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31 July 2014 09:14 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mark Heywood

The Poverty of Power and the Powers of Poverty

  • Mark Heywood
Today’s protests across the world all have one thing in common: the poor have shown they yield a lot more power than ever before. And, thanks to technology, the tools to fight injustice have become a lot more accessible.

Several weeks ago I was one of the participants in a biannual gathering of the World Justice Forum, which was held in Den Hague in the Netherlands. It took place in one of those buildings that have sprung up in most major cities of the globe, this one called the World Forum, in essence a tired theatre that has borne mute witness to multiple huddles of idealists agonising over different parts of our sad and unequal world. But in this instance over 600 remarkable and unusual people – among them judges, activists, academics and even army officers – came together to share a legion of experiences and ideas under the heading of “Rule of Law”.

Throughout the forum there was apparent unanimity on the importance of rule of law, as opposed to rule of popes, presidents or kings; rational law as opposed to irrational law; fair law as opposed to arbitrary law;  and, I would argue (although it was not strongly stated enough), poor law as opposed to rich law.

But amid thought-provoking tales of derring-do in the quest for justice, I personally sensed a lack of an agenda for change behind the notion of rule of law. The forum (whose participants were informed in advance that their dress should be “business-like” and so included few ragged-trouser-wearing philanthropists) felt disconnected from the real swells going on out there in the world – swells that challenge and will make or break abstract notions of rule of law. Sheltered in the whispery streets of Den Hague, the grandly self-proclaimed World Justice Forum was detached from the glimpses of a second revolution simultaneously raging on the expletive streets of Cairo.

Yet, the events of Cairo are the latest incarnation of demands for fairness, opportunity and law. These cries come particularly from those who – because of their youth - must still live in this world for many decades yet to come. A wave of demands for economic and political justice has swept the world since Mohamed Bouazizi ignited himself on 17 December 2010. In 2013, new episodes of essentially the same revolt have fallen upon Turkey, Brazil and now returned to Cairo. In my view, these uprisings are as significant as any of the great revolutions of history. They are akin to the European revolutions of 1848, the Russian revolution of 1917, France in 1968, Beijing and Berlin in 1989.

They point once more to a restless world population.

However, in their comparability to the great struggles of the past lies the rub that makes calamity of such long life. Because what they do betray is the fact that after more than 300 years of uprisings and ideologies designed for emancipation, society still has to resolve even the core demands of the workers of the 1848 Paris Commune.

“Bread, Peace and Land”; “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”; “Freedom and opportunity”: all variations on a theme.

But, I would hazard, today’s uprisings reveal profound differences in that we must not overlook. The second Egyptian revolution points to the fact that young people will not readily throw off one cloak of darkness, simply in order to allow another to be slipped over their shoulders. Although the criticisms of the army take-over are justifiable, do not lose sight of the fact that this uprising is an expression of a subconscious realisation (certainly true) that democratic elections do not always (ever?) lead necessarily to democracy. Viewed from a distance, it would appear that young Egypt does not wish to allow a new theocracy sufficient time to consolidate itself too deeply, making its later removal all the more difficult. They have learnt lessons from the tyranny of the Ayathollas in Iran – a leadership, we should remind ourselves, that itself came about as a result of a people’s revolution and a backlash against a Western-sponsored puppet.

But amid the raised adrenalin and thumping beat of streets from New York to Cairo, something is missing. People’s power has in the last two years (once more) toppled cruel dictators. The Arab Spring  consecrates the purple revolution, which in turn waters the uprising against Ceausescu, Honecker, Kadar et al and so on and on ... But in this age of revolution how much really has changed?

Perhaps the question is: beyond the noble and ancient demands for freedom, justice and modernity, does a vision and proposal of a different way of organising the world emerge from these protests?

Unfortunately not.

The demonstrations express what people reject. They articulate what people want but not how they can get it. And this is why, when the dust has settled, it becomes relatively easy for some reformulation of an old tyranny to take power. The crowds subside and the old shit rises stealthily back to the surface.

And this is where we ought to return to Den Hague and debates about the rule of law, because there is an enormous difference that separates the Tolpuddle martyrs from the youth of Cairo or Ankara. The difference lies in the fact that today the poor have much more power and many more tools at their disposal than their peers did in the past (which may be why today some of the ancient regimes topple as if they were always built on chickens’ legs).

Centuries of struggles by the labour movement, battles for social justice nationally and globally, uprisings against particular forms of exploitation and abuse, disasters that primarily land on the poor, exploited and economically marginalised people have changed something. In old Marxist terminology, they have altered the balance of power between citizens and their exploiters. Amid the feeling of powerlessness and defeat, poor people have more power than they have ever had in history. In my view, this latent power exists in the degree of their exclusion and the multiplicity of legal frameworks that have evolved to respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights.

The greatest difference between the times of the Tolpuddle and Tahrir martyrs is one that has really only achieved near universal acceptance in the last several decades. It is the acceptance that human beings have human rights. These rights must be protected and promoted by governments and have been articulated as laws through a variety of International Covenants and Treaties, national Constitutions and the laws that lie beneath them.

For example, while in Den Hague a delegation of South Africans visited the International Criminal Court (ICC), to be honest not something I had given much thought to in the past. Who – 50 years ago – would have imagined that a court would be established as part of an international agreement to try and contain genocide and crimes against humanity, and that by 2013 the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court would be ratified by 122 countries. Of course, armchair sceptics will point to the fact that countries which are home to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers and largest populations, notably China, Russia and the United States, have not signed the Rome Statue. But that is the challenge for their citizens to overcome, not a ground to reject a potentially powerful means to contain torture, rape, pillage and murder.

Imagine what a break there would be on the impulse to war if leaders such as Bush, Blair, Obama, Putin and Xi JinPing could not resort to bombing with impunity when they perceive their national security interests are at threat?

The laws of the nation were a slowly modernising force from the 17th century onwards. But in the 21st century, it is the laws of the globe which must set a standard for dignity, equality and human rights – and the construction of this standard must become one of the demands of the streets.

This is not wishful thinking. It can be demonstrated that when international frameworks are advocated for or skilfully used by civil society and social movements of the poor, they do bring betterment. Witness, for example, how the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities or the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,  have changed the way the world addresses these issues – for the better. Similarly, the recently agreed “Marrakesh Treaty to facilitate access to published works for blind, visually impaired and print disabled people”, a treaty signed by 51 countries which may in future allow circumstances that override copyright law, and has the potential to make literature and education available to millions of partially sighted people.

Of course if there is Red Sea between global law and the practice of the jungle then all this is just a fancy dressing, a con. The domestication and activation of human rights principles is crucial. Modern notions of government such as accountability, transparency and administrative justice must be forced into national constitutional frameworks. The South African Constitutions is the finest example of this, to which I will return.

Finally, and this is not at heart a matter of law (although unlawful means are increasingly being used to try to circumscribe, limit or take advantage of its power), the technological and communications revolution has made it easier for the poor to talk to each other. In my own life I can remember lugging an Amstrad computer across London to send signals and text between land line telephones in order to communicate with comrades in South Africa via carefully coded and complex algorithms. Today every person, and – ironically – the poor in particular – have such technology in their hands. Consequently it is harder for the powerful to massacre, silence and imprison people with impunity.

As I write this, I sense assembled throngs from left and right, critiquing “naïveté” about and “faith” in legal systems and the rule of law. Yes, I fully admit that law is contested. Yes, I totally agree that what is signed on fine treaties is worlds apart from state conduct. And yes, I agree there is a great imbalance in access to law and that law is predominantly wielded to protect the status quo. But should that mean those who fight for decency and dignity should quit the field with the battle not fought, and go back to the streets where we have only only sticks and stones? What other weapons are at our disposal?

Think about it. DM

  • Mark Heywood
mark heywood

Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.


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