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. 

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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.

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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