Mandela, Manning and Snowden – rebels who answered the call of higher duty

CounterPunch 

Two individuals who have unquestionably dominated the 2013 agenda are Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden. Their treatment in the media could hardly be more different. Yet in many respects what they share is remarkable, and that they brought out the best and the worst in humanity is no less so.

Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, remembered again after his death, and Snowden’s baring of the worldwide intelligence colossus built by the United States, have stirred a much-needed debate on morality and manipulation of law in conducting mass surveillance, and then justifying the practice by shifty arguments. Bradley Manning’s disclosures of the US military’s shocking conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, his trial and sentencing are also of great importance. However, the spread of Snowden’s revelations is global, and their ramifications are going to be more profound and lasting.

Mandela and Snowden are rebels from different generations – both classed as criminals as they took on the system. While going against the existing regime designed to serve the interests of a few at the cost of the vast majority, Mandela and Snowden answered the call of higher duty, beyond man-made legal measures which are unjust and unacceptable. To Mandela, South Africa’s apartheid system, with all its consequences, was so repugnant. To Snowden, the abuse of power involving the wholesale surveillance of citizens and world leaders was so wrong that it changed the game.

The association of Mandela and Snowden with Moscow also bears a remarkable similarity between the two men. Mandela’s African National Congress was supported by the Soviet Union in the era of Communism, and members of the South African Communist Party were in the ANC. In the post-Soviet era, it was Moscow where Snowden found refuge, as the Obama administration used all its power to have him captured and brought back to the United States.

Mandela was lucky to escape the death penalty, received a life sentence in 1964, and spent more than a quarter century in harsh prison conditions. If Snowden had been returned to America, almost certainly he would have spent the rest of his life in jail – and it could have been worse.

Radical and determined, their activities have been polarising at home and abroad. Feted by their admirers and reviled by defamers, their actions raise very difficult questions, only to receive glib responses. In confronting South Africa’s stubborn racist regime after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the subsequent banning of the ANC, Mandela concluded that they had to abandon nonviolence. He explained later that “when the oppressor – in addition to his repressive policies – uses violence against the oppressed, the oppressed have no alternative but to retaliate by similar forms of action.” Mandela had to go underground before he and other senior ANC leaders were captured, tried and sentenced.

To escape a similar fate, especially after Bradley Manning’s 35-year sentence, Edward Snowden decided to leave the United States, ending up in Russia. To suggest that Snowden should have stayed in his country and justified his actions in US courts is either naïve or disingenuous. For the personal cost of such actions is very high, as Mandela, Manning and Snowden have all found.

There are people who will disagree with the very idea of finding a connection between the three despite compelling similarities. It is always easy to admire someone who was once a rebel, highlighted what was reprobate in society and furthered the cause of human consciousness – all a long time ago. The making of Mandela’s image took decades. The sustained official vilification of Manning and Snowden now reminds us of the manner in which Mandela was treated by the South African authorities and Western governments, indeed by the media, at the time of his rebellion fifty years ago.

All of which draws attention to the scramble among the world’s most powerful leaders to be seen at Mandela’s memorial and funeral, and to join in the adulation of his people, while the same leaders have been busy in the vilification of those many regard as young heroes of today. The oddity, in part, is due to the addiction to television cameras that has become an essential part of showbiz politics. There also exists a craving in political leaders to preach the world what they fail to practice themselves. Their desire to look good is irresistible. The general loss of trust in public figures and institutions is a consequence of their instinct for expediency. The potency of their message of toleration and reconciliation to Africa would be more convincing if liberal and moral values were not so much under pressure as they are in the West itself.

The long and arduous struggle of Mandela reflected the revolutionary spirit of his predecessors, one of whom was German revolutionary and American statesman Carl Schurz, whose words are appropriate here: “My country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right, when wrong to be put right.” Not missing the opportunity of reconciliation when it finally came was something that made Mandela great.

It would be premature to compare Manning and Snowden with Mandela, for their struggles are current, and not time tested. Where they can be contrasted, favourably, with Nelson Mandela is in their struggles for higher moral values which go beyond the narrow boundaries of nationalism and patriotism. 

[END] 

Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights

Notes on a talk I gave at a roundtable during a conference at the University of Roehampton in London on 10-12 July 2013. 

It is a vast topic, and I want to make a few points in the next 10 minutes or so about the meaning of the term cosmopolitanism, how it correlates with the idea of human rights, and the wider debate in the present context. Some of you may find my view on the topic somewhat pessimistic. I should also add that I am going to make an argument that is essentially economic. Cosmopolitanism derives from the Greek terms cosmos, meaning the Universe, and polites, referring to citizen. Therefore, cosmopolitanism has come to be understood as “citizen of the world.” It is not difficult to understand that the concept of cosmopolitanism has developed with society. Social development involves two apparently contradictory, and at the same time, complementary processes. A growing society has a greater need to feed its people and ensure their welfare. That, however, is not enough, because human needs grow with development: better homes, roads, transportation, hospitals, education and training, entertainment and comfort – all these require more raw materials and skills. Any society which aims to achieve all of these requires a balance in its workforce. It is perhaps the most fundamental reason for both internal and cross-border migration, which has gone on through much of history.

The next problem concerns the allocation of space and resources, which in turn raises many political, moral and ethical questions. For example, if a society has shortages of certain skills for development, it will require people who have those skills from outside until its own citizens are trained, which takes time. Should a country open its doors to foreign workers it needs? If so, to how many and for how long? Should people with those skills be considered for entry, irrespective of their nationality, color or ethnic origin? Or only of selected backgrounds? These are some of the most important questions which must be resolved to start with. For they eventually determine the kind of society that there is, and how others will see it in the wider world. Of course, such matters must be decided within each society. However, wise rulers will consider the implications of how they settle these issues.

In Britain and other European Union member-states, there is supposed to be free movement of people to work and live, which in turn has meant stricter controls on immigration from the rest of the world. As I have already said, this is a government’s sovereign right. But once a foreign worker arrives in a country, his or her place in society can become a topic of contention. As well as legal migrants, a second topic of contention is that of refugees, often described these days as asylum seekers, fleeing their countries for safety. But I want to limit myself here to when there are not dramatic and unexpected events straining a society’s will.

Let us suppose a cosmopolitan society develops gradually as planned by government and policy makers. It consists of citizens of different nationalities, cultures, religious faiths – secularists as well as atheists. Suppose one faith or nationality is dominant. On what basis should it be organized? The total wealth in each society, even if vast, has a limit. For the sake of organization, how should the population be divided up into units, groups or categories? And how big a share of the national pie should go to each section? In other words, how much should each be paid? And what rights should they enjoy? That essentially is the debate at this time of increased globalization – not merely for economic reasons, but also because of the movement of people within and across continents due to political turmoil.

The nature of debate about cosmopolitanism keeps changing. Why? Because there are powerful opposing arguments. In his fourth inaugural address in January 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of other nations, far away.” From that idealistic sentiment toward the end of the Second World War arose the idea that all people belong to a single family, and unless they feel they have their fair share which ensures their security, there cannot be order and peace in society. It remains true today. And so the argument founded on global justice and universalism – right to live, to have a family, property, security, free speech, a say in governance, freedom of thought and organization, and so on, irrespective of gender, ethnic, religious or political background.

Against this is the argument which appears to be on the ascendancy – the argument for fenced societies; fewer and fewer migrants; minority voices even advocating repatriation and expulsion of migrants. Disturbingly, such demands have begun to shape the overall debate. In the post-9/11 world, wars, and the inevitable social and economic price being paid force introversion in individuals and groups alike. So we hear: “We were here first, we are entitled to more of what our society has.” This majoritarian argument clearly has won the day, for now at least, among policy makers.

[END]

Gaza: 7th Year of Unlawful Blockade (UN HRC SR Press Release)

Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories

Gaza Blockade

Prefatory Note: I am posting a press release of yesterday, 14 June 2013, to take note of the start of the seventh year of the Israeli blockade. After the Mavi Marmara incident, 31 May 2010 and the more recent November ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Gaza government there was an undertaking to ease the blockade with respect to the flow back and forth of people and goods, but the situation remains desperate for the civilian population of Gaza that remains essentially locked into the Gaza Strip where economic destitution has reached epidemic extremes and where the water is mostly unfit for human consumption. The international community, and its main leaders, have commented adversely on the blockade, but nothing happens! It is this sense of powerlessness that is undermining the legitimacy and relevance of the United Nations to the suffering of the Palestinian people, and with particular relevance to the extreme ordeal of the civilian population of Gaza.  More

The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.

[END]

South Africa, the Dalai Lama and China’s Muscular Diplomacy

The question of human rights is never disconnected from politics. The latest controversy over the Dalai Lama’s visa application to visit South Africa has brought the subject to the fore again. The exiled Tibetan leader has been invited to attend the former Archbishop of Cape Town and fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. He is scheduled to deliver a lecture there in the coming week. The title is “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change.” But the South African government’s reluctance to grant him a visa has generated a heated debate in the press in South Africa and abroad, including India, his home in exile since 1959. There are accusations that Pretoria is going to deny the Dalai Lama permission in order to please China.

Almost every country proclaims its commitment to human rights, but the conduct of international diplomacy is very different in practice. Freedom and human rights are sacrosanct as long as they do not test relations with friendly governments and do not come too close to home. If the Dalai Lama’s visit fails to materialize, as seems likely, this will be the second time in two years that the South African authorities have denied a visa to one of the world’s most revered figures.

In 2009, Pretoria refused him entry to attend a Nobel laureates’ conference. The reason given was that the Dalai Lama’s presence would “detract attention from the 2010 football World Cup.” Then, Desmond Tutu, a central figure in the struggle against White minority rule before the end of apartheid in 1994, denounced it as “disgraceful,” accusing the government of “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure.” That event was cancelled. As on the previous occasion, Pretoria denies acting under Chinese pressure now.

That relations with China play no part in the South African government’s policy toward the Dalai Lama is difficult to believe. Pretoria’s dithering over his visa application came as South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, embarked on a mission to Beijing to attract Chinese investment. China’s clout has been important for South Africa’s entry into the club of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). South Africa’s “economic miracle” in less than two decades is, in large part, due to Chinese investment. The South African deputy president’s host in Beijing was Vice President Xi Jinping, tipped to be China’s next leader.

The Dalai Lama last visited South Africa in 1996. Nelson Mandela was president and post-apartheid South Africa, though struggling, was at its zenith. It would be fair to note that subsequent presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Alfred Zuma, are no Mandela, who is now too old and frail to be active in public life. From the heights of idealism and adulation for Mandela and his country, South Africa has entered the arena of twenty-first century geopolitics and alliances based on immediate self-interest. In the first six months of 2011, South African exports to China amounted to nearly 40 billion rands; imports from China were a little more than that. The South African economy is booming. Like other emerging countries, South Africa plays an increasingly important role in the geopolitics of the African continent and beyond. Not even Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama can be allowed to get in the way.

It is necessary to cast our eyes beyond the current topic of concern and remember other examples of how geopolitical considerations undermine the principle of decency and rationale underpinning justice and morality. In October 2009, Barack Obama canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, as the Chinese official campaign against him took on a particularly aggressive tone. Obama thus became the first American president not to welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House since 1990. Stung by widespread criticism and amid worsening relations with Beijing over a multibillion dollar weapons deal between the United States and Taiwan, the U.S. president did meet the Dalai Lama in 2010.

In 2008, Gordon Brown, then British prime minister, chose not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, for fear of offending the Chinese leadership. Instead, Brown had a brief meeting with him at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, also refused to see him, as did the Estonian prime minister and speaker of parliament this year.

The South African government’s failure not to even respond to the Dalai Lama’s visa application is extraordinary. It is offensive to him and offensive to Desmond Tutu, who invited him. It is another episode in a long sequence of timid submissions by world leaders in the face of China’s muscular diplomacy and the West’s decline. That we should witness the absence of real leadership that will stand by what is right is a tragedy.

[END]