Posts Tagged ‘Rights’

Where Will Change Come From?

September 18, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

To want new things in old ways is to consign oneself to despair, frustration, anger and impotence.

That at least was my conclusion after attending an event organized by activists to deliberate on poverty and the rights of citizens. As the meeting progressed, I sensed a shadow descending between the desire and plan for its realization.

The event commenced with a presentation of economic and social data – growth, employment generation, cost of living, income inequality, poverty estimates, access to services, allocations to the social sectors, etc., etc.

There followed a discussion that more or less ignored all the nuances of the presentation save a generalized sense that the situation was terrible and unacceptable. One after another speakers engaged in extended rants excoriating all governments for exploiting people and pillaging the country’s resources for personal ends.

Many heartbreaking incidents were narrated and, as is natural in such gatherings, people felt compelled to top one gruesome anecdote with another.

One could not help concluding there was an enemy whose identity was clearly recognized, whose motivations were thoroughly exposed, and whose callousness was never in doubt. Even those who had served governments joined in the affirmations.

Having thus exhausted themselves, the participants were relieved by the announcement for tea. Refreshed and recharged, they returned with new vigor for the next round.

The objective of the meeting, we were informed, was to prepare a charter of demands on behalf of citizens to be presented to the government. It was here that I felt the first pang of doubt but there was no time to indulge it as the discussion had picked up.

The speakers took turns again and most alluded to human and civil rights in the West as models for what was needed in Pakistan. It was a long list. After a relatively orderly discussion, a period of panic ensued when several participants feared their constituency might be ignored. Distressed cries to add various motley items emanated from nooks and crannies and were duly accommodated.

It was now time for the concluding session when the strategy to obtain the aforementioned rights was to be debated. It was here that my doubts came flooding back.

The talking began anew and speaker after speaker, most of them ardent and veteran trade unionists, indulged in equally emotional rants about what the government should or ought to do for their constituencies. Suggestions covered the entire spectrum of the demands that had been listed in the earlier round – the government should provide education, health, clean water, public transport, unemployment benefits, social security, justice, etc., etc.

It became hard for me to reconcile the pre- and post-tea discourses, the identification of the enemy and the calls to it for amelioration. The first thought that crossed my mind was courtesy of Mir Taqi Mir pointing to the naiveté involved in seeking a cure from the very person who made one ill:

Mir kya saada hain biimaar huuay jis ke sabab
usii attaar ke laundey se dawa letey hain

Literature often provides an anchor for a perspective that the social scientist can then explore for further insights. I reflected on the happenings of the day as I filtered out with the crowd after a crowning cup of tea amidst much bonhomie and backslapping.

My overwhelming sense was one of disorientation. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, my desires emerging from the present and my responses from the past. The world had changed while attitudes seemed lagging behind.

In the case of the event being described, it seemed that the evolution of citizenship rights in the West had a profound influence on the aspirations of the participants. At the same time, the mechanisms for the realization of those aspirations remained deeply rooted in the monarchical traditions of South Asia.

The whole process of which I had been a witness could well have been enacted during the Mughal Empire – subjects frustrated with an uncaring ruler pleading for redress of their grievances, the grievances themselves listed, in no particular order, on a scroll to be presented to the ruler in question. The image was hard to shake of the golden chain of justice with its sixty bells that any subject could pull to summon Emperor Jahangir himself to a hearing.

Notwithstanding our traditions, it was still disconcerting to find hardened trade unionists whose life had been spent mobilizing labor against employers, looking up to and pleading with a sovereign to grant them their rights, the same sovereign they had castigated in such categorical terms just moments earlier.

There seemed scant realization that like Europe we too now exist in a post-monarchical age, one characterized by sovereignty of the people and representative government. And, that in such an age, one looks to citizens, not rulers, for the dynamic of change.

We live in the age of citizens, not subjects, and politics, not pleading, is the instrument for change in our times. The information culled from the presentation of economic and social data needs to be turned not into a charter of demands but a compelling narrative for the voters. And trade unionists and political activists need to busy themselves mobilizing voters around that narrative.

Only when citizens articulate their needs, understand the causes for their remaining unfulfilled,   and use the power of the vote to transform them into effective demand, would the state feel compelled to pay heed to them.

The meeting that had started with a bang had ended with a whimper. The chain of justice is gone while the power of the vote remains unused. Our activists are looking up when they should be looking down.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on September 17, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Thinking About the Elections in Pakistan

April 1, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention.

For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them. (more…)

If I Were a Christian

March 16, 2013

What would I be thinking if I were a Christian in Pakistan today after yet another incident that has victimized the members of my community? What would I be asking of those who are my fellow citizens?

I use the term ‘fellow citizens,’ knowingly because I am asking for a reciprocal recognition of my rights as a full citizen of this country. These include my civil rights, the protection of my life and property, which are guaranteed under the law.

I would urge my fellow citizens to understand the nature of the incident in which the houses of an entire community have been burned for the alleged transgression of one member of that community. (more…)

More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon.

The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples. (more…)

9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

September 11, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The response to 9/11 has been challenged along two lines: that it imposed a huge cost on the world without making it much safer; and that a legal-political approach would have yielded better outcomes. Both arguments, implicitly or explicitly, presume that an alternative response was possible. A reassessment of this presumption can help highlight some less discussed aspects of our world before and after 9/11.

Prima facie it is plausible to assert that it was not necessary to frame the 9/11 provocation as an act of war. It could have been classified as a crime, albeit a spectacular one, and prosecuted using political leverage as needed. Given the near universal condemnation of the act and the swell of support for the US from nation-states, concerted political pressure on a weak Afghan state would in all likelihood have delivered the masterminds of the crime to be dealt with according to established legal procedures.

The apprehension of Osama bin Laden might have occurred much earlier but even if it had taken ten years, as it eventually did, the cost to the US and to the world would have been much lower.

There are recent precedents for the response to an Al-Qaeda (AQ) style movement. All through the 1970s, the Red Army Fraction (RAF) and the Red Brigades (RB) terrorized Europe using extremist ideologies and very violent means to destabilize states. In both cases their acts were treated as crimes and it took about ten years to completely snuff out the movements.

At its peak, AQ had no more than between three and five thousand core members. Why could it not have been dealt with along similar lines? Both the similarities and the differences between AQ and the European groups are instructive for this argument. The similarities are so striking that one is forced to take seriously the question of why they were treated so differently. Why, in particular, was the ideological rhetoric of the RF and RB never taken seriously while that of AQ was taken at face value, a stance that opened the door to a declaration of war?

The differences suggest possible answers to the question. First, both the RAF and the RB were largely confined within national borders (of Germany and Italy, respectively). Second, the motivations of the RAF and RB were entirely ideological; there were no specific criminal acts of the German and Italian states to which the groups could lay claim as the motivation for their acts of terror or which the states had credible need to defend in front of any audience. Third, the ethnic and religious identities of the contending parties were the same.

In the case of 9/11, it can be argued that AQ brought into the US the kind of ‘crime’ that was a commonplace in the global international order – that of attempting to destabilize other countries for self-proclaimed aims of national interest. How else would one classify the acts of the US government in Iran and Guatemala, of the USSR in Hungary and Afghanistan, of Iraq in Kuwait, or of Pakistan in India, to list just a few examples? It would be hard to argue that the determination of a crime turns not on the violation of a law or norm but on agreement with the self-serving rhetoric of the violator. It stands to reason that treating 9/11 as a crime, apprehending the AQ criminals alive and prosecuting them in a public trial would have forced an open discussion of the relative merits of such claims even if they were to be ultimately dismissed.

Given that the American citizenry has remained largely unaware of the long history of such US interventions (for which those at the receiving end consider the term ‘crime’ appropriate), it was far easier to cloud the issue in the rhetoric of war and ride the swell of patriotism to minimize any debate that might otherwise have transpired. The ‘otherness’ of AQ in terms of ethnicity and religion helped press all the old stereotypes into action to inflate its threat, couch the war in the frame of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and trigger a discourse of ‘them’ hating ‘us’ because of our values.

This argument can be better appreciated in a longer time frame. In the age before the emergence of the nation-state and sovereign borders, these types of interventions did not fall into the category of crime. Alexander could attempt to subdue India, Changez Khan could roll across Central Asia, and Isabella and Ferdinand could conquer Mexico. In retrospect we can deplore such ‘violations’ but there was no framework that classified them as such. The interventionists neither needed permission from their own subjects nor were answerable to any international body charged with protecting the rights of non-subjects.

This began to change with the emergence of representative governments. Even though no global institutions existed to protect non-subjects, even if only in name, till much later, governments intervening outside their borders had to provide some convincing narrative to their own voters. This is when the ‘burden of civilization’ was born as a serviceable rationale. Thus the British takeover of India after 1857, though it did not need to be covert, was couched in the heavy rhetoric of bringing enlightenment to natives living in darkness who had to be gradually raised to the position where they could deserve to rule themselves. It was accepted that some people needed to be suppressed for their own good.

By contrast, American interventions, especially those following WWII, occurred in times when they were in violation of international norms. Therefore, they had to be covert and when they couldn’t, they needed to be legitimized. Wars of self-defense and pre-emptive actions to make the world a better place were among the sources of such legitimacy. In this perspective, one can understand how 9/11 was framed as an act of war – the US had been attacked and forced to retaliate in its defense. In order to forestall a discussion of the past, 9/11 was transformed into another Zero hour of history.

Once declared, the ‘war on terror’ elicited all the accompanying rhetoric; it would not only avenge humiliation and ensure justice, it would make the world safer, spread democracy to places where dictators reigned, and liberate women living under oppression. Left unsaid, since the past had been obliterated, was the fact that it was the US itself that had derailed democracy in many of these places and installed the dictators who were now to be replaced. And that the plight of women, or of dissidents struggling for civil and political rights, had heretofore never been a concern warranting a call to arms. Given the burden of history, all this could not have been said without exposing US officials to criminal charges of the kind that those from smaller countries (Serbia, Croatia, etc.) were expected to face under international law.

There was thus no alternative response to 9/11 except a ‘war on terror’ quite independent of its costs and consequences. It is of course quite probable that US officials underestimated the cost and duration of the war (indeed the selling of the war made such underestimation inevitable) or that alternative ways of waging the war could have resulted in lower costs. The fact remains that is difficult to conceive of a viable alternative response given the magnitude of the provocation and the prior understanding of history by the citizenry. Hence the almost immediate decision to commit to war and a strong discouragement of any questioning of that choice.

Ten years later, the costs of the war, the fact that it has exacerbated the very dangers it was supposed to quell, and the huge encroachments on individual liberties are all forcing into the open the very issues that the war was intended to bury. A potent new source of global instability and uncertainty has emerged. It is a fact that there is no nation-state that can do in the US what the US can do in other countries relying on the imbalance of power. What remained unanticipated, a failure of intelligence, was that changes in technology might enable a non-state group to commit an act of terror of such magnitude inside the US. The imbalance of power now stands reversed because non-state actors only need a few successful acts to destabilize the world or impose a huge cost on it while nation-states need to prevent each and every such attempt to feel secure. Even so, the uncertainty can never be reduced to zero.

The open-ended war against terror poses a further dilemma. The pronouncements of NATO powers justifying the war to their citizens fuel the resentments of those whose lived experiences are consequences of what they consider criminal acts in their countries. This is clearly an unsustainable situation that signals a shift towards a different equilibrium in the future.

The framework of rights can possibly provide a glimpse of that future. Rights to date have been wrested by citizens, workers, minorities, women and children. But all these rights have protection, to greater or lesser degree, inside national boundaries. There has been no equivalent protection of the rights of non-citizens. The citizens of Egypt, for example, had no effective recourse against the alleged complicity of the US in the violation of their rights. There was no forum to which such a charge could be brought for deliberation.

Ten years after 9/11 we are beginning to conceive a world in which such acts would be more openly questioned, where violation of the rights of non-subjects would trigger legal consequences, where countries would not be able to exempt themselves from international conventions, and where, when such acts are committed, the perpetrators would be subject to prosecution.

9/11 was a major crime committed by a murderous gang. The response to 9/11 began to lift the veil from the imbalance of global power in which this was just one crime among many and highlighted the fact that the world would only become a safer place when all such crimes are reduced by a credible threat of prosecution and arbitrary retaliations are ruled out. The rights of all citizens of the world need to be formally guaranteed and effectively protected. For that to happen there is need to advance to the stage where justice is no longer selective or subservient to power.

This article is a follow on to September Eleven.

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South Asia – 2: Three Deprivations

October 25, 2009

Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations.

The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income.

The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power. (more…)

Education and the Rights of Children

April 24, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

In earlier posts we have highlighted what we feel many schools in South Asia are doing (inculcating hatred) that is harmful to the social psyche of children. We have also discussed what we feel enough schools are not doing (proactively teaching tolerance) that would be beneficial for the social health of South Asian countries.

In this post we look at education from a different perspective and raise two questions that ought to occupy centre-stage in the debate over the public school curriculum: What are the rights of a child? And, how are these rights to be ensured?

There is much room for disagreement on the first, which should lead to a vigorous debate. This would be interesting, given that ‘rights’ cover the entire spectrum from the simple to the complex and from the obvious to the controversial. (more…)