A Conversation for Ngawang Sangdrol

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Post 41

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

Those concerns worry me too.

On the one hand governments claim to represent the interests of the exploited masses, and press for ever more international influence on Human Rights, because they recognize that, by doing so, they improve the prospects of future trade relations. And yet, on the other hand, they drag their feet on ratifying HR conventions and permit corporations to do business in ways that undermine the same HR principles.

Our own government calls Human Rights a 'Threshold' consideration in its foreign policy strategies; and yet, even now it is preparing to go to war against demonstrators at the upcoming Free Trade Area of the Americas conference by booking up all hotel rooms for miles and equipping police with new 'non-lethal' weapons (they still have their lethal ones, of course). It's hard to have faith that your values are being represented in such a climate.

But we have made some progress.The trick is how are we going to keep pushing forward against the resistance of people with a vested interest in seeing improved HR standards scuttled?


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Post 42

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

We each do what we deem enough to satify our consciences, our feelings of responsibility and moral obligence. Me, I consider it enough to think about what's happening and where it might lead to. Others, like in your FTAA conference story, feel they must go further, and challenge the government to take a stand, or at least think about its current stance. And so we all do what we think necessary to stem the tide.

But, dear Gardener, in all honesty I don't think it will be enough. There are those that have labeled the people, who climb the barricades at business conference like WTO, NAFTA and probably the FTAA as well, a new civil society, which must grow in numbers and power and comprehension, until it can function as the public guardian that governments can, to an increasing extent, no longer be.
Wishful thinking, in my book.

The coming about of social formations is a process that is passive in its very nature. Because we are all part of it, none of us can steer it by themselves without being influenced, augmented or diminished, altered in every way. It is the fabric of our society: who are we to say where we are heading for? So sit back, relax, ponder, write, agitate, react, debate, et cetera et cetera, it won't make a lickin' difference because what we will get is what we will get.

I think my point is, that because these movements are so massive, their gestation starts and builds in processes unseen and unfelt. So by the time people like ourselves notice them with our crude powers of deduction, they will always have already gained such momentum that there is no hope in influencing them other than they way we always do.

Does this make any sense? It sounds cynical, but it isn't, really smiley - smiley
HAve you ever had profiteroles? French cream/chocolate pastry. Really very good smiley - smiley


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Post 43

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

oh, and another thing:

The idea of "people with a vested interest in seeing improved HR standards scuttled" is again, far too black/white in my book.
You speak of "Them" as if they are evil, and are constantly plotting conspiracy against those of pure intentions.

This is simply not the case. People who see the situation will never succeed, because they are fighting a battle with no adversary, flailing their sticks and waving banners against the reification of an abstract image.

The people who are currently doing business with a HR-violating China aren't evil, and they have no vested interest in seeing the situation perpetuated. They do have a vested interest in doing business with China, and therefor they don't care what the situation is. I dare say that if China was a little more like 'us' they would probably even feel a little better about themselves, which is nice. Their business wouldn't be attacked all the time by treehugging hippies, which is smooth. But this is simply not the case, and there is trade to be done. So, sorry for the hippies, but they have a job to do.

You see the diff? Not intentionally fighting HR proliferation, but simply going on in spite of its absence. Not evil, just capitalist.
smiley - smiley


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Post 44

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

In the words of the late, great Bob Marley, 'Who the cap fits, let them wear it'. People who do evil are, by definition, evil. I'm not saying that good people are always good, or that bad people are invariably bad. That would be a very childish outlook. But if the sum of a person's actions results in a balance of good versus bad that inclines towards the negative... well, let history be the judge.

The specific members of any given group may change, but it is still possible, and reasonable, to identify as a group those whose actions, at any given point, conform to a particular point of view. In other words, if a group of people adopt the same values (profit at the expense of humane considerations); jointly promote those values by adopting the same, or similar, course of action (undermine social progress for the expediency of business); and form an identifiable body that takes an adversarial stance in relation to another system of values (form trade bodies that lobby in international fora to advance their collective cause); then it's not unfair to think of them as a 'Them', even though the individual members of the group vary.

Once again, it is probably fair to say that there are at least as many corporations whose executives choose to do business in a way that only a barking mad, tree-hugging hippy would have the slightest grounds to object to. But in a complex world there are good and bad apples in any given barrel.

I don't take the point of view that trade, in and of itself, is a bad thing. quite the opposite: I believe that interaction with other people around the world is, in principle, a good thing that may lead to an era of mutual understanding and co-operation. But the terms under which international trade is established should be scrutinized very closely, because, as we have already discussed, there are those whose concern for the welfare of their fellow man is reprehensibly low. This is not necessarily a conspiracy, except when like-minded people form a group in order to promote reprehensible objectives; in which case, obviously, it is.

Whether people oppose improvements to international HR standards on principle or for pragmatic reasons, the net result is the same. Regardless of their motivation, some business interests act to slow the advance of human rights in developing countries. I'm not suggesting that the executives of these operations are the embodiment of evil and should be destroyed, merely that they represent an obstacle to improving the lives of a large number of people that should be addressed.

The people our government is buying plastic bullets to shoot at aren't all tree-hugging hippies. Just as in Seattle, Washington, Auckland, the people who are concerned with globalization represent a varied background; but, I suspect, for most of them, exclusion lies somewhere close to the heart of their objections. Once again, I'm not opposed to globalization... I want to live in a global village, but I don't like it when I'm treated like a barbarian at the gate. I helped build the society we live in too, and I'm entitled to think of myself as an active participant in it. That's what democracy is all about; and when capitalism is at odds with that ideal, it is time to reassess how we do business.

It is important for people to take an interest in what is going on in the world, and to cry 'foul' when it is necessary to do so. That's not to say that I support or condone throwing things through shop windows. But I do believe that it is possible for ordinary people to have an influence on events by giving expression to their concerns as clearly and intelligently as their brains will allow. Public opinion is a powerful thing in a democratic society, and a few well-chosen words can be a powerful instrument for the good, regardless of whose keyboard they spring from or how long it took to bash them out.smiley - smiley


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Post 45

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

I've just been looking at a recipe for profiteroles. Delicious! I'm going to have to find a source. The thought of someone sitting eating something that wonderful, when I haven't even tried one is too much to bear.smiley - smiley


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Post 46

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

But what if the speed at which societies change is so slow and unnoticeable that there can never be any trade with it in the foreseeable future? If China develops the institution of HR, it can only do it at the speed at which history always progresses, slowly but surely. So should global business exclude China until then?
Business would deny its very nature if it waited that long.

ANother point in favour of trade with CHina is the argument of wealth accumulation. If people trade with CHina, they come into contact with them. CHinese people will go overseas more and see how things can be different. Furthermore, they will get more wealth from this trade and industry, and thus come into increasingly enough power to challenge the present gov't.



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Post 47

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

If we were looking at a fairly stagnant society, or one that was evolving at a very slow pace, something more direct and dramatic would be called for. I think that's probably the kind of problem we face when trying to influence the politics in Iraq, for example. I don't think the slow and sure model fits the situation in China. The history of China, over the last century at least, has been one of fits and starts, violent lurches and convulsions. It seems to me that China is once again on the verge of a fairly dramatic transition, from a postion of relative isolation into a significant international player. The pace of change is so fast that it will be difficult for the UN and national governments to moderate the affects of business. I think there is a danger that business interests may outpace governmental restrictions and play a dominant defining role in a new China. I'm afraid that there is a spirit of 'The Wild West' governing the economic exploitation of the western regions, and the same anything goes mentality that so tragically affected the lives of American Indians could find a new venue in Tibet and East Turkestan.

You make a good point regarding wealth accumulation. A nouveau riche in China will want the same lifestyle as the wealthy Westerners they interact with. Whether that means that the wealthy elite will retire to closed enclaves, as has happened in many developing nations, or lead to a more open society is yet to be seen. An influential executive class should at least curb the growing power of the PLA... unless, of course, the new elite *is* the PLA.smiley - sadface

It's a similar argument to the one regarding whether or not Beijing should host the 2008 Olympics. On the one hand, no one wants to be seen to be rewarding torture and oppression; and there are obvious practical reasons not to send the Games to Beijing, such as traffic problems and pollution. On the other hand, the positive influence of the games on the people of China should not be underestimated. They could be a very powerful tool for affecting change in China.


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Post 48

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

Owch... the Olympics... I forgot about that one.

I hope they won't have them in china.
That would be too hypocritical to fit through a horse's âhse.
It's one thing averting your eyes in order to do business because in business there should be no symbolics and beating around the bush, but letting China host a Games which is hypocritical in itself, holding up freedom and a whole lot of other things, is too much.
It would be hypocrisy upon hypocrisy, and a debasement of symbolic efforts all round.

Which I'll use to underscore my position again: on the symbolic side, we should keep pressurising China. Deny them the Olympics, scold them, warn them and defame them. On the side of pragmatism, we'll have to wait until they change from within, so let business be human be business.


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Post 49

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

But human business should still be humane. Isn't it also hypocritical to preach human rights while allowing the power elite of our own countries to ignore the principles we are supposed to hold sacred? We need to establish a clear system of international business ethics in order to safeguard the fragile state of Human Rights in places like China.

At the heart of the matter is the rather uncomfortable idea that the principles of human rights aren't all that deep rooted in our own societies either, much as we would like to believe they are. In this respect, the Chinese are right to point out that we are on pretty shaky moral ground. This has created a rather nasty situation vis-a-vis trade and the people we would like to promote as ambassadors of our enlightened societies. Unfortunately, many of them demonstrate only too clearly that the welfare of their fellow man, and the health of the planet itself, fall a very distant second to making a fast buck.

Canada has taken the pragmatic approach by being coy about saying outright that China is run by evil despots; although we do often mention political prisoners quietly and discreetly behind the scenes. We call it "constructive engagement"; and, in its defence, it has to be admitted that there have been close contacts established with Canadian business interests as well as government agencies, academics, and scientists. The down side, of course, is that we have pretty much painted ourselves into a corner when it comes to speaking out in the brash way the Americans do. Our government seems to feel that it can't actually say "boo", except over cocktails, for fear of making the Chinese not like us after all. In the long run, this approach may be the one to bear fruit; but it comes at the expense of undermining the credibility of international bodies like the UNCHR, diffusing interest in HR matters at home, and sending a very mixed message to the Chinese in the short term. The irony is that our government has become so discreet that many Canadian citizens may not be aware that any action towards HR goals is being taken at all, unless they actively seek out information about government programs. This has the side effect of weakening domestic interest in international Human Rights causes.

The drawback of condemning the PRC in the straightforward, no nonsense way the Americans have adopted is that it runs the risk of reinforcing the historic xenophobia of the Chinese rulers.

I have mixed feelings about the Olympics, I have to admit. I would like to think that the games could act as a catalyst, hastening the opening of Chinese society to the ideals of freedom and human rights. This is, as you say, complete and utter hypocricy. But it is also very powerful street theatre propaganda that just might do some good. On the other hand, the 1936 Olympic games didn't do Germany, and the promotion of human rights in that country, much good.smiley - sadface

I will be quite surprised if Beijing isn't awarded the games... Even though, as is patently obvious to anyone not married to an IOC commissioner, Toronto should get them.smiley - smiley


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Post 50

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

idealist-pragmatist-cynic: where do you stand, that is summing the matter up briefly. I would put myself between pragmatist and cynic,
with idealism only permitted in wishful thinking.

But then there are as much stances and points of view as there are people. There are pragmatists, who will do business with anyone. There are cynics, who will expect everyone else to be pragmatist, and the idealists, who expect that ideals can and will win over pragmatism and cynicism. As long as all types exist, both the fight against the denial of HR will continue, as well as business with this china will.

Since I think you, with all due respect, are placed in the spectrum with a lot of idealism, I don't think we will come much closer to each other than we have up to now.

Expect maybe on the merits of chocolate pastry smiley - smiley


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Post 51

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

If the worst enemies in the world would only sit down together over chocolate pastry and a cup of good coffee, many of our problems would begin to fade away... if only because it's hard to fight with a pastry in your hand.smiley - smiley

On the charge of idealism: Guilty, your honour.

But not so idealistic that I don't see the dark side of human nature. Sometimes, I must confess, it's hard to see anything but the dark side - such as when I read about a 30 year old Chinese farmer having his genitals ripped off by 'family planning' officials, who wanted to sterilize his wife - which makes me rather a cynic.

I keep promising myself that the next Entry I write will be about something cheerful; but what I end up producing lately is something quite depressing.

I don't believe that good things come simply as a result of wishful thinking. There has to be a mechanism at work to achieve anything in this world. Good governance and business practises, tempered with a healthy conscience, are the tools we have to rely on to make the world a better place. But a vital precondition to achieving anything good with those tools is the desire to make things better, a vision, wishful thinking. How does pragmatic idealism sound? To achieve a better world, you first have to imagine it... then the work begins.smiley - smiley


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Post 52

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

Another difference between us, John.

You seem to be pretty much of a universalist, whereas I am more of a cultural relativist. Take some of the concepts you use in your last paragraph:

-Good governance and business practises: 'good'? What is this? Who decides what is good? You may think this is nitpicky since we should 'all' be able to agree that what is happening now in Tibet and to Tibetans is 'not good', but that is the extreme in a whole paradigm of ethics.

-healthy conscience: the same point, really! Consciences are the products of nurturing and living in society, therefore when you are brought up in another society your conscience will be considered 'unhealthy' here, and if you are bron and raised without any human company you will probably develop a conscience considered 'sick' in any other society.

There are some others there but I've made my point. What I find so troubling about universalism is that it presumes that the values it holds are the same everywhere, when I think that view forgets that values are products of history. CHina has a different history than we do, so its basic values are different. Persuading them to join our value system on the basis of ethic philosophy is therefore extremly difficult, if not insulting to their beliefs straight away.

Hm? smiley - winkeye



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Post 53

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

On the side, I'd like you to have a look at http://www.bbc.co.uk/h2g2/guide/A517943 if you have time.
I'd appreciate comments, especially since the article underscores my relativist stance.

I'm also thinking of doing one on human rights, with much attention to the cultural relativist / universalist debate in it. I dunno whether there's already on on HR, lessee....


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Post 54

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

On the contrary. I'm all in favour of preserving the best of every culture on the planet. This is an ideal that is made much of in Canada: the idea of a cultural mosaic, which is that everyone's culture adds to the overall fabric of life and enriches life for all.

Having said that, there are universal constants that transcend a nations historical treatment of its subjects. Regardless of history and culture, all human beings have the right to exist without fear of tyranny, pursue their own religious beliefs, participate in their societies, and so on. These are principles that have been well established by the international community, and offer us our best hope for a peaceful coexistence in the future.

It's true that some countries, including China, have a different perspective on what constitutes concepts like "freedom" and "rights"; but no nation stands to gain from preserving elements of their cultures that restrict the growth of individuals within society and handicap participation in the international community. The world is too small. We may abhor practices such as cannibalism or blood sacrifice; but if there is universal support for them in the societies in which they practised... well so be it. I just won't go there for my holidays. But culture and history can never be used to justify oppression by a ruling elite of their subject people, even less when those subject people were acquired by military aggression.

Another angle to this ethical problem is that foreign investors may use an unfortunate historical context (such as the existence of slavery, to use an extreme example) to advance a commercial gain in a way that would not be tolerated in the cultural context of the nation in which the business is based. This is nothing more than a cynical exploitation of other people's suffering that should never be condoned.

The code of ethics for business and governance in the new world need not interfere with anyone's culture or belief system, except when there is a specific conflict with the rights of any people to enjoy basic freedoms as expressed in various treaties and conventions that exist for the welfare of everyone.

All that I would hope to see is that trade practices that exploit oppressed people are abandoned, and business and nations work towards building a more humane world rather than subverting the work that the people of many nations have worked so long and hard to achieve.

Cultural Relativism cannot be used to justify human rights abuse.


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Post 55

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

Oops, just noticed your second post. I'll pop right over for a look.


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Post 56

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

Yes, it can be used as such, but it shouldn't, is my point of view.
What I mean by it?

cultural relativists aren't cynical in that they condone oppression, they just respect its possible regional roots, and understand these roots must be worked through in order to have change. they understand this for china, just like they understand it for the UK.

I believe in HR, in the UDHR, in the contents of the ethical paradigm the universalists claim holds true to every human being. BUt that claim is exactly where I say they assume history is bunk.

I do think it would generally be a Good Thing if everyone was as nice to each other as we are (ooh look at the sarcastic b*****d.. smiley - winkeye)
but what universalists claim, and what I object to, is that it shouldn't be that hard to achieve across the globe because what we're talking about are values that every human being fundamentally posesses, like 'healthy consciences' for example.

Forging institutions like HR takes an enormous amount of time, time time and more time. It's the cultural relativists that understand that, so whereas universalists are important in keeping the goal clear, the cultural relativists are needed to keep a clear short-term perspective.


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Post 57

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

That sounds like a pretty cosy club to me.smiley - winkeye

Either extreme invites ridicule. I don't consider that my point of view represents an extremist outlook. My position, in a nutshell, is that it is possible to say what actions oppose the interests of people who are being denied their basic human rights, as agreed upon in the various international agreements and relevant fora. This is what the annual UN Commission on Human Rights conference is about. Then steps should be taken to remedy deficiencies. In fact, this is precisely what is already taking place. I'm just impatient with the pace of change because a lot of innocent people are dying.

The world has already made a great deal of progress towards establishing a benchmark of what can now be considered to be universal standards of human rights. These are well documented in the UDHR and in subsequent international agreements like the Vienna Declaration. These form the basis of what is being discussed now (and every year) at UNCHR. There is wide range of debate about how the principles are applied; but there is a general consensus about what constitutes basic human rights.

The issue with China is not whether it is right or wrong, within a Chinese cultural context, to practice torture or imprison without due process. The debate is over whether or not these activities are taking place, and whether the State condones and encourages these practises. The government of the PRC is going to great lengths to convince outsiders that it cherishes the principles enshrined in UDHR. It's not a question of cultural relevance, merely application.

On a global scale, the issue isn't whether it is bad or good to enlist child soldiers to fight in guerilla wars over oil fields; it is whether or not governments and corporations promote such conditions by their actions. There is very little basis for suggesting that the next question ought not to be "How can we stop this?"


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Post 58

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

Well it is a very cosy club as a matter of fact. You can join if you like, I'll put in a word and you'll gt a badge and tie, and you can eat profiteroles all day with us because there's not much else we can do is there, since everyone's else's problems are theirs, period. smiley - winkeye

I'm not saying you are in the extreme of universalism, just that you're more of a universalist than I am, and I am more of a CR-ist than you are. Hardly any 3-d personality is ever in an extreme.

But seriously, or at least relatively more serious:

The debate is too also whether or not it is our place as hegemon to evangelise our standards of HR on the rest of the cultural spectrum. Only that debate is not taking place in the political fora, but more in ethical philosophy. So more at the basis.

It is also like you said, the more practical questions in fora like UNCHR. But is it really like you said? (this is a real question, not a 'calling into question'). Is the debate in these fora really still about whether violations are actually taking place in china? I can believe that, but surely that's not the hypocritical sort of debate you are into? That's the pussyfooting of politicians, more my kind of work (smiley - winkeye), whereas I would expect you to be pleading for an open-eyed approach, "Let's cut the bull and say china is violating them every day!"

Still, I can believe that the debate in the practical politcal field of intl HR fora is about exactly that. I'm still an outsider, but it it follows my reasoning. You see, in practice the govt of china cannot possibly admit, or stand by while others claim that it violates HR. It has to play the game or it stands isolated. With the intl community it's vice versa: lay the finger right on the spot and you estrange china, and no one wants them turning their back.

My stance is, anyway, not that torture and child soldiers should be condoned because of their regional historic roots. JUst that, to eradicate them as a tradition and replace them with an institution like HR, you have to work slowly, and yes, with a certain level of hypocrisy.


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Post 59

John the gardener says, "Free Tibet!"

The ethical debate over the rights of a nation to ill treat its subjects has been resolved. In principle, at least, it is entrenched in the mandate of the UN to uphold the fundamental rights of any people, notwithstanding the historical and cultural context. The problem is reconciling the ethical standard that has been agreed upon to political considerations. Why do we go to war in the Balkans and ignore the genocide in Rwanda?

In recent statements at UNCHR many countries named PRC (among many) as being guilty of various abuses of the rights of its people, inflicting torture, summary executions, and so on. Many decried the worsening persecution of religious practitioners, such as the Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists. But Australia said that things were actually improving in China, this in the face of testimony from people who have been the victims of torture. Is this an objective appraisal of the situation, or has it more to do with Australia's perceived sphere of influence or trade considerations? China on the other hand blasted the USA for hypocrisy, citing its own record of persecuting and marginalizing racial minorities, and so on... And the reports from government delegates are often very much at odds with those from NGO delegates.

I agree that to make lasting change you have to be committed to a long period of transition. But we should do what we can to minimize the amount of prevarication, and try to keep HR a central theme in the evolution of the international community. A certain amount of 'diplomacy' is necessary to reach an understanding, but we shouldn't allow the 'hypocrisy' to undermine the principles human rights.


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Post 60

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

Well I think that about sums it up, which is also the reason I've been silent. I think we perceive the maximum possible speed with which societies can respond to calls for change differently, but I agree that the calls for change should never cease. The only way any human being can balance the inadvertant negatives like hypocrisy, blindness or immorality is by advertantly practicisng positives. It0s that way within one person, and within societies as well.

Thanks for this conversation, John.
Maybe one day we will sit down and discuss some more things over chocolate pastry (for example, the Bossche Bol, made in my home town, is a treat of sheer chocolate and whipped cream decadence) smiley - smiley


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