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    Do human rights affect our travel choices?

    Over recent months we've had Forum discussions about a number of issues that affect our travel choices:

    - Animal rights with respect to cultural traditions

    - FCO advice and the risk of terrorism

    - Donald Trump

    Many Wanderlusters are very passionate about these issues and I've said my piece on each one. Animal rights, risk of danger, and politics can clearly affect our travel choices but what about human rights? Does a country's record on human rights affect our decision on whether or not to visit?

    I found myself sympathising with those who want to boycott Trump's USA and at the same time I was envious of those intrepid travellers who have ventured into countries like North Korea and Iran (as mentioned in the discussion). I would jump at the chance to go to these countries. But in light of their human rights records am I being consistent?

    You can read Amnesty International's reports on every country in the world here:

    No country has a perfect record but when you read of persecution of minorities, imprisoning peaceful critics, torture, amputations, and executing juvenile offenders, all in one country, shouldn't this make our blood boil like Trump does? If Trump's America is off limits shouldn't these countries be off limits too?

    Why are we so inconsistent when it comes to being offended? Is it to do with expectation, as Helen hinted at in Rhodri's recent Forum thread on Trump?

    Do we expect more from Western Democracies and so are more critical when they fail? Do we expect less from the rest of the world and excuse their human rights abuses? Is it right to do that? Is poverty a valid excuse for not upholding universal human values? Is it fair to expect other cultures to have the same values? Are they universal values or are they just our values?

    Is this a good enough explanation? If not, what is the rationale behind our apparent inconsistency?


    A second question is: Would you avoid going to a country with a bad human rights record?

    It's a tricky one but personally I would only consider avoiding a country if it was in a war zone.

    One thing I learnt from my independent travels in the Soviet Union is that life in many countries with a repressive regime can be fine for most people, or at least ok. But if their citizens fall foul of the authorities, or if the authorities disapprove of them for some reason, then life is a desperate nightmare. But the traveller doesn't see that. He/she just sees ordinary people getting on with their lives. The dissidents and minorities are hidden away from sight to live their nightmares alone, isolated from the rest of humanity.

    I still want to go to these countries and see them for myself but I need to temper the glowing impressions I might get with the harsh reality of the human suffering being inflicted behind the scenes.

    How about you? How do you deal with this issue?

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    18 posts | 504 responses

    Posted 9 March


  • 1

    I don't think my own approach to this is consistent, as I have travelled recently to Myanmar which is treating the Rohinga Muslims terribly, and to Qatar, which treats is low paid migrant workers appallingly, just to give two examples. Like you, I am also keen to go to Iran and North Korea. But I don't want to go to the USA as it stands right now.

    I think the difference for me is that the USA is taking what I consider to be a step backwards, even though it has been better than that and should know better. Perhaps in part, it is purely selfish. When we travel to these countries that are less developed, or have significantly different cultures, we can feel confident that we can leave this place, hopefully having learnt something, maybe having had even a tiny bit of positive influence, but certainly knowing that we can leave and be safe from whatever issue we dislike about that place. Whereas what is happening in the USA feels like it might actually impact on me long term. Even aside from the effects that Trump's actions may have on global security and stability, I feel the need to resist this, because if the U.S. is going that way, then other countries, including my own, might go there too.

    Not that it is just Trump that deters me from the USA. I have for some time thought that I just don't feel especially comfortable about a developed western nation that was so resistant to trying to give better health care to everyone, that persists with its love of guns despite the number of people killed each year, where people feel they can make openly racist comments because they expect you to agree, and so forth. I know that there are many U.S. citizens that don't feel this way, but quite honestly, when I was in the Southern States in 2013, I felt truly uncomfortable with the racism I witnessed.

    As to countries having bad human rights records, if you go back far enough (and it generally doesn't have to be that far), I'm not sure there is any country that hasn't done some pretty appalling things. I see visiting countries that are still 'bad' as being an opportunity for me to learn and appreciate what I have, and hopefully that our presence will help to encourage them in the right direction. But it is all a question of degrees. I have no intention of putting myself somewhere where I may be either personally at risk, or where I may have to witness such things for myself; knowing that these things happen is one thing, experiencing it is quite another. And if there were a realistic expectation that my not visiting might bring about a change in behaviour, I wouldn't hesitate to keep away.

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    Around the world in 8000 days

    0 post | 75 responses

    Posted 10 March
  • 2

    My overall feeling is that the common mass should never be ostracised for what their governments or rulers do. We may be their only outlet to the rest of the world. If there is a general pervasive unruliness that puts everyone at risk and everyone is involved- well that would be a region too unsafe to travel anyway. But within reasonably safe limits, I'd love to visit anywhere and everywhere.

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    17 post | 139 responses

    Posted 10 March
  • 3

    Great question Steve. I've been thinking about similar questions to these myself. Like you and others here, I have wanted (and pre-planned) trips to Iran and North Korea, although both of those are on the back burner for now. NK is particularly problematic for me since I live in Japan and of course there is a lot of bad blood between these two countries, not just because of what's happening now, but also because NK kidnapped many Japanese citizens in the 70s and 80s. Regardless of what's happening in NK (which concerns me), what does it say about me wanting to visit a country that has caused a lot of pain for my adopted home? 

    Not that Japan is free from sin either. It openly discriminates against women and foreigners here, with few consequences for offenders. (I live in Kyoto and this is one of the worst places I have ever lived in when it comes to be discriminated against in Japan.) Non-white foreign workers, especially those who work in agriculture or industry, are treated particularly bad, almost like indentured servants. It allowed a total of 28 refugees into the country last year, even though thousands applied. It has kicked out non-Japanese people who were born here illegally (mother or parents were in Japan illegally), and even though they've lived here all their lives and are Japanese in every way except for their genes, the courts still told them they would have to leave. And they do this even though this is one of the most rapidly ageing societies in the world, and they are desperate for young workers. The country still conducts whaling under the guise of "research" and dolphin hunts because of "tradition." Yet the tourist numbers keep going up (24 million tourists last year - double what it was 10 years ago). Do people not know or care about these things, or do they not matter?  I don't know. As has already been mentioned, no country has an unblemished record, so perhaps it's maintaining your own personal consistency. If human rights is your biggest issue, then yes, perhaps you would be a hypocrite for going to a country with terrible human rights abuses because you were interested in the culture.

    But then, do our own little personal boycotts really do anything? Maybe it is okay to visit a country with issues, but then donate money (for example) to organisations that can actually do something for the people/animals/environment. I don't want to say that that makes things better, but I guess my question is, has the increase in travel around the world actually helped people/the world, or made things worse? If I go back to my Japanese example, one thing most (older) Japanese have no tolerance for is tattoos. It doesn't matter how big or small, they do not like them as they are associated with the yakuza here. There is no logical thinking that perhaps the tourists who come here are not related to the mafia. So there is a blanket ban on tattoos, which is problematic if you want to go to and onsen or sento here (and if you live here it affects you too by things like using a gym or swimming pool or never being to wear a t-shirt at work events, etc.) But this is a popular activity and the government wants to have 40 million tourists here in time for the 2020 Olympics (for which they are wholly unprepared for - the tourists that is), so they are actually trying to find ways to have onsen owners change their tattoo policies to allow those with tattoos to use them. Now, this wouldn't be perfect, as it would still ban Japanese with tattoos, but it's a start - a crack in the wall, if you will. That wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for the increase in tourists here.

    Anyway, I'm rambling...looking forward to what others have to say.

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    12 post | 154 responses

    Posted 11 March
  • 4

    Fascinating insight into Japanese culture and the Japanese mindset, mooseontheloose. You should write it up as an experience and post it on the website. It surprised me because I always think of Japanese society as being very 'liberal' and go-ahead - not that being 'liberal' is always a virtue.

    You make a relevant point about being personally consistent with regard to those particular issues which are important to you - and that we all have different concerns. I suppose a good example would be the question of animal rights and human rights. It seems that for many travellers animal rights is a bigger issue than human rights and they would readily visit countries with shameful human rights records but passionately boycott whaling nations for example. I've often wondered why this is so and I assume it's because many people travel mainly to see wildlife - so animals are of paramount concern to them. In their eyes they are probably not being inconsistent because animal welfare is their consuming passion. Or maybe it's a question of animal conservation as part of a wider concern for the environment which is, I admit, a massively important issue. But to me there still seems to be an imbalance there.

    And I take your point too, 'Around the world in 8000 days', that the potential effectiveness of any action you take is a major factor. Whatever the issue you are concerned about, if you feel your action is more likely to have some effect then you are going to take it even if there are actually bigger fish to fry which you feel less able to do anything about. (I wonder if that's why Japan doesn't seem to get the same harsh treatment as the Faroe Islands - because they're not such an easy touch?)

    I also take your point about a country's influence in the world. We are naturally more fearful and critical of a country like America with so much influence than we would be of a small country with virtually no influence, even though it has a shocking human rights record. Although, thinking about it, this could work against your previous point because your action will potentially have more effect on a small country than it would on a big one like America. Also people in small countries with no influence still need our support, moral or otherwise.

    But getting back to Trump, I can remember several years ago quite a number of Wanderlusters saying that they refused to visit the USA while George W Bush was president. I wasn't impressed with such self-imposed political constraints on travelling. I suppose it illustrates the love/hate relationship that many Western travellers seem to have with the USA and I wonder if maybe they find a country with a shameful human rights record more palatable to visit if it is also anti-American - a case of my enemy's enemy is my friend? A dangerous trap to fall into. But I do feel some sympathy with those who want to boycott America as a way of protesting against Trump - even though that is not what I would actually do myself.

    As I have battled with these sorts of thoughts over the years - almost from the time I first started travelling - I have settled on an outlook similar to Nandini's that, despite all the things which concern me, i wouldn't rule out a trip to any country (as long as it wasn't in a war zone). Contact generally benefits both the visitor and the people being visited. So I suppose this is my answer to the vital question for the traveller which mooseontheloose poses: "Has the increase in travel around the world actually helped people/the world, or made things worse?"

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    18 post | 504 responses

    Posted 17 March

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