Partial transcript: Human Rights & Global Responses

Below is a selection of talks from the Human Rights and Global Responses session.

Jo Glanville: I am going to focus on just one human right: which is freedom of speech, perhaps the most vulnerable, partly because it is not absolute, and because of all the human rights it is most likely to become hostage to political fortune.  Over the last year there have been a couple of events that have marked a turning point in our attitudes to free speech, not only here in the UK but also globally. In March 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council redefined the role of its special rapporteur on freedom of expression, declaring that he should now monitor abuses of the right to free expression when ‘they form an act of racial or religious discrimination’. Now this has somewhat insidiously turned the rapporteur into a potential enemy of the very human right he is supposed to be defending – into someone whose job is no longer simply to monitor abuses to free speech, but to consider that human right as potentially a form of abuse. At the same time the Council passed a resolution condemning what it called ‘a campaign of defamation of religions’ and calling on governments to take action.  

Now that very same month – in fact just the day before the resolution on the special rapporteur, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders released his film called Fitna online. If there is anyone here who hasn’t come across him, Wilders is a platinum blond provocateur who has made quite a reputation fro himself attacking Islam. He wants Muslim immigration to the Netherlands to be stopped: and in 2007 he told the Dutch Parliament that, “Islam is the Trojan horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time.” His film, Fitna, was a very crude piece of propaganda equating Islam with violence. No Dutch public broadcaster screened it, although the Dutch Muslim Broadcasting Association did in fact offer to show it , though they wanted to view if first for illegal content and they also wanted Wilders to take part in a debate and he declined both. The Dutch Press Centre also offered, but they wanted some money for their security costs and once again he didn’t take up the offer. At the time there were apocalyptic predictions of another outcry of Danish cartoon proportions. But that scenario failed to happen. The film in fact was a damp squib. 

But the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban.Ki-Moon, decided to weigh into the row, describing the film as “offensively anti-Islamic”, adding for clarity, “the right of free expression is not at stake here.” This was made all the more pointed by its timing, because last year was the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. But here was the global guardian of those rights undermining them. So entrenched has the notion become that there is a right not to be offended, that neither the Secretary General nor the Council seem to feel any need to argue for or to justify their position. 

Just two weeks ago, our Government reinforced that position when they banned Geert Wilders from coming into the country, although I was quite puzzled by Lord Pearson’s decision to invite Geert Wilders now, a year after the event. (I wondered how well he knew how to  use YouTube.) The UK Government reason for keeping Geert Wilders out – that his opinions threatened community security and therefore public security – is becoming a common refrain when it comes to critics of religion and a justification for limiting free speech and a powerful argument for censorship. We saw exactly the same argument being used last year when Random House dropped a novel they were going to publish by an American journalist, The Jewel of Modina - a historical romance about Mohamed’s relationship with his wife Ayesha. The publisher’s statement said, “ The publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community. Also it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment. They said they wouldn’t be publishing this book for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.  

Now I wouldn’t of course dispute the fact that these are serious considerations that have to be taken into account. But the irony is, in this case and I think in other cases, that it is actually the pre-emptive censorship – whether it is to decide not to publish or to ban someone from coming into the country – it is this that enflames the situations. Without that, you wouldn’t get the level of feeling that has been generated in both cases. 

It is the Random House and United Nations Human Rights Council that now prevails. Potentially offensive speech is so dangerous that it cannot be given a platform and our liberty is better served by producing censorship, rather than protecting the right to free speech. This is the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world of human rights where the best way to exercise your rights is by having them denied. One of the most astute commentators, Kenan Malik, has observed that a profound shift has taken place in our attitude to free speech: “It is no longer seen as an inherent good, necessary for expressing our moral autonomy, maintaining social progress, and safeguarding our other freedoms. It has to be seen as damaging, even as a problem.” I would add that it is the voices who want to limit free speech that are now occupying the moral high ground, not the human rights defenders. 

We published a special issue of Index last year, marking the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and we asked one of the most distinguished international defenders of free speech to write a piece for us. Aryeh Neier was for many years Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and is now President of George Soros’, Open Society Institute. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany as a child, but as head of the American civil liberties union in the 1970’s, he took a controversial stand on what remains one of the most famous free speech battles of the past sixty years when he  defended the right of a group of neo-nazis to march through a Jewish neighbourhood in Stokey that contained a number of holocaust survivors. He stood up for their right to freedom of expression. Looking back at that storm of controversy, he wrote for Index last year: “Ensuring that all may speak freely no matter how repugnant their views, prevents the authorities from using the pretext that they are blocking hate speech as a means to censor expression that actually disturbs them for other reasons.”  

Standing up for repugnant views can put you in a very uncomfortable position. At Index over the past year, we have had to stand up for racists and holocaust-deniers. One colleague was very disturbed to receive a Christmas card from one of this country’s leading holocaust deniers with a delightful photograph of one of Hitler’s leading apologists at the conference on the holocaust in Teheran a few years ago, as well as a free DVD of David Irvine in handcuffs. I have been described as ‘charming’ by the BNP. They think we are their friends. We are not their friends. But we believe in the principle of giving them the peace for their views – views that we know many people in this room find repugnant. We know that the discomfort this entails is the price that we have to pay if we want to live in a free and open society – a society that acknowledges the universal right to free speech and doesn’t cut the cloth of human rights to fit the preoccupation and politics of the day.

Mary Kaldor: In the aftermath of the Israeli conflict in Gaza, we have seen on television Israeli soldiers saying, “ Well if I have to risk the lives of civilians in order to save my soldiers, of course I am going to save my soldiers.” For most of us that is a rather shocking statement. But from the Israeli point of view, they were thinking in war terms. That is what was so striking about this war – most of us saw it in human terms, and people being killed in Gaza as human beings. Whereas, for Israelis, they were enemies. That represents, I think, a profound change, since the Second World War, in the way we think about human beings. 

If you ask me what globalisation means, I think it means that we are much more conscious of a single human community than we ever were in previous eras. If you think of the numbers of people killed in the Second World War by us – civilians in Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg – we thought of them as enemies. We didn’t actually think of them as human beings. And that is a profound change in our thinking. 

Nowadays, moreover, all wars are massive human rights violations.  When we use the word, ‘terror’, we tend to think of non-state actors blowing up a bus or a suicide bomber and that is how it tends to be defined. But actually, all contemporary wars are ‘terror’ wars. They are ‘terror wars’ in two senses. One is the kind of sectarian wars we see in Iraq and we saw in Bosnia. A typical tactic was violence deliberately inflicted on civilians. The aim of these wars was usually population displacement, shifting people, and the typical tactic is terror. You go into a town, you frighten people and you do some very public atrocity. Maybe you don’t kill that many people, but your aim is to make everybody else panic and run away.  The same is true of what is called counter-insurgency, the kind of war that Israel inflicted on Gaza, the kind of war that the Americans were fighting in Iraq and are still fighting in Afghanistan. It is very terrifying being killed from the air. Indeed, the very terms they use, like ‘shock and awe’ give you a sense of how terrifying it is, and of course because you cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants nowadays, the victims are nearly always civilians. 

This type of war which is most wars we see is a consequence of the fact that technology has reached such enormous proportions that we simply cannot repeat traditional wars where two sides engaged in a battle because those battles are so destructive. The only way you can gain any kind of advantage is by killing unarmed civilians. 

Interestingly, if you look at the statistics on war, there has over the last few decades been a dramatic decline in the number of wars in the world, and not only that but a dramatic decline in the number of people killed in wars. But what has increased is first of all the number of civilians killed in wars and secondly the number of displaced people – that is the characteristic of our time. If we are talking about climate change, economic crisis, war – the characteristic of our time is people forced out of their houses. There has been a dramatic rise in refugees and displaced people. 

The problem about war is that it is now very difficult to distinguish its perameters. There is a sort of blurring between war, human rights violations, crime, because in many wars there are lots of crimes. So in a sense what you see in big cities – the drug wars going on now in Mexico, or what’s happening in the big cities of Brazil – is not so very different from what we mean now by war. Above all, we are all much more conscious of these things, so that we feel a sense of insecurity even if fewer people are being killed in wars.       

The implications of all that is that we are increasingly moving towards a world in which the coming together of international humanitarian law, the laws of war, and human rights law have become the way we deal with war. Instead of saying, “We have got to go to war with our enemies” – although that is exactly what is happening in the ‘war on terror’ –despite the fact that that simply results in more and more civilians, and more and more terror -  the move at least among people like us is to say ,”We have got to move towards a law-based paradigm, and the way to deal with wars is actually through dealing with human rights violations and through applying the laws of war and international human rights law. And what we really need is better enforcement of international law. That is what we lack. And what we really need is for soldiers to stop seeing their primary role as killing their enemies, and start seeing their primary role as enforcing human rights. They have to learn to protect people. They have t learn to be more like policemen, and to learn that actually the lives of civilians do matter, in the way that policemen and firefighters are trained to put their lives at risk for the sake of ordinary people.” That is the way we have to change. 

Thinking about human rights and war today, the big problem – especially with these new risks of climate change and economic crisis – is that our security capabilities and our way of thinking about security is basically designed for war and aimed at war of a traditional kind. We have in Europe nearly two million soldiers, meant in the past to meet a Soviet invasion. The US has all these incredibly sophisticated weapons, and we know from Iraq and Afghanistan, that all that this does is to kill more civilians, resulting in human rights violations. I find it absolutely extraordinary that in the cluster munitions and landmines conventions, we see these kinds of weapons as human rights violations, but we still talk about the need for nuclear weapons, and we are still going ahead in the UK with another generation of Trident. If you think about nuclear weapons in human rights terms, there is no question: they are a massive violation of the laws of war, of human rights – and they are completely in contradiction with the ways in which our Government, among others, insist that they are committed to human rights. 

It comes down to the requirement for a very fundamental rethink of what we mean by security. Nowadays security has to mean human rights, rather than the defence of our island.  

The big change in the world is that we think of other people as human beings. While this may seem obvious to the younger generation, it is not obvious to mine and to an oler generation. And even though I agree with what Tim said about sovereignty, I think the meaning of sovereignty has changed. I don’t think strengthening sovereignty in China, India and Russia means that they are going to seek military solutions on a large scale. They may acquire weapons as a symbol of their sovereignty but I think that there s a real change in the way we think about the world. We think of Palestinians as human beings There are people who still think in old-fashioned war terms of Us and Them – but we do tend more and more to take individuals into account. 

Just following on from Paul’s point about financial crisis – my view is that it was never just a financial crisis. Money is an expression of power in the world, and there has been an underlying structural crisis brewing for the last twenty years in my view. The financial crisis is just an expression of that. We tried to hide it by making riskier and riskier investments in order to keep up the rate of profit. But the crisis is only going to be solved if we start thinking really seriously about a new global deal on climate change and redistribution. I am not quite as pessimistic as Paul. I do think there is terrible danger here, but I do believe that this is also an incredible opportunity. The fact that this coincides with the coming to power of Obama – and this is very unusual in history, that coincidence – means that there are real opportunities to move towards a more multilateral, more human rights-based world rather than the opposite. Countries like China and Russia are also thinking in multilateral terms. 

One of the problems about intervention is that it has been posed as the question of human rights versus sovereignty rather than the question of how do you reinforce human rights. So there has been no focus on what do we need to be able to do to protect civilians , whether it is in Rwanda or Afghanistan. We should be protecting Afghans at the moment – not simply killing Al-Quaeda, and my view is that one of the big problems we have, whether it was Bosnia or Rwanda is that we simply don’t have that capacity and actually we should be transforming our soldiers and others into a new kind of capacity that can protect people from desecrations of their human rights. 

One of the structural factors that I think gave rise to the financial crisis is our over-dependence on oil. It has led to huge imbalances with us having huge deficits and these very very rich countries in the Middle East. Similarly our economy has become incredibly dependent on arms production which is integrated into American arms production. The reason why we collude in torture is because we are so worried about our arms links with the United States whether it’s Trident or BAE . This is something that nobody is really looking at but it is incredibly important that we restructure our economy away from this dependence on arms and oil – which will then give us a real capacity to act in support of human rights.   

Paul Rogers: About a year after the start of the war in Iraq there were incidents in Fallujah which led to a particular incident that I want to start by considering. This was several months before the major assault on Fallujah in November 2004. This was actually in April.  Shortly after four contractors with the Blackwater Company had been killed, their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge, the US Marine Corps tried to gain control of the city. On one particular occasion, they sent a convoy into one part of the city which ran into very serious trouble and it took three to four hours to rescue the troops. None of them were actually killed: some were injured. There was an American correspondent from the Washington Post, Pamela Constable, who was embedded with that marine group and she wrote in the paper what happened next: 

“Just before dawn, Wednesday, AC 130 Spectre Gunships launched a devastating punitive raid over a six-block area around the spot where the convoy was attacked firing dozens of artillery shells that shook the city and lit up the sky. Marine officials said the area was virtually destroyed and that no further insurgent activity had been seen there.” Note the term, ‘a devastating punitive raid’. This was actually a retaliation for what had happened. Nobody knows how many civilians were killed in that particular raid. Shortly afterwards in a very bitter firefight along the banks of the Tigris near Bakuba, a small army platoon was able to kill the people who were opposing them, although they took injuries. The platoon had experienced very grievous injuries among their own comrades in the previous weeks and what they then did was to tie the corpses of those they had killed to the bonnets of their humvees and parade them through the streets of the city rather like deer being killed in the hunt. Again there was someone embedded with that particular group who spoke of the antagonism and bitterness which was visible on the faces of the people who lined the route.  

Those are incidents which will be paralleled by any army in any war, and I don’t mean that it reflects particularly on the American army. Prince Harry’s famous use of the term Terry-Taliban in Afghanistan is another demonstration of that kind of idea, and the nature of modern war. But I think if you look at it more widely, remembering that the war in Iraq is about to go into its seventh year, and that in October, the war in Afghanistan will enter its ninth year – what we have seen is so different from what was expected. I remember a column Mary Kaldor did for openDemocracy just a few months after the war opened, when she had just returned from a visit to the Green Zone, reporting on the way in which the Coalition Provisional Authority had this belief that everything would be magically transformed, and the young staffers taking charge of quite large parts of the Iraqi economy, who believed that Iraq would make a transfer to a pro-western, liberal democracy with an absolute free market, flat rate tax, no financial regulation and investment from everybody including the Israelis; just as there was a belief at the start of the termination of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that that also would make a rapid and immediate transition. Instead of what we do have: on the last direct count, 98 thousand people killed in Iraq, (the World Health organisation surveys show many more than that); 120 thousand people detained without trial many for  years at a time; 4 and a half million people refugees and all the problems of prisoner abuse, torture, rendition and the rest. It is so different from what was anticipated. 

Part of that anticipation no doubt goes back to the nature of the Bush administration eight years ago and to the Project for the New American Century which saw the new twenty-first century world as one which would very much follow one particular issue led by the ideas and maybe political ideals of a rather narrow group within the United States. But this is very reminiscent of 1890s Victorian London and the belief in a Pax Britannica which was going to bring civilisation to the world. I am always reminded of a comment made to me by a Ghanaian student – a very common West African saying in colonial times – “There was a very good reason why the sun never set on the British Empire. It was because God didn’t trust the British in the dark.”   

What I am trying to get at is that the experience we have had over the last eight years is one expression of what I refer to as the control paradigm in international security, or liddism -  the one word I have ever invented in my life to evoke the way you keep the lid on things while not looking at the underlying problems. In a sense the very failure of the ‘war on terror’ to deliver what was intended opens up the real possibility of a much wider debate on what should be the true nature of a genuine, human-oriented, sustainable security, which implicitly recognises from the start the significance of human rights. 

But if you take this broader view, leaving aside the ‘war on terror’ for the moment, and taking into account climate change, certainly – the kind of world that we seem to be moving towards will probably be determined by three very large trends: one is the very strong development of a deep socio-economic division across the world, in which about 1.2 or one and a quarter billion people including more or less all of us here have actually done very well. Over the last thirty, forty years, it has been a very good period for us – but not for the majority of people. And the gap between that large group and a much larger group has actually widened year on year. Read The Economist special supplement on the middle class: read it very carefully and see how they define middle class. It’s very interesting.

At the same time, one of the very welcome trends in that period has been the immense improvement, normally by people’s own efforts, in their education and literacy and also in communications. But this means that the majority of the world is much more aware of its own marginalisation. Then factor in the developing risk over the next ten, twenty or thirty years of climate change impacting on human abilities to develop and  that could be an incredibly insecure and very fragile world in every sense. 

Those are the big issues for the future, and what will happen very much depends on whether we the elite continue to use the control paradigm, or whether we go much deeper to address these challenges. What was originally a financial crisis is now, I believe, a worldwide manufacturing crisis – the changes in Japan alone over the last year are quite astonishing – and that means we will be faced by a strong requirement to maintain security at a time that many, many people will get extremely bitter and resentful. You may have noticed a small item in the Financial Times about the experience of the Indian equivalent of the Liddell supermarket. This was a chain which started four or five years ago, trebled its number of branches in the last two years, and then more or less went bust overnight. It had sixteen hundred branches across India. As it went bust it was no longer able to pay for the security staff who  guarded these stores, and on the week-end in which it went bust, six hundred of these stores were looted by people who were desperate for food.  The Chinese, to give another example, are currently introducing a whole range of new, public order riot control outfits across virtually every major city in China because they fear that the economic downturn is going to lead to much greater violence.  

So in one sense, while we have hugely better opportunities for addressing this core problem of trying to keep things under control, and time if we really act to alter these huge problems of socio-economic division and climate change – I think what we are going to see over the next two or three years will be a kind of marker for how things might happen in the future, which is why it is really important that group initiatives like the one here today and many others are active now. What we have to move against is this idea that you maintain the status quo. We cannot do it in a globalising, communicating world. It seems to me that it is hugely important that this kind of event must be part of the process in preventing that from happening.  

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 turned back at a police roadblock. Western governments can get very heavy if they think there are threats to their own security.  

The problem at root is that there is an assumption of superiority in the North Atlantic community. It is very deep: it has been cultural for many years and has many echoes right back to the colonial era. It makes it difficult for people who are campaigning on human rights and other issues from within that community, but in no way can that stop them. They will be criticised by others for being part of that community, but you still have your own voice. It makes it much more important to be very well aware of how the global issues are viewed in different parts of the world. There are some very good websites 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 spi8te of the way in which the west has conducted itself, it doesn’t mean that people in the west don’t have the right to speak up, embarrassing  their own governments and on occasion embarrassing the governments of others.

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