Jan 19 2015

Alumni interview: Sam Grant

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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. Sam Grant studied for an MSc in Human Rights at the LSE part-time between 2012 and 2014. Interview by Kathryn McDonagh, current MSc Human Rights student.

Sam-Grant PICWhere do you work now?

I am the Campaigns and Programme Officer for René Cassin. We are a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values. For the last 15 years René Cassin has led the way on securing and protecting human rights for Jews and non-Jews alike. We have campaigned to save legal aid, mobilised the Jewish community to act on indefinite detention and raised awareness of genocide, run a government award-winning interfaith project to educate on the endemic racism faced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and lobbied MPs and Lords on a wide range of issues.

We achieve this by campaigning for change in defined human rights areas through a combination of advocacy, policy analysis, public campaigning and education and building the capacity of activists and lawyers to promote and protect human rights.

In my role, I’m primarily responsible for mobilising the UK Jewish community to engage with human rights issues in the UK. The job is very varied and a typical day can involve anything from meeting with a group of Rabbis to going to Westminster to lobby MPs.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

This job combines two of the most important parts of my identity, my Judaism and my interest in human rights. The job allows me to channel those commitments and energy into making positive change in the communities around me, primarily for those who have been shunned by the majority of society.

What other work experience do you have?

I worked full-time during my part-time masters for Liberal Judaism (a progressive denomination of Judaism in the UK) where I was a youth worker and community coordinator. More importantly, I ran the campaign to make that organisation the first synagogal movement in the UK to receive official accreditation as a Living Wage employer.

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

Firstly decide what you mean by a career in human rights. What is it that makes you angry and passionate? I would always centre on that. Decide whether you want to work on UK issues or international issues, whether you want to take a legal focus or move towards activism and advocacy. These things are not mutually exclusive of course, but human rights are broad and you need to know what in particular you are interested in. Once you do, pester people you think might be able to help you, be informed and be willing to work hard.

What was your favourite bit of the MSc program? Professor Francesca Klug. (I was also a big fan of Professor Chetan Bhatt’s festive jumpers.)

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

Obviously the multi-disciplinary nature is something that stands out. As is the way you are treated by the Professors and lecturers as an equal in an ongoing conversation.

What is your favourite human right?

We get into dangerous territory when we start ranking human rights but I’ve always been a fan of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Does that count? Monsieur René Cassin helped write it and it’s a general starting point for when I talk about the beautiful simplicity of human rights: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Are human rights universal in your view?

Yes, they constitute a socially constructed universal morality which the majority of the world has signed up to. I think the more important question is how we can use the framework of human rights to ensure a more just world for everybody.

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Jan 15 2015

Freedom of Expression and the UK Counter-Terrorism Bill

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Daniella Lock is an LLM student at University College London. She is a former intern of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law where she completed research on national security policy.

Paris, January 11th 2015 (Photograph: Copivolta/Flickr)

Many have spoken out in defence of freedom of expression in response to the recent attacks at Charlie Hebdo magazine. David Cameron stated that the shootings were “a challenge to the values of free speech, freedom of expression, democracy, tolerance that we believe in and the best way to stand up for these values is to repeat our belief in them”. Other members of the UK government have made similar statements affirming the need to protect freedom of expression from acts of terrorism. This position seems like the right one. However, the expressed position of the government does not sit well with the changes proposed by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. As has been recently highlighted by organisations such as Cage and reported in the Times Higher Education, these proposed changes could constitute a serious attack on freedom of expression that would affect universities and other public institutions nationwide.

The Bill has been sped through parliament. After being considered by the House of Lords in the second reading, it is now awaiting the committee stage due to take place on January 20th. Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of the changes on a number of human rights. Part 5 of the Bill in particular contains specific changes that may have implications for freedom of expression. Clause 21 would impose a general duty on all “specified authorities” to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. The specified authorities are outlined in Schedule 3 and include councils, universities, schools and providers of probation services. As the Telegraph recently noted, nurseries and early years care providers are also included.

Clause 24 of the Bill would empower the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the specified authorities on how they may perform their duty. Clause 25 would give the Secretary power to issue directions when he or she is “satisfied that a specified authority has failed to discharge the duty imposed on it by section 21(1)”. Such directions could then be enforced by a mandatory order. These proposed amendments would give the Secretary of State far-reaching powers, for example, to dictate which university-organised events may take place or to influence who is able to speak on campus.

Such powers are not reflective of a society which values freedom of expression. Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights expressly protects the right to both “receive and to impart information and ideas”. These rights are supposed to be protected “without interference by public authority”. As cases such as Handyside clearly indicate, such protection extends to ideas which “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”. While freedom of expression may occasionally be qualified in the interests of national security, it is not at all clear that the threat currently faced by British society is so grave to justify effectively censoring universities.

The purpose of universities and schools is to facilitate learning. An undeniable feature of this is discussion and debate about controversial issues – including those that challenge western political consensus. To place limits on the extent to which such discussion may take place would hamper the ability of students to gain the most from their education. This is too high a price to pay for national security in the current climate. Institutions of higher education are important not just for students but for our country as a whole. Their role is to provide an environment for critical engagement with all issues relevant to society. It is precisely by restricting such critical engagement that ideas considered ‘extremist’ become shielded from scrutiny, and so are more likely to become influential.

Given this, the fact that the Paris shootings emphasised critical discourse as a bulwark against oppression is clearly to be welcomed. In response to this event, our government has made public statements communicating its commitment to freedom of expression and its importance for counter-terrorism. If this really is its position, then it seems the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill requires immediate amendment.

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Dec 19 2014

Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ and the danger of apathy in a democratic society

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Hugo Chow is a current MSc Human Rights student at LSE. He completed his undergraduate study at Chinese University of Hong Kong, with a major in Government & Public Administration and a minor in German.


The ‘Umbrella Revolution’ (Photograph: Studiokanu/Flickr)

Let me start with an anecdote. Some time ago, during my undergraduate studies in Hong Kong, I shared a seminar group with a French exchange student. In the lesson on democracy in China, the student expressed his admiration for the Chinese aristocratic system, and dislike for French-style democracy. We, his classmates, were baffled at the argument, and unsure if he was playing devil’s advocate or genuinely longed for a return to pre-Revolution France.

A slight detour to this story. As most readers will know, people in Hong Kong have been occupying main roads in the heart of the city, calling for genuine democracy and universal suffrage and protesting the decision made on August 31st 2014 by the National People’s Congress on the method of election for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. TIME Magazine has termed this movement the “Umbrella Revolution”, after the umbrellas used by students to protect themselves from police pepper spray.

Given that China has full sovereignty over Hong Kong and China itself is not democratic, it may seem to naturally follow that Hong Kong would not have real democracy. It should, however, be noted that in 1984 the Chinese and British governments signed a Sino-British Joint Declaration which guaranteed Hong Kong elections for its Chief Executive after the 1997 handover and promised a high autonomy within the city. Universal suffrages for both Chief Executive and the members of Legislative Council are also assured by Hong Kong Basic Law, which serves as the constitutional document of the city.  

Despite increasing recognition of the right to political participation in international law, there is a plurality of opinions on the worth of democracy. Many in the US and the UK, having found flaws in the operation of modern democracy, find it difficult to believe in democracy as they did in past centuries. Others see democracy as only a lesser evil amongst all other institutional options that are put forward to us in a modern society. The latter position is founded on a pessimistic pragmatism: a belief that even though governments can never be good enough and politicians will always betray their constituency, a democratic society at least provides for a choice of representation. In a totalitarian system, by contrast, this choice is denied.

As article 25(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) –  which China signed in 1998, but is yet to ratify – states:

 Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

This can be interpreted to suggest that the right to vote in a democracy is not only a right of citizens but also a responsibility to citizens who reside in that territory to choose the government that best represents their interests. In a truly mature democratic society, not only is the government obliged to work for the betterment of society, but citizens themselves also have the responsibility for making the society function properly by casting their ballot periodically.

As the anecdote mentioned earlier demonstrates, there is tendency for some people in western democracies to take their right to vote for granted and ignore the responsibility linked to that right. The theory of social contract, developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, legitimates political authority through all citizens giving their agreement for their mutual preservation. In order to have a proper functioning of this legitimate political authority, all citizens must attend and participate in regular assemblies, deliberations and elections. Citizens, on choosing the government, should vote according to their interests and will for the sake of their preservation.

Current events in Hong Kong are a good example of the conflict between Rousseau’s idealistic conception of democracy and reality. Normally in common life, people would not have such a time to attend regular assemblies and deliberations. A virtual contract, however, indeed exists between the voter and the political authority, as explained in his book. And this contract requires input from both parties. On one hand, political authority has to function according to the general will and must not be abusive. On the other hand, the contract also requires all citizens to participate in public affairs. With all the freedoms and liberties that citizens enjoy in a modern democratic society, this social contract requires them in return to cast ballots in periodic elections.

It strikes me as ironic that some people who live in democratic societies do not view the right to participate in politics affairs as a fundamental human right while so many others around the globe are being deprived of this right. While there are indeed many deep-rooted problems in democratic systems around the world, it may well be the best system for us at the moment. I would therefore like to make a call to all who do not vote or think that their votes do not matter: please do value the right when you enjoy it, and it is not something that costs no penny. People have fought for it for many generations before these fundamental rights are ready for you.

Posted by: Posted on by Andrew Small

Dec 17 2014

Torture, Prevent and the Cult of Secrecy

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Maria Werdine Norris @MariaWNorris is a final year PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is researching the British Counterterrorism strategy and legislation, with a focus on nationalism, security and human rights.


The publication of the CIA Torture Report marked the first time a country has come clean on its sordid actions during the so-called War on Terror. Although the use of torture by American forces after 9/11 was almost common knowledge, the report was a remarkable show of transparency, which has resulted in an unflattering light being shone on the United Kingdom.

There is little to no doubt that British agents knew about torture, as mentions to the UK were deleted from the report at the request of British intelligence agencies.

And yet, the closest we have come to a comprehensive report on the use of torture since 9/11 has been the failed Gibson Inquiry. At the time of its inception, Prime Minister David Cameron swore that the inquiry would ‘get to the bottom’ of Britain’s treatment of detainees and it’s collusion with the American interrogation programme. It didn’t. Instead, the inquiry fell apart, facing mounting criticism from civil liberties groups and being shelved before any witnesses were questioned.

Adding to the existing disappointment surrounding the inquiry was David Cameron’s comment on the publication of the CIA report this week, in which he stated that he was satisfied with the way that Britain is dealing with the same issues. This again is not surprising. After all, the government is dealing with accusations of torture the same way it deals with all issues regarding national security: by revering secrecy.

As a society, we have been conditioned to believe that secrecy is critical for the success of national security. Take the Prevent Programme, for example. Prevent is essentially the government’s counter-radicalisation programme and it is effectuated by local authorities. In the past, authorities that received Prevent funding used the money for the surveillance of Muslim communities as well as community cohesion initiativesThe Prevent Review of 2011 indicated that community cohesion activities would cease to be funded by the Prevent Programme and that Prevent activities would begin to target far-right extremism. In August 2014, I lodged FOI requests to the 30 local authorities in priority areas asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. All but one of the requests were subsequently denied. The refusals were made on the grounds of national security, of which two aspects are particularly salient.

Firstly, the language employed in most of the denials is identical. All claimed that information on Prevent action plans is exempt from disclosure by virtue of section 24(1) and 31(1)(a) (national security and law enforcement respectively), of the Freedom of Information Act and redirected me to the Prevent Annual Report. In regards to the questions concerning far-right extremism, the answers repeated that Prevent targets all forms of extremism. This suggests a coordinated, top-down policy of refusing to release information. Moreover, in three of the responses there was the direct implication that to release this information would aid terrorism. Redbridge Council, for example, argued that the information could not be released because:

Terrorists can be highly motivated and may go to great lengths to gather intelligence. This means there may be grounds for withholding what seems harmless information on the basis that it may assist terrorists when pieced together with other information they may obtain.

Similarly, Camden Council justified its refusal to release information by arguing that:

Provision of detailed information about Prevent would increase the likelihood of terrorism being promoted and vulnerable individuals being recruited and thereby hinder the prevention or detection of crime.

Several more councils also refused to release information, arguing that the display of detailed information regarding Prevent funding would identify areas in the UK where the threat is greatest. However, this response overlooks the fact that a list of priority councils is publicly available on the government’s website.

The Prevent Programme is now almost completely unaccountable. As a result, there is no real way of knowing whether the pledges of the 2011 review, concerning community cohesion work and engagement with far-right extremism, have actually been carried out. Most importantly, the language in several of these denials is used to cast suspicion on the motives of those seeking the information.

Which leads us to one of the most onerous consequences of the cult of secrecy: attempts to find and/or release information are treated with suspicion at best. At worst, as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden can attest, they are treated as acts of treason. As such, whilst the White House announced there will be no prosecutions as a result of the CIA Report, John Kiriakou, the former CIA official who first released documents related to the American torture programme, is now in prison.

As she was starting her speech in the Senate, Sen. Diane Feinstein, the Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said:

history will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’

As the British government stood by the inquiry headed by the Intelligence and Security Committee and once again rejected the calls for an open, judge led inquiry, Senator Feinstein’s words serve as an important reminder of the importance of transparency and accountability for a just and democratic society. Unless the UK is willing to stop worshiping secrecy and the people demand uncompromising truth from government officials, it will be a long time until we see the darkest secrets of Britain’s role in the War on Terror come to light.

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Dec 10 2014

Peace with guns? Women’s human rights and the masculinisation of peace and security

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Yael Nevo is a graduate of LSE’s MSc Human Rights programme (2012-13) who specialises in women, peace and security and women’s empowerment. She recently completed a five-month internship at the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights and is currently working as a freelance documentary film researcher in the UK.

No women, no peace

On November 24, Oxfam published a report, issued in advance of the London Conference on Afghanistan, that stressed the importance of the participation of Afghan women in future peace talks with the Taliban, following the withdrawal of the majority of foreign troops by the end of the year. Oxfam’s report serves as a warning to the international community, arguing that the perpetuation of women’s exclusion from the peace process will potentially have disastrous consequences.

This is not the first time an appeal of this kind has been made. The call for participation of women in peace talks, invoked in countless other current and past conflict situations, challenges the common state of war as being in the realm of men. This status quo enables crucial decisions regarding a conflict’s initiation, progression, and most importantly when and how it will end, to be made by men, with very little transparency.

As a result, certain questions are raised. How do wars especially affect women? Why is it important for them to be an active part of peace negotiations and what can they bring to the negotiating table? How does this relate to other forms of gender inequality? The answers to these questions are often disregarded. On the occasion of UN Human Rights Day 2014, it is a good opportunity to examine the masculinisation of peace and security as a major cause for the ongoing undermining of women’s rights.

Wars, according to Cynthia Cockburn, are positioned on a continuum of violence, affecting all women in some way. In many cases violence escalates and personal security plummets following the official end of conflict. Some examples of common post-conflict gender-based violence include trafficking, forced prostitution, domestic violence, and rape. These relate, among other things, to the proliferation of small arms, an increased tolerance for violence within society, and the struggle for returning male heads of households to adjust to the new order of post-conflict civilian life following traumatic military engagement. The violence that women experience on a daily basis does not stop when a peace agreement is signed.

This constant state of gendered violence has been considered a form of discrimination, since it prevents women from obtaining and fulfilling human rights such as the rights to health, education, work and political participation. Subsequently, wars and their aftermaths are one of the main causes for gender inequality, since they perpetuate violent masculine dominance and further oppress the already excluded feminine population. On the other hand, different from ‘peacetime’ forms of violence against women, such as domestic violence or street harassment, the efforts to end the violence of military conflicts actually receive major international attention and hold the power to create social and political change on a grand scale. Consequently, can the negotiation table serve as bedrock for gender equality if women are more represented in international discourses on military conflict?

14 years ago, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women Peace and Security (WPS) was unanimously adopted, acknowledging the disproportionate and unique effect armed conflict has on women. Understanding the necessity of including women for the success of global peace efforts, the WPS agenda – which comprises several additional resolutions – supports increased participation and representation of women at all levels of decision-making, attention to specific protection needs of women and girls in conflict, and the adoption of a gender perspective in post-conflict processes and various other UN endeavours. Comparing the work that has been done so far with the strong language in these documents, the promise remains unfulfilled.

So far, international efforts have been only partially successful. These have largely focused on sexual violence in conflict, but have neglected to promote the full participation of women in conflict resolution processes. Clearly, international efforts regarding the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence (such as the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and the recent Global Summit, which was held in the UK just last June) are commendable actions and are, in fact, a crucial step towards the full participation of women in other civil and political arenas. Nonetheless, the ongoing struggle of experienced and courageous women to even be allowed to make a statement, let alone serve an active role in peace negotiations, is a crucial and urgent issue to be regarded both from a quantitative and qualitative aspect. Statistically, during 31 major peace processes from 1992 to 2011, only 4 per cent of signatories, 2.4 per cent of chief mediators, 3.7 per cent of witnesses and 9 per cent of negotiators were women. The striking inequality in these numbers clearly demonstrates the masculinisation of peace and security.

The inclusion of women in conflict resolution processes is an opportunity for a paradigm shift in our understanding of peace and security, moving away from a masculine-negative approach, which sees men as the primary agents of war and peacemaking, and is based on territorial security, military deterrence strategies and the accumulation of arms. Alternatively, the positive approach to peace and security acknowledges war’s effect on everyone, focuses on personal security, and consequently on human rights, economic wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

Since women experience war in a very different way to men, their standpoint on post-war reconstruction and conflict prevention is relevant. In many cases women’s standpoints will better represent the real needs of the civil population in general, and of women and girls in particular, putting emphasis on social and economic rights. Including women means addressing the root causes of war, and gender inequality as one of them.

Nonetheless, we should be careful of assuming that women are inherently peaceful. Women may bring different practices to the peace process, but not every woman will necessarily have a “pro-women” agenda. History holds several examples of women who led their countries to war, or who did little to empower other women while in office. A positive approach to peace and security means an in-depth readjustment of our prioritization of rights, and of those who can exercise them. Without a thorough international understanding and commitment that women should not only have a presence, but a clear voice to express their interests, we will reproduce the same approach to peace that has been failing us for centuries.

Certainly, there are other causes for the failure of many of the peace processes we see today, mainly since much of the local and international obligations we find written, remain just that: words on paper, without proper implementation and monitoring mechanisms or accountability. Yet more significantly, many of these causes are embedded in our approach to militarised security – developing more elaborate and sophisticated weapons as means of deterrence, instead of searching for and ameliorating the causes of conflicts.

This global pattern undermines human security and perpetuates violence, which plants the seeds of future conflict. If we are indeed all born equal, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states, human rights must be distributed equally. Women should have the platform to shape their own future following the horrors of war. So ask the women of Afghanistan, what does security mean for them, and we might have a very different world than the one we see today.

This post is published to coincide with UN Human Rights Day 2014. The Centre for the Study of Human Rights has also organised a public event to mark the occasion, chaired by Professor Christine Chinkin, on the global struggle for women’s human rights (more information here).

Posted by: Posted on by Andrew Small Tagged with: , , , , ,

Nov 21 2014

Celebrating 25 Years of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but where to next?

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Ruth Taylor is a current MSc Human Rights student at LSE. She is also the International Development Manager for Student Hubs, where she leads on the Impact International programme for the UK, which aims to promote global citizenship amongst UK students.

CRC at 25

Celebrating 25 years of the CRC (Photograph: UNICEF UK)

This week the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is celebrating its 25th birthday. On November 20th 1989, what is now the most ratified treaty in the world came into force, promising the full recognition of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for the world’s children. But, while we celebrate all the CRC has achieved it is important to ask what steps the international community can take to further protect and promote the rights of the youngest and most vulnerable within our communities.

To mark the anniversary of the CRC, A World at School – a rapidly-growing coalition focused on global education – hosted the #UpForSchool event, along with the Overseas Development Institute. The event, on 19 November in London, saw prominent speakers such as Gordon Brown, Ann Cotton OBE and Kailash Satyarthi explain why education is so vital for the fight towards realising the CRC in full.

To this end, the new #UpForSchool petition, an initiative of A World at School, aims to be the largest ever campaign for education. If effective, it will put pressure on governments, politicians and leaders to act to protect children from danger and discrimination which prevent them from attending school and reaching their full potential.

Although the CRC is revolutionary in its vision of a world in which the rights of children are universally respected, it largely remains a document of good intent and not much more. To date, no country in the world has fully recognised all of its Articles, and reports of abuse, violence, exploitation and discrimination against children are all too common. For millions of children the world over, the only existence they know is one of hostility and negligence.

However, the situation is starting to change. Young people and advocates from all over the world are raising their voices to ensure that within the next 25 years, measurable and permanent change is made for the benefit of children everywhere.

The speakers at the anniversary event made a powerful case for viewing child poverty as multifaceted. They also argued that world leaders should be pressured to place children at the core of all decisions they make, and that the struggle to achieve the rights of children should, at every stage, be informed by the views of young people.

What has become clear over the past decade is that you cannot heal issues that damage children, without simultaneously tackling issues that are also faced by adults. Environments that lead to violations of child rights can prosper as a result of decisions taken (or not taken) by adults, in an adult world, usually with reference to a States’ standing in a decidedly adult political and economic landscape.

Just because 194 governments have ratified the CRC, this does not mean that child rights are upheld by all nations, especially not over and above their other interests. But through petitions like #UpForSchool, activists across the world are calling on leaders to dedicate money and attention towards eradicating the systems of poverty, inequality and oppression that allow child rights abuses to thrive. Only then can the Convention truly be considered meaningful when confronted by the realities of child trafficking, child labour, child marriage and other forces of child maltreatment.

Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of ODI, spoke to this point, urging delegates to become impolite in the face of child rights violations, and to become outspoken regarding State behaviour where the rights of children are subordinated to those of adults. When defending children, it is vital to argue against the systemic and widespread abuses we see the world over, and bring into question the reputation and global image of States who have hidden their violations behind the honourable banner of the CRC for so long.

Both Gordon Brown and Kevin Watkins briefly mentioned the need to create an International Court of Child Rights – modelled on the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – as a means of ensuring States’ compliance with the CRC. This would be one method of augmenting the CRC’s good intentions with enforceability, and ending the era of impunity for child rights violations.

While attending the event, I was particularly struck by the speeches made by Sharia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, two teenage girls from Pakistan who were on the bus with Malala Yousafzai that fateful day in October 2012. They spoke with such conviction and such courage that it was hard not to feel compelled to act. Their message was this: we need to realise that the child’s voice is a formidable tool, with the power to shed light on even the darkest corners. Tackling child rights abuses goes hand in hand with supporting children to use their voices to tell the world their stories, and what the reality of child rights looks like to them.

Gordon Brown made a point during his speech that struck me, and I’m sure many others in the audience. He raised the question of why in the last 25 years we’ve managed to make such advances in technology and science and yet fundamentally failed to protect our children and offer them the life-changing opportunity of education. If we wish to see a change in the next 25 years, it is for us to stand up and make it happen.

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Nov 13 2014

How will the UNHCR’s statelessness campaign affect Africa?

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Bronwen Manby is an independent consultant and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE.  She previously worked for the Open Society Foundations, which have supported advocacy on the right to a nationality in Africa. This article originally appeared in African Arguments.

UNHCR_statelessnesscampaignOn 4th November 2014 the UN launched a global campaign to end statelessness within ten years. I confidently predict that the result of this campaign will be to ‘increase’ statelessness by many millions of people. This is not because I think that the campaign is misconceived — far from it — but because the statistics on the numbers of stateless persons are currently so inadequate that one of the main impacts of greater attention to the issue will be that currently uncounted populations will come into focus.

This is a good thing.  At the same time, the Global War on Terror, so-called, is bringing a huge push to improve documentation of populations. The effort to ensure that all are documented will certainly mean that some who thought they were nationals, or who got by as best they could, will find that they cannot get the new documents: that they are stateless.   The risk is that this second initiative may overwhelm the first.

What does this mean for Africa?

Since 2006, the UNHCR has begun to count the populations who are stateless (or of undetermined nationality) around the world. For Sub-Saharan Africa the number published in the agency’s Global Trends report for 2013 was the strangely precise 721,303. This total was made up almost entirely of numbers for Côte d’Ivoire (700,000) and Kenya (20,000), with the 1,303 coming from Burundi (1,302) and Liberia (a single person recorded).  A further six countries were marked with an asterisk, indicating that statelessness is known to be a significant, but unquantified, problem: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The figure of 700,000 for Côte d’Ivoire is in fact a number supplied by the new(ish) government there, made up of “descendants of immigrants” (400,000) and “children abandoned at birth” (300,000).  Notoriously, Côte d’Ivoire’s nationality code failed to provide any clarity on who became Ivorian at independence; while since 1972 the country has had no provision in its law attributing nationality to children of unknown parents. But it is clear that the number of stateless persons is pulled out of thin air, with no basis in any statistical method.

The number for Kenya is equally unscientific, though people of Nubian, Somali and other groups undoubtedly have problems in obtaining recognition of Kenyan citizenship; problems which have been exacerbated by the series of bombings in Nairobi attributed to people of Somali ethnicity whether with Kenyan citizenship or not, and not solved by provisions in the 2010 constitution for persons established in Kenya since independence to apply for recognition of nationality.

For the other countries, the numbers may add up to several hundreds of thousands of additional people; depending on the methodologies used.  In DRC, the nationality status of the entire Banyarwanda population is generally disputed, and their total numbers may be up to one million according to some assertions (though nobody knows); albeit some will certainly have documents showing Congolese nationality.

In Zimbabwe, the extremely literalist application of rules prohibiting dual nationality left tens of thousands without recognition of Zimbabwean citizenship and struggling to obtain documents from any other country; many were unable to do so. The new 2013 constitution permits dual citizenship except for those naturalising as Zimbabwean, but the Citizenship Act is unaltered since the last amendments in 2003, with no proposals for reform on the table, leaving much room for confusion.

Ethiopia and Eritrea are still failing to deal with the nationality fall-out from their separation and two year war, with many thousands of people of Eritrean descent in Ethiopia still facing challenges in getting Ethiopian documents, though they are not Eritrean. Madagascar has a long-standing population of several tens of thousands of people of Indian descent who have struggled since independence to have recognition of Malagasy nationality.

The fact that South Africa features in the list may surprise: South Africa’s constitution provides for every child to have the right to a nationality from birth, and its citizenship act states that a child born in South Africa who can claim no other nationality is South African. But the law also provides that any such child must have formal registration of birth, and the government (after a major push since 1994 to increase birth registration) is now making it more difficult for foreigners to register the birth of their children, and is contesting applications for South African citizenship in court.

We only know about these cases because national organisation Lawyers for Human Rights is providing legal assistance: other African countries without a human rights group making a systematic effort to help those who cannot get nationality documents do not have the same level of attention, and the problem of statelessness remains invisible.

But the more surprising thing about the UNHCR list is the countries that are missing: Sudan, for example, where the secession of South Sudan in 2011 has created a population of several hundred thousand at risk of statelessness, mainly persons of South Sudanese origin whose Sudanese nationality has been automatically removed by law.

Nigeria’s constitution creates a pure descent-based system of citizenship, with emphasis on the idea of “indigeneity”, but no legal definition of “indigene” and no system for obtaining proof of nationality.  In practice, proof of Nigerian-ness is a “certificate of indigeneity” issued by a local government area — a document for which there is no legal authority.  With the concern over Boko Haram and the introduction this year of a system of biometric ID cards there is every risk that blameless individuals belonging to “suspect” social groups will find themselves suddenly defined as not Nigerian.

Meanwhile, a population of more than a hundred thousand living on the Bakassi peninsula transferred to Cameroonian sovereignty by the International Court of Justice are now left without recognition or documentation of either Cameroonian or Nigerian nationality.

There are also some thousands of former refugees from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda still living in their host countries after the invocation of the cessation clauses under the 1951 Refugee Convention. They now have no continued recognition of refugee status, nor of their original nationality, nor of the nationality of the country where they now live.

The Tanzanian government has blown hot and cold over the grant of nationality to around 170,000 Burundian refugees from the 1970s who were approved for citizenship but never received their documents; in the last few weeks, certificates of naturalisation have again been promised.

Other groups at risk of statelessness across all countries in Africa include persons following a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle, who often face difficulties in obtaining recognition of nationality in any of the countries where they habitually graze their livestock; members of ethnic groups that cross international borders, where both states see them as belonging to the other; those displaced by conflict, whether internally or across international borders, especially those who are not registered by UNHCR; children of national mothers and foreign fathers, in countries where gender discrimination is still applied; and trafficked, abandoned and orphaned children, including especially those born out of wedlock, whose identity is not documented and who cannot establish nationality on reaching adulthood. Although members of these groups may be theoretically eligible for nationality under the law, they often face insurmountable problems in obtaining recognition of nationality in fact.

Why does this matter? 

A couple of quotes may suffice.  A member of a Fulani pastoralist community living in a village tellingly named Sabon-Gari (“strangers’ quarter”) in the far north of Benin interviewed in May of this year highlighted the consequences even for those apparently most remote from state structures: “Because no country recognises us, we live as if we were in prison”.  Rebel leader — and future prime-minister — Guillaume Soro of Côte d’Ivoire emphasised the foundation of the civil war in that country in the right to a nationality: “Give us our identity cards and we’ll hand over our Kalashnikovs”. For both individual rights and political stability, nationality law matters.

The truth is that it is almost impossible to come up with definitive numbers for stateless persons, or those whose nationality is currently undocumented and who may be stateless.  The line between those who have a nationality and those who are stateless is not necessarily a clear one, and it may only gradually become apparent that a person is, in fact, “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” (the official international law definition).

For me, it is enough that UNHCR simply notes that particular countries have potentially significant numbers of stateless persons, and identifies the reasons why: far better to concentrate on addressing the problems than trying to get the ‘correct’ statistics; and, in any event, identification as ‘stateless’ may not be a helpful outcome for the people concerned, who simply seek recognition of nationality by the country where they have always lived.

The good news is that the African Union institutions are beginning to recognise this problem, as well as the UN.  As a result of advocacy from a group of civil society organisations under the banner of CRAI, the Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution in April 2013 calling for wider recognition of the right to nationality and commissioning a study on the problem. In May 2014, after considering the report, the Commission resolved to draft a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the right to a nationality in Africa.

This is progress: nationality law has been left up to state discretion for too long, and the lack of real norms has left individual countries to adopt exclusionary laws in a human rights vacuum.  In the meantime, the UNHCR campaign to end statelessness will surely help, by shining a spotlight on the issue and putting more pressure on states to address the issues — even as it will also surely increase the numbers recognised to be at risk.

Posted by: Posted on by Zoe Gillard Tagged with: , , ,

Nov 10 2014

On fantasy island: the seven myths undermining human rights in the UK today

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Bernard Keenan is a PhD student in the LSE Law department and former immigration solicitor. He is researching the operation of Closed Material Procedures in UK law.

When myth, fantasy and human rights collide

A number of dangerous fantasies currently pervade discussion of human rights law in the UK; worryingly, some of them come from judges themselves. So said Professor Conor Gearty, former Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE and currently Director of the Institute for Public Affairs, at the Wyndham Place Trust Corbishley lecture, held last week at LSE. (Podcast).

The seven myths that Gearty warns of highlight how easy it is to forget the political and historical struggles that underpin the legal status of human rights. The fantasies are as follows:

1. The myth of liberal historical progress. It is easy to kid ourselves that history is one big rationalising march towards progressively higher states of enlightenment. Such views always implicitly take the present moment as a destination, a vantage point to survey and simplify the past. But this view means obscuring or ignoring the struggles, compromises, and contingencies that produced the present situation, forgetting injustices even of the very recent past. The result is the fantasy that we now live in an age of human rights enlightenment, which cannot be reversed. But politics hasn’t gone away, and this over-confidence is dangerous.

2. The common law as the origin and protector of civil liberties. In recent months and years, the UK Supreme Court has encouraged common law revivalism, seeking to base arguments and decisions on English law as opposed to European Convention rights. This is based on the myth that the common law is the best protection for rights in the UK. This rosy revisionism ignores the fact that common law rights were historically derived from property ownership, and fundamentally concerned with protecting it. Common law rights have nothing to do with a concept of human dignity or universality. For instance, the common law said nothing about racial discrimination, the suppression of women, privacy, or the right to free association. Historically, common law rights were more frequently invoked to block progressive change in British society – change that only came about through political struggle translated into positive law by Parliament.

What is more, this recent common law revivalism must be understood in the context of controversial judgments over the past 15 years or so, most notably the case of Jackson, in which courts have suggested that Parliamentary sovereignty – the fundamental principle of English political arrangements – is merely a common law invention. The scene is now set for a situation in which judges may even refuse to recognise the validity of an Act of Parliament, should they deem it to be contrary to the common law notion of the British constitution. Democracy in England, it seems, is now limited to whatever the judges decide it requires; a truly remarkable and constitutionally dangerous situation.

3. The delusion that the Human Rights Act overrides Parliamentary sovereignty. While the judges construct a jurisprudence of legal supremacy over political supremacy, a different fantasy is promoted in the UK public imagination – a myth dishonestly encouraged by David Cameron’s government – that the Human Rights Act forces the British government to obey the decisions of a bunch of foreign judges in the European Court of Human Rights over in Strasbourg, and so we need to take the power back. This is simply wrong. As it stands, the Human Rights Act 1998 makes clear that if an Act of Parliament conflicts with ECHR human rights law, the Act of Parliament prevails. Yet it takes political courage for government to be honest about this, courage that Cameron’s coalition apparently doesn’t have.

The irony is that this myth is being peddled in order to gain support for a move to repeal the Human Rights Act. Yet if Parliament repealed the Human Rights Act, which upholds Parliamentary sovereignty, it would open the door to the form of common law judicial activism mentioned above. Judges have already stated in terms that they will not acknowledge Parliamentary sovereignty if they aren’t happy with the legislation’s impact on rights. Repealing the Human Rights Act would create uncertainty, exacerbating the potential for an acute constitutional crisis. Repeal will lead directly to the problem it pretends to solve.

4. The myth that Strasbourg is supreme. Strasbourg judgments are not directly implemented in the UK, but as we saw above, the government seems to want to pretend that they have no choice but to implement the decisions. This is untrue. If the government wants to implement a judgment from Strasbourg, the relevant minister can make the amendments. If it does not, it simply does nothing. Either way, the architecture of the Human Rights Act leaves the ultimate decision to HM Government, and accountability lies with Parliament.

5. The fantasy of the neutral judge. Recently, some senior judges have made supposedly neutral calls for the Strasbourg court to row back on developments it has made to the meaning and substance of human rights in the ECHR. They say this should stop and instead the court must go ‘back to basics’, limiting decisions to the ‘plain’ meaning of the written list of rights. But this kind of call for ‘originalist’ approaches to jurisprudence is not neutral at all. It is fundamentally political; specifically conservative, seeking to limit the application of human rights law to fewer situations than it currently does. We should recognise such disguised rhetoric for what it is.

6. The myth that Strasbourg decisions must be followed by the UK courts. Section 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 upholds the ultimate authority of the UK Supreme Court in interpreting the law of the land. Section 2 requires English judges to ‘take into account’ Strasbourg decisions, but they are legally empowered to reach different conclusions to the Strasbourg court on all human rights issues. The proof is the case of prisoner’s voting rights, in which the Supreme Court ruled contrary to Strasbourg’s decision, and yet that is precisely the case used by the government and press to dishonestly agitate for repeal of the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act already contains the answer to the problem it is accused of creating.

7. The fantasy of English exceptionalism. The assumptions behind the political distrust of human rights law and the fantasies detailed above rest on an outmoded view of England’s role in the world, and on what really matters to the people living here. It reflects an elitist, exceptional vision of Britain, rooted in nostalgia for the lost Imperial dream. Indulging this dream, amplifying these fantasies, only takes us further down a dangerous road.

It may seem counter-intuitive to argue for the protection of human rights law by way of a strong defence of Parliamentary supremacy. But Professor Gearty’s intervention is a political one. It is underpinned by his commitment to republican values, in the classic sense of res-publica: that society is fundamentally a political community and that politics is of fundamental importance. This leads to a conception of rights not as something metaphysical good or universally self-evident, but as legal instruments that we, as a public, have democratically agreed on as being a common political good. We must therefore preserve the possibility of repealing the Human Rights Act, should we decide to do so. And this political freedom is reflected in the structure of the Human Rights Act itself.

The danger comes from those who would peddle fantasies about the status of rights in our society for other disguised political ends. Historically, people struggled and died for political recognition of rights. Rights are rooted in politics. Today, we must guard against both cynical political attempts by press and politicians to mislead about the reality of the situation and conservative interventions by judges that, however well intentioned, will do more harm than good.

Posted by: Posted on by Andrew Small Tagged with: ,

Nov 6 2014

Do we need to rethink the right to democracy?

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Nicolette Stickland studied the MSc Human Rights in 2012-2013.  Before that she studied BA History and Politics at the University of Oxford.  She is currently working at the think-tank CentreForum, helping with their events programme and conducting research into community schooling.

ballot boxSince the official birth of modern human rights discourse, which started with the adoption by the United Nations’ General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (UDHR), the ‘right to democratic participation’ has been consistently included in some form or other in all major human rights instruments.  In the UDHR it is included in Article 21. In the case of the European Convention on Human Rights, the first additional Protocol (1952) includes a specific and remediable article on the right to democracy (Article 3): ‘The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot’. This represents the fundamental core of democracy: the demos (the people) having frequent and genuine choice of who governs them. Yet despite the codification of this democratic basis, democracy is widely proclaimed to be in crisis across nearly all western democracies, and it can be argued that at least in part this decline is linked to a faulty conceptualisation of the right to democracy, both in rights instruments and in popular discourse.

Data from the International IDEA database of elections, looking at worldwide turnout in parliamentary elections over the period 1945-2001, shows a steep decline in voter turnout since the mid-1980s. Analysis by Pintor, Gratschew and Sullivan showed that so-called ‘established democracies’ have seen a steady decline in voter turnout since the 1970s. In the UK, turnout by 2010 had fallen to 65.1%, less than two-thirds of those eligible to vote. Concurrently there has been a decline in support for the historically dominant, politically mainstream political parties across Western societies, with declines both in membership of these parties and in those who would classify themselves as strong and consistent supporters in electoral terms. According to the House of Commons Library, in 2012 just 1.1% of the UK electorate was a member of one of the three main parties, Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Cross-european data demonstrates that this marked decline in party membership is repeated in countries across Europe. Even more troubling, declining orientation in favour of existing democratic establishments across Western societies has usually been paralleled by an increase of support for extremist parties, which espouse if not openly anti-democratic values, at least illiberal and sometimes anti-rights ones. Some of the more frightening examples include Greece’s Golden Dawn party, which has hard-line anti-Semitic and homophobic views and has been linked with attacks on political opponents, or the German National Democratic Party, a neo-Nazi party which calls for a return to Germany’s pre-World War II boundaries.

Part of the reason for this apathy and even anti-democratic feeling seems to be that democracy is often viewed as only an entitlement rather than a participative right; a passive gift from a benign state rather than a foundation for a reciprocal and productive relationship between that institution and its individual citizens. Even in the established and historical democracies of Western Europe and North America, where we hubristically lament the lack of ‘a culture of democracy’ in other parts of the world, the democratic right seems to have retracted to consist solely of guaranteeing free and fair elections. Once that is done, the reasoning seems to go, that box is ticked and that right is fulfilled.

Of course as the European Convention protocol states, ‘free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot’ remain the most important part of the right to democracy. Yet they are not the whole part. Added emphasis should be placed on some form of inclusive reciprocity, of the right to be fully informed and involved in the political life of your country on a deeper and more meaningful basis than simply marking a cross on a ballet once every five years (or not even that, as is the case with more than 30% of the electorate in Britain). The central foundation of the right to democracy as an active right is education, allowing ordinary citizens to be placed on a footing in which they feel equipped to put across their views, to organise and agitate for reform and policy change; to challenge their elected politicians at their own game. While not taking away from other subjects, it would not be too much of a financial or time burden to include just an hour of compulsory weekly Citizenship courses up to age 16 in British schools.

Greater efforts should also be made to ensure that the democratic right to participate is a constant and ongoing one, not a transitory and periodic one. This does not mean reducing the time between general elections, or having referendums on every piece of legislation. But it does mean engaging more regularly and directly with the electorate.  Increased use of technology and social media, including weekly radio phone-ins, Twitter question sessions and the UK government petitions website should be embraced across parties and become a standard feature of the political landscape.

By viewing the right to democracy as a participative right we can have some hope of restoring the legitimacy of our democratic arrangements and of responding on a more legitimate and universal basis to global issues.

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

Oct 9 2014

No monkeying around: animals can and will have human rights

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Alasdair Cochrane is a Lecturer in Political Theory at University of Sheffield. His main research interests include: contemporary political theory, rights theory, human rights, environmental ethics, animal ethics and bioethics. Between 2007 and 2011 Alasdair Cochrane was Fellow and then Lecturer in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Get with the programme, humans (Eric Kilby CC-BY-SA)

Get with the programme, humans (Eric Kilby CC-BY-SA)

A US appeals court is currently hearing the case of a chimpanzee named Tommy and is to decide if he has the right to bodily integrity and liberty, just like a person. The case, brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is concerned about Tommy’s living conditions, is hugely significant.

The questions debated in this New York court have implications beyond the question of whether former circus animal Tommy should be moved from the shed in which he is held captive to a chimp sanctuary with conditions more conducive to his well-being. What is really being considered is whether human rights can transcend the species divide.

At first, this question might seem extremely odd. After all, isn’t the very point of human rights that they belong only to humans? Surely the clue is in the name. But names can limit our moral imaginations, often with terrible results. Before the idea of human rights was established in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, there was the older idea of the rights of man. When it was argued that these rights excluded half the human population, defenders of the status quo pointed out that the clue was in the name.

In the same way, the question of whether human rights can transcend the species divide is simply a way of asking who we include when we talk about basic rights. Nobody now regards the old limits of sex, race, nationality, religion and property ownership as justifiable reasons for excluding others from basic rights. But is species?

Traditionally, the justification for reserving a special class of basic protections exclusively for humans was based on religious grounds. The argument went like this: “We humans alone possess souls, so we alone merit the special rights that God has granted us.” But in contemporary societies that are marked by religious pluralism and atheism this argument is no longer viable.

More common contemporary arguments for keeping our privileged political and legal status are based on our cognitive complexity. But this justification has been convincingly challenged too. The cognitive abilities of other animals, such as chimpanzees, are now much better understood and a range of skills thought exclusive to humans, such as tool and language use, have been witnessed in chimps and other animals.

It is also a simple fact that not all human beings – such as young infants and the seriously mentally disabled – possess the advanced capacities that are thought to establish these basic rights. It is precisely these vulnerable individuals who are considered to be most worthy of the special protections that basic rights offer, yet we don’t extend them to animals.

Many argue that we need a special class of rights that are exclusive to the human species simply because we have different needs and interests to other animals. It would, for example, be absurd to extend the right to a fair trial or the right to marry to other animals. And of course they are right to argue that. But this point ignores that it would be absurd to extend such rights to many human beings too. Human babies do not need the right to marry and no one would suggest they would. Human rights are differentiated, with different groups of humans often possessing quite different basic rights. There seems no obvious reason why this practice should not also extend beyond human beings.

Critics of the Tommy case would warn that we need to draw the line somewhere. Once we cross the species divide and grant basic rights to certain animals, what is to stop us awarding them to plants, rocks and electricity pylons? Perhaps not much. And indeed, Ecuador and Bolivia have already recognised the rights of Mother Nature in their constitutions.

I share the common view among human rights theorists and practitioners that basic rights are about protecting an individual’s well-being.  And to have well-being is not merely to benefit from certain goods, but also to experience the benefits of those goods. On this view, then, basic rights should not be extended to all things, but certainly should be extended all other animals who possess conscious life.

A decision on Tommy’s status is due in the next few weeks but whatever the outcome, it is clear that more cases and more decisions are coming. It is only a matter of time until the species sectarianism of human rights is overturned and becomes as anachronistic as the rights of man.

Posted by: Posted on by Zoe Gillard Tagged with: ,