On July 5, Justin D. Martin, a journalism professor at Northwestern (where I’m due to start a JD/LLM in Human Rights Law in the fall), made an astounding argument on this blog against human rights and for a monarchical dictatorship. His piece should put my future alma mater to shame and raise the hairs of any human rights activist.
First, the big question is whether Martin should be even allowed to sound this contrarian note. You see, he’s a professor at Northwestern—but at its Qatar campus. Qataris can claim all they want that they have freedom of speech much as in the U.S., but it’s simply not true. It’s the wet dream of Northwestern, NYU, and all the other universities that have set up campuses in the Arab world to receive the millions in funding while not being called out for sacrificing the essential values of a liberal education.
Would Martin be kicked out of Qatar if he said the opposite of what he wrote? Probably. We will never know. But we can plainly see the horrible human rights abuses that happen there (and that are documented here and here), which he glosses over with the faux snobbishness of a cultural relativist and the ignorance of the flacks who believe the regime’s propaganda.
Let’s unpack his arguments:
The first is such an obvious straw man that it’s not even worth rebutting, but it basically goes like this: A false comparison to Russia is made, as that country is hosting the 2018 World Cup. Then Qatar is favorably compared because it is allegedly more responsive to criticism than Russia. Really? That’s your standard?
Professor Martin proceeds to detail how Qatar has been responsive. This is the meat of his argument. He claims that:
Following reports of poor conditions of foreign laborers in Qatar by multiple news organizations, a Guardian editorial in February noted that, "In response to growing concerns, the Qataris have issued new guidelines to contractors in a bid to improve the working conditions of laborers." A May headline in The Guardian declared, "Qatar promises to reform labor laws after outcry over 'World Cup slaves.'"
In 2013, Qatar hired international firm DLA Piper to produce a report with recommendations on its labor rights record.
So? That doesn’t mean that there has been any actual change. In fact, there have been numerous reports that all of the reforms stay on paper and never make it out of the emir’s office. See here and here and here and here.
His next argument is that without the World Cup, Qatar can't change for the better. Or to put it another way, only with the World Cup will the country be able to improve its human rights record. This line of reasoning makes no sense. Martin claims that if the World Cup goes ahead in Qatar, the world will be more focused on what happens there and will be able to apply more pressure on the country to reform—as if the cost and shame associated with canceling a World Cup would not be greater. Only taking the World Cup from Qatar would send the message that unless the country actually follows through with human rights reforms, it will remain a pariah, ineligible to play host to a global event.
Granted, Martin does make the concession that less-than-existential pressure doesn’t always yields good results in Qatar, citing a single example. That's good, but he should also have cited this, this and this.
Lastly, and this maybe the most egregious of arguments employed by those who apologize for dictatorships, is the false equivalence set up between development and autocracy and between old and young countries. Martin first points to a bizarre quote that could be used against his argument, wherein it is stated that despite the rate of economic change, the underlying structures of Qatari society remain unevolved. And that's supposed to be a good thing? If Martin wants to make the claim that it's autocracy that has allowed Qatar to become, according to him, “the wealthiest nation in the Arab Gulf and, by many metrics, the world,” he should come out and say that. But he can’t pretend that we don’t see the truth for what it is.
Though it’s indisputable that Qatar is wealthy, it is not necessarily true that its monarchical absolutism was either necessary nor sufficient to secure its economic wellbeing. We don’t even know if Qatar exaggerates its wealth, a question that this groundbreaking paper just raised. And even if the nation is flush with cash, who benefits from that wealth? In Qatar, it is mostly those who are connected to a royal family that profits off the backs of migrant workers.
Meanwhile, Martin implores us to consider that Qatar is a young country, and we shouldn’t judge it to harshly because “it took nearly 200 years for the United States to protect freedom of speech in the way the First Amendment promises.” Should we then give all countries newer than ours a pass? For 200 years?
Martin's claim is precisely that of those who promote the idea of social justice as a measure for human rights—while downplaying human rights themselves. They think that human rights are to be achieved progressively, rather than immediately (as they must be if properly understood, which I argue in this piece).
With these arguments, coupled with a weak attempt to preempt his future critics, Martin argues that it would hurt Qatar more for the World Cup to be cancelled, in terms of human rights. I’m sorry, but justice delayed is justice denied.
For human rights activists, shame is sometimes the most powerful weapon. To see dictators denied in their crooked efforts to legitimize themselves is often the big wake up call that leads societies to change. Giving the World Cup to Qatar or any other country with a serious lack of rights or democracy is a mistake.
Martin should rethink his assumptions. And my future alma mater should rethink its commitment to a campus in Qatar.
But that’s another story.