issue 179 - January 1988
Running for Rights
A New Internationalist Olympics
Chris Brazier argues that the superpowers
cannot be trusted to safeguard our human rights.
A flame, flickering but unquenchable, carried by a runner who crosses continents to hold it high: this ought to be one of the most potent and moving symbols humanity has devised. It ought to testify to our faith in the human spirit to stand up against oppression, to signify our vision of a better, more just world. The Olympic flame could be all of these things. But it is not. This is partly, doubtless, because of the tawdry commercialism that now surrounds it. But it is also because the Games have become a battleground for contending ideologies.
Back in 1980 the Games were held in Moscow. The Soviet Union had sent its troops into Afghanistan early that year and, in the last embattled year of his Presidency, US leader Jimmy Carter staked his hopes of re-election on a 'get tough' policy. American athletes were forbidden to perform in Moscow. Four years later the Games were in Los Angeles and this time the Soviet Union stayed away. More out of pique than anything else, perhaps. But they wouldn't have had to look very far to find a justification every bit as good as Afghanistan for staying away - the Reagan administration' s not-so-covert war against Nicaragua. This clash of words and symbolic gestures was not about military interference in another country's affairs per se, since both superpowers believe their own intervention to be as justifiable as the other's is deplorable. Behind it lay two entirely different conceptions of 'human rights'.
To the US Government and its allies, the phrase means something like 'democracy and freedom of expression'. Put like this it is something with which very few of us would disagree. Who, after all, could be in favour of forced labour camps, of pretending political dissidents are mentally ill, of banning opposition parties? But the problem is that US leaders still speak with the forked tongue noticed by Indian chiefs in the old movies once graced by Ronald Reagan.
Their belief in 'freedom' is sincere enough - though American socialists and communists are still deemed sufficiently dangerous to justify FBI surveillance when, logically, their activities should be seen as proof of the diversity and health of democracy. But the belief is distinctly partial, a weapon to be used against the Soviet Union and its friends but forgotten in other regions of the globe. Apart from a brief period when Jimmy Carter had a flowering of conscience, the US has been happy to embrace and do business with the most vicious and repressive dictatorships.
There was absolutely nothing to be said in favour of the military rulers of most of Latin America at the time of the Moscow Olympics, for instance. They tortured and murdered their opponents, scorned any suggestion of social justice and safeguarded privilege in some of the most unequal societies on earth. Yet the US found one virtue in them which made all those grotesque defects unimportant they were anti-communist. And, being anti-communist, through a particularly perverse kind of logic they came to represent 'freedom'.
The Soviet Union and its allies, meanwhile, have an alternative view of human rights which is heard less often in the West. They believe that our basic needs for food, health, work and education have to be paramount and that allowing too much individual freedom and political opposition will threaten the State's ability to provide them. It points, for instance, to the three million people officially unemployed in Britain, together with the millions more who depend on them, and says: 'How can you say your people are free when you condemn so many of them to poverty?'
The Soviet Union's actual fulfilment of these collective goals is hardly perfect itself (it is awarded a vote of censure for health care on article), but its ideological commitment to them as a priority is undoubted. And it is partly this commitment which has embroiled it in Afghanistan. Like all Soviet foreign policy, this venture was largely to do with its own fear of attack, with the need to secure its borders: the loss of 20 million people to the invading Nazis has bitten deep into the national psyche. But once the troops had been sent in the Soviet belief in collective provision for people's basic needs came into play. Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, with the third lowest life expectancy, an appalling 38 years. And Soviet involvement has meant an attack on low standards in health, education and women's rights as well as on the mujaheddin rebels.
Nevertheless the USSR has been unable to see that whatever progress it brings about in collective rights, it will not make the Afghans forget their lack of political and particularly religious freedoms. This blind spot in the Soviet view of human rights is paralleled by an equally significant US blind spot about communism. This led it into a much more terrible war, in IndoChina, from which nations like Laos are only now beginning to recover (see article).
The superpowers are, of course, both right and both wrong. It is probably right - especially from a Third World point of view - that the collective needs for food and an adequate income, for literacy and health, should be paramount. If I'd asked the West African villager who showed me her empty granary whether the right to dissent was as important to her as the right to food, I know what she would have said.
Yet the Western view of human rights is valid too. And if only our governments were consistent in their opposition to regimes that torture, that send death squads knocking on dissidents' doors in the night, then they would deserve our support. 'Power corrupts' is a maxim confirmed by each succeeding generation of world leaders, from Ronald Reagan through to General Ershad of Bangladesh. None of us can afford to trust political leaders. And only if we can organize freely in opposition will we have a chance of keeping them in check, of guarding and promoting all our other rights.
All the same, it is rather too easy for Western governments to lecture the Third World about freedom of expression. It is true that the top ten countries in the freedom-from-repression league table come from the West (see facts section) - though Australia, Britain and the US are conspicuous by their absence. But Western countries' good record is due not to saintliness but to wealth, which means they can provide people with a good-enough standard of living, despite the inequalities, to forestall mass unrest. We would be better advised to applaud the three developing countries who make it into the top 20, despite their relative poverty: Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea and Uruguay.1
Third World countries are, after all, embattled. Hemmed in by a global economic system which drains their resources and saps their energy, it is understandable that many see political freedom as a luxury to be tackled after the battle to survive has been won. Two conversations I had while preparing this issue spring to mind here. The first was with an old friend of the NI who lives in Kenya. I asked her to write about the growing clampdown there which has led us to award Daniel arap Moi's Government a vote of censure (see article). But she declined because, while she deplores the worsening political climate, she believes people in the West would do better to concentrate on the global forces which bear down on a country like Kenya and make life there so difficult.
The second conversation was with a prominent Malaysian activist. I questioned him about the political climate at home and he said it was improving (though since that conversation the Malaysian Government has clamped down on dissent and imprisoned many of its opponents, including some from the activist's own organization - see Simply). He too thought that slamming developing countries for human-rights violations was laying the blame at the wrong door. And he felt the US should be given a special vote of censure for acting as the biggest single obstacle to Third World development - not just for backing repressive regimes and destabilizing progressive ones, but for its role in the global economy.
The NI believes that it is important to criticize repressive regimes in developing countries - at the same time as we campaign for the Third World as a whole. But the greatest offender against human rights in global terms is undoubtedly the world's economy itself. This is the great 'free market' which makes the poor world pay back more in debt servicing to Western banks than it receives in loans or aid, which has allowed the commodity prices that developing countries depend on to sink to their lowest level for 30 years; and which insists, through its agent the International Monetary Fund, on Third World governments pursuing economic policies that will mean destitution and even death for the poorest members of society (see article).
Even from a Western point of view that world economic machine seems to be running down. A US budget deficit that would have had the IMF doling out the death certificates for any other country now looks like sending us all grinding into recession. This is because, in order to stop living beyond its means, the US has simultaneously raised taxes and cut public expenditure.
This reduced the amount the Government had to borrow from banks and investors but it also made the economy contract. People have less money to spend, companies sell fewer products and will eventually end up laying off workers. And the US is such a huge and important market for the rest of the world, that when it tightens its belt everyone else has to follow. This is why stock exchanges all over the world collapsed in response to the Wall Street Crash in October last year.
If one result of this recession were a re-evaluation of priorities, a fairer division of the world's resources, it would be welcome. Instead the likelihood is that the first people to suffer will live in the Third World, which depends on Western demand for its copper and cotton, its cocoa and coffee.
But if there is another Great Depression we in the rich world will not escape. Unemployment will soar far beyond even its present appalling levels; social divisions will widen; there may even be a drastic clampdown on civil liberties such as there was in 1930s Europe. Latin Americans will testify that, as the number of people in the unemployed and poverty-stricken underclass grows, so the powers of the police and the state security apparatus tend to grow just to keep them in check. This process is already beginning in Britain (see article).
It is a depressing prospect, and perhaps at this point it would be as well to remind ourselves of the good news about our human rights. Apart from the heartening efforts made by the medal winners in this issue, we can also congratulate ourselves on making some headway as a human family. Between 1950 and 1986, for instance, the world average life expectancy went up from 46 to 61 years. Between 1950 and 1985, the number of literate adults in the world rose from 66 to 72 per cent. And between 1970 and 1985 the number of rural people served by clean water went up from 13 to 44 per cent.2 The continent-wide trend away from military dictatorship in Latin America is also encouraging. And the appearance of a more open-minded Soviet regime under Mikhail Gorbachev makes the whole world seem a much safer place.
But the economic storm clouds may be gathering. And if the gloom descends human rights of all kinds are going to be under threat once more. We need to keep that small flame burning just in case.
1 These league positions are drawn from the percentage ratings awarded in the World Human Rights Guide 1987, by Charles Humana.
2 All figures from UNICEF, State of the World's Children 1987.
Death of an incorruptible man.
Burkina Faso's gold medal for the biggest drop in infant mortality (see article) would have been joined by a medal for its commitment to the poor if news had not arrived in October of the coup d'état and the murder of its president, Thomas Sankara. Since this issue is in the business of awarding prizes, Sankara deserves a special posthumous award for his achievements over the last four years. He was one of the most creative and radical leaders that modern Africa has produced.
Sankara himself came to power by military coup in November 1983 and immediately made a dramatic impression. On the first anniversary of what he called the revolution he announced that the name of the country was to change from the old French colonial name, Upper Volta, to one drawn from two tribal languages and symbolic of a hopeful new start; Burkina Faso, the 'Land of the Incorruptible'.
But Sankara's Revolution was not just rhetoric; from the outlet it pushed through sweeping and challenging changes. One of African leaders' perennial mistakes is the tendency to favour urban élites at the expense of rural farming people who make up the majority of the population. This means, for example, that governments are reluctant to raise the price of food for fear of incurring the wrath of the townspeole. By contrast one of Sankara's first moves was to boost - by 25% - the price the Government paid to farmers for millet (the main subsistence crop). This encouraged them to grow as much of it as they could in order to sell the surplus - rather than just growing enough for themselves and using the rest of their land for cotton or another cash crop. He also increased the proportion of the national budget spent on agriculture from 2 per cent to an astonishing 40 per cent almost at a stroke.
But the Revolution also altered the structure of society. Sankara believed that ordinary people had to gain more control over their lives, so local councils, called Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), were set up as a new tier of local government. These had wide-ranging powers and responsibilities; from arbitrating in all disputes over land in the villages to making recommendations for the new Five-Year National Plan for Development. All CDRs were directly elected, the only restriction being that each had to have at least two women members, one of whom had to be either leader or deputy leader (a more radical policy than any western democracy had yet to come up with to increase female representation on elected bodies.
I spent a month in a remote village in Burkina Faso in the summer of 1985, which gave me the chance to see how Sankara's Government was regarded by ordinary rural people. In the past government had come and gone in the capital Ougadougou without having much tangible effect on the life of the village. But this one had created a stir. Young people in particular were very hopeful about 'the Revolution': they seemed inspired with the desire to learn, both about how they could help develop their country and about how Burkina was hampered by distant international forces.
Sankara himself was popular. Ironically this was in part because he actively discouraged any cult of his personality. It is commonplace for national leaders to distribute their own photograph far and wide so that it hangs in every public place - and many private ones too. Sankara, by contrast, let it be known that he did not want his picture hung anywhere, that the Revolution was not his, but the people's. 'There are a million Thomas Sankaras' he said. This refreshing sense of personal integrity extended to other areas too. He refused, for instance, to use air-conditioning in the Presidential Office on the grounds that ordinary Burkinabes could not afford such luxury and he did not want to lose touch with them.
Early reports indicated that the coup would be welcomed in Paris, the former colonial capital. The new leader, Captain Blaise Compaoré, a boyhood friend of Sankara, is expected to follow policies that suit French interests more. Unfortunately France's interests - in free-market trading policies and pro-Western military leanings - do not coincide with those of ordinary Burkinabes.
Sankara will be mourned by the Organization for African Unity, which respected his dynamism and imagination, and by development activists the world over. Though I never met him, I felt a sense of personal loss when I heard about his death at the age of just 37: I felt that Africa had lost an inspiring example and Burkina Faso a golden opportunity.
This special report appeared in the running for rights - a new internationalist olympics issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.