Author Archives: Mirth and Minerva: a creative writing space

About Mirth and Minerva: a creative writing space

It all started in a postgrad room at the University of Melbourne where we were writing our PhDs on International Relations. Since then life as taken us down different paths and places, but we remain inquiring minds and lovers of good, critical writing. With this blog we hope to create a writing space for us and for other inquiring women around us.

2014: A Time for reflection


It is that time of year again when we hear people lament: “Where has the year gone? I haven’t achieved anything I wanted to achieve this year.” It is that time of the year when shops try and seduce us to spend our money, and in many cases money we don’t have, on the must have Christmas gifts. It is that time of year when we madly rush to clear out our in-tray of outstanding tasks so that we can start the New Year with a clean slate. And it is that time of year when we make ambitious New Year’s resolutions that for the majority of us will fall to the wayside by the end of January. Yet, in our mad rush to finish projects, tick tasks off our To Do list, and plan for the year ahead, we forget to take a moment out of our lives to look back on the year that was and celebrate all that we have achieved, and acknowledge those not so great moments that we might prefer to erase from our memories. Both our successes and our failures have in one way or another brought us to the point we are at today and have shaped who we are.

Political leaders could certainly benefit from looking at their past actions and the past actions of former leaders. In the year marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, it is a poignant time to reflect on all those who fought, suffered and died during this war but to also to reflect on why WWI failed to mark the “war to end all wars”, with conflicts such as those in Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Gaza, just to name a few, continuing to be waged throughout the world and political leaders failing to reach agreement on how to end these conflicts and bring peace and stability to every corner of the world. Although a ceasefire was signed in 2002, officially marking the end of the war in the DRC, millions of Congolese citizens have continued to die due to the on-going violence in Eastern Congo. The inability of the state to provide protection and basic amenities for its citizens demonstrates not just a failure on the part of the state to protect its citizens but also the failure of international efforts, such as the United Nations, to step in and provide such security for those citizens caught in the crossfire between militia groups and government forces. We live in a world where on-going conflicts such as those in the DRC, the Central African Republic, Mali or South Sudan are pushed off the 24-hour news cycles for more current conflicts such as Iraq, where increased international attention and energy is being directed. Yes, there is no denying that the international community has a responsibility to defend Iraqi citizens against the barbaric acts of ISIS, but has the international community, and in particular the US and its allies, learnt from their previous campaign in Iraq or are the same mistakes being repeated? Political leaders need to learn from the past to better respond to current conflicts and they should not place in the too hard basket those long-standing conflicts that may not have immediate strategic significance for what they perceive to be more pressing security threats. Every life lost in conflict is a tragedy and one the world is poorer for having lost.

In a society where we constantly press delete or refresh on our electronic devices to start anew, there is a tendency to look at life in a very similar fashion and to not learn from past experiences. But as we have realised time and again, every action leaves an imprint that has a ripple effect on our lives, the lives of those around us and even those we don’t know. As such, while many would like to press delete or refresh and draw a line in the sand on 2014 and start 2015 afresh, we can’t, nor should we try to erase a full year from our memories. We need to acknowledge the journey we have taken to arrive at the point we are today. By looking back at the past year we can learn from both our successes and failures and hopefully start 2015 armed with a few more life lessons to help us tackle future opportunities and challenges with more wisdom and knowledge about who we are as individuals.

Personally, 2014 has been a mix of achievements, failures, adventures and routine. It has been a year of reflection, of frustration, and enlightenment. It has been a year in which I have made a more concerted effort to find ways to be more engaged with my community – whether that be my family, local community or global community. It has been a year in which I have spent much time looking back at my journey thus far and finding a more rewarding and enriched path to take for myself, and those around me. 2015 is not about setting unrealistic resolutions but to continue growing as an individual to being open to the unexpected and potentially exciting opportunities that may come one’s way. It is about being armed with our own life lessons so that we can choose our path.

So, before you decide to forsake 2014 to the vault take some time to reflect on all that has happened in your life this year. You might be surprised at what you have achieved and how your life has been all that much richer as a result of what you have experienced in 2014.


On the politics of humanitarianism: disaster diplomacy


The targeting of aid workers by ISIS militants has raised again the issue of the unprecedented politisation of aid of the last decade, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea of disaster diplomacy that has been around for a while recognises the impact that disasters can have on peaceful and unstable contexts and the opportunities that arise for internal as well as external stakeholders. Disasters very rarely take place in political vacuums and in some instances they have been catalyst for significant socio political changes, as in Aceh following the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Disaster diplomacy is a concept that is beginning to dominate the defence and foreign agendas of many countries. Following typhoon Haiyan, that hit Philippines with devastating effects a year ago, there was a significant number of reports alluding to disaster diplomacy, especially with relation to US and Chinese involvement. It is an inevitable trend in a region (the Asia Pacific) where military exercises and simulations on humanitarian disasters is a good way to build trust, reinforce key messages about the sanctity of state sovereignty, and feel good about working together. But it is problematic because, in the long-term, we are likely to see militaries used to advance foreign policy agendas and aid policies shifting to accommodate geopolitical considerations (even more so than it is now). And this can have an impact on aid workers the world over, especially in complex emergencies situations.

In the non-for-profit sector there is an understandable and increasing scepticism about the rising role of militaries in relief activities. Not least because, in many of today’s conflicts, this role can lead to a blurring of the lines between humanitarian and military actors. Both have different approaches, priorities, procedures and organisational goals. And in certain contexts, the conflation of these different ways of operating can lead to misperceptions, confusion and, ultimately, significant threats to the security of aid workers and their operations, as well as the communities in need of assistance. It is a serious issue. Journalists and politicians often don’t help by making comments that are uninformed and contribute to misinformation and misperceptions. Remember the Bush administration’s claim that NGOs were force multipliers in the war on terror?

And then there are also issues over duplication, conflation, confliction, wasting of aid, lack of accountability, etc., etc. Many humanitarian operations run by NGOs have had to be suspended due to insecurity and inability to carry out their mandate in accordance with international standards. This has devastating effects on the communities that need help. It is complex.

Militaries in the Asia Pacific region are using disaster diplomacy to promote better relations with other militaries, and now humanitarian exercises form part of most joint military exercises. Even China has joined in. The US military is considering institutionalising HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) as a core part of its function, in much the same way as Malaysia or Indonesia, to name a few. NATO has developed doctrine on disaster assistance.

This is undeniably a secondary benefit, and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I argue that it should never be the goal, especially in complex emergencies. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the politisation of humanitarian aid goes against its very basic principles: humanity, impartiality and neutrality. There is also the principle of independence, which can also be threatened by the militarisation of aid that often goes hand-in-hand with the politisation of humanitarian aid. You see, any political agenda will have a hierarchy of priorities, and human suffering and its alleviation should never be ranked.[1] Take for example the many humanitarian crises that are just forgotten due to their geopolitical irrelevance. Second, aid funding can be diverted to cover the costs of fulfilling foreign policy agendas rather than focusing on alleviating suffering. Like focusing on provinces that contain the elements for a political win rather than on those that are more likely to benefit from the aid.  I am not saying all money should go to NGOs. What I am saying is that aid funding should be focused on aiding in an effective, sustainable and accountable way, and in line with international standards.

Third, there is the issue of the blurring of the lines I mentioned above. In the last few years the militaries of many countries have come a long way in developing better ways to fulfil their operational mandates; be it in combat or in humanitarian relief operations. ‘From warriors to peacekeepers’ is often used informally to describe how their role has shifted since the end of the Cold War. But at the end of the day, they remain war fighting machines, and no matter how well they can implement Quick Impact Projects (and don’t get me started me on those) they will never be able to escape their raison d’etre, nor do they want to. And that is a problem.

Don’t get me wrong, military capabilities fulfil a critical and life-saving function in the early stages of a response. Militaries know that, humanitarians know that. Many countries in the Asia Pacific region have integrated their national militaries into their disaster management systems with a high degree of effectiveness. Militaries are a lot more proactive in promoting dialogue than humanitarians and the first to admit they don’t want to create dependencies (except for the South Koreans in Philippines who have decided to stay on for 12 months and assist with recovery after typhoon Haiyan, that is the first such case). And there are enough rogue aid workers out there causing more harm than good in endangering humanitarian professionals in complex emergencies. The waves of good will that lead to people just packing up their bags to go and help in crisis situations often result in further complications as was recently illustrated by a New Zealand ‘aid worker’ who essentially called on military forces in Iraq to violate International Humanitarian Law. Just. Like. That.

There is no denying that the killing of aid workers and journalists by ISIS, accused of being political pawns illustrates the effects that the politisation of aid in Iraq and Afghanistan have had. 2013 was the deadliest year yet for aid workers: 155 killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped. Disaster situations in other parts of the world are also relevant, as are the actions of all involved in emergency relief. What happens on one side of the world can be easily followed from distant places thanks to social media and the internet. Politicians, journalists, practitioners and commentators need to understand that disaster diplomacy is a double-edged sword. It may win the government of the day a few points. It could even help bring diplomatic opportunities that may alleviate certain geopolitical pressures, and this is positive. But it also affects millions of people who suffer in geopolitically irrelevant states because their lives are not worth investing on. It has the potential to duplicate aid efforts and contribute to ineffectiveness if contribution reflects, or is perceived to reflect, a political whim. It creates a blurring of the lines that leads to misperceptions and misunderstanding about the intention of humanitarian aid, both in disaster and complex emergency situations. And it leads to the increased number of security and safety hazards, and deaths of international and local humanitarian practitioners we have witnessed over the past decade.

If interested in reading more about this disaster diplomacy here are two links:

Disaster Diplomacy in Aceh:

Disaster diplomacy: how disasters affect peace and conflict: )


[1] Note, I am talking about humanitarian aid, not development. This is an interesting debate when we talk about the implementation of human rights treaties.

On Google saving lives and other disappointments


At a recent event I attended discussing coordination in humanitarian action I was curious and excited to see that Ann Lavin, the current director of Public Policy and Government affairs for Google Asia Pacific was talking about Google’s role in the humanitarian space. But my hopes were soon to be crushed.

For the humanitarian community, the role of the private sector is only just now starting to receive much needed attention, and I have to say our government counterparts and UN agencies are doing a much better job so far. The role of for-profit organisations in the humanitarian space is gaining much momentum and little is known about their approach, other than the ‘corporate social responsibility’ bottom line we have all heard, but know little about. And I am not talking about big donations, I am talking about involvement in direct assistance. Everyone is doing it, it seems. In the response to Haiyan in the Philippines Samsung, Korean Airlines and Boeing were some of the few private sector organisations delivering relief aid. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs even put out a Business Brief as part of efforts to avoid duplication and maximise the effectiveness of efforts. Deutsche Post DHL have a global department dedicated to training their staff and assisting them to become involved in humanitarian operations. More and more organisations are becoming involved in very visible roles and in direct assistance activities.

So back to Google. Google has set up their, which aspires to become a fully accessible portal dedicated to sharing information in times of crisis (among other initiatives). When a disaster strikes, they will put a link on the page for people to view and update, or that is how it was explained. The kind of information shared will be, as Ms Lavin put it, anything and everything, although they would prefer if it was from reputable sources. This was not a caveat, however. In my anticipation for what she was going to say I begun to hear alarm bells. Unchecked, potentially sensitive information was going to be made available on the world wide web, in real time? I remembered when doing a child protection training course that we were given a very troubling piece of information. In the days following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami, a very high number of registered paedophiles from Australia and New Zealand booked tickets to Thailand. Now these people and other criminal minds could just check the internet to find out where the most vulnerable will be located, which roads will be closed and therefore what areas could be open for looting, potentially highlighting the weaknesses and security vacuums of incredibly vulnerable communities that have just been hit by a disaster. They could even use the tool to their own advantage!

I put this question to Ms Lavin. She was enthusiastic about the value of information, Google’s main asset. So I asked, given the situation with the paedophiles in Thailand, what mechanisms and processes does Google have in place to avoid the unintended consequences of making sensitive information available to the whole world? Call me naïve, but I thought the context setting and question formulation was clear. And I also thought that the question was of a worrying enough nature for her to take it seriously. But Ms Lavin heard “paedophiles” and “Thailand” only. She laughed off that there should be limits put on the kind of information available online. And she proceeded to make a joke about “not searching for child pornography” in crisis situations or any situation because “Google will turn you in”. The male (military) dominated audience laughed, except for very few who knew exactly where I was coming from. My question brushed aside with great flare, I was left extremely disappointed at Google’s lack of accountability.

I was somewhat consoled by the fact that my peers had been left equally disappointed. These are the kind of people Ms Lavin was calling upon to work with Google to make information available, ultimately to make Google look like the ultimate corporate socially responsible citizen. Well, I have news for you Google, corporate social responsibility is more than just a label. It is not just about picking a feel-good cause, put resources into it to make an underdeveloped idea a reality and take the credit. Humanitarian crises are situations in which hundreds, thousands of people often living in already precarious situations have their vulnerabilities multiplied by 1,000 million. Humanitarian crises are situations that take an enormous amount of time, resources and accountability to even begin to make right. Humanitarian crises require professionals that take their work and their approach seriously and responsibly (and we have our fair share of idiots too). The humanitarian community has been on a decades-long learning curve and I am not sure what exactly makes Google think that it can just get it right, the first time around, by the click of a button (quite literally).

As for the Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, her ways might be quite a hit in the male-dominated, superficial and  uninformed on humanitarian issues world of business. The humanitarian community does not have a monopoly on knowledge, but they have been doing this, as their sole occupation, for slightly longer. Right about the time when the internet was just being made available publicly. And some for even longer, Henry Dunant comes to mind. There is yet much to be learnt by Google and peers about the sort of impact that their actions can have, other than adding to their bottom line, in whatever way they want to think about it. And I welcome the opportunity to again remind them that child protection is an incredibly serious business. It makes no money, takes lots of resources, but it most certainly is not a joke.

Women for women? No, people for people.


I hate labels, always have, and I don’t like stereotyping. For this reason, I am incredibly annoyed often at the well-intentioned but flawed rhetoric that is used by so-called feminists who try to advocate for the increased participation of women in world affairs.

A while back I read yet another worthy article that was full of women/men stereotyping. The article opens with this sentence:

“Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’ No where is this adage proven truer than when it comes to resolving conflict and making peace.”

Funny that the ‘antithesis to feminism’ as she was often referred to (although not in those words) was to be used for an article of this nature. But that aside, can you see what is wrong with that picture? I tell you what is wrong: it raises false expectations for a start, puts undue pressure on women and girls, exonerates men, it promotes unhelpful stereotypes about men and women and does nothing for advancing gender justice. That is what is wrong with that picture.

Women’s inability to enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with men stems from the fact that gender equality is an absent feature of many societies. The quest for gender equality remains one of the biggest challenges of the human rights regime, and not through lack of treaties and mechanisms. Since the end of the Second World War we have seen sustained change and a proliferation of declarations, statements, soft law instruments, criminal law decisions and other ways in which the idea of gender-based discrimination is becoming harder to justify. But on the whole, the rhetoric and discourse often misses the point and efforts to advance gender equality more often than not fall into a vicious circle in which male and female stereotypes are perpetuated.

In international affairs women are often described as the peacemakers, the nurturing ones, the ones that put other people’s interests ahead of theirs, the solution to all the world’s problems: poverty, war, you name it. The problem is not that I disagree with this. There are many women who fit that description, as there are many women who don’t. And we have a tendency to punish those women who don’t rise to the occasion for ‘failing women’ (and I seem to remember Ms Thatcher copped a fair bit of that!).

In my line of work and even in my daily life I have seen educated women in positions of power treat other women like they were worthless. A doctor treating a soon-to-be-mother almost refusing her the proper attention she needed and blaming her for vulnerable condition she was in, unable to pay for a doctor or look after herself and her baby. Everyday I witness wealthy people restricting the most basic human rights of their domestic workers (no days off, confiscating passports, mobile phones, etc.). Domestic workers using violent means and blackmail against other domestic workers competing for jobs. Racism, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, competition for jobs and resources, classism and the search for status in newly developed societies; these are some of the issues that shape people regardless of their gender.

I have equally seen plenty of men fitting into the female description of nurturing, care givers and peacemakers. If you look around you will see that there are more and more stay-at-home-dads today. And I have heard stories of men travelling with young children in search of refuge. I have also worked for many men who are more passionate about gender justice than many women I have met. I think awareness and education are the keys to shaping people’s views about gender, not your biological predisposition. I think the ‘socially constructed’ context is much more relevant than your given-sex. And the rhetoric of gender equality is flawed, because it is intrinsically linked to a need for comparison: equal to what? (men). And if you think about it, it also makes ‘difference’ sound bad.

Gender refers to the roles and responsibilities of men and women that are created in families, societies and cultures. The concept of gender also includes expectations held about the characteristics, aptitudes and likely behaviours of both women and men. Women are not gender experts just by virtue of the fact that they are women. Women can be, and are, as contaminated by stereotypes as men. Check out this recent ad that says it all, really:

The perpetuation of stereotypes – even the ones we think are good, like the ones being put forward to argue the case for women’s participation in the political or economic spheres – is problematic. This is especially the case when it is based on a rhetoric of gender equality that contributes to the protective, paternalistic approach that continues to hinder the fulfilment of gender justice and women’s empowerment. What is important is to drive home the message that women, as half of humanity, are deserving of the same rights as the other half of humanity, period. We need to also recognise that they too are capable of mistakes. We should not set such high expectations on all women just because they are women (as I feel has happened with the young student turned activist Malala Yousafzai, although she seems to be meeting them – and good on her for that).

Women and girls are, first and foremost, people. And as people, they should be entitled to the same choices and opportunities as other people. And sometimes their choices will not be ideal. But that is the whole point. And we can work on the context to shape that. On acknowledging and re-dressing the male-bias that dominates our capitalist societies. On neutralising the emphasis that society places on superficiality and body image. On exposing individuals and collectives that work to undermine and threat half of society. On ensuring portrayals of men and women in the media are humanising and empowering rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes. On stopping the gender divide that is promoted from an early age through children’s toys. On letting people be people and thrive in a context in which education, access to opportunities and choice drive empowerment and self-improvement. And on celebrating those who have dedicated their lives and careers (women and men) to fight for a better, more just society.

Some really good examples I have seen:

I really like Jason Katz and this is a brilliant Ted Talk by him on the issue of violence against women:

And I am a fan of the way this A Mighty Girl website works to enhance and promote (and show!) women’s empowerment, really worth following. I just wish it targeted boys as well.

Déjà vu?


“Irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict”, this is the aim of Global Summit To End Sexual Violence In Conflict being held in London. The event is chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie in her capacity as the UN’s special envoy for the UNHCR. Great.

I can’t help but feel a bit cynical about this event though. One could argue that the United Nations Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda has tried to do just that. And there are plenty of resolution to prove it – 6 on top of landmark Resolution 1325. Do we just need to be seen to keep the momentum going while nothing of substance, mind blowing, decisive actually happens? Haven’t we been here already? I have an old feeling of déjà vu.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board with these events, and some change is happening. I am however tired of the rhetoric and the parallel lack of meaningful change. I am tired of oxymorons such as the ‘positive discrimination’ provisions to ‘help’ women (watch out for my upcoming piece on this). I am tired of the statistics. I am tired of living in a world where one has to make a business case to argue that women should be treated like human beings in the workplace.  I am just tired.

What do I mean by meaningful change? Well, I mean a real change towards gender justice. But few really understand what that means, which is why we keep going around in circles. It is not about paternalistic approaches to ‘help’ women. It is about choice. For women and men.

The United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security agenda has been hailed as a major breakthrough in focusing much needed international attention on violence against women and gender inequalities in situations of armed conflict. A product of the Security Council after much lobbying by women’s and civil society organisations, the stakes and expectations were very high. Sexual and gender-based violence had become endemic and the scale of atrocities reached horrifying levels during the conflicts of the 1990s. Protection of Civilians had earlier began to feature as a new thematic focus for the Security Council’s program of work, but was insufficient as a gender sensitive mechanism to attract the attention and necessary level of political will to push the issue forward.

Sexual and gender-based violence is, sadly, common in most, if not all, conflict situations in which the social fabric has broken down, there is little to no effective governance and social protections, security and law and order are absent and/or militarised, and where armed groups seek to control or terrorise populations to gain a military advantage[1]. Most importantly, sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict of the scale we are confronted with today is symptomatic of societies in which gender inequalities and traditional, men-dominated conceptions of women and men’s roles prevail. The perpetrators also vary widely as has been found in DRC where civilians themselves have committed sexual violence crimes. Often the levels of domestic violence also increase dramatically in times of conflict. From Liberia to Colombia, Mali, Afghanistan or Sierra Leone[2], sexual and gender-based violence, committed against women and girls, but also against men and boys, is frequent.

Rape and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated to pursue military, political or social objectives constitute a violation of International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law and Criminal Law. Sexual and gender-based violence is a form of discrimination, a crime against humanity, a war crime and a constitutive act in regard to the crimes of genocide and torture. States are obligated to refrain from violating human rights under these international legal mechanisms, and to ensure that the necessary steps are adopted to prevent incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, protect all civilians in situations of armed conflict, provide access to justice and eliminate impunity by ensuring the prosecution of these acts. The Women, Peace and Security agenda has had some impact on international law by reinforcing the existing legal frameworks and by adding to the list of soft law mechanisms that can contribute to the development of international customary law. It has also contributed to the debate about the legislative role and power of the Security Council.

But the law can do little to change stereotypes and long-held assumptions about the roles of women and men in society, especially when it is not supported by policy and practice. The UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda began by seeking to develop a normative framework that reinforces legal obligations but, most importantly, that promotes the necessary changes in policy and practice to ensure the effectiveness of the existing legal mechanisms. Resolution 1325 recognised that women perform multiple roles in conflict. They are not mere victims in need of protection, they are agents of change that experience conflict in a way that is different to men’s experiences. Women are combatants, economic, political and social actors, peace-builders and peacekeepers, leaders and advocates, and as such they ought to be recognised for their potential to contribute to the establishment and maintenance of peace. But the extent to which the Agenda has managed to do that in a way that effectively contributes to the empowerment of women, and to gender equality based on the notion that women are key stakeholders rather than passive recipients or victims, is still, questionable or, at best, limited. This is especially evident if we consider subsequent resolutions.

In addition, conceptualisation matters, as does defining the problem. And as Laura Shepherd has recently pointed out, not only do we (and international law!) keep conceptualising the role of women in conflict as passive recipients of protection and assistance, we are also failing to address the real issue of conflict-driven sexual violence by leaving out men and boys.

Why am I so skeptical about this particular event? Because I am tired of talk fests and empty rhetoric without accountability. I am increasingly tired of the altruistic objectives of people in power to save complete strangers, rather abstractly conceived (‘women in conflict’), while they fail to exercise their responsibility with those closest to them. I have met too many of these people over the years, and even worked for a few. How can we take them seriously? Of course it pays to have that abstraction as it allows you to escape the necessary reflection that would highlight that your actions might actually be contributing to the problem you are so altruistically (and with such fanfare) trying to ‘resolve’ – but without being made accountable. LET’S STOP SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN CONFLICT! (shhhh let’s forget about women survivors under my responsibility because that is just too real). Nice one Mr Hague.

The momentum for action is there already, and I very much believe it is irreversible. What we need is a complete shift in thinking, we need accountable leaders who walk the talk and go beyond rhetoric, and we need the political will to eradicate sexual and gender based violence in conflict. And I am not sure that this Global Summit, Angelina Jolie and all, is going to get us any closer than we already are without, at least, these three elements.




[1] For an interesting historical review see for example VISEUR SELLERS, P. The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in conflict: The Importance of Human Rights as Means of Interpretation, OCHA, Available from

[2] See for example the Annual Report 2011 of the Team of Experts, Rule of Law/Sexual Violence in Conflict, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (2011).

Malaysia truly haze ya!


The title is not mine, someone much more eloquent and creative than me came up with it. And I am borrowing it because it is a very funny play on words with Malaysia’s tourism slogan, which has been for a few years ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’. Ironically, it is also truer than the slogan Malaysia likes to use to promote itself.

Malaysia and Singapore suffer from a terrible problem with air pollution. Every year, forest fires in neighbouring Sumatra cause waves of smoke that send air pollution index readings to very high, and unhealthy levels. And the consequences of this range from school closures, to the need to wear masks at all times if you must leave your home – which you should avoid. In the last couple of years I have spent in Malaysia, Air Pollution Index (API) readings have, in several occasions, reached hazardous levels (300+), and the incidence of coughing fits and allergies at home has accompanied these rises. Visibility is poor, the smell of smoke is everywhere and you are confined to your home. So you get an idea, it feels like living inside of a barbeque.



The cause of these fires is to clear land (slash and burn methods) to make way for agriculture, and more specifically palm oil plantations. If you have ever flown over Malaysia and Indonesia and looked out of the window of your plane, you would have noticed that palm oil plantations stretch as far as the eye can see and go on for kilometres and kilometres. Every now and then you might spot a patch of wild, native forest, but for the most part these have been overridden by the palm oil industry.

Many of the products you and I use on a daily basis contain palm oil. From biscuits and chocolates to shampoos, your floor cleaner, the cosmetics you use, your shaving gel, to your laundry detergent. It is also being used increasingly as a biofuel. Procter & Gamble, Nestle, Dove, are some of the many, many everyday brands that use palm oil in their products. And incidentally, these companies have been found to engage palm oil suppliers and processors that are known to engage in environmentally destructive practices. Greenpeace and other local and international civil society groups have spent many years documenting this destruction and campaigning to put an end to harmful practices that are endangering biodiversity and species such as the organ-utan or the Sumatran tiger.

Palm oil is an important source of income, and employment generation for producing countries, both for domestic consumption and, most importantly, for exports. It is also a very commonly used vegetable oil for cooking, and at least in Malaysia, it is significantly subsidised. Governments in the region are fully aware of the economic benefits of palm oil but have been largely unable to effectively implement regulation, for a number of reasons ranging from lack of resources, state of development, lack of appropriate legislation or inability to monitor air quality to corruption[1]. Many producers engage in illegal practices, such as forest clearing, open fires, slash and burn and destruction of wildlife. Indonesia is notorious, as it is also the world’s biggest producer of palm oil.

As a result, every year from the month of May until around August-September, Malaysia and Singapore are routinely enveloped in the drifting smoke clouds that come from the open fires in Sumatra. This is compounded by the lack of rain during that time of the year; the dry season. In the true non-interfering spirit of Asian politics, it seems this has become part of normal life, unless the levels of smoke and haze are so high, and so hazardous that even governments are forced to act. This happened in 2013, when after weeks of unbearable air quality, and a decrease in productivity from people unable to commute to work, the Malaysian and Singaporean governments were forced to engage with the Indonesian government diplomatically to do something about the illegal fires. And again, in March this year, we have seen the levels of haze in Malaysia spike ahead of the ‘normal open fire season’, including from local fires. But the media is not giving it too much importance yet, so the issue is forgotten with a return to cleaner air.

ASEAN has a Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement that contains a range of measures and initiatives that could do much to improve things, and some of these look innovative. There is an ASEAN’s Haze Action Online initiative  and an ASEAN Regional Haze Action Plan. But I just don’t know there is enough political will if we consider that the overall response seems rather segmented. You see, in Indonesia’s defense, and somewhat ironically, Malaysia and Singapore also happen to be two of the biggest investors in Indonesia’s palm oil industry, which makes this whole situation all the more ridiculous. Every year residents of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are at constant risk of respiratory illnesses. These countries are pretty much doing this to themselves, turning a convenient blind eye, outweighing the economic benefits to the detriment of people’s wellbeing. And I very much doubt the private sector is being engaged the way it needs to be in order to ensure a top-down, bottom-up and across the middle approach to tackle the senseless destruction going on.

I have for a long time, even before I lived in Asia, spent some time trying to raise awareness among my friends about the effects that deforestation are having on wildlife, especially orang-utans. I have tried whenever possible to find alternatives to palm oil based products, or find companies that source their palm oil from environmentally friendly and sustainable plantations. And here I am, staring directly at this haze, unable to go outside (lest I want to risk another allergic reaction) thinking what the hell happened with all those petitions I signed back in the day. I am frustrated that the lack of media freedom is not helping put the issue in front of people for them to discuss, debate. I am annoyed at the hypocrisy of the finger pointing at Indonesia when the producers involved in illegal burning are being funded by Malaysian and Singaporean investors. I am concerned about a certain complacency at a local level that means it is always us the outsiders that come with our big activism campaigns to do something about people who can’t breathe properly for 4 to 5 months every year. And I am terrified at what it must be like in Sumatra and Borneo, for locals and for the wildlife at risk.

So, before the fire season starts in full swing for another year, I thought I would try to raise awareness again. If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, or how you can contribute to efforts to protect forests and wildlife (sorry, no campaigns yet to save our lungs! Got any ideas?) I include some links that might be of help. And next time you are out shopping, maybe think about whether you have enough information at hand to help you decide which brands use sustainable palm oil and are not impacting negatively on the health and wellbeing of people, forests and wildlife alike.

Greenpeace has an ongoing campaign and recently published a new report.

Check out this informative article about the latest haze episode reported in The Guardian

Helping you buy responsibly – Borneo Organgutan Survival Australia

WWF Palm Oil Fact Sheet



[1] Check our this Global Witness report on how corruption is having a devastating effect on Borneo’s forests

EUFOR RCA Military Operation: An Opportunity lost for the deployment of a Battlegroup?




On 1 April 2014, the European Union (EU) launched its first military operation (EUFOR RCA) in the Central Africa Republic (CAR). This decision reflects rising international concern over the increasingly volatile and violent situation in the CAR and the effects of the international community to protect the civilian population and restore security and public order in the country.[i]

EUFOR RCA represents the first time that the EU has deployed a military operation of this nature in six years. The last such operation was in 2008 when the EU sent ground forces to Chad. This is not to say that the EU has not launched military operations under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) since 2008, but rather that the nature of these operations have focused on training and capacity building operations. These operations have thus not consisted of the deployment of troops to assist with the provision of security on the ground.

 Under EUFOR RCA’s mandate, troops will seek to contribute to achieving a safe and secure environment in the Bangui area. In executing its mandate, EUFOR RCA is also expected to contribute to international efforts aimed at protecting the population most at risk and to creating the conditions for the provision of humanitarian aid. Once fully operational, it is expected that EUFOR RCA will include between 800 to 1,000 personnel, including approximately 120 military police. At this stage, the operation is expected to be in operation for six months, after which point it will transfer its activities to a UN peacekeeping force or to African partners. EU officials have also begun discussing the nature of the EU’s continued engagement in the CAR following the end of EUFOR RCA’s mandate. This includes the possible deployment of a follow up civilian mission and reinforced aid and development assistance.

For those of us who study the EU’s CSDP, what is interesting about the EU’s decision to establish EUFOR RCA is that the EU member states have once again decided against deploying one of its Battlegroups. Established in 2004 to provide the EU with the means to rapid respond to such crisis situations, whether at the request of the UN or independently, no Battlegroup has been deployed since it was declared operational in 2007. They are designed so that troops canbe deployed within 15 days notice and sustainable for at least 30 days (extendable to 120 days by rotation). They are expected to be flexible enough to undertake operations in distant crisis areas, under, but not exclusively, a UN mandate, and to conduct combat missions in an extremely hostile environment (mountain, jungle, desert etc.). They can be used for stand-alone operations, or to prepare the ground for larger, more traditional peacekeeping forces. In establishing the Battlegroups, the EU has showcased them as core tools at the EU’s disposal for its crisis management activities.

Although declared operational in 2007, the EU has neither deployed or tested the effectiveness of this CSDP rapid reaction mechanism. The non-deployment of the Battlegroups has in a large part been due to the lack of political will among member states to actually deploy these units rather than due to a lack of crisis situations in which to deploy them. In the current context, European security and military experts began drawing up plans for the deployment of a Battlegroup in December 2013 to assist France’s military operation (Operation Sangaris) but due to strong opposition from the UK, – the UK had troops committed to one of the two Battlegroups on stand-by in the second half of 2013 – the plan was not officially raised at the December European Council meeting. As a result, the Heads of State or Government of the EU member states were not placed in the position of having to discuss and vote on the issue.

The fact that the EU member states have not deployed a Battlegroup raises significant questions and illustrates key problems with the EU’s ability to act as a credible and effective crisis manager. The EU’s failure to utilize the Battlegroups illustrates that although the EU has developed an instrument to enable it to rapidly respond to crisis situations, if the political will to use this instrument is lacking, then its effectiveness, and added value potential becomes mute. In addition, the nature of the Battlegroup concept also renders deployment difficult. Aside from specifying that a Battlegroup must include the necessary support and strategic lift capabilities to allow its deployment within 15 days and be sustainable on the ground from 30 to 120 days, the actual composition of the Battlegroups remains flexible. In addition, the six-month rotation schedule of the Battlegroups is planned years in advance. Thus, Battlegroups on standby during a particular crisis may not represent the most appropriate formation for the type of operation that the conflict specifically requires.

By its very nature, the Battlegroup concept is faced with a number of obstacles to its operability and effectiveness as a crisis management tool. The usefulness of the Battlegroup is thus heavily reliant on there being an alignment between the specific crisis, and the composition of the Battlegroup on standby and the political will among EU member states to unanimously agree to its deployment. It should therefore not be surprising that the Battlegroups have remained paper commitments. Yet, the failure to deploy a Battlegroup has raised questions about its viability as a crisis management instrument and the reliability of the EU as a partner in crisis management for such organisations as the UN. It also raises questions as to the extent to which the EU and its member states have been able to recognise the problems with this crisis management tool and implement steps to re-dress these issues to make it a viable tool. As it stands, CAR marks another missed opportunity for the EU and its member states to showcase this specific crisis management tool.

[i] For a overview of the conflict in the Central African Republic see:

Amnesty International, Ethnic Cleansing and Sectarian Killings in the Central Africa Republic, 2014 <;

BBC World News, ‘Central African Republic Profile’ <;

International Crisis Group, ‘Central African Republic: Better Late Than Never’, Policy Briefing, Africa Briefing N. 96, Nairobi/Brussels, 2 December 2013, <;


Are culture and human rights incompatible?


Are human rights universal or are they dependent on cultural traditions? It is often said that the only way to advance the human rights agenda is to argue that rights are inherent and inalienable and that culture has no role to play in understanding either the content or implementation of international human rights. In response it is often argued that human rights are a Western construct not compatible with other cultures/traditions. But I have never been convinced by such arguments. And having been living in Asia for a while has made me draw a few conclusions.

The idea of universal, inherent human rights focuses on the existence of a so-called natural law, a higher moral order informed by foundational theories rooted in moral, social, political and religious ideologies. They speak to the existence and definition of human nature and what it means to have a right. These are epistemological questions that have been around for a long time.

Universality can be a tool to interfere in the internal affairs of States.  And arguably, that was the intention of the human rights system: to challenge the State and its monopoly over the means to exercise power. But this intention was also balanced with the protection of State sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention, and with the empowering of States with the responsibility to protect human rights. It is not difficult to see why a constant tension exists.

The modern human rights regime represents the institutionalisation of a set of moral values. This can be seen from the myriad mechanisms: declarations, treaties, institutions, jus cogens norms, case law, custom, etc. In this sense, even for the more skeptical of critics, it is hard to deny the existence of a set of rules and obligations that protect all persons without distinction. This, however, does not stop States from entrenching human rights violations into their Constitutions or to systematically violate human rights. Often, traditions and practices, religious beliefs and historical or geographical contexts are used to justify the relativism of human rights. This line of argument often reflects the supremacy of state sovereignty.

The development of the modern human rights regime was also a political expression of the kind of governing system that ought to exist in order to guarantee the protection of individuals. When looking at the history of the human rights regime it is impossible to ignore its cultural (and political) underpinnings. For a long time there have been claims about the implicit Western bias in the way human rights instruments have developed. But this bias is less pronounced than it is often assumed. In fact, the values articulated in human rights instruments, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are a chronological reflection of European and global values, moral lessons learnt, political ideologies, and a wide range of religious and secular traditions. Modern human rights have been influenced by Western views as much as by socialist and ‘Third-world’ views (so-called 1st generation rights, 2nd generation rights, and 3rd generation rights), both to the benefit and to the detriment of the human rights agenda.

Relativists, as they are called, often claim that universal human rights standards cannot accommodate non-Western values. Demands for group rights and cultural rights, while advancing the rights of minorities (for instance indigenous peoples), can also serve to promote the continuation of oppressive practices, as, for example, the practice of female genital mutilation as a manifestation of power politics and gender inequalities in some societies. It is for that reason that any human rights agenda cannot pretend to work in a cultural or political vacuum, least they hide national or political interest elements. Time and time again particularism and nationalism have undermined the promotion of universal human rights. Particularism speaks to different understandings of morality, of what is right and wrong, rooted in traditional practices and beliefs, and wholly context driven.

I am of the opinion that cultural relativism therefore, rather than being ignored needs to be understood in its own context, because culture has a big role to play in understanding the content of human rights and their implementation. It is true that the discourse of human rights has often become hijacked by cultural practices, religious and traditional beliefs and geopolitical conceptions. It is also often subject to domestic politics and speaks to the tensions that are often found in the way States choose (or not) to integrate international law into their domestic legislation or the way States apply the law.

Culture can be understood as tradition, national identity (both of which imply a fixed state) or as susceptible to power structures and external influences. In an evolving conception of culture, human rights can become part of culture, in turn contributing to the universalisation of human rights. But more often than not, political considerations, the primacy of the principle of sovereignty, and the tensions inherent have a bearing on the way cultures can adopt human rights values. Unfortunately this seems to be the norm. Take a look at the 1993 Bangkok declaration in which Asian countries recognised the existence of human rights. On reading this the declaration you will see that, while to most Western countries human rights are a means to an end (prosperity, etc.), for Asian countries human rights are the end itself, subject to other conditions such as economic development. The UK or Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers another example of how politics construct culture (not the other way around) in applying the law.

Cultural traditions and religious practices are often a source of gender discrimination. Arguably, any cultural tradition that allows the subjugation of half of a society, the use of violence and the constant portrayal of people as weak and worthless should be eliminated as a cultural tradition. It is, thus, not about preserving cultural traditions, it is about preserving a status of power relations. Culture can be empowering for human rights. Power politics a hindrance. Relativists often argue in favour of the latter, and hijack the evolution of culture in the process. Watching a recent National Geographic documentary about India, a marriage ceremony was explained and glorified as a celebrated cultural tradition while the (female) narrator recounted the process of symbolising the bride becoming the property of the husband and her subjugation in marriage. The whole procedure romanticised the tradition while ignoring its symbolic meaning for the perpetuation of violence against women and girls in India, an issue that has dominated international media since the brutal gang rape and death of an Indian student in New Delhi in December 2012, and countless others since.

Time and time again women’s rights, and other rights are seen as relative issues subject to cultural and religious beliefs rather than as a core human rights issue. Arguably the question should not be whether human rights are compatible with values and cultural traditions, but whether values and cultural traditions are compatible with human rights. In that case, the values of both Western and non-Western nations are put to the test.

Nonetheless, culture is the only way of understanding the content and implementation of human rights because it places those rights in the specific context. We should avoid the trap of believing that culture is fixed and learn to identify cultural values and practices that serve to perpetuate the subordination of peoples, discrimination, unfair treatment or violence, and those that promote human rights. Culture is not incompatible with human rights. Politics, power relations, lack of education and a State that fails to implement its obligations are. Ignoring the role that culture can play in advancing, as well as hindering, the human rights agenda is doing a disservice to the project of universalising human rights.

Antigone. Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1882.

I am a girl – Marking International Women’s Day, 3 of 3 personal reflections


This week I watched, for the first time, Rebecca Barry’s 2013 feature documentary, I Am A Girl, which tells the stories of six young women from around the world. Through their personal stories, the film shows what it means to grow up as a girl in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the US and Australia. For the filmmaker, the film is an attempt to put “a human face” to the disadvantage and discrimination still faced by women around the world. In telling this story, Barry has chosen to focus on certain issues facing young women today, including access to education, early marriage, childbirth and maternal health, sex work, the role of social media, and mental health.

This film is certainly quite challenging and heart-breaking at times. Take the story of Kimsey, a young 14-year old Cambodian girl, who must work as a sex worker in order to provide for her family and young child. Hers is unfortunately a very common story for poor women in Cambodia – desperation, poverty, domestic violence, hopelessness. Through her face, you can see that Kimsey sees little hope for the future.

Yet the film is also inspiring and deeply moving. In Afghanistan, the filmmakers explore the story of 17-year old Aziza, who is deeply passionate about her own education as well as education for women in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the story of 17-year old Australian girl, Katie, gives a frank, intimate and honest account of her battles with depression and self-harm, as well as the positive and tentative steps she is making in managing her condition.

Through all six stories, the film depicts the vastly different experiences and challenges facing young women across the globe. Yet, by doing so, the film also explores universal themes such as hope, despair, family, sex, future aspirations etc. Most tellingly, the stories of I Am A Girl make another and more powerful statement – gender inequality occurs no matter what the circumstance or cultural context.

This International Women’s Day, I will be thinking about the many challenges still facing girls and young women in today’s world, as well as their inestimable courage, honesty and hope.  If you can, I Am A Girl is well worth watching.

Clips of the film can be seen here:

Rebecca Barry’s Homepage

Mum is the word – 2 of 3 personal reflections marking International Women’s Day


The world is full of many well-known inspirational women but I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the contribution that a group of women closer to our own lives have made: our mothers.

To those mothers who have given their children the world by encouraging them to reach their potential regardless of their gender, race, disability or socio-economic background, they are the unsung inspirations for many people throughout the world, including me. These women, in their own small way and often unconsciously, have contributed to breaking down many of the socially constructed barriers for their children. Although the majority of these women would never describe themselves as feminists or social activists, they have each contributed to changing how we perceive our society and established dominant social norms by providing their children with a nurturing environment, the tenacity and opportunity to allow them to soar and achieve their potential and to instil in them the knowledge that dreams can become reality.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have such women in our lives, let’s take a moment on International Women’s Day and acknowledge all the sacrifices they made to allow us to be who we are and to be however small, the engines of social change in our societies.