While We All Sleepwalk Into A Human Rights Vacuum, The United Nations Is Facing Its Moment Of Truth


Humankind has faced greater challenges than the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, we were already confronting a few of them as the world started to lockdown earlier this year. Now, more than ever, is the time we need a United Nations of purpose and resolve, writes Dr Lissa Johnson.

During his speech at the opening of this year’s session of the UN General Assembly (GA), the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, described “a world turned upside down”. He told attendees that, “the pillars of our world wobble on already shaky footings…. Those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war…. Today,” he said, “we face our own 1945 moment.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterrez. (IMAGE: Rádio ONU Português, Flickr)

Outside, in the populations that the UN exists to serve, poverty and child malnutrition are predicted to double in the wake of coronavirus restrictions, 79.5 million people are displaced by violence and persecution, 37-59 million of them by the War on Terror alone, and arms control agreements fail as economic depression looms. Against that backdrop, the UN’s mission to improve the world’s welfare and security is perhaps more urgent, and more pressing, for more people in more corners of the globe, than ever.

Lofty ambitions

As the UN’s primary policy-setting body, the General Assembly determines how the UN will tackle some of humanity’s most pressing problems, including achieving greater peace and security, protection of human rights, disarmament and economic welfare. One of its primary policy initiatives for addressing current global governance challenges are the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the 2030 Agenda, which seek to end poverty and world hunger, and promote safe, peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies for all.

According to a 2015 resolution adopted at the 70th UNGA, “the new Agenda requires a revitalised Global Partnership to ensure its implementation… bringing together Governments, the private sector, civil society, the United Nations system and other actors and mobilizing all available resources.”

Such a humanitarian Global public-private Partnership was, of course, ambitious even in 2015. Now, with the global economic and social fabric tearing under COVID-19, precisely how the private sector, governments and civil society might merge to mobilise all available resources is up for grabs, quite literally.

(IMAGE: Philip Mallis, Flickr)

The pandemic has facilitated what has been described as one of the greatest wealth transfers in history, with the US Government pouring $4.5 trillion of COVID relief into corporations and big banks, seeing US billionaires’ fortunes soar by $565 billion during the first 11 weeks of the pandemic, while 42.6 million Americans found themselves unemployed.

What will become of the UN’s vision for economic and human welfare amidst such a steep rise in economic inequality, with its corrosive impact on health and human rights?

As Guterres stressed, “COVID-19 has laid bare the world’s fragilities”, including “rising inequalities… rampant corruption” and “dangerous new threats to human rights… The pandemic has exploited these injustices, preyed on the most vulnerable and wiped away the progress of decades.”

In response, will transnational corporate interests continue seizing the disaster-capitalist moment, and capture the levers of global power with invigorated zeal?

In the United States, for instance, COVID-19 vaccine development is taking place in secret, outside the usual oversight mechanisms, as part of a collaboration between defence contractors, military officials and pharmaceutical companies with poor track records on safety. Why? What has the military, or secrecy, got to do with peacetime development of medicines and vaccines?

While the world grapples with improving health outcomes across the board, is the militarisation of for-profit medicine really a good idea? What are the broader implications for the human right to health?

The United Nations General Assembly. (IMAGE: Linh Do, Flickr)

If a new more humanitarian global arrangement is to emerge, the 2030 Agenda stressed that the world will require an “efficient and effective United Nations system”. Clearly, if ever there was a time to take stock of the United Nations system, that time is now. If ever there was a critical moment at which to review and strengthen the global mechanisms for protection and enforcement of human rights, that moment has arrived.

Getting real

The enormous gulf between the pressing need for global political leadership and governments’ failure to rise to the challenge became painfully obvious at the October 15th meeting of the UNGA Social, Humanitarian & Cultural Committee, where the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Nils Melzer, rang the alarm bell. He said, “Today, 75-years after the establishment of the United Nations… torture and ill-treatment continue to be practiced with impunity throughout the world.” (0:53:00)

Practiced with impunity? Throughout the world? Why?

“The stark discrepancy between the universal prohibition and the worldwide complacency with such abuse is not a singular phenomenon,” Melzer explained, “but highlights a more generalised gap between the declared ambitions and the actual practice of human rights protection. In fact, the persistent failure of the international community to eradicate torture and ill-treatment exemplifies the broader incapacity of contemporary governance systems to fulfil the promises of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Incapacity of contemporary governance systems? Complacency worldwide? After 75 years?

It’s a “sobering reality” the Rapporteur observed.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer address the UN in November 2019. (IMAGE: GUE/NGL, Flickr)

But with the world’s best legal and human rights minds coming together at the UN, year after year, decade after decade, one is tempted to ask: What is going on? What have they been doing all this time? What is wrong with their normative frameworks and enforcement mechanisms that the best they can achieve – after 75 years – is complacency with torture? Worldwide.

Nothing, according to Melzer. He added that the root cause is “not a lack of expertise, resources or normative consensus.”

What is it then? Bad actors? Psychopathic leaders? Rotten apples? Trees?  Orchards?

“Nor [is it]generalised malicious intent”, he said.

Then what?

To address that question, the UN Special Rapporteur answered the UN Secretary General’s call for the international community, to “be guided by science and tethered to reality” during this “foundational moment”.

The root cause, Melzer explained, resides not in bureaucratic incompetence nor generalised maliciousness, but in the science of human psychology and decision-making.

In his UNGA report, titled ‘Biopsychosocial factors conducive to torture and ill-treatment’, the Rapporteur wrote, Inspired by the theories of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in the eighteenth century, modern statehood, political theory and governance systems” are founded upon “the presumption of rational decision-making based on an innate or learned moral framework.”

That presumption, however, is wrong. It is perhaps as useful to modern statehood as bloodletting and blowing smoke would be to modern medicine.

The report continues, “Although humans are endowed with reason… in contrast to traditional presumptions of rationality and morality, modern science has demonstrated that, in reality, human decision-making is guided predominantly by unconscious emotional processes pursuing the fulfilment of basic human needs.

Okay, sure. But what has that got to do with modern statehood and governance? Or worldwide complacency over human rights?

In his 25-page report, Nils Melzer explained that human nature, human neurobiology and human social psychology render all of us inherently and inescapably susceptible to patterns of moral disengagement, involving psychological blind-spots to our own atrocities and misdeeds.

When faced with unwelcome information such as evidence of human rights violations, “both perpetrators and bystanders tend to suppress the resulting moral dilemmas through largely unconscious patterns of self-deception and denial.”

These patterns of self-deception, Melzer wrote, “Severely impair the ability and willingness of political leaders, judges, officials, the media and even the general public to accurately perceive and act upon allegations of official misconduct.” This, he stressed, “can corrupt and neutralise even sophisticated frameworks for the prevention and prosecution of torture and ill-treatment, thus producing the current worldwide prevalence of complacency and impunity.”

(IMAGE: Glenn Harper, Flickr)

A Reality Show of Self-Deception

The UN Rapporteur’s statement to the UNGA was followed by questions and comments from State representatives, which doubled as an uncannily convincing reality-show demonstrating the very processes that Melzer had described.

Most strikingly, after thanking the Special Rapporteur, the representative of the United States observed (1:17:25), “We take this opportunity to register our categorical rejection of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment. The human rights enshrined in our founding documents abhor the notion of torture in any form. America’s values are universal values, and they are based on the sanctity and protection of individual rights.”

This, of course, is the same America that illegally tortured suspects in secret CIA torture ‘black-sites’ around the globe, as exposed in a 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report. The clandestine US torture program entailed an 81 million dollar contract with psychologists, whose task it was to design innovative forms of torture on behalf of the US state, such as rectally force feeding victims with hummus, pasta and nuts and sexually assaulting them with broomsticks, as well as more traditional forms of brutality including slamming victims into walls, stringing them up naked and threatening to harm their children and rape their mothers, or slit their mothers’ throats in front of them.

Former US president George W Bush declares ‘victory’ in the illegal war against Iraq. (IMAGE: Peter Stevens, Flickr).

Many of the program’s victims were subjected to the infamous practice of “waterboarding”, putting them through the agony of drowning to the point of unconsciousness and then resuscitating them just to do it again, up to 183 times.

The US UNGA representative continued, “The United States played a leading role in enacting the Convention Against Torture, and we remain trailblazers in the campaign to end torture and related practices worldwide.”

This is also the same America responsible not only for secret torture black sites, but for torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, all facilitated by government memos denying victims the protections of the Geneva Convention. It is the same America that hosts blatantly inhumane detention conditions at US Supermax facilities and elsewhere.

The US President, moreover, has publicly endorsed waterboarding and said that torture works.

The US representative went on, “We are staunch advocates for the victims of torture… No society can be free, nor any individual secure, when torture is permitted.”

Which does not augur well for freedom and security on America’s watch. The only people prosecuted for the US policy of torture were those who informed the public of the state’s crimes, such as John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. The ones who participated in torture or destroyed the evidence were promoted, such as Gina Haspel, former commander of a black site in Thailand and current director of the CIA.

Ironically, the UN Rapporteur on Torture’s report, to which the US delegate was responding, explained that, “the most rudimentary manner of avoiding or suppressing moral dilemmas is denial of fact…Best summarized in the slogan, ‘what must not be, cannot be’, denial of fact is a very common reaction of officials, journalists and citizens confronted with unexpected or unwelcome allegations of serious systemic misconduct.”

Accordingly, “in his official dialogue with States” the report notes, the Special Rapporteur frequently receives official responses that divert attention “through sweeping assurances of the Government’s commitment to human rights.”

Professor Nils Melzer, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. (IMAGE: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

After the US representative had finished diverting attention through sweeping assurances of the US Government’s commitment to human rights (as did the representative of the UK Government, 1:03:45, i.e, the same Government that has refused to prosecute UK officials who participated in CIA torture and that just passed a law granting British forces de facto impunity for torture, murder and other serious crimes committed overseas), the US representative turned his attention to the rest of the world. He admonished other nations to “hold violators accountable”, reserving special condemnation for three US adversaries: China, Belarus and Venezuela.

In his report, the UN Rapporteur noted that another common denial tactic entails making “sweeping accusations against other stakeholders… Perceiving torture as less morally wrong when perpetrated by one’s own versus another nation’s security forces” is a documented phenomenon, driven by moral disengagement on group-based, us-versus-them, collectively self-glorifying grounds.

The US representative continued, “While we appreciate the Special Rapporteur’s work, we disagree with many of your report’s conclusions and recommendations, as they relate to lawful US practices that cannot reasonably be considered torture.”

In other words, ‘You call it torture. We call it ‘lawful US practices’.’

An alternative method of moral disengagement, as the Rapporteur’s report notes, is to deny not the fact but the wrongfulness of abusive acts. A common method by which this is achieved is through trivialization, which “begins with the use of euphemistic language aimed at ‘sanitizing’ torture and ill-treatment”. Common euphemistic labels include “enhanced interrogation”, “deterrence”, “special administrative measures”. And, in this case, ‘lawful US practices’.

Among the ‘lawful US practices’ whose wrongfulness the US delegate denied were “the Assange and Manning cases”.

Both Assange and Manning’s treatment have been found to violate the Convention Against Torture by various UN human rights mechanisms, including successive Special Rapporteurs on Torture and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In Julian Assange’s case, that finding was based, in part, on a structured assessment protocol performed by two recognised medical experts specialised in the assessment and documentation of torture.

Several other medical experts having personally examined Assange have independently come to the same conclusion.

Chelsea Manning attempted suicide in March 2020, precipitated by seven years of solitary confinement followed by re-arrest and indefinite coercive detention because of her conscientious objection to testifying against Assange in a Secret Grand Jury, the US equivalent of a political kangaroo court.

Chelsea Manning pictured at a conference in Germany in 2018. (IMAGE: Media Convention Berlin, Flickr)

In order to preserve a false sense of reality”, the UNGA report notes, processes of self-deception and denial enable “the conscious mind to ‘pseudo-rationally’ dismiss even compelling evidence for serious misconduct.” Compelling evidence, for example, such as the medical findings of subject-matter experts in assessing and documenting torture.

Further evidence in Julian Assange’s case includes the fact that the world’s leading rights organisations, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch to the Human Rights Commissioner (Dunja Mijatovic) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have denounced the US persecution of Julian Assange. The International Bar Association Human Rights Institute has issued a statement calling his treatment during his US extradition hearing “reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal”.

Denial of wrongfulness and dismissal of evidence is facilitated in Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning’s cases by the fact that both individuals revealed systemic wrongdoing. As Melzer’s UNGA report notes, when one’s society or group is exposed as morally flawed, the unconscious psychological impulse is to shoot the messenger, known as ‘derogation of moral advocates’.

Psychologically, demonising moral advocates enables the confronting information to be suppressed, discredited or denied. In other words, as long as we regard Manning as a traitor and Assange as a spy – and a hacker, rapist, and narcissist, just to make sure he is well and truly demonised – we can avoid discussing the crimes and corruption they have exposed. We can keep fooling ourselves into thinking that our Government still loves and protects us, that our militaries are still the good guys and that it was the Russians, not our own politicians, who manipulated the 2016 (and now 2020) presidential elections.

The Special Rapporteur’s report notes that rather than absorb such evidence of moral failing, a human knee-jerk response is to “instead, question the motivations and integrity of ‘moral advocates’ making, transmitting or investigating the incriminating allegations.” Accordingly, another ubiquitous response to allegations of torture and ill-treatment involves, “discrediting, demonizing or blaming victims, witnesses, critics and other moral advocates.” Such as human rights defenders, whistleblowers, journalists and publishers.

But it is at this point that those of us reading about these matters must shift our focus from the UNGA to ourselves. As Nils Melzer told his UN colleagues, We are all susceptible to these patterns in the face of unwelcome information… regardless of our education, our status or our morality.”

Melzer’s report emphasises that “bystander complacency caused by wilful ignorance represents a significant obstacle to the effective investigation, prosecution and punishment of torture and ill-treatment, as well as to redress and rehabilitation.” And, crucially: “Distorted perceptions of reality resulting from wilful ignorance also routinely render media organizations incapable of objectively detecting and exposing government involvement in torture and ill-treatment, and prevent ordinary citizens from addressing and correcting systemic shortcomings through their democratic rights.”

Julian Assange, pictured in the Equadorian embassy in 2014, with Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s then Foreign Minister. (IMAGE: David G Silvers, Cancillería del Ecuador, Flickr)

The reality for us bystanders is that Julian Assange has been subjected to a decade-long smear campaign, designed to capitalise on the denialist human impulse to demonise the messenger, thereby fostering passive, silent, bystanding to his torture and abuse. It is our own self-deception and denial as citizens that has facilitated this, as well as the abuse of Chelsea Manning, such that Julian Assange’s life now hangs in the balance, along with our own freedom of speech, our own right to know the truth, and our own ability to hold our governments to account.

The existential risks of denial

Throughout the UNGA meeting, the human tendency towards denial of reality was further demonstrated by the representatives of Denmark, the European Union and France, all of whom failed to even register the topic of the Special Rapporteur’s report and UNGA address.

Instead, they each expressed their appreciation and asked questions regarding Professor Melzer’s previous report on a different topic (psychological torture), submitted to a different UN body (the Human Rights Council) at a different time and place (March 2020). What must not be, cannot be – so let’s just talk about the weather, shall we?

The Russian representative was the only delegate who acknowledged having carefully read Melzer’s report. He dismissed the report, however, as “too research based” and too far removed from practice, which was interesting, given that the report’s practical relevance had just been poignantly demonstrated by the preceding speakers themselves.

More importantly, the Russian representative was effectively advocating an approach to human rights protection that is divorced from – or blind to – the empirical scientific research. In other words, he called for business as usual: complacency and impunity, worldwide.

“In my official dialogue with states,” Nils Melzer told the meeting, “I routinely encounter all of these patterns of self-deception and denial.”

To learn more about those patterns, and how they obstruct enforcement of human rights, you can read the Special Rapporteur’s 75th UNGA report here, with recommendations for policy and governance reform on p.24.


In summarising his recommendations at the UNGA, Melzer told the delegates, “Any global governance system seeking to fulfil the promises of the universal declaration of human rights, the UN Charter and the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 must be based on a realistic, empirical and science-based conception of human nature.”

The international community, he said, must develop “frameworks and institutions specifically designed to mitigate the increasingly existential risks of human self-deception.” Our distorted perceptions are an inherent part of human psychology, he stressed, and therefore “should not be condemned, but must be fully acknowledged and appropriately managed, in order to prevent the widespread corruption, destruction and cruelty which currently engulf the entire world.”

This applies, he said, “not only in the area of human rights, but also of environmental protection, financial stability, and the prevention of pandemics.”

Particularly to the prevention of pandemics. Nothing exacerbates blind spots, self-deception and denial like threat, trauma, panic, anxiety and fear. Such as that engendered by COVID-19.

Under conditions of fear and threat, human beings are prone to becoming particularly blinded, self-deceiving, conformist and obedient. A process called ‘system justification’ comes into play, whereby the greater the threats citizens face, and the greater the flaws in the social, political and economic systems upon which they depend, the greater their impulse to double down on those systems’ legitimacy, and defend the status quo, through denial and self-deception in all its forms.

So great is the need for certainty, belonging and stability during periods of societal upheaval that the more our social and political systems fail us, the harder we work to preserve our faith in them.

When “the pillars of our world wobble on already shaky footings” as Antonio Guterres has observed, reality can become too difficult, emotionally speaking, to see. Such is the crux, and the challenge, of what he described as our “1945 moment”.

But is this moment truly akin to 1945? With psychological eyes wide open, I fear that we are nowhere near that cathartic turning point of disillusionment, truth and vision, from which the UN was born. We appear closer to a moment of 1914 or 1939, complacently sleepwalking into an abyss of political, economic and social destruction, devolution and cruelty.

Our only hope, it seems to me, is that those ringing the alarm bells, such as Professor Melzer, will be heard, and that they will prove me wrong.


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