Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 17 May 2004


It was by all accounts a remarkable week.  The scandal of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners continued to boil, with prospects of more grotesque photos being made public, thus worsening the human rights image of the occupying forces.  Meanwhile, in India, the poor voters succeeded in showing their resentment at being left out of growth and modernization.


Last week saw remarkable global events.   It started with more gruesome revelations of torture and humiliation by American interrogators at an Iraqi prison, and ended with the surprise defeat of the BJP government in Indian elections.    

These events go to show that international trends are sometimes just unpredictable.  The continuing revelations of  the goings-on at prisons in Iraq are having great effect, and may spell the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of the US-UK occupation. 

The results of the Indian elections, on the other hand, show that the glitter of globalisation may be skin-deep in developing countries like India, where the majority of people are still in poor, rural areas that are left out of the modernization wave.

The first set of photographs showing how Iraqi prisoners had been maltreated and forced to pose naked in humiliating positions sent a big shock wave across the world.

It was hard to say which was more shocking:  the torture and humiliation of the prisoners, or the grins and casual posture especially of the very young American female soldiers, one of them holding a leash to the neck of a naked Iraqi prisoner, and another grinning widely and standing in front of a “pyramid” of naked prisoners.

Those photos from Abu Ghraib prison destroyed in one blow the image the Americans and British governments had been trying to portray, of a coalition army that had come to liberate Iraq to bring human rights and civilization to the people.

It is hard to over-state the damage that the acts of the American soldiers and the photos depicting them, will have on the avowed mission of the US to promote human rights and democracy around the world.

Critics now have plenty of new evidence for the case that the US practices extreme double standards when it comes to human rights --- upholding them for their own people at home, and violating them when it comes to other people abroad.

Of course, the critics also now point out how some Americans also have their rights denied, as with Muslims and others who are detained,  under suspicion of being potential security threats, sometimes for many days or weeks, without the usual due process.

In any case, there could not have been worse propaganda against the cause of the US-led coalition in Iraq, or the Americans’ Middle East policy, than the photos from Abu Ghraib splashed across the television screens, newspapers and magazines around the world.

It will be impossible, for a long time, for the US to preach to other countries about human rights and good governance without being derided as hypocrites.

But worse is to come.  There are many more hundreds, or even thousands, of photos.  Many of these were shown to members of the US Senate and Congress last week.  They reportedly include scenes of forced sex, a woman having to bare her top, and US soldiers having sex in front of prisoners.

A debate is going on in the US establishment whether these photos should be made public.  But undoubtedly more and more of the photos will soon surface, and cause another round of acute embarrassment for the US and public outrage everywhere. 

The photos will most likely be the turning point in having the public turn against the Iraq occupation in the occupying countries themselves, just as the  photo of the crying young girl, victim of a US napalm bomb attack, running down the road in Vietnam, turned public opinion against the Vietnam War and speeded up the US troops’ withdrawal.

Former UK Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who broke with his Prime Minister Tony Blair over the decision to invade Iraq, said last week:  “The prison photographs have destroyed the legitimacy of our presence in Iraq not only among its population, but within the British people as well.

“It was a leaked Red Cross report into torture in Algiers that provided the turning point in French support for the war of occupation.  It was the account of the fatal beating at Hola camp that broke British support for the colonial war in Kenya. The occupation of Iraq will inevitably end in the same way.”

He added:  “It is over a year since Parliament voted to commit troops to the invasion of Iraq.  Since then every justification for the war has collapsed, from the original failure to find any weapons of mass destruction to the recent implosion of the claim that we would bring respect for human rights and democracy to the region.”

Opinion polls announced by CNN last Saturday show that approval ratings for US President Bush have dropped and that the Democrats’ Presidential candidate John Kerry has moved ahead of him by a few percentage points.

The view is now growing that the US and UK should pull out or at least quickly phase out their troops from Iraq, and hand over power and real sovereignty to the Iraqis through an election supervised by the United Nations.

But for the moment the coalition leaders (the US and UK) look determined to “stay the course”.   More violent clashes can thus be expected as the growing forces of resistance meet with the immovable forces of occupation.

In India, there was a peaceful and democratically conducted “regime change”, when the BJP-led government surprisingly lost to the Congress Party and its allies. 

It was a result that few had predicted, as it most analysts thought and polls showed that the government was riding on popularity caused by high economic growth and modernization, and driven by the information technology revolution.

With the electorate having given its verdict, many analysts now agree that the gloss of modernization had been felt only by the middle-class, whilst most of rural India and the slum-dwellers of the cities had been left out of the benefits of economic growth.

Globalisation and privatization may have benefited those who are able to export their products and skills, or work for the new companies, but have made many others insecure,  as cheap imports threaten their small farms and firms.

Moreover, many villages remain mired in poverty, due to the lack of significant progress in making basic amenities available.

Only 45 million of the total 180 million households in India have telephone lines, and only 659,000 households have computers.  So the majority of people have not enjoyed the IT revolution.  Around 300 million Indians still live on less than $1 a day.

In retrospect, the BJP’s campaign slogans,  “India shining” and “Feel good” were inappropriate and boomeranged back at the government.

It was easy for the opposition to articulate the complaints of the majority of people that their lives were far from “shining” and they did not have reason to “feel good.”

In many developing countries, there is a boom in construction of modern buildings in towns, the growth of some middle-class jobs and increased sales of consumer products such as electronic gadgets.

But most people live in the rural areas, where many farmers have inadequate land, lack of storage, credit and marketing facilities, and low prices for their commodities.  Not enough policy attention or budget resources are allocated to them.

In the Indian elections, their resentment and dissatisfaction boiled over into the results that have brought Congress and its left-wing allies back to power.

As the famous Indian writer Arundhati Roy put it:  “Economists inform us that the GDP growth rate is phenomenal.  Shops are overflowing with consumer goods.  Outside this circle of light, the past five years saw the most violent increase in rural-urban inequalities since independence.

“Farmers steeped in debt are committing suicide in hundreds, 40% of the rural population in India has the same foodgrain absorption as sub-Saharan Africa, and 47% of Indian children suffer from malnutrition.”

Will a Congress government make things different?  Roy is a bit skeptical as, she says, on every major issue besides overt Hindu nationalism, the Congress and the BJP have no major ideological differences.

Still, the elections may have taught political leaders of all parties a lesson, that they cannot ignore any more the plight of the poor communities, for they have the power to vote and their vote had a telling message in the just concluded elections.