Feb 1 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Activists: The Fight for Freedom of Speech in China

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Pu Zhiqiang on10 May 1989 marching for the right to freedom of speech at the Tiananmen protests. Getty Images. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Pu Zhiqiang on 10 May 1989 marching for the right to freedom of speech at the Tiananmen protests. Getty Images. Licensed under Creative Commons.

By Stephanie Tai*

Pu Zhiqiang’s recent suspended jail sentence is a reminder of China’s disturbing crackdown on dissidents and activists. The human rights lawyer was detained in 2014 for nineteen months after attending a gathering commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. He received a three year suspended sentence on 22 December 2015 for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “inciting ethnic hatred”. The sentence was based on seven messages Pu had sent on the Chinese social media website ‘Weibo’, criticizing Chinese government officials and their management of the ethnic conflict in Xinjiang.

Pu is a civil rights lawyer and a prominent human rights activist in China. He has defended writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao against charges of libel for their written representation of a Chinese official. He has also defended other prominent figures, such as Ai Weiwei, dissident Fang Hong, and dissident Wang Tiancheng. As a result of the sentence, Pu has been stripped of his practice licence and will be monitored by Chinese authorities for three years. Pu’s fate is a chilling reminder of China’s suppression of dissent with its ongoing crackdown against activists.

The unprecedented record of disappearances among political activists began during the summer of 2015 and remains ongoing as of January 2016. Since July, 266 lawyers, activists, and law firm staff have been temporarily detained or forcibly questioned. Currently, thirty-eight human rights lawyers are still detained, including Wang Yu and Bao Longju. Wang has previously represented well-known clients in politically sensitive cases. She has defended Illham Tohti, a Uighur scholar who was later sentenced to life in prison for separatism. She has also represented the Five Feminists, Wei Tingting, Li Tingting (Li Maizi), Wu Rongrong, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan, who were detained after planning a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual harassment on International Women’s Day.

The ongoing detainment of activists is a blatant mockery of the rule of law. The detainment and harassment of lawyers violates numerous international standards as well as China’s own Constitution. Precisely, “freedom of the citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable”, and “unlawful detention” is prohibited under Article 37 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory but has not ratified, also guarantees against unlawful detention. Article 23 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that “lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression…[and] shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights”. On a domestic level, Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China establishes that “citizens … enjoy the freedom of speech”. Further, this is a manifest impediment of criminal procedure. Although Article 33 of the Criminal Procedure Law of China guarantees the right to “appoint a defender as of the date on which the suspect is first interrogated”, many have been denied access to a lawyer during their detainment.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture published a report with remarks and recommendations in response to the safeguard of Chinese lawyers’ rights on December 9th, 2015. In particular, the report recommended the “impartial investigation of all the human rights violations perpetrated against lawyers” and urged “that those responsible are tried and punished”. The UN Committee additionally emphasised the significance of adopting “necessary measures…to ensure the development of a fully independent and self-regulating legal profession, so that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation”.

Professional legal associations across the world have released statements condemning the detainment of activists in China since July 2015. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute has called on China to protect “the independence of the legal profession under a just rule of law, so that lawyers have the ability to practice freely”. The Law Society of England and Wales emphasized the need for an independent judiciary and “for legal professionals to be free from undue restrictions or sanctions”.

The constitutional rights of dissidents must be respected, ensuring in primis the immediate release of those arbitrarily detained. China must observe its domestic law and international obligations, and end this disturbing crackdown on activists.

* Stephanie Tai is a final year LLB student at the London School of Economics. Before coming to England, she was a student in Canada and Hong Kong.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Jan 25 2016

Silencing Dissent: Palestine Solidarity under Attack

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By Ben White*

Students at Palestine Technical University in the Occupied West Bank face an unusual challenge in pursuit of their studies: the Israeli military has built a training facility on campus. The university may be the only one in the world where an occupying army has not only built a firing range on campus, but also regularly shoots and detains student protesters; in one six week period recently, some 350 Palestinian students were injured by the Israeli army.

Or take universities in the Gaza Strip. According to UNESCO, Israel killed 421 Palestinian students, and injured 1,128 during the 2014 ‘Operation Protective Edge’ offensive. The UN agency stated that Palestinian “higher education institutions were directly targeted [by Israel] during the hostilities.” Nine members of staff were also killed, with “the total estimated cost of repairs to and replacement of HEI [Higher Education Institutions] buildings, facilities and equipment” at $16 million.

On January 11, Israeli occupation forces raided Birzeit University campus, ransacking the student council and science faculty, damaging property, and confiscating equipment. The Syndicate of the Palestinian Universities Union has urged universities worldwide to “denounce these violations.”

This is just a snapshot of what Palestinian students and academics face, as a result of Israel’s apartheid policies. Yet when students and faculty members in universities in Britain, or North America, protest these injustices and express support for the Palestinian people’s basic rights, they are often singled out for smears and intimidation.

Last year, a conference on Israel and international law at the University of Southampton was cancelled on the grounds of ‘health and safety’. The decision, however, followed months of lobbying – privately and publicly – by pro-Israel advocacy groups, who urged the cancellation of a scholarly event they said would “surpass the acceptable.”

The campaign against the conference, driven by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council, Union of Jewish Students, and Zionist Federation, was widely condemned, including by a public petition that attracted more than 11,000 signatures. A separate statement of support for the conference, which slammed “partisan attempts” to “silence dissenting analyses of the topic in question”, was signed by more than 900 academics from the UK and worldwide, including dozens from Oxbridge, Russell Group universities, and Ivy League schools.

Meanwhile, students who seek to go beyond debate, and end their complicity as individuals or as an institution in Israel’s ongoing war crimes and human rights abuses, find themselves the target of legal threats. In spring 2014, King’s College London Students Union passed a motion 348 to 252, calling on the union to pressure the university “to divest from Israel and from companies directly or indirectly supporting the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies.”

However, pro-Israel students, assisted by a group called UK Lawyers for Israel, quickly sought to undermine the democratic process, warning the union trustees of “potential legal consequences” should the motion be implemented. The union gave in to the pressure. Other student unions have faced similar problems. In autumn 2014, Manchester University Students’ Union voted in favour of establishing official ties with Al-Najah University in Nablus (occupied Palestinian West Bank), and for a plaque to be displayed expressing support for the Palestinians’ right to education. Again, legal threats ensued.

It is a similar story on North American campuses, as those who want to shield Israel from scrutiny and accountability are on the defensive in the face of a growing Palestine solidarity movement. Palestine Legal, an organisation “dedicated to protecting the civil rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom”, recorded some 300 incidents over an 18-month period 2014-15, including “baseless legal complaints, administrative disciplinary actions, firings, harassment, and false accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism.”

American Indian studies professor Steven Salaita had his appointment to a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revoked, because of his tweets criticising Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in summer 2014. Salaita’s breach of contract lawsuit ended in an out of court settlement that saw the university pay Salaita US$875,000 (but he was not reinstated).

The London School of Economics (LSE) is not immune. Last November, the university condemned activities of the student Palestine Society in a public statement, despite the fact that the LSE Students’ Union (LSESU) had investigated, and exonerated, the Society. For LSESU General Secretary Nona Buckley-Irvine, it was “deeply disappointing” that the university had “sought to engage with the political activity of a society beyond its legal responsibilities.” According to Buckley-Irvine, “fear of reputational damage” led LSE to buckle under the “external pressure” of “a slew of lobbyists.”

It is not always this crude; the marginalisation and silencing of Palestinian voices in academic discussion and the media, including by liberals, is a broader, more entrenched problem. For example, as I reported last month, of 138 op-eds published on Palestine/Israel over a two-year period by The Guardian, only 20 were written by Palestinians.

However, Israel advocacy groups, on and off campus, are hindered in their efforts despite, or in some cases because of, their influence and resources. There is a huge disparity in grassroots support for Palestinian rights on the one hand, and for Israel on the other: elite access can make a difference, but in the long term, it is no substitute for a groundswell of public sympathy – or anger.

On British campuses, like elsewhere, students and staff are increasingly aware of the facts of Israel’s colonialism, occupation, and apartheid. Palestinians and those in solidarity with them are ever more numerous, organised, and focused on advancing campaigns like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

Efforts to silence Palestinians and to intimidate human rights campaigners are not going to stop anytime soon, but they are a reflection of the same kind of panic we see amongst Israeli politicians. As the LSE Palestine Society said last term, following the administration’s November statement: “your intimidation tactics will be fruitless, we are not easily intimated as you clearly are.”

*Ben White is a writer and journalist. He is the author of ‘Israeli Apartheid; A Beginner’s Guide’, and ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy’. His articles are published by Middle East Monitor, Newsweek Middle East, Middle East Eye, Al Jazeera English, and others. www.benwhite.org.uk


Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Jan 18 2016

Modern slavery – but let us remember the trafficked

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By Julia Muraszkiewicz*

This piece is published as a response to the LSE Human Rights Blog September/October 2015 series on Modern Slavery, and points out some potential complications associated with the widespread use of the term ‘Modern Slavery’. 

In March 2015 the UK Modern Slavery Act received Royal Assent and became law. In the wake of the Act, efforts to combat trafficking have been renamed as measures fighting ‘modern slavery’ (see for example the government’s Modern Slavery Strategy, the Modern Slavery Campaign). Nowhere in the Act, however, is the term ‘modern slavery’ defined or explained. Using such a broad yet undefined phrase risks conflating diverse practices of exploitation with the far narrower concept of chattel slavery in the public imagination, and poses risks to the correct identification of trafficked persons.

What is ‘modern slavery’? Slavery is defined by the League of Nations 1926 Slavery Convention as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’. It does not readily include the broader definition of human trafficking, defined by an EU Directive as:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of persons, including the exchange or transfer of control over those persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Perhaps ‘modern slavery’ has become an all-purpose hybrid classification into which all forms of personal exploitation fall? The law likes certainty, clarity and precision. The term ‘modern slavery’ is none of these things.

Why might the law use ‘modern slavery’ to refer to practices like human trafficking? As suggested by Orlando Patterson, the scholar of slavery writing in the 1980s, ‘there is nothing notably peculiar about the institution of slavery. It has existed from before the dawn of human history right down to the twentieth century, in most primitive of human societies and in the most civilized’. The nature of exploitation has changed from that of transatlantic chattel slavery. Yet it is unclear whether slavery has changed its legal meaning. The 1926 definition has not been revised and is still used in the courts. The core prerequisite of slavery – the exercise of “any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership” – remains. When the 1926 definition is used today it indicates that slavery is still imagined in the absolute terms of chattel slavery.

However the characteristics of chattel slavery do not always reflect the experiences of trafficked people, who may be exploited for different purposes and in different degrees through a myriad of coercions. We thus have to ask: If we bring human trafficking under the umbrella of ‘modern slavery’, what happens to the trafficked person whose experience does not resemble chattel slavery?

Consider this case: a woman from Country X travels to country Y under the pretense that she will receive a large sum of money for his kidney, but on completion of the operation she is not rewarded and is forced to return to his country. In this example there are no attributes that would normally be attached to the right of legal ownership as required by the 1926 definition of slavery. Nevertheless, the woman from Country X was recruited, transported, and physically exploited. She was not enslaved, but she was trafficked.

What are the consequences of the widespread use of the term ‘modern slavery’? Will survivors of human trafficking, forced marriage, debt bondage and other forms of personal exploitation fall through the cracks because their experiences are not associated with traditional images of chattel slavery?

It is crucial for politicians and law enforcement agencies, as well as the public at large, to recognise the difference between key terminologies. Human trafficking may amount to slavery in some instances, but does not always. The title of the Modern Slavery Act risks enforcing stereotyped experiences and suggests a hierarchy of urgency in aiding victims along the lines of traditional conceptions of slavery.

This discussion is timely. We must understand the terminology we use as it makes its way from law and policy to everyday conversation. We need to be aware of what type of abuse we are referring to in order to fight it.

*Julia Muraszkiewicz is a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Brussels and researcher on the EU funded TRACE project. She can be reached at julia.muraszkiewicz@vub.ac.be

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Jan 15 2016

Dialling democracy: mobile phones and political participation in Ghana

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Following the extraordinary rise of mobile phone use in Ghana over the last decade, LSE alumnus Andrew Small* examines its potential impact on democracy in the West African country. 

In November 2012, weeks before their country’s general election, Ghanaians began to receive text messages from a familiar, but unexpected name.

“My Dear Friend”, one read. “[Our] Govt has distributed over 3 million school uniforms and 40 million exercise books to needy pupils in Ghana.”

The bulk campaign messages were signed off by John Mahama, incumbent President of Ghana, whose party went on to win the election by a slim margin. And they were far from an anomaly. During Ghana’s 2012 election campaign politicians, media outlets, election observers, non-governmental organisations and fundraisers all hopped on the mobile bandwagon, using the technology in their own way, to meet their own ends. Was this Africa’s “mobile revolution” in action, or simply a continuation of established power structures, aided by new tools?

A polling station near Bolgatanga in Northern Ghana Credit: Elleen Delhl via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1jYdGt2) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A polling station near Bolgatanga in Northern Ghana Credit: Elleen Delhl via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1jYdGt2) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

To place these questions in context, consider the extraordinary rise in mobile phone use Ghana has seen over the past decade. 83 per cent of adults in Ghana now own a mobile phone, up from 8 per cent in 2002, and many people own more than one device. In the words of one Accra-based app developer, “almost everyone [in Ghana] has a mobile device. Even your grandmother sitting in a rural village.” On the back of this surge in mobile phone use, a network of nine “innovation hubs” has sprung up across Ghana, where local developers produce mobile applications with diverse, sometimes overlapping aims: be they political, humanitarian or commercial.

Dialling democracy

Academics have made some lofty claims about the potential for mobile phones to jump-start democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, whose research focuses on mobile phones and governance in Ghana, asserts that “mobile phones… are a powerful tool… they can actually force politicians to take responsibility for their actions.” In a similarly enthusiastic vein, Johan Hellström wrote in 2012 that “during the past ten years we have witnessed how mobile phones and the simple functions of voice and text messaging can empower citizens and affect the way citizens interact with each other and with society as a whole.”

There is some data from Ghana to back up these claims. On the day of the 2012 election, a coalition of 4,000 independent election observers equipped with basic mobile phones reduced fraud at the stations where they were deployed by about 60 per cent. Their method was simple: throughout the day, each observer sent coded SMS messages about voter conduct and vote tallies to an “observation centre” in the capital, which used the data to cross-check official vote counts. Another initiative, the African Elections Project, allowed individuals to report cases of electoral violence via SMS, then plotted the incidents on an map on their website.

It is not only on election day that mobile phones have had an impact on political and democratic participation in Ghana. Two popular radio shows in Accra – Joy FM’s ‘Feedback’ and Peace FM’s ‘Wo haw ne sen’ – enable citizens to share their grievances or opinions on the air via text message or phone call. A 2012 study found that these shows are successful in resolving listener complaints in up to 60 per cent of cases. One civil society representative, citing the example of radio call-in shows, believes that “freedom of speech in Ghana is now at a different level because of mobile phones.” Another initiative that aims to connect citizens to decision makers through their phones is the SurveyLink tool, developed by Kumasi-based VOTO Mobile, which offers governance surveys in four languages. VOTO Mobile then collates the results and channels them to news media and decision makers. While this tool has strong potential to give a voice to rural populations, its operation is limited by dependence on donor funds.

These successful projects have one thing in common: they are all tailored to Ghanaian styles of communication and creatively negotiate limitations in infrastructure and access. As Claudia Abreu Lopes and Sharath Srinivasan have observed, such tools “build on local knowledge and habits and allow users to progressively shape and master innovation, rather than be forced into new programmes from above.” This trend towards local mobile innovation is immensely significant, as it subverts the traditional ‘communication for development’ dynamic, which viewed technology as a foreign, modernising force to be introduced into African settings.

Traversing the last mile

For every mobile app with a positive impact on democracy in Ghana there are, inevitably, a number of well-intentioned flops. Often these failures result from a mismatch with local habits and circumstances. One example is a tool developed by the UNDP and the Electoral Commission of Ghana ahead of the 2012 election, which allowed citizens to verify their voter registration details by SMS. This was a good idea in theory, but the tool attracted criticism for failing to accommodate the 50 per cent of Ghanaians who use their phones for voice calls only. The 30 pesewa cost of sending a message to the service – a 1,500 per cent hike from regular SMS rates – also deterred people from participating. Many other mobile apps with the aim of expanding democratic participation have struggled to gain traction due to a reliance on data access, when only 14 per cent of Ghanaian adults presently own a smartphone.

In international development parlance, the “last mile challenge” refers to the barriers faced by isolated communities in accessing essential social goods and products. Mobile phones have the potential to traverse this last mile in Ghana, extending meaningful political participation to all, however significant limitations remain. On a functional level, Ghana’s unreliable electricity infrastructure presents a major stumbling block, with 12 and 24-hour power cuts commonplace. Another crucial limitation is that most mobile phone initiatives with a civic goal rely exclusively on donor funds. Without self-sustainability, the existence of such projects is therefore contingent on international economic cycles and the whims of foreign benefactors.

A final concern expressed by political observers about the spread of mobile phones in Africa is the “double potential” for them to empower both citizens and the state. As Sokari Ekine has noted “there is no doubt that mobile and internet technology is democratising social change in communities across Africa… We must, however, also recognise that technology has the capacity to concentrate power and therefore could be used to reinforce existing power relations.” In Ghana, this potential is manifest in the Government’s stringent regulations on mobile phone licensing, interconnectivity, quality of service and spectrum allocation. These rules serve to entrench the Government’s own position of power, in the process inhibiting the democratising capacity of mobile phones.

To revisit the question at the start of this piece, has the spread of mobile phones in Ghana radically reshaped the distribution of political power in the country – or simply reinforced the existing relationship between citizen and state? The answer, as you might expect, currently lies somewhere in the middle, however there is every reason to expect that as mobile phone uptake continues to rise in Ghana, the number of tools and apps aiming to hold the Government to account will multiply. If these tools build on local knowledge and habits in a bottom-up fashion, we may soon witness a genuine “mobile revolution” in the country, with networked governance structures replacing the unaccountable hierarchies of old.

*Andrew Small is a graduate of the MSc Human Rights programme at LSE (2014-15) and has worked on human rights and governance projects in Ghana, Australia and the United Kingdom. Andrew is currently based in London. You can find him on Twitter at @_ansmall.

Note: This post originally appeared on the LSE Africa Blog. It is reposted with permission.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Jan 11 2016

A First Timer’s Perspective on the 4th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

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By Freya Dinshaw*

The prospect of flying for forty-eight hours to attend a thirty-six hour conference had always made attendance at a UN Forum seem fanciful for a lawyer tucked away in one of Australia’s southern-most cities. This year, I was exceptionally excited to take advantage of my new geographic location and jet-set to Geneva for the Fourth Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.

The 4th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. Photo credit: F. Dinshaw.

The 4th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. Photo credit: F. Dinshaw.

Corporate activity can affect the entire suite of human rights, across sectors and regions. The growth of multinational corporations in global reach and influence over the past twenty years, in many cases rivalling that of states, has consequently led to calls for greater corporate accountability. ‘Business and Human Rights’ (BHR) is an inter-disciplinary project which seeks to unpack issues around the state duty to protect human rights, corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the right to remedy for victims of corporate human rights violations. These issues stem from Professor Ruggie’s ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, which remains the foundational document for addressing BHR issues.

I had long pondered what this UN forum might involve. From the summary reports and materials available for previous forums, it appeared that the three-day event would cover almost every aspect of the BHR agenda, showcasing the hours spent by academics, activists, and companies in working on different aspects of ensuring global corporate accountability for human rights violations.

I ogled at the attendance statistics: 2,400 people from 130 countries, over sixty events and hundreds of presentations. I anxiously pored over newspapers in the lead-up to see what the topical subjects might be. BHP’s Samarco disaster? FIFA’s labour rights issues in Brazil and Qatar? Technology and freedom of speech in a post-terror world? I read blogs and highlighted my itinerary on the program. I checked in with others to see what sessions they were attending, so that we could gain greatest coverage of developments in the field.

Did the forum live up to my expectations? Here is my debrief, from the perspective of a first-time attendee:

  1. Much ado about something

There was plenty of buzz, but it was hard to tell where it was being directed. Tuesday’s four-hour plenary session delivered a sense that the hundreds of attendees were committed to ensuring greater corporate respect for human rights.

However, while I could not help but be moved by the solidarity shown by so many people gathered in the one room, the mood seemed pragmatic rather than transformational. This was perhaps due to the chosen theme being ‘Tracking Progress and Ensuring Coherence’ – an important topic, but also one that lends itself more to processes, reporting and corporate governance than potentially more pressing issues, such as root causes of human rights violations or innovative conversations around remedy.

UN Headquarters in Geneva. Photo credit: F. DInshaw.

UN Headquarters in Geneva. Photo credit: F. Dinshaw.

The panel discussions were expertly moderated, and featured government officials, business representatives, civil society, and human rights defenders. Topics of discussion included reflections on the UN Guiding Principles four years on, how businesses and governments can support each other, the merits of foreign investment for indigenous communities, the personal risks of exposing violations, various industry-specific insights, and a lament about the lack of progress on developing access to remedy for victims of corporate human rights abuses.

Upon opening the conversation to the audience, inputs ranged from governments expressing their commitment to human rights, to participants inquiring about the ethics of driverless cars, tax evasion, navigating LGBTI rights in certain jurisdictions, and the plight of indigenous populations. There was passion and pragmatism, blunt truths and glosses, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the purpose of it all was. It seemed like this important meeting of the minds meant completely different things to completely different people, but that it meant something to everyone.

  1. Fierce resistance

Some months ago, I read an excellent blog post by Surya Deva titled ‘Regulatory Initiatives on Business and Human Rights: Where are the Victims?’ in which he criticises the disproportionate influence between company and state interests in BHR decisions and suggests that victims’ voices should be key. In similar vein, at the Forum one could sense the frustration of those who either represented victims of corporate human rights violations, or who had suffered from corporate or state abuse. While seldom on the panels, there were frequent interjections in the audience discussion stating that indigenous rights are not upheld by companies and governments, including the gross violations that are suffered, particularly by women, and that the voices of the indigenous and of the workers, in particular, were simply not being heard.

I saw these interjections as formal resistance, challenging the power dynamics and ensuring awareness of the fact that some narratives were missing. This resistance almost seemed to treat the Forum as a remedy in itself, a place to build a historical record and acknowledge harms suffered. However, the Forum dealt with so many wide-ranging and important issues that it was simply ill-equipped to provide any sense of restorative justice. In that sense, the resistance highlighted the need for more solutions and places for greater engagement with the most important stakeholders of the BHR project.

  1. Catharsis

For me, there were three cathartic moments amid the hustle and bustle of the Forum.

First, a session on business relationships unpacked some of the nuts and bolts of corporate respect for human rights, where a number of business participants engaged on common challenges and methods for conducting their due diligence, managing expectations with supply chains, and understanding when to engage with business partners in order to improve their human rights observance versus when to terminate a business relationship that is likely to result in abuse. It was a welcome relief from the cross-conceptual rhetoric of previous sessions, and by the end there was a sense of what best practice corporate respect for human rights might look like.

Second, during lunchtime on the last day, I opted for what I thought would be a relaxing option – a film viewing. It was incredible. The film, Food Chains, depicted the treatment of migrant workers in U.S. farms and the activism that led to a revolution in improving labour standards. A discussion panel followed, featuring one of the activists who starred in the film, a representative from the enforcement arm of the U.S. Labour Department and a company representative that had supported the ‘Fair Food Program’ highlighted in the film. Overall, the session was powerful, providing an insight into to all stakeholders in a BHR dispute while demonstrating the possibility of political solutions.

Lastly, I attended an engaging session on human rights due diligence. During this, I discovered that I had sat next to a woman from a small island nation that was being exploited for its minerals, to the detriment of the environment and future generations. Due to the economic incentives of hosting foreign investment, the government had given up placing regulations and conditions on the investment in favour of the cash injection it would receive. There were therefore no domestic avenues available to challenge the project, and the future was looking bleak. Yet the woman was optimistic. “Thank god for international law!” she said. I smiled back nervously, unsure of what to say.

Freya Dinshaw at the 4th Annual Forum on Business and Human RIghts. Photo credit: F. Dinshaw.

Freya Dinshaw at the 4th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. Photo credit: F. Dinshaw.

After listening to lawyerly arguments over extraterritoriality, corporate processes for human rights compliance, and the outcries against violations in various pockets of the world, this was the conversation that has stuck with me the most. It penetrated through the millions of sentiments that had been expressed during those sessions, and reminded me why business and human rights matters.

The forum wasn’t what I had expected– it was far more chaotic, divergent, and intellectually draining than I could have imagined. Yet, in attending, I felt part of a global community committed to improving respect for human rights that would remain unseen without the forum. If business and human rights matters, then so too does the forum.


*Freya Dinshaw is an Australian solicitor and a recent LLM graduate from the London School of Economics. She has been working on the business and human rights project at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Dec 16 2015

The Bitter Aftertaste of Sugar

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By Srishti Agnihotri*

Sugar is a commodity in high demand all over the world, and sweets are often associated with good tidings and celebration. In the production of this much-coveted substance, however, there are a great deal of labor violations taking place. Sugar production historically has had well-documented links to slavery. According to Prof. Ben Richardson of the University of Warwick, many of the management practices employed by this industry now hark back to the time of slavery. These include the use of migrant or bonded labor, and paying a piece rate (that is, paying the worker in terms of quantity of output produced) instead of a daily wage. Similar conditions prevail in plantations across Central and South America, especially Nicaragua, Brazil, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.

This has a deleterious effect on the health and well-being of the workers, who are at times literally working themselves to death; kidney disease, known (among its many names) as the ‘malady of the sugar cane’, has been killing workers in Central America. Though its causes have not been pinned down, there is a strong correlation between the working conditions on these sugar plantations and this mysterious illness. A recent study conducted at Boston University finds that given the decline in kidney function during harvest and the differences in terms of job category and employment duration, the risk factor of CKD (chronic kidney disease) is occupational.

But this is only one of the problems facing sugar workers in this part of the world. The boom of the bio-fuel industry (sugarcane being a chief commodity in this industry) has resulted in Brazil becoming a reference for how to cut carbon emissions and oil imports simultaneously. However, these accolades rest on the shoulders of migrant and destitute laborers. This workforce is constituted of men who are fleeing poverty, and have migrated from the impoverished northeast. In 2007, when the conditions of these ‘ethanol slaves’ gained international attention, they were paid 400 reias (100 pounds) a month for the backbreaking work they did, which often included twelve-hour shifts. The nation is still grappling with forced labor conditions in rural areas, including on sugar plantations, and has been reported to be using drones to tackle this issue.

It is important to note that this problem is not restricted to Latin America. Parallels are seen in Marathwada, an important sugar producing part of India. Here, migrant workers live in temporary hutments, without doors, electricity or running water. Even though the migration of workers during the harvest season is an annual phenomenon, the state does little to provide them with the basic infrastructure that they require to live with dignity. There is also a component of caste and social exclusion at play here. Supervisors on the plantations in Marathwada generally belong to upper castes while the workers belong to so-called lower caste communities such as Dalit, Banjara and Pardhi. Facing the double discrimination of caste and poverty (sometimes coupled with migrant status), the workers in sugar plantations in Marathwada are open to considerable exploitation, with some of them narrating incidents of severe beatings, being underpaid and overworked.

How can this state of affairs change? Well, unionization is one obvious step. The South African sugar industry bears the distinction of being unionized, and has been described as about “as ‘ethical’ as sugar gets’’. This springs from the fact that there has been a strong labor movement in South Africa, many of whose icons (Jay Naidoo and Chris Dlamini) began their work in the sugar industry. However, even in South Africa, this unionization exists only on the milling side and not on the agricultural side. This leaves the agricultural workers open to exploitation. A similar pattern can be seen in Marathwada, India, where it is the mill workers who are unionized and not the plantation workers. This means that the plantation workers bear the brunt of the mill owners’ desire to keep the production costs down and profit margins high. This lack of unionization can be explained by the fact that agricultural workers are generally very hard to organize. This is because in Indian agriculture is still characterized by small and fragmented land holdings, and a large number of migrant/landless laborers who only receive irregular employment. None of these factors are conducive to the formation of unions. Adding to this is that a large number of the agricultural labor belongs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and the asymmetrical power equations make organizing labor more difficult. But given the differences in the benefits that the mill workers and agricultural laborers enjoy, unionization may be a pivotal step towards stemming the exploitation of sugar plantation workers.

Another solution to combating exploitative working conditions could be the use of technology. As mentioned earlier, Brazil has tried as interesting experiment, where they use drones to monitor slave labor like conditions in rural areas. This is being hailed as an improved means of monitoring areas that are remote, and can supplement the physical inspection by labor inspectors. However, not everyone sees the use of drones for monitoring as a good thing. When Kevin Bales (a prominent anti-slavery activist) announced such a measure in 2013 in the Indian context, several other prominent activists decried it as a ‘publicity stunt’. According to those criticizing this move, the real need in India was for government departments and law enforcement bodies to act together with civil society groups to end the slave-like labor conditions. Of course, drones are often seen in a negative light at present, since unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are currently used for spying and to carry out airstrikes, among other uses. Thus, it is natural to assume that NGOs, particularly foreign-funded NGOs using drones to document slave labor practices, can alarm the government. However, this does not mean that the idea needs to be discarded entirely.

At this juncture, it may be useful to look at the body of international law protecting these workers. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights promises workers a safe and healthy working environment, as well as adequate rest and reasonable working hours. The right to freedom of association and collective bargaining are also ensured by ILO Conventions No 87 and No 98. Both these fundamental Conventions have been ratified by more than 150 countries, yet India has ratified neither. Further, the workers in sugar plantations across the world are also afforded protection by the Plantations Convention of 1958, which provides that the workers on plantations have a right to organize, have freedom of association, and that female workers have the right to maternity leave. It also provides for workers compensation in the case of an injury and obliges the state to inform the worker of the minimum wages in force in that country. These obligations are binding on countries that have ratified the convention; India, however, has not ratified this convention, though it enjoys twelve ratifications from countries like Nicaragua and Ecuador. The Labor Inspection (Agriculture) Convention of 1969 may also be a useful tool for ensuring that labor inspections occur, yet neither Brazil or India have ratified this. Thus we see that international law has certain limitations that cause it to have a very circuitous impact on the politics of sugar.

Exploitative labor conditions in sugar plantations worldwide are a cause for concern. While our insatiable need for sugar is not going to be quenched any time soon, we must become more aware, as consumers, of the politics behind an item we cherish. Consumer awareness and calling for strong governmental action can go a long way in changing the nature of the sugar industry. In this context we cannot discount the role of new technologies and supply chain management styles, as well as tried and tested organisation methods like unionization. However, a lot of the problems plaguing the sugar industry originate from the society in which they exist. These include caste systems, unequal power structures, the impoverishment of migrants and repressive conditions of workers not conducive to unionization. To bring about any kind of lasting change, these problems have to be tackled both inside and outside our sugar-bowls.

*The author is a practicing lawyer from India, and completed her LLM (Summa cum laude) in International Human Rights from the University of Notre Dame, USA. She can be reached at @Srishti_Agni.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 24 2015

Beyond the Straight Path: Obstacles and Progress for Atheism in Turkey

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By Maria Inês Teixeira*

Having long inspired Middle Eastern countries attempting to pursue a secular government while maintaining Islam as a reference, Turkey is often described as a bridge between civilizations; a functional blend of East and West, preserving the best of both worlds. However, a closer look will reveal a contemporary struggle for women’s rights, freedom of speech and freedom of belief – or, more specifically in the case of belief, the freedom to express a lack thereof. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, representing the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power since 2002, has been internationally criticized for allegedly attempting to build a Neo-Ottoman Era, in which international human rights standards would suffer in favor of Islamic principles. However, despite President Erdoğan’s pledge in 2002 to raise generations of devout Muslims, academic author Volkan Ertit claims Turks are walking away from religion: “The prohibition of selling alcoholic beverages on high-speed trains in Turkey, the desire to ban extramarital sex, the discussion of boys and girls living under the same roof, the statements that the Justice and Development Party is raising a ‘pious generation’…all these are about the relation between the state and religion. But I am talking about the relation between religion and society. Society is not becoming more pious, the political arena is. The two are separate things.” One thus realizes government policy and social behavior are not necessarily interchangeable. In Turkey, they often collide.

Aydın Türk, author of Ateizmi Anlamak (Understanding Atheism) and the blog Turkish Atheist, explains the often negative connotation associated with the concept of atheism: “For a typical Muslim, the claim that someone does not believe in ‘Allah’ is so unbelievable that they always look for a catch. This person has to be either dishonest (a missionary who hides their true purpose), or mentally disabled, or psychologically unbalanced. The belief is that there is no way someone with a working brain would not believe in God. This has been the official view in Turkey, and possibly in the whole Islamic world when it comes to atheism”.

However, the struggle for atheist rights in Turkey is more than cultural – it is legal. The Turkish Association of Atheism, the first legal atheist organization in the Middle East and the Balkans founded in 2014, explicitly attempts to review details of the Turkish Penal Code and understand how it justifies punishment against atheists. Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code, for instance, is frequently used in court against atheists, under the accusation of inciting the population to enmity or hatred: “Anyone who openly denigrates the religious values of a part of the population shall be sentenced to imprisonment from six months to one year.” However, when confronted with the list of lawsuits against atheism in Turkey published by the Turkish Association of Atheism, one realizes that “insulting Islam” is a rather broad accusation, including retweeting atheist poetry on Twitter, translating atheist texts to Turkish, or posting videos about evolutionism. The very website of Richard Dawkins, the iconic British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and writer, was shut down between 2008 and 2011. Furthermore, the website of the Turkish Association of Atheism was also shut down on 4 March 2015 – less than a year after its creation – with article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code justifying this move.

Such events directly violate the eighteenth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” [emphasis added]. Apostasy has long been perceived a crime in the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, being an atheist is officially considered a terrorist offense. In Egypt, abandoning faith is perceived as an unforgivable decision: in 2013, 88% of the population believed the death penalty was a just consequence for those who had decided to turn their backs on Islam. Pakistan presented similar statistics, with 60% of the population agreeing with the punishment. Rarely does contemporary law in Islamic countries recognize atheism per se as a crime: imprisonment and the death penalty are reserved for those who commit terrorism-related offenses. Considering previous observations regarding the cultural prejudice against atheism and the negative connotation it still suffers, one can understand how easily the atheist cause can be misunderstood or manipulated to signify terrorism, fear and the dissemination of an anti-Islam mindset. However, and as much as the Holy Qur’an clearly supports this perspective, atheism is far from signifying hatred for God. According to Sener Atik of the Turkish Association of Atheism in Istanbul, “Things we say are considered ‘insults,’ though in a secular state everyone should be free to believe whatever they want. Despite this, a journalist in a mainstream newspaper can explicitly write: “It’s the duty of every Muslim to be cruel to atheists.” But we do not have a problem with anyone’s faith, nor are we adversaries of religions. We are only trying to inform.”

However, not representing the most conservative of Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is an ideal environment to explore atheist rights in the Islamic world. A constitutionally secular nation, it currently faces an increasingly strained relationship between Islamic law and the promise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, revolutionary and the president of the first secular Turkish republic in 1923. Additionally, the threat of a presidential system in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would seize more power than the current constitution allows is imminent: “Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution,” the President claimed in August 2015. This shift could imply bad news for atheists, in a country where journalists are being increasingly harassed and the index of internet freedom is lower than that of Nigeria.

However, atheism in Turkey is not stagnant. The common perception that Turkey is composed of a 99% Muslim population is condemned by the Turkish Association of Atheism as a cliché: “Although it violates Articles 14 and 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the religion of children in Turkey is stated both on state identification cards and birth certificates issued in Turkey. (…) As we know, religion is not transferred via DNA or genetics. Therefore, such assumptions should not be made by the state or the family of a child. (…) The revelation of religious affiliation or lack thereof automatically creates bias and prejudice for individuals who do not affiliate themselves with the majority belief system, in this case Sunni Islam.” The Association provides further suggestions for reformation, such as creating a more pronounced separation between mandatory education and religious courses, eschewing the practice of forcing minors to participate in religious rites and rituals in public boarding homes, and drafting new laws protecting the rights of religious minorities and atheists and punishing discrimination against them.

The need for these initiatives illustrates that the detainment of and discrimination against atheists and religious minorities is a reality in present-day Turkey. The Association of Atheism, atheist authors such as Aydın Türk and Twitter activists expressing their detachment from Islamic teachings may be the architects of a new destination beyond the straight path.

*Maria Inês Teixeira holds a Master of Management and Cultural Studies from ISCTE Lisbon University Institute. She is an independent researcher and currently a recruiter for Amnesty International Portugal.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 19 2015

Provocative, honest, fierce: A review of Ai Weiwei’s London exhibition

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By Kim Nelson*

Ai Weiwei’s art situates itself within the cold reality of human rights in China. The very material used within his work is suggestive of the authorities’ hold upon the political and economic freedom of its citizens. In his recent exhibition at the Royal Academy – the largest showing of his work in the UK – important issues have been raised relating to governance, human rights, and freedom of expression within his country.

Weiwei’s art is derived from his own experience of China’s political and cultural history. His father, Ai Qing (1910 – 1996) was a poet sent into exile during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, a time when the arts became the practice of a hidden and oppressed minority. Living within a ‘Democratic’ movement of artists from an early age, Weiwei became an important figure in preserving freedom of expression in China.

In the exhibition, Ai Weiwei presents a diverse collection of his work dating back to the early 1990s. His approach combines traditional practices in Chinese craftsmanship, alongside his own minimalist influences. Ai Weiwei is open to a variety of emerging mediums. As both an artist and activist he has embraced multimedia and has gained a vast and loyal following on Twitter and Instagram (most recently, thousands of people offered to contribute LEGO for a upcoming exhibition in Melbourne, Australia). This is particularly significant in the face of China’s crackdowns on social media in 2009.

Though perhaps speaking from a West-centric perspective here, it seems the most emotive sculptures within the exhibition were those that spoke of real, and often deeply personal situations within the artist’s home country. For instance, one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, Straight (2008-2012), tells a story of the artist’s response to a specific human rights issue in China. The sculpture is comprised of over 90 tonnes of straightened steel rebar – an otherwise simple building material – stretching across the floor, as one coherent and undulating form. Yet beyond its aesthetic quality, the story of this artwork becomes clear. This sculpture stands as a political monument.

'Straight', by Ai Weiwei.

‘Straight’, by Ai Weiwei. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

The salvaged rebar that formed this sculpture were found in the rubble of the 2008 Earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, which left over 80,000 people dead. In the face of such complete desolation, Ai Weiwei felt compelled to expose the corrupt, incompetent and clandestine nature of the Chinese authorities in response to such a humanitarian catastrophe. One significant criticism launched at the government was the substandard foundations of the school buildings, which could have partly been to blame for the deaths of 5000 school children. Responding to the refusal of the authorities to release any information, Ai Weiwei pursued his own citizens investigation to record and commemorate the deaths of the children who perished in the earthquake. This had a profound effect upon the artist. In a recent interview, he recalls visiting the site and “physically shaking” with the knowledge that there were “so many students under those stones”. In the same exhibition room, a symbol of memorialisation spanned the walls; the name, age and school of each child were documented. Both pieces, displayed together in the same room, had an unsettling effect: the thousands of names on the wall surrounding the steel rebar sculpture indicated the overwhelming scale of the earthquake.

More broadly, Weiwei’s art is both “fearless and uncompromising” in speaking out against the Chinese government. However, in doing so, Ai Weiwei has been subjected to continuous and intrusive surveillance of his daily life. The theme of surveillance is something that the artist also explores in his work. Walking into the seventh room of the exhibition, you can see the sculpture, Marble Stroller (2014), a solid marble replica of his son’s pushchair. The sculpture is as absurd, as it is pointless. Yet, in its own right, is something worth celebrating. While in one sense completely redundant, Marble Stroller remains an object of exquisite beauty and profound implication. In fact, the artist designed this piece after discovering that undercover police were photographing him and his son during visits to the local park. Despite surveillance cameras watching him and his studio twenty-four hours a day, Weiwei’s art expresses both humour and defiance against China’s panoptic power.

The fragility of human rights in China has a significant lineage. Even in the last few years, the number of government crackdowns on dissonant areas of civil society is notable, with lawyersbloggers, and journalists facing arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have spoken of the significant risk of “police monitoring, detention, arrest, enforced disappearance, and torture” that many activists face.

In 2011, Weiwei was arrested and held in a detention facility for a total of eighty-one days. His piece S.A.C.R.E.D (2012) is a reference to this experience. The sculpture appears as six shoulder-height iron boxes – a product of the artist’s minimalist influence – sitting starkly within the grandeur of the exhibition hall. As a viewer, you are able to look into the box through small apertures that reveal model replicas of the artist’s time in prison. Although the replications are derived from the artist’s own memory, each diorama remains meticulously detailed. As you gaze upon the uncomfortable scenes of Ai Weiwei showering, defecating and eating, you can notice the disturbing presence of two soldiers looming over him, watching and recording every move. The interactive element of this piece is in itself intrusive. The voyeuristic nature of the sculpture reinforces the theme of surveillance that is present throughout his practice.

'S.A.C.R.E.D'. Two Chinese Prison Guards watch Weiwei continuously as he goes about his daily routine. Creative Commons.

‘S.A.C.R.E.D’. Two Chinese Prison Guards watch Weiwei continuously as he goes about his daily routine. Creative Commons.

In Ai Weiwei’s work, the relationship between art and politics becomes intrinsic. As the artist says: “if we have to examine my art or my politics, I think the two are inseparable”. Of further interest has been the reaction that his work has generated in the UK. The claim by the UK’s Chinese Ambassador that the success of Weiwei in Europe and America is the sole product of his political defiance to China, suggests that the voice of the Chinese state continues to discredit the artist’s own political and professional integrity. However, this claim by the Ambassador remains an obtuse insight into how Western audiences perceive the apparent universality of human rights. Although the focus on China is unsurprising, Ai Weiwei’s art and politics speaks more broadly of the values that all nation-states should adhere to. But this is all more challenging after the recent visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to the UK, who was given a royal welcome by David Cameron with the hope of striking important bilateral trade deals. Ai Weiwei openly criticised the UK government’s willingness to “sacrifice very essential values for this short-sighted gain in business”.

In many ways, Ai Weiwei is a voice for people who continue to fight for human rights within their countries. His work stands as an important reminder of the fragility of these values in the face of such uninhibited and coercive state power.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy in London continues until 13 December 2015.

*Kim Nelson is a MSc Human Rights student at LSE, and an editor of the LSE Human Rights blog. 

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 16 2015

‘In conversation with Amartya Sen’ at the LSE

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Amartya Sen. LSE Archives.

Professor Amartya Sen. LSE Archives.

By Leila Nasr*

Engaging, composed, and timeless: these are the words that come to mind when reflecting on Professor Amartya Sen’s most recent public lecture at the LSE on 6 November 2015. Well publicised and highly oversubscribed, the talk – chaired by Professor Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE – attracted a range of students, professionals, academics, and media personnel who came together to get a glimpse of one of the world’s most prominent development thinkers.

Born in 1933, Professor Sen is an economist, philosopher and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics whose career has been dedicated to the examination of pressing issues, including the economics of welfare and justice, social choice theory, rationality and collective choice, economic freedom, and more. He is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, and has previously held positions at Jadavpur University Calcutta, the Delhi School of Economics, Oxford University and, of course, the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he remains an honorary fellow. Accordingly, he concedes almost humorously that he has never held a serious non-academic job in his lifetime. As his words begin to flow through the auditorium, one gets the feeling that he wouldn’t rather have it any other way.

The topic of the event was Professor Sen’s newest publication, The Country of First Boys: a collection of essays in which he discusses some of the most fundamental issues facing India, and the world, today, including illiteracy, hunger, freedom of speech, inequality and exclusion. The conversation took shape around four key themes that Professor Stern drew out from his most recent book as well as his life’s writings.

The first of these themes was the notion of multiple identities – i.e. the notion that an individual is made up of various characteristics and components that work in unison to create the whole being. Cautioning against those who may selectively emphasise an individual’s or people group’s particular characteristics over others for their personal or political gain, Professor Sen said that we should remain aware of the ‘politics of partition’, which serves to divide and alienate minorities (citing the examples of refugees and Islamophobia). In light of this, he went on to stress the importance of a better understanding of the multiplicity of identities, so as to foster improved social cohesion and inclusivity in the long term.

Following on from this, the discussion focused on Professor Stern’s next question: what should drive and guide us when thinking about development policy? In response, Sen remarked that policy makers should remember that inequality is relative. Specifically, he noted that income inequality is less systemically problematic than the education and freedom inequality that often underpin this. Professor Sen went on to explain that inequality and deprivation are not universally understood but, rather, these concepts are contextually dependent (e.g. poverty in Canada, for example, is not understood or manifest in the same way as poverty in India), and should be dealt with accordingly.

Moving on to a question about the role of growth and human development in making policy, Sen replied: “The distinction that is presently being made between growth and human development is a ‘fake horse race’.” Here, Professor Sen concisely articulated his view that investing in people is not only a story of economic growth, but is also an equally important story of individual and social progress. He went on to offer the example of Japan where, upon realising that they lagged behind the United States in terms of national development, invested considerable resources in education, healthcare, and market support throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, enabling them to arrive at a point whereby the country now produces more literature than anywhere else in the world. On a more personal note, Sen added that this changed his own thinking and engagement with predominant lines of economic thought, leading him to appreciate this notion of critical human development as economic freedom.

The conversation ended with a sharp yet warmly welcomed change of direction, turning to a reflection on Professor Sen’s personal life, provoked by a question concerning his early engagement in schooling, and the role that his father played in teaching him Sanskrit, as well as teaching him about the Bhagavad-Gita (one of the most foundational texts of Hinduism). Sen nostalgically remarked that this period of his upbringing allowed him to gain an important independent understanding of how to essentially determine ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for himself, external of any need to prove the existence or non-existence of a deity upon which to found one’s ethical behaviors (as is has been common throughout mankind in one way or another).

Following the one-on-one conversation with Professor Stern, the discussion was opened up to the crowd. Questions focused broadly on Indian nationalism and the changing tide of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as the most controversial topic in Europe at present, refugee policy. Professor Sen gave meaningful responses to each question, despite the limited amount of time, noting that to confront these crises head-on, there needs to be a fundamental recognition our global identity (this tied back into the first theme regarding multiple identities and their potential to comprise a force for good). Such recognition, he said, will better equip us to treat such people groups with respect and dignity.

While Professor Sen is not physically imposing, it is clear that he remains one of the foremost development thinkers in the business, offering the packed auditorium critical and ultimately practical reflections on identity and development, with a healthy dose of humour and personal insight.

The conversation was one not to be missed, however, if you were not able to be there in person, be sure to listen to the LSE podcast of the event.

*Leila Nasr is a MSc Human Rights student at the LSE, and is Lead Editor of the LSE Human Rights Blog.

Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr

Nov 12 2015

In Flanders Fields, where poppies wilt? A critical commentary.

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By Leila Nasr*

At this time each year, in predominantly Western countries, we are met with a sea of red poppies pinned on lapels and hung on key chains to mark the anniversary of World Armistice Day, which signalled the end of the First World War. A long-standing international tradition for many in the UK and a sentiment that is shared in Australia and New Zealand’s ‘ANZAC’ day as well as the United State’s’ ‘Memorial Day’, among others, the wearing of the poppy symbolises a solemn respect for the military personnel who lost their lives during WWI, and it has arguably been extended to include all service men and women who have died fighting more recent wars, to whom we are expected to award our highest respect.

It is deeply unfortunate, then, that this symbol has today been coopted to symbolise much, much more than our soldiers themselves likely bargained for. As will be outlined below, when we hold the fragile sentiment of remembrance up to the light today, it emerges as highly selective, politically strategic, and largely counter-intuitive when we push past the emotion-filled rhetoric and critically engage with its underpinnings.

Selective regret and the ‘moral hierarchy’

The service men and women whom this national day commemorates surely put their lives in harm’s way to fight off some of the most brutal global ills our world has witnessed, and I agree that the tragedy of their war-induced deaths should be remembered with solemnity. Indeed, this agreement is precisely why I refuse to commemorate Remembrance Day or wear a red poppy: because solemnity is certainly not the primary motivation behind the occasion today. With this in mind, my first contention with the concept seems somewhat obvious: why doesn’t this same regret extend to every loss of human life in war? Why must we be endlessly pressured at this time of year to patriotically exalt and extol those holding the guns, yet entirely ignore the civilians who stare down the dark barrel on the other side, or indeed the humanitarians who stitch up the wounds that war leaves behind? Instead, on November 11, we often unthinkingly emphasise an active avoidance of empathy toward those the state requires us to put to the back of our minds, in order for their next war to remain plausible.

This reality speaks to what Richard Jackson has aptly termed the “moral hierarchy” of war. This is the burgeoning notion tucked underneath the silky petals of the red poppy that some victims of war (i.e. the ones doing the killing) are more worthy of our admiration than others. This peculiar awarding of gratitude relative to political expediency undermines the very ideals of national unity and collective identity that headline our newspapers at this time. Beyond this, they serve to actively create a fraudulent collective memory, frequently employing powerful nationalist rhetoric which itself has provided some foundational justifications for the same wars we are said to be commemorating.

Another day at the office

It is this embedded nobility factor that is used so well by political elites when it comes time to justify the next war as they return to their offices after having dutifully laid their red wreath in the morning hours. This ‘political hijacking’ of Remembrance Day has even been expressed by a number of war veterans who disagree with the premise of the concept today. Examples include Harry Leslie Smith, who has openly spoken about the poppy as something politicians use to justify and promote wars today that, in his view, are eroding democracy. His view is shared by a number of other veterans who fought in the Falklands and Northern Ireland conflicts. To be sure, just moments after having mouthed the words “never to be repeated again”, our elites get back down to business, signing weapons deals with dictators, trade agreements with terrorists, and inviting those accused of being war criminals to indulge in a cup of tea on home soil.

Contradictory politics aside, the Royal British Legion – the major charity associated with the promotion of Remembrance Day and the red poppy appeal – is also not immune to such criticisms. The Legion has openly acknowledged that the idea behind the red poppy today is not as blemish-free as they perhaps intended it to be. According to their spokesperson, Robert Lee, these criticisms are “a fair cop”; however Lee went on to note that, despite this, the Legion is “not a warmongering organisation”. I therefore find it disconcerting and outrageously contradictory that some of the organisation’s most important financial sponsors include Lockheed Martin, the worlds biggest arms company, as well as BAE Systems, whose support for the Legion has been likened to “King Herod sponsoring a special day reserved to prevent child cruelty”.

Patriotism, shaming and critical thinking

Here I’d like to pause and stress that, despite my strong personal view on the subject, I believe – perhaps even more strongly – that people should be free to do exactly as they please; to wear a poppy or not, to attend a commemorative service or not, and to be free from the demonisation of that (hopefully informed) choice. Unfortunately, this is not the reality we see today, as the social pressure to wear a poppy seems to grow exponentially the further we get from WWI, with anyone who doesn’t wear one at risk of being labelled “insensitive” or “unpatriotic”.

This concept has been embodied in recent years by sportsman James McClean, who plays for West Bromwich Football Club. Born in Cregan, Northern Ireland, McClean has publicly drawn attention to the fact that, for him and many others with roots in Northern Ireland, the red poppy is a sign of disrespect to those who still live in the shadows of The Troubles and the Bloody Sunday Massacre.

This is not where the story ends. For consecutive years, McClean has been booed by British crowds during pre-game lineups for his refusal to don a poppy. Is it not exceedingly ironic that, with one breath, we praise the ‘freedom’ that the soldiers fought for, yet with the next we demonise the person who exercises that same notion of freedom by consciously neglecting to participate in the poppy-wearing tradition? With this in mind, it seems that Remembrance Day has become an exercise in nationalist self-indulgence to the exclusion of those who dare to hold a critical alternative view.

Another important example here is last year’s launch of the poppy-themed hijab, which, according to a 2014 Daily Mail headline, “British Muslims [are] urged to wear as [a] symbol of remembrance”, as if to prove that they’re ‘with us’. Implicit in cases similar to McClean’s, the poppy Hijab and other examples, is the idea that the act of associating oneself with the poppy has emerged as a test of loyalty linked to a bizarre definition of ‘Britishness’.

Commemoration, not degeneracy

As John Wight has asserted, today’s red poppy rhetoric is one that implicitly allows the important actions of otherwise good men and women to be “slaughtered on the altar of national prestige and degeneracy”, reducing them to mere “cannon fodder” for the purposes of the political elite. Real war is wretched, not glory-filled or noble. It is gruesome well before it is heroic in any and every sense of the word. By emerging as a symbol of national vanity that is increasingly associated with the commemoration of militarism and tactless patriotism, the red poppy is a symbol that has, in many ways, become representative of a cheapening of the repugnant truth of war, and has surely also cheapened the loss of life itself that we claim to be remembering.

Author’s note: this commentary is not intended to be a final word on the topic; rather, I hope the points contained herewith will contribute to the creation of an ‘enabling space’ for an honest public discussion that we have thus far largely been unable to have.

*Leila Nasr is a current MSc Human Rights student at the LSE. She has previously worked in the aid and development sector in the Middle East, and has a ‘particular interest’ in everything under the sun. Her dissertation should be a hoot.


Posted by: Posted on by Leila Nasr