On dictatorship, democracy and the level playing field

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Gordon Kricke (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2019 - 12:00am

Germany and the Philippines may have a quite different history, but they share the experience of a peaceful overthrow of a dictatorial regime. The people power revolution brought an end to the corrupt and abusive Marcos dictatorship and many Filipinos are rightly very proud about that important part of their history. It was an inspiration and an encouragement for many others in the world who suffered under oppressive regimes.  The fall of the Berlin wall just a few years later also became an iconic symbol for the human quest for freedom, dignity and human rights.

Every society has to find its own way to deal with the past, what to do with those who during a dictatorship committed serious human rights violations or benefited from corruption. That can be a difficult issue, but the victims have a right to demand justice. Therefore in Germany the decision was taken not only to rehabilitate and to compensate the victims, but also to bring those who during the communist regime committed crimes or serious human rights violations to justice. Altogether 1737 people were charged and 753 were found guilty.

The EDSA revolution was about democracy, freedom and human rights, but it was also motivated by the hope of social justice and equal opportunities. The UN “Social Justice Day” celebrated just a few days ago reminds us – if we look at the realities in many countries – that this still remains a distant dream.

Charles Bukowski, the German born writer and philosopher of art and life once said “I guess the only time most people think about injustice is when it happens to them.”  There is probably some truth in it, but I hope there are still many people who truly care about these issues. Especially since inequality remains very pronounced everywhere and continues to increase in many countries.

This problem cannot be addressed by philanthropy alone. It is true, private foundations in support of worthy causes are often doing an important job. They can be very efficient, honest and helpful. But they depend on the penchants (or whims) of their wealthy benefactors which lack of course democratic legitimacy and cannot therefore be a substitute for government action.

The growing concentration of the world’s wealth has been highlighted by a report presented by the NGO Oxfam at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019 showing that the 26 richest billionaires own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population. There are many reasons for this unfortunate trend, but one problem is tax avoidance and unfair taxation which increasingly undermines the capacity of governments to fund high-quality, universal public services, including health care, education and infrastructure development. Tax havens and outright tax evasion contribute to an unlevel playing field where income and wealth is redistributed from the bottom of the social pyramid to the top.

The EU is committed to fight against illegal tax evasion and money laundering. Just a few weeks ago it published its new list of 23 third countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing frameworks. The objective is to make sure that dirty money does not find its way to the financial system of the EU countries.

Pope Francis realized the scale of the implications of social issues when he said “human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.” In fact the distribution of wealth – or rather the lack of it – may well prove to be one of the defining issues of our age.

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(Gordon Kricke is the Ambassador of Germany.)

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