The past few days have been largely taken up with the preparation for, and time spent in, interviewing short-listed applicants for the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights Protective Fellowship Scheme for human rights defenders ‘at risk’, and the selection process for another cohort of ‘Arctivist’ projects bringing artists and activists together from a range of different countries around the world to produce artistic responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the different ways in which authoritarian governments have exploited the pandemic as an excuse for further repression.
Brazil, India, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Thailand, El Salvador, Uganda, Mexico, China, Belarus, Malawi, Indonesia….the list of repressive countries from where the arctivist bids come goes on and on, and the contextual accounts of the different ways in which the various states have been taking advantage of the pandemic to abuse their citizens makes for depressing reading. The interviews with the sometimes visibly stressed human rights defenders are often harrowing: they are all, by definition, at risk – usually from the State, or surrogates who do the State’s extrajudicial killings on its behalf, but in one case from Islamist extremists. One wishes one could find the funding to bring them all to York to take courses in cyber- and other security, and to get them away from the dangers they face, if only for six months. Six of the nine human rights defenders we interviewed were women, two from the Far East, two from Central and South America, one from the Middle East and one from North Africa, all doing really important work. One, who had had to flee her own country to avoid being killed, leaving her two children behind with her parents and was desperate to find somewhere to go where she could be reunited with her children, had to be turned down for a Fellowship because she would have been an asylum-risk and could have put the university’s license to recruit international students at risk. The UK State doesn’t like asylum seekers.
Throughout the arctivist selection meeting, and all six, hour-long, interviews this week, the image of a face-masked young woman forced down on the ground, being leant on and handcuffed by two male policemen, hovered uncomfortably at the back of my mind. She had made the mistake of attending a vigil in memory of another young woman who had been kidnapped and murdered by a man, who just happened to be a policeman. The woman in the photograph above had been thrown to the ground and handcuffed because the vigil was contravening the Covid-19 regulations. The courts had ruled that protests per se are not illegal, but this one was illegal because the police commanders had refused to meet the organisers to discuss how it might be possible to hold a vigil that didn’t contravene the Covid-19 regulations.
I also found myself wondering where – China? Brazil? – I would find the closest parallel to a repressive government that would like to make the maximum ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest more draconian than the usual penalty for rape. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that is currently being rushed through our Parliament has provoked more than 700 UK legal academics into writing a letter to Boris Johnson condemning the bill’s attack on the democratic right to protest and warning of ‘an alarming extension of state control over legal assembly’, and ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’ * Where else in the world, for that matter – Zimbabwe? Belarus? the Philippines? – would a government want to make provision for its authoritarian home secretary to bypass parliament in the process of arbitrarily altering the definition of behaviour for which people could be prosecuted? As Dr Joanna Gilmore, the coordinator of the letter, put it: ‘It is a mark of concern not only about the bill’s fundamental attack on the right to protest peacefully – which is an absolute right in any democracy – but also about the speed at which this is being rushed through, in the context of a pandemic and without proper consultation.’ It isn’t only the authoritarian governments of third-world countries that are taking advantage of the pandemic to hurry through repressive anti-democratic legislation. I very much doubt that if the 700 signatories had addressed their letter to Father Christmas it could have been any more of a waste of their time.
What the vigil was actually about is in danger of being lost in the resulting brouhaha. The family and friends of Sarah Everard are grieving for a young woman snatched off our streets and murdered. That has brought to the surface the fears of so many women as they go nervously about their daily lives, and it has focussed our national consciousness, however fleetingly, on what can be done to make women safer and enable them to feel safer. As we think of Sarah Everard’s family and friends in their grief, we should spare a thought also for the family and friends of Claudia Lawrence, who worked at the University of York and was snatched from our streets on her way to work twelve years ago. Yesterday was the anniversary of her disappearance. Her father, Peter, who tried tirelessly to find out what had happened to his daughter, died last month without ever getting an answer to the question that had preoccupied him all through the last tortured years of his life. One can only hope he has found peace at last.