Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Raging against the machine

There are two types of people. Those who accept the status quo and those who don't. The difference is clear when maladies such as corruption or cover-ups are rife in the organization they belong to. The former type sees the injustices around them, but choose to stay tight-lipped and can prosper in their careers. The latter type preserves their integrity, but often at great risk to their careers or, in extreme cases, their lives.

Unlike the title of the Christmas No. 1 in the UK, many of those who actually rage against the machine speak out against killing in the name of...in that they use their positions within the machine to stand up against actions that may put lives at risk, such as invasions of foreign lands.

On Saturday, I travelled up to Nasu-Shiobara in snowswept northern Tochigi Prefecture to meet a man who sacrificed an elite career in the Foreign Ministry to make a stance. Naoto Amaki quit his post as Japan's ambassador to the Lebanon in 2003 at then Prime Minister Koizumi's decision to back the United States and its allies in invading Iraq under the pretence of Saddam Hussein possessing WMDs.

During our conversation the subject of whistleblowers and people who sacrificed their careers came up. The suave yet passionate Amaki, who is now an author and fellow blogger (except people pay to read his stuff), started to reel off a list of names of people in several spheres who had made a similar bold move to himself.

Amaki told me of Toshiro Semba, a former policeman in Ehime,who knew that the police force was systematically corrupt. He spoke about this and never received a single promotion during his career. He did, however, successfully sue for damages - many years down the line.

He told me of Yoichi Mizutani, a man who blew the lid on a feast of cover-ups at the foodstuff firm he worked at - We are often to the read labels before consumption, but it clearly didn't apply in the case of the dodgy milk sold by his company - Yukijirushi, or Snow Brand Milk Products .

He told me of Togo Fujita, an employee a company that checked buildings for earthquake proofing. Fujita exposed how the firm basically ignored all guidelines. To compound the criminal element, one of the firm's backers was then construction minister and later prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

The last person he told me of was Moriyo Kimura, an official at the health ministry, who blew the ministry apart with a book she published on how medical policy was harming the health of the public. Amaki said that it was unlikely the ministry would put me in touch with her if I called.

While the people listed above were castigated for their whistleblowing antics, others faced a worse fate. I don't think anyone in the UK will need reminding what happened to British weapons expert Dr. David Kelly who was found dead (officially a suicide, though suspicions higher authorities were involved linger) days after testifying to a parliamentary committee about WMD (or lack of) in the lead up to the Iraq invasion. Overwhelming evidence and Tony Blair's recent admission that he'd have gone in without proof of weapons go to show that Dr. Kelly was a victim of his own good conscious, if not circumstance.

It could be said he paid the ultimate price, and speaking out has cost the lives of countless others, especially in more repressed regimes, but it is something that more people need to be encouraged to do (without penalty) in order to truly make the societies we live in free. Amaki had an idea that an nongovernmental organization should be established to help these people financially - even with state funding. Naive, possibly, but it certainly would be for the greater good.

Faced with a similar situation, I'm sure my conscience would tell me to speak out. But when we all have our lives, our families and our careers to think of, huge numbers of people must be keeping schtum, perhaps I would count among their ranks.

To end with, a book recommendation. Dissent - Voices of Conscience by Ann Wright and Susan Dixon details the testimony of people who spoke out and blew the whistle against the invasion of Iraq. A worthy and informative read that will force you to think about the machines that these people raged against.

Wright is one of the organisers of my upcoming trip to Gaza as part of a freedom march . Much more about this in the next few weeks.

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