‘ Will there be sugar after the Rebellion?’
‘No,’ said Snowball firmly. ‘We have no means of making sugar on this farm. Besides, you do not need sugar. You will have all the oats and hay you want.’
‘And shall I still be allowed to wear ribbons in my mane?’ asked Mollie.
‘Comrade,’ said Snowball, ‘those ribbons that you are so devoted to are the badge of slavery. Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than ribbons?’
(Animal Farm, George Orwell)
Since the screening of the Animals Australia video demonstrating mal-treatment of cattle in Indonesian abattoirs last Monday on Four Corners, there has been very vocal and persistent public condemnation of the practice of live animal exports for meat. Like most others I have been distressed to see the manner in which the animals are handled and I agree that there is no reason to treat any creature in such a manner. Yet this very point, that treating any creature in such a manner is unacceptable, seems to be ignored when it comes to applying basic human rights to all people.
I was one of the audience who attained a seat to hear David Hicks speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in his first public appearance since his release from Guantanamo. I have no doubt that he was and in some ways possibly remains, a naïve man. To state that he joined the Kosovo Liberation Army to help others and “never intended to harm anyone”, despite training to use a range of weapons, to me speaks of a simple lack of comprehension of cause and effect, if not a self-serving statement. I fail to comprehend how anyone who trains as a soldier can ever profess to NOT realise that they will inevitably harm someone else.
That said, it is not a crime to join an army and Hicks had indeed applied and been refused entry to the Australian Army before travelling overseas. The crime develops when a person finds themselves on the loosing side of the battle and they become prisoners of war. So it was for David Hicks.
Several journalists who were also present to hear Hicks have lashed out at what they see as his lies, implying that he deserved the treatment he endured. Miranda Devine belittled the torture, undisputed and endured in some form or other by all detainees in Gitmo, saying that:
“… just because some naïve people think being locked up in Guantanamo and smacked around a bit was overly harsh punishment for suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan just after September 11, 2011, that doesn’t mean they’re innocent.” (The Telegraph, 26 May 2011, p.31)
Smacked around a bit, Miranda? Whatever your opinion of Hicks and his actions, don’t downgrade the treatment to which those in the orange jumpsuits were subjected. What people went to hear was the other side of the story, the one he had not had a chance to tell for himself. You can bet that the truth has been stretched or bent a bit on both sides. Like the photograph of Hicks with the rocket launcher, cropped so tightly that his two comrades, wearing slippers and lazing about cannot be seen posing with him. How convenient of the Australian Government to allow such imagery to be bandied about by the media, propaganda in Howard’s “Be alert, not alarmed” campaign. Fear the devil at your doorstep. You never know who it is – he may look just like you.
It is this fear of the man beside us, of losing our comforts, that I believe prevents many from stepping up to defend the rights of our fellow human beings with equal gusto to that shown for the cattle sent to an Indonesian hell. It’s easier to address the rights of animals, creatures that cannot answer back over whom we hold dominion, a species separate from our own. We can excuse their acts of killing other animals as instinct, hunting for food; but what of our fellow men? We justify the acts of our military men and women as righteous in the defence of our country, our way of life. In being proactive and shifting from a role of defence to aggression, to keep our enemies on the back foot, we can argue the common sense of creating a ‘buffer’ around our borders.
But what if that ‘buffer’ begins to impinge on the rights of others? What if it forces them from their homes, away from their fields to loose their harvests into refugee camps? What if they lose the security of knowing how they will feed their family, pay their bills and educate their children? Then the rights of the aggressor become more important than the victims and the land and resources that were taken become disputed territory. If someone stole your home, your land, forced you to leave and in doing so many of those you cherished were lost, what would you do? Would you wallow in a refugee camp, would you speak out, would you take to arms? If your neighbour or dearest friend was in that position, would you go to their aid, take them into your home, and help them to rebuild their lives or regain what they had lost?
I also had the very good fortune to listen to Izzeldin Abuelaish at the Writer’s Festival, a man who I found truly inspirational. A Palestinian refugee who has struggled to avoid being drawn into the hateful mindset of one who seeks revenge for his losses, Izzeldin has succeeded in gaining the respect of both Israelis and Palestinians as a medical doctor and peace campaigner. He still continues to strive for peace despite losing three of his daughters in early 2009 to an Israeli tank shell that tore apart his daughter’s bedroom and seriously injured many more members of his extended family. I Shall Not Hate is the title of his book. He is a braver man than most of us could ever be. As a dissident though, he is a moderate voice in the battle to have the rights of Palestinians seen as equal to all other men and women. But then, he sees people as people, not as races. If only we could all do so.
It takes courage to stand up for the rights of others. It means believing that you are no better or worse than any other person. It means accepting that you too will make mistakes, perhaps not of the same magnitude but mistakes none the less. It means believing that if you treat any person badly that you accept that the same treatment is an acceptable form of coercion or punishment for yourself or anyone you care about. So Miranda, shall we put you in a cell one sixth the size of a shipping container for five years the next time you trivialise the ill treatment of another human being? Or perhaps electric shocks leaving burns to your skin would be more appropriate.
Defending human rights forces us to examine our own hearts and determine not only why we should treat each person with the same basic civilities, but what our motivations are in mistreating an adversary. At some fundamental level the reason for people failing to speak out about abuses of human rights are a fear of personal persecution and loss of our comfortable middle or upper class lifestyles. Loss of the quality of life is something the Rwandan’s have had to weigh up in rebuilding their broken homes and nation. The Gacaca courts, established to deal with the overwhelming number of untried accused overflowing from the prisons have been only partially successful according to Human Rights Watch. Some accused of human rights abuses have been branded criminals because witnesses have failed to testify on their behalf, afraid their support of a rival tribesman who may have saved their life will result in being ousted by their neighbours, shunned by their community. Members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front have also been exempt from all accusations. If this is the face of human rights in the minds of many of us, why would we ever speak out, let alone be the dissident voice against the schoolyard bully?
It’s easy to speak about animals and their rights. It’s easy to make laws for them and set standards of treatment. It is quite another thing to have the guts to speak up for those with voices too small to be heard without the aid of the Western media megaphone.To point out the hypocritical moralising of one nation to another when it fails to meet it’s own national obligations or worse yet, funds those who perpetuate abuses against others such as Yawan Wayeni is perhaps foolhardy. To actually fight to have the rights of the dispossessed and abused recognised, accountability attributed and reparations paid leaves one the target of ridicule and derision and very much the target of personal attack.
Certainly do your best to improve the treatment of animals. And when you are done, but preferably sooner, perhaps open you eyes, think about your own values and decide do you really believe that if you torture someone with electrocution, disembowel him with a machete or shackle him for five years, that you are not deserving of the very same treatment one day yourself? No Miranda, the audience listening to Hicks did not believe they would be immune from the depraved minds of terrorists, they just simply do not accept that we should stoop to the same level of mal-treatment. You can’t preach a high road and walk in the gutter.