Human Rights in a "Civilized" World
Poor people think with their belly! – Walter Rodney

By Gary Girdhari
Guyana Journal, April 2004

"... every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties." – World Food Summit

On March 20, 2004 GOPIO (and its sister organization GEICA) in collaboration with St. John's University hosted a Conference on Human Rights Violations as these affect the Indian Diaspora. There were many presenters from several countries. Some were profound and insightful. Generally, the focus was narrow and parochial. The trodden path has once again been tamped on. I felt that something was amiss. The politicians/presenters were mostly constrained to be politically correct. But the academics should have dissected and analyzed in greater depth, giving wider latitude for more diverse intellectual dialogue and discussion, even if contentious.

As a consequence, I am prompted to address the issue of human rights, in a generalized fashion, by looking at the world from the perspective of the "wretched of the earth".

Ethnic Cleansing
The Rwanda genocide took place 10 years ago. There are several current writings dealing with this conflict – to re-member. I must admit that every time I read about it – and I do try to read as much of it as possible – I feel nauseated, upset, disturbed and saddened by the utmost cruelty in modern times. (See Remembering Rwanda. Also for the British public Panorama: The Killers will be broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, 4 April 2004)

Recently Mr. Kofi Annan said, "The international community is guilty of sins of omission [in Rwanda]." I ask Mr. Annan: should they be held liable and accountable, and answer? Recall that Mr. Annan was part of the bureaucratic intransigence at the time of the massacres in Rwanda. Whatever might have been the cause of the tragedy – tribal rivalry, colonialism, or others – the world did not have to sit unconcerned and complacent as the horrors took place! Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, pleaded with the UN and the so-called "civilized" world for help, direction and action; his call was ignored and an estimated 800,000 people were killed in a period of about 100 days. (Read Dallaire's book: Shake Hands with the Devil)

Today we are still complacent, and pretend self-righteousness. We lift our heads high invoking God and hallow His name, and pretend that we are holier than thou.

I read of two accounts online:

On May 6 1994, six-year-old Shashir was playing outside her home near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); armed militia took her from outside her home and gang-raped her. Imagine a 6-year old child, scared to death, crying, forcibly held down and gang-raped! She was damaged and unconscious and remained so for a long time until found. She could not walk or talk. Later she was surgically repaired, but mentally scarred for life. The savage attackers left, not before destroying most her village.

Maria was 70 when the Interahamwe (the Hutu militia that led Rwanda's 1994 genocide) arrived at her home. In her words: "They grabbed me, tied my legs apart like a goat before slaughter, and then raped me, one after the other. Then they stuck sticks inside me until I fainted. (See Silence=Rape by Jan Goodwin, The Nation, Feb. 19, 2004.)

These are just two examples of the millions of children, women and others caught in conflicts and wars. Clearly gender and age do not evoke sympathy against brutality.

It is estimated that about 40 percent of rape victims are children aged 8 to 19 and are usually made into sex slaves. Older women are also mutilated, having their lips and ears cut off, and their eyes gouged so that they could not identify the rapists. With the utmost cynicism some say that rape is cheaper than bullets since it is estimated that about 60 percent of all combatants in the DRC are HIV/AIDS positive.

{Parenthetically, when I read that the United Nations cannot provide anti-retroviral drugs to three million HIV-infected patients in Africa by 2005 because of lack of funds, because "Some countries, particularly the United States, are balking at supporting the project," (Alison Langley, Guardian, March 14, 2004) I wonder if this is not a major human rights violation!}

Although rape is a violation of war codified in the Geneva Convention, it is still commonplace in wartime. It cannot be emphasized enough that rape is one of the gravest violations of human rights, the ultimate being death. In modern times the world has seen "ethnic cleansing" during the Jewish holocaust, the Armenian genocide, ethnic clashes in East Timor, Kosovo, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Kashmir, Liberia, and the list goes on. In many ways the methods employed are distinct without differences in outcome.

This behavior pattern also takes place at the micro levels of the home and schools. Why would some students beat another student, rape another student or kill another student. And sometimes in the presence of onlookers! Something is missing in the home environment and the educational system. But it not only the young who are guilty; adults succumb intensely under pressure to modulate their behavior to suit the in-group. Lies, greed, intolerance and aggression seem to be benchmarks for success. The young obviously learn from the adults. Unfortunately, we tend to follow the leader when critical thinking is most desired.

Two of the greatest human rights violations in history, with loss of dignity, identity and culture, and with untold inhumanity and loss of lives, occurred with the decimation of the native people of the Americas and during slavery in the new world. Yet these are blurred in pertinent conversation.

For many, human rights is nebulous, an amorphous concept, abstract in ideological content, that provokes moral outrage selectively only when they occur in other parts of the world. Usually speeches are full of hollow moralizing and hint of opportunism. One of the few NGOs that monitors violations is Amnesty International.

What exactly is human rights violations? The UN have defined these and set them out in Articles as signposts and guidelines. In 1948 the UN has adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and since then the world has seen several important developments in the fight against racism, discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and for the restoration of Peace in the world. National and International laws have been enacted and numerous international human rights instruments have been adopted. Progress, even if meager, has been made – the overcoming apartheid in South Africa is a major victory.

But is the world free of human rights violations? Is the world more peaceful? The reality observed is that the US and others in the West stand on high ground to admonish others of their violations, often meting out "punishment" of varying kinds such as economic sanction, covert action for regime change, invasion and war. The proponents themselves have abrogated the rules by active commission of sins and/or allowing acts of cruelty to occur in their spheres of control and elsewhere. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, counseled, "There must be no selectivity, no sanctuary, no impunity for those guilty of gross human rights violations."

The same standard – fairness and justice – must be for all.

To the contrary, too often nations fit the rules to satisfy their specific circumstance and interests. For example, condemning child labor in some countries is a favorite topic. However, the very nature of economic relations that perpetuate poverty compels the child to work. Yet "poverty" is not underscored as a contributor to human rights violations anywhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or by nations. (Read The Right Not to be Poor by Roberto Bissio.)

I was pleased however to learn that my sentiments are in sync with some, for example, Mary Robinson who said, "Extreme poverty is a denial of human rights," urging that "Eradicating extreme poverty is the greatest human rights challenge we face."

The NGO Forum to the World Food Summit declared that the primary consideration must be the "basic human Right to Food. Everyone has the right to secure access at all times to safe and nutritious food and water adequate to sustain an active and healthy life with dignity... hunger and malnutrition are fundamentally a question of justice."

The Rome Declaration is replete with laudable affirmations but is not saying anything new. Since I was a little boy I have been hearing of the "have-s" and "have-nots". It is not likely that the goal to "reduce by half the number of chronically undernourished people by 2015" (let alone "food for all") would be achieved. In the midst of plenty there is awful societal decay that the toffee-nose "civilized" (the word that pseudo moralists like Tony Blair and his ilk like) people prefer to be left unnoticed, but which is rampant, and dogs humanity globally. Scenes of the decay are only shown as documentary esoteric curiosity in cozy and comfortable quarters.

Food security should be addressed by the World Food Summit with another slant, but first to recognize that there is enough food in the world for all. The problem is that the food does reach the deserving. Worse, food is sometimes used callously as a political weapon to bargain for trade-offs. (Read further, "The World Food Summit: What Went Wrong? by Peter Rosset, June 12, 2002.)

So while there are Summits held in exclusive enclaves, human beings continue to suffer from destitution, hunger, homelessness, disease and backwardness – in this modern time of history – in the midst of plenty! Various forms of human rights violations in to the world continue to ravage our societies. And these take place benignly under our noses.

In big cities of India people live in vast slums known as chawls. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they are called favelas. Many parts of Africa and Asia are plagued with squatter communities, beginning as temporary stop-over, as people migrate from their villages, to become permanent "slums". America's version of the slum are the ghettos and reservations.

It is estimated that at least 1 billion people live in urban slums. (Report: United Nations Human Settlements Program, "The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003") "Failed economic development programs are largely to blame. Trade liberalization and massive subsidies in the world's rich nations have devastated rural incomes in many parts of the world, pushing people towards the cities, resulting in the 'Urbanization of Poverty'. (James Heintz, CPE Staff Economist, 11/19/03) Neoliberal growth strategies haven't produced decent employment opportunities; instead, unregulated and precarious informal employment has ballooned. Cutbacks to social services and infrastructure projects, which aim to create an "investor friendly climate", have contributed to urban decay."

For sure it is not getting better. The poor are born in slums and they die there – prematurely – without experiencing any of the good of human civilization. The heartlessness of it all is that it is preventable. Is this not a grave human rights violation?

We human beings, I mean they, who want to have more and more at all cost, have no moral and social grounding. They do whatever it takes regardless of the consequences to the teeming humanity and the environment. The fragile environment, being an integral part for the sustenance of life, is of no concern to them!

Although the earth has a greater area of water only 3 per cent of it is fresh. Worse, most of the fresh water is inaccessible in the polar icecaps or stored too deep underground. So in reality less than 1 per cent of all water on earth is fresh and 'accessible'.

The additional fact is: Humans are using fresh water in an alarmingly high capacity. With growing industrialization, population growth and an affluent 'water-hungry' lifestyles, fresh water is not only used in the household, but is also diverted to golf courses, lawns, pools, industrial usage, non-essential beverages, car washes, and so on. At the same time, one-fifth of humanity – 1.1 billion people – has no access to safe drinking water. Billions of people – usually women and children – have to walk long distances everyday to fetch water. The water they collect is often impure. Thus drinking impure water, coupled with lack of sanitation for 2.4 billion people, cause a child to die every 15 seconds and five million deaths a year as a consequence. It has been said, 'Millions have lived without love. No one has lived without water.' Yet the affluent waste fresh water! Is this not a serious human rights violation? (Read This parched earth by Juliette Jowit.)

In addition, damming and diversion of rivers and canals for hydropower and agriculture by the big monopolies have created artificial droughts for communities. More than half of wetlands have been lost during the twentieth century, mostly due to these pressures. At the same time valuable ground water supplies are becoming polluted with industrial toxic wastes.

Our globalized world has not brought glory to the majority of people. Those in charge sell the falsity that all you need is 'free market' and 'democracy', and this is what is being promoted and exported by the G8 nations and the World Trade Organization. Careful scrutiny of the plans and projects of globalization reveals something more deceptive and detrimental to the impoverished masses. Thus far, globalization seems to exclude those who need most and is leading to greater inequality. Some argue that it is neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism.

"... the gap between the rich and poor more than doubled from 1979 to 2000, recent data from the [US] Congressional Budget Office indicate, to probably the widest it has been in 70 years." (Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2003) Yet Americans (as economists in other countries also do) are told that currently there is an economic recovery. This "is being felt only by the nation's wealthiest people. US Commerce Dept figures reveal a startling disconnect between overall economic growth and incomes of the great majority of Americans. At the time when real GDP rose at annual rate of 8.2 percent, wage and salary income, adjusted for inflation, rose at annual rate of only 0.8 percent." (Paul Krugman, New York Times, December 30, 2003) Here the public is not informed in plain language what GDP really means. Or they are fooled to believe that they (each one of us) also can earn $27 million a year as Jay Leno (as an example) can. Maybe they have to wait for the 'American dream' to come through, or keep dreaming!

While the poor grow in number, gloom, misery, depression and despair elude those who splurge in plenty. Notice how the political conspiracy is handled. Washington Post (March 14, 2004) commented: "Michael Bloomberg, this [New York] city's billionaire mayor, looks at Manhattan's glittering economy and all but chortles. "Jobs are coming back to the Big Apple," he said recently. "Our future has never looked brighter."

The Wall Street bull is snorting. Investment bankers arm-wrestle for a $18-million Park Avenue apartment. Slots at prestigious private kindergartens retail for $26,000. Lines trail out of the latest, hot restaurants, and black limos play bumper car in Tribeca." But then the Washington Post continues: "New York's unemployment rate jumped in January [2004] from 8.0 to 8.4 percent, the worst performance among the nation's top 20 cities. It has lost 230,000 jobs in the past three years. Demand for emergency food has risen 46 percent over the past three years, and 900,000 New Yorkers receive food stamps. Inflation, foreclosures, evictions and personal bankruptcies are rising sharply. Fifty percent of the city's black males no longer are employed." One may well ask: "Glittering economy" for whom?

For those who are constantly in need, the children in particular, their world is scary, and their future bleak and hopeless.

Why? Because the current and dominant dialogue present no vision for the poor. The World Food Summit and all the talk about food security is just that – talk. The unbridled globalization and the unfettered free market are directly correlated with poverty problems. This kind of economic relation between the rich and poor nations and within nations is a more insidious form of human rights violations, although of course it is peddled and sold in palatable flavors of democracy and free market.

Arms Supply to the Poor
On a lesser degree of obscured savagery, but nonetheless seriously important and sinister is the production of arms. I like to point out the pertinent fact that does not often get splashed on prime news: "A Congressional report finds United States maintained its dominance in the international arms market, especially in sales to developing nations. The total worldwide sales for US (in 2002) was $13.3 billion, or 45.5 percent of global conventional weapons deals; Russia is second in sales to developing world, with $5 billion, followed by France with $1 billion. (Thom Shanker, New York Times, September 25, 2003)

I draw attention to this because the US and other developed industrialized countries that speak of democracy and human rights, chastising others, are being hypocritical when in fact they are the prime suppliers of the arms and ammunition to the so-called perpetrators of atrocities. But the tunnel vision of the industrial/military complex focuses on the dollar because presumably they 'trust in God'. Are they not indirectly committing human rights violations?

Post Cold War Conflicts
Another growing venomous pattern of civil and human rights violations took off with greater speed after the Cold War. Paradoxically, the end of the Cold War, which presupposed greater freedom, saw the gnawing development of internal rivalries in many nation-states. The elimination of "ideological" threat phased out class-based dialogue within many countries, and subsequently the world saw a sharp rise in conflicts. These were/are observed in the former Soviet Union, in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Timor, Nepal, Guyana, Trinidad and other plural societies. The conflicts manifest themselves as religious, ethnic or tribal, or a combination. The debate of race and class resurfaced. People sought after their identity to particularize themselves according to their ethnic culture rather than their national culture (the salad bowl vs. the melting pot). In other words, 'class' ideology was superseded with 'race' ideology. Was this happenstance? Was this a natural evolution in the dialectics of societal development? Or was it planned, fomented and deliberately orchestrated?

In recent times the world has witnessed (still witnessing) the many serious conflicts because of the shift in the dialogue afore-mentioned. Some conflicts are schemed with the overt or tacit blessing of the State; others by rival groups funded privately.

The example of May 1998 in Indonesian serves to exemplify one methodology employed. Large mobs marched the streets of Jakarta, looting and burning more than 5,000 ethnic Chinese shops and homes. "A hundred and fifty Chinese women were gang-raped and more than 2,000 people died. In the months that followed, anti-Chinese hate-mongering and violence spread throughout Indonesia's cities." It was argued that the wanton violence had its source, that is, "the unrestrained combination of democracy and free markets – the very prescription wealthy democracies have promoted for healing the ills of underdevelopment." (Read Free Market: Our most dangerous export by Amy Chua.)

Why? Well, business competition was imbalanced. The Chinese were the minority, about 3% of the population, but they controlled 70% of the private economy. Illogically or otherwise racist "outbidders" within those perceived to be marginalized saw this as an injustice; they became ethnic and political "mobilizers" and "entrepreneurs". They used the print media, TV and radio to propagate a full-scale undercurrent of demonizing and marginalization (and indoctrination), leading to ethnic scapegoating. They invented a casus belli. This is a methodology observed repeatedly in many nation-states. (*Note: A must-read is The Search for Identity: Ethnicity, Religion and Political Violence by Yusuf Bangura, UNRISD Occasional Paper, No. 6, World Summit for Social Development. 1994.)

Such "market-dominant minority" seen in Indonesia created "ethnic economic numerical minorities" who dominate economically impoverished "indigenous" majorities who are poor and disadvantaged, and outnumber the ethnic minorities.
The "market-dominant minority" with their economic clout are the Chinese in south-east Asia; Indians in east Africa, Fiji and parts of the Caribbean; Lebanese in west Africa; Jews in post-communist Russia; and whites in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador, to name just a few. In free-market environments, these minorities, together with wealthy expatriates, tend to accumulate vast wealth relative to the indigenous population. This generates envy, rivalry and resentment among the poor majorities and rationalizes their action – for their just cause! Yes, free markets that do not allow for equal opportunity in competition are breeding grounds for ethnic activists!

Globally, the G8 nations, the US in particular, are perceived as the world's "market-dominant minority", blatantly and arrogantly attaining lopsided economic domination. For many countries, and individuals, the US is seen as the definitive cold-blooded capitalist, unilaterally using its economic power to control (and conquer) the politics and policies of other countries, especially since it has become the only super power. Thus there are extreme resentments for the US, and distrust for the real motives of its paternalistic aid and generosity. The recipient poor countries of the free-market democracy (that is being exported by the US, in conjunction with the World Bank and IMF strictures) are fearful that this brand of capitalism (without a human face) does not distribute the wealth to the growing masses. Most poor countries in addition do not have any safety nets (such as welfare and food stamps, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, and social security insurance) or mechanisms for distribution of the accrued largesse.

The poor countries become locked into and are strapped with unending debt servicing burden. Recall that the 'Tobin tax' as suggested by Cheddi Jagan in A New Global Human Order to alleviate this burden is shelved. In fact, this raw and ruthless capitalist free market stultifies local entrepreneurship, creates dependency, drains the local economy disproportionately, resulting in more poverty, disease and backwardness. In an op-ed article Prem Misir noted, "Democracy, theoretically, thrives under capitalism. But it is within this free market framework that we see some consistently glaring cases of absolute poverty and inequality." In a deeper sense, does not this kind of exploitation of the poor constitute human rights violations?

The path to democratization and free market therefore must be varied to suit the individual countries and not the 'donor' countries necessarily. "...democracy [must] mean much more than majority rule. It [must] include protection for minorities and property, constitutionalism and human rights. A lot more is needed than just shipping out ballot boxes."

Religion and Human Rights
Many have argued the case against religious conversion. (The evangelists will affirm their right, not human right but god-given right, to do so.)

Now I'd like to touch on this rather contentious and delicate subject, namely, the business of evangelism, but not in an obtuse manner. Sensitive to the belief of all I will argue that modern day evangelism is no different from the past ages of colonialism and imperialism. Religion, economics and politics have always been tied together in the broader scheme of things, and continues... .

Religion has always been the handmaiden to pave the way for other hidden agendas in the political and economic domain, (though others may insist that there is altruistic objective). I recall Bishop Desmond Tutu allegory: "When the Europeans came to South Africa they brought lots of bibles. They gave us bibles and said, 'Let us close our eyes and pray.' When we opened our eyes we found that we had a lot of European bibles and the Europeans had a lot of our land."

The bottom line here is to gain access to the people's mind, to control and conquer their way of thinking and eventually to divert (and convert) them culturally. Christians and Islamists may say that it is their mandate and bounded duty to spread the word and save the souls of the heathens. Hindus (under Brahmanist cover) may argue that the Law of Manu is pre-eminent and casteism is ordained. That is their business – the debate may go on ad infinitum. Arguably, it may be their self-proclaimed mandate from their God. But in the Christian business of saving souls they are damaging other peoples – their culture – and amassing more wealth distributing bibles!

Religion is probably the major component of culture; language is similarly integral to the culture of peoples. If we agree on this, then it is correct to say that religious evangelism (like colonialism) is eroding the very essence and soul of the culture of peoples; and this has happened throughout the history of the world. (General reading: Which Way Forward? by Naveen Jagan.)

Similarly, language (like religion) is an essential carrier of culture throughout the eons. Intricately interwoven in language are the embedded cumulative knowledge and history, stories, the myths, and the memory of the people for as long as their history is telescoped. Language gives a sense of place, and belonging, and primal empathy. This close affinity between language and culture is not ephemeral.

Many languages have died out and according to experts "more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world will become extinct by the end of this century." In some countries colonialism has seen the death of some languages in as little as two generations. The Indian diaspora is a revealing example. And "Languages die the way many people do – at home, in silence, attended by loved ones straining to make idle conversation." And when a language dies part of that culture is diminished. (Read Say No More by Jack Hitt, New York Times, February 29, 2004, page 52)

Death or more correct the attrition of a culture is observed in the Native peoples in the Americas, in the Third World as in the case of Africans in the Caribbean and second generation Indians, under the pressure of the dominant tongue of English and Spanish, because, speaking one's own language, one is made to feel awkward and "profusely embarrassed". In modern times "Euro-centric culture (with the constant, dominant-culture) of television insinuating itself deeply into the minds and habits of the young and impressionable" is a forceful determining factor in unwitting 'assimilation'.

In due course, pride in one's culture and one's self is lowered. Such loss of self-esteem leads to denial of self-concept and creates a profound sense of alienation to the extent that people have rejected their identity – the classic cognitive dissonance. In two generations Indians in the Caribbean have lost their healthy language (and their culture eroding), without anyone noticing or vehemently complaining. This process is happening everywhere.

Does the world need homogenization of all peoples? Do we want a monoculture? Is not the loss of diversity, language, religion, and culture a denial of fundamental human rights?

I grit my teeth and soliloquize: can the human race claim to be civilized; have we advanced; or are we acting out the barbarity of past ages now with a smooth and polished veneer? Must people constantly, brutishly, fight for the basic requisite decency of life. It seems that many who do not accept Darwinism are adhering strongly to social Darwinism in their pursuits.

How does humanity address the complex of issues that gives rise to the inhumanities that afflict and infest the so-called "civilized" world? There are many answers to this question – as diverse as there are peoples. The major powers have failed. The NGOs are failing. Human beings have failed miserably because of self-interest, parochialism, religious obsession and extremism, and plain greed.

Some believe that might is right – just tell them what they must do, and if they don't, punish them. Others argue that "if you want to get rid of the mosquitoes you first have to drain the swamp." (Gore Vidal) Certainly there must be a shift of consciousness, but more important a shift in behavior. A peace consensus is calling.

As peace eludes mankind in this millennium The World Conference on Human Rights and Peace is marked for 8th December to 10th December 2004 to bring an international meeting of concerned people to seek mechanisms for addressing questions of equality, social justice and human dignity, and global peace. Let us hope that the outcome would not be just embellished 'commitments' written in exquisite verbiage – to justify the participants' pay.

Great souls have to emerge to be great leaders. The Mandela formula for peace and conflict resolution is attainable. Mandela is not unique. He had the desire, the heart, the will, the passion, generosity of spirit and uncomplicated wisdom. We too can do it, individually and collectively, if we want to.

I remember reading the parable of the hummingbird: "The forest was in flames, and while all the other animals fled to save their skins, a hummingbird collected beakful after beakful of water from the river to pour on the fire. 'Do you really think you can put out the fire with your little beak?' asked the lion. 'I know I can't do it alone,' replied the little bird, 'but I'm doing my part.'"

Maybe the answer is within us individually – a good dose of commonsense, critical thinking, and the will to really live out the precepts of religion.

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say I'm a dreamer
I hope someday you'll join....

– John Lenon

*If you like a copy of this you may contact this writer.

Gary Girdhari is the Editor of Guyana Journal.
He has also written:
Will We Endure the Freedom?
For the Love of Peace
Iraq Invasion
Are We Nearer to a Preemptive Attack on Iraq?
Reflections on Regime Change