Human rights

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Today, I am annoyed by all the talk of how awful it is that protesters are “ruining” the Olympics with all their stunts aimed at disrupting the Grand Olympic Torch Parade (or whatever they call it) and calling attention to oppression and human rights abuses in China, particularly (in light of recent events) in Tibet.

Oh, yes, of course we live in a democratic society and have freedom of speech – of course you have the right to protest… but must you spoil our torch ceremony? must you sour the Olympics for the thousands, nay millions, of complacent sports fans around the world who just want to watch some running and jumping and stuff? must you undermine, like, the whole Olympic movement by these divisive protests? what would happen if we protested every time the Olympic Games were to be held in a country accused of human rights abuses? every country in the world commits human rights abuses! can’t we all just get along?

Demonstrations and protests and strikes are just fine and dandy, they are a fundamental right in any democratic society, our values of freedom are what make Britain Great…

But only as long as they can easily and safely be ignored, only as long as they don’t cause any annoyance or inconvenience to those who don’t share your concerns, only as long as they are meaningless, pointless and ineffective. Heaven help you if you actually have any impact.

In other words – protesting is only OK if you don’t upset anybody.
In other words – mixing sport and politics is only OK if the host nation does it.
In other words – human rights abuses happen everywhere so just STFU about it, OK?

But it’s not just about whether these protesters have a point or not. I am just incoherent with exasperation at the selfish, short-sighted whingers who complain not particularly that the protesters are wrong in their aims, but that they shouldn’t be protesting at all. No matter how worthy their cause, it cannot justify ruining a (frankly, dumb) torch ceremony. What?!

In any case, personally, if I had the choice between cancelling the whole Olympic Games (never mind just the torch waving preliminaries) forever or stopping human rights abuses in China forever, I think it would be a no-brainer. I would make the trade, and then start to look round for a sporting jamboree that I could cancel to stop FGM.

With China, it’s not just about Tibet: it’s about forced abortion and sterilisation, it’s about massive public corruption, it’s about systemic injustice and lack of access to justice, it’s about censorship and fear and oppression, it’s about the death penalty practised both secretly and on a scale unknown in any other country in the world.

It’s not just about Tibet. But even if it were – large-scale human rights abuses? or a couple of weeks of sport? What level of disconnect does it take for a person to criticise those who protest the fact that China has been given, and is using, a huge PR opportunity whilst at the same time sticking two fingers up at the whole “Olympic values” movement of harmony between peoples? Must we promote harmony by ignoring China’s state-sponsored wrongdoing? Turn a blind eye and everyone will be happy? But isn’t that the whole point? Turn a blind eye to the abuses and the abuses will continue, they will escalate. Turning a blind eye, pretending everything is fine, letting China have its glorious Olympics – it may make us feel less uncomfortable, help us to avoid thinking about where we are and why – but that is, as sure as eggs are eggs, not what the Olympics is, or should be, all about.

And if we are still in Iraq in four years’ time – or still in Afghanistan – or mixed up in some fresh war – we can expect more of the same for London 2012. I hope.


You may recall that I have blogged previously about the “Qatif girl” case (see here, here, here and here) in which a young Saudi woman was gang raped and then sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in prison for her part in the crime.

I wrote at the time to my MP asking him to find out what was up with the British government, who were strangely quiet and had expressed no public condemnation of these events. My MP promptly wrote to the foreign office and at last a reply has been forthcoming. Kim Howells (minister responsible for relations with Saudi Arabia) says:

“The UK Government raised the case with Saudi authorities. The facts to hand on this case are disturbing. We urged the Saudi authorities to review the case again. We understand that King Abdullah has granted a Royal pardon to the victim.

We remain concerned to hear that the victim’s lawyer will be brought before a disciplinary committee for defending the case. The committee may decide to suspend or revoke his licence to practice law. Our Embassy in Riyadh continues to monitor this case.

The UK Government remains concerned about the overall human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, including discrimination against women, non-Muslims, homosexuals, the retrictions on freedom of expression, movement, assembly and worship, the implementation of UN human righst instruments and issues relating to the judicial process.

The UK Government is committed to improving human rights in Saudi Arabia and have intertwined and inseparable interests: in our economies, in the fight against global terrorism and in regional stability. However, this relationship does not reduce our commitment to human rights or prevent us from raising difficult issues with the Saudi Authorities.”

Kim Howells suggested that we see also The only thing on there of much interest in relation to KSA is this state visit FAQ prepared last October when King Abdullah came to visit the Queen in London.

So what do you think? Are we impressed?

unsubscribe from human rights abuse in the war on terror

Unsubscribe Me is an Amnesty-inspired campaign against the abuses of human rights and the escalating infringements of civil liberties that are taking place – not just in Guantanamo Bay (although, obviously, there too) but in the UK and all over the world – which are glibly justified by OUR GOVERNMENT as being a necessary part of the war on terror, an essential element in protecting US from terrorism.

No. Not in my name. If OUR GOVERNMENT wishes to erode my civil liberties and, worse, to commit or collude in serious human rights violations – including torture, for God’s sakes* – then there is really not much I can do about it. I am, as usual, helpless. But at least I can say this: it is not in my name.

unsubscribe from human rights abuse in the war on terror

(*There is a video on the Unsubscribe site which was made to demonstrate the euphemistically titled “stress position” technique, used routinely at Guantanamo Bay. I have not included it in this post because it is actually quite distressing. But go watch it if you are in any doubt about whether the “legitimate interrogation techniques” used by the US government violates the rights of these uncharged, untried suspects**.)

(** And if you’re thinking “oh, suspects, schmuspeccts, this innocent until proven guilty line is a technicality, right?” then go read this as well: an article in the Independent describing the evidence of, among others, a Guantanamo military lawyer about how the secret show trials – yes, get that irony – really work.)

To all the old men in British Legion ties; to the astonishingly young men and women in army uniform; and to the even younger people in army cadet outfits:

No, I won’t be buying one of your paper poppies. Because this is what they make me think of… they make me think of nature’s beauty. Something like this:

Poppy field

And then they make me think of this:

Those who fought and died or suffered in wars deserve our pity because they were misled and exploited. They deserve that we should understand and remember their experiences, and wonder at how they had the courage to live through the unimaginable and to do what they thought was right and needful, what the exploiters said was right and needful.

But a poppy is not about pity for the victims of militarism, and it is not about remembering unimaginable horror. It is not about questioning the rightness or the need.

A poppy is about supporting a vision of militarism in which the men and women who were its pawns are transformed into its noble heroes. They are honoured, not pitied. And, as we remember, we are asked to feel, not horror, but gratitude.

  Have you forgotten yet?…
  For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
  Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
  Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
  Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
  Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
  (“Aftermath”, Siegfried Sassoon, 1920)

Venezueland woman protestsThe latest developments in Venezuela raise some questions about freedom of speech.

In December, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced that he would not be renewing RCTV’s broadcasting licence. RCTV is a privately-owned television station (the only one with national reach in Venezuela) that has consistently been hostile to Chavez and was involved in supporting an attempted coup in 2002. It has consistently opposed his government and his politics and has broadcast anti-Chavez, pro-capitalist messages for a long time. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is owned and run by those who oppose Chavez’ socialist aims (and, no doubt, his famous hosility for the United States) and would rather see a capitalist society in Venezuela. Now, the current licence is on the brink of expiry and has not been renewed. This means that RCTV will no longer have national reach, although its owners can continue to broadcast by cable and still control other media such as local newspapers. The RCTV channel will now host yet another government-run station.

Is this:
A. A terrible blow for free speech in Venezuela, silencing a lone opposition voice?
B. A perfectly reasonable response to control the unbalanced venom of these ruthlessly anti-government pro-capitalists?

Mr Chavez argues the latter. Free speech activists and journalists everywhere argue the former. My view is that it is neither or, rather, it is both or, rather, it depends…

Until now, there have been two voices: Mr Chavez, and RCTV.

RCTV may be bad, but without it, there is only Mr Chavez – and his case is not helped by the fact that at least one government station already broadcasts wall-to-wall sycophancy (although it is worth noting that other state-funded stations in Venezuela are not under the presidential thumb and do important, good quality work). Can we rely on him not to get carried away with this unopposed propaganda machine?

Personally, I am in favour of all television being under neutrality obligations similar to those that operate in the UK, where it is not permissible to editorialise TV news to reflect the political beliefs and aims of the station or its owners. Television is such a powerful media channel – practically everyone watches it practically every day – that in my view it is dangerous to allow television news or other programmes to become partisan.

In this case I would condemn Mr Chavez, not for shutting down RCTV but for failing to universalise his expressed preference for non-partisan TV. If he shuts down openly partisan channels like RCTV (and I have no problem with that in principle, frankly) then he must also prevent his own channels from being openly partisan. He should enact and implement a television broadcasting code that stops ANYONE from broadcasting the news in a biased or partisan fashion. He should do this in the service of balance, honesty, integrity and truth.

Wouldn’t this cut away at freedom of speech?

Hell, no. It would cut down the freedom of a small number of rich TV-station-owning men to broadcast their self-serving politics into the hearts and minds of an entire nation. It doesn’t stop them saying what they want to say – it only obliges them to use other channels for their propaganda, for the better protection of balance, honesty, integrity and truth.

Cutting away at the massive media power of this handful of rich TV-station-owning men in my view has the capacity to advance freedom of speech, a capacity much greater than the more obvious danger of undermining it.

Stopping some people from speaking in certain media channels does look dangerously like censorship. But by curtailing the dominance of one big idea, by allowing other ideas time and space for expression and circulation and discussion, we would give everyone better access to a better range of perspectives. By curtailing the freedom of a handful of rich TV-station-owning men to present a single, filtered version of reality, we would give everybody better access to unfiltered reality, to facts and information, and to differing views honestly presented.

What’s not to like?

Assorted BBC news stories (e.g. here and here, as well as various radio reports from today)
General background info on RCTV via

Jesus calledI was talking about the effect of religious sensitivities on free speech the other day. In the interests of fairness: a brief word about Christian religious sensitivies, following a BBC poll released today (see here and here).

This poll found that many Christians feel victimised in an increasingly secular world. Of particular relevance is the finding that a third of the respondants felt that the way the media portrays Christian people amounts to discrimination.

The complaint is not so much the complaint of religions that have always been marginalised in the West, that they continue to be misunderstood and marginalised. The complaint is more the complaint of a religion long used to being given priority and protesting as it is edged out of the limelight. “It’s not fair!” “You let these foreign religions have their special privileges, yet you keep taking ours away!” “We are the established religion, you know!”

So, for example, a change from “Happy Christmas” to “Season’s Greetings” on county council Christmas cards is seen as discrimination against Christians when in reality it is an effort to stop excluding non-Christians. So a ruling that a Christian cannot wear a big dangly cross outside her work uniform when a Muslim is allowed to wear a visible headscarf is seen as discriminatory even though the former is an example of unnecessary religious ostentation while the visibility of the latter is necessary according to the wearer’s religious duty. So a televised production that mocks Christian symbols is condemned as blasphemy, and a ban is sought, while other work that mocks other religions cannot similarly be condemned as blasphemy because only Christianity has the protection of blasphemy laws. So a law prohibiting Christians from discriminating against gay people is seen as discrimination against Christians, forcing them to provide services to gay people “against their religious convictions” – even though, as far as I know, the bible only calls upon Christians not to have homosex, and says nothing about turning away people who do or might have homosex from services that you would freely provide to others.

It strikes me that we have largely been able to resist the silly brigade when it comes to Christian sensibilities in the arena of free speech. Long may we continue to do so, and far may the resistance spread.

In Sunday’s Observer, columnist Nick Cohen wrote a piece about censorship, and indeed about a self-censorship brought about by fear. Censorship in the UK. (He was on World Have Your Say tonight on a discussion about the same topic.) What he criticises most of all is the lack of principles, the lack of integrity in an artist who claims freedom of speech yet exercises it in a cowardly fashion, criticising only “safe” targets and fearing to criticise those who might strike back.

The particular concern expressed is about religious fundamentalists, with an accusation that writers and artists are too scared to criticise them for fear of censorship or reprisals.

Such people demand respect for their religious beliefs and, where they also form a distinct ethnic group, their ethnicity. They often claim that criticism of their religion, or of the actions of their co-religionists, is so offensive and blasphemous that it ought not to be allowed and amounts to bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. Where there is a dimension related to ethnicity, they often claim that criticism of their religion or of the actions of their co-religionists is not only offensive but also racist. Thus we commonly hear Israelis cry “anti-semitism!” and Muslims cry “islamophobia!” and Christians cry “why isn’t our religion protected when all these dodgy foreigners are allowed to demand protection for theirs?”

Cohen thinks that too often writers, artists and the media go along with this claim that religious faith is entitled to a respect that precludes insulting, offensive or critical remarks being made about that faith – regardless of the consequences for free speech.

All this is rather timely from my point of view, as I have just started reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin. Ali writes a polemic in which she criticises Islam, and Islamic culture, accusing it of backwardness due to, among other things, its refusal to self-criticise or to countenance any external criticism. She also takes the West, especially the lefty West, to task for being so in love with an ideal of multi-culturalism and cultural respect that we refuse to criticise other cultures even when they are oppressive and otherwise fly in the face of all our liberal Western democratic values.

(Ali is also a significant feminist figure, however I won’t go into that now as I plan to blog more about this once I’ve actually read the rest of the book. Also worth noting in the context of this post is the fact that she wrote the short film Submission Part 1, which was directed by Theo Van Gogh, a film for which he was murdered and she received death threats.)

My initial thoughts about this whole issue are that it is certainly true that lefty types like me are reluctant to criticise other religions and other cultures than our own. Since I have no direct personal experience of the Islamic faith and culture, and only a limited factual knowledge about Islamic faith and culture, I do not feel well placed to make considered judgments about it.

I can see that many, most or perhaps all Islamic countries afford women fewer rights than we enjoy here in the UK*. I criticise that. I strongly suspect that this overt oppression and repression is very probably rooted in something about the Islamic religion and culture. I know that the Koran and other religious texts do not say very nice things about women, but then nor do the Bible or the Torah.

[* I say “fewer rights”. I do not say that British women have more freedom, or more respect. We have a different kind of oppression.]

I see that Islamic fundamentalists seem very much less tolerant of criticism than those of other religions, and much more prone to doing violence in response. I criticise that, and it may be that Ali is onto something when she suggests that there is something insular about Islam that breeds this kind of response. I also remember that, in centuries gone by, Christian religious leaders were equally intolerant, and much un-Christian violence was often done to heretics or unbelievers, all in the name of the Lord.

However, although I see these aspects of Islamism, and although I do criticise them from time to time, I am very cagey in how I express my views and very wary of going further than a brief comment hedged around with caveats.

Is this fear?

I hardly think the local people here are about to rise up against me and start issuing death threats. I guess I am more worried about being accused of arrogance, insensitivity, racism, Islamophobia, bigotry and all those other bad things. I am worried that if I tried to wade in too far or too freely, with insufficient understanding, that I would in fact be fully deserving of such slurs.

But, more than that, I think my reluctance to wade in is based mainly on a consciousness that there are battles I cannot fight. I cannot liberate oppressed Muslim women. That is not my fight and I am not qualified to engage in it. Only they can fight that battle.

But to say “it’s not my battle” is also a tremendous cop-out and is precisely the sort of thing that both Nick Cohen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are complaining about. Because to stand idly by and let the suffering go on, in the name of sensitivity or multiculturalism or whatever you want to label your squeamishness about the debate, is not a moral response either.

So what is the answer? Are we damned if we do get involved, and damned if we don’t?

My responsibilty, as I see it, is to educate myself about the experience of Muslim women, to listen to their voices, and to learn.

My responsibility, where I have the opportunity to make a difference, is to let those voices make themselves heard and to prevent them from being silenced.

My responsibility is to try and cut through the multiplicity of points of view to find something that is true – not necessarily something that I was looking for based on my own preconceived notions, but something that I have come to, from the voices of these women themselves. To find something that is true, and to support that truth.

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