An international drama has been created through the leaking of intelligence information by Edward Snowden, a contract employee of the US National Security Agency. This incident should give us an opportunity to reflect on the rights of the individual citizen as guaranteed by the state.
Every state views the rights of its individual citizens differently as determined by tradition, religion and power play. At one extreme, North Korea demands absolute obedience. At the other, a US citizen may say or do whatever he/she pleases until coming into conflict with the law. It is obvious that Snowden did not apply to North Korea for asylum. Who wants live there in the first place?
So far Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have granted asylum to Snowden. Venezuela likes to taunt the US because it has the power of oil. Most countries south of the US border want to keep the US at arm’s length because of its traditional arrogance. Elsewhere, other governments are hesitant. They don’t want to anger the US. China has played the smartest card by letting Snowden escape on a plane to Moscow while instructing the Hong Kong government to claim “insufficient information” to detain him. Regardless of what reasons given, Snowden has become a hot potato to be kicked around as different states try to score points for their own benefits.
In the US, the Snowden affair has only gotten moderate traction in the press. Most Americans accept the price of some privacy loss with the explosion of electronic technology, which makes everything so easy to track. However, due to the animosity between the two political parties accusing each other of impotency, the Snowden leak has been blown out of proportion. Furthermore, the government wants his blood for creating this big trouble. The death penalty is possible if he is to face trial in the US, thus making him a famous international fugitive seeking asylum.
The rights of citizens are broad, subtle and evolving, which most states don’t take seriously. We should have no illusion that individual rights are subject to interpretation by the government currently in power. This is precisely why citizen rights must be written down clearly in the constitution. Although a written constitution cannot guarantee absolute protection, it will at least make it difficult for an all-powerful government or political group to change the constitution as it pleases.
The US Constitution is generally considered to be a model because of its ideals and relatively few amendments. Nevertheless, the concept that “All men are created equal” in the 1776 Declaration of Independence was not enforced until after the Civil War of 1861-65 when all black slaves were freed. After that, state-supported racial discrimination persisted until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. In early July of 2013, the Supreme Court seemed to have turned back the clock by striking down part of the Voting Rights Acts, claiming that the old methods of voting suppression of minorities no longer exist today. So you see individual rights cannot be taken for granted even in the US.
In the US, individual rights have evolved through a Civil War in the old times, then through a series of hard-fought legislations afterwards. In many other countries where the state constitution is either inadequate or absent, the political party or government in power provides the sole interpretation of citizen rights to suit its own purpose. Generally, the reason given is to preserve stability for the society to continue to prosper. In other words, whatever the government does must be good for its citizens. So don’t rock the boat.
If you believe in whatever the government says and does, you should rest satisfied with no questions asked. If not, it makes sense to think about what kind of individual citizen rights you want to have. Remember, your rights have to be fought in order to be achieved. Also, you have to be constantly vigilant for the erosion of your rights. Once you become lax, somebody in high power will interpret your rights for you.