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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The National Interest

A recurring theme in the news these days is the abuse of human rights. It's a well known fact that there are conflicts between one right and another, and conflicts where protecting one person's rights violates another person's rights. However, there is another type of conflict that emerges from time to time.

To what extent should it be possible to violate someone's human rights if it is in the national interest? Who should be allowed to make the decision?

A while ago there came the news that the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested. The Chinese government had decided that he was a bad influence in the country. It had calculated the pros and cons of locking him up and decided that it was better to arrest him. Like the Burmese government with Aung San Suu Kyi, it is likely to reconsider it if there is enough international pressure put on the government. Freeing him would allow him to enjoy freedom of movement and expression in accordance with his human rights. Article 9 of the internationally recognised "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" states
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

So why does China keep him imprisoned? It takes a lot of resources. I don't think it is purely self-preservation on the part of the government. Instead, it can be argued that it is in the national interest to keep him and his ideas away from the general public. When an idea suddenly appears and spreads in a country, there tends to be a sudden revolution and, like a volcano, it causes a lot of damage before it settles and makes it a more fertile land. French revolutions caused violence for decades, and the breakup of the USSR left a vacuum in most of eastern Europe for years. The aim is to allow ideas to seep out gently to avoid political, social and economic collapse that would otherwise be possible.

OK OK, it's stretching it a bit to say that the government should be allowed to lock up any artists it doesn't like. I'm being provocative. But there is another story on the same spectrum that is being viewed differently.

The story I'm thinking of is the Julian Assange case and Wikileaks. Wikileaks is an interesting contradiction in itself, being on the one hand a breach of national security and on the other, the uncovering of the government's true feelings, which American voters might argue they have a right to know. Whatever you think about Wikileaks, the attempts to prosecute him for a long-forgotten sex crime are a thinly veiled cover for locking him away for the good of the nation.

So, with different situations, we arrive at the same conclusion. Governments feel that they can take away a citizen's freedom if their views, expressed as allowed under the principles of freedom of speech and information, are deemed to be potentially dangerous and disruptive to the nation as a whole.

Maybe that's fine and justified. But when we vote in a government, do we all realise that we are trusting them to the extent that we allow them to withdraw a person's human rights on our behalf?

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