Global Cooperation in Fighting COVID-19 & Human Rights Protection: Need for a Collective Approach
Senator Mushahid Hussain, Chairman, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Chairman, Pakistan-China Institute
Human rights has become an issue of paramount importance. These include right to life, the right to a decent living as well as the right to development to build a better future for the generation of today and tomorrow. There is a wide disparity between the quality of life and uneven development between people living in the “South”, i.e. the Third World countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America as compared to people living in the “North”, i.e., Europe and North America. Despite this disparity, it is a fact that Asian countries, generally, and China, in particular, have combated COVID-19 more successfully and more effectively, rather than, say, most Western countries, particularly the United States and some European states too.
COVID-19 has widened the already existing economic disparities between the developing and the developed world. Economies have shrunk and millions are unemployed. For instance, a study by the British charity, OXFAM, in 2017 stated that 8 of the world’s richest men had more wealth than half of the world’s poorest population, meaning, about 3.5 billion people. According to a recent survey of the US magazine, FORBES, “super rich”, the world’s 25 richest billionaires, have gained in wealth a whopping $255 billion within the last two months alone! This uneven quality of life is reflected, not only between regions, countries and societies, as well as classes and social groups, but this is also a reality of the 21st Century. What is disturbing is that human rights has also become an instrument of geopolitics, used by some in the West as a political weapon to stigmatize and demonize and to interfere in internal affairs of other countries.
The politics of human rights, therefore, needs to be separated from the right to development and the right to pursue development choices best suited to each country. Let me give you the example of my country, Pakistan, which is a neighbor and good friend of China. We in Pakistan feel that China’s landmark Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is an important step to achieve this right of development. The BRI is undoubtedly the most significant diplomatic and developmental initiative of the 21st Century. It now includes 137 countries who are being linked through corridors of commerce and culture, driven by economy, energy, ports and pipelines, roads and railways.
For Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has significance since it is promoting the right of development for the 220 million people of Pakistan as this corridor extends to areas like energy, infrastructure, industrial development, socio-economic betterment, Gwadar Port to promote regional trade connectivity and Special Economic Zones. It has already alleviated Pakistan’s chronic energy crisis, providing 33% of Pakistan’s energy needs, CPEC has given gainful employment to 75,000 Pakistanis, the Gwadar Port is becoming a hub of regional connectivity and infrastructure projects have facilitated faster connectivity within Pakistan, while 28,000 Pakistanis now study in China.
The right to development is an integrated component of the quest to build a better tomorrow and like the North-South divide, even within these countries and societies, development can be uneven. Therefore, in this context, CPEC is helping to promote a more balanced, inclusive and all-around development, especially in those areas and geographical regions of Pakistan which are either neglected or left behind in the past, so this right to development is helping to a great extent by promoting connectivity, either through roads, rails and other means of transportation but also through trade and commerce.
Therefore, in today’s world, while facing a global pandemic, breaking barriers is the answer, not building walls of fear. In this regard, the BRI is the biggest promoter of globalization, as China fuels 30% of global growth. In pushing for BRI, an important ingredient of win-win cooperation is the need to break down barriers of protectionism, or walls of fear and xenophobia and promote not just the free and fair exchange of goods and services but of knowledge, learning and ideas as well.
The demonization of BRI is therefore counterproductive. In his speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, President Xi Jinping said that those who support protectionism are like “locking oneself in a dark room” with eyes shut and a closed mind, an attitude, like the Cold War mentality of the 20th Century, which has no place in the 21st Century.
Second, the issue of COVID-19, its ramifications and what we have learnt so far from a crisis that has shaken, indeed, transformed the world. Three lessons are instructive.
First, coronavirus is a borderless “enemy”, with no nationality, race, religion or class, hence it is a common challenge that needs to be met collectively through global cooperation, led by the UN and the WHO. Any attempt to stigmatize or demonize any one country or community or nationality is wrong and counterproductive, as it stems from bigotry and racism, which are unacceptable.
Second, Asian countries have performed better than most countries of the West, and this is an indication of how leadership, quality of healthcare governance, clarity of policies and an inclusive, people-centric approach can deliver results. China, South Korea, Singapore, are some good examples of success stories in combating COVID-19.
Third, the time has come for countries to reset their priorities and policies and redefine the notion of national security, making “human security” as their top priority, focusing on healthcare, education, human resource development, environment and climate change, with Green Development as the way forward, eschewing reliance on fossil fuels, and building on renewable energy. It’s about saving Planet Earth and protecting our people. Let us be very clear: Coronavirus, which struck suddenly, has been a humbling experience as we now realize that there are forces which are beyond the control of even the most advanced states and there are still things which even the most developed medical science and high technology have yet to figure out. Mankind tries to tame nature, but nobody can truly tame and transform nature for their own purposes, as the power of nature is paramount. We are still looking for a vaccine, for a cure, for COVID-19, as right now, prevention is the cure.
Given this context, it is sad and unfortunate that some in the West, notably, the United States, seem keen to weaponize the pandemic for political pursuits of “China-bashing”, as they do on human rights as well. On May 24, 2020, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi rightly retorted that “some political forces in the US are taking Pakistan-China relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War”, underlining that the US seems to be infected by a “political virus”!
This view is corroborated by a recent article by author Fareed Zakaria in the prestigious American journal, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2020 issue, in which the influential writer states: “a new consensus in Washington holds that China is now a vital threat to the United States, both economically and strategically”, although the writer adds in his own words that embarking on this course the “US is setting itself up for an expensive failure”! Some political hawks and US military establishment are looking for a new “enemy” as the powerful military-industrial-complex seeks a new justification for financial and political support for its overseas presence and operations.
The challenge of COVID-19 is so huge that no one country or continent alone can meet it on their own. Upholding the inalienable right of all for a disease-free future, erected on the twin pillars of the right to a peaceful and prosperous life, all countries must collectively combat the common enemy of COVID-19, with the UN and WHO in the lead, so the crisis can be overcome in the shortest possible time through global cooperation. That is the only way forward for suffering humanity.