In 1948, in San Francisco, the world community forged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that was slated to set the horizon of rights for the people of the planet. But it was not to be, mainly because of the hesitancy of the capitalist states to adopt the wide demands of everyday people – with their main champions among the representatives of the newly liberated zones and the socialist states.
Human rights, the capitalist states argued, must not be seen as anything other than bourgeois freedoms, in other words, as political and civil rights. An election once in a while and the right to pray and assemble, among other such rights, was sufficient for the population. There was to be no provision of a right to work, to shelter, to food, to medical care, to social services, to equal pay for equal work, indeed to “continuous improvement of living conditions,” a list that came to be called economic and social rights.
Almost two decades later, in 1966, the UN members split the list into two (Political and Civil Rights; Economic and Social Rights) and sent them back to be ratified, but they did not enter into force for another decade. The capitalist states continued to balk at the idea of the Economic and Social Rights, so that they pushed a version of human rights that would mean simply Political and Civil Rights, and so it has
[The best introduction to all this is Joy Gordon's essay in the Brooklyn Journal of International Law, vol. XXIII, no. 3, 1998].
Across the planet, the forces of power take advantage of 9/11 to enact draconian laws that curtail the rights of individuals. The USA PATRIOT Act and the British Prevention of Terrorism Act are now models for global jurisprudence, as state after state, legislature after legislature downloads the language from the web and ratifies it before paralyzed representatives of the people.
In India, the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) is one such, and it is a measure of how far to the right we have moved when it is more illiberal than the fiercely reactionary Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act that lapsed in 1995. Just two examples of how vague language allows the state to get away with the expansion of its powers:
(1) section 14 of POTO demands that individuals must tell the police if they have any “useful” information “in relation to” a terrorist offence, and further, the police can demand information if it “has reason to believe that such information will be useful for, or relevant to, the purposes of this Ordinance.” Such language means that anything can be asked of anyone because of any unspecified reason;
(2) an individual can be arrested and charged with the abetting of terrorism “if he arranges, manages or assists in arranging or managing a meeting which he knows is to be addressed by a person who belongs to a terrorist organization.” [The sexist pronouns in POTO, it could be argued, liberate women from its provisions!]
Any journalist who meets a terrorist can be held under this measure. Furthermore, the level of intention expressed by the section allows the police to disregard those who may have innocently entered into such a meeting and not known that the speaker was a terrorist. The denial of habeas corpus and the disregard of civil liberties, in the service of anti-terrorism, is a violation of the spirit of the Universal Declaration and the 1966 Political and Civil Rights provisions.
It is, therefore, absolutely correct to launch a frontal assault against this extension of the state’s powers. For this reason it is imperative for all of us to support the 20 February National Day of Solidarity with Muslim, Arab and South Asian Immigrants, especially given that the US Justice Department is now planning an “Absconder Apprehension Initiative” that will give the INS vast powers over immigrants to this country. With fifteen hundred people who look like terrorists behind bars without habeas corpus, the further extension of powers must be blocked.
But further, we on the left cannot define rights only in the civil and political register. We need to always be aware of the economic and social rights that are being undermined in this period. Our struggles need to take into account the vast expenditure on defense that is in the works, to show how the economic liberty of the working-class and the working-poor around the world will be compromised by the new anti-terrorist maneuvers.
In the US, Bush has proposed that the Pentagon receive $379 billion next year, an increase in $48 billion from the previous year – the largest rise in two decades. Not to be left behind, the Democrats are saying that this is insufficient, that more needs to be provided to the military [see James Dao, "Pentagon Urged to Raise Major Weapons Budget," New York Times, 15 Feb].
In India, the government has also asked for an increase in military spending, but most of this will go toward an import bill – the US government has allowed seven US arms manufacturers to sell an undisclosed millions of dollars of arms to India, just as Israel is poised to be the largest arms dealer to India [I have covered this relationship in "Hindutva-Zionism: An Alliance of the New Epoch," published in the current issue of the Jerusalem-based magazine, Between the Lines].
Such massive arms deals come at a time of agrarian distress in India (with thousands of suicides by farmers bringing forth no response from the government), and of the renegotiation of welfare once again in the US.
On 5 February, GROWL (Grassroots Organized for Welfare Leadership) ran a policy briefing in the Capitol (attended by 200, including about 90 Congressional staff), at which Helen Nickles of Grassroots Organizing from Mexico, Missouri testified, “The county director and other agencies who are supposed to help people in need denied services to me because I am of color. Neighbors of mine who are poor, white, and receive welfare benefits and other services are aware of the way people of color are treated differently.
Because I am an African-American woman, they do not inform me about educational opportunities, real job training or other support services. If they are not ignoring us or pretending we don’t have real racial concerns then they are harassing us and turning their noses up at us.” The farmers in India and the working-poor in the US are also victims of the reactionary after-effects of 9/11, as their liberties are outraged by the turn of governments toward more and more guns and less and less funds for social welfare.
On 20 February as we protest against the illegal detentions and the curtailment of civil liberties, let us also offer a loud protest against the increased military spending (what King called “the midnight of the social order”) and the denial of economic and social rights as a consequence of it. We need to fight for the rights of the people to the planet, all the rights, the widest definition of rights.