The Imperative Need for a Moral Compass in Politics

Matters of The Moment

The Brazilian government denial of unchecked fires in the Amazon rainforest, Donald Trump’s secret talks with Taliban leaders and the inability of UK politicians to break the enduring Brexit deadlock raise fundamental questions on their governance

By Mrinal Roy

Pope Francois’s incisive messages during his recent visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius have reminded the political leaders, governments and politicians of these countries of their paramount duty of service to the people and their core mission of assuring the continuous improvement of the livelihoods, quality of life and well-being of the people and in particular the most vulnerable ones as well as the potent and sustainable development of their country through apt policies and good governance.

 Placing their role on a moral high ground, he urged the governments to robustly fight corruption, greed for more and more wealth by a few against the interests of the multitude, inequality, exclusion, precarity, poverty, deforestation, evils such as drug trafficking and to take cogent steps to reverse the adverse fallouts of climate change on our homeland, planet Earth, its biodiversity and to protect the environment. He also called on governments to assure unity, equal opportunities for all, embrace diversity and to take on board the concerns and views of the young while charting an innovative pathway forward for the country. The outlook and the creative talent of the young will shape and drive the future.

Will governments and politicians take heed and follow the Pope’s sound counsel? Or will they revert back to their shenanigans and politicking in their relentless pursuit of power by all means?

A survey of recent events in different parts of the world shows that the policies, decisions and actions of governments must, more than ever before, be guided by a moral compass. Politicians need to be accountable for their contested actions which have profound negative impacts on people, the country and the world. This is the more so in a globalized world where every major decision has significant ripple effects.

Protecting the Amazon

For example, satellite monitoring systems in Brazil and by NASA have reported that the number of fires in the Amazon this year has peaked and is the highest attained since 2010, reaching more than 90,000 active fires. These fires reflect a larger scale of deforestation fueled by the stated policy of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro of developing the Amazon, lax policing by the authorities and a multi-country infrastructural plan to build a network of roads, dams and rail lines across the Amazon.

The Amazon rainforest is one of Nature’s most important gifts to mankind. It is known as the ‘lungs of Earth’. It is estimated to absorb some 25% of the Earth’s total carbon dioxide emissions and to release oxygen in the atmosphere. More than half of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil. Despite the international outcry at the wanton depredation of the Amazon rainforest and the patent evidence provided by satellite imaging data on active fires, the Brazilian government is in denial. Deforestation and extensive fires in the Amazon undermines mankind’s battle against the causes of climate change to reverse its dire impact on planet Earth. The extensive fires belch higher levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions and adversely affect climate change, air quality, biodiversity and indigenous tribes in the Amazon. Is it not time to leave the Amazon rainforest in its pristine state to the care of the indigenous people who have lived there and safeguarded it and its biodiversity for thousands of years?

Shouldn’t the caucus of nations impose severe sanctions against such irresponsible actions which exacerbate the risks of a climate change catastrophe on the planet and endanger the future of the young?

Donald Tusk, the EU Council President in a press statement after the recent G7 meeting said that he ‘could not imagine European countries ratifying a trade pact with the Mercosur bloc – a South American trade alliance comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – as long as Brazil fails to curb the fires ravaging the Amazon.’ It must also be flagged that according to Greenpeace the fires in the Amazon rainforest is the result of significantly higher imports of soy beans from Brazil by China in the wake of the US-China trade war. Brazil is now the top exporter of soybeans to China which has declared it would no longer buy US agricultural products. World demand for Brazilian beef and soy fuels Amazon fires. China has invested in production capacity in South America to shift its soy dependence away from the US. In a convoluted way, the US-China trade war is not only seriously dampening economic prospects in the world but is also adversely affecting humanity’s battle against climate change. Shouldn’t the world decree a ban on exports of produce from the Amazon, akin to the one imposed on blood diamonds?

Secret talks

In a disconcerting development, we learnt this week that President Donald Trump was to have secret talks with Taliban leaders on American soil at his country retreat at Camp David, a few days before the commemoration of the 9/11 2001 attack. These were cancelled at the eleventh hour after the Taliban took credit for an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed a dozen people, including an American soldier. Donald Trump said that he had called off peace talks with the militant group entirely. The Taliban warned that more American lives would be lost.

According to reports, the purported deal involved the withdrawal of around 5000 U.S. troops and the closure of five bases in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on America.

How can Donald Trump walk out of the Paris Agreement on climate change which is so crucial for the safeguard of planet Earth for mankind and the young and not engage Iran to conclude a nuclear deal whilst entering into negotiations with the Taliban, despite the Afghan government strong reservations regarding a US-Taliban peace deal and skepticism from a number of former U.S. officials and politicians? What carved in stone assurances can the US obtain that ground Taliban commanders will adhere to an eventual peace agreement?

Brexit deadlock

The enduring Brexit imbroglio is worsening. The no-deal Brexit rhetoric of the new UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has heightened the state of uncertainty in the UK. He wants to renegotiate the Brexit deal and scrap the Irish border backstop agreement intended to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland despite the EU refusal to do so. In a risky game of brinkmanship he threatened to leave the EU by the 31 October 2019 deadline come what may without a deal. A no-deal Brexit is forecast to have dire consequences and adverse economic repercussions for both the UK and the EU. The pound sterling has fallen to a three-year low against the US dollar.

In a highly controversial gambit to have his way, Boris Johnson has prorogued Parliament for five weeks till 14 October which drastically limits time for parliamentary business before the Brexit deadline date. In a bid to thwart the risk of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, Parliament has passed with the support of 21 rebel Tory MPs (who have since been expelled from the Conservative Party) a new law mandating an extension of the Brexit deadline.

In a divided Conservative Party, the working majority of Boris Johnson has been eroded from three to minus 43 through dissent, defection and resignations. He has however repeatedly proclaimed that he will not seek to delay Brexit beyond the 31 October deadline. The opposition parties who with the support of the independent Tory MPs command a majority in Parliament will not vote for general elections until the Brexit deadline has been extended. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party are playing a deep tactical game to outsmart each other instead of unswervingly championing the interests of the country and the people in one of the most serious crises facing the United Kingdom.

More than three years after the Brexit vote in June 2016, the UK remains deeply divided. The people have learnt that Brexit has its own pitfalls. The choices are not many. They include an extension of the Brexit deadline provided the UK has a credible negotiating game plan to conclude a deal with the EU which is endorsed by Parliament. Other options are a new referendum on Brexit or general elections to elect a new government with a clear majority to decide on the way forward in the light of the mandate obtained from the people. The Brexit logjam is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

The Brazilian government denial of unchecked fires in the Amazon rainforest, Donald Trump’s secret talks with Taliban leaders and the inability of UK politicians to break the enduring Brexit deadlock raise fundamental questions on their governance and the tenor of their contested decisions and actions. They and other politicians across the world have to be made accountable for their disputed decisions.

Rebooting governance

Similarly, on the domestic front, the people are aghast at the implementation of the costly Safe City project valued at some Rs 15-19 billion with annual operating costs of more than Rs 300 million in patent opacity without public or independent oversight. What is the cost effectiveness of the 4,300 cameras gawking continuously at people on our streets and roads across the country? What are the deliverables in terms of arresting and convicting criminals, drug kingpins and traffickers, preventing crime or diminishing road accidents, etc.?

Is there not a disproportionate ratio between the enormous cost of the project and the actual arrests and convictions made? Is the legal framework in compliance with best practice norms prevailing in the world or will it be mired in years of costly litigation? What bulwarks are in place to allay legitimate concerns about Big Brother intrusion in our personal space and democratic rights as citizens or to prevent any misuse of the Safe city data collected?

What safeguards have been put in place to ensure safety and protection of the data recorded by the cameras within the unit collecting and managing the data? More importantly, should such a costly and intrusive project not first be debated and approved by the people?

Despite all the rhetoric and drug interceptions, the scourge of drug trafficking continues unabated and the arsenal of robust laws to quash this evil trade is yet to be enacted.

Prior to independence, the lofty ideals and commitment of selfless service to the people underpinned the actions of the political leaders fighting for the fundamental rights of the people and for freedom. There was an unswerving pledge to the cause of the people. This was their moral compass.

However, these ideals and the ethos which drove political leaders at the time to fight for a far better socio-economic order were, after independence, supplanted by the heady pursuit of political power by all means. Good governance and a sense of propriety became collateral casualties. There is therefore a pervasive clamour for a new political class which adheres to a high code of ethics and to reboot governance to a commitment of service to the people, transparency and accountability of the government decision making process.

As we approach general elections, the onus is thus squarely on government to be accountable in a transparent manner for its actions and decisions taken during its tenure. These government decisions include inter alia the costly Safe City Project, the viability of the Cote d’Or Multi-Sport Complex, a reality check on the war against the drug cartels, on the BAI costs to the public Exchequer, the reform of the education system, the re-engineering of the economy to achieve higher growth levels, the contribution of the cohort of political appointees, the ring fencing of energy production in the country, the inequity of revenue obtained by sugar cane planters from their sugar cane by-products. The list is long. The people demand to know and the government to be answerable.

* Published in print edition on 13 September 2019

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