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Food for a civic driven thought


Human Rights Reader 305


[The Readers have often pointed out the intimate relationship between democracy and human rights. This relationship fascinates me since it brings together the often-thought-unrelated realities of poverty, the rich, silent majorities, society, class, victimization, citizenship, community, power and the exertion of influence, discrimination, politics, politicians, elections, empowerment, rulers, dictators, the ruled,  the environment, the economy, and development and security in a globalized world ruled by neoliberalism and by financial capital (…and the list is, for sure, not complete). I have continued to gather materials on this. What follows is a veritable potpourri of, what I think, are iron laws and truisms on how these realities of imperfect democracies impinge on human rights. Judge for yourself. In italics, my alter ego].


-In the name of democracy, too many promises remain unfulfilled for the poor majority; lingering poverty and a lack of transparent democratic processes flagrantly contradict the state’s rhetoric. There is not even talk of a real new chance for ‘los de abajo’ –the underdogs. (J. Ortega)

-State rhetoric frightfully castrates consciousness raising. (L. Weinstein)

-So the question is: Must poor people bind themselves to the minority elite’s terms of what democracy is –only because it is a cliché made ‘acceptable’ to the majority and ‘intelligible’ to everyone? (R. Castellanos)


The power of numbers (the many)

1. It is time to do away with the pretense that current development work ‘respects the local culture’ and ‘is not importing foreign models’. Instead, we should, once and for all, agree that it is people who must democratically decide by themselves what they see as the way forward in a development model that respects their human rights (HR). Some call this /civic driven change’. (The Broker, May 16, 2011) How little have we had of it….


2. With this in mind, we cannot but gear our efforts towards establishing and supporting democracies that serve traditionally marginalized people better and that empower them by making their voices count first and foremost as active claimants* and not be relegated to second order bystanders. (The Broker, Issue 25, June 2011)

*: It is not necessarily undemocratic for democratically-elected governments to plan if they follow the people’s stated demands in the contents of their planning; the mechanisms for this to happen have to be made explicit and be followed though.


3. [This Reader had recently maintained that] atheism or agnosticism do not necessarily modify the existence of God. But the loss of credibility of citizens in the political class does jeopardize the existence of the very democratic system. (Lao Tse) How painfully often we see this…


4. Not all acceptance of different aspects of an undemocratic regime needs to mean resignation. Complaining is a form of getting it off your chest. But it is not good enough; it makes the complainer a victim.** (Albino Gomez) You know: People write letters to protest injustices; what is the real power of these letters? They make us cry. (C. Castillo) How true… That is why the HR-based framework is based on placing concrete demands, not on mere complaining.

**: Although we may sometimes have more power over what we do not say than over what we do say, silence can be the ally of overt or covert violence and often condones it. (A. Gomez) (F. Kamanzi)  


5. It is no news to you that empires are not built, and wars are not fought by mere accident.*** They are both explained by a denial of the democratic right of nations to self-determination. They are both imposed and maintained by force and fraud, through a variety of economic, political, military and cultural institutions often using oppressive means brought about by the insecurity empires feel. Empires depend on the submission of countries they de-facto control. Today, we may not talk of empires, but the poor countries of the world are not so much under-developed as over-exploited! (M. Parenti) As Mwalimu Nyerere said: “Poor countries are price takers, not price makers”.

***: Time was when weapons were manufactured in order to fight wars. Now wars are manufactured in order to sell weapons. (Arundhati Roy)


6. Changing the global norms about democracy and about HR can be achieved and has a better chance in the current era of social media (e.g., listservers, facebook, twitter…). It is not going to happen automatically though since so much of the traffic there is on irrelevant topics. But we all know that there is also relevant traffic ‘in the electronic jungle out there’ this Reader being less and less a lonely tree in that jungle.


7. But beware: In some countries that claim being democracies, any movement (or for that matter any individual) that really works to change power relations and to challenge established interests runs a serious personal risk.


8. These dark days, perhaps we can discern a new dawn. So what difference can we as citizens (with the power of numbers) and as HR activists make? Probably less than we may hope; possibly more than each of our concrete circumstances may suggest. How much more, depends on how prepared we are to take risks and actively work towards the fulfillment of our mission. (World Nutrition)


The power of money (the few)


-The secret of governing consists in debilitating the public spirit to the point in which it becomes disinterested in ideas and principles. (Machiavelli)

-It is class interests and affiliation that decides what happens to ideas. (W. Podmore)


9. At the risk of being accused of courting controversy, I believe we live in an era where representative democracy has come to mean corporate democracy. Do I really exaggerate here?


10. Political decisions do coincide with the preferences of the rich. Just a coincidence…? The political system has moved to a ‘one-dollar-one-vote’ system away from the ‘one-person-one-vote’ notion. (Take the recent elections in the USA as an example). Where does this put the dignity of people…****

****: Note the common root in the words dignity and indignation. Indignation is contagious and very valuable in HR work –also very necessary now that we are governed by ‘super-governments’ that govern governments. (E. Galeano)


11. Would you not agree with me that there is more than a certain resemblance between ‘representative democracy’ and the style of doing big business? Both are lubricants to entrench particular interests to the detriment of everybody’s interests. (L. Weinstein)


12. So, is Capitalism less democratic and socialism more democratic than

the myths would allow?***** Can we accept that the political organization necessary for an actively participating citizenry can take forms other than those offered by often self-serving, narrow-interest, pro-status-quo political parties? (Lin Chun) 

*****: Take, for instance: i) China: Should/can the purported ‘totalitarian model’ designation that explains its reality be rejected?  ii) Most of you live in Capitalist societies and  are happy with the liberties and rights you enjoy. But what about the others? Food for thought…


13. What it all comes down to then is that, without challenging and constraining the political elite, there is no ‘creative destruction’; the elite uses political power to protect the status-quo and preserve extractive economic rents (excessive returns from its control of the market). Their iron law is their irresistible charm for fostering  (authoritarian) economic growth. Economies can grow for a long time on the basis of extraction (take the Roman Empire as an example). But without the engagement and empowerment and enterprise of the majority of people, extractive regimes eventually run out of steam and succumb to infighting and implosion. Are we going to wait until the current regime runs out of steam?


14. Remember: Poor choices are not irreparable mistakes. We may face many failures in our attempts. But failures in calling into question the very powers at play or in attempting to rein-in the excesses of financial capitalism do not have to mean a complete collapse of our endeavors. We learn as we go.


15. I say rein-in, because we cannot really democratize and humanize financial capital. Can we? The growing resentment towards financial capital comes, very simply,  from it not fostering the social good. As US president F. D. Roosevelt once said: “To be governed by organized money interests is as dangerous as being governed by organized crime”. [I do not go into details here about the role international financial interests play in fostering the global state of insecurity we live-in these (and past) days].


16. You see?: When the rich assemble to concern themselves with the business of the poor it is called charity. When the poor assemble to concern themselves with the business of the rich it is called anarchy.****** (P. Richards)  Don’t we need more of the ‘anarchy’ for meaningful social change and for achieving the universal respect for HR…?

******: ‘Lawlessness of the masses’ is the code used by those in power for what really is mass mobilization of the lower classes. (V. Navarro)


17.We need to further acknowledge that, for centuries, philosophy was asking the wrong question, namely: How can we find the best rulers (and then let them rule)?  This was the question from Plato onwards.  But the real question is: How can we peacefully get rid of rulers once we’ve discovered that they aren’t at all the best –and try to find some that are better?  That is what democracy is about. And unless you can get rid of bad rulers, preferably peacefully, HR have no chance. (F. Dyson) This is what the Arab Spring attempted. But the rulers are not necessarily only the ones who hold office –they are the people behind the scenes who hold the reins of economic power. Do I need to elaborate why?


18. The concentration of financial power is at the heart of the directions ‘democracy’ has taken –a democracy that perpetrates the worst HR offenses, from eking people out of their homes to land grabbing from peasants, to sweat shops… You know the litany…


19. Bottom line, for HR to have a chance, activists have no choice but to push for much heavier-handed government intervention. Citizens power needs to be built-up for this. Nobody goes further than he who goes nowhere. i.e., we go nowhere if nobody takes a first step.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


-The combination of daring questions and out-of-the-box answers is what makes the HR Readers the contrarians they are. (adapted from G. Akerlof)

-HR Readers criticize and question the existing social order; but above all they are a dynamic mixture of current voices and events; they set themselves in the present questioning the sense of the future, hence their political nature.  (adapted from J. Ortega)




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