Sep 16 2014

Irom Sharmila : The World’s longest hunger strike in World’s largest ‘democracy’


Ravi Nitesh is an India-based human rights activist. He is the founder of Mission Bhartiyam, an organisation working in the fields of peace & harmony, human rights and environment. He is a core member of Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign, a nation-wide campaign in support of Irom Sharmila and the repeal of AFSPA.

Irom Sharmila Chanu

Irom Sharmila Chanu

In India, the world’s largest ‘democracy’, there is an activist named Irom Sharmila Chanu (popularly known as “Iron lady of Manipur”) who has been on hunger strike since November 2nd, 2000. Her hunger strike is the longest in the world and is still continuing.

Irom Sharmila is demanding the repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA). She started her hunger strike after the ‘Malom incident’ (also known as the Malom massacre), wherein 10 people, who were waiting at bus stand in Malom, were killed in the indiscriminate firing of the Assam Rifles. Irom became so affected by this incident that she decided to go on a protest against the AFSPA which permitted this and similar such incidents.

The AFSPA is a law which grants arbitrary powers to the armed forces. It empowers the armed forces (even non-commissioned officers) to shoot on mere suspicion, to arrest without warrant, to destroy property and to enter and search under section 4. But it doesn’t stop here.

The AFSPA also provides legal impunity to the armed forces. In the case of arrests without warrant, while the normal procedure elsewhere in India is to produce the person before the magistrate within 24 hours of arrest, section 5 of the AFSPA states that ‘Any person arrested or taken in to custody under this act shall be made over to the officer in charge of the nearest police station with least possible delay, together with a report of the circumstances occasioning the arrest’. A loophole has been created by the ‘least possible delay’, wherein no time frame is mentioned thereby creating an ever-increasing list of cases of disappearance.

The AFSPA was imposed in north eastern states of India (except Sikkim) and was later extended to Jammu & Kashmir as a counter insurgency law. It was passed by parliament without much debate and in spite of the objections of a few parliamentarians who were from the concerned regions. Since then, this law has continued in the same manner and this ‘counter insurgency’ strategy has not been changed or reviewed.

The law has resulted in extra-judicial killings, rapes, torture, disappearances and fake encounters with security forces. From the local public and organisations, to national and international organizations and individuals, many have come together to oppose this law. But because of section 6 of the AFSPA, which holds that no prosecution can be allowed against security personnel without prior permission from central government, the government has not allowed a single sanction for prosecution, despite several proven examples of human rights violations.

Irom Sharmila Chanu has been on a hunger-strike to repeal this law. The Manipur government lodged a case of “attempted suicide” when she started her strike in 2000. But in all case hearings, Irom Sharmila has always maintained that she does not want to commit suicide, instead she loves life and is fighting for people. She has re-iterated several times that, “I love my life but I want justice and peace”. Under section 309, the maximum punishment awarded is of up to one year and so every year, the court release and re-arrest her for the same case. During one such release, in 2006, Sharmila went to Delhi and offered a floral tribute on the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation who also chose the path of hunger-strike during the colonial period. She then resumed her strike in Delhi.

The Manipur government has kept her prisoner in a security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, Manipur, where she is force-fed through nasogastric intubation. She has not taken even a morsel or a drop of water through her mouth for 14 years. But still in these 14 years, the government has not taken any step to talk to her.

On August 19th 2014, the Imphal court ordered the release of Irom Sharmila on the grounds that there was “no supportive evidence for attempted suicide”. Sharmila was finally released, however, the government quickly registered a fresh case and re-arrested her after two days. During the arrest, she was dragged by security personnel and dumped in a jeep.

During her hearing at New Delhi in May, I had the opportunity to meet her. It was quite surprising and inspiring to see how she was so full of positivity and hope. In spite of suppression by the government, she expressed her hope for democracy. She never became irritated and did not say anything against the government.

I also met her during the court trial when the court was adjourned for lunch. It was revealed by the nurses who had accompanied her that Sharmila had been in court since the morning but, due to delay in court proceedings, it had not been possible to feed her through the nasal tube. The court was not bothered. I felt sad to see a lady who has not eaten for 14 years waiting for the court’s lunch break to end, but it had not bothered her. During the hearing, she again re-iterated that she loves her life and is not committing suicide. The court did nothing except give her the date for the next hearing.

This has been happening for 14 years in the ‘world’s largest democracy’. Irom continues to protest against the AFSPA, the AFSPA continues to violate human rights and the Government and judiciary continues to turn its back.

Posted by: Posted on by Maria Werdine Tagged with: , , , ,

Aug 12 2014

Guilty verdicts for Khmer Rouge killers – now let Cambodia’s wounds heal

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UN Photo/John Isaac.

UN Photo/John Isaac.

Peter Manning is a Fellow at the London School of Economics. His doctoral research focused on the relationship between the Khmer Rouge Trials and memory in Cambodia. Peter is a member of the LSE Centre for the Study of Human Rights research group Atrocity, Suffering and Human Rights and co-curated the LSE Human Rights Centre display of the ‘Reflections of the Khmer Rouge’ exhibition (original exhibition by DC-Cam). In 2008/9 Peter was appointed Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Development, Phnom Penh. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

More than 40 years after the Year Zero horror of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, two of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders have been found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Khieu Samphan, 83, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, 88, a leading party ideologue, were prosecuted in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for crimes committed under the “Democratic Kampuchea” regime, under which 1.7m people died of starvation, disease or were executed between 1975 and 1979.

The verdicts represent a moment of historic reckoning with Cambodia’s tragic past and are a significant landmark in the work of the troubled ECCC. Victims’ groups recognised by the ECCC have met the sentences with broad approval and the verdicts will undoubtedly contribute to some sense of accountability among those Cambodians who remain keen to see former Khmer Rouge figures prosecuted.

Khieu Samphan

Khieu Samphan: crimes against humanity

Mini trials

Despite the conclusion of this landmark trial, it is worth offering some cautionary reflections on this milestone. The guilty verdicts offered today are the outcome of proceedings that were increasingly winnowed and hastened in order to work as a “mini” trial.

In 2013, with one eye on the ailing health of defendants, the ECCC began a process of expediting its prosecutions against former leaders by breaking proceedings into more manageable “mini” cases.

Each of these will focus on a specific event or site – and today’s guilty verdicts in case 002/01 are for crimes against humanity perpetrated during the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975 only. They therefore reflect and acknowledge only a small part of Cambodia’s experiences of the Khmer Rouge.

Genocide charge

The pair will face the hugely significant charge of genocide in the next “mini” trial as the ECCC starts case 002/02 later this year. Yet the poor health of the defendants means that the next set of prosecutions may not be completed.

The failure to do so would mean that the longstanding and thorny question of genocide recognition in Cambodia goes unanswered. This would be a blow for many Cambodians given the historic reluctance of the international community to recognise genocide in Cambodia.

Moreover, the specific experiences and fate of some minority groups under the Khmer Rouge, such as the Muslim Chams and ethnic Vietnamese, would not be acknowledged as an important part of this tragic story. The likelihood that the ECCC will offer a partial and incomplete picture of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge seems at odds with claims that the court can act to consolidate a historical record of Cambodia’s atrocities, or “set the record straight”.

There are further sobering issues to bear in mind. The first relates to the mandate and framing of the ECCC prosecutions. The ECCC can and will only prosecute “senior leaders” and most responsible persons.

The roles of large numbers of lower-level Khmer Rouge perpetrators, although often implicated during the ECCC proceedings, will go largely unexamined.

Nuon Chea

Nuon Chea: brother number two

Still hurting

It is important to remind ourselves that such lower-level perpetrators still live with and among victims. Many lower-level Khmer Rouge also lost friends and relatives to the internal purges of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and during the subsequent years of protracted civil war in Cambodia.

There are outstanding questions concerning reconciliation within Cambodian communities and we still need to better understand exactly how former perpetrators of atrocity have come to live in relative harmony in Cambodian society today. These are questions that the ECCC cannot attend to.

A final cautionary point concerns the relative indifference and apathy of many Cambodians toward the ECCC. Longstanding mistrust toward Cambodia’s judicial institutions, frustrations about the costs and delays with the court process, and the failure of the ECCC to properly account for the roles of various international actors in Cambodia’s history of political violence has led to many Cambodians losing interest in the ECCC.

Many in Cambodia’s human rights circles are also reluctant to recognise the legitimacy of a basic desire in many sections of Cambodian society to leave the past where it is.

Thinking about the rulings in the wider context of prosecutions for the gravest international crimes, it was inconceivable that there could have been anything other than guilty verdicts. It is worth reminding ourselves that all international criminal proceedings will always be symbolic and incomplete. For all its limitations – limitations that we should be at pains to remind ourselves of – the ECCC has offered verdicts today that will begin to help a nation draw a line under a terrible period in its history.

Posted by: Posted on by Bernard Keenan Tagged with: , , ,

Aug 1 2014

Steps Towards Statelessness

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Hilary Stauffer is a Visiting Fellow at LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights. She is an international lawyer with extensive experience working on projects in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. Her specialties include International Law, Rule of Law, Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs and Diplomacy.

POLITICS Passport 1On 28 July 2014, one of the more controversial provisions of the United Kingdom’s new Immigration Act came into force: the power to deprive naturalised British citizens of their passport, even if doing so would make them technically stateless. Civil libertarians, human rights activists and even the House of Lords were all understandably alarmed at this prospect, which nonetheless managed to make its way through a belaboured legislative process to eventually become law.

The move comes amidst the Coalition Government’s larger efforts to strengthen its counter-terrorism policies in response to the perceived threat from radical Islam, but the impetus for this particular amendment to the nation’s immigration laws appears to stem from a legal battle the Government lost last year. In the Al-Jedda case, the respondent—a native-born Iraqi who became a naturalised British citizen—was captured by US forces in Iraq in 2004 on suspicion of terrorist activities. He was eventually transferred to the custody of British forces in Iraq and held for three years, although never charged. Shortly before his release from British custody in 2007, his British citizenship was revoked.

Mr Al-Jedda eventually moved to Turkey, where he remains. His case became cause for controversy when he appealed against the deprivation order, arguing that the revocation of his British passport had rendered him stateless, as he had lost his Iraqi nationality upon become a naturalised citizen of the United Kingdom. The Home Office responded that because he would have subsequently been able to ‘regain’ Iraqi citizenship (and eventually did), he was not ‘technically’ stateless, and therefore the point was moot.

The resulting series of appeals was litigated all the way to the Supreme Court, who decided in Mr Al-Jedda’s favour in October 2013, ruling that the British Nationality Act of 1981 was fairly unambiguous on this issue when it stated that ‘[t]he Secretary of State may not make an order [to deprive a person of citizenship status] if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless’. Whatever other contributing factors may exist (including, for example, the possibility of whether the person in question could ‘quickly and easily re-acquire another nationality’) were of no consequence. The question, the Court said, was ‘simply whether the person holds another nationality at the date of the order depriving him of his British citizenship’.

While the introductory text for the new Immigration Act (which amends the Nationality Act) does not explicitly declare that it was drafted to address the Court’s ruling in Al-Jedda, it seems indisputable that this is precisely its purpose. Section 66 of the Immigration Act states that despite Nationality Act’s unequivocal prohibition on rendering someone stateless, the Home Secretary can go ahead and do it anyway, so long as:

  • the ‘citizen’ in question is a naturalised (rather than native-born) one;
  • the Government is ‘satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good’ because the person in question has conducted himself ‘in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom’; and
  • if there are ‘reasonable grounds for believing that the person is able, under the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, to become a national of such a country or territory’.

To allay any concerns about arbitrary deprivation of citizenship, periodic reviews of revocation orders will be carried out. Possibly undermining this check on arbitrariness is the fact that decisions to revoke citizenship can be taken in secret, if the Government feels it necessary for reasons of ‘national security’ or ‘public interest’. Moreover, such orders can be retroactively applied, meaning that in making her decision to render someone stateless, the Home Secretary can take into account allegedly troubling behaviour that took place before the new Immigration Act was in force. Ex post facto laws are frowned upon in many democracies, and in fact prohibited by the Constitution of the United States.

Another disquieting aspect of these new statelessness provisions is not listed anywhere within the text of the Act itself, but was made evident during legislative debates about the Act before its adoption: revocation of citizenship is intended to occur when the person in question is out of the country. During deliberations regarding the Act, several MPs highlighted how administratively challenging it would be to deport a person if they had been deprived of their citizenship and left stateless ‘while present in the UK’. The House of Commons and House of Lords also examined this issue in their Joint Committee on Human Rights, querying whether it was kosher to deprive someone of nationality for the sole purpose of deportation. ‘The Government’, the Committee noted, ‘made clear that it intends to exercise the new power, leaving individuals stateless, when they are abroad’. This is a simple solution to the practical considerations at hand, although obviously deeply disturbing from a moral, ethical and procedural standpoint.

The legal implications of the new law are staggering, not only from a human rights perspective, but also in regards to inter-state relations. As Oxford professor Guy Goodwin-Gill pointed out in a paper submitted to Parliament about the possible repercussions of the new Immigration Act, when a State allows a non-citizen to enter, this manifests ‘a series of legal relationships with the State of which he is a national’. Crucially, this includes the receiving State’s right to ‘terminate the non-citizen’s stay by deporting him to the State which issued his passport’. Professor Goodwin-Gill emphasised that ‘returnability’ and the State of nationality’s obligation to admit its citizens ‘are central to the passport regime’, all of which are negatively impacted if someone’s citizenship is revoked after they have left their own country and legally entered another one.

In addition to possibly causing the UK to breach its international legal obligations to other States, the statelessness provisions of the Immigration Act may cause the UK to fall foul of its human rights commitments. The International Commission of Jurists calls statelessness ‘one of the most profound and serious human rights challenges in the world today’, and notes that stateless persons are ‘faced with immense barriers to legally travel, reside, work, study or receive health care’. This makes them ‘highly vulnerable to arbitrary detention, deportation, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and other human rights violations’. It is a mystery why the United Kingdom, which has ratified all the major United Nations’ human rights treaties and the European Convention on Human Rights (not to mention incorporating the ECHR domestically through the Human Rights Act), would undermine a legal regime it helped to create and often calls on others to abide by.

The Immigration Act is certain to prompt a number of legal challenges, both on human rights and more procedural grounds, as it effectively creates a two-tier system of citizenship, with one tier having significantly fewer legal protections than the other. As the new provisions begin to bite and these cases begin working their way through various jurisdictions, the Government may come to regret its impetuous decision to repudiate the Supreme Court’s decision in Al-Jedda. In the meantime, all naturalised British citizens beware.

Posted by: Posted on by Sara Ulfsparre Tagged with: , , , , ,

Jul 14 2014

S.A.S. v France – the French principle of “living together” and the limits of individual human rights

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Teresa Sanader is an alumnus of the LSE MSc in Human Rights. She was an intern on the Human Rights Futures Project at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and is currently working on a PhD thesis in constitutional law at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

In its recent and much discussed judgment of 1 July 2014 the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg held that the French law no. 2010-1192 of “prohibiting the concealment of one’s face in public places”, better known in the media as the so-called “French burqa-ban”, is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The applicant, a 24-year-old French citizen of Pakistani origin, who voluntarily wears the burqa and niqab according to her religious faith, culture and personal convictions, is one of the estimated 1,900 women on the French territory affected by the blanket ban on wearing the full veil in public. She based her complaint against the French law inter alia on Articles 8 (right to respect for private and family life), 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) ECHR.

niqab burqa

The ECtHR’s jurisprudence on manifestation of one’s religion or belief

In the light of the ECtHR’s previous case-law the decision of S.A.S. v France is not surprising at all, as no violation of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief can be found in the Court’s jurisprudence with the sole exception of Ahmet Arslan v Turkey, where ordinary citizens belonging to a specific religious group were convicted for wearing religious garments in public and at a court hearing. All other cases concerning religious clothing in the educational environment (e.g. Dahlab v Switzerland, Leyla Şahin v Turkey, Kurtulmus v Turkey, Dogru v France, R. Singh v France) lost before the Strasbourg Court; they were either declared inadmissible or seen as justified under Article 9 (2) ECHR. Nevertheless, it was reasonable to think that the French law of 2010, expanding the prohibition of wearing a full veil from the educational environment (introduced by French law no. 2004-228) and from representatives of the state such as state school teachers to ordinary citizens in their everyday lives went too far. Even the ECtHR was aware of the similarities between Ahmet Arslan (violation of Article 9 ECHR) and the present case and was keen to distinguish the two cases on the facts: religious garments in public places were decisive in both cases, but the concealment of the face played a role only in the present case. By doing so in an arguably far-fetched way, the ECtHR happily accepted the new principle of “living together”.

The ECtHR’s cautious approach regarding Article 9 ECHR

The ECtHR has often applied a technique of avoidance when it comes to Article 9 ECHR, finding the first violation only in 1993 (Kokkinakis v Greece; until 2012 only 46 violations of Article 9 and e.g. 940 violations under Article 8 ECHR).

Moreover, the ECtHR always underlines the lack of European consensus in the Council of Europe member states regarding the relationship between state and church: the different concepts range from state-church arrangements to secularism/laïcité. For the present case it might be true that on a more abstract basis no European consensus on the significance of religion in society can be found, but I agree with the third-party interveners and the dissenting judges on the fact that – apart from France – a law of prohibiting the concealment of one’s face in public can be found only in Belgium. Thus, 45 out of 47 member states strongly point towards a clear European consensus on this matter.

Furthermore, and connected to the second point, is the ECtHR’s willingness to grant the member states a wide margin of appreciation concerning the topic of manifestation of religion in public places. This means that national legislatures are generally given discretion on how to address the question. However, the ECtHR held in X and Y v the Netherlands that the margin of appreciation might be narrow when “fundamental values and essential aspects of private life” are at stake; therefore in the burqa case, the Court should have undertaken a more careful balance. Instead of doing so, the Court refers to its supervisory role, its lack of direct democratic legitimacy and the subsidiary nature of the Convention system to national human rights protection mechanisms (see also the new developments in Protocol 15 to the ECHR) and deferred to the discretion of the French government.

Le “vivre ensemble” as a legitimate aim

The right of manifestation of one’s religion or belief is a qualified right, which can be limited by the member states if the restriction is “prescribed by law”, pursues a legitimate aim and is “necessary in a democratic society” and thus proportionate. The French Government provided two legitimate aims: public safety and the “respect for the minimum set of values of an open and democratic society”. The ECtHR held that as no evidence for a general threat to public safety was provided for by the government, an absolute ban was disproportionate to the aim pursued. However, it accepted the second legitimate aim of “living together” and subsumed it under “protection of rights and freedoms of others”. The other two explanations for the law – fostering gender equality and human dignity – were, however, rejected by the Court. Moreover, the ECtHR acknowledged the French effort of not phrasing the law in a directly discriminatory way (basing it on the religious connotation only) and it did not pay much attention to the legislative history, or the clear political intention of banning the full veil from the public realm.

The Court correctly pays attention to the French concept of laïcité – nevertheless, in my opinion a line should be drawn between forms of liberal and fundamentalist secularism: extending duties regarding religious neutrality from public officials to ordinary citizens in all public places seems highly problematic. Furthermore, the question remains how likely it is for a French citizen to meet one of the 1,900 women wearing a burqa in public and wishing so badly to communicate and socialise with them that their sense of “living together” is deeply disturbed.

vie ensemble

The dissenters, Judges Nußberger and Jäderblom, raise some well-grounded questions regarding the vague nature of the general concept of “living together”. They point out that the right to private life includes the right not to communicate, the right to remain an outsider. Moreover, they criticise the absence of an in-depth analysis of the principle of proportionality; less restrictive measures exist to pursue the legitimate aim of “living together”, such as civic education instead of a general prohibition. I especially agree on the point that a ban on wearing the full veil in public might produce counter-productive effects for women who are forced into wearing the niqab or burqa: they stay at home instead of being able to integrate themselves by means of education or employment.

Future outlook

The case of S.A.S. v France shows once more the European Court of Human Rights’ unwillingness to interfere in the highly sensitive topic of religious manifestation in public, and its willingness to grant a wide margin of appreciation to the member states; after this second Grand Chamber judgment (on education see Leyla Şahin) little hope remains that the Court will change its approach in the future.

In conclusion, the problems identified in the case raise the key question that human rights activists can never escape: is it ever possible to satisfactorily solve highly political issues by means of law, particularly by the individual human rights regime?


Posted by: Posted on by Bernard Keenan Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Jul 7 2014

The poverty of human rights

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Rafael I. Silva N is a student in the LLM course with a specialism in Human Rights at LSE. He is a lawyer of Universidad de Chile; and the former Director of Techo-Chile in the Region of Valparaiso. This is the first in a series of posts Rafael is writing about human rights and global poverty.

Shanty town in ManilaPoverty is a sustained and/or chronic denial of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and development rights, according to the human rights approach. This paradigm means addressing the eradication of poverty through the recognition of the poor as individual right-holders, under the premise of their empowerment as agents of social change. However, implementation under these terms of reference has been problematic, in particular regarding inequality and the role of the poor in their own development. I argue here that in practice, rights-based approaches to poverty have not been able to overcome prevailing neoliberal thinking on development; nor existing structures that have produced poverty as an inevitable harm that many people throughout the world must suffer as “losers” of a political and economic global order imposed by elites.

When half of the world’s population owns less than 3% of the global household income, inequality is not only experienced in economic terms, it is also translated into rude differences in the realisation of individual rights. In this respect, human rights can aim to create a “safety net” for all individuals guaranteeing their enjoyment of a minimum level of rights in order to satisfy their basic needs and to ensure their freedom from want. But international human rights law remains silent regarding the “other side” of the picture: that the winners in the system have no limits on the enjoyment of their rights. Indeed, they have an over-realisation of them, being absolutely above the margins of minimum essential levels. This over-realisation directly harms the rights of the losers, thus reproducing the cycle of poverty.

Human rights legal obligations aimed towards international cooperation aim at some measure of equality, but the refusal of states to consider them as legal duties have left these aspirations firmly in the arena of “charity”. This perception has been replicated by several states in the domestic context, in that they consider the eradication of poverty as a matter of solidarity rather than a legal obligation towards citizens. This approach undermines the imagined position of the poor as right-holders, making their role that of passive observers waiting to become beneficiaries of public policies that have nothing to do with rights. Thus they are deprived from the necessary means to change their reality. Poor families face perpetuation of their position as losers in the system for generations.

The “paternalistic” approach is convenient for global elites to the extent that, with an important sector of the population marginalized, they are capable of deciding the methods utilised and the pace in eradication of poverty. They can ensure that this method neither compromises their privilege nor threatens structural reform, which would jeopardize their economic interests.

We need a more radical approach. The unequal distribution of resources and power, combined with the systematic violation of human rights of the poor, makes the adoption of measures of positive discrimination in favour of the most marginalized an urgent priority. The emerging consensus aiming to replace the Millennium Development Goals should be the moment to finally establish a revolutionary human rights approach to poverty eradication based on the recognition of a sui generis right to freedom from poverty. This should include a pro-poor special recognition of rights to non-discrimination, to participation, to redistribution of resources and power, to remedy in case of violations, and to resistance to political and economic systems that serve private interests and violate their basic rights.

If advocates of the rights approach do not recognize its weaknesses and fails to call for the necessary reforms, human rights finally will be the legitimization of an order that will continue benefiting a small minority while harming the large majority.


Posted by: Posted on by Bernard Keenan Tagged with: , , , ,

Jul 4 2014

Alumni Interview: Catherine Hodder

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This interview is part of a series of interviews with alumni of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE. Catherine Hodder studied for an MSc in Human Rights at LSE, graduating in 2005. Interview by Nikki Edwards, current MSc Human Rights student.

Catherine HodderWhere do you work now?

I am currently the Parliamentary Adviser for the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), which seeks the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in England. CRAE coordinates the England NGO submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and produces an annual State of Children’s Rights in England report, charting Government progress on the Committee’s Concluding Observations.

As Parliamentary Adviser, I communicate children’s rights concerns to parliamentarians, ministers and civil servants in order to hold the government to account for its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I draft and disseminate briefing material for debates, parliamentary questions and suggest amendments to legislation going through Parliament. I also ensure that children’s rights concerns are heard in the development of government policy and guidance.

What other work experience do you have?

Before becoming a human rights lobbyist, I worked for a Member of Parliament, gaining first-hand knowledge of the political process. During my undergraduate degree I interned with an NGO in Senegal for four months. I also gained a wide variety of skills from working with different groups of children, including young asylum-seekers. Being a member of Amnesty International opened up opportunities for me to get involved in human rights campaigning at the start of my career.

What advice would you give someone wanting to start a career in human rights?

My advice would be to make sure you have the relevant skills to complement your human rights knowledge and commitment. These skills will vary greatly depending on what sort of job you are interested in, but focusing on getting the right experience will give you the best chance of getting employed. These skills can often be gained from outside the human rights sector, so be open-minded about where you look for opportunities. In my case, I was able to gain the skills I needed to become a human rights lobbyist by working for a Member of Parliament.

What was your favourite bit of the MSc?

My favourite aspects of the MSc were the wide variety of subjects we covered (and the great people we got to hear from) as well as the law module I studied. The law course was a great opportunity to see how human rights issues are resolved in practice.

Do you think there is anything distinctive about the way LSE teaches human rights?

I think the interdisciplinary way that LSE approaches human rights is distinctive. This creates opportunities for students to look at human rights from a wide variety of perspectives and helps them understand the critiques of human rights. This is invaluable knowledge for human rights campaigning.

Are human rights universal?

Absolutely. Human rights belong to everyone, wherever they happen to be. Everyone should be treated with the dignity that human rights provide.

Do you have any pet human rights projects?

One of the human rights campaigns that I’ve been involved in is for children to be given equal protection under the law on assault. It’s a disgrace that the law still provides a “reasonable punishment” defence for common assault against children. We cannot hope to respect children as rights-bearers unless we leave behind the idea that any sort of violence against children is acceptable.

Posted by: Posted on by Bernard Keenan

Jul 2 2014

Interview: Dulma Clark of Soul Rebel Films

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Dulma Clark is an MSc student in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. Her film “Safina” screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London earlier this year. Fellow MSc student Lily Kendall caught up with her to find out more.

Dulma ClarkSafina is based on a true story about a girl trafficked from Ghana and sold into sexual slavery in Glasgow. The ten-minute short highlights some of the key difficulties faced by girls in their engagement with the British authorities, especially when their age is ‘undetermined’.

I met Dulma on LSE campus to find out where the story came from. “We made the film especially for a film festival in London organised by Unchosen“, Dulma tells me. Unchosen is an organization that raises awareness of trafficking and forced labour through film. Their 2013 competition was so successful that it’s set to become an annual event. “The rule was that they provided case studies and we had to pick one. We selected this one and our film made the top five.”

After a premiere in London last September it formed part of the Unchosen Roadshow, which is currently touring the UK and Ireland. It also featured in the Human Rights Watch film festival at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton earlier this year.

I asked Dulma why human trafficking appealed to her as a subject. “I’ve worked at a charitable foundation for two years now, and I did research for them on human trafficking, especially women trafficked in Eastern Europe, so I’ve been travelling to Albania and so on tracking the route of traffickers.”

It was vital to her, then, that the film authentically captured the nuanced difficulties faced by trafficked women. Unchosen’s project appealed both to her and the film’s production company, Soul Rebel Films, owned by her husband Tony Clark. “We did the first draft ourselves and hired a professional writer to look through and change things. I was there as a script supervisor to give more factual information. We wanted to show how trafficked people are treated by government officials.”

Sometimes the process of intense questioning and encounters with lots of strange faces only serves to re-victimise trafficking survivors, she tells me. “We had to work through all these stages: when they find the girl on the street; how they start tracing the story back and decide to believe or not believe whether she’s sixteen or seventeen – because that makes a big difference. If you’re underage they put you in a safer environment, they send you to social services and find a place for you to stay.”

It’s clear a lot of research has gone into the making of Safina; in only ten minutes it’s remarkable how many issues the film touches. I wasn’t surprised when Dulma told me that she spoke to lawyers and representatives from the UK Border Agency to make the dialogue feel authentic, after all, Unchosen use the winning films as educational tools. “We had so many different drafts,” she says, shaking her head, “we worked on it for so long before making the movie – that part only took two days.”

After the success of Safina, is filmmaking something she wants to pursue? “We’re looking into making a documentary about Odanadi [an anti-trafficking organisation] but we’ll see. It would be great to look into trafficking cases around the world but that would take a lot of time…”

Does she get time to sleep? “I’m on the part-time masters course. Otherwise I’d be dead by now!”

The project was clearly a labour of love for her and her husband. Before we part, I ask her what it is about filmmaking as a medium that she feels adds to the conversation about human rights issues. “With our on the one hand lazy and on the other hand extremely busy population it’s very difficult to grab their attention,” she tells me. “Film can give a strong emotional impact and reach a wide range of people within a short amount of time.”


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Jun 29 2014

Theatre review: Red Forest at the Young Vic

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An advocate for and student of human rights, Jeremy Greenberg is currently undertaking his Master’s studies at the LSE.  His research interests include indigenous rights and climate change, and his dissertation focuses on human rights violations by the extractives industry.  When he’s not busy studying or confronting Lord Browne with pointed questions about fracking, he can be found blogging at A debt of gratitude is owed to LSE Master’s candidate Nathalie Dijkman, whose research on the BFT, political theatre, and “refugee art” informed this review.

Red Forest

Thus for art to be ‘unpolitical’ means only to ally itself with the ‘ruling’ group.

- Bertolt Brecht

One could forgive audience wariness about an evening of dead babies, gang rape, and the death of civilisations.  But Belarus Free Theatre (BFT)’s striking new Young Vic production, Red Forest, is an important and potent account of the terrible deeds carried out by humanity against itself.  And unlike some other unsettling performances, this one has the advantage of being a) based entirely on fact, and b) rather wonderful.  It’s also satisfyingly political, in the way theatre ought to be.

It begins with the process.  The theatre company set out to document true stories of injustice, largely of the “climate” variety, and in so doing undertook a global research expedition and extensive interview process that informed the work presented here in London.  While it’s clear that a degree of creative license has been taken, the play’s use of the projected faces of interview subjects serves as stark reminder that what we’re seeing is real, happening, and urgent.  A quote from playwright Vladimir Shcherban, “We speak on the issues that audience keeps silence on”, graces the BFT website.

Red Forest benefits hugely from staging, with its innovative combination of music, voice, and movement making for an altogether captivating evening, despite the subject matter.  And make no mistake: these stories are tough to take, running the gamut from Chernobyl survivors, to murdered Brazilian oil activists, to Nigerian internally displaced peoples.  In the wrong hands, this kind of thing could easily elicit a “curl-up-and-cry” reaction from audiences.  Instead, BFT gives us a bed of red sand, framed by two stage-length pools of water, upon which various beautiful, tragic vignettes play out.  These are paired with off-stage monologues, based on the stories of those interviewed, and together ensure our eyes remain glued to the stage even in the most disturbing sequences.  Of the many fantastic moments throughout, two images stand out in my memory: in the first, the explosion of carefully concealed water balloons proves an imaginative proxy for the blood spilled by an unidentified death squad.  In the second, a bundled object – a totemic representation of a child, carried around stage by a grieving mother – is unravelled, revealing a handful of crumbling earth.

These striking scenes inform a politics that, while a notable strength of the production, also represents one of its undeniable weaknesses.  If anything, Red Forest suffers from being a bit too political.  Each story is compelling in its own right, but we’re never given quite enough to fully appreciate what’s going on.  It almost feels as if the understandable desire to share as many testimonies as possible superseded the need for creative rigour.  Even as someone relatively up-to-date on the latest human rights controversies, I found myself lost by some of the imagery, which nevertheless remained visually and emotionally potent.  To take just one example: while the fate of African migrants to Spain is well-documented, the play’s implication that Spanish border guards have taken to raping refugees struck me as bizarre. I welcome more information on on this matter; please feel free to comment below.

As a political moment, it’s also a bit disappointing that the piece lacks meaningful engagement outside the performance space.  Sure, there’s yet another petition to fill out, but if there’s anything Red Forest – and the activist community – could benefit from, it’s more time fleshing out these issues.  As it so happens, the performance I attended was indeed followed by a one-off Q&A with a pair of activists, Alexandre de Souza and Joe Corré. This makes it all the more disappointing that none of those who attend other performances will get the opportunity for the same.  De Souza has survived more than 50 attempts on his life as an anti-oil activist in Brazil, while Corré is a fashion guru and eco-activist whose Let’s Talk About Fracking campaign has been picking up steam (pardon the pun) over recent months.

Overall, though, what BFT has put together here is an enthralling, moving, and altogether exciting piece of political theatre.  And even if it fails to make an impact here in the UK, it may have already done its work elsewhere.  On June 26th, the play was live-streamed to Belarus, where the company has been banned, and its members arrested, over their opposition to the new nuclear plant being built there.

For more on the Red Forest project, including video testimonies from those who inspired the play, do take a moment to check out their website at

Red Forest is being performed at the Young Vic until 5 July 2014. For tickets, see


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Jun 25 2014

How can we prevent genocide?

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Dora Felkai is doing her masters at LSE in Human Rights, with a focus on women’s rights. She is from Hungary, and did her undergraduate degree at Durham University in Politics and Sociology. After her masters, she hopes to get a job at an NGO that works to protect women’s human rights or on any gender-related issue.

The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide

Genocides have happened all over the world throughout history. Nevertheless, most people do not even hear the word ‘genocide’ until they get to university and study a social science degree. The only mass murder of a people everyone has probably heard of is the Holocaust, although not every school teaches that either. Unfortunately, the Holocaust is just one example of the phenomenon. Genocide means the killing of a group of people for who they are, not for anything they have done. Examples of such events include Cambodia (1975), Guatemala (1982), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1995), Darfur (2003), and arguably the currently increasing persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma.

I volunteer for Aegis Students, the youth arm of Aegis Trust, an international NGO that works to prevent genocide. They run two training programmes for university students throughout the academic year: the Speaker Programme and the Campaigner Programme. In the Speaker Programme, we were trained to give an anti-prejudice workshop in schools to pupils around the age of 13-14 in order to fill the obvious gap in most curricula with regard to teaching about genocide. In the workshop, we talk about what genocide is and give several examples of such events, with a focus on Rwanda as a case study that we discuss in detail. We explain the political situation in Rwanda in 1994 and then put the pupils into three groups – the Hutus, the Tutsis, and the Twas –and try to make them imagine how each group felt at that time.

When the pupils say that they are ‘angry’ or ‘annoyed’ about the situation and have hostile feelings towards the other two groups, we move on to discussing the five steps that lead to genocide. The slide towards mass extermination starts with something as simple as words. We ask them what they would do to a group of people who have been described as ‘dangerous’, ‘uncivilised’, and ‘pack of wolves’? Most often the answer is that they would avoid those people. Then we show them headlines of newspaper articles in the UK that use those exact words to describe young people – i.e. the pupils themselves. We want them to understand that the dehumanization process starts with words. For example, the Tutsis in Rwanda were labelled ‘cockroaches’, as the Jews in Nazi Germany were called ‘vermin’.

The second step is avoidance – what the pupils said they would do to that ‘dangerous’ group of people we talked about in the exercise. We ask them to name groups of people that we often hear being stereotyped or avoided, and they usually mention gypsies, gay people, disabled people, black people, Muslims or Jews among others

The third step, active discrimination, is the intentional unfair treatment of someone because of the group they belong to ; for example, preventing them from having the same opportunities, segregating them, or passing a law to deny them the same rights. When all these processes are allowed to happen unchecked, it is easy to see how it can lead to physical violence, the fourth step down the slide to genocide.

The last step is extermination. The example of Rwanda shows that, because people believed all the negative things they had heard about the Tutsis and their discrimination had become a normal part of life, very few Hutus tried to stop the genocide.

In the last part of the workshop we explain that when any type of discrimination or bullying occurs there are always three types of people involved: the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders. Bystanders can be individuals or countries who are aware of what is happening to the victims and have a choice to either do something to stop it or do nothing and allow it to happen. The point is that each and every one of us has a responsibility to say or do something when we witness discrimination. If more of us speak out against intolerance we can collectively prevent genocide from ever taking place again.

This is why Aegis Students are running the Campaigner Programme that aims to raise awareness about the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma, a situation that is dangerously close to turning into genocide. Every one of use has the responsibility to speak out when we learn that atrocities are taking place, even if in other countries. One way to do so is by getting involved in Aegis’ Voices for Rohingya campaign.

aegisstudentsThe most important lesson I take away from my volunteering experience with Aegis is that even the slightest form of discrimination must be taken seriously. You may think that innocent jokes or banter about someone’s ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, gender or even accent have nothing do to with such a serious crime as genocide, but the slide towards extermination starts with something as simple as words. My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor in Hungary. Even though racist, anti-Roma, and anti-Semitic jokes and sentiments are constantly expressed in Hungary today, I still do not want to believe that an event like the Holocaust could ever take place again. However, Jobbik, an openly racist and anti-Semitic party, has just won 20% of the vote in my country. Who knows what is next. All I know is that I have the responsibility to fight all forms of intolerance and prejudice if genocide is to remain history.

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Jun 19 2014

Alumni interview: Lorena Fuentes

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This interview is part of a series of interviews with alumni of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE. Lorena Fuentes studied for an MSc in Human Rights at the LSE between 2007 and 2008. Interview by Nikki Edwards, current MSc Human Rights student.

Lorena Fuentes

Where do you work now?

After finishing my MSc I worked in the women’s and girl’s rights sector at a London-based charity called Eaves for Women, after which I decided to enroll in a PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London. My research explores the way violence against women, and femicide in particular, is ‘inserted’ discursively and institutionally into the body politic of Guatemala. I consider how these interventions intersect with dominant frames of perception of violence within Guatemala’s political and moral economy, and aim to highlight how the struggle over interpretations of violence is productive of policy responses and notions of accountability. I foreground this analysis by critically examining the country’s many legal interventions into the contemporary problem of widespread violence and femicide, as well as several post-war trials and transitional justice tribunals which have attempted to account for histories of gendered violence


What other work experience do you have?

As I mentioned previously, I spent three and a half years working for a local charity in London, which focused its interventions in relation to violence against women and girls. Key aspects of my role included:

• Designing and facilitating training and evaluation workshops on young women at risk, violence against women, and homelessness to field staff, implementing partners and government counterparts

• Managing a caseload of vulnerable young women at risk. I supported them in addressing a range of issues, which included: domestic, sexual, and other forms of violence, homelessness, mental health, and substance misuse

• Designing and delivering workshops for young women at risk

Aside from this first ‘post MSc’ official professional experience, when I was a Bachelors student in Canada I worked at a Recreation Centre leading sports camps and activities for children. Which, by the way, I think can be just as ‘human rights-y’ as anything else!


What advice would you give someone wanting to start a career in human rights?

I think it’s crucial for students to step outside of this narrow framework of ‘human rights’. First of all, you are very unlikely to find a job listing that asks for a “human rights worker”… unless perhaps you’re aiming for one of the big kahunas of this type of work (Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International). But I’d argue that even within those organizations some of the most relevant and interesting work is done by individuals or groups not necessarily labeled “human rights workers”, as such. I believe that labeling something specifically as ‘human rights’ related or not is one of the biggest problems with the human rights concept. It becomes dislocated from our every day lives and we get too caught up in searching for the label rather than thinking through how all of our social interactions, daily work and encounters can have an impact on the well-being of ‘the other’. So I guess my central piece of advice is for students to broaden their horizons and introduce some nuance into the calculation. Do not go onto Guardian Jobs and search “human rights worker”! There are many ways to contribute to social justice and to the consolidation of peoples’ rights and citizenship.


What was your favourite bit of the MSc?

For me it was the fact that I was able to handpick modules from across disciplines. I have always struggled to focus my interests, and, in relation to my interest in this MSc, I wanted both a firm grounding in law so that I could sharpen my practical knowledge, and to situate myself in critical theoretical approaches to human rights. In the end, I had amazing courses that ranged from Conor Gearty’s law course, “Terrorism and the Rule of Law” , to Paul Gilroy’s sociology course, “The Racial Formations of Modernity”. That, and also, it might sound a bit generic to say, but my peers… the range and breadth of experience and interests that other students brought to this programme was extraordinary. I still have a very close network of friends from the MSc. To give a specific example: when I was recently in Guatemala conducting my PhD field research, I met up with another MSc Human Rights Alumnus who works on judicial transparency and rule or law issues in Central America. And, despite the fact that she was there in a professional capacity and me as a PhD researcher, we were able to help one another, since there is considerable overlap in what we were doing in Guatemala.


What do you think of Kant?

Oh dear, I didn’t think this was going to be a test on philosophical theory. Haha… Well, given the influence Kant had on Marx and Hegel and the concept of critique (and my affinity to both Marx and critique!), I’ll just give a simple answer, from what I can remember off the top of my head. Kant’s framework for the concept of critique: understanding the conditions that allow for the existence of a normative system (human rights, let’s say) are extremely useful in the sociological field, in my opinion.


Do you have any pet human rights projects?

I recently was commissioned to produce a consultancy report on the Femicide of Girls in Guatemala for Plan International UK. In the report I explore the limitations of legal interventions/reform into a problem like femicide, which is inescapably structural in nature. As it might already be clear from this interview, I hardly believe that laws can or are deigned to produce ‘justice’. They may help as part of a larger struggle, but as the Guatemalan case study makes clear, having human rights or laws at the level of discourse (rather than practice) can produce even more dangerous effects because the assumption is that once a law is passed, the job is done. I also work with transnational social justice networks linked to issues of violence and impunity in Guatemala. I have participated in the production of documentary/film interventions commemorating the 2013 genocide sentence against former dictator and de facto Head of State Rios Montt (now, sadly, overturned). Of course, all of my ‘extra’ or ‘side projects’ focusing on Guatemala/Latin America are also inextricably linked to my PhD research.

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