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Food for a civic driven thought


Human Rights Reader 306


[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].


“If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal”. (Emma Goldman as cited by M. Engler)


The power of organization (communities)

20. Community organizing for democracy means building up organizations and developing skills so that people can define and fight for the resolution of their own problems. (H. Boyte)


21. Traditional state authoritarianism, more recently combined with market fundamentalism, have further fragmented and decimated already divided societies. Poor people have easier access to jail than to justice! How can the global citizenship survive the so many forms of violence, marginalization and human rights (HR) abuses? The HR framework contends that this is only possible if and when communities can (re)invent themselves as collective claimants. (J. Ortega)


22. So, ‘what do we do on Monday morning’? is the very practical question to answer when trying to come up with concrete applications of some of these abstract ideas for a truly democratic organization for development. (Fowler and Biekart)


23. It is said that for each organized community (political party or union) that wants to reach its objectives, an organizer must be the one who thinks things through, who takes the responsibility and leads. (But, beware! Albert Einstein cautioned us: “systems that are too autocratic can soon degenerate; autocracy attracts wo/men of poor morality”).


24. The build-up of power from the social realm-on is better first achieved in many small spaces, before reaching the national space. The people have had, and still have, the better capacity to act in those small spaces to, in that realm, amass power and gear it to the national political space. But these social actors have been neglected and/or have been deprived of an ideology that can help them rightly assess their current situation and plan their future; they have been and are left in the cold. The people can indeed act politically in their respective small spaces; therein lies the challenge. We have to make it a point that it is more important to arrive at exerting power in small spaces before we do so in national spaces. (L. Bustos)


25. Amassing power from below is indeed the way to go. But it is also true that small is no longer beautiful, ultimately effective or meaningful. Decisions are made increasingly at the national and supranational levels —  grassroots power will eventually have to converge towards them. (The Broker, May 16, 2011)


Raw power (the politicians)


-A nation of sheep brings about a government of wolves.

-Politicians think about the next elections; statesmen think about the coming generations. (Albino Gomez)


26. Politicians can be bold: “We all know what to do, but we do not know how to get reelected once we have done it”. (J-C. Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxenburg) They can also not be bold and talk left and walk right (P. Bond), or they can hawk the ideas of Thatcher, Reagan, Bush and Romney that can often be the social equivalent of claiming the earth is flat.*

* Have you noticed that some elected officials are paid for their excess simplicity?


27. Faced with such a breed of ‘gung-ho politicians’ who push the wrong reforms year-in-year-out, the problem we have is not with civil disobedience, but rather civil obedience. (H. Zinn) (A. Rossi) I repeat: A nation of sheep brings about a government of wolves.


28. Imaginative thinking is not the forte of control-oriented leaders whose job is more to eliminate opposition and to ensure the public’s dependence. Citizens anywhere are hardly alone in their willingness to surrender their rights to obey and conform. (It is traditions that promote the behaviors by which societies agree to live with themselves. Ergo, we do not have to just fight tyranny, but the traditions that uphold it). The paternalism characterizing so many societies is endlessly and automatically replicated. Displays of power come subliminally with presidential cavalcades, with popes waving from palace windows or from a pope-mobile, with  monarchs celebrating diamond jubilees… High officials tend to view themselves as stern but wise fathers. But, think, politicians only have power over you, because they have received it from you. By now, it should be clear to you that basic freedoms and HR are as vital as food and water; that without them, economic and political stability are only sustained by mere oppression and keeping order by force; and this is a sham democracy. We cannot be ambivalent about this, i.e., realizing that so much is wrong and being reluctant to challenge the status-quo. Our discontent is becoming as toxic as the air we breathe. Defensive thinking, by definition, does not foster the needed mobilization. In Marx’s words, “the world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire only if it becomes conscious of it”. (Maria Golia)


29. In HR work, we are not neutral when faced with the option between dictatorship, tyranny and democracy or between oppressors and oppressed.  Politicians we are ready to work with are the ones that organize people in their constituencies, listen to their genuine claims and incorporate them in their decision making. A rare breed? Democracy is a space of collaboration in a common endeavor; that is the intention of true democracy.


Power exercised by voting?


-Must a society be kept anesthesized to be happy?

-The cynical reality of so many elections is that

what voters ‘know’ is largely left to the campaign

with the largest coffers. Indeed, power produces

and manipulates that knowledge. (C. Silver)


30. In the US (but not only), it is every time clearer that the ‘media-circus’* corrupts the vote-every-4-years democracy of the far past. People are tired of so much negative political advertising; even the conservative commentators say so. People want something deeper in the campaigning. Deep in the sense of what is meaningful to the country. More and more disillusioned voters are realizing their own power to build the country and the world they dream of. (Avaaz) This is something for HR activists to definitely build-on.

*: Interesting metaphor; it joins the other so appropriate metaphor: ‘casino economy”.


31. We say that elections must have a winner. But there must not be a winner; there must be a chosen person. There is a difference here, because what an election does is to assign a responsibility. If we go for winners, the reaction is: “We won, now let’s seize and use our new power!”. (H. Maturana)


The power of nature (planetary democracy)

32. “It is becoming obvious that the richer we become financially, the poorer we become culturally and ecologically.  An increase in economic wellbeing, as measured in cash value, leads us to an increased poverty in cultural,ecological and spiritual aspects.  I think that the concept of Planetary Democracy allows us to imagine and to create real, living democracies rooted in the intrinsic values of all peoples, of all cultures, aiming at a fair and just distribution of vital resources, at an equitable distribution of the making-of-decisions about the earth’s resources. Such a planetary democracy protects both a life-supporting environment and fundamental HR that are at the base of the right to life, i.e., including the right to water, to food, to health, to education, to work and to sustenance. We simply have to choose: Will we obey the laws of the market of corporate greed or the international HR laws? To defend the rights of Mother Earth is our most important human rights and social justice struggle; it means joining the widest peace movement of our times. (Vandana Shiva)


33. To close, our societies are resting atop massive fault lines –political, economic, security and other. (F+D, 48:2, June 2011) In 2013, a burning question we all ask ourselves is: Do free market societies, where not all people vote, prosper due to voter apathy/disillusion or is it that the unequal system these societies create is bound to implode regardless? I will not wait. Will you?


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-There are many ways of killing. They can stab a knife in your belly; take away the bread from you; not treat you when sick; confine you to a shanty; push you towards suicide; exploit you to death through work; take you to war, etc. Only very few of these are forbidden actions for our respective States. (Bertolt Brecht)

-The real power issues of our world are not resolved in the United Nations. Wars and genocide do not have real containment mechanisms, except when such are of circumstantial convenience to the major powers and players; the big stakes are theirs; the dead are the others’. (D. Caputo)



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