New Internationalist

Keynote

Issue 229

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

Illustration by HECTOR CATTOLICA
Running for Rights

A hunger for fairer societies is transforming the world faster than
ever before. But what is the price of freedom? asks Sue Shaw.

Berlin, New Year's Eve, 1989. The clinking of hammers and chisels could be heard half a mile away as, oblivious to the verboten signs, souvenir-seekers hacked out pieces of the Berlin Wall. A euphoric crowd massed either side of the Brandenburg Gate; grandparents scrambled atop the Wall beside their grandchildren; strangers embraced; tourists gazed at the miraculous spectacle of guards handing out chunks of wall and posing to have their photos taken.

The clock struck twelve. The crowd went mad. Firecrackers exploded, champagne bottles fountained, people danced and cheered and wept with joy. The new decade began.

Since the NI last covered the issue of human rights in 1988, the world has been transformed. The state of emergency was lifted in South Africa and Nelson Mandela walked free; there has been a revolution in Eastern Europe; in Africa and Latin America dictatorships have fallen to multi-party democracy or look set to do so; and the Soviet Union has collapsed.

Today everyone is talking about human rights, and divides that have gaped since you and I can remember are being bridged. Like the debate that existed over what a human right was. Traditionally Western governments assumed that human rights were mostly synonymous with multi-party elections, freedom of speech and assembly, while in the Soviet Union they meant having enough to eat, a place to live, decent health care, education, and so on.

Both sets of rights - civil and political, and economic, social and cultural - were given equal status in international human-rights treaties after World War Two. But East and West remained polarized. President Reagan demanded the release of political dissidents in the Soviet Union, while Mr Gorbachev reflected sadly on the failure of Western governments to provide full employment for their people.

Of course the poor have always known that rights like food and health care were as essential to life and well-being as having freedom of speech. But only recently have the two definitions of rights been considered interdependent.

Over the past few years politicians and policy-makers have gradually been accepting that all human rights are of equal value and inextricably entwined. A good example of this is the way that press freedom can interact with the fight against famine.

Take India. Although one of the poorest countries in the world, its relatively free press ensures that the Government cannot easily hide failures in food distribution. By comparison the absence of a free press in Sudan means food shortages are disguised until it is too late and famine has already struck.1

As ideas about human rights have changed, so human-rights groups and development agencies have begun to work together. The UN now places freedom high on its list of conditions necessary for human development. Governments in Africa, too, are taking the new agenda seriously - by drawing up an African human-rights charter, and by accepting a convention on children's rights.

Out of the hue and cry for freedom a new concept of citizenship is being born which places the individual first. If citizens have clearly defined rights, like those in UN treaties, then governments are under greater pressure to honour them.

Television and radio are powerful allies to the people in this respect. Thanks to monitoring by human-rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, images and reports of atrocities can be flashed across the world within minutes of the abuse being committed. Remember that single student standing courageously in front of a row of Chinese tanks in Beijing? Or those heart-rending pictures of the Kurds freezing to death in the mountains after the Gulf War?

Once the secret is out, the international community is united in expressing its justifiable disapproval. And what better way than by hitting repressive regimes where it hurts - in their pockets. Donors are taking a lead by increasingly making aid, credit and other financial benefits conditional on governments improving their human-rights records.

This trend has undoubtedly fuelled the spread of multi-party democracy which has swept across the frontiers of states and continents, kindling the hope of a fairer society in millions who for decades have lived under the shadow of military and one-party rule.

The number of countries to throw off oppressive rule in the past few years is unequalled in history: Poland, East Germany, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria - along with most countries in South America including Chile; Benin, Namibia and Zambia are now multi-party democracies while the promise of the ballot box looms large also for African countries like Angola, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria - maybe one day soon even South Africa. And unless the shadow of totalitarianism falls again, many emerging republics in the former Soviet Union will soon be multi-party states.

Today 630 million more people embrace democracy than in 1986.2 The combined populations of China, Indonesia and Vietnam account for 40 per cent of humanity and, should they also change, 75 per cent of the world's people would be living under multiparty democracy by the end of this millennium.

When scrupulously implemented, democracy offers the possibility of many freedoms denied under other regimes like the right for ordinary people to participate in the running of their country, the freedom of assembly, a free press and so on. But democracy alone is no guarantee of human rights. India, the world's biggest democracy, has an atrocious human-rights record, mostly because of its inability to escape from traditional customs and conflicts. And every West European country earned rebuke in Amnesty International's 1991 Report for having violated their citizens' rights in some way.

It is also true that the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe is creating new problems. The end of communism has brought chaos as countries have raced to adopt a market economy. And nationalist and vigilante groups have sprung up with politics and behaviour little different from pre-war fascist parties.

East Germany is a clear example of this; its swallowing by the West has meant that rights which people had long taken for granted - like full employment and free health care - are rapidly disappearing. Over half the jobs in the former country have vanished. And the state health system has been dismantled, with socially-minded doctors being forced to open private practices; 200 of them have already committed suicide.3

Amid the orgy of freedom-talk many things remain unchanged. Worldwide, over one billion people live in absolute poverty, one in three children suffer serious malnutrition and one and a half billion people lack basic health care. About half a million women perish annually when pregnant or giving birth. Even in South-East Asia where overall economic growth has been dramatic, half the people still have no clean water or basic health care. And in Africa the last decade has been a development disaster.4

Democracy or no democracy, economic, social and cultural rights are still a low priority for almost all governments. Rich countries allocate a miserable ten per cent of their overseas aid to health, education and family planning. Third World governments on average devote just 12 per cent of their budgets to health and education for the poor, while many spend extravagant sums on arms. Poverty is often worst in those countries most resistant to political change like Pakistan.5

The human-rights records of Middle Eastern Islamic countries, with the notable exception of Yemen, are among the worst in the world and are deteriorating. In such places 'the new world order' might as well not exist for all the positive change it has wrought in ordinary people's lives.

Armed force: the South's combined Gross Domestic Product is 15 per cent of the North's but it buys 75 per cent of the arms traded every year. Many of the world's poorest countries spend two or three times as much on arms as on health or education.
HELDUR NETOCNY / PANOS

The human rights of Third World citizens have often been used as bargaining chips in the political marketplace, with democratic governments as likely as any other to do the trading. It is not so much the sanctity of human life which is in the forefront of politicians' minds when they condemn or approve the human-rights performance of neighbouring countries, but whether the governments are 'political opponents' or 'friends'. When the Australian Government curries favour with Indonesia, or the UK Government with Kenya, it makes a nonsense of their pretending to take a country's human-rights record into account before giving aid.

But the relationship between the US and Iraq is the prime example of the 'blind eye' factor in human rights. Saddam Hussein's appalling human-rights record before the Gulf War - which included the gassing of large numbers of his own population - did not cause the Americans undue concern; certainly they (and other Western governments) continued to sell him arms. Only when he invaded Kuwait, thereby threatening US oil supplies, was President Bush impelled to wage what was claimed to be 'the greatest moral crusade since the Second World War'.6 It seems that US governments pay lipservice to honouring human rights, but that when the chips are down and their own strategic or economic interests appear threatened, human-rights considerations go to the wall.

Nor can the UN be relied upon as an impartial defender of human rights. Historically it has tended not to interfere in the 'internal affairs' of member states - though this may be on the point of changing. But even if it took on the responsibility to intervene in the event of human-rights abuses, it might well be driven by the interests of its most powerful members, as the Security Council was driven by the US during the Gulf War.

War itself is nothing but legitimized human-rights abuse. This is incontrovertible. Up to a quarter of a million people perished as a result of the Gulf War. Nearly two million were driven from their homes and Iraq's infrastructure was virtually destroyed. Child mortality has doubled in the region as a direct consequence; five million children could die according to UNICEF.6 How you prevent human-rights abuses without resort to war or the threat of it is a question which might be incapable of resolution without a much fairer world order (and a reformed UN) - but it should be firmly on the international agenda.

There are casualties not just in war but every day in the operation of the global free market. And special provisions must be made to defend areas like health and education - otherwise the poorest go to the wall. 'It is the responsibility of government, among other things, to ensure basic investments in people - in nutrition, clean water, safe sanitation, family planning services and education, ' says the recent UNICEF report.5 Or, as the former President of Senegal once declared, 'Human rights begin with breakfast'.7

There is no excuse for human-rights abuses at any level of society. Laws should be changed to comply with human-rights conventions. There should be re-education programmes for those in positions of power, particularly the police and security forces. And people need to be educated about their rights - for only then will they start to demand more from their leaders.

Once we have won these freedoms, the challenge will be to keep them. Liberties are always vulnerable to being swept away by the ignorant and the power-crazed. They will never be secure until the global community understands that fighting for rights is an unending process. 'Eternal vigilance', as a sage once said, 'is the price of freedom.'

1 Starving in Silence, Article 19, 1990.
2 From consultations with Charles Humana about his forthcoming update of the World Human Rights Guide.
3 'Come back East Germany, allis forgiven, Brunhilde de la Motte, New Statesman and Society, (4.10.91).
4 Human Development Report 1991, UN Development Programme.
5 State of the World's Children 1992, UNICEF.
6 How the world was won over', John Pilger, New Statesman and Society, (17.1.92).
7 Economic, social and cultural rights, myths and realities, paper by Julia Hausermann, Rights and Humanity.

 

 

The infected mind
A court orders a child to sit in a specially constructed plastic bubble at school to prevent her having physical contact with other children; prostitutes are rounded up and chained to a waif with their heads shaved. AIDS has had alarming consequences all over the world. But punishing the sick is as irrational as it Is cruel, argues Alison Hall.

Imagine discovering that you have an incur able condition which will probably kill you. You don't know how it will strike or even when - it could be tomorrow or the next ten years. When it does, it will be unpleasant. And you must live with this knowledge for the rest of your life. How will you feel? Frightened? Lonely?

You might want sympathy and kindness. But all over the world people with HIV/AIDS are getting nothing but rejection from their families, and from society as a whole.

At a recent conference, sufferers told of terrifying human-rights abuses: of being denied medical attention, dismissed from their jobs or driven from their villages and towns. Some had had their children wrenched from them. Othershad been physically attacked.

'My stay in isolation for being HIV positive was the most traumatic experience of my life,' says one Indian man. 'Early in the morning a policeman came to my house and asked me to come to the police station. After 64 days of isolation I was allowed to go home where I had to remain confined. No matter how I tried to calm myself, I felt desperately alone and afraid. I wondered what I would do if I had an accident and required medical attention would anyone even give me an X-ray?

'Once a month I have to report to the police station for a check-up. You cannot imagine how terrified I am. Because if the doctor suspects anything is wrong I shall be isolated again.'

The World Health Organization estimates that between eight and, ten million people are currently infected with HIV. And their numbers are growing. Those worst afflicted are women who, because of their low status in the world, are less able to protect themselves against infection, less likely to get sympathy, and more likely to get poor treatment.

'My husband died in 1989 and left me with five children,' says a woman with HIV from Botswana. 'It was a real blow. With him dead and me infected and sickly, life was not easy. My parents-in-law wanted me to give them every little asset from pots and pans to the bed. My father-in-law was set to sell my sewing machine. I came home from hospital one day to find the children saying that "many uncles and Grandpa came for the oxen".

'They wanted me to starve with my children... leaving them to remove what ever they wanted. But to their surprise I remained strong. People helped me with my work and thank God I now have something to feed the kids with.'

Much of the discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers was triggered by irresponsible reporting In the early 1980s, when HIV was identified with particular groups of people, sometimes known as the four Hs - Haitians, Homosexuals, Heroin addicts, and people with Haemophilia. Everybody else was given the false but comforting impression that they were safe so long as they kept away from these groups.

They were wrong. AIDS can be passed on in three ways; through sexual intercourse, blood and blood products, and from mother to child. In short, there is no such thing as high-risk groups, only high-risk behaviour.

It is of crucial importance to all of us that the rights of people with HI V/AIDS are respected. The only real defence against AIDS today is for people to change their behaviour. And if we allow HIV sufferers to be discriminated against, it will become impossible to reach those most in need of education, counselling and health care - people who think they are infected will be too afraid to come forward.

The best way of educating the public about human rights and AIDS is to allow sufferers to take charge of public education themselves. Like the infected boy in the US who was so victimized that he was eventually driven out of his neighbourhood.

He and his family moved to a very supportive community where they thrived. The boy began to enjoy life again, took part in school and made new friends. He helped his classmates to develop a new understanding about HIV. And later, when he was invited to speak at the Presidential Conimieslon on AIDS, his informative and moving presentation inspired a standing ovation.

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