Tuesday, October 28, 2008

And here's to you, Ms Robinson

Today I was privileged to attend a talk delivered at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton by Mary Robinson, who was President of Ireland from 1990-97. She then became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and thereafter has remained a distinguished figure in the field of Human Rights, which was the subject of her talk. Surprising, then, that the modest-sized Wolfensohn Hall at IAS was not even half full.

Mary Robinson's talk came as a breath of fresh air to me after nearly a month of being in the US and finding the political discourse narrowed down to "hockey moms" and "Joe six-pack", apparently nowadays the only type of people who count on the planet!

Ms Robinson spoke at some length of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has earned a Guinness book citation for being translated into the largest number of languages - I just checked that this list includes virtually every Indian language I know of, including Bhojpuri, along with languages one has vaguely heard of, like Achehnese and Dzongkha, and languages I have definitely never heard of like Cashibo-Cacataibo, Minangkabao and Oromiffa! I guess when something is universal, it needs to be accessible to everyone! (You can read it here in your own favourite language.)

Sorry, I digressed. After a sketch of the history of this Declaration, which completes its 60th anniversary in December 2008, she touched on the situation post-2000. In that year there were high hopes that human rights could be pushed up on the agenda across the world. But then 9/11 happened. The UN pushed for "the perpetrators to be brought to justice" but (she phrased this more delicately than I will) the US decided to institute a "global war on terror" and with this decision, it became inevitable that human rights would be violated around the world. Soon there were accounts of torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, renditions to other countries etc. And moreover whole generations of young people, particularly in the Middle East, have been demonised and branded as "Islamic terrorists" and their anger is liable to worsen exactly the situation that this so-called "global war" was supposed to address.

I don't think she was trying to paint the US as the world's chief human rights violator or anything like that. And she didn't try to present a list of human rights violating countries, though there were some pointed references to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think her opposition to the "war on terror" was based on sadness about its counter-productive nature, and I certainly share that view. She also pointed out that 4 billion of 6.8 billion people on the planet do not have basic human rights protections, a truly sobering thought.

After this she spoke admiringly of Eleanor Roosevelt and several other Americans including contemporary ones for their contributions to the field of human rights. She also spoke more generally about women's rights, specifically health and reproductive, issues she has always cared about but on which she was often a lone voice in the Irish Parliament (as I learned from Wikipedia).

In the course of the discussion she touched upon different kinds of rights. Besides the familiar rights - political, civil, social - at some stage she encountered the novel (to her) concept of "business rights". As she explained it, poor people frequently carry out unconventional "entrepreneurial" trades and they need their rights to carry out such trades to be protected. I found this illuminating and thought about the harsh life led by the so-called "unorganised sector" in cities like Bombay - people who work in temporary jobs as vendors or casual labourers, who have no job contract or union membership, and who can be subjected to the brutality and whims of their employer, government and police. "Business rights" becomes a very relevant concept when you think of it this way.

Another section of the talk that stuck in my mind was her description of a group called the "Business and Human Rights Resource Centre", whose website is here. It's a group of large corporations that investigate the ethical implications of their business, including such aspects as child labour and poor labour conditions in countries that supply them products. She cited an interesting example of "The Gap", a US clothing company that was being supplied clothes from an Indian factory (really a "sweatshop") where the working conditions were found to be appalling. Her point here was again somewhat novel. When this company released this information they expected to come under attack by human rights groups like Amnesty, but to their surprise these groups actually commended them for being open and urged them to fix the problems they had found. "The Gap" responded by *not* closing their Indian operations, but instead trying to work with the supplying company to improve the working conditions for its employees.

A final aspect of her talk that sticks in my mind was about a law (I forget precisely in what context) that would make governments responsible when business carried on by their own corporations brings about human rights violations in other countries. This has some obvious implications - as she put it, a corporation operating in a poor country having an ineffective, corrupt or simply "bad" government might think there was no one to hold them accountable on human rights, but under this law the government of the corporation's home country would be obliged to monitor its operations.

I have given but a very fragmented sketch of Ms Robinson's hour-long talk. Much of it I've forgotten, much of it was personal and anecdotal (including a dig at Lady Thatcher), and anyway my aim was never to give you an account of the talk but only to highlight the thoughts it set off in my mind.

I can imagine many cynical people of the Left persuasion lambasting her (and my description of her talk) for being basically pro-business and pro-capitalist (she certainly spoke of former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who endowed the IAS lecture hall, as a "friend").

I can think of even more people of the Right persuasion saying what is needed in the world right now is not some sissy human-rights crap like this but a muscular leadership and a "universal moral clarity between good and evil" (words of the great philosopher George W. Bush).

And I can hear a third camp who see themselves being neither strongly Left nor Right, but who will simply point out that the United Nations is a tired and ineffective body that produces earnest pamphlets but little else. I admit that I have in the past occasionally sided with this camp.

Well all I can say is, we should all care about human rights, and perhaps earnest pamphlets are a good start in making us think about this subject. On behalf of Ms Robinson I'll ask you now to please read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by clicking on the link above. She would also like you to carry around the declaration and implement it in your own company, institution, country, or whatever.

1 comment:

Meta Dynamic Systems said...

Thanks Sunil for this blog entry - a great branding of and for a worthy cause. Once again, what I am about to mention is, perhaps, conceptually a subset of your blog entry. Here is my experience with the Declaration pamphlet.

On the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, December, 10, 1998, The Times of India (and if I remember well, all news papers here) published the pamphlet on one full page. I do remember, with enthusiasm, informing quite a few of my acquaintances about the pamphlet and even urging them to get a copy for themselves. The Declaration adorned the inside of my cupboard for quite a few years. I am sure I can fetch out from my junkyard the close-to-pieces-my-own-copy of the Declaration pamphlet. Last time I visited a cousin of mine, the Declaration was still there on the wall. I also remember reading and discussing with a few, and with mixed expressions, most of which were similar to 'The exorcist' watching. “Date Modified” attribute of the html copy of the Declaration that I downloaded into my computer says 07 October 2003. I, somewhere, had an electronic image of the original. The Declaration certainly had made a decent entry into my psyche, though not an 'easy' read for me. The Declaration recurred in quite a few discussions with decreased intensity. I have also, perhaps, mentioned about the Declaration to a few Internet-friends.

I will not classify myself to be an informed source on the world order or global proceedings. I, however, will not classify myself to be completely ill-informed either. What do I want to say? It must be a minimum of two years since I remembered the Declaration. Do I miss the Declaration? Do I want a go at an attempt to get the Declaration back again into my psyche? Is my persuasion to Left or Right or Centre? I wonder. Perhaps I have taken an unscientific position that there is a stark decline in the percentage of total humanity's affinity to such declarations. Call me pessimistic, ye detractors, I personally feel that the humanity had enough precursors(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights#Precursors) to the Declaration and, perhaps, better. One of my favourite responses to the much clichéd statement “We are standing on the shoulders of the giants” is “Sure. Visibility of the those with scourges among them dominant!” How long should we popularise the quotes of the kind “It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward”.

Let me see whether I can connect through my favourite bias – Learning. I think right of education is at the core of the initiatives of the Declaration kind. Enabling learning is an important key element. One of the high impact project I got in touch with was World Bank sponsored towards bridging the digital divide using ICT technologies in Agriculture, Health care and the third that I could connect to – Education. I was impressed by my recent read “Institutes for Advanced Study: Ideas, Histories, Rationales” by BJÖRN WITTROCK – A high level reference to learning. I am connected to quite a reasonably decorated few who are proactive at the grass-root level in the positive directions of various rights. I would like to believe that from time to time I, personally, tiny-address the right of education. This student activities link (http://www.universalrights.net/main/educat.htm) is a good list to think of.

I am sure we hopelessly need a whole lot of 'Buddha' giants. Do distribute the pamphlet.