As political activists, we act in the shadows --and in darkness, there is little room to maneuver politically. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)

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Saturday, 03 October 2020 16:25

Human rights: Food for an insurgent thought  ‘HR and the political discourse’


Human Rights Reader 547


AS POLITICAL ACTIVISTS, WE ACT IN THE SHADOWS --AND IN DARKNESS, THERE IS LITTLE ROOM TO MANEUVER POLITICALLY. As political activists, we act in the shadows --and in darkness, there is little room to maneuver politically. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)

[TLDR (too long didn’t read): This Reader is about the consequences of political polarization and of populism,  about political will and politicians selective blindness and about the difference between revolts and revolution --all of them with implications for human rights. For a quick overview, just read the bolded text].


-I know your enemy very well …he is the same we have over here. (Nicolás Guillén)


Severe political polarization is tearing at the seams of democracies around the world, with dangerous consequences for human rights (James Logan)

1. Around the world, with no political will, human rights violations appear to be spiking, activists are under attack, and governments are increasingly dismissive of international campaigns to protect human rights (HR). It is clearly a period of great volatility and uncertainty. Much of the conversation about this new reality has focused on two factors: the twin Ps of populism and political authoritarianism.* But a third P, severe political polarization, is tearing at the seams of democracies around the world.

*: Populism lives-on by providing simplistic solutions to complex problems; often, not even that… Its only survival strategy is to singling out and attacking ‘the enemies of the nation’ (including HR activists) of which it can rid itself by unilateral repressive action. (Jorge Galindo) Consider: When the police does not know how to proceed, it falls back on its old ‘right’ to beat people. (Karl Kraus) [Not trying to exaggerate, an old quote comes to mind: “Kill them all! We do not need to choose who… God will then recognize ‘his people’ …”. (Arnaud Amalric, quoting Pope Innocent III)].


2. Although the context and factors fueling polarization vary greatly, the effects on society are strikingly similar. Whether motivated by religion, ethnicity, ideology or partisan politics, in many countries around the world, polarization is driving new HR violations.** Polarization enflames discrimination, hate speech, and violence across divides, often targeted at religious and ethnic minorities. Institutions that are supposed to uphold HR protection --like the judiciary or official monitoring bodies-- are either weakened or captured by one side of the political divide.

**: The violation of people’s economic, social and cultural rights is best counteracted by political antibodies.


3. The situation has also diminished the ability to hold authorities to account for HR abuses. Attitudes have become more deeply entrenched and determined by the side people take in the political divide; media become more polarized and the online echo chamber of social media, once touted as a way for groups to circumvent traditional platforms, presents another major challenge to public outreach. Unable to challenge either side of a political divide without being subject to smears, threats, or even attacks, severe polarization is threatening the very ability of HR activists to operate. ‘Fighting fire with fire’ in highly polarized environments often plays right into the hands of the instigators who fuel controversy and hostility in order to reap selfish benefits. The HR community must look ways to navigate this dangerous new context primarily by addressing its root causes. (J. Logan)


People (activists?) are not intrinsically revolutionary, but sometimes they become revolutionary (graffiti during the Spanish Civil War)


4. What this means is that one has to start from what one has. And what does one have? Common people, that is, conservative, afraid, with a strong dose of opportunism; people who are not revolutionary, but who can sometimes become such; people that, one day, perhaps as a visceral reaction --and not by ideology-- come out to protest, but with staying power and with an alternative strategy and tactic, something we have not often enough seen recently. (Marcelo Colusi)


Has the time not come for an insurgency-of-the-prevailing-ideas?


-As long as our homelands remain capitalist it will not be the same homeland for all of us.

-Mind you: Injustice and violence always come from above!


5. Given this situation, being a ‘responsible opposition’ is deemed to be equivalent to retreating. We cannot justify a ‘forced solidarity’ with the prevailing system. Just consider:


6. Moreover, will it be in the formal corridors of parliament, where so much of this and that is said, or will it be in the streets, in the real world, where the key elements of the struggle against neoliberalism will be defined? Most probably, it will neither be the ‘philosophers-of-the-TV-spectacle’, nor will it be us reading this , the-aspiring-revolutionaries limited to act in our pitifully limited spaces, who will define these elements. The determining factor will definitely be the option that a massive social and popular movement will have to choose. These groups will have to choose between the electoral route and the struggle in parks and avenues --pacifically, but with much courage and a firm determination as the feminist movement did decades ago. (J. Zalbalza)


There is no shortage of ideas about possible alternatives, but, can they lead to a political action for them to materialize? (B. de Sousa S.)


-Revolutions, after all, are low-probability events. (John Field)


7. Recent experience shows that revolt is not synonymous with revolution, and many of the popular uprisings that have rocked the world this last decade have not led to greater social emancipation, nor created new democratic projects. We cannot afford to ignore this problem. The current moment, like any crisis, is opaque and ambivalent. The wavering indecision between rebellion and authoritarianism, solidarity and profiteering, internationalism and chauvinism, is accentuated in times of danger like the one we are living through now. Only a long-drawn-out struggle will decide which side will win out.


8. This crisis will give way to a period of contestation. Whether the outcome will be a ramped-up neoliberal capitalism, or a Keynesian revival of the welfare state --exclusively for developed countries-- or genuine democratic progress will depend on the strength of our movement. The examples of the Chilean and US uprisings teach us that revolts are necessary, but they are not sufficient in themselves to defeating neoliberalism. The struggle for a new egalitarian, HR-respecting order can only be assumed by social forces that are sufficiently organized and strong enough to confront capital and its guardians.


9. In Chile, (and the US?), as in other parts of the world, these forces are still in the making. And in the current state of the class struggle --the unvarnished kind, in the direct struggle for life over death-- the feminist movement is best placed to lead a process of struggle capable of pushing forward a new historic, radically democratic agenda. For decades, if not centuries, feminists have been articulating an alternative vision for society: now is the time to listen and join in the fight. (Perhaps) More than ever before, the times call for an overt political intervention.

Not being facetious, …few politicians are heroes (Susan George)


-[Benjamin’s law applies here: when all is said and done, more is said than done].


10. The higher politicians rise in the political hierarchy, the more windows turn into mirrors; they cannot look outside anymore; they only see themselves and people cannot look inside them anymore. (Daniel Goudenvaert) They then become symbols and symbols are forced to shine; they count on being approached with reverence. (Peter Hoeg) So, in keeping an eye on their decisions, beware that politicians in a duty-bearer’s role often suffer from selective blindness, selective deafness, selective silence and selective amnesia. (Mira Shiva)


11. Looking at our current troubled world, here is the trouble: Politics cannot be short-termed; it must look a generation away. It can also not be steered by scientists, but those politicians who govern us must have enough wisdom to listen to science. (Fernando Ayala)


‘A political will’ must be pulled from those in power

-A lack of political will is a function of how lopsided the concentration of power is.


12. We have the knowledge and financial means to end extreme poverty by 2030, as called for in the Sustainable Development Goals --if we all try. (Jeffrey Sachs) Yet it is not lack of political will… (Pierina Ferretti) Why? because political will is usually understood as a greater resolve on the part of state. But political will is not owned by politicians --who usually act only in response to consistent and compelling pressure from organized and mobilized claim holders (or, more often, their cronies…). Therefore, it is not a lack of political will, but rather the accumulation-of-a-political-will-by-the-powerful to oppose or stall the implementation of progressive policies that tackle HR abuses. We cannot thus overlook that ‘a political will’ depends on the capacity of local, national, and transnational public interest civil society and social movements to push governments and the international agencies to be consequent with the HR framework. Actually, to be more precise, ‘a political will’ must be actively demanded from concerned duty bearers!


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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