How does one reconcile the notion of a kind, generous, compassionate, gregarious, collegial and collaborative concept of human beings with the rampant abuse of power both by individuals and more importantly by organized power blocs? Readers in Hong Kong and Ukraine have to be disturbed, anxious somewhat frightened and perhaps even disconsolate given the conditions under which they are trying to live.
The most recent imposition of a national security law by Bejing in Hong Kong will not only drive out some businesses (e.g. TikTok) and pro-democracy leaders (Nathan Law)
The government of the United Kingdom has indicated it will offer a home to the three million British citizens living in Hong Kong, with an assurance of both work and eventual citizenship, should they choose to leave. Other governments, including Canada, have scrapped their extradition treaties with Hong Kong and some have discontinued shipments of technical military materiel to the island. The virtual demise of the “one country, two systems” framework along with a high degree of autonomy promised back in 1997 when control reverted from Britain to Bejing seems the most likely outcome from the latest clamp down by the authorities in Bejing. And given the widely reputed abuses of human rights by the Chinese government (currently think Uyghurs), and the severe restrictions on free speech (even the law enforcement and public shaming of the COVID-19 whistleblower doctor in Wuhan), the rest of the world has little to no confidence that democracy will ultimately survive in Hong Kong.
And here is where the better angels of the human species have been, are and hopefully will continue to be awakened, aroused, activated and eventually effective in resisting Being’s hegemonic over-reach. Fifty years, beginning in 1997 stretches to and includes 2047, the next twenty-seven years of what will undoubtedly be some of the most turbulent decades in world history. The Hong Kong crisis brings into clear focus and magnification the need for the civilized world to come to grips with rogue states who consider they have free license to take whatever actions they deem appropriate to silence free speech, to arrest protesters engaged in legitimate civil disobedience and to flex their national muscles/ambition/and interior neurosis into international waters, across national boundaries or into regions like the Arctic and space.
Given the record of the international community to confront, push back and even leave a dent in the international reputation and standing of the Putin-led Russian government following its incursion into eastern Ukraine and its “snatching” “Crimea” from the Ukrainian government (notwithstanding claims of Russian cultural and linguistic roots there) can the rest of the world have confidence in the willingness of western government leaders to surrender “sovereignty” sufficiently to generate resistance adequate to restrain Putin’s insatiable appetite for re-establishing what he considers the glory of Russia? Increased contributions of both money and resources to NATO from member nations, while needed, seem somewhat lame given the apparent urgency of the invasion of Crimea at the time it happened. Sanctions too, on individuals and agencies/organizations/companies seems to have minimal impact.
Dissuading oligarchs like President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin from over-reaching into political, geographic and national territories (let’s not exclude invasions in the privacy and national security of western nations by both China and Russia), from price and supply fixing with Saudi Arabia, for example, and for building military bases in the South China Sea as another example, seems to have become a step too far for western governments to take.
It is perhaps trite and glib to peek through this porthole on the hegemonic abuse of power by China and Russia and see on the horizon little or no authentic and credible and trustworthy evidence of any prospect that either China or Russia will join in other rather urgent international issues like arms shipments, nuclear build-ups, support for rogue nations and leaders (e.g. Kim Jong-un, and Syria’s Assad and Iran’s Ayatollah)and eventually pandemic management and environmental protection.
Efforts at such potentially impacting initiatives as universal access to education of both boys and girls, one of those issues struggling even to claim a step on the extensive ladder of global issues requiring urgent, creative and courageous attention by global leaders, will see evidence of support only indirectly through foreign aid directed to philanthropics and some business operations seeking to gain a foothold on technology and curriculum in the developing world. Even the free flow of objective, legitimate, authentic public information (news) is restricted and controlled as well as massaged (in propaganda) in both China and Russia, with the alleged acquiescence of the majority of their citizens. This can only continue because both regimes threaten, interrogate, arrest and imprison those who oppose the way their governments operate. And while fear is a very strong motivator inducing silence and mascara compliance, just as we are witnessing in the United States with the presidential declaration of the reporters and editorialists as “the enemy of the people” we in the west are increasingly and unavoidable, if still somewhat unconsciously, moving into a place where we are beginning to comprehend what it means to live under a totalitarian regime that will not and does not tolerate criticism.
Some will naturally consider this next statement hyperbolic. Nevertheless if put in the form of a rhetorical question, it might pass the reflection-worthy test: Are we in the west being nudged, pushed, urged, and even recruited into solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and the people of Hong Kong, along with the other oppressed people in North Korea, in Afghanistan, Yemen? And this at a time when the streets of both Canada and the United States are legitimately witnessing hundreds of thousands protesting human rights abuses in their own towns and neighbourhoods.
Deprived of a decent education, adequate housing, work with dignity, freedom from arrest, ethical and principled judicial discretion, and especially the prospect of a better day envisioned on their personal horizons, black and brown people in America, indigenous, black and brown people in Canada and in Europe, many people in the Ukraine, in Hong Kong, not to mention capitals like Moscow and Bejing are all under a cloud of oppression. And it is the impunity with which such clouds are conceived, inscribed, imposed and then executed by people and governments whose integrity, morality and political ambition render them unworthy of the power in their hands, to which ordinary people of all racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious and geographic backgrounds are protesting.
If we are ever going to achieve those international political institutions that incarnate and espouse the principles of human rights, democracy, a clean environment, access to quality education and health care regardless of wealth or income, we are going to have to build repositories of the best of human achievement, not only in our museums, and in our underground storage vaults where seeds are preserved in protection of food supplies in the face of a global holocaust, or even in digital archives. We are going to have to build publicly accessible (not only to university doctoral candidates, and to laboratory scientists, and to judicial bodies) best practices files. An example is the current judicial philosophy and practice in places like Norway.
How does a piece about the potential solidarity of western people with the people of Hong Kong and Ukraine permit digression into the penal system in Norway, you ask?
Well, think about the phrase, “the abuse of power,” not only from the perspective of how nations treat those they seek to oppress as a political act, but also from the perspective of how power is abused in the treatment of ordinary citizens in those places that consider themselves enlightened, democratic, free and open to both criticism and amendment, in pursuit of higher expectations and better angels! Even the modus operandi of education systems is a legitimate target for the issues around how power is deployed/abused, reconstitutive of justice, dignity, respect and value of each human being. Teachers are among one of the more influential groups in any society, and the precepts and principles that undergird how the schools operate go a long way to inculcating an albeit perhaps unconscious conception of the nature of each human being.
A report in the BBC, July 9, 2019 entitled, “How Norway turns criminals into good neighbours,” reads in part:
‘It’s called dynamic security!’ he (a prison officer, not a guard) grins. ‘Guards and prisoners are together in activities all the time. They eat together, play volleyball together, do leisure activities together and that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and to motivate them….The architecture of Halden Prison has been designed to minimise residents’ sense of incarceration, to ease psychological stress and to put them in harmony with the surrounding nature—in fact the prison, which cost 138m pounds to build, has won several design awards for its minimalist chic. Set in beautiful blueberry woods and peppered with majestic silver birch and pine trees, the two storey accommodation blocks and wooden chalet-style buildings give the place an air of a trendy university campus rather than a jail…..(E)very inmate has his own cell, which comes with an en-suite toilet and shower room, a fridge, desk flat tv screen and forest views.
The Governor says: ‘In Norway, the punishment is just to take away someone liberty. The other rights stay. Prisoners can vote, they can have access to school, to health care; they have the same rights as any Norwegian citizen. Because inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings”…,
Then idea is to give them a sense of normality and to help them focus on preparing for a new life when they get out. Many inmates will be released from Halden as fully qualified mechanics, carpenters and chefs.
Governor says: ‘We start planning their release on the first day they arrive…In Norway all will be released-there are no life sentences.’
(The maximum sentence is 21 years, but the law does allow for preventative detention, the extension of a sentence in five-year increments if the convicted person is deemed to be a continued threat to society.)
The BBC piece continues:
It takes 12 weeks in the UK to train a prison officer. In Norway it takes two to three years. ‘My (prison officer trainer) students will study law, ethics, criminology English, reintegration and social work. Then they will have a year training in a prison and then they will come back to take their final exams.
Scotland locks up 150 people for 100,000, compared to Norway’s 63.
For many people, receiving a jail sentence would be the worst thing that ever happened to them. But when you’ve been experiencing domestic abuse—as most female prisoners have—you may see things slightly differently…
‘(R)icidivism in Norway has fallen to only 20% after two years and about 25% after five years,. So this works.’ (Governor)
Clearly, a different understanding of human beings, the conditions in which many acts that offend society and the manner in which to help these people to regain their often lost dignity and self-respect prevails in the Norwegian prison system.
Imagine, just for a brief moment, if such a perspective, philosophy, theory and practice were to be applied to the way nations treated each other, including rogue states whose leaders have been (self?)-excluded from the mainstream of humanity, or have inherited a perverted notion of the need for hard power and secrecy as the exclusive path to national security. Imagine too the impact on attitudes of superiority/inferiority that would inevitably flow throughout the community, in the full consciousness that prisoners are being restored to full participation in their society, by their own society, as a national commitment.
If such an approach can apply in Norway, why not consider it in both domestic affairs, especially at a time when current policies and practices are under such legitimate scrutiny and criticism? And why not have the leaders of all nations in the United Nations, visit the Norwegian justice system, with a view to pulling the blinders of fear, bias (both overt and covert), insecurity and fiscal shortsoghtedness from their view of their people, themselves, and their healthy future.
Imagine too if such equality and dignity and respect were to be extended from those in power to those without a voice in our own towns and cities, and in our seats of both governance and justice!
Human kindness, compassion, empathy, and fair-mindedness are not stored in a secret vault under some yet-to-be-discovered mountain. They are right here right now on every street and every neighbourhood in every town and city, in every nation. Let’s start to shine a light on its brilliance, and move out of the dark of our own design.