PUCL Bulletin, November 2001

Shri Krishan Kant's Address:
A Saga of Dedication

I am extremely happy to be here for the Silver Jubilee function of the People's Union for Civil Liberties. I was witness to the date of birth of this organisation and purveyed its growth. It is more than a coincidence that this is also the centenary year of the mentor and the spiritual godfather of what was then known as he People's Union for Civil Liberties & Democratic Rights - or the PUCLDR, Shri Jayaprakash Narayan.

The PUCLDR was born in 1976, literally from the welter of the troubles of the Emergency. It was meant to be as a civil society bulwark against the erosion of liberties and the rights of the people. Today, when I see how the PUCL has owned the adherence of intellectuals, activists and human rights campaigners, as well as ordinary citizens, I can say with confidence that the PUCL is steadily translating JP's dream into reality.

It was a unique privilege that I was chosen by JP to be the first General Secretary of PUCLDR. JP was its President and Justice Tarkunde the working President. The objective for which the then rights of the citizens of this country, to help protect the private space of the individual from an ever wearing state, and to help to increase the citizens' awareness about his liberty and freedom. The thrust of its actions was to be along a wide front.

Today, human rights are acknowledged as universal, indivisible inter-dependent and inter-related and absolute minima for a life of honour, peace and dignity for the individual. While the significance of National and regional particularities and various historical, culture and religious backgrounds remain important, it is the duty of states, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. This has been enshrined in several multilateral instruments to which states are parties.
It may sound tautological but it is a fact that human rights, which were always universal, have become 'global' only now. For the first time there is awareness that human rights can provide the underpinning - legal, moral, social and economic, to the various facets of modern day globalization. It is interesting to find human rights figure in the international discourse on trade and business, environment, gender - issues, labour standards and the like. As always in these issues, there is developed and developing country perspective with varying measures of emphasis and details.

The approach to human rights besides being the general social issue is also an issue of attitude. You recall that throughout the cold war period, human rights were looked at through the blinkers of power block politics. Although significant gains were made in enthroning human rights as important concerns of all humanity, the implementation of these rights was entangled in the power politics of the two dominant blocks.

What happened during the war in terms of block politics is happening now in terms of the North-South divide, through not with the same combativeness. In major international fora, be it matters of environmental standards or labour standards, emission norms for green house gases, or poverty as polluter, the international community has quite clearly failed to evolve globally accepted norms - divided as it is between the rich and the poor states, Significantly, many of these issues are germane to globalization and were never seriously approached during the cold war area.

From the perspective of human rights, the area of globalisation has thrown up contrary trends. More people live under democracy today, than ever before. In the last three decades more than 40 countries have become democratic. Although the quality of democracy may widely vary, the process of democracy, such as elections, an arbitrational judiciary, separation of powers, etc., have been established. Constitutions of these countries also have chapters on the bill of rights.
It is believed by serious surveyors of the current international scene, that choice of democracy by these countries has been conditioned by the fact, that it was found to be the best what to relate to and, profit from, the evolving global order. Even countries, which are not formally democratic, have been forced to put in place systems, such as freedom of information, a judicial system, a body of rights and other institutions of democracy, to take advantage of the new world order.

It is comforting thought that the end of the cold war has caused, what has been described as, "the breaking out of democracy". It's impact on human rights, no doubt has been salutary. Although many would say that a formal democracy is no guarantee of unfettered exercise of rights and liberties, it is still a lot better than no democracy at all.
In the last few years, there has been a growing emphasis on the creation of a rule trade and investment order in the world. The World Trade Organisation has emerged as the principal focus of that order. The manner in which deliberations at the various fora of the WTO have been informed by human rights concerns is extremely interesting. In Seattle, in the year 1999 and again during the G-8 meet in Genoa, there were street demonstrations and protests by human rights groups representing several, shades of opinions and interests. Interestingly, those loudest in protest about environmental and labour standards were also those who were openly supporting the view-point of the pressure groups in the affluent West. Environmental standards must be enforced on the developing countries to make the cost of their products high and, thus save the Western-labour from competition. The labour standards are also emphasised to force the developing countries to incur high expenditure on norm-enforcement.
There are two sides to the picture. One is that the uniformity of environmental and labour norms will, no doubt, improve human rights standards in the developing countries, but surely, not help improve their share in the global trade, atleast in the short term. In fact, the contrary trends regarding the human rights implications of the global trade is nowhere more manifest than in the campaign for universal norms for environmental, labour, sanitary and phyto - sanitary standards.
The anxiety of the rich North to protect its living standards by insisting on maintaining environmentally polluting industries, while at the same time, enforcing stronger norms on the third world, is another manifestation of the contradictory trends in evidence today.

While an era of rapid globalisation is gaining more speed, the several contrary trends are becoming visible. While the global embracing of the market economy has caused general welfare to improve, the divide between the rich and the poor is appearing wider. 1.2 billion population of the world still has to make do with less than one dollar a day. Regional imbalances have tended to get worse. Human rights abuses in a legal sense may have declined, but still vast sections of the global population are deprived of access to clean drinking water, fresh air, housing, health-care, literacy, and education. Women and the girl child still suffer overt and hidden discrimination and, are often victims of medieval social practices, which leave them mentally and physically scarred.

The problem of the unorganised labour has not yet been satisfactorily resolved and organised labour is threatened with lay offs and shrinking job opportunities in the new economic era. Globalisation has unleashed several forces, which are at work, frequently, at cross-purposes. The issue of safety net, not only economic and social, but also emotional from the perspective of human rights, has assumed importance. If the countries in the developing world embrace the marker economy to achieve rapid economic progress, they may be exposed to the periodic economic cycles for which they may be ill prepared and ill equipped. The challenge before us today, is to reconcile the gains of globalisation with its manifest disparities. As Prof. Amartya Sen says, "What is needed is not a rejection of the positive market mechanism, in generating income and wealth. But the important recognition that the market mechanism has to work in a world of many institutions. We need the power and protection of these institutions, provided by democratic practice, civil and human rights, a free and open media, facilities for basic education and health care, economic safety nets and of course, provisions for women's freedom and rights".

In this perspective, it is only appropriate that the opportunities and the benefits of globalisation are shared much more widely. A system of governance needs to be evolved which is transparent and fair, giving voice to the poor, enabling them to reap the advantages of globalisation. In a just and equitable society, liberties and human rights can be fully realised. Today, achieving all rights for all peoples in all countries will require concerted actions and positive interventions along with full commitment from the major groups in every society - human rights groups and organisations, media and governments, parliamentarians and other opinion leaders.

It is, therefore, very important that the developmental issue of our time should be informed by the developing world's human rights perspective. We may have to examine the issues from a more relativist perspective in order to find local solutions to our problems. I believe that the societies, especially in Asia have enormous physical, intellectual, and spiritual resources, which can be harnessed to help us find workable solutions to our dilemmas. Globalisation has given us an opportunity, or rather a challenge, to include our concerns in the international agenda. Our combined efforts must be directed in that direction.

I offer my sincere felicitation to the PUCL on the occasion of its silver jubilee and wish it long years of dedicated service to the country and all humanity

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