Transcript – Human Rights and Global Responses Q&A

Below is a transcript of the Human Rights and Global Responses Q & A

I was asked by the organisers to generate as much of a debate as possible, so I’m going to take questions from the floor and if you could identify yourselves briefly in whatever way you want. The gentleman here in the grey shirt. And please stand up and speak up because I don’t think there are microphones in this room.

Q: My name’s Tim Sebula and I have worked for Human Rights Watch, though I now work for The World Development Movement. We’re about to launch, on March 12th, a climate change campaign – looking at climate change through a poverty lens and its effects on people living in poverty and particularly how it would cause civil unrest. And in that context I want to ask Tom and the rest of the panel, can they foresee, and if so, how long, before organisations such as Human Rights Watch will all directly cite governments and transnational organisations for their climate policies…

Ok – I’ll take a couple more questions… Hugh, from the Financial Times.

Q: Hugh Williams, a journalist for the Financial Times: I have a question for Paul actually. I find it very interesting what you said at the end, particularly focusing on China and India. Could you extend that out a little bit to Europe – how do you see what’s been happening over the last few months (depending how you define it )– the fall of governments in Latvia, Iceland and Belgium because of the financial crisis, with protests elsewhere – how do you see the relations between security and the economic crisis playing out in Europe?

Ok – I’ll take one more question.

Q: I’d really liked your opening – what is globalisation’s effect in terms of how we don’t think of individuals but just groups since the second world war. The question is, is that really a new thing – was that different in the first world war or in the Napoleonic wars? It seems to me that as the world population’s got so much bigger its become impossible to think of people as individuals. In an internationalised world, you inevitably find yourself in a situation like the second world war where, to end it, we had to ask ‘are we justified in dropping a nuclear bomb on Japan – that’ll kill so many people but if we don’t do that it will take so many more months?’ So is it possible to think of individuals? And is this difficulty an inevitable consequence of having a world with 6.6 billion people in it.

Thank you. Mary – do you want to start by answering that question?

Mary: Yes – Actually, I didn’t say that. In fact I think we are more conscious of individuals. What I was actually saying is that the big change in the world is that we think of other people as human beings and while this may seem obvious to your generation, it’s not obvious to my generation and an older generation. And even though I agree with what Tim said about the growth of sovereignty, I think the meaning of sovereignty has changed. I don’t think that strengthening sovereignty in China, India and Russia means that they are going to seek military solutions on a large scale. They may acquire military weapons as a symbol of their sovereignty but I  think it’s a real change in the way we think about the world. What I was trying to say is that we think of Palestinians as human beings: there are people who think, in old fashioned war terms, of us and them, but we do tend more and more to take individuals into account. I wanted to say one other point if I might, just following on from Paul’s point on the financial crisis, because my view is the financial crisis is not just a financial crisis: actually, money is an expression of power in the world, and actually there’s been an underlying structural crisis brewing over the last twenty years in my view and the financial crisis is just an expression of that – we tried to hide it by trying to make riskier and riskier investments in order to keep up the rate of profit, and I think actually the financial crisis is only going to be solved if we start thinking really seriously about a new global deal on climate change and redistribution. I’m not quite as pessimistic as Paul. I do think there’s a terrible danger but I also thinks this is an incredible opportunity and the fact that it coincides – which is very unusual in history – with the coming to power of Obama, means that there are real opportunities to move towards a more multilateral, more human-rights based world, rather than the opposite. So even though I agree with Tim about countries looking inward, I also think that countries like China and Russia are thinking in multi-lateral terms.

— But, Timothy Garton-Ash, when you were talking about sovereignty being back big term you weren’t just presumably thinking of China and the United States, you’re also talking about Europe. Just thinking about the cover of the Economist this week which was warning about the possible break up of Europe as a result of the financial crisis. Would you like to come in on that point about sovereignty?

Tim: Two things: sovereignty – I have in mind the attitude of the state to their own citizens. In other words, its not what China does outside its frontier – it is states saying, you don’t even have the right to raise the issue of how we are treating our own citizens by reference to international human rights. And China is pretty close to that position, Putin’s Russia is absolutely on that position. And that’s different from what European countries say – European countries say Yes in principle we recognise that right but for the following special reasons of national security or what ever it may be, we’re going to ignore them anyway. But at least, it’s the tribute that vice plays to virtue. On the European question, I see a huge danger here which is populism, which takes the role of Ethnic scapegoating – a very old European pastime. So all our countries have lots of migrant workers – Gastarbeiter – and the temptation when everone’s losing their jobs and its getting really tough is to say, “Blame it on the bloody Poles, blame it on the Ukrainians, blame it on the Gypsies, blame it on the Jews, blame it on whoever” and I see that as a very large and ever-present danger, not just in eastern Europe, but also in our own countries.

Thank you. Paul do you want to come in on that?

Paul: In reply to the question on Europe, I think Timothy’s really expressed the view that I would share. In relation to one of the things in the main hall – I think it was Helena talking about the longer term perspective – living in West Yorkshire at the time of the miners’ strike, I remember vividly a hotel keeper from Manchester loading up his car with food to take down to the striking miners and being blocked by a police roadblock and turned back. Western countries can become very heavy when they think they there’s a threat to their own security: western governments. The other point I think was what Mary said – I am actually optimistic: if you work in this field as we both have for thirty years, you have to be an optimist otherwise you just give up and do something else. But essentially, I am optimistic, I think we have a tremendous opportunity to actually change the whole nature of the international security debate. On the specific issue of climate change, I think its very good the way that CAFOD and also the World Development Movement have alighted on this one. Why is it so important? Well the reason is, I think it goes back twenty years to a very different conception of what climate change was about. The assumption was that climate change would have its greatest affect on the Northern and Southern temperate latitudes. The prognosis for Britain, in the North of England was to get warmer, wetter and windier. I planted a small vineyard on a smallholding ten years ago, and got my first bottles of wine out of it last year, in Huddersfield.  But what the climate change people realised about 15 years ago was that they hadn’t realised that climate change was going to have a massive effect on the tropics and subtropics. Because natural climate change over many hundreds of thousands of years have not appeared to have done so, there was an assumption that human-made climate change wouldn’t either. But that’s been shown to be wrong. And so its going to be the poorest people of the world, affected by rainfall distribution and other things, who are actually going to suffer the most. And there obviously will be very uncertain reactions : this is why I think its very good news that organisations like Christian Aid, CEFOD have alighted on this and I think it has to be recognised much more. What we don’t do now could have very bad effects in the longer term.

—- I think also, if human rights organisations like mine are to remain relevant, they do need to address the human rights element, not only of the economic crisis at the moment – I think we’re beginning to see that as Emmanuel Wallenstein, the American political scientist, said recently in an article that in the face of economic protest you can either appease people or you can shoot them and there’s an obvious
human rights dimension to that. But the problem with the question of climate change is I think the main problem will be the response of states to the consequences of climate change like Mass migration and so on – we’re already seeing some of that and I think there’s work that can be done quite easily by human rights organisations. When it comes to businesses and emissions and so forth, the legal framework is not really strong enough for us to really get in and identify what the violation is, who is the violator? We can see who the victim is but its more difficult to identify the violator and therefore its more difficult for us to use the traditional paradigm to actually pin that one down. Lets take three more questions.

Q: This is addressed to … I was wondering on a global level, who do you think  would be responsible for pulling down those rights and specifically you talked about a UK bill of rights or written constitution, so do you envisage a higher level of judicial activism and if you do then what would you say would be the risks – the balance of risks and benefits associated with that?

Thank you very much – the gentleman with the grey suit.

Q: Let me quickly introduce myself… I’m a bloody Pole from Liberty Magazine. When a preacher want to preach he should be moral himself and the question is, should we, as the western world – do we have credit to tell the world, after Iraq and the other things we’ve done before, what you should not do? Are we ready to take responsibility for our actions and our ideas as well, because to tell Russia, “you bad, bad Putin” is hypocritical no? we need to say, Rwanda was a terrible thing to do – well what are we going to do about this? Because we had Iraq – it was actually a war in the name of democracy – we should not forget about it. But Rwanda is the other case, Rwanda the world did nothing and more than a million people were killed just slashed and it was much much worse than Iraq. We did nothing. We had situations with Dutch soldiers watching people being killed on both sides and so it’s a question to you really, all of you: are we going to stand up for our values in a way that we have some rules in the world but are we going to implement them? Because it’s not enough to say that we have Human Rights if we have China being so powerful that we cannot influence them at all. What are we going to do with the next problem if it appears. This is as much as anything else a practical question.

Thank you very much. One more question…

Q: I’m Angela Dewy from the organisation European alternatives. Its on Tom’s point about the Recession exacerbating human rights abuses. And particulary we are going to see economic alliances  of convenience with oppressive states.  I just wanted to say, last month, I was actually in Saudi Arabia which is said by some to be the most repressive state in the world. When I was there I was pleased to see some sort of impetus for reform in that state, however, what I will say is, from what I saw the behaviour is the British Government there is deplorable: it is completely complicit in an unquestioning way with the regime, for pure economic gain in terms of oil and trade and there is little, if not no, diplomatic advocacy of human rights. So, all that I would say is that I think we also have to be aware of British activities abroad outside of warzones – or the warzones of Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s less obvious oppression of human rights already for economic gain and I think Tom is right that there s a great fear that these economic alliances will continue with the worsening economic situation.

Thank you. Timothy Garton Ash, do you want to start by answering that specific question about the Human Rights Act and the British Bill of Rights.

Tim: Can you hear me at the back? Ok, I think we got quite an interesting answer in the plenary session to the question why we’ve got here under the new Labour government, a curious mixture of the sort of nanny state protective zeal, treating people like children who have to be protected from everything down to falling conkers, an exaggerated and hysterical reaction to the real terrorist threat and I thought that came out very clearly in this group-think of people behind the doors of government getting the security briefings and above all the competition for the Daily mail and the Sun reader. We will show that we are tougher on crime if not on the causes of crime, and we’re tougher on everything else. And I think those three elements, very simply, created the particular dynamic under this government. The Bill of Rights – the reason for that relates to what I’ve just said. That then everybody is able to say I know my rights and everybody has the feeling that I can go to a British Court and defend those rights. The road to the European Court of Human Rights is often a long and slow road – there’s a backlog of cases – it’s quite difficult for the ordinary citizen, so I think a British Bill of Rights is actually complementary to the European framework.

-    But what’s wrong the Human Rights Act?

Well what’s wrong with the Human Rights Act is everbody knows its simply writing the European convention into British Law, so there hasn’t been a process of active debate by British citizens saying ‘These are our rights and this is why we want them.’ So as long as they aren’t seen as contradictory I think actually that’s fine. Last point – what Britain can do? One thing we can do is stop colluding in torture – that would be a pretty good start, I have to say. The other thing is this. No Government can simply behave like Human Rights Watch: I think even Tom would accept that. That is to say it can’t be Human Rights Uber alles. For example, if you’re dealing with China, we all have a huge interest in getting China on board on the issue of Climate change – the massive growth in carbon dioxide emissions is going to come from China and elsewhere. So that’s an interest we have and we can’t simply sacrifice that entirely to human rights. If every different European country goes to China and then privately says “well we don’t really mean it about human rights, just give us that big contract for Russian Gas’. So actually getting our acts together in Europe and speaking the same language and having the same standards would itself be a great step.

Jo Glanville can I bring you in on the Polish gentleman’s question about the credibility of the west in promoting human rights after what’s happened in Iraq.

Jo: Well we’ve lost our credibility – tragically so – and it makes the work of any human rights organisation like my own or Tom’s all the more difficult because very quickly it’s thrown back in our faces that everybody’s well aware that we don’t really have a leg to stand on, so I think there is enormous work to be done that clearly, as we’ve seen over the last week with the continuing cover-up over Binyam Mohammed and what its going to take to get that information released – I don’t know how long that’s going to take – but we still have a very long way to go to recover any of that ground.

Paul do you want to address the question?

Paul: Yes, just coming to that particular question – I think the problem is at root you have this assumption of superiority in the North Atlantic community and its very deep and its been cultural for many years and many echoes right back to the colonial era. It makes it difficult for people who are campaigning on human rights and other issues from that community but in no way can that stop them. They cannot, although they will be criticised by others for being part of that community, you still have your own voice. I think it makes it very much more important to be really very well aware of how the world is viewed – how the global issues are viewed in different parts of the world. And there are some very good sites like focus on the global south which are very good at doing  this – giving the view from the other if you like. But at root, we are still all in it together and in spite of the way in which the west has done these things, it doesn’t mean that people within the west don’t have the full right to continue to speak up, embarrassing their own governments and, on occasions, embarrassing the governments of others.

Mary: I just wanted to say something about the question from the Polish gentleman about intervention – I think one of the problems about intervention is its been posed as the question of human rights versus sovereignty, rather than the
question of how do you enforce human rights? And so there’s been no focus on what we need to be able to do to protect civilians, whether its in Rwanda or even indeed in Afghanistan. We should be protecting Afghans at the moment, not simply killing Al- Quaida. And my view is that one of the big problems we had, whether it was Bosnia, whether it was Rwanda, was that we simply don’t have that capacity. And actually we should be transforming our soldiers into a new kind of capacity that actually can protect people from human rights, so that’s one point I want to make. The other was the very important question from the lady about British diplomacy and oil and arms dealings: one of the structural factors that I think gave rise to the financial crisis, is our over dependence on oil. It’s lead to these huge imbalances with us having huge deficits and these very rich countries in the Middle East. So similarly I think our economy has become incredibly dependent on oil and on arms production which is integrated into American arms production. The reason we collude in torture is because we are so worried about our arms links with the United States, whether its trident, whether its BAE and this is something nobody’s really looking at and I think its incredibly important that we restructure our economy away from our dependence on arms and away from this dependence on oil which will then give us a real capacity to at in support of human rights.

Thank you very much: I would just say on that question about the credibility of the West – in fact the US abuses and the UK abuses in counter terrorism have actually, in some sense, been an advantage for the Western human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch because we’ve been extremely critical of the US and for the first time we’ve been able to point to this criticism that we’ve made: we’ve translated many of our reports on abuses in Guantanemo into Arabic and we’ve distributed them in the Arab world and for the first time people in the Middle East have come to recognise that we are a completely independent organisation whereas in the past we were sometimes seen as being closely aligned with the US state department. But nonetheless that was the case. Lets take three more questions.

Q:  Claire from the Danish Institute on Human Rights, but speaking personally. In relation to Climate Change, isn’t it right that we, in civil society, start campaigning for the inclusion in the Statute of the International Criminal Court of climate crimes so heads of state and others who are in a position to respond to the scale of threat that we now face but who fail to respond in the appropriate order of magnitude can be held accountable for it?

Thank you, gentleman here in the front row…

Q: My name’s Jack, I’m a bit undecided on this point – this is a question for Jo. For me, I’m white, middle class and male and I live in London now but I’m from West Somerset, and my point is about what freedom of expression is, because the BNP have been starting to make movements into the West Country and the local town near to me, the only black person is called Black John and its kind of like the problem is, because everyone’s so white there, when you start having groups like this move in, the people who own Indian restaurants, or Kebab shops  or Chinese restaurants,  white people in poor areas in the west country start to turn against them, and my question is how far can free expression go before it does start to really affect people and influence people in a bad way?

One last question:

Q: My name’s Georgia, I’m here as a photographer today but I’m really interested in this. I think what I’d really like to find out is do you think its at all possible to find a shared ethic in the rest of the world depending on poverty, religion all these other things, a shared ethic on human rights is the thing that we need if it’s at all possible?

Thank you very much, now I’m going to go through the panellists and ask them to address some of those questions and to wrap up their thoughts. Starting with you Marian,

Marian: Ok well I’m only going to address the last question although I love the idea of climate change crimes and one should think about it more. One of the things I’d like to say is I’m always asked the question “isn’t human rights/ civil society a euro-centric concept – aren’t we imposing a European concept on the rest of the world? And I used to say well, I think they’re good ideas, so what? But actually the more I’ve tried reading about different societies and different religions, the more I realise that every religion and every culture has its liberal, humanitarian wing and its extremist fundamentalist wing, so in a sense I think there is a sort of struggle going on in the world between those who support more liberal ethics and I think this is extremely important in the middle east because I think there is a very liberal strand within Islam which we ought to be engaging with and debating with and pushing, rather than condemning all Islamic people as somehow not having our kind of values. So I think there is a basis for a shared ethic – I think its will never be a total thing – there’ll always be people who’ll disagree. But it isn’t us versus them, its across the world.

Tim: I very much agree with what Mary just said and I just want to say two things about Britain. Its simply a fact that Britain’s relative power in the world has declined, is declining, and will continue to decline. That doesn’t mean the country is in decline but others are rising. Therefore if we are to realise, to achieve these things we want to achieve, we have to think even more carefully how we get sufficient clout, sufficient weight at the right point. There’s not much we can do on our own as Britain. And that is why the structures of international cooperation we work – getting our act together in larger groupings. Europe but not just Europe is so important in foreign policy. On the other hand, this country is very unusual in its visibility in the world. Because of the English language, because of Britain’s presence in many other places in history, because of our broadcasting media, because of our culture, because of our Universities, we’re one of the most visible countries in the world. SO that means our example, what we do just for ourselves is not just for ourselves, so as our Polish friend says, if Britain gives up on free speech, if Britain gives up on liberty, who on earth is going to stand up for it And that is why the battle for British liberty on our own shores is not just a British Battle. Jo will say more about free speech but I actually think its really shocking how far this country has gone, basically in appeasement. It may be called community cohesion, it may be called respect, its appeasement. People come and say, unless you acknowledge how peaceful my religion is, I will kill you. And we say, fine, ok then we won’t talk about it. This will not do. Free speech cannot be unlimited. There has to be a limit, but we’ve got the limit absolutely  in the wrong spot at the moment and we have to get back that old tradition.

So where should it be?

Jo will tell you.

Jo: Whatever the failings of America, it does have the first amendment and no other country in the world has the same constitutional protection of freedom of speech. It is quite astounding. And I’m very sad to say that what frightens me about a bill of rights is that we will move even further away from ever being anywhere near something like that first amendment. So I can stand here and talk to my heart’s content about arianair and so on, it’s not going to happen here.

Paul: On the climate change issue, if it was ever possible to move to that it would be great. I think the important thing is to see current carbon policies as crimes against the future. And that’s the way I think to express it. And on the question here about whether a shared global ethic is possible, I think because of the nature of our impact on the entire world – especially ecosystem impact – its not so much possible as essential. But the crucial thing here is this is one area where I think the processes of globalisation make it more feasible. So I will at least end on an optimistic note.

Thank you very much to all four panellists, and thank you above all to you. Thank you very much for coming and enjoy the rest of the day.


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