Evil thrives when ‘good’ people choose to be quiet
I was recently confronted by the plight of a young Iranian Christian woman who was refused permission to stay in the Netherlands by the Netherlands Immigration authorities. Having been a victim of oppression and a refugee myself I reflected on what this means for me as someone with a Netherlands nationality.
We live a world marked by serious economic inequalities, ruthless and irresponsible pursuit of personal gain, sexual abuse, political oppression, armed conflict, psychological abuse, violence, pollution, ecological disasters and so on. In such an unsafe world we seek to protect our fragile cultural and national identities in our collective pursuit for peace, harmony and happiness. Unfortunately we often do so to the exclusion of others who have a different cultural, social or national background. Many rich European nations therefore make it very hard for poor citizens of other nations to settle in Europe.
The legitimate desire to protect our collective interest often results in human rights abuses. Of course when we send oppressed minorities back to their home countries such as Christian Iranians back to the religiously oppressive Islamist context of Iran, or Zimbabwean democrats back to the politically oppressive context of Zimbabwe we do so in agreement with the national, international laws we largely designed ourselves. However, we must be aware that there is a world of difference between morality and legality. Not every law we have designed is morally just and not every application of the law is morally justifiable in the light of the moral values and ethical assumptions behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.(1)
We have a moral obligation in our collective pursuit of happiness not to inflict harm on those coming from a different culture and national background. After all as a society we have agreed to ratify this declaration which includes:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order which protects the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration.” (2)
This is not just a matter of refraining from unjust exploitation of the natural resources, and the siphoning of the wealth of economically and politically weaker nations as is currently done by many powerful nations.(3)Though we certainly bear a collective responsibility to protest against, and stop this injustice inflicted by our societies and companies on weaker nations as they are actively and wrongly harmed by a system of global political and economic arrangements that is disproportionately shaped by and for the benefit of wealthy Western societies. (4)
In the same way we have a moral obligation to ensure that the same human rights are accorded to refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants who have come to us for help. Not only if we have a historical responsibility due to our colonial past, or because we have contributed to their current woes by means of neo-colonial exploitation. Regardless of what our historical or contemporary involvement has been in exploiting weaker nations, it is also morally unjustifiable to send back Iranian Christians to an oppressive Islamist context, or Zimbabwean democrats to an oppressive political context, or a Saudi Arabian feminist activist back to an oppressive sexist context. We must not allow our governments to hide behind terms of ‘illegal’ migrants because in a democracy we collectively are the law-makers and if the law is unjust, or its application is unjust and violates the moral principles behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we must hold government and all those involved accountable lest we become ‘not so innocent’ bystanders and condemn others to a live of oppression and abuse if not death. Or we can say as many Germans did after the horrors of the NAZI death camps ‘we didnt’ know’ but the indifferent masses cannot claim innocence as their silence perpetuates the context in which the abuse can happen.(5)
(1) Thomas Pogge 2007. Recognized and Violated by International Law: The Human Rights of the Global Poor: p. 2. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/poverty/expert/docs/Thomas_Pogge_new.pdf (Revised version of article originally published in Leiden Journal of International Law 18/4 (2005), 717–745).
(2) Thomas Pogge 2012. Poverty, Human Rights and the Global Order: Framing the Post-2015 agenda. CROP.
(3) Project at Yale Led by Professor Thomas Pogge, the Global Justice Program at Yale is an interdisciplinary group that works on the assessment and reform of global institutional arrangements. http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/globaljustice/DirtyMoney.html
(4) Thomas Pogge: World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Polity
(5) Hannah Arendt, The origins of totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1951), 305-307.