Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, September 2013
Human Rights vs Tyranny:
Speech to a Conference on Human Rights in Geneva
By Alan Hart
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, September 30, 2013
The title of my contribution to this conference is taken from paragraph three of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The problem, I say, is that there is no universal enforcement of the rule of law to ensure and protect human rights. Why not?
One part of the sad and brutal truth is that virtually all, if not all, governments only pay selective lip-service to human rights; and some demonstrate by their policies and actions contempt for them. The other part is that the only institution we have for enforcing the rule of law, the UN Security Council, is more often than not paralysed and made impotent by the conflicting self-interests of the council’s five permanent and controlling members. (In verbal parenthesis I’ll add that I never cease to be amazed by the hypocrisy of our leaders and their governments. Early this month the Obama administration accused Russia of holding the Security Council “hostage” for vetoing a resolution to authorize the US to attack Syria. The truth is that no country holds the Security Council hostage more often than America. It has, for example, cast 42 vetoes to prevent the Zionist state of Israel being called and held to account for its crimes.)
Modern life is a dehumanizing process, reducing us to units of consumption; and the name of the game for each and every one of us is, ought to be, claiming back our humanity.
I want to start with a personal note. The consequence of my exposure to the real world over many years is that I don’t give a damn about being English and British, a white man with blue eyes and blonde hair. I am a citizen of the world, period. (To be completely frank, I don’t want an English or British team to win a football or a cricket match just because I am English and British. I am content for the best team on the day to win.)
I also want to offer you my one-sentence take on the state of things here on Planet Earth. Modern life is a dehumanizing process, reducing us to units of consumption; and the name of the game for each and every one of us is, ought to be, claiming back our humanity.
The seven most basic of all human rights
In my view evidence that such a process was underway would be that each and every one of us who live in the rich world (the North in development jargon) was demanding that a priority be given to ensuring that the poor majority of Planet Earth’s human inhabitants had what I call the seven most basic of all human rights.
There are, of course, many other rights (civil and political) that humans should have, including the right to free speech and dissent, but there is a particular reason why I assert that the seven I listed are the most basic and should have priority.
Way back in the early 1970s I devoted two years of my life to producing the first ever and to date only documentary film on the everyday reality of global poverty and its implications for all. My production team and I researched in more than 130 countries and filmed in 70. The end product was an epic, two-hour documentary with the title “Five Minutes To Midnight”.
The most shocking statistic the film gave to the world was that every year an estimated 15 million children under five were dying from malnutrition and related, easily preventable disasters such as diahorrea, measles and whooping cough. In a word, they were dying from poverty – abject and absolute poverty.
To that was added the estimate that each year another 300 million were born irreversibly brain damaged because of malnutrition in the wombs of their mothers.
For me, the single most revealing statement in the documentary was that of an Indian mother who was living, as was her whole community, on the margins of life. I asked her what was the one thing she wanted most of all. She replied: “Education for my children so they don’t have to live like animals as we do.”
On camera I asked the poorest of the poor in countries on each and every continent of the world the same question. Almost all of them echoed in their own way the answer of the Indian mother I have just quoted.
…India today is probably the outstanding example of how development and wealth creation driven by unregulated capitalism, assisted by rampant corruption, is not benefiting the majority.
In the nearly four decades that have passed since my presentation with “Five Minutes To Midnight” of the everyday reality of global poverty, there has been some progress in addressing it, but not nearly enough.
Under that heading – not nearly enough – India today is probably the outstanding example of how development and wealth creation driven by unregulated capitalism, assisted by rampant corruption, is not benefiting the majority. The figures speak for themselves: 100 million Indians are wealthy (to some degree or another) and 800 million are poor and getting poorer. According to the latest research 40 per cent of India’s children are malnourished, and half the entire population of India is without sanitation.
As things are I truly fear for India’s future. Why? Once upon a time the poor of India did not know they were poor. Today they (like the poor of the world) do know. To be more explicit, they know they are poor not only in relation to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the still rich nations of the Western world, but also in relation to their own elites. I think you don’t need a crystal ball to see the very real prospect of India one day being torn apart by an explosion of the despair of poverty for the many in the midst of plenty for the few.
Still on India I have to add that I think its caste system is much more than morally repulsive in the extreme. It is the biggest conglomeration of human rights abuses on Planet Earth. I remain puzzled, as I have been for many years, why Indians don’t cause it to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Today I believe that if there is to be the understanding needed to generate a truly effective effort to end global poverty and all it implies for the absence of even the most basic human rights, a new approach to getting the message across is required. What could it be?
My suggestion is that all who seek to promote human rights should take their cue from the Indian woman I quoted and give priority to campaigning for the right to be human.
This could be defined as the right of every man, woman and child on Planet Earth to have the seven most basic of all human rights, to enable them to live as humans and not as animals or more like animals than humans.
Question: If debate and discussion and campaigning was refocused in such a way would it really make a difference?
In answer I have some observations to make.
The first is that only governments can change the world for the better, but they won’t act unless and until they are pushed to do so by informed public opinion, by manifestations of real democracy in action. The problem here is that most citizens of most if not all nations are too uninformed and misinformed about critical issues to do pushing.
…only governments can change the world for the better, but they won’t act unless and until they are pushed to do so by informed public opinion, by manifestations of real democracy in action.
And that’s why I assert that real democracy exists nowhere in the world. Real democracy is about much more than voting every few years to confirm a government in office or change it. For real democracy to exist the citizens of nations, the voters, have to be informed enough about critical issues to call and hold their governments to account, not only at election time but any time and all the time. Because they are not informed enough to do that, I say that what we have throughout the Western world and elsewhere is the framework of democracy but not the substance.
In passing I’ll add that there’s a strong case for saying that America is the least democratic country in the Western world because what passes for democracy there is for sale to the highest lobby bidders.
Because our presentations today have to be short, I’m going to assume that ways could be found to inform and educate the peoples of nations about critical issues, to give them the ability to become engaged in the political process, in order to give what passes for democracy some real substance. In other words, I’m assuming that citizens could be equipped to do the pushing required.
But even if they had the ability, would they have the will – would they care enough to become engaged in the political process and play their necessary part in causing their governments to change the world for the better, by giving a priority to ensuring that every man, woman and child on Planet Earth had the basic necessities for life.
The quality of human nature
At issue here is what I regard as the biggest and most important question of all questions: what, really, is the quality of human nature?
There are, broadly speaking, two views.
One, the pessimistic view, which is more or less an article of faith for most politicians and mainstream media people and many corporate executives, bankers especially, is that we human beings are inherently and unchangeably short-sighted, selfish and greedy, preferring to live for today at the expense of tomorrow, and are, on balance, more “bad” than “good”. In other words, we are really quite stupid.
The other, the optimistic view, is that we have at least the potential to act in our own best, longer term interests, even if doing so would require those of us who live in the rich nations (and the pockets of plenty in the developing and poor nations) to lower our expectations and actually be prepared to take less in the way of material gratification.
If the pessimistic view is the correct one, it seems to me that nothing matters because the end, catastrophe for all, was inevitable from the beginning; in which case we would all be well advised, as individuals, as communities and as nations, to go on screwing each other for all we can get. Praising the lord and passing the ammunition.
I believe the optimistic view of human nature is the correct one and that we have been conditioned to be shortsighted, selfish and greedy, and to assume that the purpose of life is the acquisition of material things, buying now and paying later. It follows, or so it seems to me, that we could be reconditioned by information, education in the widest sense of the term. As the American John Dewey (my favourite philosopher) put it, we must “unlearn” what we have been taught about the “unchangeability of human nature”.
I also believe there is a key to unlocking the concern and care and political engagement of most citizens of nations.
Question: What is it that parents and grandparents care most about?
Answer: The future of their children and grandchildren.
That being so, the key to mobilizing them is making them aware that if they want their children and grandchildren to have a future worth having, they can’t leave the shaping of it to governments, and must become engaged in the political process, to insist that priority be given to addressing the growing pile of problems which threaten the wellbeing and perhaps even the survival of all life on Planet Earth.
My own message to that effect would include the need for those of us who live in the still rich nations of the Western world (and also those who live in the pockets of plenty in the developing world) to change the way we live and think.
Changing the way we live would require us to accept that we can’t go on expecting to have more and ever more in the way material satisfaction and gratification.
Changing the way we think would require us to see ourselves as citizens of one common humanity
If we could see ourselves in that light, the prospects for creating a world in which every man, woman and child had the seven most basic of all human rights would be much improved.
Some and perhaps many will say that I am a dreamer because, for example, the concept of “American exceptionalism” (most recently articulated by President Obama) will never allow Americans to see themselves, first and foremost, as citizens of one common humanity. I am inclined to a different view of America’s potential.
During 40 years of visiting the US and travelling coast-to-coast I developed what might be called a love-hate relationship with it which I explain this way.
On one level, and generally speaking, Americans are the most uninformed (I really mean ignorant) and gullible people on earth. (I once said on a public platform in the US: “The trouble with you Americans is not only that you don’t know where Zimbabwe is, you don’t know where Africa is!”) That’s the bad news.
The good news is that deep down Americans are probably the most idealistic people on earth. In my way of thinking one implication is that if they were informed about the true state affairs on Planet Earth, in particular the fact that about half its population is without some or all of the most basic human rights and living more like animals than humans, their idealism could be liberated and mobilized. I am suggesting, in other words, that if Americans were properly informed, they might want to become engaged to cause their government to play its necessary part in changing the world for the better.
International law vs jungle law
I’ll return now to my opening quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It bears repeating:
Essentially there are two ways to run this world of ours.
One is in accordance with international law. To me it’s obvious that if international law is to be enforced universally, the United Nations has got to be reformed. It needs to reflect the world as it is today and not as it was in 1945. One suggestion I have is that provision should be made for an overwhelming vote in the General Assembly, perhaps as high as 80 per cent, to override vetoes in the Security Council.
The other way to run the world is in accordance with jungle law. I really do fear that our leaders and the powerful vested interests which call most of their shots are taking us back to the jungle. But I also see a ray of hope. The one thing a majority of citizens in most countries seem to have in common is something approaching contempt for our political systems – I mean the way our politicians conduct the business of society management. In America, for example, the latest polls indicate that Congress enjoys the confidence of only 10 per cent of the voters!
What that suggests to me is not only that we need new politics – a better way to manage our world and its resources – but also that the peoples of nations would welcome new politics. And what I think should drive them was put into words by Martin Luther King on 4April 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered.
By then he had emerged as America’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War as well as being a staunch critic of US foreign policy in general. In what was labelled his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he called America “the great purveyor of violence in the world today”. (If he was still alive I’m sure he would say, “And it still is.”)
Here is what he said about the need for change:
My own way of putting the same message is to say, as I have previously indicated, that the precondition for changing the world for the better is each and every one of us seeing ourselves as, first and foremost, citizens of one common humanity. Then, I believe, we would understand and endorse the need for every man, woman and child on Planet Earth to have the seven most basic human rights, in order to live as human beings and not like animals or more like animals than humans.
Only then could the deniers of human rights – the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism – be defeated.
I want to end with two verbal footnotes about the ray of hope I mentioned.
On the recent 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote the following:
My second and related verbal footnote is this. At the end of last month the House of Commons voted against Britain’s participation in an American-led attack on Syria. One of the reasons why it did so was that enough members of parliament were not prepared to ignore and write off the concerns of a majority of the British people, the voters. Days later there were indications that a majority in Congress was not going to give Obama the green light to attack Syria because, it seemed, most members (unlike their president?) were more frightened of offending their voters than they were of offending the Zionist lobby and its fundamentalist, mad, Christian and neo-con allies.
What happened at Westminster and might well have happened in Washington DC was confirmation for me that the citizens of nations, the voters, do have the power to insist that governments change the world for the better. It really is time for that power, people power, to be unleashed, peacefully of course, if the cause of human rights is to be advanced.
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