Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE (IDN) – When European gunboats went across the world, Christian missionaries who wanted to “civilize” the people – to whom the Bible was an unknown entity – accompanied the colonizers. Today, when U.S. or NATO missiles rain on countries, Western human rights organisations and their activists follow them, with their media in tow. They also have a similar mindset: to civilize the people with notions of “freedom” and democracy. However, the debacle of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the double standards practiced in the war on terror, have exposed the shortcomings of this gospel.
As we mark the 70th anniversary (December 10) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted at the United Nations it is good time to review its relevance to today’s society. Should this document be the sole criteria of human rights in the 21st century?
In order to understand and apply human rights principles in a fair and balanced manner, we need to be familiar with not only the UDHR, but also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, when Asian countries had a bigger voice.
Human Rights and Democracy
Human Rights and Democracy have become contentious notions in international discourse today. These words have been much abused in journalism leading to the suspicion that human rights and democracy are becoming the new gospel backing “a new wave of western imperialism”.
Yet, the principles behind democracy and human rights covenants could be a very powerful tool for journalists to develop a people-focused paradigm of journalism. If applied and practiced without widespread hypocrisy we see today, this gospel could be a useful guiding tool for a reincarnated ‘watchdog’ model of journalism, where the media will be the friend of the citizen, not its manipulator – “manufacturing consent” for corporations and governments that own it, as Noam Chomsky argues
In November we had back-to-back meetings of world leaders – the East Asia, APEC and G20 Summits. The main agenda at each of these was about freeing up global trade and dangers of trade protectionism. But, what was missing in both the leaders’ deliberations and the media narrative was what benefits have FTAs (free trade agreements) brought to the ordinary people around the world?
Currently we are seeing a peoples’ movement known as ‘yellow jackets’ spreading across Europe with some 36,000 people taking part in spontaneous protests in France in late November over spikes in fuel prices and the high cost of living, but has since been linked to broader criticism of President Emmanuel Macron’s economic agenda. On the first weekend in December, it spread to Belgium and protesters have said that they want the ‘yellow jacket movement’ to spread to Germany, Netherlands and across Europe to even Britain.
These movements against globalization and neo-liberal capitalism are no more restricted to Asia, Africa and Latin America. These are a growing phenomenon in the West, and the powerful corporate media often describe these as the rise of fascist “neo-Nazi” right-wing movements, and refuse to recognize its socio-economic roots.
The media’s and governments’ response to these spontaneous protests show that ‘freedom of expression’ by itself is not enough to solve these problems, we need to go to the principles of the other UN human rights covenant ICCPR that includes what is called ‘development rights’.
As Prof Michel Chossudovsky of Global Research argues, “the world is at a dangerous crossroad” because of the “lies of omission” practiced by the very media that claim to promote human rights and democracy. “America’s wars are portrayed by the media, as humanitarian endeavours.
The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine provides a framework, which justifies military action,” he notes. “When war is upheld as peacemaking, conceptualization is no longer possible. Once the lie becomes the truth, there is no moving backwards. Insanity prevails. The world is turned upside down,” he warns.
Today the rise of Asia within basically one generation to the level of economic progress that took Europe more than two centuries to achieve – that too after enslaving and plundering two-thirds of the world – is a marvel of the modern age. It has also exposed a fundamental flaw in the western human rights narrative that you need “freedom” and democracy to prosper.
If you were to base your judgment of particularly China’s impressive rise in the past three decades, on Western media discourse, you may believe that China achieved this by transforming the country to a despotic nation which abused and exploited its own people, to conquer the world with the supply of cheap manufactured goods, and lately using their wealth in “debt trap” diplomacy.
Singaporean political science professor Kishore Mahbubani speaking at Harvard University in April 2015 about the rise of China, told his American audience that as the world prepares for an international order where the U.S. is no longer number one there are some frightening developments that is related to the way Americans see the world. He said: “When I first went to China in 1980, there wasn’t a single Chinese tourist leaving China, last year hundred million Chinese went overseas freely, and a hundred million Chinese returned to China freely. Now, if there’s no freedom in China, if China was this despotic, oppressive state, would a hundred million Chinese come back to China?” he asked them.
UN and Human Rights Covenants
The UN General Assembly adopted the UDHR at a time after the Second World War when the world, especially Europe and Japan, were traumatized by the destruction and inhumanity of war. Thus, the world was prepared for a new beginning where rights of people could be protected so that another global tragedy of these dimensions will not be repeated. But, it looks like we are heading towards another such calamity now.
In Article 1 UDHR declares: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 19 that is directly related to the work of the media and which has been often quoted in defending freedom of expression says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 16, 1966 and came into force on March 23, 1976. The ICCPR took the individual focus of the UDHR a step further by bringing in collective rights.
The focus on collective rights is regarded as being influenced by the Asian nations, who have by now increased their representation and influence at the UN. Whereas the focus on individual rights could be regarded as influenced by Judeo-Christian concepts of the freedom of the individual a result of the Christian protestant reformation movements in Europe of the 16th century, the idea of collective rights is very much a reflection of the Indic-Buddhist civilizational influence in Asian cultures.
The ICCPR is also sometimes referred to as a document that sets out development rights. Article 1 says: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
Furthermore: “All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”
While individual rights are protected in this covenant, it is also related to a country’s or a society’s right to development. Though scholars and development experts, especially in Asia and Africa, have often referred to this Covenant as a yardstick to measure human rights with respect to social and economic development of a nation, the Western media has usually played this down, considering it as an excuse for authoritarian governments to justify their repression in the name of development.
FTAs need to come under human rights microscope
The media and communicators need to bisect FTAs and investigate how these are going to help the people in the street, the small family-run local enterprises, the farmers on the filed, the sick and the needy for cheaper medicines, safety and health issues in the work place, peoples’ needs for clean, safe and free drinking water and sanitation, the rights of migrant workers, etc.
When the World Trade Organisation (WTO), APEC or G20 make a statement saying a newly agreed FTA will bring so many billions to the world economy, we need to ask “what for” and how it will help the ordinary people. Just reporting the data is not enough; we need to critically question it. Otherwise we are going to see more of the ‘riots’ we see in the streets of Europe right now, and further eroding of whatever is left of peoples’ human rights. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 December 2018]
Photo: View of the front line of demonstrators during the March on Washington in 1963 over clasped hands. Credit: Steve Schapiro/Corbis. Source: AARP
IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.
facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews
Subscribe to IDN Newsletter: firstname.lastname@example.org