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Right to have rights!

Would I still defend your opinion if your opinion leads directly to my death, asks Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta in his column.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2005 18:47 IST
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for all UK based non-British purveyors and instigators of terrorism to be deported back to their countries of origin. There are two primary objections which are raised against this step. The first is that these chaps may be tortured or their human rights may be violated if they were sent back to their original countries. The second is, that given the networked world we live in, simply moving the bodies to another country will not stop their messages from influencing the “to them useful idiots” who go about setting off bangs. Let us take a view on this situation.

This is a difficult essay to write, as this topic deals with some very complex and many times competing principles. This means that, while it is factual (like the others) to a degree, an element of personal preferences does come into the picture in the conclusion; but hopefully this will be well argued and logically presented.

At the root of this argument is that a government (of whatever type – liberal, conservative, fascist, communist, socialist, theocratic, you name it) has to perform one main duty amongst others. That is to provide security to the citizens of the state. If this basic duty is not fulfilled, then the government loses legitimacy and in the best case – loses power or in the worst case, the state implodes or fails. To take some recent examples, we can point to Sierra Leone, Somalia, Afghanistan (a few years ago), as examples of states where the government has failed in this main duty to its population. To take another ongoing example, Iraq’s government is not legitimate for many reasons in many eyes, but one of the primary reasons is that it has not been able to provide security for anybody. When you compare that with Afghanistan, you rarely hear “troops back from Afghanistan” but you hear “troops back from Iraq” ad nauseum.

The other related factor which comes up here is the level of responsibility of the government to the citizens versus towards immigrants, resident foreigners or people who have been granted asylum. Does the government have a responsibility to protect its citizen’s rights? Absolutely. Does the government have a responsibility to protect its resident foreigner’s rights? To a certain degree. Does the government have a responsibility to protect the resident foreigner’s rights who are infringing on the citizen’s rights? Ah! Ha, herein lays the nub of the matter.

There is an implicit contract which is there between the state and the citizens. In return for some rights being given up by the individual to the state and agreeing to certain conditions, the state promises to provide security, aim for happiness of the people, govern justly, provide good economic conditions, etc. etc. In return, the individual agrees to abide by the existence of the state/government, rules and laws (civil, criminal, personal or economic) of the land and agrees to a certain degree, that the state has the only right to violence. That for the greatest good of the greatest number, the state has the right to chuck someone into jail or even knock someone off as we see in Israel. As I said, this bargain, howsoever dressed up in secular, religious, political or otherwise dress, holds true in every state. Now we go back to the third question, if the resident foreigner does not agree to this bargain, what is the duty of the government towards protecting the resident foreigner’s rights?

Before we answer this question, we have to bring in the other dimension of rights and their relative ranking. As such, there is an implicit assumption in many quarters (especially on the left or single issue groups) which is that every right is equal in importance. Hence the right to freedom of speech is equal to the right to practise whichever religion chosen in whichever. Or the right to associate is at par with right to property. Or the right to religion is equal to right to security. Or right to security includes right to be tried by a jury or the right not to forcibly have electric prods attached to my nose. By themselves, nobody objects to these core fundamental rights. Take a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( and you will see that these are reflected in most countries with a half decent constitution. The challenge which comes up is when these are considered to be equal, irrespective of the situation.

Now let us take the specific case here and we will see why rights are not equal but are nested according to situations. As it turns out, we have a situation that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Syria etc. are countries (these are the countries of origin for most of the foreigners which the British government wants to deport to) are not particularly well noted for their tender loving care of prisoners or people of the rebellious ilk. That is well known. Now, taking the human rights rule in isolation, it makes sense to me. If I am faced with a refugee or a guest worker (even if he is illegal), do I really want to deport them back to a country where the first thing that the local authorities will do is to plug their sensitive bits into an electric conductivity testing machine? Nope. Definitely not. Our humanity will protest against this.

But would I have the same level of outrage if I know that this chap to be deported is directly responsible for brain washing some poor sap who will set off a bomb in my tube carriage tomorrow morning? Will I be upset in the same manner if I knew that this chap, while enjoying my tax pounds as benefits and state funded infrastructure is actually going to target me and my security? I doubt it. Why? Why would I be willing to compromise my principled stand against torture when faced with the possibility of my own annihilation? What happened to Voltaire’s alleged quote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”? But is this applicable in this case?

Would I still defend your opinion if your opinion leads directly to my death? It is a delicate but very strong perversion of the argument and it will need extraordinary humanitarian instincts to support this. As we have seen in the UK, most of the population does not want to agree to this trade-off. Yes to freedom of speech, yes to human rights, but the right to security trumps them all. In other words, if you as a guest foreigner are a direct threat to the security of the citizens, then the right to security is primary and your human rights are secondary. To top it all off, I am actually giving you my tax pounds as benefits, you are living off my blood, sweat and tears and wanting to kill me, my family and ruin my society. Are you surprised that most of the British people are now saying “Voltaire can go hang”?

That said, the home and foreign secretaries are working on getting a memorandum of understanding with these countries which should give them some protection (which is much more than what these goons have promised the innocents on the tube carriages and buses). So all in all, a law may well need to be brought in to bed this down, although according to current laws, this is not possible. But that is another discussion.

This brings us to the second objection, which is, given the connected and networked world of today, just sending people over to another country does not stop these purveyors and motivators of terror from influencing young men. People point to Hassan al Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Sayyid Abul A'la Maudud and Ossama Bin Laden who are far away from potential recruits (in time as well as geographical distance). But still they do influence people. Yes, agreed. But the question is what the probability is and what is the impact level of influencing potential recruits when these jihadi gurus are onshore and offshore? Let us make it simple and say, given a person who is receptive to such messages, the impact will be the same, whether his chosen guru is offshore or on-shore. So it frankly does not matter in terms of impact.

This leaves the question of the probability that this message will actually influence a potential recruit. Well, given that the force of the spoken word during face to face discussions is far higher than when one is reading a newspaper, listening/watching a video/tape or reading a website, the probability is definitely higher when the person is onshore, compared to when this chap has been shunted off to Algeria, Timbuktu or even Lebanon like in the case of the Cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed. Yes, potential recruits can travel to Algeria or Jordan or anywhere else, but with each increase in the communication chain (in terms of distance, cost, time, resources, contacts), the probability of getting willing expendable idiots decreases. Putting it bluntly in a different way, even if there is a chance that we can avoid one suicide bomber from falling under the sway of these jihadi gurus, then we should regretfully but firmly offer a one way plane ticket to these chaps.

It is a war of ideas, and the more difficult one makes the transmission of these suicidal ideas, the greater the probability will be that security increases. I have been singularly fortunate in my teachers who have tried to din in various subjects into my thick head and read the quote “the influence of a teacher stops at eternity” with deep interest when I myself became a teacher. Rights of a teacher versus rights of security, in the case of these foreigners, who are out to destroy lives in the UK, will always be second.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)

First Published: Sep 23, 2005 00:00 IST