Archive for February, 2014

February, 2014

What is to be done?

Jonna Nyman

The blog posts this week have raised a series of questions about energy security. Conventional political thinking on energy security has a narrow focus which emphasises the need to secure state energy supplies. Sustainability is largely ignored, as short-term economic benefit is continually prioritised. The political and military survival of states is prioritised over environmental or climate stability, and human security. So what is to be done?

Discussions of energy security are slowly beginning to notice the need to factor in climate impacts in economic and human net-benefit calculations, with the IEA releasing a special report in 2013 to map out what can be done. Improving energy efficiency is central, as is continued and increased investment in renewable energy. Some present nuclear energy or clean coal technologies as part of the solution, but a recent study by Mark Jacobson examined solutions to global warming, air pollution and energy security and took the three as linked, and he found that clean coal technologies and nuclear investments provided ‘less benefit with greater negative impacts’.  The conclusion of the study stated that ‘because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g. , wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world…the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems’.

Organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have also produced extensive reports outlining alternative policy solutions to enable the world to move away from fossil fuels towards a sustainable future. Whichever solution is suggested, it is likely to require a serious change in thinking on behalf of political leaders. Economist Tim Jackson suggests that rethinking notions of prosperity and growth are central to solving the issue. To minimise permanent or long-term climate and ecosystem damage, it is clear that sustainability needs to be prioritised over short-term economic gain. The truth is that we simply do not know the extent of the damage we have already caused the planet, and to save the future of humanity, any further damage needs to be avoided.

Cartoon

Image from Krankys Cartoons: http://www.krankyscartoons.com/images/Growth_Versus_Sustainability.jpg

February, 2014

Energy security as human security

Jonna Nyman

Not only are current patterns of energy exploitation a key contributor to climate instability, they also affect human security directly. First, we have the ‘indirect’ side-effects of fossil fuel burning: the impact of climate change on human health. According to the World Health Organisation, ‘global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140 000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004’. This includes not only deaths from pollution related illnesses, but also deaths from extreme heat, increase in the rate and range of weather-related natural disasters, increasing risk of floods and droughts from variable rainfall patterns (both of which increase risk of diseases, particularly in developing countries – including diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria). Changing weather patterns will also affect food security, which in turn increases the risk of malnutrition and undernutuition, particularly in the developing world (see WHO climate change and health factsheet).

Secondly, the energy extraction process has a more direct impact on human security. There are no accurate figures on how many die in coal mining accidents globally, though some estimate mining accidents alone kill around 12,000 annually. Coal miners also suffer a high risk of developing black lung disease from inhaling coal dust, as well as lung cancer and other lung diseases. Climate change is also likely to increase the ‘occupational health hazards’ associated with coal mining. Oil drilling and extraction carries it’s own hazards. The impact on local communities can be devastating. When accidents occur, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it causes a huge amount of damage to ecosystems, marine and wildlife habitats, as well as local fishing and tourism. Both residents and those involved in the clean-up also suffered long-term health consequences.

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Many people volunteered to help with the clean up operation after the BP oil spill, to minimise wildlife damage. Little did they know that they risked serious long-term health consequences in the process

Fracking, which is used to extract both shale gas and oil and which has so far been most popular in the United States, has been lauded for its climate benefits as shale gas is seen to be more environmentally friendly than coal. However, fracking releases methane into the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Other pollutants released by the drilling are known to cause ‘short-term illness, cancer, organ damage, nervous system disorders and birth defects or even death’. Groundwater pollution has been another big side-effect in areas near big shale-plays, and there is an as-yet unclear link between fracking and an increase in earthquakes.

Clearly, extracting fossil fuels has a serious impact on human survival, health and well-being, and these are all issues largely overlooked in political discussions on energy security.

February, 2014

Energy security vs climate security

Jonna Nyman

It is clear that energy security opens up some difficult questions about what or whose security should be prioritised. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Energy security as currently understood by most policymakers is incompatible with a stable climate. We see perhaps the biggest conflict between energy and climate security today in China.

As recognised by the International Energy Agency, burning fossil fuels for energy is by far the central source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If climate change and air pollution are also considered, fossil fuels ultimately no longer provide security. China’s rapid economic development has led to a huge growth in its demand for energy. It still relies largely on domestic resources, which makes it ‘secure’ if you equate energy independence with energy security. However, nearly 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal – which is both cheap and domestically available. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy, and contributes more to global warming than any other fossil fuel.

China’s air pollution problems became world news last winter, when the air quality hit new lows. The US embassy in Beijing has been measuring air quality since 2008, and publishing the data on a twitter account using a pollution measurement scale from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The air quality index suggests measurements between 101 and 150 are unhealthy for ‘sensitive groups’, meaning children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma. For pollution levels between 301 and 500, labelled ‘hazardous’, they recommend everyone to refrain from doing any physical activity outdoors. Last winter, readings reached 755 – on a scale that stops at 500. The ongoing ‘trend’ has been labelled an ‘airpocalypse’, with high levels of pollution linked to increased levels of some types of cancer, as well as respiratory illnesses. Air pollution is also a cause of acid rain, which contaminates food supplies and damages ecosystems. Air and water pollution has been linked to a new phenomenon of ‘cancer villages’ in parts of China, where inhabitants suffer unusually high rates of cancer.

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A photo of the same view in Beijing, on a clear day and during bad pollution during winter 2013

Unsurprisingly, people are increasingly unhappy about the social and environmental costs of development, and the number of environmental protests in China is rising. The government is attempting to tackle the issue, but growing energy demand means that a reduction in coal use is unlikely to happen even in the next decade. The growing conflict between increasing energy demand to support economic development and environmental stability is going to be one of the biggest challenges for China in the next decade. The government has repeatedly stated that economic development does not have to be unsustainable, but it is yet to back this up with serious action.

While the situation in China is at the centre of this debate, the rest of the world has also failed to come up with a clear solution. Existing approaches to energy security still largely overlook the impact policy choices have on the climate or the environment. Some argue that the environment or the climate are not ‘security’ issues, and while I personally disagree, whichever position you take it is clear that these are issues increasingly affecting the lives and livelihoods of human beings. The question we seem to be left with is: do we have to choose between energy security and a stable climate? Is it possible to ‘have it all’?

 

February, 2014

Saving humans or saving states?

Jonna Nyman

For some states, growing concern over energy security is turning them inwards as they attempt to maximise their own energy supplies. Much of the US energy security debate is centred around the desire for energy ‘independence’, an enticing dream of a United States which does not need to depend on anyone else. A key part of the solution presented by policy makers is to maximise domestic fossil fuel production. Both George W. Bush and Obama have emphasised the need to increase domestic production of oil and gas, resulting in an energy boom with much attention on the current ‘shale revolution’. A recent article in the Economist titled ‘Saudi America’ reflects the current mood well.

 
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While the internal debate puts the focus on producing more oil and gas domestically, energy independence is unlikely to be the saviour and solution that is hoped for. Shale gas has been hyped as a ‘bridging fuel’ which will replace dirty coal stations, thus moving the US towards a cleaner energy future. However, not only are the ‘green’ credentials of shale gas dubious at best; cheap and easily available shale gas is also replacing renewable energy sources. US coal use may be in decline, but rather than keeping it in the ground for environmental reasons, it is being exported to pollute elsewhere, making any net-climate benefit shale could have produced virtually inexistent.

In practice, climate change is largely off the agenda in energy security discussions, and leaders rarely talk about ‘coal’, preferring to use the term ‘clean coal’ – despite the fact that the effectiveness and reliability of clean coal technology is still unproven. Federal subsidies have tended to focus on fuels which emit high levels of greenhouse gases over renewable energy sources. George W. Bush noted that US ‘dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American Dream’ (2005). Obama has argued that ‘homegrown’ sources of energy ‘make us more secure’ (2012) – whether renewable or not.

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From USA today: Energy Independence is no longer a pipe dream

Of course, the United States is not alone in its desire to reduce dependence on others. However, securing the American state by maximising domestic supply in this way does not provide security in any meaningful sense. While it gives a much-needed boost to the economy today, failing to invest more in renewable energy sources which will still be here in the future is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy. The US is the second biggest CO2 emitter globally and its continuing high emissions affect human beings within and outside of the state itself, with a huge increase in pollution-related illnesses. Likewise, it contributes to climate change, endangering the future of the planet and climate that human beings depend on to survive.

Thus securing the US state by maximising domestic fossil fuel supply does not produce security in the longer term. The obsession with energy independence works to reinforce national borders and the state-system, making the need to secure ‘us’ with ‘homegrown’ sources of energy appear common sense. However, in an increasingly globalised world even an energy independent US cannot be isolated from the world. Climate change crosses borders and cannot be dealt with in these terms. The human impacts also cross borders – the West coast of the United States, for example, suffers from air pollution drifting across from China.

Traditional political thinking on energy security emphasises the need to secure state supplies of energy, focusing on fossil fuel supplies. Part of this is of course about providing citizens with energy. States also require energy to keep their economies stable, and any government which fails to ensure enough energy to keep its economy going faces the threat of uprisings, protest or even losing power. Energy shortages have a huge impact on human lives, too. However, continuing focus on fossil fuel exploitation is hugely problematic, and energy security understood in these terms is fundamentally incompatible with human security or a stable climate.

Energy security brings together a wide range of security issues and leaves us with serious and difficult questions about whose security should be prioritised. When it comes to energy security, should we save humans, or save states? Conversely, to save humans, do we need to save states? What about the current economic system? In a world with an ever-greater list of issues regarded as threats, how do we prioritise or decide which threats or security issues are more important?

Further useful links:

China’s Energy Strategy

British public attitudes to energy security

United States Energy Security Council

Geopolitics, climate change and energy governance

New energy geopolitics

The changing geopolitics of energy

CSIS project on the geopolitics of energy 

How cheap energy from shale will reshape America’s role in the world

Brookings institute: Geopolitics of energy

February, 2014

Energy security and saving humans

Jonna Nyman

Energy security is increasingly the subject of headlines around the world. Most states rely heavily on fossil fuels to serve their energy needs, and as these fuels are finite they will eventually run out. There is an ongoing debate over whether or not we already have or will hit ‘peak oil’ in the near future, but either way there is increasing worry over the availability of, and access to, energy in years to come. 

Energy security is a nebulous term which is often used by politicians to justify a range of different policy choices, but the term itself is rarely explicitly defined. Generally, it is used to refer to the availability of secure and reliable energy supplies at stable or reasonable prices. It is worth unpacking this a little further. Unlike renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, fossil fuels are geographically bound in a territory. They are not considered part of the global commons, but rather as the ‘property’ of the state in which they are located. 

In this way, ‘secure supplies’ tends to refer to energy resources which are supplied from one state to another, implicitly putting the focus on fossil fuels which are traded openly on the global market. The emphasis on security of supply also suggests a state-centric focus – energy security policy aims to secure energy supplies to the state. The focus on ‘stable prices’ indicates a heavy focus on oil, as the energy resource most vulnerable to volatile prices in the global market. These factors are at the centre of most discussions of energy security today. 

World oil chokepoints are at the centre of discussion on security of energy supply [map from http://www.eia.gov/countries/regions-topics.cfm?fips=wotc&trk=p3 ]

World oil chokepoints are at the centre of discussion on security of energy supply
[map from http://www.eia.gov/countries/regions-topics.cfm?fips=wotc&trk=p3 ]

There are a number of problems with understanding energy security in these terms. Firstly, securing states through continuous fossil fuel supplies is clearly not sustainable, neither geologically nor environmentally. It’s biased towards developed, energy importing countries, and large scale energy industries – energy exporting countries conversely need security of demand, and in parts of the world many still rely on locally collected firewood for energy. It also does not consider the impact of current energy exploitation on human security. 

There are a number of issues and unresolved questions around energy security which are relevant to saving humans, and this is what I’ll be blogging about this week. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Current patterns of energy exploitation also affect human security directly, which will be the subject of another post later in the week. 

Ultimately, the planet cannot survive if we continue to consume fossil energy at current rates. Yet, continued energy supplies are essential to maintain human life as we know it. The world still depends largely on finite and dirty sources of energy, and the growing pace of human development has been accompanied by ever-faster resource depletion. Energy security is one of the most important issues today, bearing direct impact on the continued survival of human civilisation as we know it.

Jonna Nyman has just finished her PhD within POLSIS at the University of Birmingham.

Useful links:

UK Government Energy Security Policy

Energy Security- the price of diversity

Ensuring energy security

Conceptualizing energy security

Is natural gas worse than diesel fossil fuel?

Defining energy security

 

February, 2014

World Government: Not Quite an Idea Whose Time has Come, but No Longer So Far from the Academic Mainstream

Dr Luis Cabrera

I can say without much reservation that I am one of the most avid students of world government alive today. Of course, I’m careful when and where I say that…

Actually, even in my relatively brief academic career (12 years, if you count from the PhD award date), there has been, if not a sea change, certainly a surprisingly strong trend toward serious academics taking the world government ideal seriously again.

Consider this: when my lead PhD supervisor and I were trying to put together a doctoral supervisory committee in the mid-1990s, we approached a staff member at the same US institution who had a solid global reputation as an international relations theorist. He was known for his cutting edge theorization of relations between nation-states. Yet, when approached about helping to supervise a thesis exploring the contemporary case for world government, he came back with a very rapid ‘no.’ It just wasn’t a topic he saw as meriting serious scholarly consideration, he said.

Now, such a response would likely be much harder to give. The past two authors to win the International Studies Association’s prestigious ‘Book of the Decade’ award, Alexander Wendt (2000) and Daniel Deudney (2010), have made world government enquiry a clear part of their work. Wendt, who is enormously influential for his work on how ideas and ideology can shape nation-states’ behaviour, has argued for the ‘inevitability’ of a world state – in 200 years or so. Deudney argues that the continuing threat from nuclear weapons remains so great that world-government creation is a necessity, though a weakly empowered one narrowly focused on weapons control.

Wendt and Deudney are only two of a range of IR scholars, economists, international sociologists and moral theorists who have recently explored the feasibility and desirability of full global political integration. Many others have taken up international institution building on a smaller scale, but still one that would require states to cede significant powers upward.

This might, in fact, be thought of as a second ‘heyday’ in world government thought. The first can be dated roughly from 1945-50. It was spurred by the US nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. What had been unimaginable in war was suddenly cold reality. This prompted many to think that political realities must be reconceived as well.

This wasn’t  just a fringe few, either. Leading academics – including Albert Einstein – authors, jurists, political figures and civil society leaders around the world called for, or at least expressed openness to, a world government capable of meeting the awful new threat.

The following quotation from Birmingham-area MP Henry Usborne gives a sense of the urgent rhetoric of the time. In his maiden speech to Parliament in 1946, Usborne outlined a plan for Britain to lead the way to a security and political union with like-minded democratic countries that could evolve into full world government:

‘I imagine that this proposal would meet with a great deal of opposition. That I do not mind. I am quite certain that if we doubled the opposition we should get 10 times the enthusiasm from the common people all over the world in support of a proposal such as that. Is the proposal fantastic? Is it Utopian? Yes, it is both fantastic and Utopian. It is just as fantastic as the atomic age in which we now live; it is just as Utopian as the hope of world peace.’

They ‘heyday’ period ended almost as quickly as it had begun, with the advent of the Cold War and fears of Soviet global domination.  Though some academics and others continued to make the case for world government, they remained mostly on the fringes for about the next 50 years.

Today’s resurgence of academic literature on world government, spurred in part by globalization, is distinguished by the range of disciplines involved and the prominence of some of those involved. Their arguments tend to fall into three camps. In the first, authors such as Deudney highlight continuing threats from world government, as well as terrorism and other security issues, as reason to pursue comprehensive forms of integration between nation-states.

The second camp is concerned with democratic rule. Here, ‘cosmopolitan democrats’ argue that, in an age of intensifying globalization and global economic integration, domestic democracies are losing their powers to live under laws of their own making. Thus, democratic decision making should be shifted upward, generally to include all of those who are affected by specific processes of globalization, or by the decisions of global bodies such as the World Trade Organization. Few of these authors would claim the world government title for their work, but several do advocate the creation of powerful, binding global institutions with broad powers to tax and spend for the common good.

A final camp is concerned with the promotion of justice and human rights globally. Here, authors argue that state sovereignty throws up predictable barriers to actually realizing justice or securing the rights of all persons, so forms of integration should be pursued between states. My own work would be situated here. I have argued in a couple of books and several articles that the current global system will routinely underfulfill individual rights: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/profiles/government-society/cabrera-luis.aspx That’s because it leaves states as the final judges in their own cases about obligations. Imagine if we were all left to judge which rules or laws we would prefer to follow, or especially how much tax we’d like to pay. We’d mean well, but chances are we would see other priorities repeatedly getting in the way of ‘donating’ the tax voluntarily that would be needed to maintain social institutions.

Like most students of world government, I take a very long term view. If it ever will be possible to create global institutions capable of routinely protecting the rights of all persons, I have suggested, we shouldn’t expect to see them develop for many hundreds of years. My recent work has been concerned with the kinds of integration and related changes that might be possible in the near term, and yet would conceivably contribute to the long-term aim. I have considered in particular some potentially rights-enhancing forms of regional integration.

I have enjoyed being able, as this week’s Saving Humans ‘guest blogger’ to share some thoughts on recent developments in democracy and human rights. To recap: on Monday, I discussed a new organization, Academics Stand Against poverty, that is dedicated to strengthening the academic voice and direct positive impact on poverty issues globally. On Tuesday, I discussed my own work on global citizenship and immigration, with emphasis on field research among unauthorized immigrants, and with anti-immigration and migrant-rights activists.

On Wednesday, I talked about current work on human rights and prospects for, or possible reasons to purse, trans-state democracy. I looked there at how India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights had sought to reach out to the global human rights community to bring pressure on its own government to do more against caste-discrimination. Thursday’s entry drew connections between the theoretical concerns there and in the struggle by opposition leaders and activists in Turkey to maintain a free, open democracy, against the backdrop of possible accession to the European Union. Today’s entry took the much longer view on rights and integration.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Democracy, Rights and European Hopes in Turkey

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of individuals being able to both chasten and challenge political leaders. Constitutionalized liberal democracy, I suggested, is valuable primarily – though not solely – as a means of doing this. The right to vote in regular elections, along with rights to assembly, speech, protest, and closely related rights to bring formal challenges in courts, all are means of holding those who govern us to account.

Today I want to shift the focus from India and the Dalit (former untouchables) human rights struggle to Turkey. The two may not be obvious cases to treat in the same book or blog series, but in fact, some important issues intersect in both. In the Dalit human rights case, activists struggling on behalf of a category of persons within a country assert that those persons’ rights are being systematically violated. They believe that India’s democratic institutions and courts remain stacked against Dalits, despite anti-discrimination laws on the books. At the same time, the Indian government strongly resists ‘outside interference,’ or outreach by such activists to global human rights actors. It reserves the right to interpret rights standards and rights fulfilment to itself.

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Protestor, Turkey, July 2013

In the Turkish case, similar claims are heard about democratic institutions and leaders who are increasingly unresponsive to opposition voices. Turkey has long been noted as a secular country, observing strict separation between state and Islam, the religion ascribed to an overwhelming majority of its population. One of the consistent complaints from opposition and activist leaders has been that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced ER-doh-WAN) has been incrementally introducing religious values and behavioural restrictions into law. Activists also complain of a creeping authoritarianism, on which more below.

The Turkish case, like the Indian one, has a significant international, or supranational, angle. Where the Dalit human rights activists have sought to reach out to the global human rights community in the absence of anything like a Global Court of Human Rights, Turkey has long held hopes of joining the still-expanding regional governance project just beyond its own borders.

For me, the Turkish case has been of great interest for the ethical questions it raises about obligations across borders. My basic presumption has been that Turkey stands to receive the same human rights benefits as other less-rich countries had on joining the European Union in the last several decades. These would include particularly Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. Spain and Portugal were not only relatively poor countries at the time of accession, but they also faced steep challenges to democratization and democratic consolidation. Many observers see European Community membership as an important factor helping them develop stable, rights-respecting democratic institutions.

Of course, few would suggest that membership in the now-European Union is a cure for all political ills, or that the EU itself has developed into a fully defensible set of democratic institutions. EU leaders are still dealing with the fallout from the global economic crisis, which revealed some cracks in institutional design that may need more than a quick plaster-over. Yet, longtime EU observers will note that this is far from the first crisis, and that in fact the EU’s demise has been predicted many times.

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Istanbul Police lined up, July 2013

In relation to Turkish accession, my presumption remains that it would deliver significant additional rights benefits to Turks. It would further integrate the country into the EU common market, give it a much stronger political voice in helping to shape and set the direction for that market, while enhancing economic opportunities for individual Turks, not least free movement across borders. It also should help to better ensure robust democratic rights.

I went to Istanbul for the first time last summer, to interview government officials, activists and think-tank representatives about prospects for Turkish accession. Full accession for Turkey has long been a controversial issue in some EU states, of course. This is because first, important issues remain unresolved around EU member state Cyprus. Turkey holds half of Cyprus’ territory in circumstances that continue to draw protest from several quarters. Turkey also would become the second largest EU country, behind Germany, giving it instant political clout in the union. And, a factor which is generally whispered about except by far-right factions, which tend to shout about it, Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country in the EU. Even so, there is significant support for Turkish accession within the EU, along with opposition, notably within Germany and France.

When I arrived in Istanbul, after an earlier trip to Brussels to interview Turkish and EU officials, I found that few had EU accession foremost in their mind. Rather, they were focused on the flashpoint of Gezi Park. That park – an urban oasis in a city notably lacking in greenery – had become the focal point for demonstrations against the Erdogan regime, stemming from plans to let developers raze it for a shopping plaza.

I took a hotel near the park, which had been cleared of activists not long before in a police crackdown which saw three protesters and one police officer killed. The government response brought harsh criticism from the European Parliament. That was rejected by Erdogan, who questioned the Parliament’s legitimacy and blamed the protests on outside influences.

I spent several days interviewing leaders of activist groups that were focused on democratic governance, with emphasis on those which also interacted with EU institutions, as well as some political party and policy officials. On two nights, I joined the protesters who still filled the streets of the posh shopping district near Gezi Park. In interviews, they expressed their anger at what they saw as authoritarianism and religiosity gradually but relentlessly taking over their political institutions. Few mentioned the EU without prompting. Support for accession in polls of Turks has steadily dropped in recent years, as frustration has grown over the slow pace of accession talks – even while Croatia, which was given permission to move toward full membership at the same time as Turkey, was admitted. Yet, when asked, most saw EU membership as providing additional resources to challenge the government.

After a few dozen interviews, and being water cannoned and tear gassed by police, I decided I had collected enough from the protesters themselves (!) I did, however, join them another night, after they had quietly walked back into Gezi Park, police standing by, and turned it again into a site for singing, chanting, and expression of views.

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Protestors filling Istiklal St., July 2013

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Woman in goggles, July 2013

Now, six months later, EU leaders are again laying charges of authoritarianism, this time in response to a stringent law pressed by the Erdogan government on internet usage. Critics charge that the law amounts to bald censorship. At the same time, there were hopes for progress on EU accession talks, after years of virtual standstill. The struggle to shape the country’s democracy undoubtedly will continue, though it remains to be seen whether it will be conducted more firmly in the EU context.

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Applying Global Pressure to Domestic Justice Issues: India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about field research I had conducted among unauthorized immigrants in the US and Europe, as well as with immigration authorities and activists. I thought it could be appropriate to follow that up with a brief discussion of some current field research which intersects in some significant ways with the concerns of the Saving Humans initiative.

This work has involved interviews and site visits with Dalit-rights activists throughout India and in the UK. Dalits (former untouchables) make up about 16 percent of the Indian population and are among the most historically oppressed groups in that society, and perhaps worldwide. Dalits traditionally have been barred from all but the dirtiest and most dangerous trades – disposing of human waste by hand, collecting animal carcasses from roads, cleaning, doing outside manual labor. Though situated within Hindu culture, they have customarily been barred from worshipping inside Hindu temples, and even now are most often forced to live on fringes of most villages, working for higher-caste Hindus but rarely mixing in communal life.

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IMAGE: Fish seller in a slum neighbourhood of Chennai whose residents are mostly Dalit persons.

The Indian constitution of 1950 formally bars caste discrimination, and further anti-discrimination measures have been passed since, including some mandating affirmative action in education and the public sector for Dalits and ‘other backward castes’, in the official parlance. Still, discrimination remains widespread, and Dalit activists say that actual protections are all too often weakly implemented.

I became interested in researching the Dalit struggle for an ongoing book project focused on individual rights, diversity and democracy. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. This campaign joined Dalit activist groups around India in an effort to reach out to the global community through the United Nations human rights regime. They sought to bring global pressure on the Indian government to do more toward eradicating caste discrimination.

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IMAGE: NCDHR staff member Sanjeev Kumar in the Baljeet Nagar neighbourhood of Delhi. The area is home to Dalit families who do not hold title to their land and have been forcibly removed by the city and subsequently rebuilt. Kumar is part of a legal campaign seeking to help them stay.

The struggle is of keen interest to me as a student of cosmopolitan or trans-state democracy. In the account I have been developing, I adopt a primarily instrumental approach to democracy. This means that the basic justification for a system where the majority’s representatives set the rules, as opposed to the dictator, the wise few, etc., is that it promotes important individual rights protections.  Democracy, meaning not only voting rights but also rights to speech, assembly, protest, provides important tools for chastening leaders. After all, they have to get elected to lead, and re-elected to keep leading.

Such an approach naturally also places a good deal of emphasis on constitutionalized rights – corresponding to those human interests that are so vital that they simply do deserve protection, whatever a given majority might think. This corresponds to individuals being able to challenge leaders and democratic majorities in courts and court-like bodies. It provides a crucial complement to the chastening function of electoral processes and transparent governing processes.

The argument is naturally sympathetic to cosmopolitan democracy, or the expansion of democratic rule across state borders. If protection of rights is the key, that is, then the primary aim is to ensure that the rights of as many individuals as possible are protected. There is no natural presumption that democratic rule should be limited to a pre-existing ‘democratic people’. In fact, it turns out to be very difficult to show that there is some strong reason in democratic theory or rights-based approaches to limit shared rule to existing borders.

Enter the National Campaign. Here was a coalition whose members had concluded, from long struggle, that they could not achieve the equal rights protections they sought at the domestic level. India is often held up as a democratic exemplar – a country with extensive poverty that still has managed to maintain liberal-democratic institutions and robust participation. Yet, Dalit leaders with whom I have spoken around the country tell much the same difficult story: the rights are on the books, but when it comes to a Dalit person seeking police aid after a caste-motivated attack, or seeking justice in the courts, or responsive and fair governance from elected leaders, actual rights fulfilment remains out of reach.

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IMAGE: Two tutors who help Dalit children with their homework each afternoon discuss their work at a community center in the city of Madurai in southern India.

So, National Campaign members sought to reach beyond India. After being rebuffed by some prominent rights NGOs, they were able to ally with Human Rights Watch. That group allied with Dalit groups to conduct a major study of ongoing caste discrimination in India, published as Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables,” in 1999. The book generated a great deal of attention globally, and it set the stage for National Campaign representatives to reach out more personally.

In 2001, the National Campaign took some 200 Dalit activists to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, sponsored by the United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Durban, South Africa. In interviews, numerous NCDHR leaders have cited the Durban conference as a key moment for raising international awareness of caste discrimination in India. By 2005, the then-UN Human Commission on Human Rights (from 2006 the UN Human Rights Council) had appointed two special rapporteurs on caste-based discrimination. The National Campaign’s efforts also were central in the European Parliament’s resolutions criticizing the treatment of Dalits in 2007 and 2012.

Yet, all such efforts to see caste discrimination formally recognized in international law have been vigorously resisted by the Indian government.  Consider that, as early as 1996, the government rejected a UN committee’s decision to include caste discrimination in the category of ‘descent based’ discrimination covered by the UN’s major discrimination treaty. In interviews, numerous NCDHR activists have noted that at the Durban conference a number of countries’ delegates were at first willing to support them openly. After being taken aside individually by India’s representatives, however, all withdrew their support. Trade access, activists believe, trumps a human rights stand every time.

The Indian government’s position has been that it is taking all needed steps to address caste discrimination, and generally that outsiders shouldn’t interfere. At present, the struggle could be described as at an impasse, where a few other countries and some UN representatives are willing to offer criticism, but the Indian government has given little indication that its position could change.

In the National Campaign, there is ongoing discussion about emphases moving ahead. Some, such as NCDHR Convenor Paul Divakar, who regularly travels to Geneva and other international sites to press the Dalit rights case, are firm that international outreach should continue. Some others believe more can be accomplished through intensifying the local and national struggles.

Whatever the ultimate shape of the resistance, the National Campaign’s efforts stand as a crucial case for the study of democracy, including democracy beyond the state. As one NCDHR leader told me, if they had been able to take their grievances to a Global Court of Human Rights, that’s precisely what they would have done. Proposals to create such a court date at least to the development of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a court to interpret and implement the rights proclaimed for all persons. There is little momentum for such a court today, but the NCDHR case should give us strong reason to think that any advocacy of extending democratic rule beyond the state should include advocacy of extending human rights courts as well.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Studying Global Ethics in its Lived Contexts: Unauthorized Migration and Global Citizenship

Dr Luis Cabrera

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IMAGE: Migrant rights activists calling attention to the deaths of migrants on the border crossing by bearing signs that say ‘presente’, signifying that those whose lives have been lost are not forgotten.

I started my professional (post-university) career as a journalist in Seattle for The Associated Press, the global newswire service.  Wire service work has a reputation in the trade as a bit of grind, and there were indeed plenty of overnight shifts spent rewriting local newspaper copy for the wire. There were also many exciting assignments, though. The best part of the job was always getting out into the field, interviewing people from all walks, covering forest fires, earthquakes, floods, massive demonstrations and, my favourite, the occasional NBA Seattle SuperSonics game…

I never went on assignment without feeling like I was getting a window into another world. And I missed that once I had taken my first academic job. I had trained as a political theorist, meaning my tasks now mostly involved hours of trying to get to the bottom of often very complex moral argumentation. It was satisfying work, and exactly the kind of intellectual engagement I wanted after being limited to the often very brief wire service journalistic form. But something was definitely missing.

My first academic post was at one of the four Phoenix-area campuses of Arizona State University. Arizona was then, in the early-mid 2000s, at the epicentre of US tensions around unauthorized migration. US Border Patrol strategy had dramatically shifted migrant routes from California to Arizona, and enforcement and civil society efforts – pro and con migrant – had become intense. I was keen to go when colleagues began inviting me along on experiential education trips to the border with their classes. We learned about migration and border politics from those who lived them daily.

I began to see how it might be possible to incorporate some of what I was learning in the desert into the moral arguments I was developing around global justice and human rights. Ultimately, the project became an exploration of global citizenship, with extensive field work along the border and at related sites. Once more, I felt like I was getting that window into others’ worlds.

It was thrilling, and inspiring at times. I spent a great deal of time interviewing members of two groups in particular: No More Deaths and the Minutemen. No More Deaths members were my exemplars of global citizenship. They fit well into a Saving Humans blog entry, since that was the express mission they had taken on. They conducted patrols of many miles through the southern Arizona desert, seeking out migrants who had become lost or left behind by their human smugglers, to bring them food, water and first aid. The group had arisen in the early 2000s, in response to increasing numbers of migrant deaths as the Border Patrol clamped down on the relatively easy urban crossings and sought to use the desert itself as a deterrent to crossing. The death toll is now in the thousands.

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IMAGE: A booth operated by No More Deaths in Nogales, Mexico, on the Mexico-US Border. Volunteers offered first aid and related assistance to migrants who had been apprehended and returned by the US Border Patrol.

On the other side, often literally, were members of the Minuteman Project. They sought to deter crossing themselves by physically standing vigil – often with sidearms holstered — at the border or farther north, on heavily traveled routes, and reporting any suspected unauthorized migrants to the Border Patrol. They were my exemplar enactors of national citizenship, trying, as they would put it, to protect their country from people who had no right to be there.

Migrants themselves, I came to understand, were also acting as global citizens, and perhaps in the most concrete and most important ways. They crossed borders in search of better life opportunities for themselves and their families in much the same way that people within countries move between cities – or as citizens of the European Union often move between member states. They acted as though we already lived in a world where that was broadly possible, though of course where their lack of citizenship entitlements often meant a life in virtual hiding in the host state.

Interviewing and living side by side with unauthorized migrants – very much the norm in Arizona – for several years eventually persuaded me that they were acting as global citizens in a more proactive way. They were, I thought, engaged in something like a ‘global civil disobedience’ movement.  They were crossing borders without permission in order to better secure broad economic rights for themselves and their families. Most nation-state have formally committed to recognizing and working to ensure such rights for all in the binding UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most rich countries, of course, would reject the idea that they have a responsibility to feed the world, provide employment, etc. But here migrants were, claiming such rights through actions that, though covert, could easily be viewed in a frame of principled resistance.

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IMAGE: Migrant men walking to board a train in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. Like many Central American migrants, they will ride the top of the trains to near the US-Mexico border, where they will try to walk across.

That particular argument has been controversial, and I recently had a chance to revisit it in a critical exchange (they critique, you defend) for an academic journal.  I do think there’s something to it. And, I believe the insight never would have come if I hadn’t been able to get back into the field, speaking to people about their daily struggles, getting that window into their world and, most of all, hearing moral arguments in their lived contexts. The method is still a tough sell with grant funding agencies, but I find it invaluable for enriching the ethical arguments I seek to make.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about more recent field work involving Dalit (former untouchable) human rights activists in India, and democracy activists staging street protests in Istanbul.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

February, 2014

Academics Stand Against Poverty: Professional Association Helps Researchers Enhance their Impact on Poverty Alleviation

Dr Luis Cabrera

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For my first entry on the project blog, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about a newish academic association that shares many of the same interests as those affiliated with Saving Humans.

This association is Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP). It’s a non-profit, voluntary initiative designed to enhance academics’ impact on poverty alleviation. The driving idea is not so much to get academics out of the ivory tower, but to get those who’d never think of locking themselves up in such a place to share their ideas and experiences, collaborate where it makes sense, and generally just join forces to do a more effective job influencing poverty alleviation policy and practice.

ASAP was the brainchild of some relatively junior academics – political philosophers, in fact – working in Australia in 2009. They wanted to be able to play a more active role in some of the issues of global justice they were researching, and to help the global academic sector worldwide play as strong a direct role as possible on poverty and related issues. Their organizing efforts got a big boost from Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, who was intrigued by the idea and ultimately agreed to serve as president of a formal organization.

Pogge is known as anything but an ivory tower philosopher. He has helped lead a team to investigate the most sound methods for actually measuring poverty. He also has a major project underway to develop the kinds of monetary incentives that would entice big pharmaceutical firms to develop treatments for diseases that mainly afflict the world’s poor – and to be paid by how many of those treated actually get better.

Under Pogge’s leadership, and with a great deal of behind-the-scenes work from the nine members of the ASAP Board, a 19-member advisory board comprised of very prominent poverty-focused academics and a single paid staff member (the indefatigable Rachel Payne), the organization has greatly expanded its presence. It has staged conferences at Yale, Birmingham and the University of Delhi, as well as at universities in Mexico, Spain, Germany, Australia, Norway and elsewhere.

ASAP also has launched or sponsored a number of projects aimed at enhancing academic impact on severe poverty. These include one focused on ensuring that the best research insights inform the global poverty alleviation goals which will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. They also include projects concerned with economic rights and global climate change, the ways in which insights from psychology might inform poverty alleviation efforts, and a project aimed at helping poor persons in India become better informed and able to claim their government-backed entitlements.

I serve as vice president of the ASAP Board and head of a project called Impact: Global Poverty. It features profile articles on academics seeking to go beyond their straightforward research work to have a direct positive impact on poverty alleviation policy or practice. I have been amazed by the kinds of impact projects people have taken on in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities at their universities or as doctoral students.

Profiles have included one on Sukhadeo Thorat, longtime Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who has had enormous influence on Indian government and private sector policies on integrating dalit persons (former untouchables). We have profiled Prof. Alan Fenwick at Imperial College London, who heads a project that has treated millions suffering from neglected tropical diseases. We also have profiled Bijayalaxmi Nanda of the University of Delhi. She works with groups in the city focused on the worth of girl children and  ending sex-selective abortion. Other profile subjects have included Birmingham’s own Paul Jackson, for his work advising the Nepalese government on re-integration of former rebels into society; and Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, who has worked with Haitian academics and students suffering in the aftermath of that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

I have found all of these academics’ stories inspiring, and we have many more similar profiles in the works. If you know of an academic who is engaging closely with NGOs, policy makers, or is generally seeking to make an impact in addition to standard research work, we would love to know about her/him. Please send a note to me at a.l.cabrera@bham.ac.uk 

Many things are planned for the future with ASAP overall. The organization is growing rapidly, with a number of country chapters forming globally. We are now in the midst of a developing a long-term plan aimed at fully incorporating the chapters and opening more volunteer and related opportunities for ASAP’s 800-plus members worldwide. I am happy to answer any questions about the organization, and I would encourage all academics with an interest in issues of poverty to join.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

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