Archive for ‘Peace’

March, 2014

The imagery of burns

Dr Jonathan Reinarz

Burns are visually distinct and emotionally overwhelming. They are horrific and iconic. Think only of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk whose self-immolation was filmed and photographed in a carefully orchestrated protest against Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Sitting in the lotus position, the elderly monk was doused with petrol by fellow monks before he set himself alight. The act, not surprisingly, ended in his death, but the events of 11 June 1963 also sparked a dramatic escalation in the conflict between Vietnam’s dictatorship, which favoured the country’s Catholic minority, and its Buddhist community. A description of the event by American journalist David Halberstam manages to add drama to the haunting photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne by emphasising more than just visual spectacle.

‘Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh…Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.’ (D. Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, 1965, 211) 

Sociologist Michael Biggs has argued that the power of this extreme form of protest comes from the likelihood that self-immolation will end in death (70% of cases are fatal). Hunger strikes may be averted, but in cases of self-immolation, death is not conditional. Not surprisingly, responses to such images are dramatic.

‘The Napalm Girl’

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Napalm

My second example captures another moment in the history of Vietnam (8 June 1972), nearly a decade after Guang Duc’s self-immolation. It was taken minutes after inhabitants of Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, experienced a napalm strike, and it shows children running towards a wire roadblock on Route 1, the main highway between Saigon and Cambodia. As described in the first pages of Robert Neer’s recent history of napalm, earlier these children had been huddled with their families in a temple under the protection of South Vietnamese soldiers, when the building was mistaken for a North Vietnamese target. A group of injured and frightened children subsequently escaped the site and fled to a nearby checkpoint, where a waiting journalist noticed a naked nine-year-old girl who had been stripped by napalm, which continued to burn. It was then that Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut captured his Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo. To many, it dramatically depicts the impact of war on non-combatants, and the day after it was taken, the photo appeared in newspapers alongside the heading ‘The Terror of War’. ‘Napalm Girl’ has become the best known image of the Vietnam War and is credited with bringing about a shift in the American public’s attitude towards the conflict.

Although burns have the potential to erase a person’s identity, by literally scorching away their features, the ‘Napalm Girl’ now has a name, Kim Phuc, and her story has been told in a film and a well-known biography. After capturing this pivotal image, Nick Ut took Kim and her brother to a South Vietnamese hospital. She subsequently spent 14 months in the Barsky Unit in the American hospital in Saigon. Kim’s burns, which covered 50% of her body, were grafted by American surgeons and, after two years of treatment and rehabilitation, she was able to return to her village. Like many burns victims, her life was fundamentally transformed, only, in this case, it was further altered by the particular political context. Forced to leave school, she was regularly interviewed and became a ‘national symbol of war’. Eventually defecting from Vietnam while en route to Cuba, she now lives in Toronto, Canada with her family. In 1997, she established the Kim Foundation International, a charity that assists child victims of war.

‘Mohamed Bouazizi’

As unique as Kim’s story may appear, many burns casualties have resisted remaining individual tragedies. Like the fiery death of Guang Duc, some have inspired imitators, or galvanised collective action. More recent cases of self-immolation have demonstrated this yet again, with the suicide of Tunisian fruit-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi recognised as a catalyst of the Tunisian Revolution, if not the wider uprising in the Arab world; in Panara and Wilson’s The Arab Spring (2013), he is the butterfly of chaos theory whose fluttering wings continue to cause storms around the globe. While burns units in the West continue to treat cases of self-immolation (two were admitted to the Birmingham Burns Unit over the Christmas holidays), many more patients, past and present, share similarities with Kim Phuc. As in the past, approximately 50% of burns victims are children. Their stories, like that of Kim, are also more often heard, not just in the popular press, but at burns conferences, such as that mentioned in yesterday’s posting, in order to better understand the experiences of patients.

Dr Jonathan Reinarz is Director of The History of Medicine Unit and a Reader in the History of Medicine at the 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.

October, 2013

Peace

‘Make love not war’ was the slogan of the 60s. Surely one of the most effective ways to save humans is to ensure peace? Indeed, the United Nations primary purpose is to ensure international peace and security. It is at the heart of the modern system of international law and politics. But how does the pursuit of peace map across into international human rights?

In 1976 the Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution stating that there is a right to peace. Two years later the General Assembly with a Declaration on that same topic. In the same year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation declared that there is a right to peace to which each individual is entitled. But simply declaring a right does not mean that it exists.

There has been a growing trend towards viewing peace as a human right. A group of rather disparate and not necessarily connected academics, NGO activists, practitioners, government delegates and UN staff are setting out more and more evidence to place ‘peace’ within the international human rights framework. The reasoning goes that peace impacts upon the attainment and realisation of all other rights. So – the proponents say – if we develop and enshrine a right to peace then it will have a positive impact on the whole system.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? In an ideal world, we would all live in peace and that would help to ensure that our other rights were more easily realised. But that does not mean that the peace has fully entered the international human rights law system. There are no international or regional legal mechanisms that protect an individual’s right to peace. There is no redress or remedy, at those levels, for a violation of the right to peace. But there have been some positive developments in recent years.

The first case on this subject was brought in 2003 before a court in Costa Rica. Luis Roberto Zamora Bolanos successfully sued the Costa Rican government over its support for the invasion of Iraq and over its plans to extract and process nuclear materials. This led to legislation being annulled within that state. The grounds for the case were that the government was violating the right to peace. In 2006, Zamora brought another case challenging the Arms Decree on the grounds that it threatened the right to peace. The court used this case to discuss the ambit of the right to peace, saying it is more than just a duty to avoid war. The court found that there is a positive duty to actively promote peace and justice. This case formally established Costa Rica as the first country to recognise, legally, the right to peace.

The United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly have continued to discuss and pass resolutions on the right to peace. There is a growing body of evidence from these political bodies that suggests that many countries around the world recognise that there is a right to peace. Many countries, but not all. Almost every country voting against or abstaining on these resolutions are from the Global North. Most countries who take the floor during discussions support the right to peace, again with Western states being the exception. The ideological divide is clear –and that divide is an obstacle to ‘peace’ being enshrined within international human rights law.

There is merit to the argument that international human rights is expanding far beyond traditional notions and that newer rights, like the one to peace, threaten to dilute the system. That area increasingly includes subjects – such as politics, the environment and economics – that are difficult to protect or promote and that might better be dealt with through other frameworks.

But that expansion has occurred because there is a greater understanding of the overlap between different areas. Peace may be a political ideal, but it is also a fundamental tool for realising other human rights. Where peace is undermined, individuals’ rights cannot adequately be implemented or protected. There seems to be increasing awareness of the need to enshrine, promote and protect the right to peace, despite the right pushing against the boundaries of traditional understandings of human rights.

Follow Rosa Freedman on Twitter: @GoonerDr

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