Thursday, February 22, 2018

The new imperialist agenda


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Not all the pomp and ceremony which was on show at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, could completely hide the fact that, behind the scenes, a raging and acrimonious debate had taken place amongst the delegates.

On the face of it the cause of such debate appears to be innocuous enough. It was a proposal to appoint the Commonwealth's first-ever independent human rights commissioner. The proposal was contained in a report submitted to the meeting by a group of elder statesmen known as the "Eminent Persons" which had been established by the CHOGM held here in T&T in November 2009. The group's goals were to make recommendations for such measures as would help to sharpen the impact, strengthen the networks, and raise the profile of the Commonwealth.

What made the proposal for the appointment of a human rights commissioner appear, to many of the delegates, to be a Trojan horse for the introduction of far more questionable and contentious measures was the fact that another recommendation of the report called for an immediate end to the ban on homosexuality in those countries where such existed.

This recommendation immediately raised the hackles of many of the African Commonwealth members where such legislative bans are in place and they were quick to conclude, not without some justification as it turned out, that the primary role of the human rights commissioner, as proposed by the group, would be to agitate for the introduction of "reforms" such as gay rights.

It was on this basis that they gained the support of other Commonwealth countries which felt that such a measure could well be the thin edge of a wedge which would eventually allow richer, western Commonwealth members to interfere in the internal affairs of poorer members and to push, in such countries, social reform agendas tailor-made for the western, more industrialised, countries.

Not only was the report not adopted, but it was also decided that it would not even be (officially) released. And it did not take long for those countries which had opposed the recommendations in the report to feel that their suspicions and concerns had been vindicated.

For almost immediately upon his return to the UK, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had championed the adoption of the report, went on record threatening to cut British aid payments to countries that ban homosexuality. Mr Cameron declared that, "This is an issue where we are pushing for movement (and) we are prepared to put some money behind what we believe."

The President of Ghana, John Atta Mills, was having none of it. He declared that, "I, as president of this nation, will never initiate or support any attempts to legalise homosexuality in Ghana," and further that Cameron, "...does not have the right to direct other sovereign nations as to what they should do especially where their societal norms and ideals are different from those that exist" in Britain.

What all this highlights is the growing international impact and potential for conflict of a phenomenon which has been around for a long time but which has gained immense traction with the spread of economic globalisation and which over the last decade has become increasingly bold and assertive. The phenomenon is called cultural imperialism.

Cultural Imperialism has existed largely as a by-product of direct imperialism in which one nation dominated another, militarily or administratively, for the purposes of economic exploitation. The success of economic globalisation has made such direct forms of domination unnecessary but has brought the cultural dimension to the fore as the preferred means of maintaining domination and exploitation.

American author and critic, Herbert Schiller, as far back as 1975 described the concept of cultural imperialism as "the sum of the processes by which a society (or) its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system."

The key word here is "values". To the extent that the western industrialised nations can succeed in imposing their values on the rest of the world as the ideal standard to which people aspire then, to that extent do they also succeed in perpetuating the economic and political domination of such people.

Although PM Cameron's threat is a particularly glaring and heavy-handed example of the imperialist effort to "pressure, force and bribe" other countries into accepting the western industrialised value system it is really not representative of the operations of this latter-day imperialism which tends to be far more subtle and insidious and which moreover are not, for the most part, even the province of governments.

One of the features of globalisation is the rise of powerfully influential, transnational, NGOs which operate (supposedly) independent of national governments and recognise no sovereign political boundaries. It is organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Doctors without Borders, Transparency International etc. which today, whether they acknowledge it or not, are the main carriers today of the virus of cultural imperialism.

What makes the role of such organisations particularly insidious is the fact that for the most part they do good work. Whether it is in the field of environmental protection, rural development, health or governance they do make a contribution. But that contribution comes with a price for such contributions are always wrapped in the mantle of "human rights". The definition of what constitutes human rights however is always that of western industrial civilisation and countries are forced to accept the whole package.

What the countries at the CHOGM argued about might have been gay rights but that is not the only item of the new imperialist agenda. That agenda includes abortion rights, the elimination of the death penalty, and a host of other prescriptions which define and describe the values of western industrial civilisation and which are imposed on the rest of the world with the warning that "Resistance is Futile".

* Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on  politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean. He is a long-standing member of the Tapia House Group and works as a human resource executive.