A debate has been simmering in recent years amongst the global public as to whether the notion of universal human rights is compatible within a furiously accelerating globalization paradigm while our world is integrating on an unprecedented, if highly uneven, scale. Flat the world is not. The world's valleys of relative tranquility are punctuated by peaks of unimaginable terror that gives way to an ever more jagged socio-political Richter-like intellectual landscape. Are we to look the other way as the most self-evident rights of some are denied for the supposed benefit of the many? This argument is taking place almost equally in the urbanized squalor of the so-called developing world as it is in the academic and political nerve centers of the world's post-industrial developed economies. The political fallout from the American-led "War on Terror" has helped to greatly hasten the discussion that has been taking place amidst the mass diffusion of the Internet and satellite television. Information, traditionally vetted by elite gatekeepers, has become largely egalitarian in the 21st century as the Washington Post company's imminent placing of Newsweek in the marketplace demonstrates.
While visiting lawyers in Pakistan two years ago, their primary concern was that the human rights of their clients be respected in a deteriorating political environment largely devoid of accountability. In the cases of their most unlucky clients who had been disappeared, they presumed, by vaguely talked of (government) "agencies" in the pursuit of domestic and international political agendas, they feared for the worst. Many of the lawyers I spoke with, representing perhaps the most dynamic and visible civil society movement in the country's history, felt the urgent lack of human rights were a root cause of Pakistan's internal debilitation rather than some dithering intellectual affectation that sought to distract from international and domestic war mongering. A promising young emergency room doctor at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi informed me that it was not uncommon for wounded terror suspects under his care to be abducted by unidentified agents never to be heard from again, some with an intravenous drip still in their arm as they're bundled into a waiting, unmarked car as was the case with a wounded jihadi commander. The jihadi was being operated on after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds in shootout with Karachi police and was discovered to have a live grenade in his garb while surgeons cut away his clothing to extract the bullet casings. The local bomb squad was called in to dispose of the device and the wing of the hospital was temporarily cleared. When the young resident asked the jihadi in post-op, as he returned to consciousness, why he carried the grenade, the jihadi told him it was preferable to kill himself along with anyone that might try and abduct him from the government rather than be disappeared and face the impending torture that comes with extra-judicial detention. The barely recovering jihadi commander was then taken out of the doctor's care by government agents against the protest of hospital workers citing the most elemental medical ethics stating that he was a patient first and a terrorism suspect second. According to my source, the jihadi was never to be seen again much less tried in an open court of law.
The weakening of the rule of law after decades of dictatorship and misrule has had deleterious effects of the Pakistan's ability to govern itself and maintain a modicum of respect for the liberties of its citizens. Human rights in Pakistan are in a state of grave disrepair but are not without hope as its lawyers, doctors and civil society activists bravely try to reverse their nation's history of one-man rule and march toward Islamist obscurantism. Pakistan has become a magnet for terror tourists like Faisal Shahzad, the London 7/7 bombers, or the Virginia 5 who are bent on causing pain in a manner that they consider just without regard for the tens of millions of people in that have to actually live in that country who will be tarred with their crude, bloody brush.
Some, such as the buffoonish former Bush attorney John Yoo, may argue that there are difficult times when society must look the other way as human rights are put aside in the name of global law enforcement or some other issue of the day. But if human rights are indeed universal, can they then be denied under certain conditions? And when societies or ideologies are at extreme odds, can one group negate the human rights of their opponents? There are those in disproportionate positions of political and military power who believe that universal human rights are circumstantial and subject to review. They are not. Human rights are an essential and non-negotiable component of global progress.
The increased highlighting of human rights violations is itself a byproduct of globalization. The accelerating interconnectivity of global society is leading an unprecedented civic awakening among the world's poor and bringing some of the most isolated communities in from the cold for the first time. People existing under political or religious persecution are now more aware than any time in history that they are being deprived of their most essential rights. The stifling of individual and group aspirations against oppressive agrarian feudal systems or the imposition of corporate hegemony will only further the spread of discontent and violent rebellion as we are witnessing throughout much of rural India by gun-toting adherents of once defunct Maoism.
The application of an internationalist human rights agenda is too often a subjective affair. In the summer of 2002 I conducted a visit to the Republic of Georgia looking into bogus claims that either the Taliban of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were in the country's remote Pankisi gorge while the Pentagon and a compromised intelligence community bolstered absurd neoconservative war rationales. While there were a minute number of international Islamic fighters in the area during my visit (who had no net strategic effect on the outcome of an indigenous war), what I mostly observed in the area were thousands of stranded, despondent refugees. One of the first questions the refugees would invariably ask me was, "the West helped the Kosovars break away from their oppressors, why won't they help us?" I vividly recall one woman saying, "We want only to be free like Kosovo." The Chechens had heard how the people of Kosovo had essentially broken away from Serbia with a Western-led military bombardment to complement the Kosovo Liberation Army's guerrilla war and diplomatic mission to stave off allegations of genocide. Many Chechens voiced the desire for someone or some power to assist them in their centuries long struggle in seceding from the Russian state. How was I to explain to people living in this miserable milieu that their human rights were actually subordinate to overarching international business concerns and diplomatic shades of grey?
How could it be that the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was a "humanitarian intervention" while the Russian war in the North Caucasus that same year had merely been an "internal matter" of which, according to the Kremlin's wishes, the international community was not to obstruct? Attempt to explain these opaque nuances to a sobbing mother whose son is decaying in a filtration camp in the theater of war that is her homeland. It is in such desperation that we must not abdicate human rights but rather fortify them. To the Chechen refugees, their question was both simple and answerable but when put to the international community, it was too complex to field. If looked at from the standpoint of the refugee, we must ask why the UN was able to assist the peoples of Kosovo and East Timor achieve their long sought political aspirations while perpetually ignoring the Chechens and China's Uighurs equally vigorous desires for self-determination? That Serbia and Indonesia are relatively peripheral geopolitical actors while Russia and China are permanent members of the Security Council doesn't factor in terribly to the psyche of a refugee or asylum seeker. These are the questions the world's displaced are asking themselves. Uncomfortable though they may be to global business leaders and the elite diplomatic corps, the issues of collective punishment, statelessness and the rights arbitrarily denied to certain peoples will not and cannot be swept under the proverbial rug.
Human rights cannot simply exist in the halls of the theoretical and upon the towers of the ideal. Rather they must be upheld in the Guantanamos of our collective human conscience. These rights can only be celebrated when they are respected within the realm of great power competition and formerly unchallenged internecine struggles. For it is not enough for our societies to say, "Human rights will be respected once...the oil is extracted, the war is over, the Security Council comes to a unanimous decision" as is so often the case. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not an obtuse afterthought than can wait for a modern genocide to be concluded in order to be realized. It exists to protect us all, from the Caucasus mountains to the Indus river valley and from New York to Brussels.
Seeing as Guantanamo has yet to close, the Chechen war has not ended, and Pakistan continues to burn with terror and civilian misery, all of us in this soon to be world of seven billion must reaffirm the virtue of our most basic human rights as paramount. In literal terms, it is the very least we can do.