Heads of states, religious leaders, politicians, activists, lawyers, academics —even homeless people living on the streets of some of the poorest countries in the world —all talk about equity and justice.
These principles are at the core of all the world’s leading religions and part of most major schools of philosophy. Yet despite these repeated pious pronouncements, the world is becoming a more unjust place in which to live, because of the choices we collectively make. Especially the choices our leaders make at the global level, which have made the world increasingly unequal.
The divide between the rich and the poor in terms of wages, healthcare and education is growing daily, both between the elites and the poor within states, as well as between developed and developing states in the international community.
Inequality is not a new phenomenon, but it has a more odious sound today as it runs contrary to the basic rights of every individual. Perhaps for that reason, better sounding names are given to the systems of social relations that create inequality, poverty, and discrimination.
Most so-called developed countries describe their domestic economic relations as “capitalism”. They often don’t emphasise that capitalism is a system that strives on creating winners and losers in society. They don’t explain that capitalism is based on unbridled consumerism that will eventually destroy our planet’s finite resources.
Many of our leaders and many people trying to make a living or merely gain social acceptance have sworn allegiance to the mantra of capitalism as if there was no alternative. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Since times going back long before capitalism became fashionable there have been alternatives for social relations that emphasise sustainability, sharing and cooperation, rather than consumption, greed and competition. Perhaps the best examples of alternatives are provided by indigenous populations.
Indigenous peoples live —or have lived —on every inhabitable continent in relations with each other that were characterised by sustainable development. They often share or shared their resources with the community.
The American Indians, for example, lived off the land, its animals and its vegetation, always making an effort to utilise the natural resources at their disposal to their fullest and to allow these resources to be naturally replenished. Only when colonialists came to exploit and expropriate their land, their crops, their herds, and even their people, all in the name of capitalism, did the indigenous American Indians and their way of life perish.
Similarly, indigenous peoples in Africa have lived off their land, herding cattle or planting rotating crops from time in memoriam. Some indigenous peoples created the most advanced societies in the world. For example, the Malian Empire used the natural resources at its disposal to create some of the most advanced metal works of its time. It was only after the scramble for Africa, when Western colonialists took many of the people of Africa as slaves and took control of the natural bounty of Africa to use for Europe’s development, that Africa’s underdevelopment began in earnest.
Under the modern invention of capitalism that replaced many indigenous systems of social relations, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is not new; since about 1750 the gap between the rich and poor has been widening. In fact, while the number of rich is growing, the number of poor is growing even faster. Recently, the pro-capitalist Economist conservatively concluded that “with very few exceptions, the rich have done better over the past 30 years” in most developed countries.
Today, more than half the populations of the least developed countries (LDCs) live on less than $2 per day, according to the Population Reference Bureau (prb.org), and almost half the world’s total population is estimated to live on less than two Euros per day. Of this latter figure, more than 90 per cent live in developing countries.
Still, the developed Western nations, where most of the rich reside, tell the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America that their indigenous ways of governance are underdeveloped. They claim instead that their capitalism is the right way to achieve what the Soviets called “peaceful coexistence”. And they add that their liberal Western values, such as respect for the rule of law and human rights, are the right path for Africa.
The economic and financial disaster that beset the world during the first decade of the 21st century was not the result of indigenous values that favour sharing and sustainability. It was the result of greed and over-consumption, the type of policies that capitalism breeds.
Nevertheless, rather than admit their mistake, most developed countries use their extraordinary development gap and monetary influence to try to convince the rest of the world that the way out of the crisis is to give those who created it more money.
Governments throughout the Western world rushed to outdo each other in the amount and complex nature of the financial aid that they gave to their own banks and financial institutions. This amount dwarfed what was being given to developing countries as Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), and it was so substantial that the Western financial elites who had caused the global financial collapse were paying themselves bonuses while unemployment was still rising.
When the UN General Assembly, in which all 192 States are equally represented, sought to discuss the economic and financial crisis and suggest needed reforms to the international financial institutions, the same developed states that caused the crisis opposed any action. While discussions took place, largely because of the insistence of the Nicaraguan president of the General Assembly and Maryknoll priest Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, any action was blocked. Instead, the developed states said, it is at the World Bank and IMF where the economic and financial state of the world should be discussed. In both these forums, it is developed states that have disproportionate influence and control over decision-making. Developing states have hardly any say.
Watching the example of the developed states, and even the leaders of some developing countries who bought into these undemocratic strategies often to protect their own personal wealth, one might think that there is no alternative. But this is untrue.
As numerous experts speaking at the World Social Forum earlier this year in Dakar, showed, there are countless alternatives. Some experts suggested merely tweaking capitalism with heavier taxes on the richest earners and cash payments to the poor for basic services. Others suggested overhauling the international financial and economic institutions to make them more democratic. Still others suggested a major restructuring of our social relations to make them more equitable, more sustainable, and more equal.
Rather then applauding virtues of a single economic or financial system, the leading economists and social activists gathered in Dakar focused on alternatives that could protect the most vulnerable people in the world. This was a distinct difference from the focus of the champions of industry and world leaders gathered in the Swiss ski resort of Davos at the World Economic Forum just a few days earlier. In Davos the focus was on measuring society’s development based on how the richest in society fared.
Indeed, the wealthy, powerful and famous often seem to forget that society has created laws that call upon its members to strive for greater equality among all of its members. While this does not require achieving absolute equality between all people, it must at least require that states treat other states equally. Yet this does not happen.
Developed Western countries were mainly responsible for the creation of international law with is rules prohibiting the use of force, requiring action to protect human rights, prohibiting actions that destroy our planet’s environment, and requiring action to achieve more equal global development. These same developed Western countries have also been the countries that have violated all of these rules more than any single developing country.
The United States alone has used force against other countries in violation of international law more than all the other countries in the world combined over the past century. The countries that follow the United States are also predominately, and increasingly, developed Western countries. Today, Western coalitions of developed countries, led-by the United States, are killing Africans and Asians, mainly Muslims, without respect for the rules of international law that were created to prohibit and control the use of force. In other words, the prohibition of the use of force —the most fundamental principle of international law —is used by the most powerful states against the weakest states.
This is exactly the opposite of the principles of equity and justice. When international law is misused in pursuit of this agenda it merely becomes another instrument of oppression.
Similarly, while killing more than a million and half Iraqis and countless Afghans in two illegal wars of aggression, the US and its Western allies complain and threaten developing states when their embassies are ransacked or the property of their nationals nationalised. Of course, these developed states are silent about their mass murder of the very people about whom they complain. One law appears to apply to developed states and another to developing states.
Even in international human rights forums, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, developed countries take extraordinary steps to ensure that issues affecting millions —or billions —of people’s human rights do not make it onto the global agenda. These suppressed concerns include structural inequalities, duties of cooperation and solidarity, the right to peace, contemporary forms of slavery and discrimination, the right to food, the right to housing, the right to health, the commoditisation and destruction of the planet’s environment, and the failure to create an equitable world order. The struggle to get these items on the global agenda is monumental, and even when one success is registered, developed states fight back to marginalise the issue.
For example, in the UN Human Rights Council, the necessity of taking action on the planet’s climate did make it onto the agenda. Two resolutions, a study and a panel were undertaken. The next step was some effective action. At this point, however, European countries, led by Switzerland, approached the tiny developing island country of the Maldives and convinced them not to push the issue of the human consequences of climate change any further. Instead, they were asked to put general questions of the environment on the council’s agenda, knowing that this would set the council’s consideration of the lex specialis of climate change back several decades.
While equity and justice continue to be principles to which we all pay lip service, some voices seem more weighty than others. As a result, equity and justice applies to some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
This is a situation that is unlikely to change unless the leaders of the developed world begin to act with equity and justice, at least in their international affairs. Alternatively, developed states need strong leaders who have the courage to act on behalf of their own people and not merely at the behest of those who already control most of the wealth and power.
Equity and justice are principles that apply to us all, but they are principles that only have meaning when we apply them to the most vulnerable among us.
The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.