From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid-19 and Human Rights

April 25th

Apart from the permitted ‘one form of exercise a day’, spent preparing the ground for planting when the rain comes, the day has largely been spent reviewing bids for grants for ‘arctivist’ projects.  The grants are for monies, to a maximum of £3000, from a fund whose objective is ‘to support activists and artists across the world responding to the outbreak of Covid-19 and its implications for human rights defenders, activism, and shrinking civic and political space.’  The very imaginative initiative to bring activists and artists together to this end is the brainchild of the Centre of Applied Human Rights (CAHR) at the University of York, with the funding coming from the Open Society Foundations.  I have been engaged in the engrossing process of going through the first twenty of an unknown number of bids, to be reviewed on a rolling basis, in my capacity as a representative on the four-person selection committee of CAHR’s Advisory Board, which I have the good fortune to chair.

The bids provide rich insights into the wide range of responses to Covid-19 across the globe.  The first group to be considered via a Zoom meeting on Monday come from activists from as far afield as Columbia to the West and Indonesia to the East, and ranges from funding for the production and publication of cartoons satirizing the response to the virus of the state in Kyrgyzstan, to the painting of a mural on a wall close to a police station in Kenya asking the police to be kinder to the people they are supposed to be serving.  Good luck with that.  At the time when the bid was submitted the police had allegedly killed more people in Kenya in the process of cracking down on those not obeying the lockdown regulations, mainly small traders, than had died from Covid-19.   One of the factors that will need to be taken into account is the widely differing situation where Human Rights are concerned in the different countries from where the bids originate.   One obvious example is the contrast between South Africa, where Cyril Ramaphosa’s outstanding leadership where Covid-19 is concerned has put the buffoonery of two of our most prominent western leaders to shame, and next-door Zimbabwe where the Human Rights situation remains atrocious.

Reading through these bids is far less harrowing than the annual process of selecting applicants for CAHR’s protective fellowship scheme, which enables human rights defenders who are ‘at risk’ to come to York for six months to undertake Human Rights research, to take courses on, for example, personal and cyber security, and to have a period of respite from the intense stress of their daily lives.  Over the past ten years over 70 fellows from more than 40 countries have benefited from this fellowship.  Many had experienced arrest, imprisonment and torture and were suffering to a greater of lesser extent from post traumatic stress disorder, so reading through applicants’ stories and trying to choose between them is sometimes very difficult.   I had assumed that the ‘artivist’ process would also be a lot quicker, as the bids were restricted to two pages of text. But that was naïve.  Apart from one bid that resorted to the cunning plan of reducing the font size to the point where one could barely read it without a magnifying glass, the others almost all offered supplementary material to bolster their bids in the form of web-sites where we can access examples of the artists’ work: films, murals, cartoons, songs, you name it.  The stand-out from the many highlights of my day was a beautiful Chichewa song, improbably enough about flood defences in Malawi, sung by a soprano with an exquisite voice whom I would never in a hundred years have come across otherwise.  What better way to broaden one’s horizons and transport oneself beyond the very restricted world of locked-down York?

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