No screen presence

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 30 April 1999

the world is changing rapidly. People have talked about globalisation mainly in economic terms. But the 21st century may see a form of political globalisation which could pose a serious threat to the 20th century concept of sovereignty. Political globalisation will be pushed by the same technological change which is pushing economic globalisation, namely, the dramatic changes that are taking place in communication technologies which are turning the world into a global village.

Human rights is today an area in which states are beginning to feel that they have legitimacy in intervening in another state's affairs. The ongoing North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ( nato ) air raids on Yugoslavia are a fine example of foreign intervention in a nation's domestic affairs in the name of human rights.

A recent article in the New York Times points out that " nato 's bombing in Kosovo (is) a clear sign that the West puts a higher priority on human rights than on sovereignty... On that same day, England's highest court ruled that General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean president, could be extradited to Spain on charges of crimes against humanity even though, under Chilean law, he is exempt from prosecution for the offenses alleged, which occurred in his own country. Both events dramatised the weakening of sovereignty... If slaughter and television come together, as they did in Kosovo, 'right-minded' people in Europe and America demand that their governments do something about it. (If television is absent, as it largely was from the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the demand is much less insistent, however great the loss of innocent life may prove to be.)"

Henry Kissinger also argues in an article in the Newsweek that the outcome in Kosovo threatens the West neither in political nor in economic terms. For the European Union whose gross national product is larger than that of usa , developments in Yugoslavia will have almost no economic impact. Nor does Slobodan Milosevic threaten any "global equilibrium". In other words, it is human rights which is largely driving the nato action.

But if television ( tv )-consciousness can help to bring people closer together, there is a danger it can also promote inappropriate action. As R W Apple, jr, points out in the New York Times , "... the new ardour for human rights, even when fanned by violence and misery on the tv screen, stops well short of heedless passion... pictures of human calamity can arouse the western world to act, but pictures of western soldiers or airmen dying or suffering humiliation, as in Somalia, can quickly discourage action." It is for this reason that Bill Clinton does not want to commit ground action in Kosovo to support nato' s air raids even to the point of risking failure and serious loss of face.

While tv will definitely continue to play an important role in generating popular emotions and thus influencing political decisions, especially in electoral democracies, it is important to appreciate the limits of the "pop politics" generated by tv .

The message on the tv screen depends on the biases of the persons behind the camera. Rwanda received less attention than Kosovo because Rwanda is not in the backyard of Europe, whose people control most of the cameras. What is true of human rights is equally true of environmental concerns. One good tv programme on Amazonian rainforests can force politicians to take action to protect forests just as much as tv programmes can force them to protect Kosovars. Indeed, tv did play a key role in getting the western people exercised about the so-called "global environmental issues" in the late 1980s -- ranging from biodiversity and forest conservation to prevention of global warming. Scenes of majestic Amazonian trees falling to the axe of human beings can be quite moving. But western tv failed to pay equal attention to the desertification in Africa, even though it poses a serious threat to the very existence of some of the poorest people on Earth. It, therefore, received little political attention, too. Equally, the camera may fail to catch the non-western dimensions of environmental issues -- like the importance of equity in developing a global action plan to combat global warning.

All this means that we are, in all probability, going to see a steady erosion of sovereignty as technological instruments for creating cross-country consciousness continue to grow. But this amorphous process of "political globalisation" -- if it can be so called -- poses a serious challenge. The expansion of human ability to share human travails and tribulations is definitely a welcome trend. But if the instruments that create global consciousness largely remain in the hands of a few, human consciousness could easily become biased and prejudiced. This bias and prejudice, regardless of whether it is deliberate or inadvertent, could lead to inadequate or inappropriate political action. Leaders have quite a task to ensure that growing global consciousness leads to action that carries global consensus behind it. Leaders from the less powerful nations have an even greater responsibility to ensure that the world moves in this direction. Inaction could be worse.

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