Saturday, 18 September 2010
Foreign tourists and travellers as witnesses for human rights
One of the important incidental roles that travellers can sometimes fulfill is as witnesses and messengers to the outside world of human rights violations. The known presence of such international witnesses, whose foreign passports and greater ability to escape the country often make them less vulnerable than local observers, can even deter or mitigate such violations.
Some nonprofit organizations, notably Peace Brigades International, specialize in organizing volunteer international accompaniment for local human rights activists, journalists, and other people at special risk. But even ordinary tourists can bear witness to events they chance to witness, and can sometimes (if they take great care to protect their anonymity) relay messages from people they meet.
In practice, individual foreign tourists are often the only foreign witnesses to some of the world's worst, and least-known, atrocities. This role of travellers is especially important in places from which foreigners who identify themselves as journalists are banned by local authorities. And it is one of the reasons that a boycott or embargo against travel is likely to be counterproductive if it is supposed to serve as a corrective to violations of human rights.
A couple of examples from reports this past week on how intent human rights violators are to exclude foreign observers, even tourists -- and what they do when they think they are out of sight of the outside world:
Last weekend was Eid, the period of prayer, feasting, and community celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. It's the most holy time in the Muslim year, making its choice as a date for Koran-burning in the U.S. vastly more offensive and provocative than the Koran-burners, who regharded 9/11 as a sacred date for other reasons, probably realized. In places where Islam plays an important role in national culture and resistance to foreign oppression, and where secular political gatherings are suppressed, Eid observances provide a rare opportunity for collective expression of dissident ideas and identities.
A curfew was imposed in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and all air services put on hold Tuesday after incidents of stone-pelting and violent clashes in major towns killed at least 15 people and injured hundreds in the past two days, according to state police officials.
Meanwhile, Indian police patrolling the streets of Kashmir Tuesday threatened to shoot anyone defying the round-the-clock curfew, the Associated Press reported.
There is only one open road in and out of the Kashmir Valley, and India's occupation government allows no direct international flights between Kashmir and countries other than India. So control of movement, including denial of passports to Kashmiri nationalists and exclusion of foreigners who might witness Indian human rights violations, especially at times of "troubles" like this week when Indian soldiers, police, and paramilitaries were firing on Eid processions, has been a routine Indian tactic of image management.
The particular isolation of the Kashmir Valley has thus made it a poster child for the significance of the right to travel to the protection of other human rights.
Just across the Himalayas to the north in Kashgar, cultural capital of the area the indigenous population call East Turkestan (its former name as an independent country in the 1930's) and the Chinese occupation government and Han (ethnic Chinese) immigrants and settlers call Xinjiang ("New Dominions") Province, the Chinese army showed its typical fear of the power of foreign witnesses.
At dawn on Friday, the first day of Id, a convoy of military trucks and police cars with flashing lights rolled past the public plaza outside the Id Kah Mosque, where thousands of men and boys were congregating outdoors for morning prayers. Police officers blocked foreigners trying to go to the rooftop of the Orda Hotel, which overlooks the distinctive yellow mosque, the largest in China, to watch the prayer ceremony.
"It's not as tense as last year, but the police are still worried about problems," said one ethnic Uighur man who, like many in this city, spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities are attacking not just human rights but the most important symbols and expressions of the cultural heritage of the indigenous people, physically destroying the historic center of the (non-Chinese) community. According to the same article:
In a new concrete home on the edge of the old city, a young woman, Guli, invited two foreigners to try freshly baked lamb-filled pastries that her family was eating at twilight. A stove burned in the courtyard.
Almost all the traditional, mud-walled dwellings around Guli's home had been razed as part of a government plan to build new housing that began in early 2009. It appeared that at least two-thirds of the labyrinthine old city south of the Id Kah Mosque had been destroyed, leaving nothing but lots full of dust where some of the most atmospheric neighborhoods in Central Asia once stood....
[O]ne Uighur man said most people were opposed to the destruction of the old city. "The government is doing it no matter what people think," he said.
He opened a picture book with an old photograph of the Id Kah Mosque. In front of it was a green park that he said had been destroyed in the mid-1990s to make way for a modern plaza. "Our history is being lost," he said.
On Friday morning, ethnic Han policemen stood on the corners of the plaza as Uighur men carrying prayer rugs streamed there from all corners of the city for the first prayer of Id....
I've been to Kashgar and travelled extensively throughout Central Asia, and there is no question in my mind or that of most visitors that the old-city of Kashgar, inside its almost entirely intact millenia-old city wall, was one of the best preserved and most significant examples of classical Central Asian urban architecture, especially in remaining an active residential district and not just a tourist sight. If it has not been designated as a World Heritage Site, that's almost certainly a consequence of Chinese government fear that anything that enhances recognition of East Turkestan's distinct culture and history would strengthen the nationalist opposition to continued Chinese occupation of "Xinjiang".
China's bulldozing of the old city of Kashgar (like India's less-complete razing of portions of the old city of Srinagar, in Kashmir), is a cultural crime of the same order as Napolean's blowing off the nose of the Sphinx with a cannonball, or the Taliban's blowing up the giant rock-carved Buddhas of Bamiyan. It deprives local people, and future visitors, of irreplaceable knowledge, and deserves the same condemnation as would be warranted if China were bulldozing the Patala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of the other main region of Chinese occupation, Tibet.
In the face of foreign acquiescence to such cultural crimes, it's hard to offer any other explanation than the one taken for granted by most of the world's Muslims, and those who defend their rights: Global Islamophobia that drives a global double standard toward crimes against Muslims, crimes (including denial of self-determination) against Muslim-majority nations like Kashmir and East Turkestan, and crimes against their national, political, and cultural rights.
As travellers, must we bear mute witness to such desecration we observe first-hand, or of places we know from our personal travel experience? What can we do? Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.
[Update: More on the real estate boom in Kashgar in the wake of the destruction of the Old City]Link | Posted by Edward on Saturday, 18 September 2010, 14:42 ( 2:42 PM) | TrackBack (0)