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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 244 - June 1993

Waking up the world
North and South will rehearse their conflicting views of human rights
at the imminent World Conference. But the horrors of Bosnia
and Somalia demand a new consensus, argues Chris Brazier.

A couple bound together in death beside their home. Children burned with their mothers in the cellar where they had taken refuge. Communities uprooted, ravaged, in mourning. Night after night we squirm inside as the latest news emerges from Bosnia. Staunch opponents of military solutions question their deepest convictions; leftists profoundly suspicious of the United Nations’ new role in the world look to it to be assertive; people not usually interested in world affairs struggle to understand how in heaven’s name something as appalling as ‘ethnic cleansing’ could have come about.

If anything good can be said to have emerged from the Bosnian catastrophe it is perhaps this worldwide sense that we wish to take responsibility, that this time we cannot turn away and let such appalling abuses of human rights happen.

Just down the road from Bosnia, in the city of Vienna from which it was once imperially ruled, the world could conceivably be about to say ‘never again’ with more clarity and meaning than it ever has before. There the UN will hold its first summit conference on human rights for 25 years. Full of its post-Cold War authority and room for manoeuvre, the UN is keen to set out its stall on the big issues. Its first attempt was the Earth Summit in Rio last year, which won worldwide attention for environmental concerns while also provoking worldwide frustration at the refusal of the major players on the world stage, led by the US, to put their houses in order.

As in Rio, the World Conference on Human Rights is likely to be the scene of conflict between North and South. Northern leaders are now keen to export their notion of human rights to the whole world, freed from the Cold War requirement to turn a blind eye to abuses by their anti-communist allies. Dictators can no longer expect to be locked away from the justifiable wrath of their people, to be shored up and bailed out by the blessings and bank transfers of the West – and, as if to prove the point, Zaire’s Marshal Mobutu looks like he is finally on the way out after almost three decades of ruthless repression and personal enrichment.

The human-rights agenda is likely to meet with two separate counter-arguments from Third World governments. The first will charge the North with cultural imperialism for imposing its own view of human rights on the rest of the world. The second will point out that the North has shown no interest at all in altering the global economic arrangements which make it so impossible for Southern societies to meet their citizens’ basic needs – the social and economic rights to which the world community is supposed to be unequivocally committed.

The first argument will be moved by governments like China and Indonesia. We will be faced with the comical spectacle of Indonesia’s military rulers, who have ruthlessly annexed and crushed East Timor, lecturing the world about cultural imperialism. ‘We have a culturally different way of operating,’ the Chinese Government will say with rather more conviction. ‘Who are you to say that it is worse than your own?’

China has certainly tended traditionally to put collective interests before individual rights. And the Maoist Revolution from 1949 onwards did the impossible, pulling a society that was a worldwide byword for famine, poverty and civil war into communal health and self-sufficiency. By mobilizing all its human resources and investing in what the community most needed – in the rural infrastructure, in food production, in the low-tech health care of ‘barefoot doctors’ – China raised average life expectancy from just 36 at the Revolution in 1949 to 65 by Mao’s death in 1976.

But there was a price to pay: in the lack of individual freedom which is the essence of the Western conception of human rights. Dissenting voices were locked up, sent into internal exile or simply eliminated; conformity to the ideological trends of the moment was all-important. And millions died in a famine with a new cause – Mao’s disastrously ill-judged ‘Great Leap Forward’ between 1958 and 1960.

China’s argument was that the communal achievements could not have been had without the cultural and political conformity; the West’s that the price paid for them was far too high. I once felt some sympathy for the Chinese view, from my safe vantage-point of comparative wealth and freedom – but a visit to China and Tibet 10 years after Mao’s death helped to erode it.

Diary entry, Tibet 1986: On the buses here in Lhasa the Chinese routinely cover their faces with handkerchiefs to protect themselves from Tibetan ‘germs’. As a visual image it sums up perfectly how they see this country they have colonized: as an arid wasteland full of backward peasants with a feudal mentality. They fly in food, install electricity in the main towns and say they are crusading to raise the material quality of life.

But those resources flow naturally towards Chinese colonists rather than local people – and not at all towards Tibetans in the rural areas, who seem (for better or worse) utterly untouched by the twentieth century. This is a bitterly bleak and hostile land: you look at it and wonder how people can ever have made their home here. And yet perhaps it is that very bleakness which renders material comfort much less important to the Tibetans than the sense of cultural self-respect which the Chinese have tried and failed to extinguish.

Any residual sympathy I had for the Chinese Government view vanished in those terrible moments in 1989 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. The ruthless massacre of those idealistic students, so high on freedom, and the repression that followed made it clearer than ever that we should not have to choose between the two different kinds of human rights, between freedom from want and freedom to express. We should demand both – not just for ourselves but for all the world’s citizens.

All societies have to strike a balance between individual liberty and communal needs. But if we are asked to choose one and do without the other then we can be pretty clear that the wrong people are doing the asking.

The second argument likely to be advanced by the South at the World Conference, though, has a great deal more weight. Why should they take the North seriously in its crusade for civil and political rights when it seems to care so little for the basic needs of so many of the world’s citizens? These social and economic rights are supposed to have equal weight in the UN’s own Human Rights Charter but they are plainly impossible to deliver within a global economy functioning as it currently does.

Northern leaders now see democracy and human rights as virtually synonymous with structural adjustment, the infernal machine of the IMF and the World Bank. Most countries in the Third World are as a result having to ‘adjust’ their economies to the strangling specifications of these financial institutions – if they do not they will be denied aid, credit or trading good favour.

The adjustment always takes the same form: public spending on food subsidies, health and education is slashed while the economy is reshaped to fit the needs of the global market. The supposed goal is for these brave new adjusted economies to trade their way out of poverty. Yet when they try to do so the rich world’s trading blocs deny them access – and IMF campaigns to bring down those barriers are notable by their absence.

Meanwhile the first people to suffer as public spending is savaged are inevitably the poor, who the world over spend much more of their income on food and have greater need of public services. The results are difficult to quantify – but none the less real for that. When children in the Ghanaian capital Accra die of everyday diseases from which a local clinic would once have saved them, there is no statistician waiting to separate out their deaths from those which would have happened anyway. You don’t find amongst the World Bank’s myriad statistical tables one detailing the full human price of structural adjustment. But go to almost any country of the Third World, walk the streets of its shanty towns and talk to people about their lives, and then you will know more than enough.

The North’s equation of adjustment with human rights becomes even more insulting when some Southern governments are clamping down on dissent in order to squeeze their people into the new economic straitjacket. In Ivory Coast, for example, the Government used the protest against its adjustment program as an excuse to round up critics. ‘Last year we went through a tough period cleansing the economy,’ said its prime minister, Alasane Ouattara. ‘Now it is time to cleanse the political environment.’1

The North cannot expect a new and universal commitment to civil and political rights while it continues to export economic misery to the world’s poorer citizens; it must make a new commitment of its own to their social and economic rights. But the case for freedom from torture or repression is not the intellectual property of Washington or Brussels – which is fortunate given their recent and consistent complicity in grotesque abuses by their allies (see article). The case for such freedom, rather, is absolute and unanswerable. We are back in the grim purlieu of the police state.

Letter from South Africa, 1987: I haven’t found the right girl for the film2 yet but the stories I hear become more harrowing each day. Today, in the black township of Katlehong, a 14-year-old girl told me how she had been given electric-shock treatment by police trying to get her to give names of ‘troublemaking’ comrades. Reading about human-rights abuses in a distant country is very different, to say the least, from sitting in the kitchen with a schoolgirl and hearing her talk, haltingly, reticently, about torture. What kind of mentality is it that can justify to itself the torture of children?

How can the World Conference on Human Rights set about undermining the future torturers and death squads, the future ‘ethnic cleansers’? Statements of new resolve are all very fine but some practical commitment has to emerge as well.

At the moment the UN’s Commission on Human Rights is notoriously weak, one of the most underfunded and powerless UN agencies of all. Whenever it wants to do something it has to get special licence from the General Assembly instead of taking action on its own. That automatically means it falls victim both to the geopolitical manoeuvring of member governments and to absurd bureaucratic delay.

Iraq provides an illuminating example of the current UN human-rights mechanism in (in)action. Human-rights abuses in Iraq have been systematic and serious ever since Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, yet the UN Commission on Human Rights only appointed a Special Rapporteur for the country after the invasion of Kuwait. When that Special Rapporteur on Iraq eventually made a first report he called for the urgent dispatch of a team of human-rights monitors to investigate violations, visit places of detention and observe trials: (this) ‘exceptionally grave situation,’ he wrote, ‘demands an exceptional response’. The Commission passed the request on to the General Assembly, which expressed deep concern but took no action, sending the proposal back to the Commission’s 1993 session – in other words a full year after the situation was considered urgent and grave. And if this is what happens in post-Gulf War Iraq, the focus of so much of the UN Security Council’s ire, then you can imagine what happens in lower-priority areas of the globe – or why Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu’s long campaign to have a Special Rapporteur attached to her native Guatemala has been unsuccessful.

The World Conference needs to recognize this disastrous ineffectuality and urge that the General Assembly appoints a Special Commissioner for Human Rights with the power to act independently.

This may sound like an unpromisingly technical proposal: how could the appointment of yet another UN bureaucrat do any good? But it would mark a major shift in priorities. At the moment, as Amnesty says, ‘There is a clear lack of political will on the part of member states of the UN to confer on its human-rights mechanisms the necessary status, authority and capacity for action... Respect for human rights is one of the founding principles of the UN yet its human-rights program accounts for less than one per cent of the overall budget of the organization.’3

Amnesty also recommends that the Commissioner should be responsible for co-ordinating the UN’s response to the abuse of women’s human rights, which have barely been considered as a special need within the field – and again the lessons of Bosnia with its rape camps may have the effect of spurring the UN into taking women’s human rights more seriously (see article). The Commissioner could also give greater attention to the needs of children, indigenous peoples, the disabled, those with HIV and AIDS – at the moment the UN talks about the need to protect the rights of these groups but does very little to monitor abuses and still less to implement that protection.

The Vienna Conference represents a great opportunity to wake up the world, for human rights to be taken seriously by governments instead of left to the monitoring and campaigning of voluntary organizations. But even if world leaders do not grasp the nettle there will still be something we can all do. If Amnesty’s success over the years in raising the level of global concern about human rights has shown us anything it is that ordinary people’s activism and commitment can make a difference. You might think that a letter to a despotic political leader about a prisoner locked in some dingy cell far away from light and hope is bound for nowhere but the wastepaper bin beside the President’s junior under-letter-opener. But in some cases it can genuinely help work wonders, as the testimony of Turkish prisoner Ilker Demir makes clear (see box). Believe it – we can make a difference.

1 Quoted in the London Financial Times, 9 March 1992.
2 Girls Apart, a New Internationalist film, 1987.
3 Facing Up to the Failures: Proposals for Improving the Protection of Human Rights by the United Nations, Amnesty International, December 1992.


Postal power
Ilker Demir, a 39-year-old Turkish journalist, spent seven years in military and civilian prisons before his release in 1991. He was tortured and beaten many times and spent a total of six months on hunger strike in protest at prison conditions. He is now meeting some of the people whose letters helped secure his release.

I was working as an editor, in 1980, when the military coup took place. I lived ‘underground’ and was sought by the police until 2 April 1984 when I was captured in Istanbul. I was sentenced to a total of 48 years and one month for publishing political writings about equality, peace, democracy, freedom and human rights. Before the military coup, publishing ‘communist propaganda’ was technically illegal but in practice the prohibition was not applied because democratic public opinion was strong. For this reason I was acquitted in cases brought against me but after the coup, military courts overturned acquittals by civilian courts.

I never believed that I would serve the sentence because the things I defended in my publication were legal and proper values accepted by every civilized society. In any democratic state such ideas are not considered a crime. To think and to be able to express one’s thought is the primary right of a human being. And if I was to be imprisoned for expressing such ideas then I was happy to go to prison.

But I believed that democratic forces in the world would, in one way or another, prevent such an injustice. And just as I had thought, the pressure brought by democratic elements throughout the world to abolish the restrictions on freedom of expression began, after 1988, to take effect, and the newly elected Turkish authorities started to talk of repealing those articles of the penal code under which prisoners of conscience were being held. Eventually I was released on 14 April 1991, having served seven years and 12 days in prison. Three months later all Turkish prisoners – political and criminal – were released from that jail but the Kurds remained.

The efforts of Amnesty International and other human-rights organizations had a direct, immediate and personal effect on the Turkish Government – and for those of us who were in prison, the interest shown in us brought warmth and hope.

In the military prison the officers did not allow us to get mail in foreign languages. But in 1987 I was moved to a civilian prison where I suddenly began receiving armfuls of cards and letters – about 300 every day. During the entire time I was in prison I received 20,000 letters. The guards brought them in for me in carrier bags. They would say ‘the post office is working just for you’.

I didn’t know any English at the time – I had to ask other prisoners what the cards said. But it was from those letters that I began to learn English. The letters broke through the social isolation of prison and made me feel merely physically restricted. They came not only from Amnesty but from Quakers, International PEN, church groups and journalists’ organizations. It is not possible here for me to express my gratitude fully.

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