Thursday 5 December 2013

Citizens: Democracy in the 21st Century

2013 has hosted protests in Ukraine, Brazil, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt. The list will grow in 2014. Why are protests so widespread, and so global? Following my blog on the New Citizens Movement, it is our duty as citizens to react – to show approval and to show dissent. With only the vote as our weapon, we are weak. The government chooses when to hold elections, and it ultimately chooses who is eligible to run for office. This may seem somewhat limiting for the electorate, yet citizens are expected to trust (and love) the state. 

However, in the 21st century, citizens are exploring their democratic role. Across the world, a new movement of citizenship grows as the language of rights proliferates the constitutions and embeds itself in laws. 21st century media and technology have almost guaranteed communication between citizens within and beyond their own state. The 'Arab Spring' demonstrates the significance of democracy and civil and political rights to the 21st century citizen.

As liberal democracies argue today in closed-circuit courtrooms for avant-garde interpretations of human rights legislation, the majority of the world's population does not enjoy even the most basic protections. Human rights law engages in a process of deconstructing traditional and out-dated notions of social and political status, and advocates for the protection of the individual. There are some limitations on rights, whereby an personal freedoms can be restricted based on “public interest”, “national security”, etc. If a person’s behaviour does not threaten anyone else, there can be no legitimate restriction.

Of course, democracy is not the only form of governance, just as the idea of human rights is not inevitable or divine. They are products of a human philosophy. ‘Human rights’ is merely a conception of the citizens’ relationship to government. In the UK and Ireland, rights have attained legal status. Despite legally-binding international human rights treaties, the politics of diplomacy prevent any practicable action to enforce fundamental liberties in many states in the 21st century.

Citizens in democratic states have a duty to make demands of their governments, but ironically they must do so within the terms set by the government; they can protest only as much as the government permits them to do so. Thus, we see the significance of the doctrine of national security to quell “subversive” behaviour, labelling as terrorism that which is not in the ‘interests’ of the state. In the context of civil liberties, the legal definitions of these terms is all-important.

Without challenge, state power is absolute. Democratic citizens are reacting to this, using the 21st century technology to their advantage.

Citizens: The New Citizens Movement of China

Xu Zhiyong is on trial in China for public disorder after assembling a protest relating to the Chinese constitution and transparency in government. He is a founder member of the New Citizens Movement, which is a network of activists campaigning on various social and legal issues, notably challenging Communist party politicians to declare their assets. Chinese authorities have targeted the New Citizens Movement dissidents with public order legislation.

Why are these individuals putting themselves at risk to challenge the Chinese government? What have they to gain; and, importantly, is it worth it?

The power of citizenship is an electoral power. The franchisement of the masses is the most important demonstration of citizen power in the history of democracy. Once elections take place, elected representatives in the Executive and Parliament have the power to govern. Given this inherited sovereignty, it is then the citizens’ role to monitor governance.

The only tangible power maintained by the citizens is retrospective. The default position is that the government’s power is absolute until challenged; the state has an automatic mandate to govern as it sees fit. Given that most democratic governments act within the protection of the law – which the government both interprets and implements – it is only in retrospect that its decisions can be challenged and deemed unlawful. Without the capacity to challenge, citizens are mere subjects of power. Democracy depends on the reaction of citizens. It is not merely enough to vote, obey the law, and pay taxes. More is required to balance the democratic structure of power.

The New Citizens Movement of China seeks to challenge the government and is criminalised as a result. Is democracy worth it?

Friday 1 November 2013

The Human Rights movement: What beyond Hope?

Last month, I met Rebecca Masika from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while she was visiting Dublin Front Line Defenders' Seventh Platform. The ordeal to which she has been subjected by paramilitary groups and the resultant stigma affecting her extended family is nothing short of horrifying. As a result of her personal experiences, Mama Masika has dedicated her life to supporting survivors of rape in eastern Congo.

I see her scarred face on a billboard in Blackrock D.A.R.T. station during my daily commute, and hearing her testimonial in person was remarkably touching. It has prompted questions on the role of human rights law in the daily lives of those who suffer the most.

The first sobering point she made was that the DRC is not a country anymore. She believes that what the international community perceives to be the Democratic Republic of Congo is merely an idea. This idea is projected outside of the DRC, but she suggests that no governable entity exists within the ravaged, anarchic territory where she lives.

Second, she described a terrifying moment when paramilitaries asked her whether the white people with whom she was associating (referring to organisations like Front Line Defenders) would come to DRC to help her. Would the white people come when they rape her? When they rape the women in her care? When they kill her? This hostility appears to be rooted in the view of the human rights movement as a direct challenge to the authority of both governments and paramilitary forces alike.

These attitudes provoke consideration of the tangible impact of human rights law on Mama Masika's life.

By definition, human rights law examines the relationship between the citizen and government, and necessarily challenges the authority of the state to address any imbalance. In a democracy, any challenge to the government's authority can be construed as a “threat to national security”. As the source of human rights law's authority is principally international, its effectiveness relies on diplomatic, inter-state pressure. The human rights movement exists at grassroot level, but its legitimacy is far from global. Its credibility is challenged across the world because of the perceived threats to authority.

However, the pro-establishment narrative of “threats” cannot be a definitive one; security is relative to the political priorities of any state. Thus, depending on economic and cultural interests, some states prioritise human rights and others do not.

(Another debate is whether the human rights model – so connected to European liberal democratic values – is actually suitable for global difussion when it blatantly conflicts with widely-held socio-cultural beliefs outside of Europe.)

Peaceful promotion of certain behaviours is enough to give rise to forceful governmental resistance. Frankly, in a system of majoritarian democracy, the state is obliged to oppose such challenges to its authority where they might compromise the will of “the people”. Therefore, it is often difficult for individuals to challenge official decisions in cases where the majority – as represented in mainstream politics – appears to oppose it.

To relate this back to Mama Masika's scenario, it seems practically impossible for rights-based ideals to filter into a lawless, human chaos like the DRC in 2013. Without a functioning government, human rights are impracticable because the protection of human rights depends on a model of citizenship. In the vacuum of statelessness, existing without meaningful citizenship, the law ceases to be significant and human rights are non-existent.

The human rights movement does have legal significance in a European liberal democracy, though – due to conceptions of national sovereignty – the interpretation of those rights will inevitably vary. Human rights have been embedded into these legal systems, but there are many states across the world where this is not the case.

Unfortunately, the current rights-based mechanisms existing in Europe (replete with their many, many flaws) cannot manifest without a foundational infrastructure. As Rebecca Masika suggests, an idea of democratic citizenship is not strong enough; what is needed to protect people from oppressive authority is representative structural stability. Even then, democratic structures will represent only those valued by the mainstream cultural norms, necessitating the discrimination of some in favour of the protection of “valuable”, obedient citizens.

I desperately hope Mama Masika can continue with her humbling, life-saving work. I hope the human rights movement continues to trickle into every possible crevasse long enough to congeal into a sustainable and substantive system of protection. Hopefully then, humans will have the capacity to invoke the protection they have been granted under international law in the 21st century. I hope so.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Is exclusion necessary for inclusion? 2) Human rights law can modernise legal linguistics

Simply put, citizenship is desirable because it offers protection. To acquire citizenship, one must adhere to mainstream norms, as defined in the law. Those who have extra-normal lifestyles are treated as outside the system and are therefore unprotected. These extra-normal lifestyles are not necessarily chosen, but might be indigenous, traditional, radical, or perhaps simply undesirable.

“Bare life” manifests as a legal existence without citizenship (what Hannah Arendt called “statelessness”). Without legal protection, a category of society can be discriminated against. For this reason, the law is the most important dogmatic authority in the 21st century.

In this way, the process of marginalisation/exclusion serves to contextualise the significance – and the import – of citizenship. Those without the protection of citizenship end up as the homo sacer (a Roman term describing a person who can be legitimately sacrificed; he or she is outside the protection of the law).

Perhaps counter-intuitively, human rights law maintains this system of governance because it necessarily exists within it. Democratic judiciaries adhere to 21st century boundaries of sovereignty – as upheld in international law, which is sponsored by the United Nations. According to this model, the suspension of judicial authority (and therefore the defiance of legal jusridiction) is possible in favour of sovereign, Executive decision-making. This creates Agamben’s so-called “State of Exception”.
As human rights law does not directly challenge this system, it is complying with the reproduction of “Bare Life”. However, the law challenges it from within by chipping away at the linguistic limitations of (inherently conservative) dogmatic concepts of identity. The law explores the boundaries of language as it defines and redefines words like “gender”, “marriage”, and “privacy” so as to ensure their meaning is as contemporary as possible.

By using human rights law to modernise legal linguistics, the dogma that upholds Bare Life can be critiqued.

A state's official decision-making must be continuously challenged because language and social norms often change more quickly than the legislative process. Citizens may ask: “Why is this behaviour forbidden?” If the prohibition does not withstand international law's doctrines – “necessary in a democratic society”, “in the public interest”, “in the interests of national security”, etc. – there is no legitimate reason to prohibit that behaviour. The likelihood is that many behaviours prohibited today will not be prohibited forever. For instance, the criminalisation of homosexual acts is now outdated. The legal status of marital rape has altered with evolving views on the equality of the parties to the legal contract of marriage. These 'norms' have changed as our understandings of the behaviour changes.

It is never a question of a behaviour being right or wrong. It is a question of whether we believe a behaviour to be right or wrong now. The law can influence this. Examining our current norms and challenging them according to the Rule of Law is perhaps the best way to combat a Modern paradigm whereby exclusion is necessary for inclusion.

Is exclusion necessary for inclusion? - 1) The person who can control language can control society

The concept of identity is fluid, changing with contemporary politics. As language evolves to unite people – through understandings of ideas like “nationality”, “race”, or “ethnicity” – the idea of ‘Self’ reflects these changes. Identity is not definitive, but is interdependent and inter-relational.

The recent news story about Romany child abduction feeds into this sense of identity: the media constantly questions who belongs in our society and who does not. We typify social categories so as to relate to each other more easily, and we self-identify in opposition to the Other. This Other is, in turn, defined by the Law.

The Law outlines who is worthy of protection. Nominally, modern laws in Europe operate on the basis of a rights-based framework. The European media, however, often portrays a supremacist outlook whereby the victims are largely white, Christian, and ‘Us’. The adoption of the name “Blonde Angel” for an abducted child is a clear manifestation of this perspective.

In Northern Ireland (NI), there is a battle within the law to define where the lines of protection should be drawn. The Appeal Court has stretched the relevant language to include unmarried couples in the list of legitimate adoptive parents in Northern Ireland (in line with English Law and Scots Law). NI Minister of Health, Edwin Poots, has challenged the Appeal Court’s decision and will follow the issue to the UK Supreme Court in defiance of a decision that accepts gay and unmarried parents as legitimate adoptive parents in NI.

The idea of mainstream norms is a product of dogma. The ideal that all humans should behave in a particular way could be construed as moral authoritarianism. Yet, this is how the law’s authority functions. Within this model of government, the Law dictates what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot say, who we can and cannot be.

Dogma changes through language. Where words evolve, the subtext and context of norms alter. Theoretically, therefore, the person who can control language can control society. The usual mode of control thus far in the 21st century is via the Rule of Law. The law may criminalise attitudes so long as the restrictions are within the accepted bounds of the time. (For example, restrictions on liberty must be “necessary in a democratic society” or “in the public interest”, etc. Of course, these phrases are subject to change according to which judges/systems are interpreting.)

The law serves to maintain a concept of identity – so as to uphold Order - and therefore necessarily propounds a concept of the Other. Giorgio Agamben elaborated on this in the 1990s (Homo Sacer). His theory of “bare life” suggested that the marginalisation of certain groups was inherent to democracy in its present paradigm.

Without a comparator, the projected benefits of maintaining particular norms are not apparent. This comparator is manifested as the Other, who is excluded in law. John Pilger has recently released his latest film, called “Utopia”, which addresses the treatment of aboriginal peoples by the Australian state. The aboriginals were excluded so as to prioritise Australian colonial values and alienate the culture of the native population. This is one of the many historical examples of groups' legitimate exclusion in the law. Jewish citizens in Germany were discriminated legitimately within the laws of 1930s Germany, and Palestinian citizens of Israel have been treated differently under the law more recently, with horrifying consequences.

In this manner, it is arguable that the lifestyle of the Romany people is marginalised legitimately today.

Friday 6 September 2013

Lessons on Human Authenticity

The UK Parliament’s decision not to support its Prime Minister over Syria represents a moral stand. The ripples of protest have travelled ten years to arrive in the House of Commons, it seems. This is surprising because that pebble in the pond was so large; the Iraq War was hardly met with a silent condonation in the UK’s streets.

Appropriately, the last fortnight has also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the enforcement of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). We’ve also found ourselves celebrating the life of Nobel Laureate poet, Seamus Heaney. This has prompted an overwhelming analysis of the poet’s imprint on literature and his relationship to his homeland, Northern Ireland. Not only was Heaney a mouthpiece for his own soul’s troubles, but he signalled a sympathetic beacon for human dignity everywhere.

In the early 1950s, the ECHR launched a post-traumatic embrace of individual liberties in the aftermath of fresh human horrors. In 2013, there are new horrors with which to wrestle. It seems that the UK government is slowly coming to terms with its responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland under the ECHR, though its reticent compliance instils severe doubts as to its commitment to human rights.[1]

The concept of ‘human rights’ was something that Heaney addressed both in speeches and in his poetry. In the context of Northern Ireland, he spoke about discrimination of the “minority citizen” and the “poetic truth [that] change had to take place”.[2] W.B. Yeats had written of the savage ferocity of civil war, of how romantic ideas about what we may deserve as humans can lead to jealous, violent disillusionment:[3]
… We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart's grown brutal from the fare; / More substance in our enmities / Than in our love…

Heaney considered humans to be “hunters and gatherers of values”, sharing our earnestness of emotion.[4] He spoke of the “boldness and buoyancy” of these values in the context of human rights treaties.[5] Documents like the ECHR represent for Heaney an international consensus of our collective moral imagination;[6] any breaches thereof are “far outweighed by the historic importance of the global covenant which it represents”.[7]

Former Czech playwright, prisoner and President, Václav Hável, spoke of human rights as a “valid global instrument that holds up a mirror to the misery of this world”.[8] In a similar vein, Heaney used his poetry “to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it”. At the root of this activism is wordcraft. The law, too, relies on such semantic “manipulation”. Another writer, Philip K Dick,[9] opined:
If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.
This encapsulates not only the impact of literature, but also the very function of the law. Of course, the law’s monopoly over words can be used to undemocratic ends. However, the manipulation of words can be used to limit conflict in human relations. Human rights law, as manifested in the ECHR, “contributes… to the maintenance of an equilibrium” between right and wrong, and it could be “seen as a counterweight to the given actuality of the world” (especially given the circumstances of mid-20th century Europe).[10]

In “The Power of the Powerless”, Hável alludes to a decision we share as citizens: whether to ride with the ripples of protest or to wade against the tide of change in favour of the comparable security of conformity. The decision presents itself often as a moral judgment call. To reflect the world’s problems back on itself may reveal a risk that ultimately outweighs an individual’s perceived gains.

However, the perceived gains are as much imagined as they are actual. Imagined gains in 2013 can herald in the actual gains of future generations. The imaginings of Heaney and Hável, and the wordcraft of the ECHR’s drafters, have survived to inspire still today.

Those who deem themselves to be powerless have not yet awoken (or been awakened) to the poetic truth of their role in the state-citizen dynamic – the relationship wherein human rights nestle most comfortably. To paraphrase John Waters, these conforming citizens collude in their own enslavement.[11] They signify “a kind of blind automatism which drives the system… They are both victims of the system and its instruments.”[12]

The only reasonable means to confront that which offends our base human sympathies – our humanity – may be to reject that system. We see it happening today across the world; from Turkey to Egypt to Colombia, and in Romania’s quest for its own model of European democracy.[13] To act otherwise is to “cast… the stones of silence”.[14] In the words of Philip K. Dick:[15]
The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.
We must strive to honour our humanity, our authenticity.

[3] From “The Stare’s Nest by My Window” (1928) by W.B. Yeats
[14] From “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney in “North”, 1992 (Faber & Faber)