From David Maughan Brown in York: of activists, artists and Human Rights

July 2nd

The selection process for York University’s Centre for Applied Human Rights ‘arctivist’ grants, which I wrote about on April 25th and May 13th,  has finally come to an end.  The intention has been to bring activists and artists together to produce a combined response to the Human Rights situation in their countries in the context of Covid-19, with a maximum grant of £3000.   Having had to call a halt to the flood of bids a fortnight ago, as we were running out of funding for the grants, we held our eighth and final Zoom selection-meeting this morning at which we discussed the last 43 bids.   When I volunteered to join the panel I thought we would be doing well if we attracted 100 bids.  In the event, the committee reviewed a total of 234 bids, and that was after an initial sifting by the inundated staff at the Centre who had eliminated a further 250 or so of the weaker bids before they got to us.  While the critical mass of the bids initially came from Africa, by the end of the process the spread was far more evenly global, with a slight preponderance from Latin America.  So the six bids I short-listed before today’s meeting came from India, El Salvador, Estonia, the Philippines, Chile and Ecuador.  The various artistic products their authors were intending to produce included a radio play, a puppet theatre, a photographic exhibition, a city-centre installation, a series of podcasts, and the production of a series of politically loaded Covid-19 face-masks.

As I suggested in my earlier posts, going through these bids constituted a very welcome and illuminating metaphorical liberation from the narrow geographical constraints of York in lockdown The overwhelming impression left by the 234 bids as a whole was, improbably enough, in equal parts depressing and encouraging.  It was depressing in the way it demonstrated the extent to which brutal and corrupt governments and police forces around the world have used Covid-19 as an excuse to tighten the screws of their oppression of the people in whose cause they are supposed to be governing.  So, to take just a few examples from the bids,  from India: ‘the State has used the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to crack down on protesters and to enforce silence’; from the Philippines:  using Covid as the excuse ‘the government is tightening its grip on our freedoms… injustices, human rights violations and repression of free press, free speech and free expression are at an all-time high’; from Kenya: ‘From the onset of the Covid-19 regulations, the National Police Service has been used by the government to limit movement and suppress public dissent: arresting, extorting, harassing, forcefully disappearing and killing residents.’   Reading through the bids has, at the same time, been encouraging in that it has demonstrated enormous reserves of resilience and creativity among the artists and activists who have come together to produce the bids, and has, via the links to the artists’ music and art, demonstrated the extent of the global pool of talent that is available and willing to be put to use in the cause of justice and Human Rights.

At a rather different level, this process has left me feeling grateful that I live in a country that, on the whole, has rather more respect for human rights than most of the other countries from which those 234 bids have come.  We may live in a country with a metaphorically world-beating government when it comes to stupidity and duplicity where critical issues like Brexit are concerned, and a literally world-beating incompetence when it comes to Covid-19 deaths per head of population, but, to take just one indicator, nobody in the UK has been beaten to death by the police for contravening lockdown regulations.   However, we have no cause whatever for complacency on the Human Rights front, as has been so amply demonstrated in recent years by the Empire Windrush scandal. To take just one specific example of this country’s human rights abuses, David Davis, a renegade Tory ex-cabinet Minister, pointed out in parliament yesterday that the UK is the only country in Europe without any limit on the length of time immigrants can be held in detention in UK immigration centres. One detainee, he said, had been held in detention for a total of 1,002 days by the end of last year.   That is not a distinction to be proud of.   Nor is this a case of an absent-minded overlooking of a gap in our human rights legislation:  Davis’s proposed amendment to yesterday’s Immigration Bill, which would have seen a maximum period of 28 days introduced to restrict the indefinite detention of immigrants, was defeated by 80 votes.   That bodes very ill indeed for human rights in UK for the next four and a half years of unaccountable Tory government. 

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