|English: Maher Arar campaign button for the Security With Human Rights campaign of Amnesty International, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|They know everything worth knowing about YOU! Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, with Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Cinema Politica Concordia is well into its new season, having so far shown six films --- five of which I missed --- of the fifteen planned by the end of December. These earlier films seem to have tended towards more personal issues, such as disabilities, violence towards women, and the revival of burlesque theatre, but CP hit what I might call their full, missionary stride with last week’s film by local cineaste Harold Brooks, a man who goes after the big issues, and whose film The Price We Pay, is described in the publicity material as “a searing indictment of corporate greed and malfeasance.”
I am sorry I missed that one, but his week’s offering carried on the Big Issues theme with an absorbing documentary by an Argentinian director, Juan Manuel Biain, called Article 12: Waking Up in a Surveillance Society. This is one of those ill-defined problems that confront the human race --- climate change, poverty, and the pressure of human populations on the Earth’s finite resources are others ---- all of which are central to the future of every human on the planet. All of these have in common that they have crept up on us almost by osmosis, so silently that they have not yet awakened most of us to their long-term threat.
Biain’s film was completed in 2010, a co-production of the director’s company Junco, and the London-based DocFactory, and they have been busy showing it around at special events, conferences and the like ever since. Nothing in it has been made irrelevant with the passing of four years: the only major change has been that thanks to the work of Julien Assange, Chelsea Manning and, pre-eminently of Edward Snowden, the scale of information gathered by today’s all-powerful States has been made public for the first time, and has slowly begun to throw tremors of shock into our complacent populations.
As Biain says on his Web site: “In the West…the public doesn’t have any fear or connection with any kind of negative consequences since the end of WW2….The only connection they have is that it will make them safe.” That is not true of Argentina, where a brutal military government not so long ago violated every possible human right. So to the director, this is not a theoretical discussion.
But, he adds, “advances in technology are leading to greater use of surveillance….At the moment technology is leading us. How far do we allow this trend to develop without our consent? To what extent can we live our lives under these new forms of surveillance and government? ….Can we continue to build a safe and secure society without undermining our civil liberties? And if so, how?”
That is the dilemma investigated in this provocative film, which, I have to say, first of all, struck me as being an amazing work of research. Some 64 global experts in philosophy, privacy law, cryptography, defence analysis, hacking, political activism and many other disciplines were interviewed, and their views melded together brilliantly by editor Guillermo Nieto to present a complete picture. The message is clear: this trend has already gone far enough, and should be brought to a halt. As one of the interviewees said: in these days no one can communicate anything to anyone, by any means, with any assurance that the information therein will not be gathered by the authorities, and possibly used against you, or someone else, if the State chooses. People like myself, who communicate something to someone every day of my life, my main means now being e-mail, continue to believe that, since we are not doing anything wrong, we should be safe: it doesn’t always work out that way.
While the film was running I kept thinking about the four Canadians of Middle Eastern origin who were either handed over by the Canadian authorities to the United States, who quickly transferred them to Syria for torturing, or were detained directly by Syria on visits back to their native land, where they were imprisoned for several years. These four, Mahar Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin, and Ahmed El Maati, are now back in Canada, but only Arar has succeeded in winning compensation for the wrong done him. Their cases illustrate that information gathered by one government can be, and is, handed on to other governments who can make what use they wish of it. And these cases have illustrated also how very reluctant governments are to admit to error.
In another case, Abousfian Abdelrazik visited his mother in Sudan, was tortured and interrogated by the local government, which eventually decided there was no reason to hold him, and thereafter was held in Sudan for years because the Canadian government would not give him the papers he needed to travel. They went to amazing lengths to avoid facing the obvious, even refusing to honour a ticket bought for him by the contributions of Canadians, and resisted until forced by a judgment of a Canadian court to bring him home. Once he arrived back, they began to make his life impossible ---- no charges were ever laid against this man --- by freezing his assets, refusing him help to get his name off a UN no-fly list, and other measures. In other words, even in Canada, this question of the powers governments gain through their collection of information about their citizens is no theoretical matter. That the information gathered is very often wrong is almost beside the point: if privacy is to be respected, governments have no right to most of this information.
One other interviewee said it had been established that high schools in the United States had handed over information about their pupils to the government, a direct violation of the right to privacy that once was taken as part of one’s heritage as citizen of a free country.
That citizens are becoming inflamed about this and other matters dealing with their relationships with the power structure is shown by coming films in the CP schedule which deals with rebellions around the world, the uses and misuses of violence, attacks on minority peoples and secret trials of so-called dissidents.
Biain’s film was built around Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document passed in 1948 which bore considerable input from Canadian diplomats. That article reads:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Canadians should know, almost above other people in the world, that this Declaration has played a formative role in measures taken in the 1950s and 1960s that first eliminated discrimination shown against minorities of various kinds, then established many new rights for citizens both at work and in their ordinary lives. It is because of the Declaration that Canada is called to account for its behaviour on human rights, particularly towards its indigenous people, a matter of embarrassment to our government that they would, I am sure, rather avoid if possible.
But the message of this film is that the current collection of detailed knowledge about every citizen goes far beyond what anyone imagined it could, just a few years ago. This is one of the dangers of a technology that in these days is running out of human control, a danger that many distinguished Canadians have warned about --- one I have personal knowledge of is the late Professor Bruce Trigger, of McGill University, who warned of this in a prescient lecture he gave on Archaeology and the Future many years ago.
It was disappointing that last night no one was available to lead the audience in a discussion of the issues, because this is one issue that really needs to be ventilated to the general public at every opportunity.