“Freedom is never voluntarily
given by the oppressor; it must be
demanded by the oppressed.”
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).
By Tony Adams
Universal human rights as we know them today have their history in many struggles from the Abolitionists in the 18th and 19th century, to put an end to slavery, the Suffragettes struggles for equality in the 19th and 20th century, the anti –colonial struggles in America in the 18th century and in Asia and Africa in 19th and 20th century to the workers’ on going struggles for better wages, health, and safety standards in the workplace.
Perhaps it is also an echo of this long struggle that one of the most iconic objects at the British Museum, sometimes referred to as the first human rights charter, the Cyrus Cylinder, valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and faiths, toured five major museum venues in the US in 2013 for the very first time. Surely if objects are uniquely able to speak across time and space then this object must be shared amongst a people whose famous historian not so long ago was advocating “a clash of civilizations”. More importantly the fact that a copy of the cylinder is on constant display in the United Nations building in New York is undoubtedly a vivid reminder of the on- going human rights struggle.
When I think about human rights, I remember this old saying “If the government fears the people, there is liberty, but if the people fear the government, then there is tyranny”. Democracy as I understand it means sovereignty must be vested in the hands of the people. But it has suffered a steady decline in recent years. The independent watchdog Freedom House in its 2011 annual report describes it as a continuing “freedom recession”. Our democracies are trapped by systems that are too big to fail, or more accurately too big to control. Global neoliberalism has led to the deindustrialization of society in the whole of Europe. In the1990’s the steel, car and mining industries were decimated. Large scale privatization saw the entry of private capital into the hallowed domains of social provisions and welfare. A consumerist culture characterized by large scale borrowing which encouraged the growth of debt was endorsed. “Borrow, borrow for that is your future be happy don’t worry” Politicians from both right and center left encouraged the bankers. The denationalization of state interests by private capital was herald as the dictatorship of capital. In effect capitalism and democracy became incompatible.
Under neoliberalism the workers movement was weakened, and the left made irrelevant. It also created and encouraged an institutionalized de-politicization of the masses. In its current phase there is widespread privatization and deregulation and decreasing democratic accountability. The state is redundant, and capitalism and democracy are new strange bedfellows. It preaches austerity arrests its people, punishes its own people, preaches civil liberties but locks up people. It is also in favor of occupying other countries. Meanwhile the right proposes a social and economic vision which is attractive to the masses. As the center of the world markets has shifted eastwards in the 21st century new movements and organizations which have something to offer to prevent the far right are necessary at this juncture. And it is significant to note that the far right always rises when certain sections of the state deem it right to support them for their own use.
When riots police must protect our parliaments then there is something wrong with our democracies. Similarly, there are millions of people in Africa, Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and South America who still labor on the yoke of tyranny and who yearn to be free. In far too many of these countries despots and dictators have prevailed for decades because the conventional ways of fighting dictators are not working. Simply chanting “PUTIN Must GO” or railing daily about abuses of human rights, acts of brutality and violence alone cannot bring about change. Dictatorships are closed societies and reforms therefore must come from the intellectual, political, constitutional, institutional, and economic spheres of that society. For example, economic liberalization will engender economic prosperity but without political reform that prosperity will not be evenly distributed. It will lead to crony capitalism living the mass of the people in poverty.
Also, we know that dictators have been responsible for many of Africa’s and Asia’s humanitarian catastrophes. Providing relief aid to the victims of repressive rule and leaving the dictators in place makes little sense. It is a Band Aid solution. Indeed, for civil society to be an agent of change their must be a space for expression and dialogue. Real change begins with freedom of expression. A free media is the most effective weapon against all dictatorship. A free media in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan would have saved those countries from implosion. Freedom is an instinctive human feeling and there is a difference between mobilization and organization. Power comes only from the organized masses. You know the truth from constant struggle against lies.