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The Optimist

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 244 - June 1993

The optimist
Paul Ham interviews Pierre Sané, Amnesty International’s
first secretary-general from the Third World.

‘South Africa will become a peaceful society of different races, a moral example to the rest of the world. West Africa will flourish.’

These views seem strangely subversive, so wildly are they at odds with prevailing assumptions in the West, which see Africa as doomed. Yet they offer a glimpse into the mind of Pierre Sané, the 45-year-old Senegalese political scientist who recently took over as secretary-general of Amnesty International, the world’s largest human-rights organization.

Sané is an optimist, despite assuming command of Amnesty at a time when basic human rights are routinely abused in many parts of the world: torturers go on electrocuting and dismembering; governments ‘disappear’ their opponents with impunity.

He is not doe-eyed. He has seen human suffering on a ‘massive scale’, having spent 12 years overseeing aid programmes in the most neglected regions of Africa with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). He was confronted daily, he says, by ‘the severely debilitating effects of poverty and mass suffering’.

‘I believe the individual cannot really be a human being if his or her basic needs are not met, and those basic needs include security, subsistence, health, education – all the things that make somebody a member of humanity.’

But do people have a ‘human right’ to basic needs? Shouldn’t Amnesty stick to protesting about torture and the imprisonment of dissidents?

Behind such assumptions lie ignorance and complacency, Sané suggests. While acknowledging that Amnesty International, under its mandate, can only pursue specific outrages, he emphasizes the inextricable relationship between human rights and economic development – their so-called ‘indivisibility’.

He suggests that the chief problem in poor countries is the gradual stripping away of the means by which people might procure basic needs: the confiscation or sequestration of land from farmers; the misappropriation of a country’s resources into bloated, ultimately useless, militias, at the expense of schools, health and infra-structure.

Hence his emphasis on ‘empowerment’ – on giving people the ‘right’ to tend their land, to sell their produce, to engage in trade relationships, to expect schools and hospitals in return for the payment of taxes. These are justly called ‘human rights’ and ones so basic that the West takes them for granted.

‘I believe in popular participation and democracy; I believe people should be empowered; the convulsions we are seeing in many parts of Africa and the developing world are symptoms of the transition to democracy and capitalism.’ He stresses the idea that improvements will come only from the bottom up, from the ‘grassroots’ and he believes that recognition of such basic human rights is spreading along with democracy.

Sané comes from a family of middle-class intellectuals – ‘I am a petty bourgeois!’ he says with an ironic smile, as if he has just made the discovery. He speaks proudly of his family’s involvement in the ‘long history of resistance’ to the French, who occupied Senegal for 300 years: his uncle was jailed for political dissent, and other family members were victimized.

After a spell studying in France – ‘I was throwing stones in Paris in 1968’ – he returned to Senegal and became an accountant. This career was shortlived because it meant ‘assisting foreign companies to pay as little tax as possible, or going into suspicious deals with governments, which I was not prepared to do’. Eventually, in 1978, he joined the Ottawa-based IDRC and rose swiftly through the ranks to become its regional director.

He had a strict Catholic upbringing but he no longer attends church. His wife, Ndeye, an historian, is Muslim by birth, and their marriage has shaped Sané’s belief that religions are reconcilable and not, as history would suggest, mutually exclusive.

‘It is simply not acceptable in 1993 that
human beings must be crushed in order
to achieve economic competitiveness.’

‘We raise our children in a spirit of tolerance and freedom of choice. I have the faith. I don’t believe you need to practise the formal rites. I think that if God were able to understand many languages he certainly would be able to understand many religions.’

Sané’s African roots inevitably shape his outlook – but often in unexpected ways. ‘The reasons for optimism in Africa are not always well-presented,’ he says, with characteristic understatement. He argues, for instance, that the terrific rate of population growth in Africa will have a benign influence much like India’s, which confounded the pessimists. ‘The rate of population growth is often presented as a burden on existing resources. But people are not just mouths; they are brains and arms. They are producers. More than 60 per cent of the African population is under 15, and tomorrow they will rebuild Africa if political conditions are changed to allow them to engage in productive activity.’

Empowerment again comes through as his key message: give people the chance, remove the political stooges denying their basic freedoms, and they will perform miracles. ‘We should in our actions seek to make governments not just accountable to the international community, but to their people, so that change can come about from within.’

But making governments accountable to their people is a thuddingly difficult task. Witness the rampant disregard for the basic rights of workers in Asia, whose cheap labour is gleefully exploited by Western companies. What can Amnesty International do? Isn’t it plain hypocrisy to expect Asian governments and employers to respect workers’ rights when the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America itself depended upon the flagrant exploitation of cheap – and child – labour?

‘That is high on the mind of Asian governments,’ says Sané. ‘Many countries in Asia see Amnesty’s insistence on the workers’ rights as threatening their competitiveness economically... because their competitiveness is based on the harsh exploitation of labour. But it is simply not acceptable in 1993 that human beings must be crushed in order to achieve economic competitiveness.’

He is equally sanguine about the reappearance of violent racism in Europe, daunted neither by the prospect of 30 million refugees arriving over the next three decades nor by Europe’s ability to accommodate them: ‘I don’t think these figures are big... look at the number of migrants who occupied the Americas. And consider the needs Europe will have tomorrow for workers to pay for their pensioners.’

So refugees should be seen as an economic necessity, not a social burden? ‘I think that the idea of nation states has to change with the necessities of the times.’

So too will Africa’s ideas about nationhood. Sané is a founding member of PANAF, an organization which seeks to establish a Pan-African community via the establishment of a single political entity allowing for the free movement of goods, people and services. PANAF would, in Sané’s mind, achieve the crucial goal of undermining African dictators still clinging to power over tiny nation states with frontiers drawn up by departing colonists.

‘At independence African countries placed the priority on building a nation out of the colonial territory, instead of reshaping the map around the people and the regions that previously existed. So I think we have to open the borders to allow the free flow of people, resources and goods, to allow the development of larger states, markets and peaceful societies.’ PANAF, he adds a touch gloomily, is making ‘very, very slow progress’.

Sané draws great hope, however, from South Africa. He led the IDRC mission there in 1986 – ‘a very tricky time’ – which established the first research post to consider the future for South Africa under a post-apartheid government. ‘I came out of South Africa with the clear conviction that the country would make an invaluable contribution to the world tomorrow: by solving the contradiction that exists in the country itself, they will solve the contradiction of race and class. In the US it has not been done, but I believe in South Africa it will be done. The harshness of the repression in South Africa breeds quality in resistance, and the quality of the resistance leaders whom I met there was just incredible.’

It is a salutary message of hope from a man whose job is defined every day by evidence of hopelessness.

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