AHRC HUMAN RIGHTS STATEMENT: Biowarfare fears deny strength of social response



by Basil Fernando, Asian Human Rights Commission

A well-known British biologist has stated that the chances of humankind surviving this millennium are very doubtful since a deadly virus that may be created in some biological laboratory may kill the whole human race, for it is not possible to supervise or control all laboratories, he says. Thus, this implies that preventing this perceived danger cannot be done through legal means. He suggests further that the future of humankind lies in the possibility of being able to inhabit other planets. Admitting the huge difficulties in inhabiting other planets, the scientist believes that this can be overcome by utilising various scientific developments.

This prediction has received worldwide publicity, not because it is a new idea (in fact, other similar ideas have been expressed by others in the past), but because it has come at a time when biological warfare has become a common topic following the Sept. 11 catastrophe in America and the ensuing spread of the anthrax scare in which a few cases of anthrax have received colossal publicity due to the psychological climate presently consuming the United States and the West following Sept. 11. As the Sept. 11 attack has gone beyond all fictional dangers that have previously been predicted, fresh debates have been generated as a result on how to face the new dangers that will confront humankind.

However, in the process, what is being done is to separate what viruses and bacteria may do to humanity from what humanity is capable of doing for itself by pursuing what it considers to be good for itself. The underlying assumption in the discourse of destruction is that evil will triumph over good and that humankind is incapable of overcoming evil by its own good behaviour. That evil is more powerful than good has become the overarching assumption in Western discourse in the post-Sept. 11 era.

The sympathy that the victims of the Sept. 11 attack have received from around the world is not based on a perception of any uniqueness of the catastrophe faced by the victims in the United States. In fact, a denial of the uniqueness of this tragedy and the fact that people of other countries perceived that the world’s most powerful nation’s people also share a common predicament as themselves was the basis on which sympathy was extended to the victims of the U.S. tragedy. Thus, what was seen was not the uniqueness of U.S. victims but that they are sharers of the common tragedies of humankind. Mere numbers do not make any difference to the perception of tragedy in these circumstances. The fact that it was millions of people who faced tragedy in Cambodia or Rwanda or in many other countries throughout the world was not the important factor. The 7,000 people who lost their lives in the United States and others who lost their loved ones, their property and their familiar way of life was the tragedy. The essence of this tragedy is that it was not a personal tragedy as, for example, a natural death or natural separation, but it was a manmade tragedy and therefore of a social nature. It is the social nature of the present crisis in the United States that is least discussed, however. Consequently, there is instead a discussion about viruses and bacteria and other non-social factors that is being pondered at the moment.

Humankind has a history of struggle against viruses and bacteria. This history has been a universal one. Some civilisations though may not have used the terms “virus?and “bacteria.?However, all civilisations have struggled against these germs through their attempts to develop remedies to fight disease. What later became medicine in the Western sense were the refinements of the findings of the experiments of many civilisations into the sources of disease and to overcome these. Thus, all of humankind has contributed to the analysis of the cause of disease and to finding solutions for its prevention and eradication.

What is important to consider is that the fight against viruses and bacteria was considered throughout history as a social project. It was a common concern for people and their illnesses that was the impetus for this social project. In the present discourse about viruses and bacteria, however, what is missing is the lack of recognition of the social nature of the fight against disease. The making of a deadly virus and its spread has been taken as mere physical facts over which the social nature of humanity has no control.

Perhaps the reason for this blindness is that in modern Western discourse the social nature of humanity has been given very little importance. Technology has been discussed as a mere mechanical process that has no social base. The result is a refusal to accept that, given the possibilities for expression of the social nature of humankind, humanity can take control of technology.

However, what is meant by such control is not mere legal controls over science and technology. Perverse users of science and technology can develop many ways to evade the law and law enforcers. However, when human beings engage their creative energies to use science and technology for the common good, they will have many resources to deal with all of these evasive manoeuvres. The helplessness the modern scientist feels against the misuse of science for large-scale destruction is due to the loss of human defences because science has distanced itself from humanity at large and is making it subservient to private users and private profit.

In the West itself, some countries provide a model of social organisation in which the social nature of human beings is given greater expression. The unique experience of the Scandinavian countries is a good example. Unlike some of the dominant countries in Europe and in the United States, the growth of the arms industry has had little to do with the development of these countries. In the Danish model, for instance, people do not carry guns as is done in the United States. Early attempts to implement land reforms and initiate folk schools have provided greater forums for free expression for all sections of the people. Dr. Steven Boris, a U.S. academic, believes that the development of the means of creating a peaceful transition is the greatest element in the tradition of the Danish people.

In the rest of Europe outside of the Scandinavian countries and in the United States, a social system in which peaceful transition is an important component has failed to develop. It is due to this reason that these systems remain weak and are unable to draw upon the creative capacities of people to prevent or at least limit catastrophes. Within the logic of a system that does not have a strong element of peaceful transition built into it, it is only natural to find the existence of the fear of total destruction through some accident, for example the discovery of a deadly virus by someone.

The elements of systems that have peaceful transition as a significant component are the importance given to ordinary folk as against the elite, the importance given to common sense as against academic or expert opinions, the importance of collective wisdom as against personal opinions, the importance of collective interests over private interests and the importance of actual social strategies as against mere rhetoric about collective interests.

Although finding the paths of peaceful transition may be difficult and even may be painful to some, undertaking the effort that is required is certainly much easier than settling on some other planet. Moreover, it is more cost effective and also much more pleasant. It does not stand to reason to assume that on some other planet there will not be people who may develop deadly viruses. It does stand to reason that it is better to overcome this issue here and now on this planet.

What is required is a genuine examination of the Western and U.S. history in relation to rest of the world. The United States must learn to forgive itself for mistakes towards its own people and others. By doing so as the most powerful country in the world, it will pave the way for others to also do the same. The initiative, however, must come from the most powerful and not the other way around. The policies of Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger during the Vietnam War, for example, require examination by the American people. It is time for an American truth commission. In this path of reconciliation, humanity has a chance of avoiding the many tragedies it has been facing. It can then also live without the fear of someone who may unleash a deadly virus on us all.

POSTSCRIPT: Deadlier than Anthrax

Increasing the powers and influence of the CIA and FBI will have a much more deadly effect on America than any attack of anthrax. The soul of the United States is the democratic sprit. An increase in the powers of the CIA and FBI attacks this very soul. Already a fundamental change is taking place in terms of doctrines relating to basic freedoms and security. This will weaken the inner sprit of the United States. This weakening will make it even less capable of dealing with the basic problems it already confronts. In short, it will retard the creativity of the American people at the very time that such creativity is what the United States needs most.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-09-2001
Countries : Asia,