements 2016/17: Overview of Order Arrangements and Frequently Asked Questions (Updated: 11 July 2016)


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They hold our values in contempt

“As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism,” said Hilary Benn, and “we are here faced by fascists. … They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt … . And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.”  That is why “socialists and trade unionists and others joined the international brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco.”

Indeed, those socialists and trade unionists put their boots on the ground and their lives on the line.  To invoke their memory in support of dropping bombs from a great height on Syria with no realistic prospect of meaningful ground troop involvement is calumny.

“It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria”, says the shadow foreign secretary in a sickening flourish.

Go on, then, you and your brave tory friends in blue and in red, do YOUR bit, like the real fighters against fascism did.  Then you’ll show them how wrong they are to hold you in contempt.

Meanwhile, if your plan is to bomb them into respect for your Tolerance and Decency, you might want to ease up on the crying to the press everytime someone posts you a picture of disrespectfully dead babies that haven’t quite got your message.


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On Justice In Time

When political philosophers think about how time matters for justice, they often focus on the future. They reflect, for instance, on the rights or welfare of future generations, or on obligations with regard to the future, or on whether future costs and benefits can justifiably be discounted relative to present values. Environmental concerns have prompted some to consider when a precautionary principle should constrain future-orientated actions; and some note that time delays – between causing or benefiting from environmental changes and bearing the costs of their effects – have distributive implications between generations. Yet a background assumption remains that such questions are distinct from those of contemporary global justice, with the difference being whether the people concerned are separated by time or by space.

But what about the importance of time as it is lived and experienced here and now?


In a paper now published online in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (and pre-printed here),[i] Yukinori Iwaki and I suggest that there are several ways in which unjust inequalities are bound up with different circumstances in relation to time. We show, in particular, that three kinds of temporal disadvantage map onto the three areas of basic rights that Henry Shue categorises as subsistence, liberty and security.

First, because it takes work to produce the basic necessities of life, and work takes time, then if the fruits of people’s labour are expropriated leaving them with insufficient for themselves, there is a violation of human rights and an injustice. This deprivation can also occur through ecological marginalisation: the more marginal one’s subsistence conditions, the more time one has to devote to trying to eke out any kind of living at all.

Second, there is a value of time for the exercise of individual autonomy that relates to the basic rights associated with liberty. Empirical poverty research has shown the importance of autonomous time for even a minimally decent human life. For people to be subjected to conditions where they have no freedom at all from demands of labour is already recognised to be a violation of human rights as through slavery or servitude.

131107102646-goldblatt-bus-passengers-horizontal-galleryThird, the time necessary for individual health and survival relates to basic rights of personal security. The amount of time in a lifespan that an individual has for the leading of a minimally decent and healthy life is strongly influenced by social and ecological conditions. Lives that are cut short through violence or preventable disease may be subject to violations of subsistence and liberty rights, but there is additionally a dimension of personal security that is thereby violated.

In all, the global picture is of affluent people drawing innumerable benefits from the copious use of others’ time in producing the goods that only the affluent have the leisure and money to buy; and as inequalities intensify, the marginal gains of the rich cost ever more real time of the poor to achieve.  This disproportionate effect looks to be not only unjust and inhumane, but also – as if to add further insult to injury – negative sum.

We argue, then, that integrating the temporal dimension contributes to fleshing out the requirements of human rights, particularly in establishing thresholds for basic rights. The framing developed enables us also to address problematic questions such as how people who live in affluence may seem to be time-poor while not evidently being victims of unjust inequalities. By distinguishing the various ways in which temporality can affect individual well-being and be affected by social relations, a suitably nuanced approach can be taken towards such questions.

Our main claim is that injustices relating to unequal access to material necessities of life can be compounded by temporal injustices. Advantages with respect to the use, occupation or command of ecological space can be leveraged to secure advantages over others with respect to time; meanwhile, disadvantages of time can lead to further disadvantages of access to ecological space, and thus there is a vicious circle.

The problem of time for global justice is not only about the future, we emphasise: it concerns the reality and trajectory of current relationships of advantage and disadvantage in the global economy.


[i] The paper as published is a revised version of our earlier working paper with a different subtitle. The substantial revision is the addition of a new first section that sets out more fully the theoretical background of our argument in critical social theory. Other changes are minor and do not affect the argument.

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Liberal values are universal values?

Today I started to read an article. It began by way of a preamble stating the author’s ‘commitment to universal liberal values’. I stopped right there. My train of thought went off at a tangent to the author’s.

I assumed he didn’t mean values that are universally held amongst liberals only, rather than by subscribers to other creeds, for that would be a misleading use of the term ‘universal’.

I thereby found myself pondering: If we suppose there are universal values, and if we accept that not everyone is liberal, then we know that those values are recognized not only by liberals.

So wouldn’t it be inappropriate to attribute to liberals intellectual property in those values?

Even if we grant that there are values that liberals were the first to conceive of – which I think is a lot to grant but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument since liberals tend to be convinced that values like autonomy, democracy, tolerance and human rights are distinctively liberal ones – then surely, if they are held to have universality, it would be vain to continue emphasising their intellectual provenance. Would it not be some sort of self-contradiction to keep asserting moral property rights in them?

And look at it another way. Suppose the author had considered announcing a ‘commitment to universal Christian values’. He would have been aware that this could immediately alienate a part of his readership; he would be aware that advancing arguments on this basis could in certain contexts even be potentially inflammatory.

I imagine he’d reply that Christianity and liberalism cannot be so readily compared, and, as an accomplished liberal philosopher, he will be able to articulate a number of reasons why. So I shall not attempt to argue the point further. I am aware that liberalism has proved such a resilient creed partly in virtue of its capacity to accommodate a good deal of internal tensions. It is by now a very broad church.

All I felt moved to do – just strongly enough to jot down these thoughts – is observe that the easy equation of liberalism and universal values is just so readily made even within political philosophy that its leading exponents and brightest minds take it for granted.

My practical concern here is that we live in a time when the likes of British Prime Minister Cameron think the way to deal with challenges like Islamic radicalisation, for instance, is to emphasise to Muslim citizens the values we should all hold dear as good British citizens – and not just because we are members of this or that privileged clique – with any beliefs to the contrary being necessarily morally mistaken.

That kind of idiocy fuels cultural relativism.

My concern is with the insidious and unrecognized cultural relativism that equates universal human values with the deliverances of the liberal creed. Liberalism is, as Charles Taylor once astutely observed, a fighting creed.

Liberal philosophers may not want to see it that way. Unfortunately, there are manifestly people in the world today who do. My view is that it would be better consciously to find ground on which to engage them in reasoning together rather than unthinkingly bring on the fight.

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