May 04, 2006|
I was born just outside Nairobi in a small village 66 years ago. My grandparents came from North India. They were part of the waves of migration sponsored by the British Empire. My earliest memories of Kenya are about racial discrimination and hatred. Other than that I had a happy childhood in the family and in the community. We could run around and see absolutely amazing animals. But it was always in this oppressive system.
My Dad was a shopkeeper. It was a typical Indian shop that had everything in it, from kerosene to scotch. Business prospered and he moved and had a different type of business — import, export. That was what Indians did in those days largely because in the Civil Service, if you were Indian, you could not get above a certain level.
My father, by no means a rich person, actually sent me to Oxford to study. My very first white friends were when I went to Oxford. Field hockey was my game in those days.
I flirted with Marxism and am still deeply influenced by Marxist writings.
I did practice law when I took time off from university and worked in east Africa. In the beginning, it’s always interesting and is good money, but I felt cut off from the world of ideas. So I went back to teaching and have done it ever since.
I’ve made at least 15 constitutions. That’s what has sustained me as an academic — helping others. Being able to combine my research with practical work, which has been very enriching, very rewarding. I’ve worked in the South Pacific and assisted in writing or revising five constitutions there: Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands.
A lot of my work has been on poverty. Poverty, of course, is a denial of rights. The way we define rights today are access to basic necessities of life, freedom of expression. Basically, we talk of human dignity. That is, privacy, non-interference in choices, time to think, time to write, time to reflect. When I look around the world, I find increasing disparities in different countries. And it’s a problem we can solve.
I don’t have any time for people who talk so much about identity. There are many identities. I think that if you overdo it, you play into the hands of what I call ethnic entrepreneurs, who have vested interests in cementing ethnic cultures.
My work in Cambodia is as a special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations. It’s to assess the government and the people in the notion and protection of human rights. I was appointed last fall, and made my first visit to Cambodia at the end of November.
Hun Sen was very upset. He’s upset because I criticized the government for relying on draconian legislation, for subordinating the judiciary, for taking over the prosecuting function and so on.
Corruption in Cambodia comes in two forms: One is what I call political subordination under orders from the executive. The second is a kind of commercialization of their responsibility and authority, by which I mean they take bribes. There were some murders too, but not on the same scale as before. Things are pretty grim for some communities. There are huge gaps in the law between what has been reported and what has been done. Of course, there have been economic developments. The international community has put a lot of resources — financial, technical — into the country.
Cambodia has discovered significant deposits of oil, which will come on-stream in two years’ time. When that is done they will have a lot of money. The question I ask is whether it will lead to enormous corruption and the decay of every other kind of industry and the culture. There could be benefits for only a small elite and the environment could be degraded. Will it be like in Nigeria, where it completely destroyed communities, or will it be sensible, like Norway?
Hong Kong is interesting as a territory that is not democratic, but which has democratic practices of a kind. It also worries me. There is a lot more poverty than there is reason to be. There is so much affluence here, yet there are people who are struggling to live day to day. It’s competitive in one sense but also not in market terms. There are monopolies, there’s no competition legislation. Yet it’s also caring. When the tsunami took place, people poured money into relief work. There’s a generosity and concern.
I have met plenty of politicians here, but with the exception of a few, I have yet to meet any with a sense of social justice.
I think Kofi Annan has progressive ideas about reform. He’s done a good job as a secretary-general. Of course there is a question about Rwanda; some said he could have done more. The Americans didn’t want to get involved there and he went along with that. I’ve met him, but only briefly. I’m very glad for his statement a few weeks ago supporting me when I was under attack.
If you add up all the months I have spent in different places, it’s about eight years. Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Africa, America; I’ve taught in Puerto Rico, gone traveling in the western part of America, in Australia, Singapore. I am basically an academic nomad. It’s just wonderful to be able to do that.