Monday, September 22, 2014

Right to self-determination: proceed with caution

There're those who belief that secession and independence would automatically solve all problems faced by a people. But a more rational consideration of what's at stake or what's to come after independence would show otherwise.

Scotland was in the spotlight in light of a referendum to decide whether or not the territory should remain part of the United Kingdom. When the jury was still out, there was a lot of speculation and analysis about the possibility of a victory by the "YES campaign". But the verdict showed after all votes were counted that the "NO campaign" carried the day. Scotland rejected independence. The people decided to stick with their United Kingdom.

According to the BBC, Scottish voters rejected independence by 55% to 45%.

I welcome the results of the referendum and applaud the government of Prime Minister David Cameron for giving the people of Scotland the opportunity to decide, because -- let's face it -- Westminster could have blocked or delayed a referendum. By allowing the process, the government under the leadership of Cameron acted in good faith in recognition of the right of self-determination.

I believe all peoples have the right to determine their political status. I recognize and would defend the right to self-rule or self-determination, which is a core principle in international law. The right is expressly provided in international human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (see article 1), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (see article 1).

However, I also believe that peoples should exercise this right with caution -- except in cases where there's urgency prompted by a brutal and oppressive occupier.

Advocates of secession often point to the availability of natural wealth and resources in their territory as proof that they would be better off as an independent country. Natural resources alone, in my opinion, should not be the driving force for self-rule. Other factors should be considered, and all major uncertainties should be sorted out before independence. When it comes to independence, a leap in the dark is, without a doubt, reckless.

It would have been disastrous, I feel, for the people of Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom without a clear structure in place to ensure their well-being after independence. A lot of uncertainty surrounded Scottish independence. It's baffling that about 45 % of Scots voted in favor of independence without knowing, for instance, what currency an independent Scotland would use, and without knowing how long it would take the country to join the European Union -- from where many Scottish farmers expect subsidies. Security and defence questions were not also considered or clarified by "Yes Scotland", the main campaign group for independence.

Scotland no doubt has natural resources. In fact Scotland is richer per capita than the UK, and about 90% of the UK's oil comes from Scotland. But resources do run out. It's therefore important, in my view, that independence should not be anchored predominantly on the availability of natural resources.

In my view, majority of the people of Scotland voted wisely in the referendum. Majority of Scots seem to understand that secession doesn't necessarily make all socio-economic and political problems go away. Food for thought for separatist movements across the globe.

Personally, I take away two lessons from the Scottish referendum: firstly, wealth of natural resources doesn't necessarily mean majority of people in a territory will vote in favor of secession. And secondly, an independence referendum (or calls for it) by peoples entitled to it is sometimes necessary in order to force change -- as evidenced by the fact that David Cameron and other British leaders promised under the pressure of a referendum to devolve greater powers to Scotland. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not change will be delivered as promised.

Failure to fulfill the vow made by UK party leaders panicked by the referendum, I believe, would mean another referendum in the future. And Scots might not vote "No" to independence again if they're forced to return to the polls in the future because of a broken vow.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

1960-style racial abuse in a store in Finland, and silent onlookers

Things happen in modern-day Finland that look like scenes out of the U.S. in the 1960s when black people, such as 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, were taunted by angry members of the white community who opposed racial integration of public schools.

Ihmisoikeusliitto, a human rights organisation that monitors the human rights situation in Finland, revealed on its Facebook page on 4 September 2014 that one of its workers was followed and verbally attacked in a shop by another customer. According to the Facebook post, the customer followed the human rights workers in a shop and shouted insults as the latter walked away. No one in the shop said anything to the abuser or the abused. Everyone stared as the perpetrator continued the racially motivated abuse -- until a security guard took the perpetrator away.

According to Ihmisoikeusliitto, the reason for the taunting was the color of the victim's skin.

Keep in mind that the reported racist taunting happened is 2014, not 1960. It's unconscionable that such a thing happens in modern-day Finland, and not a single onlooker lifts a finger.

When I read the Facebook post, the story of Ruby Bridges came to mind.

Ruby Bridges was the first black student to attend a formerly all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. When public schools were required by federal law to desegregate, she was the first African American to go to William Frantz Elementary School. For security reasons, Ruby was escorted to and from school by U.S. Marshals dispatched by president Eisenhower. White parents and students shouted insults and pointed fingers at Ruby as she went to school under the protection of U.S. Marshals. And white parents rushed their children out of the school in protest. Even teachers refused to teach.

In my view, shouting insults at someone in a public place in Finland because of the color of his or her skin is as shameful as the racially motivated taunting of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans in 1960. The verbal abuse reported by Ihmisoikeusliitto is, to an extent, similar to abuse faced by Ruby Bridges in the 1960s. The only difference lies in the scale of the abuse.

Unlike Ruby, the victim in the shop in Finland was taunted by a single abuser. Although the perpetrator acted alone, the silent onlookers in the shop, I believe, took the side of the perpetrator. My belief that the "spectators" were complicit is hinged on the words of archbishop Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor".

I have argued before in previous blog posts, such as in the piece about the plight of Finland's black taxi drivers, and I'll argue again, that blatant racism persists in modern-day Finland because members of the public and people with the power to change things let it persist. Perpetrators are emboldened by the silence of onlookers. People of good conscience and people in positions of authority in Finland should stand up and speak up forcefully against racism. Until then, racists will continue to drag Finland's international image in the mud by repeatedly perpetrating 1960-style racial abuse in modern-day Finland.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The plight of Finland's black taxi drivers

Manifestations of racism and discrimination in Finland keep surfacing. Hence anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts in the Nordic country must continue, and perhaps intensify.

Helsingin Sanomat (HS) published a disturbing and damning article (in Finnish) on 22 August 2014 about suspicion and direct racism faced by dark-skinned taxi drivers in Finland, precisely in the nation's capital. According to HS, taxi drivers with so-called foreign background encounter suspicion as a result of language skills and lack of local knowledge, but also as a result of direct racism. The newspaper tells the story of Masawud Magagi, a Ghanaian-born taxi driver who waited in vain for customers at a taxi post -- although about ten customers waited for a taxi at the same taxi post. None of the customers got into his taxi. They waited for another taxi.

The taxi driver told HS that in his view, racism explains it all.

Another taxi driver of Ghanaian origin, Stanley Aboagye, corroborated the claim. He narrated an experience in which a customer got into his taxi, called him the N-word, then left his taxi.

In my view, Finnish language skills and limited local knowledge have nothing to do with the way dark-skinned taxi drivers are treated. Perpetrators of discrimination and racism in Finland often point to language barrier in a bid to justify discrimination, but personally, I do not buy it. Many taxi drivers who face racism and discrimination at taxi posts across the country have at least basic Finnish language skills required for the job. Local knowledge is also no issue since taxi drivers, including drivers of foreign origin take a course and pass a test before they qualify to drive a taxi. Besides, taxis have satellite navigation systems, which drivers, including ethnic Finnish drivers, use if they do not know a particular location.

I have lived in Helsinki for a long time, and I once boarded a taxi chauffeured by an ethnic Finnish driver who did not know my destination. He used a navigation system to get me there.

It is prejudicial to think that dark-skinned drivers do not know their job simply because they look different. Unfortunately there are many people in Finland who think that way, including people in the country's parliament. In fact, an MP declined to take a taxi allegedly driven by a dark-skinned driver -- in front of parliament.

Ethnic Finnish taxi drivers, I feel, also promote discrimination and racism by accepting customers who reject dark-skinned drivers on taxi queues. Normally, taxis queue and customers are required to respect the queue -- by boarding the first taxi on the queue. Ethnic Finnish taxi drivers become part of the problem when they welcome customers who violate queuing regulations on grounds of race.

I have no doubt that dark-skinned taxi drivers are treated differently by some of their colleagues and by customers because of stereotypes related to something they have no control over: color of their skin. Blatant despicable treatment of people of African descent persists in Finland, I believe, because perpetrators -- from parliament to the streets -- know they can get away with it, since the public and people in power do not speak out strong enough against racism and discrimination. Finnish media also lets perpetrators off lightly. The situation will change, I think, when attitudes towards perpetrators change.

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