A week of wonders.
Wow, the state of the world has seen some changes this week, hasn’t it?
Perhaps it was the Perseid meteor shower. In Germany, perhaps it was the realization that they are not only under surveillance but also, effectively, NSA Spy Capital. Perhaps it was the shocking developments in Egypt, the controversy over Russian anti-gay laws, Stephen Fry’s letter to the IOC or the news that Bradley Manning made a grovelling apology in court for “hurt[ing] the United States”. Perhaps it was the fact that, once again, the media chose to try and defame both Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald by quoting Snowden’s father’s lawyers as proclaiming their mistrust of both Mr Greenwald and WikiLeaks. Mr Snowden himself hastened to point out that he did not share their views. Perhaps it was the petition made to the Nobel Committee this week to award Bradley Manning the Nobel Peace prize. Perhaps it was none of that.
In any case, something truly miraculous happened. Those of world’s governments with genuine respect for human and civil rights have started rallying around Snowden, Manning, the people of Egypt and the LGBT community to support them! All of a sudden Germany, the UK, Iceland, Sweden, France and countless others are following the lead of Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, outbidding one another with asylum offers for Snowden, vowing to protect his life and integrity and hailing him as the man who exposed the unlawful actions committed by the US against the world’s citizens. Similarly, the Sochi Olympics are moving to Vancouver because more and more governments have threatened boycott if the games are held in Russia, while the UN and the world’s governments are stopping financial aid to the Egyptian military, in a bid to end the violence.
A week of war(s)
Hang on, I hear you say, what did I miss? Last time I looked, the Australian Attorney General had made it clear that he didn’t think that Snowden or Manning were whistleblowers, proving his misunderstanding of the meaning of the term (no, sir, a whistleblower isn’t a person who exposes wrongdoing of governments only – look it up again, will you?). Bradley Manning was forced to offer a grovelling apology in court but still likely to end up behind bars for the rest of eternity his life. The media once again tried to discredit both Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, while the situation in Egypt was as bad is it had ever been with countless dead or injured in several consecutive days of violence.
Sadly, you are right. My vision of what would have happened in an ideal world ran away with me for a moment there. Clearly, the reality is very different; there was no scramble from anyone to stand with Edward Snowden. Bradley Manning or the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities.
Even the response to the situation in Egypt was, let’s be honest, far from decisive. For now, the EU has announced talks.
Given recent developments it may seem that the world has taken a turn for the worse. However, I am wondering if we should examine that assumption more closely.
In fact, I propose an entirely different assumption: the state the world is in has in fact been much worse than many of us have been thinking. And that for a while. I propose that we were in fact conned into not noticing. Or perhaps you had all noticed and it was just me being hopelessly naïve. Either way, bear with me for a while, as I clarify what I mean.
To do that, let’s take a look at this week’s events together.
Event #1: “[I] wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better” – Bradley Manning’s apology in court.
This week, Bradley Manning, “took the stand to give an unsworn statement in the sentencing phase of his trial”. The full statement can be found here and it is a sad, sad thing. In it, Manning claims that “both self-refection (sic) during [his] confinement in various forms, and […] the merits and sentencing testimony that [he] ha[d] seen [at his trial]” have made him “look back at [his] decisions and wonder how on earth could [he], a junior analyst, possibly believe [he] could change the world for the better”.
This really gave me pause. It had me swallow several times too. Whether that was fighting tears or keeping the sick down, I am still not quite sure. Mind you, my reaction was not prompted by disappointment in Manning. It was rather that I can see two reasons for this statement both of which I find equally alarming.
Perhaps Manning, considering the bleak future he was facing, compromised himself and his convictions in order to avoid decades in prison. Personally, I can’t blame him for that. The man has spent three years in prison already, over eleven months in solitary confinement. He has exposed gross misconduct in Iraq. He deserves a pardon, not more incarceration. As that’s not going to happen, let him try and reduce his sentence.
To be honest, I prefer this scenario of him acting out of self-interest because if he wasn’t then I can only conclude that after everything he has suffered (and yes, I believe the phrase really applies here), he really has lost faith that any single person can “change the world for the better”. If he believes this, then what he has expressed is the despair of someone who thought he could make a difference only to realize that, when this world’s mighty have their way, there is precious little any of us can do.
Event #2: Edward Snowden speaks to his father and sets the record straight about himself, Glenn Greenwald and WikiLeaks
Enter Edward Snowden. That other whistleblower. The guy who has gone into hiding in some safe house in Russia. Yes, that very country that has just cracked down on the rights of its LGBT community. That country whose winter Olympics should be boycotted, as so many think, and as Stephen Fry has so eloquently demanded. The country whose Spooks may or may not have had a friendly chat with Snowden (that traitor) about the documents he absconded with. Bad, bad Snowden who’d rather not return to the US to face the same fate as Bradley Manning because he cannot expect a fair trial the consequences of his actions (as a side note, I would suggest that everyone calling for Snowden to face the “consequences” look up that term too – consequence is not the same as punishment, never mind retaliation). That’s the guy who provided us all with a lot of reading material. About what is really going on inside the NSA, about the amount of data they actually see. Just so you know it’s 1.6 per cent of the 1,826 Petabytes of information that the internet carries each day. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Consider that it’s more than Google processes every day. And about how other intelligence agencies in the world cooperate with the NSA.
He keeps doing it too! Or rather, the media he leaked the information to do it for him because, technically, Snowden himself isn’t allowed to say anything anymore (courtesy of Mr Vladimir Putin).
Rely on some of the other (government-supporting) media to pounce on allegations of “increasingly public bickering over the makeup of Mr. Snowden’s legal defense team, and who has standing to speak for him, among the three camps closest to him: the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, journalist Glenn Greenwald and his father’s legal team” rather than to touch the real substance of the leaks. Didn’t really work so well this time, though, because the news about the NSA’s breech of privacy rules sort of eclipsed it.
Worryingly, in the same way as Bradley Manning who – in a bid to reduce his prison sentence – is now being made out as “dealing with a lot of issues” prone to bad judgements rather than as someone who acted out of conviction, there seems to be an attempt to make Snowden out as a naïve young man who is being influenced by people that are using him for their own ends. “The thing we have been most concerned about is that the people who have influence over Ed will try to use him for their own means,” says Mattie Fein (Lon Snowden’s lawyers wife). “These guys have their own agenda here and we aren’t so sure that it has Ed’s best interest in mind.”
Give me a minute, here. Hasn’t “Ed” just turned 30? Hasn’t he been an adult for some ten-odd years? Or, as Glenn Greenwald has put it: “Snowden is not 14 years old. He is a very strong-willed, independent, autonomous adult and is making all his own choices about who he deals with and who represents him.” Now, I don’t know about you but I didn’t get the impression of Snowden as someone who was susceptible to influence from every Tom and Dick either.
Event #3: The controversy about the Sochi Olympics
There are arguments both for and against a boycott. And while people who say that “gay athletes winning medals may be a more effective form of protest than boycotting the games completely” may have a point, the same doesn’t sound quite so convincing when it comes from people like David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who in the recent past has made headlines by introducing much criticised anti-porn laws, while at the same time continuing with policies that are hurting the most vulnerable people in his society.
Similarly, while President Barack Obama readily cancelled the upcoming bilateral summit with Vladimir Putin over the Edward Sownden affair a lack of ‘progress on [the US and Russia’s] bilateral agenda‘, apparently his disapproval of Russia isn’t so strong as to also pull out of the Olympics.
Event #4: Egypt – Days of Rage
Barack Obama’s response to Egypt isn’t as strong as many might wish either. While the events of the last week have prompted “a chorus of international concern about Egypt’s crackdown on demonstrators” and liberal Mohamed ElBaradei’s resignation as vice-president, so far, the US’s response to this has been called “weak” by analysts. To be fair, this can be said of most other governments as well.
Now, I am aware that this is a tricky situation. After all, the president’s ousting by the military followed days of protest in Egypt against both Morsi’s rule and the Muslim Brotherhood who, as far as we know, hold some very deplorable ideas about women or the rights of religious minorities in Egypt. However, before being persuaded by the anti-Islam rhetoric that people like to invoke in these situations into thinking that ousting Morsi like that was a good idea, consider this: the violent crackdown by the army on Morsi’s followers on Wednesday saw hundreds dead as police cleared out two Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo. Says interim-government spokesman Sherif Shawky: “Reconciliation is there for those whose hands are not sullied with blood.” Hm, who is that then, I wonder. No one, suggests Nick Cohen, which might be the point: “When a state massacres 600 demonstrators, it is not just its own citizens it murders. It also kills the possibility of compromise. The perpetrators mean you to understand that there can be no going back. When they kill, they are well aware that they are shedding too much blood for normal politics to kick in and allow differences to be patched up and deals made.”
Nick Cohen also alerts us to the fact that the Brotherhood “did not abolish democracy.” In fact, “[t]he Brotherhood won all five elections that followed the toppling of Mubarak, and Mursi (sic) governed the country for a year until he was undermined by mammoth rallies called by critics who denounced his rule as incompetent and partisan.”
It may, as some claim, have been a “mistake” to elect Morsi in the first place. But elected he was. And it should give us pause, I think, that “Tawakkul Karman, who shared a Nobel peace prize for her pro-democracy campaigning in Yemen, has said she views the Egyptian army’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi as a death knell for Arab democratic movements.” Because, in the end, a democratically elected president was ousted by the military. Many would – and have – called that a coup. Only, Western governments seem unable to make up their minds about whether or not to call it that.
Yet, even if we took Amira Nowaira’s view that this “not a coup but the will of Egypt’s people”, this doesn’t alter the fact that the military have cracked down on millions of protesters with extreme violence. You may want to contest the claim to democracy under Morsi’s rule but denying his supporters their democratic right to free speech and protest isn’t democracy either.
Nick Cohen argues that we may fail to identify with the protesters because they are not our idea of “good people” and that therefore way may understand that what is going on is “wrong in theory” but still “cannot feel true anger in practice”.
Now, I don’t know about you but I think that this is a dangerous thing to say. I, for one, fail to see why we should be less angry about the military massacring 600 people just because these people may hold all sorts of questionable ideas. It is for the same reason that I have no patience with people who support the death penalty; your actions can be as deplorable as you like, you can have all the wrong ideas, yet no one – least of all the state – should deduce that this somehow revokes your basic human rights.
Let there be no doubt about whether or not it is wrong that “many Western allies have denounced the killings, including the United States”, yet have done very little to call this thing by its name and draw the consequences. You see, while the US has suspended its military exercises, it is continuing its foreign aid and “getting into semantic knots about the difference between a “coup” and a “military intervention” – though no-one disputes that a democratically elected president, albeit an unpopular one, has been overthrown.”
Now, I am not saying that Morsi’s government didn’t take some deeply disturbing steps to enhance its own powers but the point is: a democratically elected leader has been ousted by the military leading to violent protests and crackdowns against his supporters and no one really intervenes, even though what is going on is very obviously not a democratic process.
The reason is as obvious as it is sadly telling: “Barack Obama [for one avoids] use of the C-word to stave off the risk that US financial aid to a strategically important Middle Eastern ally might be cut off by Congress.”
Are we surprised? Not really. Interestingly, particularly in light of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and the “saga” that unfolded in their wake, many people have remarked on the various ironies this seems to have exposed.
For one thing, there is the apparent irony of a former Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and defender of whistleblowers (Obama) persecuting a man who, as far as we know, has done nothing more or less than to expose the wrongdoing of one of the US’s major spy agencies. This so-called irony is amplified by the fact that another former laureate, the EU, and its various member states have done nothing to protect that man from persecution.
For another, there is the irony of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin lecturing the US about human rights, earning him derision, disbelieving head shakes or downright ridicule from anyone even remotely familiar with Russia’s own abysmal human rights record.
Even in light of the fact that Putin, by granting Snowden asylum, was probably just sticking two fingers up at Obama (although they have no personal differences the US president is anxious to point out), the situation may seem ironic.
However, looking more closely, I think we need to ask ourselves if the irony that we perceive is really there. Considering the fate of Bradley Manning, or the fact that the US are not so willing to boycott the Sochi Olympics or stop aid to the Egyptian military, one cannot help asking the question of whether these ironies really run as deep as we think they do. Or rather, if they are based on a concept of the world we live in that is long out of date.
The balance of the world we live in and the con of the “virtuous West”?
Certainly, our idea of the Russian government as one that disregards human rights and promotes freedom only when it serves its own ulterior motives, is once again proving justified these days. Russia’s approach to its own whistleblowers and investigative journalists has been increasingly in focus again since Edward Snowden was granted asylum, and I have already mentioned the responses to Russia’s new anti-gay laws banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.”
Still, when it comes to the so-called Western governments it seems that risking international relations is something you only do when someone has offended you by granting asylum to someone else who has embarrassed you publicly. You do not risk them, however, to support the rights of people you have previously professed your support for. Much like Obama now does not cash in on his promised of protecting whistleblowers (he has, in fact, taken that particular promise off his website) or closing that other stain on the US’s human rights record, Guantanamo Bay, he is not that consequent in his support of LGBT individuals when it comes to making the unpopular choice of stopping US athletes from competing by boycotting the Olympics.
What all of this points to, I think, is another question that we must ask ourselves, namely in how far our ideas of countries like China and Russia as the “questionable” ones as opposed to the “virtuous” West – and that includes both the US and Europe – are even accurate any longer.
Sure, we have this idea of the US as a partner in all things human rights, freedom, peace and anti-terror, whereas we never seem to be quite sure if we can trust Russia or China with any of that.
But I am wondering if, while we were still being so very trustful of our elected leaders to represent us, to honour the law, our rights and our freedoms, while we were getting a bit concerned about various terror threats, we have maybe all be conned. Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to hold on for too long to an illusion about the world that has been off-kilter for a long time.
We are quick to blame Russia for their treatment of their own whistleblowers. While this is certainly based on an abstract concept of how things should be, I think it also implies that elsewhere in the world, things are better. Perhaps it is the same antiquated thinking left over from the Cold War that Obama evoked recently that makes us instinctively look to the US for comparison. Sadly, we no longer find that they look much better in that respect.
Okay, you might say, but unlike Russia, people aren’t just randomly murdered in the US. Aren’t they though? What about the case of journalist Michael Hastings who recently died in a suspicious car accident, following his “portray[al of] a commander of the US-led force in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal and “general’s staff” as “handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs”? What about sending out unmanned drones to gun down people suspected of plotting against the US? What about the 3-year-long incarceration of Bradley Manning, a US citizen? It’s true; lesbian, transgender and gay people may breathe more freely in the US than they do in Russia. This is an important fact not to be discounted. However, what about the failure, right now, of taking a stand against the oppression of the same group of people in Russia? Where is the clear stance towards human and civil rights violations in Egypt?
I am not saying the US have quite gone rogue yet. However, what is still worrying – and this became very clear with regard to Snowden for example – is how little other Western governments seem able or prepared to do when the US decides to do its own thing.
When I make this point, people I speak with tend to invoke some faith in a self-regulating mechanism at work within the international community, the executive organ of which is seen to be the UN. Yet, I am not quite sure that faith is justified. George W. Bush formerly managed to make the UN look like a cabinet of string puppets, unable to stop him from going to war, no matter how much they tried. The UN’s carefully drafted Declaration of Human Rights has been ratified by the US (and other governments) only as it suits them. Yes, certainly, the UN does a lot to intervene in countries that do not respect the rights of their citizens but only, it seems, for as long as that excludes the US. I think it is fair to say that some doubt in the self-regulating powers of the international community is justified.
Yet, people keep saying that if something really terrible happened, the international community would speak up. Well, I ask, how terrible does it have to get? How far and to which scale do boundaries need to be pushed before people’s sense of a moral imperative kicks in? For Edward Snowden that boundary was crossed when he realized that not even the Obama administration was going to do something about the wrongdoing he had uncovered within the NSA.
For Western governments that boundary apparently still hasn’t been crossed, despite the infringement of people’s right to life, freedom, privacy and free speech in their own countries. The problem with pushing back those boundaries, with making compromise after compromise is, of course, is that it erodes our values at their very core. There will always be arguments to justify human rights infringements. In fact, looking at the cases of both Snowden and Manning, it seems that we have already crossed a line we should never have crossed; a line where we allow ourselves to justify that an individual is subjected to the full wrath of a government’s retaliation and we fail to do anything about it. We are not so willing, it seems, to cross that line in the other direction and make the unprecedented, if unpopular, decision to take the Olympics away from Russia. We are already living in a world where our basic rights are no longer safe because someone will just walk over them and others will do nothing to stop them.
Rather than to shake our heads at the irony of the American fugitive finding shelter in human-rights-violating Russia, we should make ourselves aware, and quickly, that this sense of irony is based on the dangerous misconception that – ultimately – our rights have more meaning outside of Russia than inside. They may, in theory, I give you that, but I think recent weeks have shown that theory is a dangerous thing. It only informs practice for as long as it suits. More than that, it deceives us into believing that, ultimately, we will be able to do something about it when our governments fall short of protecting our rights.
Bradley Manning may or may not think that it was naïve of him to believe that he, as an individual, could change the world for the better. Let’s just hope we do not wake up on no particular morning in the not-so-distant future and find out that he was right; that while we have been pushing back our boundaries thinking we could always re-assert them, we have allowed them to become so completely eroded that they are easily torn down just when we need them.
Our governments have recently displayed a worrying inertness – be it with regard to Snowden or Egypt or the Olympics – in the face of blatant human and civil right abuses. It seems that for some reason or other, they do not quite remember the moral principles that our states have been built on. If that’s the case, is it any wonder that they take so long to react and defend them?
The danger in that is that, one day, they will have waited too long. So then perhaps it is time for us, the people, to wake up from our own nap of cosy indifference and start standing up for our rights, and those of others, with urgency.