Thursday, December 9, 2010

Human Rights and Responsibilities: The Power of the Powerless

"Centralization as a system is inconsistent with non-violent structure of society." – Mohandas Gandhi

Cuban regime equated Liu Xiaobo with Cuban dissidents like Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet

Upon learning that the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo had won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize the official press of the Cuban regime equated Liu Xiaobo with Cuban dissidents like Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet and Librado Linares on the island and declared the Nobel Prize “anti-Nobel”. [1] It is not surprising that the Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese dictatorships or that the regime in Venezuela are not attending the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. However, according to Amnesty International: Afghanistan, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Ukraine have declined to attend according to the Nobel Committee due to a “combination of political pressure and economic blackmail” exerted by China [2].

On Tuesday, December 7, 2010 in Stockholm, Sweden the 2010 Nobel Laureate in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa described the present challenges facing the international community in his Nobel Lecture: “Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm.”[3]

The French philosopher, André Glucksmann, in his essay “The Velvet Philosophical Revolution” described both how Western intellectuals had believed that the world was “fated” to be Communist but when it imploded intellectuals abandoned their belief in the inevitability of communism and replaced it with other inevitable visions “the triumph of universal democracy” and “the end of history” in a “peaceful postmodern promised land.”[4] There is nothing inevitable about the course of history because human beings have free will. This is demonstrated by the life of Mario Vargas Llosa, who as a young man was a Marxist and sympathizer of the Cuban revolution who later became disillusioned with communism and dictatorship recognizing the desirability of democracy. Vargas Llosa had been free to choose and also to change his mind when observing the results of the model he sympathized with.

Mario Vargas Llosa went on to explain in the Nobel Lecture that his struggle against the Peruvian dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori was based in his “conviction that a dictatorship represents absolute evil for a country, a source of brutality and corruption and profound wounds that take a long time to close, poison the nation’s future, and create pernicious habits and practices that endure for generations and delay democratic reconstruction. This is why dictatorships must be fought without hesitation, with all the means at our disposal, including economic sanctions. It is regrettable that democratic governments, instead of setting an example by making common cause with those, like the Damas de Blanco in Cuba, the Venezuelan opposition, or Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, who courageously confront the dictatorships they endure, often show themselves complaisant not with them but with their tormenters. Those valiant people, struggling for their freedom, are also struggling for ours.”[5]

Centralizing power into international structures after they failed at the national level has not brought about the results desired.

The Historical Context

In the aftermath of WWII with the horrors of the Holocaust in Germany still fresh; Josef Stalin still in power in the Soviet Union having butchered millions of civilians in peacetime and allying with Adolph Hitler to divide Poland and start the war; and Mahatma Gandhi recently assassinated a few months earlier on January 30, 1948 while on a walk at Birla Bhavan by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse. The middle of the twentieth century was in the midst of a profound spiritual and moral darkness.

It was in the aftermath and in the midst of these horrors that the Latin Americans took the lead in pressing for an international bill of rights. Led by Chileans, Panamanians, and Cubans representing democratic and constitutional republics, they wrote the first drafts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Latin American region led the efforts to produce a universal human rights declaration. The final document was recognized by Cuban diplomats as one that would have been “accepted by that generous spirit who was the apostle of our independence: Jose Marti, the hero who -- as he turned his homeland into a nation -- gave us forever this generous rule: ‘With everyone and for the good of everyone.’”[6]

The nations of the world horrified by the horrors of the holocaust and the brutality of war achieved a consensus and signed the thirty articles that would make up the Declaration on December 10, 1948. Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School said that “it is fair to refer to Latin America as the forgotten crucible of the universal human rights idea.”[7]

Nevertheless, since the signing of the Declaration six decades ago in 1948 genocide and political mass killings have not ended but continued in huge numbers. More than 72 million have died as a result of government organized mass killings. Two members of the UN Security Council (China and the Soviet Union) alone accounted for 57 million of the dead post 1945. Ironically the 1936 Soviet Constitution offered a long list or rights and freedoms that were completely ignored in practice.

Not lived up to its utopian promise

Mary Robinson who was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1998, when the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated and now co-chairs the new organization, Agenda for Human Rights funded by the Swiss government says the world has not lived up to the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “A reality that shames us frankly, that is not acceptable. If the world had taken seriously the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we would have a world where no parents would see their children waking up in the morning crying of hunger, dying from preventable diseases," said Robinson.[8] "There would not be more than half a million mothers dying giving birth. We would have a different world and it would be a much more secure world, of course."[9] Can a utopia be achieved where no child would ever go hungry or die from a preventable disease from a document that lists human rights?

Economic rights as a siren call to government control

Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights from 2004 to 2008 is quoted in the December 22, 2008 edition of The Nation magazine article “The Battle for Human Rights” by Barbara Crossette stating: “[The West] has been the champion of civil liberties--of freedom from fear--but freedom from want was meant to be achieved by a healthy marketplace not a place for governments to play too large a role. The developing countries--and whether they are doing that in bad faith or good faith is not for me to pass judgment--are doing exactly the opposite.” Both Louise Arbour and The Nation argue that the West is mistaken in this emphasis but it was not always so.

In the 1920s and 1930s Europe sought leaders to address economic problems and made the same argument that many are making again today that economic development should take precedent over civil and political rights. The answers were to be found in Stalin’s industrialization and agricultural collectivization programs in the Soviet Union and Hitler’s fascist economic program which dramatically reduced unemployment, a government guaranteed minimum standard of living and the government directed building of the first freeway system in the world: the autobahn. In Italy Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship claimed that by 1935 three quarters of Italian businesses were under government control. Nevertheless ignoring civil and political rights to accelerate or focus on economic development left Europe a burnt out cinder as these totalitarian regimes murdered tens of millions and plunged the continent into another world war.

There is also ample evidence that to achieve sustained economic and social development over the long run depends on a system based in the rule of law and respect by government and the citizenry for fundamental rights and duties within a sound moral-ethical framework. There can be a huge explosion of economic growth in the short term as was seen in the German example but in the long run it is not sustainable unless backed up with an engaged and responsible citizenry and a sound political base as was the case for Germany under Konrad Adenauer and the economical miracle that saw Germany’s economy rise out of the rubble of WWII.

The continuing call for more government

The call for more laws and more government to address these problems from the League of Nations following WWI to the United Nations following WWII and now the International Criminal Court in light of the continuing genocides today has led to another round of new laws and new institutions to attend to old evils. Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Investigator on Torture, makes the case for an international human rights court stating: “We would go beyond the powers of regional courts, by in particular taking into account that in a global world, we have global responsibilities that go beyond State responsibilities but also holding accountable intergovernmental organizations or transnational corporations or others that violate human rights.”[10]

The argument is being made for world government. Thomas Fleming in The Morality of Everyday Life asks: “If rights are claims to be enforced by government, then what are ‘international human rights’ if not the theoretical justification for world government?”[11] It has been demonstrated that governments have a history of mass killing. Why should one think that a world government would be any better? Mahatma Gandhi looked upon an increase in the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although it appeared to be doing good by minimizing exploitation, it did the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality.[12] Furthermore Gandhi believed that: “Centralization as a system is inconsistent with [a] non-violent structure of society.”[13] One can draw the conclusion that world government would be taking that inconsistency to its greatest extreme.

Civil Society and Individuals

Gandhi feared the expansion of the state and with good reason, but he also believed in the power of individuals, families, and local communities to live in freedom and expand freedom. Over the past sixty years we have seen how individuals and non-governmental organizations have defended human rights and exposed the crimes of the State. This has been carried out in a decentralized and non-violent fashion. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights First, Reporters without Borders, and other non-governmental organizations have operated at the international level in collaboration with national human rights organizations. At the national and local level groups of individuals organizing and challenging brutal and murderous regimes such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina against a military junta that disappeared 30,000 Argentines in 1970s and early 1980s and today in totalitarian Cuba the Ladies in White demand freedom for their imprisoned relatives with open non-violent displays of defiance pressuring dictatorships to meet their demands.

The road to making human rights a reality

Prior to his assassination Mahatma Gandhi responded to the 1948 United Nations Committee charged with drafting what would later become the human rights charter stating: “All rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this fundamental statement perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of man and woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for.”[14]

Gandhi’s idea on liberty and license is in sync with traditional Christianity that you do not have a right to do anything you want but to do what is good: “Liberty cannot be secured merely by proclaiming it. An atmosphere of liberty must be created within us. Liberty is one thing, and license another. Many a time we confuse license for liberty and lose the latter. License leads one to selfishness whereas liberty guides one to supreme good. License destroys society, liberty gives it life. In license propriety is sacrificed; in liberty it is fully cherished."[15]

Furthermore Gandhi’s experiments with truth and obtaining true freedom are similar to catholic moral teaching and impact his concept of what are rights: “Fundamental rights can only be those rights the exercise of which is not only in the interest of the citizens but that of the whole world… Rights cannot be divorced from duties. This is how satyagraha was born, for I was always striving to decide what my duty was.”[16]

Obtaining real freedom is within you denying vices, resisting temptations, and engaging in self denial a person obtains liberty and avoids what Gandhi described above as license which Catholic teaching below describes as resulting in slavery: “In proportion as a man habitually yields to intemperance or some other vice, his freedom diminishes and he does in a true sense sink into slavery. He continues responsible in causa for his subsequent conduct, though his ability to resist temptation at the time is lessened. On the other hand, the more frequently a man restrains mere impulse, checks inclination towards the pleasant, puts forth self-denial in the face of temptation, and steadily aims at a virtuous life, the more does he increase in self-command and therefore in freedom.”[17]

Judith Brown in Gandhi and Human Rights: In Search of True Humanity quotes Gandhi’s response to a list of human rights sent to him by H.G. Wells where he countered that it would be better to: “Begin with a charter of Duties of Man…and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter. I write from experience. As a young man I began life by seeking to assert my rights and I soon discovered I had none not even over my wife. So I began by discovering performing my duty by my wife, my children, friends, companions and society and I find today that I have greater rights, perhaps than any living man I know.”[18]

Brown concludes that: “This tradition could produce something that superficially looks like a ‘right,’ such as the apparent right to resist an unjust king. On deeper exploration it is clear that this resistance is not a right but application of duty, the duty of subjects to remove a ruler who is failing in his particular duty to guard his people and uphold the moral order."[19]

Resistance to evil, although it may appear as an act of rebellion when dealing with an unjust ruler, it is in reality engaging in one’s duty. In the same manner that battling your own vices and appetites may appear to be self-denial but in reality is an act of self-liberation. .The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a guideline that can help us on our path toward justice and truth but it is not the road itself.[20] Although this guideline terrifies dictators because it allows individuals a chance to read in a succinct format a basic outline of their fundamental rights and challenge whatever unjust paradigm the regime is trying to impose. Article 29 of the declaration informs that all have duties to the community but without further defining the rights and freedoms of their family, friends, countrymen, and fellow human beings it can easily be manipulated as a call to obedience to the governmental authorities. The misery experienced over the past sixty years serves as a challenge to due one’s duty in defense of what is right and a warning of what awaits if it is shirked.

There are choices to be made: freedom or repression; empathy or apathy; compassion or cruelty and they will have a profound impact on human existence. During the 1990s in the heart of Europe the world saw that a country that chose freedom, empathy and compassion could have a “velvet divorce” and both new nations would continue along a path of development and freedom while at the same time in the Balkans others chose repression, apathy and cruelty as policy and old communist apparatchiks became ultranationalist war criminals.

Erazim V. Kohák in his book Jan Patočka: philosophy and selected writings refers to Patočka’s “solidarity of the shaken” as a community freed “from the preoccupation with the pursuits of peace and prosperity that inevitably lead to war and turn it instead to the pursuit of the Good, the care of the soul” that is “living with a clear conscience, living in truth, or in far older terms, seeking first the Kingdom of God.”[21]

Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Liu Xiaobo in China, the Ladies in White in Cuba and the student movement in Venezuela have all demonstrated this “solidarity of the shaken.” Their respective commitments to pursue the good and living with a clear conscience have led them all to suffer great persecution but that is the price they are paying in “assuming the responsibility of freedom” and in exercising that responsibility challenging tyrannical regimes.

Liu Xiaobo has no guns, bombs, or weapons and he does not recognize the Chinese regime as an enemy but nevertheless the Chinese communist leadership fears him. They have sentenced him to 11 years in prison because of his writings in favor of democratic reforms within the system and are now expending both economic and political capital in an effort to diminish this Chinese dissident’s international stature. The same kind of reaction has been observed against these other leaders and movements mentioned in the previous paragraph in their respective countries. These fearful reactions by despotic regimes to non-violent adversaries “living in truth offers a measure of what former Czech dissident and play write Vaclav Havel has referred to as the “power of the powerless.”

[1] Diario de Cuba “El régimen arremete contra Liu Xiaobo y Vargas Llosa” Agencias - DDC 08-10-2010 -

[2] Amnesty Internacional “Nineteen countries turn down invite to Nobel Peace Prize ceremony” December 7, 2010

[3] Vargas Llosa, Mario “In Praise of Reading and Fiction” Nobel Lecture December 7, 2010

[4] Glucksmann, André “The Velvet Philosophical Revolution” City Journal Winter 2010 Vol. 20 No. 1

[5] Vargas Llosa, Mario “In Praise of Reading and Fiction” Nobel Lecture December 7, 2010

[6] Cisneros y Bonnel, Guy Perez “In the Spirit of Bolivar and Marti” The Miami Herald Dec.10, 1998

[7]Glendon, Mary Ann The Forgotten Crucible: The Latin American Influence on the Universal Human Rights Idea Harvard Human Rights Journal Vol. 16 pg. 27 2003

[8] Schlein, Lisa “Rights Experts Push for World Court of Human Rights” Voice of America Dec. 6, 2008

[9] Schlein, Lisa “Rights Experts Push for World Court of Human Rights” Voice of America Dec. 6, 2008

[10] Schlein, Lisa “Rights Experts Push for World Court of Human Rights” Voice of America Dec. 6, 2008

[11] Fleming, Thomas The Morality of Everyday Life pg. 229

[12] The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi

[13] The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi

[14] Parel, Anthony J. editor Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule Lexington Books 2000 pg. 10

[15] Parel, Anthony J. editor Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule Lexington Books 2000 pg. 10

[16] Parel, Anthony J. editor Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule Lexington Books 2000 pg. 10

[17] Catholic Encyclopedia Free Will New Advent

[18] Brown, Judith M.“Gandhi and Human Rights: In Search of True Humanity” Parel, Anthony J. editor Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule Lexington Books 2000 pg. 89

[19] Brown, Judith M.“Gandhi and Human Rights: In Search of True Humanity” Parel, Anthony J. editor Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule Lexington Books 2000 pg. 89

[20] Fleming, Thomas The Morality of Everyday Life pg. 234

[21] Kohák, Erazim V. Jan Patočka: philosophy and selected writings University of Chicago Press, 1989 pg. 131

[22] Havel, Václav The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, edited by John Keane, (London: Hutchinson,1985).

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