Friday, October 14, 2005

18] Notes on Our Rights on Planet Earth

ON BEING HUMAN IN A PARADOXICAL INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC SYSTEM: NOTES ON OUR RIGHTS ON OUR PLANET EARTH by Azly Rahman Columbia University New York Only a life lived for others is a life worth while --- Albert Einstein Preface This brief essay will touch on not only the salient points/ arguments in the readings but also important developments which have befallen upon the nations of Southeast Asia over the past four months as they relate to the complex innerworkings of an unjust world system. References will also be made to the UN debriefings, briefings from the Committee on Human Rights as well as the brief seminar at St. Peter’s church on Lexington Avenue. The outline of my discussions will be as follow: i) discussions on human rights and economic development, ii) an examination on the concept of basic rights, and iii) a brief discussion on personacracy as an existential notion of human rights. I begin by quoting a pertinent phrase form the Report of the Commission on Global Governance which illustrates the interconnectedness of the global economic system to the question of grassroots development. Written in 1995, it stated: The last two years have seen a veritable explosion of portfolio investments by institutional investors --- insurance companies, pension funds, unit trusts --- in ‘emerging markets’ as stock markets became truly global in reach. People can trade in the leading currencies twenty-four hours a day and use a growing variety of financial instruments. In the field of finance, national frontiers have little meaning: ‘the end of geography’ is approaching … [a]s economies become more interdependent, it is not only the opportunity for wealth creation that is multiplied, but also the opportunity for destabilizing shocks to be transmitted form one country to another. (p.136-137) Indeed it is not only the ‘end of geography’ but also the end of reason and just economic rationale, and the beginning of an era wherein no longer financially powerful nation-states, but also more precariously, the dawn of powerful individuals destabilizing developing nations surviving to maintain economic sanity in an already insane and anarchic world system. The illustration to be deeply pondered upon is the total collapse of the economies of Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia in the hands of the so-called rogue speculators who has left these nations bankrupt by more than 25 per cent. Only national perseverance and the believe that things will get better, may prevent these struggling economies from falling into political and social chaos and disorder. Already some nations have unintelligently issue warnings to its citizens that Draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act (which allows detentions without trial over indefinite periods of time) will be used against those who criticize the government for managing the economy. Such is a paradox of human rights and economic development. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated in Article 25 (in Falk, Kim, and Mendlovitz, 1995): 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowed, old age and other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (p.354) Such is a most humane article of faith ever written by its proclaimers. But is there distributive justice in the manifestation and translation of such an ideal? Can the people in Bangladesh, North Korea, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and other abjectly impoverished nations of the world claim rights to food, shelter and clothing from their government, let alone from the powerful nations co-signers of the declaration? Echoing Kim (in Falk, Kim, and Mendlovitz, 1991) we are living in, paradoxically the worst of all times in the context of global human rights and the world order: never before in human history have there been such a glaring gap between rhetoric and reality, between norms and behavior, and between claims and capabilities . (p.356) Human right has never been separated from economic development. The history of struggles against repressive regimes, he silencing of the voices against corrupt governments have centered around the question of economic injustices. Whether the scenario is of the grim reality of Harlem and the Wall Street, or Manila’s Smoky Mountain and Makati District, distributive justice and the question of human dignity is central issue. At the microcosmic level, there exist Third (or possibly Fourth) Worlds in New York City as much as at the macrocosmic level there exists hardcore poors distributed outside of the territorial boundaries of the advanced post-industrialized countries. We may continue to have further misconceptions of the absence of economic injustices in the United States as compared to many an underdeveloped nations of the world. One quote by Mahathir Mohamad could perhaps best offer more insights: In the United States, one estimate is that one fifth of one percent of the American population own almost 60 per cent of the wealth of America. The super-rich, less than two per cent, own 80 per cent of all stocks, 100 per cent of all state municipal bonds and 88 per cent of corporate bonds. In the United States there are some sixty billionaires and more than 100,000 millionaires. Two hundred companies account for some 80 per cent of all resources used in manufacturing. … ‘the top 20 per cent of Americans own 80 per cent of all that can be privately owned in the United States and the bottom 25 per cent owns nothing (many of them in fact, have debts that exceed their assets)’ It is true that many Americans own shares. But many own very few and very few own a great many. (p.209) Such a claim above illustrate what is meant earlier as the concept of distributive justice which form the basis of existing international economic system, not to mention yet the analysis one can make of the pervasiveness of the controlling interests of the world’s economy of which the key players are those “very few who own a great many”. The United Nations is still working within a postmodern Machiavellian and political realistic framework in looking at economic development and human rights. It is necessary though, for it to evolve as a mechanism to create awareness for further work to be done. As Forsythe (in Falk, Kim, and Mendlovitz, 1995) wrote of the forty-year work of the United Nations on human rights: The significance of United Nations activity on human rights can be discussed according to immediate and long-term effects. the immediate impact is usually slight, for the United Nations does not primarily bring about the direct protection although such efforts exists form time to time…. The importance of United nations activity on human rights lie in this long-term socialization process in which one source of legitimacy is given or withheld according to human rights performance. (pp. 388-390) I believe that strengthening the United Nations and radically restructuring the UN Security Council and replacing it with leaders who are cosmopolitan in their view, as opposed to communitarian can perhaps help in the overall struggle of bringing hope to the world’s poor. There is no guarantee that economic sanctions, embargoes, blockades, and sending of troops to nation-states violating human rights can prevent significantly The rise of such states whose sovereignty exist in their authoritarianism construed in the name of ‘national interest’ and adulterating the term ‘human rights’ History has shown that economic development of nations has brought repressive regimes into power much to the inability of the UN to legitimately interfere. It is said in many a religion that ‘poverty is one step before losing faith’. Elaborate this notion and we would be displayed with examples of how deprivation of rights to food , shelter, and clothing can lead to the losing of faith of governments and perhaps, religion. In the latter, Marx’s famous dictum ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ proved that crimes against humanity have been committed under the name of communism as a philosophy and utopian ideal stripped off of religion. Governments come and go, brought down or ripped off through evolutions or revolutions when economic distributions do not answer human rights demands. Wealth amassed by the Marcos regime, as a case in point, over his twenty-year rule at the expense of the dignity of the Filipinos whom thousands eat out of garbage dumps (a city in itself) in Smoky Mountain, was an unimaginable example of the violations of human rights under the shibboleth of developmentalism. The road to people’s power is paved with the blood of thousands salvaged and thousands silenced indefinitely until truth can no longer contained itself and exploded. Cosmopolitanism in thinking played its role in creating a ‘kingdom of God on Earth’ in the Philippines ---through the alliances of American radicals, Filipinos in exile such as Walden Bello and Renato Constantino, Filipino grassroots movements , and Cardinal Sin (whose ecumenical church and liberation theological approach to conscientization, borrowing Paulo Freire’s term,) --- all these combined forces rallying behind Corazon Aquino contributed to such major structural shifts in the Philippines (much to the embarassment of those who believe in the opiating nature of religion). Other examples abound: the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions of 1979 which brought down, respectively, the Pahlavi dynasty and the Somoza regime --- these are attempt to bring back meaning of justice in the context of human rights and economic development. At the close of the twentieth century, instances as such have not been much. Wiped off from the chapters of modern politics. Recurring instances such as Rwanda, Somalia, North Korea, Burma, East Timor, and others is a clear indicator that the UN must shift its paradigm of operating in dealing with the issue of human rights and economic development How could ‘we the peoples’ covertly or overtly create leaders cosmopolitan in thinking, especially among the new generation of advanced countries so that they can be powerful enough to decide on international matters as critical as feeding the millions and millions of the world’s poor? How do we create beings as such who would not bow to the demands of the military-industrial complexes of the powerful nations --- leaders in the magnitude of Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves or John F. Kennedy who gave them equal rights? How do we educate future billionaires to share their wealth (which they made out of the sweat of the world’s cheap labor) in a consciousness religious in nature so that these future world actors and political manouverers can live their life to the fullest as such as how Mother Theresa did? How can we create world leaders who thinks like a philosopher and live like a mystic or a Sufi so that there will be a clear distinction between what is needed and what is wanted and what is ‘needs’ and what is ‘greed’? After all, the basic needs of a multi-billionaire like Bill Gates, Adnan Khasoggi, the Sultan of Brunei, the DuPonts, the Vanderbilts, and the kings of the Arab land, are the same as those living skeletons in Rwanda, Somalia, and North Korea; they need food, shelter, clothing. But perhaps the Machiavellian world does not operate in a Sufistic context, although much of the wealth and riches which have helped build the world’s financial capitals into such might and grandiose they are now are contributed by hundreds of years of colonialism. London was enriched by the peoples it colonized, among them, the Malays; Paris by the Vietnamese, Amsterdam by the Javanese, Madrid by the Filipinos and in recent times, the citadels of financial might in the New York City by cheap Third World labors in an magnitude never before imagined in the history of global reach. Such arrangement, can indeed be possible with the collaboration of governments in the developing countries who believe that economic progress can only be made if its citizens are good workers of the international capitalist system. . What then must the UN do? In much of the arguments presented concerning economic development and human rights, Weiss, Forsythe, and Coate (1994) presented a grim view on the limited role of the UN both as an intervener of global human rights violation and of alleviator of global poverty. The UN is still tied to the dilemma of states’ claim to sovereignty and their unwillingness to at times, bow to international or supranational pressures dictating how their territory is be managed economically and how human rights is to be defined. Nation states are still in the process of change, through succession movements, self-determinations of its peoples and ideological shifts. Nonetheless, if we agree with Robert Muller’s notion of UN as an evolving path upwards, we must be part of the concerted effort to lend support to our UN to work in this area of global and universal concern. A hungry child in North Korea knows no politics and a voice calling for amnesty from detention without trial knows no state rhetoric on specific brand of human rights (be it African or Asian). If we are to live into the next century with a cosmopolitan worldview and see international relations not merely through systems-dynamics, but also through normative and value-constituted lens, we must persevere in our belief that UN’s effort is a paradoxical and challenging one. If we could summarize further the ideas presented in Weiss, Forsythe, and Coate (in The United Nations in a Changing World Order), we may conclude that the quest for justice must not be the sole domain of the UN alone. Grassroots movements in territorial States must be strengthened and made plenty so that voices can be louder and networks can be strengthened in order for regimes anathema to distributive justice and dignity of the rights of their citizens, can be revolted against systematically, rationally, intellectually, --- via non-violent means. History has repeatedly shown that via this means essentially, nation-states undergoing transformations to be more democratic can continue to survive without undergoing long periods of civil wars. South Africa, Philippines, Malaysia, and arguably Indonesia and Iran have shown the way toward such developments. Citizens of territorial states must be educated of their rights articled in the UN charter. Concept of distributive justice must be disseminated so that the farmer in Peoria, Illinois can speak the same language ideologically, of economic and human rights, with his/her counterpart in Pretoria, South Africa. Concepts and demands of the international law governing such rights must be made understood to “we the peoples “ and be taken as more supreme than ones upheld by territorial states which at times, can be meaningless when claims of sovereignty and worse of ‘national security’ are used to legitimize state violations and rapes on the rights of their citizens. Citizens of a free modern society must perhaps be taught to analyze the idea that the state ‘can evolve to become a necessary evil’. Weiss, Forsythe, and Coate (1994) also wrote about the changes of perception on economic development as UN matures in that, with the inability of the UN International Economic Order to take on any meaning, and the end of the Cold War, there seem to be a tendency for shifting grounds. Developmentalism has now meant to be more than material, but encompassing ecological, sustainable, and of late, religious and spiritual. Developmentalism is also self-help and South-South help, and is also ‘glocal’ (global and local) This is an interesting trend when one takes into consideration the experiences of the post-colonial nations which were fed with the food stamps of Bretton Woods under the 1950s scheme of the IBRD (International Bank of Reconstruction and Development or the Marshall Plan) As nations begin to grapple with the meaning of independence, foreign aid, technical assistance, and investments come in to paradoxically dictate the meaning of the term ‘being developed’. The 1970s saw nation-states coming to terms with the side-effects of the medicine given by ‘foreign doctors’; perhaps a landmark case being the Vietnam War protests against the role played by the military-industrial complexes. The 1970s also saw the birth of authoritarian regimes throughout the Third World which subscribed to Rostowian brand of capitalism, of the stages of economic growth, and the suppressing of dissenting views against ‘crony capitalism’. The 1980s presented the world with the idea that the ‘world is a marketplace ‘ and to be ‘made free for democracy’ against the backdrop of Pershing missiles and Nimitz marooning the air and the sea so that the marketplace is well guarded. As the 1990s come to a close, it is left to the imagination of political scientists and peace activists to describe what advanced communications in the form of hypermedia has made the world into, in its further attempt to truly and globally and electronically imperialize the world. Self-help and grassroot- participation in the economic activity of a nation can be a key to counter top-down reforms dictated by governments which are peripheries to the international capitalist centers. Appropriate technology, available resources and communal-living are elements which can be experimented with by ‘we the peoples’ dispossesed and alienated by much of the ‘developmentalism’ haunting and mystifying citizens of nation-states who vote their leaders into power only to be stupefied and made silenced by the distance created by these so-called elected leaders. Perhaps, as argued in much of the readings, although not specifically implied, the key word is not development, but as Archbishop Gustavo Gutteirez, Denis Goulet, and Paulo Freire would term, “liberation”; from the shackles of top-down developmentalism ideology towards awareness of one’s subjectivizing of experiences, free from the dictates of “market forces”, “per capita income” indicators and moving towards empowerment --- in the name of economic justice and human rights and dignity. Beyond Basic Rights Enlightening are the themes discussed in the special issue of Breakthrough concerning human rights. Not limited to the confines of economic rights, but also others as well mainly the history of the promulgation of the Bill of Rights, the UN charter, UN’s Human Rights machinery, and others such as the rights of women, the environment, the fetus, the disabled, gay the indigenous, and rights from the perspective of religion and philosophy. The following discussion touch upon a few pertinent ones. Extending our reflecting on the continuing work of the UN,West and Claude (in “Human rights: A multidimensional struggle that take human suffering seriously”) wrote: It is certain that a palpable concern for the alleviation of human suffering is here to stay and that under the rubric ‘international human rights’ it manifests itself in education and action in many diverse ways. (p.7) Quite clearly, as in Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violence action) Freire’s pedagogy, Socrates’s dialogue, and in all the religious traditions, Hindu sutras, Mohamad’s concept of learning, Jesus’s parables, education --- the enterprise of drawing out the potentials within --- still remains the driving force behind conscientizing human behavior towards human rights. Throughout the history of human civilization, the struggle is for the understanding of one’s ontological vocation; of being conscious of life and living. Being and becoming, as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have championed, becomes an essential pedagogy determining our understanding of the beauty of living. I subscribe to Loretta Casey’s idea of the essential steps towards understanding one’s rights in which must begin with the process of reflection of the meaning of human dignity by asking the questions: what is it to be a human person? what is it like to be able to explore the gifts of the intellect? of understanding free will? of being embodied by the Human spirit? of coming to understand our person as image of God? Casey (in “Human dignity: Basis for human rights education”) outlines the steps in the process: from awareness of our dignity to understanding of the levels of reality (personal, interpersonal, and societal), understanding the history, struggle, and tradition of human rights, and finally to act towards realizing such rights. Casey’s idea indeed is important as a basis for the designing of a curriculum of praxis and cultural action which could bring human beings from the levels of unawareness to realization of oppression to awareness to independence and freedom and to liberation and action to the maintenance of this awareness. The progress is an important step towards personacracy in which the person understands that the self is “ a government of the self, by the self, and for the self,” Personacracy, of which I have alluded in my previous reflections consists of one’s understanding of the following elements/forces within oneself, the awareness of his/her existence, balance, persistence, eternity, harmony, uniqueness, power within, decisiveness, knowledge, state of being alive, ability to hear, see, speak and the ability to understand with reverie and profundity what governs these elements/forces within. Such are the basic tenets of my idea of personacracy which can be further elaborated and analyzed into a coherent philosophy of the self --- the I/thou of existence. Personacracy is an existential notion which may allow one to understand the image of God within and to understand that forces outside oppressive and anathema to human liberation can never subjugate the free self. It can be beyond “demos” and “kratos” in which R. Pannikar (in “Is the notion of human rights a western concept?”) came close to summing up what I mean by personacracy in that there is the: notion of ‘cosmotheandric’ vision of reality in which the divine, the Human, and the Cosmic are integrated into a whole more or less harmonious according to the performance of our human right Pannikar then uses the metaphor of the ”net” as opposed to the “knot” in conceptualizing human rights in which he argued that it is quite futile to denounce the Western conception of human rights but instead to look at it more realistically as a sacred duty within the paradigm of the modern world. He wrote: For an authentic human life to be possible within the ‘megamagic machine’ of the modern technological world, Human Rights are rights is bound up by the slow development of that megamachine. how far individuals or groups or nations should collaborate with the system is another question; but in the contemporary political arena, as defined by socio-economic and ideological trends, the defense of Human Rights is a sacred duty. It is by understanding human rights as a sacred duty to be defended that governments can flourish and become civil societies and engineer positive changes and distribute resources so that life is cherished, freedom guarded, and living becomes a dharma in the citizen’s collective quest to find the meaning of life on planet Earth. It is at the level of civilization that society will reach it epitome. To achieve this, perhaps kings should not merely be philosophers, for philosophers at the turn of this century may become post-modernists, entangled in the problematizing debates and may translate confusions into actions. Perhaps kings should become mystics with a systematic and arduous training in matters philosophical; a Ceasar who rules with the heart of Jesus; an Alexander of Macedonia who rules with the satisfaction of a Diogenes; a Clinton with the mysticism of Martin Buber. It is then that, as Mische (in “Human rights and social justice”) the global community may finally evolve into a truly humane system wherein stripped off are ethnocentrism, zenophobias, extremism, crypto-capitalism, and New Age imperialism. We can then find a remedy to the global plague described by Mische as the sense of who belongs and does not belong to one’s community is at the heart of the world wide conflict over resources, markets and military power . (p12) so that the world may be governed by more Albert Schweitzers who “views all of mankind and even all of nature as a community” instead of the world witnessing the birth of more Adolf Eichmann who is “a good family man but was also a mass murderer of Jews because of the greatly limited Nazi concept of community.” And so, till the next reflection, I quote the Guatemalan M.J. Arce’s poem to recap the continuing concern with being human in a paradoxical international system: ARMS You have a gun And I am hungry You have a gun Because I am hungry You have a gun Therefore I am hungr You can have a gun You can have a thousand bullets And even another thousand You can waste them all On my poor body You can kill me one, two, three Two thousand Seven thousand times But in the long run I will always be better armed than you If you have a gun And I Only hunger

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AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of nine books on Malaysia and Global Affairs. He grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. Twitter @azlyrahman.