March 27, 2008

Kishosre Mahbubani on human rights cowards

This is really good but here are a few points. The US has long advocated torture - particularly in Latin American. It just paid the buck$ to have a "local" do it and that was that. But to tear up the Army Field Manual was a bit beyond the beyond. That is part and parcel of the poisitoin the US government takes that it owns the world in the plutocracy's interests -- and must have an official strategies of being a "madman" so people are always AFRAID. Such was the great instituionalization of the neocons GWOT tactics.

One sign of real progress would be the closing of the infamous School of the Americas and stopping the criminalization of those who protest it - THEN and only then can we safely say that the US has no intention of being a torturer nation. Canada has much to answer for on the human rights/torture issue as well. I know what they do, and I am not fooled. Those who participated in rendition/black sites need to be called to account as well, let us not forget that.

I have difficulties reading a rehash of the old Cold War paradigm as well - we live in an age of transglobalism.


The sermons of cowards

The west is squandering authority on democracy and human rights: it fails to practise as it preaches

Something remarkable has happened in the struggle for greater freedom and democracy. The world's most powerful nation and the traditional beacon for democracy, the United States, has slid backwards. One of the world's poorest nations and the world's most populous Islamic state, Indonesia, has moved distinctly forward. And yet western discourse largely ignores this development, as evidenced by the sweeping speech on democracy delivered by the foreign secretary, David Miliband, last month.

The first flaw of western discourse is its inability to practise what it preaches in this respect: to speak truth to power. This is revealed in the reluctance of western governments to discuss the most catastrophic reversal in the field of human rights: the decision by the US government to defend the use of torture. In the evolution of human rights there have been two quantum leaps: the first was the universal abolition of slavery; the second, the move towards abolishing torture.

Ten years ago, if anyone had suggested the US would reintroduce torture, the answer would have been "impossible!" Yet the impossible has happened. Amnesty International has described Guantánamo as "the gulag of our times". Despite their history of condemning human rights violations, no western nation has condemned the US government for Guantánamo. Miliband's speech rightly applauded several brave Burmese people for standing up to the military government. They spoke truth to power, and at great personal risk. Sadly, even though he faced no personal risks, Miliband could not muster the courage to speak truth to power regarding Guantánamo.

Even more tellingly, in the US there has been a broader reversal on many civil rights issues. In the face of threats from terrorism, the population has, in effect, accepted a reduction of civil liberties, symbolised by the Patriot Act. In so doing, Americans have revealed that in a crunch they behave no differently to other societies. When they feel threatened, they too are prepared to sacrifice civil liberties - thus providing a new negative role model for others.

The second flaw in western discourse is the refusal to recognise its track record of double standards in the promotion of human rights and democracy. When a western country has to choose between promoting its values or defending its interests, interests always trump values. No western country promotes democracy in Saudi Arabia. Too many interests would have to be sacrificed in doing so. But in states such as Burma and Zimbabwe, where no major western interests are at risk, values can take primacy. When Tashkent agreed to host a valuable American military base in the battle against terrorism, the British ambassador, Craig Murray, was forced to resign in protest against the silence of his government on human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.

We are moving toward a more intelligent world. Globally, the number of highly educated people, especially in Asia, has never been higher. They can now make well-informed judgments about what the west does with human rights. Hence, while the west conducts a self-congratulatory conversation on the subject, the rest of the world sees an emperor with no moral clothing.

The third flaw in western discourse is that when presented with a choice between doing good and feeling good, the west almost always chooses the latter because it costs less. Burma exemplifies this best. History teaches that sanctions and exclusions have never succeeded in transforming societies. Engagement and dialogue over time lead to change. The tragedy of 20 years of isolation of Burma has done no good, even though the politicians of the west have felt good condemning the regime.

A prominent Burmese intellectual, Thant Myint-U, grandson of U Thant, the former UN secretary general, wrote in the International Herald Tribune: "What outside pressure can bring about democratic change? And why, after nearly two decades of boycotts, aid cut-offs, trade bans and diplomatic condemnation, are Burma's generals apparently more in charge than ever before? Are we really looking at Burma - a country of 55 million people - in the right way?"

The paradox here is that engaging Burmese generals will require political courage from western politicians. They will have to justify this to their own people and perhaps pay a political price as a consequence. To avoid any risk, western politicians heap praise (as Miliband does) on Burmese dissidents, lauding their courage - while simultaneously demonstrating their own moral and political cowardice.

The time therefore has arrived for a new discourse between the west and the rest on freedom and democracy. In December we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This may well provide an opportunity for the west to change course; nothing can or will prevent it lecturing the world on human rights. But it could nevertheless learn to do something new: to listen to the voices from the rest of the world.

· Kishore Mahbubani is the author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, and will speak at the London School of Economics next Tuesday

These words will resonate will all those who join in the condemnation of this most disastrous period; an appalling US presidency leading out the coalition of the arm-twisted, blind-eyed, circumlocutionary discourses of its hegemony.

And as our awareness of the biggest market failure in history, the carbon bungle, turns our culture from hubris to disquiet we realise that the surrender of values to base interests is not only short-sighted but possibly fatally flawed.


It is not 'western discourse' but global ruling class discourse. By using such terminology as 'western discourse' the author, I think, reveals he is 'siding' with a notion of a division between east and west that is as politically corrupt as the positions and policies he (rightly) damns. Would it not be rather crazy for a nation-state to act in its foreign policy against its own ruling class's perceived economic and strategic interests (to be 'moral')? Yes. Yet to its own subjects it must appear to always be doing so, or at least trying to.

One thing I noted recently in Bush's statement on Iraq was the way it assumed, newly, that the war simply removed the threat from the US by planting or exacerbating it in another country (Iraq). Can't this be taken as an admission of a war crime, to sacrifice the ordinary Iraqi civilian in such a way?

The author has a rather quaint notion of the history of democracy if he thinks it ever was very very 'noble'.

A timely piece, but one that seems more focused on provocation than on landing any palpable hits. It's the tired old references to 'western discourse' that give the game away, I think. Not because it doesn't exist, but because it's neither as isolated nor as unified as you suggest.

Of course, as an old UN hand, you are no doubt aware of that, Mr Mahbubani. So I can only presume that the superficiality of the argument stems from a somewhat disingenuous unwillingness to set the 'cowardice' of 'the west' off against a more robust promotion of what 'the rest' has to offer. Maybe it's a marketing strategy for your new book. However, given your career as a long-time ambassador for Singapore and you current position as Dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, your argument begs as many questions as it answers. How, for instance, do you square your use of an Amnesty report to lend credibility to your analysis, with the fact that Amnesty is effectively banned in Singapore? How valid can a critique of western sanctions on Burma be when it fails to acknowledge that Asean's much vaunted policy of 'non-interference in domestic affairs' has proved similarly impotent?

I do not presume that you speak for the Singapore Government on these matters; but surely an argument of this sort can be both more rounded and more rambunctious, and would make for greater substance than taking pot-shots at the Boy King Miliband?

Good article, very good points raised. I've often wondered why we, the U.S., talk about spreading democracy but never begin with those nations most likely to listen: our allies (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc.). Instead we begin by invading or threatening those least likely to listen - our enemies (Iraq, Iran, etc.) with bombs and democracy. It's just as when we were fighting communism, but allowing other forms of cruel dictatorship stand. It has to do with convenience, not principle.

That the US can export democracy after 2000, when the fellow who lost the election was selected by a group of partisan judges to be installed in the white house, is laughable.

I object to points in the article that talk about America, or Americans, as rolling back their own freedoms. America hasn't done this. A handful of power-hungry and cynical cowards, often collectively referred to as neocons, chickenhawks, or the Bush Administration, has done this.

They promote a climate of fear and market themselves as the antidote to the threat. It's merely a ploy to gain and retain power. It worked when they talked about "the evil empire", it works now they talk about "the evil terrorists". Freedom makes people difficult to govern, and democracy makes power uncertain. They're just doing what they need to do to remain in control, and marketing it under security measures.

That it works, is a different issue. Most Americans "don't have time" to be aware of the issues or to analytically think about what's going on. "Don't have time" means "are more interested in sports, celebrity, and other vapidity". And let's not forget the sad and powerful influence of right-wing hate radio, Fox "News", and other strong sources of misinformation and propaganda. While folly and willful ignorance are deplorable, I have difficulty blaming these poor people for locking their own cell doors. Most Americans feel torture is wrong. It's just they've been made so fearful, with visions of another 9/11/01 and mushroom clouds if we don't torture, that they'll acquiesce to extreme measures without thinking. I'm not excusing their cowardice and lack of thought and soul. But living here, I understand why it happens.

Now, let's wait for RogeredInTheUSA to come on with an off-topic gripe about British democracy as trite retaliation.

I do tend to agree with the article, but we must remember the definition of torture has gone beyond what most people consider torture. The US advocated physical torture in the form of waterboarding, but as human rights have expanded now almost anything is considered torture. A clear definition of torture along with enough leeway for interrogators to gain information through psychological means.

The United States along with other European countries need to make a firm stand on what is acceptable and what is not. They need to tie economic trade benefits to ones human rights record. Why does the US trade with Saudia Arabia and China, but not Cuba? Perhaps if we held onto our principles or at least had a clear method for countries to garner economic benefits there would be a better reform.

We also have to make sure human rights are ensure a fair justice system where things we accept as reasonable such as a Jury by Peers, trials and appeals. This however does not remove the notion the punishment should fit the crime. Hanging murderers should not be deemed a human right violation if the person was convicted of murder.

Much as Kishore Mahbubani is correct in highlighting the stark differences at times in 'what we say and what we do' perhaps we might look at in what circumstances we tend to deviate more than in others.

He might have pointed more strongly that Western politicians, such as Miliband, focus criticism on countries which have poor or worse Government which are resource rich: Sudan, Burma, Iran, (Iraq's is work in progress), Somalia, Russia, etc but not Zimbabwe, and certainly not on our friends as mentioned: Saudi Arabia etc.

It seems possible that the dearth of new resources under the control of US/UK Big Oil is a specific driver back towards the type of Imperialism that was practised hisorically-the human rights abuses, illegal invasions- (I mean how can it be illegal they've got oil?)- etc.

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