by Aasha Eapen
History is an important teacher. An understanding of the past brings wisdom to deciding what one must do in the present. This is perhaps a consequence of human nature being universal in its essence, and has fundamentally remained unchanged through time. Thus, learning what went wrong in the past might help to see things in the present with better context.
It is difficult to ascertain whether human rights, or its repression, has diminished or increased in recent times. However, awareness of it and the level of sensitivity towards its existence has certainly increased.
Defining historical events like the French Revolution and the Indian Independence movement espoused noble ideals like liberty, equality, fraternity and non-violence. Yet people are now aware of the huge cost paid in bloodshed and injustice, both as part of the process and in the aftermath. At the end of any war, the winners emerge as victors and usually take the defeated into captivity, rewriting narratives tinged with the victor’s bias. What is the price of it all?
Noble, at what cost?
In his book, 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene makes a reference to the underlying nature of cost and worth. Something offered for free usually comes with a caveat. Nothing is truly free as there is always a cost incurred on either one or both sides of the transaction. With a price on everything, determining if something is worth having depends on whether the individual is willing and able to bear the cost. What has worth is worth paying for.
In the midst of a struggle, it is important to ask the following questions:
What is the fight for? What will get pushed to the wayside and what is the outcome? What is the cost and who bears it?
For every offense committed, there is a price to pay- either for exposing or committing it .This article endeavours to examine these questions from the viewpoint of both the dictators and the dissidents.
Of dictators and dissidents in recent times
In 2012, nearly 26 years after his rule, former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was brought to trial in the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal. His government was responsible for systematic and targeted attacks on civilians belonging to different ethnic groups like the Hadjerai, Chadian Arabs and the Zaghawa, bringing the total toll of lives to 40,000. The fact that the case made it to trial was largely made possible by the concerted efforts of his victims over the course of 25 years.
In 2016, the court charged him as being guilty of crimes against humanity, summary execution and torture and handed a life sentence. It was a landmark case as it was the first time a country prosecuted the former ruler of another country for human rights violations and the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial in Africa. Habré was also the first head of state to be personally convicted of rape. In some ways, the Chadian people also paid the price to keep a pro-Western ruler in power, as a bulwark to Gadaffi’s ambitions in Northern Chad.
Last year, Radko Mladic also faced the same fate at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes against humanity during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. They encompassed the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide of more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica and the mass rape of Bosniak women.
That same year, the former president of the Ivory Coast Laurent Gbagbo and his former militia leader Charles Blé Goudé were brought to trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) .They are accused of four counts of crimes against humanity and were responsible for the rapes and murders during post-election violence that claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
All these autocrats unleashed a reign of terror that sought to silence dissent through some of the most repressive means possible. In the fight exclusivist nationalism, unabashed ruthlessness and crushing power, freedom of expression and even safety were pushed to the wayside. During their reign, they seemed invincible and even enjoyed impunity for years after .At their hands, thousands of people had their lives wrecked or lost because of factors beyond their control. It could be argued that in comparison to the damage already done, the punishment was too small a price to pay.
Whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden used Wiki Leaks and an insider’s access at the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) respectively to leak vast amounts of tarnishing, classified information. One component of the cost here was the people whose lives were endangered by the leak. While Russia houses Snowden, Assange has sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over 5 years now. This places collateral pressure on their families, the governments who host them and the governments who are threatened because of them.
Svetlana Alexeivich, the Belarusian investigative journalist also moved around Europe due to her scathing pieces under Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko .Sometimes the price of standing up for the truth involves incarceration, like Khadija Ismayilova, the Azerbaijani journalist sentenced to 7.5 years in 2015 or Liu Xiabo, whose empty chair received his Nobel Prize nearly a decade ago?
The dissidents, whether they are whistleblowers, journalists, activists or protesters have always paid the greatest personal cost.
What are interesting are the common traits the despots shared with the dissidents- resilience, intrepidity and unswerving dedication to a belief they upheld as the truth. The nature of the goals bring variety to the process and outcome.
The strength of their conviction shared the weight of the cost such that external criticism and accusations mattered little .They have gone on to shape history and the world we live in today.
Apple Inc’s famous ad from 1997 put it succinctly:
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Aasha Eapen is a writing analyst at Qrius.