The world has never been a safe haven for human rights and the Rule of Law. The map of the world points out the numerous ways in which the rights of human beings have been taken away from them. The rise of populism, authoritarian nationalism and increasing intolerance of national governments are all different ways in which human rights have been violated. In biblical times, holy books were the reason the personal right to life of an individual did not gain center stage and today we see the same trend in varying fashion.
Across the globe, there have been a number of people who have been detained or arrested for ideas that challenge the establishment and its authority. These prisoners are also known as political prisoners. It is important to understand that not every inmate in a prison is a criminal. There are different notions and understandings of the term political prisoner. Amnesty International, for instance, uses the term political prisoner to fight for cases that are linked to civil order, the conduct of government affairs and its relation with ethnicity, race, sexual orientation or gender. The Council of Europe sets out a narrower definition wherein the detention of a person is imposed purely by political reasons and has no linkage to any crime.
With no explicit rules to follow, the lives of political prisoners are far more in danger than it occurs to be. Brutality, suffering, absolute abuse of a person’s liberties, a political prisoner endures more mental tortures than physical ones. The detainees at Guantanamo Bay, for example, continue to remain a stain on human rights in the record of one of the world’s most powerful and largest democracies, the United States of America. The US detention camp currently holds 40 Muslim men, many of who have been tortured. Such torture represents the Islamophobic intolerance of the Trump administration despite there being efforts by the Obama government to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Injustice lies in the fact that many of these detainees had been cleared for transfer years ago and yet continue to be tortured in the prison.
Why do people become political prisoners? Political imprisonment is a major strategy used by governments to contain any kind of opposition or hatred against them. From China to Venezuela, political prisoners are seen as those who wish to topple the power of the establishment. During different phases of history, people have been subjected to detention due to politically motivated reasons. Stalin’s Gulag and its first prisoners stand as an excellent example in demonstrating how intolerable and insecure a regime could be. During the years of the anti-apartheid struggle, solitary confinement of a prisoner was much more a dreaded form of imprisonment than being herded into overcrowded dorms without sufficient clothing. The reason stated for solitary confinement would be a simple act of reading a newspaper or political literature. The torture inflicted on inmates in the 8*7 foot cell at Robben Island prison in Cape Town, South Africa was deadly. The price for change and revolution was simply too expensive to bear. In the wake of national liberation movements in New African, Native American and Puerto Rican sectors, in 1990, the US denied claims about the existence of over 100 political prisoners in its own prisons by claiming that they were terrorists. The International Tribunal on the Human Rights Violations of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, however, declared that the United States must adhere to the same rules on the protection of human rights as the rest of the world.
Political prisoners are viewed as symbols of significance, as figures whose suffering and discrimination earns respect. The maximum-security prison at Robben Island is today a UNESCO World Heritage site and its most influential inmate, Nelson Mandela lived to be the President of South Africa as well as a revolutionary political leader. In a recent poll taken in Russia, 63 percent Russians believe their country arrests people for their political views or for aspiring to participate in political life. Today, we are looking at a world where there is a total disregard for the rights of a human being because they hold views that are perceived as a threat., The physical and mental torture inflicted on political prisoners violates human rights to the extent that it infringes upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the contemporary multipolar world where countries are currently witnessing right-wing populism and widespread nationalism, the value of democratic principles and human rights seem rather insignificant.
(Merin Suresh is a first year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2019-21 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.