Category Archives: Minerva 3

On the politics of humanitarianism: disaster diplomacy

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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: http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine/issue-37/disaster-diplomacy-in-aceh

Disaster diplomacy: how disasters affect peace and conflict: http://www.preventionweb.net/english/professional/publications/v.php?id=18059 )

 

[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

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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 google.org, 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.

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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?

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“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 http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/women/docs/Paper_Prosecution_of_Sexual_Violence.pdf.

[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!

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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.

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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

Are culture and human rights incompatible?

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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.

Marking International Women’s Day – 1 of 3 personal reflections

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I have become increasingly frustrated lately with the music industry, with the shallow, vacuous lyrics and the way women are reduced to mere sexual and emotional objects. I find them patronising and insulting rather than flattering. Don’t get me wrong, I am a hopeless romantic too. But my life is not reduced to how many hearts I break or not, whether I want to run to a man’s arms or not, or if the man of my dreams has decided to go with another woman. My life is rich with plenty of other experiences that also define me.

The way women are depicted in the media or in movies (and Hollywood is not unique, Bollywood does its share of women misrepresentation!) is also something that increasingly bothers me. And with the explosion of senseless and ridiculous real-life TV type of shows, it hurts to see how many women have become proud victims of a gendered vision of society that reduces them to mere objects that serve no other purpose than to meet the needs of men. Even female singers sound like broken whingeing records. I get that love is an ever lasting source of inspiration. But is that all women are for? Make men happy and live lives that are fulfilled by the mere presence of a man who loves us? Me thinks definitely not!

Gender is a hopelessly misunderstood issue. Even some good intentioned, so-called feminists get it wrong. And many of the awareness raising efforts that pitch women as the answer to all of the world’s problems are wrong and simply, miss the point. I have news for you: there are good women, and there are not so good women, just like there are good and bad men. The reactions to the death of Lady Margaret Thatcher a case in point – was she a feminist or the antithesis to feminism? Neither, she was a person with a vision, and unfortunately her vision was not a very nice one (nor for women or for the poor and disenfranchised for that matter), but that is another question. You see, I do not necessarily consider myself a feminist, I simply think that women are not deserving of equality and rights and worth investing in because they are women, but because they are people! ‘Human beings’ is the defining character of both women and men.

So this International Women’s Day I would like to pay tribute to two ladies that have inspired and educated me through their work and actions to change the way women and girls are portrayed in the media and in films: Gina Davis and Cate Blanchet. I leave you with a couple of clips that say it all. Happy International Women’s Day, may it be one that gets us closer to gender justice and to everyone being treated like an equally deserving human being.

Cate Blanchet Oscars Speech via Huffington Post

Children for sale

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– “Madam, you are white and your husband is white, how come these babies are so dark?”

– “Ah well, they are adopted. Do you understand adopted?”

“No”

– “Well, a mother who was pregnant but could not keep the babies decided to give them up for adoption so other parents could look after them”

– “Aaaaaah, and you gave her money yes?”.

That is how the average conversation about my sons’ background goes in Malaysia. The lady that helps me look after them is often asked “how much did they pay for the babies?” “Ah no, they did not pay anything” she replies. My sons were free.

Child trafficking is a big problem around the world. It is a very, very complex issue that goes far deeper than the smuggling, paedophile rings or prostitution networks that we sometimes hear about in the news. As I write, a 20-month-old British baby was taken from his house last night in the same suburb I live in. It could be a family or business related issue, or it could be a trafficking ring that then sells the baby, who is then taken to Thailand for the sex industry. But the reality of this issue is that there are many layers, drivers, causes, contexts.

In Malaysia, buying babies is scaringly common. I heard of a Malaysian-Indian baby boy just born in hospital. The devout Christian parents too poor to keep him, were looking for a family to adopt him. It was their fifth baby, two of them had already been placed in orphanages. All they wanted was RM4,000 (about AUD 1,500) to make ends meet. And just like that, making babies becomes a business. Most reports focus on human trafficking for sexual exploitation, a huge problem in Malaysia compounded by a lack of appropriate legal frameworks and protections, and Malaysia’s geographical location. But I am talking about a different kind of trafficking, one that serves to meet the demand for babies from couples seeking to adopt, while at the same time becoming a source of income for desperate women and families.

Young girls, unmarried women, foreign workers, are often those who fall pregnant and are unable or unwilling to keep their babies. Baby dumping is incredibly common in Malaysia. So much so that a local organisation, OrphanCARE, decided to create a baby ‘hatch’ for mothers to leave their unwanted babies so they can be taken care of rather than dumping them elsewhere. This has proven to be fairly effective in cutting down the number of babies being dumped and raising awareness. Even providing counselling to the mothers, some of whom change their mind and keep the babies. The Malaysian government, rather than addressing the causes of baby dumping (religious reasons are a big impediment, as well as socioeconomic factors), is set on curbing the trend with a strict regime of deterrent measures including 10 years jail for those found guilty of baby dumping. The Government thinks strengthening the laws will act as a stronger deterrent. In the process those being punished are the, often desperate and in need of help, mothers. This approach does not seek to understand the complex reasons behind such a tough decision and leads to widespread impunity, particularly worrying in those cases in which men have been involved through forceful and criminal acts.

Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)

Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)

Some mothers are willing to sell their babies. There are significant child trafficking syndicates in Malaysia and, with a large demand for babies for adoption on the one hand, and religious and education limitations compounded by complex socioeconomic factors on the other…you get the picture. But not all children are caught in criminal trafficking networks. Some mothers just want to find families for their children and prefer to leave their babies directly with families who want to adopt. If you are a foreign worker, or a teenager whose family is unaware of your pregnancy, taking your baby to an orphanage might not be an option for a range of reasons. There is a process called private adoption where there are (generally and supposedly) no financial transactions involved other than support with medical costs during birth, followed by a court process that establishes the legal guardianship of the adoptive parents with the consent of the birth mother. This process can be problematic at many levels, but it also fills a very wide gap in a conservative society complicated by the presence of high numbers of female foreign workers, a human rights vacuum and pretty low socioeconomic conditions.

People adopt for many different reasons. Families with children of their own simply consider adoption as another option to add to their family, others are motivated due to awareness about the amount of abandoned children in Asia. Others might be desperate to adopt due to an inability to conceive. There are other more sinister reasons behind an adoption, including slavery. Many families are willing to pay the high prices for children, and often they might be unaware that the adoption process is illegal. These families can be caught in police investigations later on with devastating consequences for the children. There are many, many complex factors at either end of the ‘demand and supply chain’. And right in the middle are these helpless, innocent babies some of whom have been born out of wedlock, some fruit of a heinous act, others ‘commissioned’ to alleviate poverty conditions, and yet others simply born out of a lack of sexual education and contraceptive means. Many, many, slip through the bureaucratic and legal cracks.

There are perfectly legitimate ways to offer alternatives to an institutionalised life, but often the processes are burdensome or hampered by bureaucracy (for example orphanages here get subsidies for the children they host, when a child is adopted, the allocated subsidy is lost – you do the math). Education and a strong and sound legal framework that is truly protective of all sides is essential – Malaysia for example is not a party to the 1993 Hague Convention on inter-country adoption.  But even this is not enough for babies born to, for example, non-nationals. Those babies when born in a country that is not the home country of the birth mother become stateless and, in the case of Malaysia, are not recognised as Malaysian. This makes them even more vulnerable.

For those of us educated enough to know and understand root causes, consequences and national and international legal frameworks, and who have gone out of our way to ensure the best course of action is taken, it hurts to walk down the street with our precious children knowing people will wonder how much we paid for them, as one would enquire how much that nice handbag might cost. For as long as adoption remains one of those novelty topics rarely discussed in public, characterised by long, costly, lengthy and burdensome processes, a desperate last resort option rather than a perfect way to starting a family; for as long as mothers are not supported and instead penalised and/or criticised for their inability to raise their own children; for as long as duty bearers fail to educate societies, and to provide the protections and legal frameworks needed to address root causes; for as long as cultural and religious underpinnings are abused in favour of power politics and gender injustice, vulnerable women and children will continue to fall victim to our inability to protect them. And I will continue to receive inquiring looks, inappropriate questions or whispered comments as I walk past. My sons are the most painful gift that I will ever have the privilege to receive.