Friday, December 27, 2013

Political Food for Thought

Before beginning my MA in Human Rights, I would have read the below article and fully disagreed with it.  I tend to look at life in a glass-half-full sort of way, sometimes verging into rose-colored glasses territory.  I will admit that I, like many others, thought of human rights as this abstract concept that would ride in on a white horse and save the day, if only given the proper chance by those pesky laws and politicians that always seemed to block its way.  But my view has rapidly changed after being one term into my MA program.  I can confidently say that human rights as we know it will not be the solution that many of us so want it to be, and the idea that it will be is kind of like believing that Disney movies are real.  It's unfair and downright naive to assume that a big blanket of human rights can be thrown over all atrocities and voila, all will be better.  This is just not so.  There are so many interpretations of rights.  As anyone who has kept up with the news will know, Western and non-Western ideas of inalienable rights are quite often not the same.  Additionally, like Gray mentioned, there are rights such as 'freedom of expression' and 'protection from hate speech' that compete with each other and there is no way that they can ever sync up, yet both can be defended as important and essential rights.  

One thing I don't agree with Gray on is that human rights has the same approach as Evangelists in that if people are just shown the light, they will realize they want this, too.  I really do believe that if given the chance, it is inherent in everyone to desire rights.  Who would not want to better themselves and their positions?  Perhaps Gray needs to clarify his statement.

We do not live in a cohesive or homogeneous world, and we will never be able to have a cohesive set of human rights that apply to all.  Gray explains why in a clear way.  Our idea of human rights is too simplistic to solve all of our complicated problems.  Instead of trying to come up with a perfect solution for an imperfect world, we need to broaden our minds and see that human rights should be thought of as just one tool, as opposed to the one and only answer.

The following article on why human rights are not a solution was just published by BBC News, written by the influential political philosopher John Gray.  

A Point of View: Two cheers for human rights

Human rights are important, but they will never be a solution to ending conflict, writes John Gray.
When we hear reports of nightmarish atrocities being committed in Syria, it's easy to respond by thinking these horrors could be prevented if only the country had a government that respected human rights. We've come to believe rights are the answer to many of the world's ills. But rights aren't a cure for human conflict, and I think it's a mistake to treat them as an article of faith.
In an essay published in 1938, the novelist EM Forster gave two cheers for democracy: "One because it admits variety, and two because it permits criticism… Two cheers are quite enough," he wrote. "There is no occasion to give three." Forster thought that no political system - not even democracy - should be turned into an icon. What mattered, he thought, was that individuals should have the chance to live as best they can.
On this Forster was right. While democracy is a good thing, as anyone will tell you who has experienced the alternatives, it isn't something we should worship, and it shouldn't be a creed we try to impose on the world. But what Forster argued about democracy is also true of human rights today. From providing a useful safeguard against the abuse of power, human rights are turning into a comforting dogma through which we try to escape the painful dilemmas of war and politics.

Find out more

John Gray
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT
  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism
Human rights have two large virtues - they empower us against governments, and anyone can claim them. If we have rights we needn't approach power on our knees, as supplicants begging for favours. We can demand that our freedoms be respected. And it doesn't matter who governs us. Human rights can be invoked wherever they exist.
For many people the universality of rights is their principal attraction, but for me it's also their chief weakness. John Locke, the 17th Century English thinker who founded the modern theory of rights, believed rights were grounded in our duties to God. For him, human freedom was divinely ordained. That's why he believed we didn't have the right to commit suicide, or to sell ourselves into slavery. In Locke's view, we always remained God's creatures.
Nowadays many believers in rights are indifferent or hostile to religion. The fact remains that human rights originated in monotheism - the belief that there's only one God, who creates a single moral law for all human beings. And there's a sense in which human rights still depend on some sort of religious commitment. For unless these rights are grounded in something beyond the human world, they can only be a human invention.
Cambodian child marks International Human Rights Day
As someone without any religious beliefs that's a conclusion I'm happy to accept, but it has uncomfortable consequences for those who think human rights have universal authority. It's one thing to say there are universal human values (a view I strongly endorse). Some things are bad for everyone - being subject to the threat of torture or persecution, for example. But human beings have devised a variety of ways of fending off these universal evils, and rights haven't always been the most reliable or effective. A highly developed culture of rights in the US didn't stop torture being regarded by some as a legitimate weapon in the so-called "war on terror", for example.

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Rights are like money and the law - they only exist if enough people accept that they exist”
We've forgotten that rights aren't the only way to protect universal values. For several centuries the Ottoman empire was a haven where religious minorities that were persecuted in Christian countries could live together in peace. The Ottoman regime wasn't based on rights. In fact, since it involved separate systems of law for each community, it was incompatible with a system in which everyone had the same rights. Where something like peace between religions has been achieved, it's because the difficult art of toleration has been learnt.
Where it's deeply rooted, the practice of tolerance is a more reliable safeguard against persecution than any code of rights. The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law only in 1998, but Britain, despite all its flaws, has a better historical record of respecting human freedom than many European states. The elaborate system of rights that was embodied in the Weimar Republic didn't stem the rise of Nazism. Human rights can't defend anyone when the state that upholds them is swept away.
Human rights protesters in Srinagar
Many people seem to think that once tyranny is demolished human rights will emerge naturally from the rubble. But rights are artefacts of civilisation, not a natural human condition. If they protect us against the state, they are also created and enforced by states. Where the state is weak or collapsed, as in many parts of the world today, human rights simply don't exist.

EM Forster (1879-1871)

  • Author of novels including A Passage To India,A Room With A View and Howard's End
  • Conscientious objector in WW1, Forster was member of Bloomsbury Group of writers
  • Wrote about his homosexuality in the novelMaurice, published after his death
It's consoling to believe that horrendous cruelty in Syria could be stopped by deposing the dictator and ending the war. In fact, if Assad were toppled at this point the most likely result would be a country without any state at all that was stuck in a condition of chronic war. That's pretty much what has happened in Libya, where even the prime minister isn't safe from kidnap by armed gangs.
If a new state could be installed in such conditions, it's not clear it would be one that respected human rights. Rights are like money and the law - they only exist if enough people accept that they exist. But what if large sections of the population, or those that are the most ruthless in imposing their values, don't accept them? What if many people don't want human rights?
For believers in rights, the answer is that everyone really does want them - or if they don't, they can be persuaded to want them. The similarity between this view and that of religious evangelists is obvious and striking. Evangelists are convinced that all that's needed for humankind to see the light is that it should be shown to them. Once they've seen the true faith, everyone will embrace it. If there are some who don't accept the saving gospel (as will surely be the case) the mission must continue until they do. Believers in human rights think the same. Both are engaged in an unending project of conversion.
"human rights in Tibet" protester
It's not surprising that human rights movements should exhibit some of the attributes of evangelical religion. Like other secular creeds, they're continuations of proselytising monotheism by other means. The certainty of rights advocates that only one type of state can be legitimate continues the conviction that only one way of life can be good.

In their different ways, evangelical religion and human rights movements express the perennial dream of a life without irreconcilable conflicts. But human life as we know it is made up of conflicts of this kind, and politics is very often a choice among evils. This isn't only because every society is bound to be less than perfect. It's because we lack any coherent idea of what a perfect society would actually be like.
A world in which all rights are protected isn't just impracticable - it's not even conceivable. Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they'll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.
The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality - we'll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can't get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.
Egyptian woman holds vigil for human rightsAn Egyptian woman holds vigil on International Human Rights Day
This doesn't mean rights should be scrapped. Like the religion from which they sprang, they're a valuable part of the human inheritance. But rather than thinking of rights as a militant creed that can deliver the world from its conflicts, we should recognise rights for what they are - useful devices that quite often don't work. Following EM Forster, we should give human rights a rousing two cheers.
(Click here to go to the original article)

What do you think? Is human rights the solution?  Do you disagree or agree with John Gray?  Do you have a better solution?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Music 2013

London Grammar - Nightcall

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Photos 2013

By Miles Aldridge
By Peter Kaaden
By Mike Brodie

Thinking About a Career at A Think Tank or an NGO?

At IPPR’s Careers Event, three professionals working at think tanks and an international organization gave students a look into what qualities were regarded highly in the application process, what it would be like work in this field, and how these organizations are making an impact on policy and change.

The first speaker was Christiane Andersen, who currently works at the European Council on Foreign Relations as the programme officer of the Asia Programme.  In 2012 she received her M. Sc. in International Public Policy at UCL.  Christiane stressed the importance of transferable skills such as communication skills, specifically having the ability to write various types of texts that are engaging.  She also brought up that knowing multiple languages would be very helpful.  In addition, she emphasized that feeling at home in the world of economics would be useful, as well as brushing up on basic office skills like how to use PowerPoint and create a spreadsheet.  A few more interesting points she made were that most people do not stay at a think tank for more than about five years, and because of this it is necessary to make connections while there, because this may lead to another job down the line.

Next up was Matt Honeyman, a research assistant at the King’s Fund, an independent charitable organization working on improvements in UK healthcare.  He was previously a research intern at the Constitution Unit.  Matt provided a lot of detail on what it was like to be a research assistant and also gave information on the King’s Fund.  He noted that he spent a lot of time spent sifting through data, but also spent time writing literature reviews, doing qualitative data programming, and attending relevant conferences.  He was passionate about the health care field, and this enthusiasm seemed to be what made the work worth it, especially when he got to see results of the project.  He mentioned that there were intermittently staff development seminars held by the senior staff members for those that were newer like him.  A valuable tip he offered was to contact individuals working in fields of personal relevance and request to work with them for a day in order to gain experience and perhaps an important networking connection.

Kerry Stares was the last speaker of the event.  She had recently completed her MA in Human Rights.  However, before deciding to work in the advocacy sector, Kerry had been a city lawyer who had sued hedge funds on behalf of banks.  She decided to switch career as she was no longer happy with the work that she was doing.  She began her new job as the private sector advocacy adviser for ActionAid about six weeks ago, an international organization working to promote human rights and bring an end to poverty.  Because she is so new to the position, she was not able to provide a lot of information on what her job entails on a day-to-day basis.  However, she did explain that the overarching aim of her job was to direct advocacy to the private sector and foster accountability within private companies.  This role is  a fairly new one because the private sector’s increasing influence politically is still a novel matter.  There is still plenty of discussion and debate on how much or how little non-governmental organizations should become involved with the private sector. 

The best part of Kerry’s talk was her 5 tips.  First, she believes it is most valuable to make sure the modules one chooses are pertinent to what one wants to pursue after graduating.  Second, make sure the CV is done well and done right.  Find someone who works in this field who is willing to look at it, if possible.  Third, make the most of Twitter.  Follow all significant organizations and staff, and tweet anything that could stand out to them, such as a public policy article you have written.  Fourth, network, network, network!  She bought coffee for anyone and everyone in the field in order to shamelessly pick their brain and get advice.  There was not one set way that any of the speakers attained their current jobs.  However, Christiane also highlighted the significance of networking as a way of either getting a job or making connections for a future switch in jobs.  It was obvious that personal connections they had made by linking up with people in their fields helped them get where they are today.  Fifth, if necessary, work for free and fill up any holes in your CV.  No experience campaigning?  Go out and find a place where you can pick this knowledge up.  Make sure to be proactive and not just reactive.

All three speakers made it clear that one should not follow this career path if wanting to earn a very high salary.  None of the three speakers seemed to have a clear cut set of tasks that they did on a daily basis.  Instead, their jobs seemed to include a bit of everything from research, analysis, and outreach.  Therefore, it seems vital that someone wishing to go into this field does have a broad background of experiences so that they are more likely to be well suited and prepared for a job at a think tank or international organization.  The three speakers all had one thing in common: they all believed that the work that think tanks and international organizations did by way of generating and processing ideas, inserting advocacy into governments, and bringing a public aspect to politics, had a positive impact on governments.

Snowden, Greenwald and the lost right to privacy

I wrote this article for the UCL Human Rights Journal, it was published November 27, 2013.
The right to privacy is a human right, but what exactly does this right entail?  This is not so easily explained, which is why it has not been clearly and specifically defined by anyone.  While the US constitution does place limits on the government’s ability to intrude on individuals’ right to privacy, this was before modern technology came into the picture, and therefore it was much easier to outline an individual’s right.  But now that government surveillance programmes and other such programmes have been created, there is a greater need for the legal system to state in a clear-cut manner what our personal right to privacy is.  Up until Edward Snowden opened the floodgates by whistleblowing on the United States’ National Security Agency’s surveillance program PRISM, no one was really addressing this possible human rights violation.
Edward Snowden is one of the most controversial figures in the world at the moment. When I Google his name, articles pop up with headlines like ‘American Hero’ while right below, other headlines call him out as a traitor.  Whatever side you fall on, one fact is undeniable – he has opened up an important debate about a citizen’s right to privacy with regards to government surveillance.  His choice to leak government files has touched a nerve.  In Snowden’s words, his aim was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”  His disclosures have started important debates regarding mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy. And this is not just a human rights violation that affects US citizens.  A recent article by the BBC claims that the U.K. has allowed the NSA to store phone numbers and email addresses of British citizens since 2007.
On Friday night I went to a talk by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who exposed the mass surveillance program (PRISM) in the leaks by previous NSA employee Edward Snowden this past June.  Greenwald has worked for, The Guardian, has published four books (three have been New York Timesbestsellers), has also won awards for his work in journalism, and is considered one of the top American journalists at the moment.  Greenwald was in Rio de Janeiro so the talk was held over Skype.  The first part was questions asked by the two moderators which covered topics that ranged from legal to political, especially focusing on the lack of safety measures on government surveillance programs, the individual’s right to privacy, and the freedom of the press to release these documents.  There was also a 30-minute session where the audience could ask questions.  I have included some of the highlights from this talk below.
One individual brought up the government’s claim that Greenwald’s decision to release the PRISM documents was a careless move.  Greenwald responded by stating that although there are tens of thousands of government documents he has the ability to publish, only about 300 have actually been released to the public. He could have easily released the tens of thousands of documents all at once, but instead he and his colleagues have taken the time to sift through and carefully pick and choose what they feel is necessary for the public to be shown.  If they were trying to take down the government they could have released everything all at once. Greenwald also stated that he thinks it is smarter from his end not to release all of the documents at once, as then the important details will not get the necessary attention.
One person asked about Edward Snowden’s seeking asylum in Russia and what Greenwald thought of this considering Russia’s less than stellar human rights record.  As Greenwald put it, no one questions the 100,000 people who seek asylum in the United States on a yearly basis, even though they are seeking refuge in a country that has a record of torturing, breaching citizens’ rights to privacy, and the list goes on.  No one ever questions or challenges these individuals’ choice to seek asylum in a country with this marred record.  And the only reason anyone is questioning Snowden is because of who he is.  In addition, Greenwald pointed out that Snowden was not planning on seeking asylum in Russia but was actually in transit to Latin America before the United States interfered with his travel and asylum-seeking plans.
The US government has formally charged Edward Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information, and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorised person.  The US president has openly said he does not see Snowden as a patriot, and he also claims that his administration was in the process of reviewing the programmes that were unknown by most American citizens.  He claims Snowden’s leaks were detrimental to this process.
We will most likely never know if this is true, and perhaps I am unnecessarily sceptical and untrustworthy of the United States, but I highly doubt that there was any such process underway or even such a process being discussed.  Snowden did the public a service by exposing an aspect of the government.  Hopefully people pulled their heads out of the sand and became more aware of their government’s actions.  One thing is certain – our right to privacy needs to be reassessed and defined within the context of a world run by modern technology and filled with government surveillance programs.
Francisca Stewart
Let me know your thoughts on this debate.  Do you agree with me? Do you think I'm completely off? Where do you stand?