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Lindsey Collen addresses Amnesty Youth on Human Rights in Mauritius

19.12.2005

Lalit member Lindsey Collen on Sunday addressed the fifty-five Amnesty (Mauritius) members at an annual week-end human rights training workshop. She said she would give three brief points by way of introduction.

EARLY CHARTERS
The first introductory point was a reference to two very important early human rights charters dating from 800 years ago, the one very well known, the Magna Carta issued by the King of England in 1215, and the other much less known, the Charte du Mande, issued by the King Soundjata Keita of the unification of the Mali Empire in 1223. She gave the organizers copies, so that each participant could study them. They contain references to the abolition of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment (a right still often wobbly in Mauritius) and to the right to life. The Charte du Mande is a translation into French by linguist, Prof. Y. T. Cisse. She said she included this charter as a sign that human rights are not something invented by "the west", or that some benign colonizers brought to Africa.

Lindsey Collen said that both charters had come out of rebellions, and/or out of threats of further rebellions, as indeed do almost all charters.

She said we should never lose sight of this: that human rights are acquired through struggle, and that, when these rights are subsequently codified, it is always a very minimum, at any one time, that is conceded by rulers. It is important that we realize that human rights do not come out of "charters" and "conventions", as if by magic, but that they come out of the struggles of our ancestors, those who were most brave and most caring, and were then put into these instruments, so that, even when the people are demobilized, the minimum rights are still protected.

MAURITIUS RUN BY COMPANY in 1652 back to RUN BY COMPANIES
The second introductory note, she said, was necessary as today the WTO meets in Hong Kong and tries to eek out some sort of agreement, in the face of world-wide criticism of the tendency for everything to be run in the interests of a few private corporations. Mauritius, at the time of the Dutch East India Company running the place, was governed in the interests, 450 years ago, of a private company. You were either employed as a servant or the Company, owned as a slave of the Company, or you were a farmer who was obliged to supply the Company.

Your rights were very limited. This is beautifully explained in a recent novel by Dan Sleigh THE ISLANDS, translated by novelist, Andre Brink. The Islands referred to in the novel are Robben Island and Mauritius. Colonies of the Cape Colony, which was, in turn, a colony for supplies for ships on the way to the East for world trade.

Lindsey Collen said that we should be active politically and as human rights militants if we want to prevent going back to the level of rights at the time of the Company then.

"SECURITY" PSYCHOSIS OF PRESENT TIMES
The third introductory thought, she said, was around the hysteria that recent years had seen about "criminality" and "insecurity", with the strident calls for more "law and order". She said that yesterday there had been a demonstration with people crying out in favour of re-introduction of the "Death penalty" and "against remission" for prisoners. She said this kind of hysteria made out that there were a finite number of "bad people" out there - who steal, rob, do hold-ups, rape and murder - and if the police just catch them all, round them up, beat them into confessions, and put them away somewhere (they don't much care where so long as it's out of sight), then Mauritian society will be a little paradise once again.

The truth is different.

There is already about 12% unemployment. What are men supposed to do when they cannot find jobs, and do not have money to buy food for their families?

Those present thought and replied: "Turn to stealing". The other choice, equally appalling, is that they choose to commit suicide.

With the imminent collapse, at the same time, of the sugar and textile sectors, unemployment will rise sharply. What will the "security" situation be when there is 20% or 25% unemployment, or even higher?

How many police officers will these right-wingers think are needed, and how many more jails?
Will the number of "bad guys" turn out not to have been finite after all? But directly affected by social conditions?

Powerful elements of the Mauritian Press imply that there is a conflict between these "bad men" who steal and cause insecurity and spread criminality in the country, on the one hand, and those trying very valiantly to put order, like the CID and men like Mr. Raddoa, on the other. Then, these elements of the Press imply, there are some human rights do-gooders (like you and me) who are complicating matters by introducing some other irrelevant subject called human rights.

What we must realize is that human rights are part and parcel of this ongoing confrontation between those who believe repression to be the answer to every problem and those who believe that repression adds a further, often worse problem, to existing ones.

Often, she said, it is not even a question of human rights in any highfalutin form: it is already illegal for police to beat or torture or use violence on people, just as it is illegal for everyone else to. It is also immoral to use violence on someone captive.

HUMAN RIGHTS IN MAURITIUS

The way to imagine human rights in Mauritius is through the kinds of codes that allowed the exploitation of labour. The first time was a slave code for work, when human rights were infringed on a regular and institutional basis. Most of labour was done during slave times, in the system of slavery. Even those slaves not owned by the Company (or private concerns) were nevertheless in the same regime: even if made to work for the government or the church.

When this regime became untenable under the triple attack of modern capitalism demanding wages for all so as to create its markets, and of abolitionists in Britain and of slave resistance of all kinds, we had another system, less draconian than slavery: indenture. Under the indenture regime, a company or estate employed you for 5 years, and you were not free to move nor to change employers. Important civil rights like the right to a name of your own and for your children, were then conceded in this new legal framework for labour exploitation.

The Protector of Slaves then became the Protector of Immigrants, receiving complaints of infringements of law. The research done by Vijaya Teelock, the historian, can be useful in studying human rights in Mauritius, because these individual complaints to the State give a clear idea of the living reality.

In modern times, this same office becomes the Labour Inspector's Office, and he receives complaints from the new form of exploitation: wage slavery. That is to say, people now work for mainly private companies, and the punishment for refusal is that you and your family go hungry and have no access to any means of subsistence.

Lindsey Collen said that wage slavery was in the course of the last century cushioned after huge rebellions and in the run-up to Independence by two important changes: in 1964, the "card system" which meant the sugar estates had to employ you between harvest seasons, was introduced. This system of permanent employment on the Estates is now under question: spokesmen for the sugar estates are now announcing that they want all labourers to become "seasonal" once again. Already there has been the return to seasonal labour recently under the neo-liberal offensive. The second change was that there was a move towards nationalization and towards the government employing people on a permanent and pensionable basis. This also tamed wage slavery to some extent. With the new wave of privatization, however, wage slavery is back to savage levels of exploitation. She said that today, we are faced with the worst situation for wage slaves: times when there are no jobs.

Even today we are left with remnants of pure slavery. It is still, under the Industrial Relations Act, illegal to decide not to work under certain conditions, as a group. There is even a prison sentence for refusal.

All the changes there have ever been in the human rights situation in Mauritius came from struggles. The "lemet Laurent" at the beginning of the last century led to the extension of suffrage, speeded up by the rebellions of 1937 and 1943.

The right to form associations and trade unions was also a direct result of these class confrontations, mainly on the sugar estates.

And Independence in 1968 and the Republic of 1992 brought the right to be a citizen and not a subject of some faraway monarch.

Pension rights were also a direct result of the 1937 and 43 uprisings. Before that they were means-tested under the hated "Poor Law", when officers would come and check on pensioners, whether old age or widows. Lindsey Collen added that it is only after political struggle [mainly led by Lalit] that pensions have again become universal a few months ago, after having been turned into targeted benefits by the last government.

Housing rights came after the social unrest that followed two huge cyclones in the early 60's, Alix and Carol. When CHA was set up it gave the right to housing. There was even a Tribunal to whom you could appeal in cases of corruption. When in 1992, Minister Cuttaree closed down the CHA and set up the NHDC, this is now a Company. It runs on the lines of profit-making concerns. Those who don't pay rent, get evicted. A right was turned again into a privilege.

Education at secondary level came as a direct of the huge students rebellion and general strike in May 1975. And today it has just become compulsory to go to school until you are 16 because with unemployment, the State fears uprisings.

All the pension, health and education rights that remain, remain only through the struggle of the unions, political parties and women's organizations.

She gave a brief insight into the struggle for women's rights, and the problems it has run into by following the "gender equity" path.

BRIEF ANALYSIS

Rights come only from struggles. These struggles are by many individuals who take part in collective actions. These actions are most effective when they are conscious acts of people standing up against the State. And rights are always in a state of flux - being acquired, lost, acquired again. She said that, we cannot say we "have" or "do not have" rights as if there is stasis. There is always flux. And, to some extent, the gains depend on us, ourselves.

After mass mobilizations, the codes bring in minimum rights for when there is demobilization.

As the UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 puts it when referring to these rebellions: "Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law".

GRAMMAR

Lindsey collen said that there is also a problem that can only be described as grammatical. Our language structures do not permit us to differentiate in grammatical terms between rights we have (as a human) and rights we have (at the moment, in effect).

This is probably because our language is a natural phenomenon. We have, as homo sapiens sapiens, existed for some 200,000 years (up to a million as homo sapiens). But the State, as an organization of armed men that infringes human rights (or, that sets up codes) is a very recent phenomenon. The State is not more than 5 to 10,000 years old.

It is important to realize this grammatical difficulty, because many of those who are keen to attack human rights gains, play on this difficulty.

And this brings us to another related point. It is States that both invent and sign conventions and charters, on the one hand, and it these same institutions that infringe human rights. That is a contradiction we all live with. It depends on the balance of class forces, more than on any thing else.

And finally, political and social rights that we have in many States today, are descendents of the three revolutions in England, France and the US: the bourgeois revolutions, bringing the right to vote and right to free speech and association (to some extent). Whereas the social and economic rights that we have in today's UN Convention is more directly a descendant of the liberation struggles in the colonies and of the revolutions in Russia and China, where the right to work is the main gain, and where education, health, pensions, housing are assured.

It is as though we have had to trade these two sets of rights, one against the other, and then end up losing both. If we are not careful. Because rights, as all Amnesty members are aware, are not divisible.

But certainly, in Mauritius and world wide, human rights are under severe attack at the moment. Lindsey Collen concluded her speech by saying that we must all commit ourselves to the political struggle for freedom.