Star Trek Humanism: Is it our place to tell other countries how to live?
In this article, Aaron looks through the lens of Star Trek to ask whether we have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and cultures.
'In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive is a guiding principle of Starfleet that prohibits its members from interfering with the natural development of alien civilizations. It protects unprepared civilizations from the danger of starship crews introducing advanced technology, knowledge, and values before they are ready. Since its introduction in the first season of the original Star Trek series, the directive has featured in many Star Trek episodes as part of a moral question over how best to establish diplomatic relations with new alien worlds.' Wikipedia
As the resident 'Starfleet Humanist' on our writing team, I felt this was an area I should jump into with both feet, and it's not done on a whim. For most of my younger life, I hadn't grasped the Prime Directive. It just seemed wrong. 'Why let people die when you could do something to help them?' These days, experience has shown that when we in 'the West' interfere in the affairs of other nations we often cause more problems than we solve. For example, how would the African continent have developed had missionaries with Bibles - or the Quran for that matter - not ventured out to share their religion? In Trek history, the Prime Directive was formulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, implying that America should have stayed out. In 2014, and again in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine to persuade them, with tanks, bombs and bullets, to return to Mother Russia. Could the Prime Directive have been followed by the Kremlin in order to prevent this?
Meanwhile in Qatar
The recent World Cup in Qatar raised the question of interference in other nations to satisfy our own human rights aims. Nations around the world live by standards we disagree with here in the UK, or in most of the West, but when we go on holiday, is it our duty to respect their customs as a visitor, or should that entire country change in order to meet ours? Yes, they treat their LGBT citizens badly, with prison sentences and fines for homosexual acts and a theoretical death penalty for Muslims under sharia law, but when visiting their nation should we tell them what to do? Who are we, as guests, to force our ideas about human rights onto them? Let's look at it from their point of view for a moment. People from around the world are coming to our country, Qatar, as guests. Before their plane even touches down, they are telling our citizens that our ancient customs are wrong, and that we should change them overnight to suit them. These voices may come from Western countries which have high murder rates, drug addiction, the death penalty, nuclear weapons which were dropped on cities in Japan, who have invaded or interfered in dozens of countries during their history, and they have the effrontery to tell us how to think and live? Imagine, too, if Qataris came to play football in our country and wore armbands at their shock and horror that women can walk around unveiled or that gay people can have sex and marry with the blessing of the state. Would we accept this as a fair protest about Western values? As a gay man myself, I simply wouldn't go to a country where gay people are at risk of arrest and imprisonment. That would be my choice. I might not like what they do, but it is up to them to reach their own destiny, hopefully via free and democratic elections. We can't change them. By ordering them to change they are less likely to comply, and unless we intend sanctions or the threat of going to war with them, we are simply an empty voice, stamping our feet, and wanting to get our own way. Other members of our writing team oppose my view. They think that we do have a duty to protest at human rights violations in other countries. Is there a peaceful and non-insulting way to achieve this? Should international tournaments such as football and the Olympics only take place in countries we agree with? Would excluding those countries help bring progress towards universal human rights, or just create more division?
The United Nations: a good direction?
In so far as the United Nations goes then, yes, universal human rights is a very good aim. Countries that willingly sign up to a core set of values that promise to deliver freedoms and equalities to citizens everywhere, to improve lives, prevent wars and keep the peace. The sad part, though, is that countries can so easily pay lip service to universal human rights and then ignore them in practice.
"All 193 member states of the United Nations have ratified at least one of the nine binding treaties influenced by the Declaration, with the vast majority ratifying four or more." Wikipedia article on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Although most of the world's 193 recognised nations have signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in principle it seems that they are able to pick and choose which binding treaties to ratify. Ratifying just four out of nine treaties sounds half-hearted to me. I assume that the countries of western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have ratified everything.
A metric I typically use to gauge a country's evolutionary journey to liberal human rights is to see if they allow gay marriage or not. The blue shading on the world map indicates where countries lie on this metric. (UN map, Wikipedia.)
Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the Starship Enterprise-D, declared that "The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy... and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous." Is this because when adventurers and empire-builders travelled to other lands we interfered in their culture, told them what to do, stuck a flag in their soil or, worse still, enslaved the indigenous population? We did some pretty horrible things in our colonial past, as did many historic countries, and we may have learned from our mistakes. But we still appear to believe that we can 'fix' other countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar to mention three recent examples.
I'm sure there are many countries and cultures in the world who do not recognise the universality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We may like to believe that all enlightened human beings would generally agree on the freedoms set out in the UDHR, but religious faiths and non-Western cultures may see things differently. When your culture is still rooted in ancient forms of patriarchy, with little prospect of reform, it seems unlikely that you will progress to other forms of liberation such as LGBT rights.
Should we try to enforce a universal standard of human rights for everyone on Earth? And should we add 'planetary rights' or something similar to ensure the protection of forests, water, soil, the biosphere and the atmosphere? If human and planetary rights are not enforceable then they are similar to the United Nations' Global Goals - little more than an aspiration. Or does the Prime Directive forbid us from interfering?