Radio - Sue Gaisford praises a brave initiative that aims to teach the world about human rights
As a working definition of the BBC World Service, the 19th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights serves pretty well. It proclaims: "Freedom of opinion and expression and to seek, receive and impart information." That has always been the remit of the World Service and it is the main reason for its success. Earlier this year, by means of technological wizardry, its "reach" was significantly increased and its previously arcane timetabling tidied up. Such improvements, coupled with the success of its website, mean that the World Service currently reaches more than 150 million people each week. Impressive as this is, however, the stakes are about to rise.
Friday saw the start of I Have A Right To . . . , a remarkable, long-term education project. Coinciding with the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into English and Welsh law, its aim is to convey to listeners around the world exactly what their rights are, under the various national and international treaties to which their governments have subscribed. The human rights policy department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported the project to the tune of roughly £700,000. It has also offered the broadcasters unprecedented access to the thinking behind and the complexities of trying genuinely to deliver a foreign policy with an ethical dimension. "Often," concluded Karen Merkel, the education projects director, "it has to be a case of doing what you can, where you can."
Yet, the project is not a government initiative, as Andrew Thompson, who commissioned it, makes clear. "We are funded by parliament," he explained, "but we have a statute guaranteeing our independence. We can broadcast things which the government may intensely dislike, but our autonomy is guaranteed, written in stone. It is all, potentially, highly controversial."
This is illustrated by the very first programme. Produced by Charu Shahane, it focuses on the current dangerous muddle about when foreign intervention can be deemed necessary. In Kosovo, Tony Blair declared, we were "fighting for the values of civilisation" - but should individual human rights ever be sacrificed for such a "greater good"? Those who lost children in the bombing of Belgrade question this morality - as does a nurse from Chechnya who longs for Nato to intervene and right the wrongs of that equally savage war. Her dream will never be realised, because it would mean challenging Russia, a nuclear power. Juxtaposing these two episodes could suggest that, in order to avoid international intervention, it is as well to acquire nuclear weapons. This is not necessarily a message that the government (or any of us) wants to hear.
A further argument concerns the killing of innocent civilians because their leader is seen to be wicked. "The whole Balkans," said Bismarck in 1876, "is not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer." Yet current morality accepts that to lose, say, 500 innocent civilians is acceptable in the cause of a greater good - for example, defying a tyrant such as Slobodan Milosevic. Where are the human rights of those 500 in all this anguish?
Shahane has undertaken considerable risks to carry such arguments forward this autumn. Article 19 is not easy to deliver, as she discovered in Rwanda, Ingushetia and, particularly, in Colombia, where she faced real danger from paramilitaries. When her four introductory programmes are finished, the further global endeavour starts. In 13 languages, among them Hausa and Mandarin, Serbian and Swahili, reporters will address specific, local problems.
Sometimes, they will highlight the progress already being made. In Pakistan, for example, a small group of people travels through villages, educating women about marriage. Under Islamic law, the marriage certificate is theirs to sign, voluntarily: if the women are told otherwise, they are being deceived, for non-consensual marriage is not allowed. By broadcasting news of such initiatives, awareness will gradually be raised, attitudes will change and the downtrodden will become empowered.
Another example comes from the state of Uttar Pradesh, in India, where greedy and manipulative relatives will declare a man to be dead in order to get hold of land or property. A "Dead Men's Association" has been formed and has spoken to the Human Rights Commission in Delhi about their "resurrection". Publicising such movements strengthens those suffering similar abuse.
"In the northern hemisphere," said Merkel, "there is a tendency to discuss human rights only when they are civil and political. In the south, social and economic rights are paramount, allied to the view that you need to have a full belly before you vote. 'You don't understand,' people say, 'our interests are wider than individuals: if we didn't lay down the law, people would starve'." But the Declaration of Human Rights would still maintain that, even within such strictures, individuals have rights.
The Bengali academic and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is of the same mind: that nobody should allow dictators to preach to them about the national good being superior to an individual's liberty. For the series, he produces a remarkable statistic: "No substantial famine has ever occurred in a country where there was democracy and a free press."
Although radio often enjoys a higher status abroad than in England, nobody pretends that one broadcast can do much good. As such, the plan is to work with NGOs and anyone else interested, to promote dialogue and debate, discussion groups and clubs. After six months, the intrepid broadcasters will set out again to see how it is all going, and report back. It is dangerous work, especially if an earlier broadcast has provoked anger: journalists on other projects have recently been killed in the field, even when undertaking less contentious missions. Shahane shrugs the danger off: like so many other World Service employees, she thinks it is worth the risk.
The start of I Have A Right To . . . is on BBC World Service, Fridays, 8.30pm; a World Learning Series starts in January. More info: www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice