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Interview with Dr Emma Larking and Dr Benjamin Authers, Editors of Regarding Rights, an initiative of the Centre for International Governance and Justice (CIGJ), by Mark Ulyseas.
Why was Regarding Rights launched and what do you hope to achieve with it?
RR was created as part of a research project based at the Centre for International Governance and Justice at the Australian National University. In the project we’re examining and attempting to respond to the gap between the widespread recognition of human rights in international treaties and the failure by states to actually respect and protect rights in practice (http://regnet.anu.edu.au/cigj/projects/rights-regulation-ritualism).
We’ve attempted to achieve a few things with the blog: to provide a forum for activists and academics to discuss important developments in the field of human rights; to explore various theoretical approaches to human rights; to publicise innovative thinking and work in the field; and to draw attention to pressing human rights issues.
RR is also a forum for keeping people associated with or interested in the work of the Centre up to date with our activities. In this way, it also helps us keep engaged with our community.
What impact has Regarding Rights made since its launch?
It’s difficult to say! We have, however, garnered a loyal following of subscribers from around the globe, and general traffic on the RR website is considerable. People are reading our articles, which we hope encourages discussion about the issues. And our articles have been picked up by other websites (including Live Encounters!), which is a help in disseminating them further.
We’re proud of having provided rigorously argued and thought provoking commentary on a range of really important issues, including America’s use of torture in the war on terror and the dire situation in West Papua and in North Korea.
One less obvious, but very important, kind of impact is that RR has provided a forum for a number of early-career scholars. We’ve been incredibly lucky to get to know some fantastic thinkers at the Centre, and are thrilled to be able to provide a space for their work to get the hearing that it deserves!
What is your role as editors?
We solicit material for RR and engage in what can be a fairly intensive editorial process with authors. There’s also all the behind the scenes work of maintaining the schedule and dealing with the occasional technical hiccup. And, of course, we try our best to let people know about the blog, as well!
Have you encountered controversy by publishing a provocative article/s?
We have received a few abusive emails in response to particular posts, but overwhelmingly the response from our readers has been positive.
How has 2014 been for those seeking refuge in Australia?
2014 has not been a good year for people seeking refuge in Australia.
Boats carrying asylum seekers have been intercepted and towed back into Indonesian waters, or those on board have been forced onto lifeboats which have been towed into Indonesian waters and abandoned.
Men, women and children detained in Australian camps on Manus Island and Nauru, as well as those in detention centres within Australia itself (including on Christmas Island) are living in horrible conditions. There have been repeated protests, outbreaks of violence, and disturbing allegations of sexual abuse in the camps.
At the moment, our Parliament is considering major legislation which will make Australia’s refugee regime even more punitive.
The changes introduced by the ‘Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014’ are very broad – going well beyond those provisions relating to Temporary Protection Visas on which the media has focused. Refugee advocate Pamela Curr describes the breadth of the changes as ‘daunting and horrific’. If the Bill is passed it will, for example, allow Australia’s border authorities to take asylum seekers who are intercepted at sea wherever the Australian government directs, regardless of whether or not the country in question has agreed to receive the asylum seekers.
Readers who want to know more about this legislation should check out this interview between Australia’s Corinne Grant and legal expert, Daniel Webb: http://www.youtube.com (Long Version, 20 minutes) and http://www.youtube.com (Short version, 6 minutes)
How would you define democracy and does it exist or is it an idea that has not been translated into reality?
Lincoln’s formulation, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ seems like a pretty good place to start! In our view, genuine democracy must protect the rights of individuals and minorities at the same time as it is responsive to the ‘will of the people’. Procedural safeguards should ensure that everyone has the capacity and the opportunity to make their voices heard in deliberative processes.
Historically there have been small communities, and also revolutionary movements, within which democracy along something like these lines has been achieved – but generally speaking, this model is probably still an ideal.
People are afraid of moving away from their age old traditions. Yet it is these very traditions that defy basic human rights. Example the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. How, in your opinion, can this be stopped without treading on the basic human rights of a community to practice their tradition?
It’s true that people are often reluctant to abandon traditions that are central to their sense of identity and community, but we don’t agree that traditions are static or that any, in any culture, are ‘age old’. Traditions evolve along with the communities of which they are part.
An interesting phenomenon currently is that certain individuals and groups within communities whose cultures are threatened by external forces (such as globalisation) attempt to revive traditions that had actually died out or become less important. These include a number of practises that may be considered demeaning to women, or that involve violence against women. Alternatively, legal proscriptions against homosexuality in many countries often have their basis in colonial legislation, rather than the primordial traditions that are often claimed.
In relation to practises like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that violate basic human rights, condemnation from outside communities that hold onto these practises is often less effective than the internal dissent and advocacy of people – often women – within the community itself. For people outside these communities who wish to provide support to women and others who oppose FGM, there are a range of options, including doing whatever is necessary to ensure that all women are free to leave communities in which they may be subject to violence, and are provided with viable resettlement options.
Has the UN failed in its role in promoting and ‘enforcing’ human rights? Has human rights been politicalised and therefore the ‘us and them’ has become the order of the day?
There have been many failures in the UN, but it’s also becoming harder for countries to argue that they are immune from human rights obligations, or that human rights somehow don’t apply or aren’t relevant to them.
Take the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), for example, whose human rights situation was the subject of a UN Commission of Inquiry report this year (http://www.ohchr.org).
North Korea can still dismiss the report as a fabrication at the UN, but on the international stage it must nonetheless speak of itself as protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. Clearly this is small consolation to those whose rights are routinely violated by such countries, but it does underscore that rights can no longer be simply ignored or dismissed. The UN systems, as they’ve evolved over the past 70 years, have been an important part of that. And of course that system is part of a much larger network of activists, NGOs, and states that work to promote human rights. All these actors are in dialogue with each other.
There are countries that vociferously promote the concept of human rights and yet remain outside the purview of the ICC for fear of exposing its actions and those of its citizens to scrutiny and prosecution by an international court. The US refused to ratify the Rome Statute despite being a key player in the creation of the International Criminal Court and curiously used its influence to persuade other states to get on board. So how can we universally impose human rights when powerful key players remain outside the gambit?
Pointing to the hypocrisy involved in actions such as those you describe can have an impact and provide leverage on the basis of which to pressure a country such as the US to live up to its stated commitments. Here the role and power of civil society and activists within countries such as the US should not be underestimated.
We’re also seeing a shifting landscape when it comes to international power and influence; the coming years may well see real change in how states relate to each other, including on issues of human rights.
The Universal Periodic Review conducted by the UN is meant to monitor human rights and civil liberties in all member countries. Why has this failed?
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has actually been amazingly successful on one count – it has succeeded in engaging every single UN member state in the review process (even Israel, which threatened to withdraw). Purely as a symbol that’s incredibly powerful. The UPR has also had value because it’s brought some poorer states into the global human rights discussion for the first time. This goes a long way to having a truly global conversation about what human rights are, what they are trying to achieve, and how countries might go about making meaningful human rights change.
While it’s certainly true that many of the recommendations made to states, as well as the response of states to those recommendations, can be accused of being empty rhetoric or political grandstanding, this isn’t true in every case. A number of states take these recommendations seriously, and we have seen some changes as a consequence.
So in our view, the jury is still out on the role and significance of the UPR.
Has there been progress in the field of human rights in 2014?
Our colleague, John Braithwaite, cites Tunisia as an example of a ‘good news’ story for human rights in the wake of regime change. We’ve seen increasing recognition of marriage equality across the world. And, to make the point again, it’s harder and harder for countries to simply deny that human rights apply within their borders, while NGOs and governmental and intergovernmental actors make it harder for violating states to deny their actions—Syria being a good example. Activists all over the world continue to do amazing, inspiring work to challenge human rights violations and ensure that people everywhere can live safe and fulfilling lives.
© Mark Ulyseas-Regarding Rights