Tag Archives: human rights

How We Use Words: Blog Action Day 2013

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Language evolves. It’s a fact of communication; words twist, change and merge, they take on new meanings and become adopted by different groups. Gay, surf, wicked, computer, all words used by our forebears in very different ways. Heck, thirty years ago, who’d’ve thought that ‘Google’ could mean ‘search’?

How we use words is important. They often shape our actions, shape how we see others and yes, how we see their rights.

An example: go online, find a post or a video in which a woman says something even vaguely feminist, or even simply reasonable. Now look below the line and wait for the first rape threat. When the hell did such a heinous crime develop its own culture of jokes and attitudes and badly written ebooks? And what impact does that have on reporting rape, on the lives of rape survivors, on a medium where threats of violence and sexual assault are commonplace?

Maybe we should have seen this coming, at least since not being racist ended up being described as “political correctness gone mad” and the idea that employers shouldn’t accidentally kill their workforce is sneeringly described as “health and safety” (cue eye roll).

All this has an effect on human rights. Okay, maybe in the civilised west we’re not herding people into concentration camps at the moment, but the language we use eats away at the lives of those around us: female journalists and activists leaving Twitter because of no effective way to report people threatening to blow up their houses? Immigrants seeing themselves described in newspapers as a flood, a tide eroding the very foundations of the country? “That’s gay” has become a synonym for “that’s stupid”, so how does that impact the phrase “they’re gay”?

In the UK, even ‘human rights’ is subject to this. Linked by politicians and media to frivolous law suits, the government is talking about repealing the Human Rights Act. The message given is that human rights legislation protects terrorists, not, for instance, hard working families. Now don’t get me wrong, we should always be considering if human rights legislation is fit for purpose, but watch the language used. Human rights aren’t trivial. Human rights aren’t frivolous. And we should rage against language that turns rape into entertainment and individuals as somehow less human than ourselves. Because language can inspire action, and sometimes we deny the humanity of others through the very words we use.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2013

There’s a garden in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem institute, in which an avenue of trees commemorates those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. I find that idea powerful, that in a bustling city at the epicentre of religion and politics and geopolitical tensions there’s a place for contemplation and peace and history.

It exists within a wider context, of course, a context of tragedy and horror and violence. It’s right to remember those who survived, the heroes who saved others, but the bigger story is that of the millions killed, industrialised slaughter and the vicious, brutal explosion of racism and xenophobia. I visited Yad Vashem years ago; it’s a place that changes you. I remember a room full of candles and pictures of murdered children. It wasn’t a room to simply walk away from.

More people died than were saved; it’s that simple. We memorialise what happened, not just because of it’s horrific history but because it happens again and again and again, in Rwanda and Cambodia and Bosnia and Darfur, and maybe if we keep remembering, sooner or later we’ll take the damn hint and it won’t happen again.

And yet remembering the rarer stories of the rescued and the rescuers remains important. Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with National Storytelling Week, and maybe telling stories of survivors and rescuers will, if not prevent another genocide somewhere in the world, strengthen reactions to it, light beacons of hope.

So I’ve blogged about Irena Sendler and Astrides de Sousa Mendes before, and then there’s Leopold Socha. A Polish sewage worker, Socha, his wife and a colleague hid a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers under Lwow – a year after the end of the war, Socha was killed saving his daughter from being hit by a truck. I think it’s safe to say that he’s my new hero.

But while I’ve heard of these, and while Oskar Schindler is a household name, I know less of the stories of the death, survival and saviours of gay people and Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Trade Unionists and… The Holocaust is overwhelming in its scale, terrifying in how communities seemed to collapse so suddenly, neighbours colluding in putting the people who lived next door on trains to death camps. The reasons for this – fear, propaganda, malice – all seem painfully inadequate, but they serve as a reminder – these things can ultimately only happen when communities turn against each other. A military can bomb a town, sure, but to operate an infrastructure of identification, registration and murder? That requires communities to turn toxic.

And maybe that’s a reason to remember the Righteous Among the Nations; this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme is ‘Communities Together: Build a Bridge’, and stories of survival demonstrate how various individuals fought to maintain those communities, not simply labelling those around them as Jewish or Gay or Gypsy or Tutsi, but as people, friends, neighbours; a community.

It’s so easy for communities to fracture: a few cynical political and media comments and suddenly attacks on the disabled are on the rise; suggest opening a mosque in certain places and see what reaction you get. It’s terrifying, but the capacity to run that infrastructure I talked about earlier is never as far away as we’d like. “It couldn’t happen here” is only true until it actually happens here.

The stories we tell define our communities; let the stories of the Holocaust, of all the other genocides we watched on the news, act as warnings and testimony, yes, but also as inoculation. Let’s tell stories, not lies; let’s build bridges, not camps.

Human Trafficking Awareness Day 2013

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Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Here’s a repost of a piece I wrote for Anti-Slavery Day last year – the issues remain relevant.

We think we know what slavery is, most of us. It’s Wilberforce and ‘Amazing Grace’, the American Civil War and and Abraham Lincoln. It’s a thing of the past, a historic barbarity.

And yet human trafficking to the UK is rising. Rising.

It’s almost unbelievable. This sort of thing should be non-existent, not getting worse. Sure, it’s not endemic in this country – 946 victims last year, a tiny fraction of the population – but that almost makes it worse. It’s a hidden sin operating in a shadowy world that most of us fortunately never encounter. I mean, people are being trafficked here for forced organ removals. It’s near impossible to comprehend, like the news and a exploitative horror movie have somehow got scrambled.

But the reality is that 712 adults and 234 children were thought to be victims last year, forced into prostitution, street crime and the sex industry. Slavery’s not a thing of the past, it’s still alive and getting worse.

That’s just in the UK though. Globally, human trafficking is up there with drugs and arms dealing as one of the top criminal money-spinners. Statistics are hard to come by, but World Vision states that between 500,000 and 4 million people are trafficked, 80% of them being women and 50% being children.

Well of course they are. Because this sort of thing always seems to lead back to the exploitation of women or children.

And let’s not kid ourselves. This – Well, let’s be crass and brutal and call it a market – exists because there’s a demand for it. Victims end up working in brothels and sweatshops and lap-dancing clubs and fields and mansions because they’re seen as just another commodity. And it’s not just the traffickers involved in this, it’s those who use these ‘services’ – heck the porn and mobile phone industries are massive and neither of them are particularly fair trade.

Hey, look, I own an iPhone.

The demand’s there alright. Some of it comes from me. Not intentionally, not really knowingly, but maybe that’s what happens when the primary model of human interaction prioritises consumers over community.

I don’t know how to fix this problem. I know there are organisations out there fighting for the victims of trafficking and modern slavery, and God bless them every step of the way. But I recently heard something wise – how do we fight things that are bigger than us if our engagement with organisations or politics has to be limited? Sure, we donate, we write to MPs, but that doesn’t feel like enough, so what then?

Just for a moment, forget they exist.

In other words, we can’t put all the onus on the Government or Stop the Traffik. We can’t leave them to fight a battle for which we ‘re all responsible. So forget they exist for a moment – what choices do we make, day-to-day, that could minimise slavery? What purchases have to change? When do we have to open our eyes?

I don’t do this anywhere near enough. I’m glad there are people out there fighting, but I’m fractionally making their job harder. That’s a tough admission to make, but it’s true.

And slavery is getting worse.

Questions About The Death Penalty

20110922-135834.jpgIs the death penalty wrong?

If it’s wrong, does that mean God was wrong when He commanded it in the Old Testament?

Or is the death penalty right?

And was Jesus therefore wrong when he said “Turn the other cheek”?

Or is it wrong on a personal, vengeful level and right on a legal, law-enforcing level?

Should the state even base laws on religion?

Should religions be selling-out their beliefs by getting caught up in the fundamentally compromised world of politics?

Is it right to accept that, in a country with the death penalty, innocent people will mistakenly be executed?

Is is right to accept that, in a country without the death penalty, guilty-as-hell serial killers and rapists may go free and strike again?

At what point does someone become responsible for their own actions?

And if someone’s not altogether responsible for their own actions, through mental illness for example, should they ever be executed?

Even if they’ve done something truly abhorrant?

If you’re pro-life, are you therefore anti-death penalty?

If not, why not? Innocents are still dying.

If you’re pro-life, are you therefore anti-war?

If not, why not? Innocents are still dying, many of them babies.

Is it a numbers game? Acceptable losses, collateral damage?

What ratio of innocent victim to legitimate target are you therefore willing to accept?

If you’re pro-choice, are you therefore pro-war and pro-death penalty?

If not, is it therefore because it’s unacceptable to kill a human but not a fetus?

When does a fetus become a human?

When does life begin?

Is there a soul?

When does the soul become joined to the human body?

If there isn’t a soul, how do you know?

What about the times scientists have been wrong?

If there is a soul, how do you know?

What about the times priests have been wrong?

Don’t women have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies?

Don’t children have the right to be born?

Is abortion always wrong?

Even when birth would threaten the mother?

Even if the child would have no quality of life?

Even if the mother was raped?

Assuming you had the means, would you adopt a child if it meant preventing an abortion?

How many innocent people have to be executed before it’s accepted that the death penalty is seriously flawed?

How many guilty people have to reoffend, and how much more has to be spent on prisons and law enforcement, before it’s accepted that a more extreme deterrant is called for?

Does it matter if the death penalty disproportionately affects the poor and ethnic minorities?

What do you think about the poor and ethnic minorities in general?

Would you press the button to execute someone?

Would you let someone else?

Why?

Would you press the button to execute someone if there was reasonable doubt?

Would you let someone else?

Why?

Would you watch?

Why? Why not?

What’s worthy of execution? What isn’t? Where do you draw the line?

Would you vote for someone you disagreed with over the death penalty?

The death penalty provojes a thousand and one questions, weaving around other contentious issues, becoming a shibboleth for where you stand politically. The subject will be debated and insults will be thrown and politicians will make capital from it for years to come.

None of which helps Troy Davis, or his family, as of 11:08pm, Eastern Time, on September 21st 2011.

It was Peace Day.

Breaking the Chains: Emancipation Day 2011

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According to the Economist’s Democracy Index 2010, I live in the 19th most democratic country in the world. I can’t say I think about this too often; it’s just how things are in my part of the world. I’ve reaped the rewards fron the work of Suffragettes, Chartists and nineteenth century reformers. I know this is a big deal, but still I take it for granted.

Today is Emancipation Day, 177 years since slavery was (technically) abolished throughout the British Empire. Celebrations will be held throughout the world, in Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Canada. Quite right too; it’s worth celebrating, albeit somewhat difficult to appreciate how an abhorant concept like humans-as-property came to dominate the world.

And yet all this should act as a reminder that slavery isn’t a thing of the past. Stop the Traffic has some sobering statistics: 1.2 million children are victims of human trafficking each year, according to UNICEF; 12.3 million people worldwide are involved in forced labour, according to the International Labour Organisation; 80% of those trafficked across international borders are women and girls, while 50% of them are children, according to the US State Department. There are many organisations fighting this, doing heroic work in the face of humanity’s darker desires and its hunger for cheap labour and no-strings sex. But then it’s always going to be an uphill struggle until everyone asks where their cheap clothes and internet porn come from.

I mean, I know I don’t ask the right questions, and even though I believe in the importance of universal human dignity, they wouldn’t even be questions if they related to my friends and family. “If I buy these cheap trainers, would it help screw up the lives of my girlfriend, my sister and my mom?” isn’t something that would never get asked because the answer is so damn obvious, and because I’m not a sociopath.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You or I can’t be the world’s conscience 24/7; sooner or later we’d fail, miss a vital piece of human rights information, get fatigued and say screw it. I know. And I also know I’m coming across as a preachy hypocrite, but… Well, I guess it’s the curse of the Information Revolution. William Wilberforce once said “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” That was in 1791 and he didn’t even have internet access.

But there’s another way of looking at this, one that also grows out of thoughts of slavery and emancipation. I talked here about doing good, about not doing as much as I should, and this ties in with something said by John Newton, repentant slavetrader turned writer of Amazing Grace: “I am not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.”

Today is Emancipation Day; maybe it can celebrate not only the release of captives, but that of their captors as well. The world’s in a mess, partly because we don’t ask the the right questions about where ‘products’ come from, be they clothes, media or services of a morally more dubious kind. Maybe we should ask those questions. Maybe we should break those chains.