From David Maughan Brown in York: Human rights?

Gagged and bound

March 19th

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.


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. 

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?