The Cultural Weapon, a weekly commentary on arts and cultural matters as they relate to Africa and South Africa.  

By Mike van Graan

Last week, Human Rights Watch released their World Report 2011. In an accompanying statement, they accused many governments of “accepting the rationalisations and subterfuges of repressive governments” and that “instead of standing up firmly against abusive leaders, (they) adopt policies that do not generate pressure for change”.

This should come as no surprise for, high-sounding rhetoric notwithstanding, we live in a world governed not by a commitment to building an international order in which all (or even most) human beings enjoy the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but rather by the economic and security interests of nations - particularly wealthy nations - and the elites within these.

Foreign policy is determined much less by prevailing upon repressive regimes to respect human rights and civil liberties than by ensuring supplies of the commodities that oil the economy, building markets, increasing profits and contributing to increasingly narrow and self-serving definitions of security.
The statement attributed to United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Cold War era when he said of the brutal Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” still holds largely true today as a metaphor for how wealthy and powerful countries (whether in the global north, or in regions such as Africa) relate to highly repressive states that serve some strategic advantage.

Tunisia – along with many other Arab countries – have been, and are contemporary “sons-of-bitches”, states that have dictatorial, undemocratic and repressive forms of government that severely suppress civil liberties, but they are “our” (read: the western world’s) “sons of bitches” in that they supply oil and co-operate in the “war on terror”. There has been, and continues to be a hypocritical stance towards such countries, glossing over their repressive tendencies, and even praising them for their economic success (despite rising unemployment and poverty in many such countries) and for their putting a check on radical Islam, the cultural “other” that is currently blamed for much of the insecurity within the world (rather than the fundamental inequities in power and resources that give rise to or create the conditions for extremism).

Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that the American ambassador to Tunisia informed his government of the “mafia family practices” of the President, Ben Ali, his wife and their extended family who compelled business people to enter into business partnerships with them, taking over public sector companies, and forcefully expropriating property. France, Tunisia’s former colonial master and now its key trading partner, would also have had intimate knowledge of the repressive nature of the Tunisian government and of the looting of state coffers by a politically connected elite. Yet, these influential democracies ““instead of standing up firmly against abusive leaders, (they) adopted policies that do not generate pressure for change”.

Till the people of Tunisia had enough. Popular revolt has now ousted Ben Ali and his family of “hyenas” in their “predator state”, inspiring similar revolts in other countries, most notably, in Egypt, that has long been presided over by the dictatorial autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power almost as long as Robert Mugabe. Yet, while Mugabe – rightly – comes in for heavy criticism from western powers for his abuse of human rights and his thefts of elections, there has been relative silence about similar practices in the Arab world. But then, Zimbabwe has little economic or security or other strategic value to the west.

While there is much pleasure to derive from these historic popular revolts, we know that the overthrow of tyranny is but the beginning, and that citizens constantly need to be vigilant that their rights are not usurped by new powermongers, once-were-liberators who become like the tyrants they helped depose.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”. “All shall be equal before the law”. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of herself and her family”. “Everyone has the right to work”. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”. These – and other - fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are too important to citizens for them simply to leave them to governments to implement. The advancement and defence of these rights should be the role of every citizen.

And this includes the right – not the luxury or the afterthought – but the fundamental right enshrined in in Article 27 of the Declaration: “Everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, and to enjoy the arts….”.

The views expressed in this column are entirely the views of the author and are not necessarily those of any of the institutions – or their partners – with which he is associated.

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent. He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector. He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

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AuthorCato Litangen