Changing ThE Agenda

The World Social Forum meet in Mumbai changes the emphasis of international political discourse from terrorism to human freedom and welfare

The World Social Forum (WSF) meet from January 16 to 21 in Mumbai has tried to shift the global political discourse from "terrorism" to more pressing social and economic issues. This is the beginning of a welcome change.

Four years ago the largest ever gathering of world leaders at the United Nations had pledged to reduce inequities and poverty, improve security of food, shelter, health and education and protect human rights (including the rights of women, children and minorities). Only a year after the Millennium Declaration at the UN came the attacks on WTC and Pentagon.

These attacks of September 11 suddenly changed the entire discourse from development, freedom and human rights to combating terrorism. Or, so it seemed, because later revelations by some of the best journalists in the world showed that the US had completed plans of attacking and destroying the Taliban much earlier than the September 11 incidents.

The United States was already prepared for the war against the Taliban because they had refused to oblige American oil interests. The September incidents came as a handy pretext for the aggression. The rest, as they say, is history. In the final analysis, the Afghan war was not primarily about terrorism, but about oil.

Despite all the fuss, it is by now clear that even the Iraq war was not about terrorism, nor about spread of militant Islam, nor about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). All efforts by the CIA to establish some "terrorist link" of President Saddam Hussein failed miserably. Nor was President Hussein an "Islamist", either of the terrorist or pacifist variety. And, yes, nobody has found any WMD in Iraq. The only way of "finding" them there is by bringing in such WMDs from the US or the nearby Israel where such weapons are manufactured and stored.

The last two years have shown that the entire hype about "war on terrorism" was mischievously misplaced and had little to do with "terrorism" as such. All that it has done is that it has shifted the focus from national independence like in Palestine and Chechnya and allowed Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin to violate all norms of human rights with impurity under US license of "war against terrorism". Even Americans have admitted that people like Sharon and Putin have been taking advantage of the so-called war on terrorism to push their own agenda.

Former president of Ireland and UN Human Rights Commissioner Ms Mary Robinson has rightly pointed out that the so-called war on terrorism has shifted focus from important issues. Ms Robinson, who is today one of the most influential voices of global public opinion outside government, wrote at the time of the WSF meet that the attacks of September 11, howsoever reprehensible, did not affect too many people, while the events following that affected far larger number of people worldwide.

Ms Robinson, who is now the head of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, has pointed out that the post-September 11 agenda of the US has led to neglect of programmes affecting the welfare of millions of people. After globalisation took hold in the 1990s, as many as 54 countries became poorer, child mortality grew in 14 countries and life expectancy shrank in 34, Ms Robinson wrote. Had the hype about "war on terror" not derailed the international efforts to address these issues, we would possibly had a less gloomy world.

The mischievous propaganda surrounding the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has shrunk the operational space for human rights and civil liberties even within the US and India. The Patriot Act in America was so vehemently opposed that the Patriot II became almost impossible. The Patriot Act's clone in India, the similar sounding POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) had such an inauspicious beginning that it began to hurt its supporters. Its two most ardent advocates, Raja Bhaiya, an MLA in UP, and Vaiko a member of Parliament from Tamil Nadu, are cooling their heels behind bars more because of falling foul of the powers that be than for their acts of terrorism.

The anti-minority BJP had not intended it to harm its own people. The Act was meant to brutalise Muslims, to the extent that even former US President Bill Clinton had to point it out. He said that in Gujarat Muslims were being detained and tried under POTA, while others were charged with milder offences under kinder laws. Mr. Clinton warned that such unfair practice by the Indian state would not serve the country's interests.

Ms Robinson wrote that countries which had signed the World Trade Organisation (WTO) accords had also signed one or more of the six human rights accords. That shows the WTO signatory countries have agreed not only to promote free trade but also work for protecting the rights of women, children and other weaker sections. As the gathering of 80 thousand delegates from all over the world showed, civil society organisations today are no less important than governments when it comes to implementing these agreements.

Even the World Bank President James Wolfohnson has admitted that the "war on terror" rhetoric has gone too far and distracted attention from other serious issues like AIDS/HIV, resurgence of malaria, and socio-economic disparities. Days before the Mumbai summit he wrote for the Inter Press Service that it was time to shift the focus of discourse. The World Bank was, in fact, the sponsor of the meet.

The World Bank as sponsor of a global civil society meet was somehow insuperable to many hardline leftists. The fact remains that no financial institution, nor the omnipotent market, can survive and grow if large sections of society remain poor. The industries in advanced contains would fail and people would become jobless if the buying power of people in less developed countries falters. Thus the World Bank has a stake in people's well-being worldwide.

An interesting spectacle was the presence of 20 thousand Dalit activists gathered from all over India. They were incensed over the Government of India's stance regarding casteism being discussed at Johannesburg meet in 2002. The Johannesburg meet discussed xenophobia, racism and discrimination, and wanted to include caste prejudices in the discourse. The Government of India largely stayed away from it. Dalit activists were exasperated over the government's attitude of letting the wounds fester.

The ultimate success of such initiatives depends on follow-up. As the African delegates pointed out, what was needed was more grassroots involvement. There are umpteen number of governments which are always looking for pretexts to outlaw non-governmental organisations. The African delegates wondered as to how somebody would work for human rights if such activity is delegitimised. The "war on terror" has emboldened certain governments to curb civil society initiatives.g

(SEE ALSO: The Final Wake-up Call  )


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