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Breaking Aleppo: Facts and Fictions of the Conflict

last modified Jun 15, 2017 10:39 AM

On June 13 Maksymilian Czuperski visited CGHR to talk about the Atlantic Council's latest Report "Breaking Aleppo" which was published in February 2017. He is the Director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab & Special Advisor to the President Atlantic Council. Here is a short abstract of his talk:

Aleppo has been described as the Srebrenica, and the Rwanda, of our time. After more than four years of stalemate, and months of siege and battle, December 2016 saw the last of the population of the besieged eastern half of the city evacuated on the now-infamous green buses. The evacuation was the result of a crescendo of brutality. Years of indiscriminate bombings killed thousands, and destroyed much of the east of the city. 

They gave way to months of brutal siege, and finally, to weeks of bombardment and fighting. The final assault resembled the razing of a city and its last inhabitants.

Using innovative open source methodologies, digital forensic research, forensic architecture, and geolocation analysis the Atlantic Council has been able to capture the human rights violations and war crimes committed in the final months of the breaking of Aleppo. Drawing from a vast team of international partners, the report lays out the facts and fictions of the conflict, serving as a reminder that the atrocities of Aleppo should not be so easily forgotten at a time where alternative facts and disinformation challenge the true events of conflicts.

CGHR talk "Beyond Clicktivism"

last modified Jun 22, 2017 12:33 PM

Beyond Clicktivism: New Models for Exposing Human Rights Violations in the Digital Age

On March 27 we were delighted to have Sam Dubberley (Manager of Amnesty International's Digital Verification Corps) and Alexa Koenig (Executive Director of the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law) as guest speaker at CGHR. Here you  can watch the whole talk about their ongoing successful collaboration.

The Digital Verification Corps is a new research model from Amnesty International to involve and train university campuses in open source human rights investigation to assist Amnesty’s research goals and the human rights community in general. It’s currently working with over 70 students at four university campuses around the globe – including UC Berkeley.

From Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mexico, it’s increasingly difficult for human rights researchers to operate on the ground and investigate reports of human rights violations. Simultaneously, access to camera-enabled mobile phones and mobile internet has grown globally. Human rights organisations now have to use content captured on mobile phones and shared on social media to investigate events.

How has digitalisation changed investigating, verifying and reporting on human rights violations? How have digital sources and big data been successful in investigating human rights violations? How can digital techniques be used in human rights work to affect change, address attribution of responsibility and fight impunity? What are the pitfalls and ethical concerns with using digital sources in human rights investigations? What are the successes and challenges of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps as it evaluates its first year of activity.

More about our guest speakers:

Sam Dubberley is the manager of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps – which has trained a network of students globally to monitor and verify open source data for use in monitoring human rights abuses. He is also a research consultant on the Human Rights and Big Data project at the University of Essex in the UK and the editor of CrossCheck – an initiative uniting 32 mainstream news organisations to monitor and report on social media content during the French presidential elections. He has published widely on the use of social media and human rights and journalism. Previously, he was a research fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and managed the newsroom of the European Broadcasting Union.

Alexa Koenig is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Center and a Lecturer-in-Residence at UC Berkeley School of Law, where she teaches classes on human rights and international criminal law. She is most recently the author, with Victor Peskin and Eric Stover, of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror (UC Press, 2016); the editor, with Keramet Reiter, of Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015); and a contributor to The Guantánamo Effect: Exposing the Consequences of U.S. Detention and Interrogation Practices (UC Press, 2009).



BLOG: Duterte's War on Drugs

last modified Jun 15, 2017 11:35 AM

Sharmila Parmanand, a PhD candidate in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, gave an arresting introduction to the current human rights abuses in the Philippines as a result of President Duterte’s war on drugs. This war, according to the government, has included over 57,500 anti-drug operations since July 2016, resulting in the deaths of 2,949 alleged sellers or users of drugs. Over 3,5000 additional deaths have been brought about by ‘vigilante killings’, which may well have involved the police. In fact, Parmanand suspected the abuse of police power was rife within this drug war. From falsely planting evidence on victims, and claiming those victims fought back (when the direction of bullet wounds proves otherwise), to arbitrarily creating lists of drug sellers and users who are forced to ‘surrender’ or risk death (1.27 million have so far surrendered, though it is unclear how many of these are actually guilty). In fact, there is evidence that the police are actively encouraged to take the lives of those suspected of involvement with drugs, as there are allegations that they are given quotas and bonuses to do so. Indeed, Duterte has threatened lawyers who defend those accused of drug crimes and has publicly supported police actions-stating, for instance, that officers are allowed to rape up to three women without repercussions. Even more astounding, Duterte has claimed to have killed over 700 armed criminals (later changing the claim to 1,700) himself during his tenure as mayor of Davao City. 

It is clear that violence is pursued for its own sake as, Parmanand explained, the rehabilitation centres in the Philippines are overcrowded, understaffed, and Duterte has been vocal about his unwillingness to fund these facilities. Since drug users are pathologised as inherently violent and unredeemable, he has claimed that rehabilitation centres are a waste of money, and that drug addicts who do not recover quickly should be encouraged to commit suicide. This is symptomatic, Parmanand pointed out, of Duterte’s coarse ‘gutter’ language and the penal populism which partly accounts for his mass support. The language of toughness, control and immediacy, Parmanand argued, appears more appealing than a long-term strategy of building an effective justice system. The latter is widely seen as corrupt and serving only the rich by many of those whom constituted Duterte’s electoral base.

Both Duterte’s disdain for institutions and coarse rhetoric are reminiscent of the politics of other populist leaders who have risen to notoriety over recent years. Resembling leaders like President Trump, for instance, Duterte has actively sought to discredit human rights organisations, international leaders who are critical of his war on drugs, the traditional media and the Catholic Church. His stance as anti-establishment outlier accounted for his popularity among various disaffected groups who, Parmanand explained, not only turned out to vote but financially supported his campaign despite their poverty. Like several CGHR events this academic year, Parmanand's talk revealed how human rights discourse is being openly disregarded by politicians- visible both in the U.S and the U.K where human rights legislation is publicly treated as a threat to national security. But in the Philippines, the threat to society is perceived as internal, as the Philippines’ drug problem is framed as a “crisis” connected to all manner of other crimes, including religiously-based rebellions in the south of the country.

What was perhaps most surprising, and disconcerting, about Parmanand's talk was the fact that Duterte remains highly popular, with an approval rating higher than 80%. Without an organised grassroots opposition to rival Duterte’s supermajority in both the Congress and the Senate, and the senator most critical of Duterte having been jailed on supposed drug charges, there is little hope of the Duterte drug war coming to a peaceable end any time soon. Parmanand warned that, as evidence from Colombia andM exico shows, such a violent crackdown on drugs may breed violent paramilitaries, as well as the deaths of even more of the Philippines’ poorest strata. 

by Florence Gildea

BLOG: A Day in the Life: Protecting Students, Teachers and Schools in Today’s Wars

last modified May 18, 2017 11:59 AM

There was cause for optimism, thankfully, as a result of the talk ‘A Day in the Life: Protecting Students, Teachers and Schools in Today’s Wars’, given by Bede Sheppard, Deputy Director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Sheppard talked about how schools, teachers and students have been the object of attack in countries experiencing armed conflict around the world. Schools are often targeted for what education is seen to represent, Bede Sheppard explained. The name Boko Haram, for example, literally translates as “Western education is sinful,” and consequently this Islamist armed group attacked 910 schools between 2009 and 2015, killing 611 teachers and forcing 19,000 to flee. In Southern provinces of Thailand, armed separatist insurgents have attacked 300 schools since 2007, killing 190 teachers because they are seen as indoctrinating Thai, Buddhist messages among a mainly Malay, Muslim population.  Bede Sheppard

But Sheppard found that not all countries fit this pattern: in some areas, schools have been attacked not because of what they were seen to represent, but rather because they were being used for military purposes. In 2007, Human Rights Watch found that schools were used for military purposes in 29 countries across the Americas, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East- which constituted the majority of countries with armed conflict. This meant that in these countries, schools could be used as barracks, weapons stores, places for training, detention and interrogation. All of these could have negative consequences on the safety of teachers and students. For instance, Sheppard found that a school in Central India was struggling to keep girls in school, despite offering 200 scholarships to do so, because girls were not allowed by their parents to return, owing to fear of sexual assault by military officers stationed in the school. Problems of lower attendance, dropping out, reduced enrolment, and lower rates of transition (e.g. between different stages of schooling) were found to follow from military uses of schools all over the world, and girls were especially negatively affected. But loss of life could also follow when students and teachers were caught up in armed conflict as a result of their school becoming a military target. 

Sheppard then walked us through the process, which began in 2012, by which these findings were used to bring about change. Human Rights Watch cooperated with other NGOs and organisations affiliated with the UN to bring together representatives from 12 countries in order to present them with the evidence of the negative effects of the military use of schools. This resulted in a set of guidelines being created to protect schools from military use, which was released during 2013. Human Rights Watch then tried to raise the interest of the UN Security Council to give these guidelines teeth. Consequently, Resolution 2143, and a firmer version Resolution 2225 were passed. The second ‘encourages Member States to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups’.  Sheppard then explained how this was turned into the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment by which endorsing parties agree to protect schools from military use, to collect reliable data on attacks on schools, and to continue education during armed conflict, as a matter of domestic policy. He believed that endorsing this declaration had led to tangible changes in certain countries, like Afghanistan. But, although 64 countries have so far endorsed the declaration, Sheppard is still working to get other countries to endorse itthe declaration. In fact, his very visit to the UK was to persuade secure the British government’s to endorsement the declaration which;, along with countries including  Australia, the US, Germany and South Korea, it the UK has so far resisted signing on. Overall, Bede Sheppard was pleased and hopeful for the progress of human rights around the world, especially regarding children and education. But the resistance he had faced from several powerful ‘Western’ countries on the military use of schools and the fact that the US has still not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child gave many members of the audience cause for concern about the future of human rights.

By Florence Gildea, MPhil Candidate in Sociology



Welcome Steven Livingston at CGHR

last modified May 25, 2017 10:41 AM
Welcome Steven Livingston at CGHR

Steven Livingston

CGHR is delighted to have Steven Livingston as a Visiting Senior Research Associate in Cambridge this month. Amongst other things we are very much looking forward to his talk on 23 May, 3pm: Digital Fact-Finding Without Borders: Transnational Advocacy in the 21st Century. You are welcome to join us.

Steven is a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. In the spring 2017, he held a short-term visiting professorship at the University St. Gallen, Switzerland. In 2016-17 he was a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution’s program in Governance Studies. At George Washington University, he is Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs with appointments in the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) and the Elliott School of International Affairs (ESIA). In ESIA he is an affiliate faculty member of the Space Policy Institute. 

His research centers on the role of technology in governance and the provisioning of public goods, including human security and rights.  At present, he is working on several projects revolving around the use of digital technologies and data by human rights organisations.  

Among other publications, Livingston has written When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (W. Lance Bennett and Regina Lawrence, co-authors) (University of Chicago Press, 2007). With Gregor Walter-Drop he edited Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood (Oxford University Press, 2014). Africa’s Evolving Infosystems: A Pathway to Security and Stability (NDU Press, 2011) and Africa’s Information Revolution: Implications for Crime, Policing, and Citizen Security (NDU Press, 2013).

Over the last decade, Livingston has worked in over 50 countries, mostly in Africa and South America, but also on several occasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How can we still make sense of Human Rights?

last modified May 02, 2017 04:48 PM

Is the concept of Human Rights still valid, despite its colonial and Eurocentric history? In a world of post-truth, fake news, and alt-facts; is it still worthwhile?

Watch Dr Sharath Srinivasan's speech on How can we still make sense of Human Rights? at the Founders Pledge dinner in London, where he makes a passionate case for its enduring relevance, arguing that ‘Human Rights - warts and all - remain today the most powerful practical expression of our collective humanity.

Founders Pledge is a global community of founders and investors who've committed to donate a small percentage of their personal proceeds to social causes post-exit. They host regular events connecting the worlds best entrepreneurs to social thought leaders, exploring the most pressing topics at the intersection of technology and philanthropy. 


The Liberal State and its Alternatives in the Indian Ocean World

last modified Mar 28, 2017 12:15 PM

CGHR's Director, Dr Sharath Srinivasan, attended the 2017 conference of Georgetown University in Qatar (March 20-21, 2017) which was devoted to the theme of "The Liberal State and its Alternatives in the Indian Ocean World".

You can find more information about the conference here.

BLOG: The Parliament's Secret 'War'

last modified Mar 27, 2017 10:00 PM

"It is now clear that parliament has voted clearly to support the government in its efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein... Now that the democratic decision has been taken it is time for the country and parliament to unite."

Those were the words of Labour chairman John Reid, calling for unity several minutes after the UK Parliament approved of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This decision, to consult Parliament prior to sending British troops to Iraq, is widely held to have redefined the norms of parliamentary engagement on questions of war. 

This is the subject of a new book, ‘Parliament’s Secret War’, by two Cambridge University lawyers: Dr Hayley J. Hooper and Dr Veronika Fikfak, who shared their ideas with the Centre of Governance and Human Rights in a recent salon.

The conventional narrative goes that the Iraq War in 2003 transformed the constitutional norms dictating decision-making concerning ‘war’. Parliament was from here on in to be consulted not after, but before intervention. And, on a historic day in August 2013, these new constitutional muscles were ready for flexing: the British Parliament voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to intervene in Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.

But was this new convention of Parliamentary engagement genuine, or merely a smokescreen? Hooper and Fikfak make a strong case that Parliamentary consultation has been tokenistic, employed to gain domestic support and legitimacy for a pre-determined policies when international authorisation is absent or unclear.

Meaningful engagement or tokenism?

Recent British military interventions, whether supportive such as Mali in 2013, or coercive like Libya in 2011, have not been subject to Parliamentary approval. By framing the decision to intervene in terms of responding to an emergency request from the French and Malian governments or the UN Security Council, the Government has frequently left the Parliament out of the equation. This reflects a broader trend in British decision-making on matters of war. Where a UN Security Council resolution authorising intervention exists, the Government ceases to care what Parliament has to say prior to sending troops. Once there is international authorisation, the British Government - the Prime Minister and his Cabinet - is driven by the international story and ceases to look for domestic support. Yet, as Hoper and Fikfak highlight, alienating Parliament is a missed opportunity for better quality decision-making. By sidelining the legislature when decision-makers still have the widest range of strategic options available, the Parliament is denied a real stake in matters of war. Once the troops are sent, this space for maneuvering closes.

The picture looks different when there is no clear international authorisation. In cases of self-defence, such as in the Falklands conflict in 1982 and Afghanistan in 2001, or when there is no UN Security Council resolution, like in Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013, prior engagement with the Parliament increases. The Government turns to the Parliament to gain domestic legitimacy. However, rather than a historic development heralding an increase in democratic decision-making, Fikfak and Hooper show that Government is manipulating Parliament in a strategic way.

The argument that a new convention has developed capturing Parliamentary debate prior to deployment of troops, while traditionally the Government has decided whether or not to go to war, is therefore misleading. Yet, officially, it is the case that Parliament should be consulted prior to any engagement. The 2011 Cabinet Manual calls for prior Parliamentary consultation ‘except there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate’. But what counts as an emergency? This is a matter that the Government decides. This is a matter that the Government decides. Moreover, even when an emergency is absent, from relying on drone strikes to deployment of special forces, a determined Government has numerous options for engaging in war without Parliamentary involvement. Put simply, Fifkak and Hooper find the ‘new constitutional convention’ to be little more than a smokescreen, misleading the general public on the importance of Parliamentary involvement.

The Government’s advantages over the Parliament reside not only in its ability to consult the chamber when and if it desires (or, in Hooper and Fikfak’s research, when it fails to gain a UN Security Council resolution), but also in its ability to do so on its own terms. In other words, the Parliament faces a significant secrecy problem, consistently operating on a field of informational asymmetry with the Government of the day. Whether the Parliament is completely excluded on national security terms or kept unaware of secret diplomatic commitments, the fact is that, when debating military intervention, MPs often don’t have the whole picture. The British Government even has its own constitutional mechanism for excluding MPs, with Privy Councilors on both sides of the House allowed access to special briefings and sensitive intelligence while the rest of the room is excluded. With Tony Blair’s 2002 ‘dodgy dossier’, the Parliament faced a whole new wall of secrecy. This was the wall of ‘selective disclosure’, where Blair provided crucial intelligence information to MPs without the context they needed to make sense of it. This intelligence was, of course, Saddam Hussein’s ability to deploy WMDs in 45 minutes, disproven both before and after the recent Parliamentary inquiry into the Iraq War and now well-known to the British public to be false.

So what is a Parliament to do when it is consulted only strategically and deprived of access to crucial information? This is a question both Parliament and the MPs who make it up must ask themselves seriously, but it is also a question which Fikfak and Hooper’s book begins to answer. The first step is abandoning the idea - championed in the media since 2013 - that Parliament now controls British war-making. It doesn’t, and it is only by admitting this that MPs might focus more on the process of educating themselves to offset the cumbersome informational inequalities they face. For example, when Tony Blair said Saddam Hussein could deploy WMDs in 45 minutes, a very small minority of MPs questioned this assumption. Fikfak and Hooper call for a Parliament where this number would be a lot higher. It is a vision of an institution that engages not just legally but also politically and practically with the questions of war. It is an institution that does not blindly accept UN Security Council resolutions, but insists on being consulted no matter what.

Parliamentary engagement may look democratic, yet Fikfak and Hooper show that the quality of parliamentary involvement breaks down to a fig leaf. To put it simply, the ‘new constitutional convention’ is a smokescreen and misleads the general public on how much weight Parliamentary involvement actually carries. John Reid may have called for unity after the British Parliament backed the Iraq War but, if we follow Hooper and Fikfak, the British public will need more than a unified Parliament to make its voice heard on questions of war.

Talia Zybutz and Georgiana Epure, the authors of this blog post, are MPhil candidates in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.

BLOG - State Security, Torture and the Law: A Continuing Struggle

last modified Mar 08, 2017 06:50 PM

With Donald Trump having spoken in favour of the use of torture during his first TV interview as President, claiming that it was unfair for countries like the U.S to be ‘not playing on an even field’ with groups like ISIS, the panel discussion on State Security, Torture and the Law hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights and the Cambridge University European Society felt particularly timely. Together, the speakers spoke both of reasons to be hopeful about recent progress in the struggle against torture, and reasons to remain vigilant.

Dr. Onder Ozkalipci, Associate Professor of Forensic Medicine, explained the significance of the Istanbul Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for investigating and documenting signs of torture so that valid evidence for legal cases may be produced. These guidelines, which became an official UN document in 1999, have since been used to train physicians in countries around the world, whose evidence is crucial in bringing cases to trial including that against the Chilean dictator Fujimori for the use of torture in the Miguel Castro-Castro prison. But the potential power of medical testimony can be seen in the threats, attacks, and even assassinations of doctors who assist torture victims. And more broadly, Dr. Ozkalipci added, global challenges for those who seek justice for torture victims include challenges to the credibility of international human rights organisations, and the lack, in certain countries, of experts, security and a functioning legal system; without rule of law, the Istanbul Protocol cannot be put to effect.

Dr. Lutz Oette, a senior lecturer in law at SOAS, added to this list a cultural and geopolitical challenge, typified by Trump’s recent statements. In the wake of 9/11, he suggested, public opinion has become more favourable to what are euphemistically termed ’enhanced interrogation methods’ for the sake of state security. In a political environment where politicians like Trump demonise the Other, there is a risk that those considered a security risk will enjoy less protection both from state officials and the general public. Of course, Dr Oette acknowledged, a realist might say that national security is more important than an individual’s suffering. But that is based on the assumption that torture extracts reliable information, when available evidence suggests otherwise. Similarly, a cynic might retort that the absolute prohibition of torture is redundant since torture is still practiced worldwide. Yet, to challenge states and resist the practice of torture would, he argued, be far more difficult if that prohibition was relativized by exemptions. Thus, in addition to vigilance regarding the practice of torture, we should also be wary of torture losing its taboo status in political discourse in ‘western’ democracies.

Finally, Dr. Carla Ferstman, Director of REDRESS, presented five difficulties for those who seek justice for victims of torture, highlighting the fact that the founder of REDRESS, who suffered torture 25 years ago, is still awaiting vindication. These challenges include the threat to lawyers, NGOs and doctors who are under threat in countries where torture is sanctioned by the state, and that, when state officials are unwilling to disclose evidence and records cannot be accessed, proving torture can be very difficult. Dr Ferstman gave recent examples from the UK and the USA of pressure applied to those defending victims of torture, and national security being used as a reason for records relating to the use of torture to not be released, reminding the audience of these countries’ mixed records vis-à-vis the use of torture. Finally, she presented the current refugee and migrant crisis as leading certain states to ignore the fact that, under the convention against torture, it is not permitted to send an individual back to a country where they face the risk of torture, whatever crimes they have committed. To avoid their responsibilities in this regard, countries have been making it hard for anyone to enter a country or claim asylum, seeking diplomatic assurances that allegedly protect the individual from torture, or declaring a country ‘safe’ even if that state currently sanctions torture. A real risk here, then, is that those countries who have appeared champions for human rights across the world, by effectively turning a blind eye to the practice of torture, appear hypocritical.

Given the potential for states to backslide in their commitment to human rights, and for politicians to rhetorically isolate victims and those who advocate on their behalf by publicly endorsing the use of torture, the speakers pressed the need for solidarity between human rights activists across different countries, disciplines and professions. And they also reminded us to be pleased with progress against torture across the world, but not complacent, as those who work for its prevention remain vulnerable in many countries, not always far from home.

Florence Gildea, the author of this blog post, is an MPhil in SociologySign up for future CGHR talks.

BLOG: Let’s Talk about Female Genital Cutting - The Anti-Khatna movement in India

last modified Mar 05, 2017 03:47 PM

To mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, recognized by the United Nations on 6 February, the CGHR Student Group organised a discussion, led by MPhil in Gender Studies student Reetika  Subramanian, about contested realities in the anti-Khatna movement in India. 

FGM puts at risk 3 million girls every year around the globe. The UN and other international organisations and governments consider FGM a violation of human rights, including the right to “liberty and security of the person”, the right to not be subjected to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment”, and the right to a “standard of living for health and well-being of himself”, all stipulated to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, FGM is a violation of other international human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Often, FGM is also framed as an obstacle to development, affecting girls' education and health. Khatna, which is a ritual of female genital cutting, is not recognised by the UN as FGM.

Khatna is practised by the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims - a highly educated and influential Indian community with a population of approximately 1 million. Because Khatna is sidelined from the anti-FGM norm, creating and implementing top-down policies to ban this practice is more difficult. In addition, the Indian government is reluctant to take a stance because of Hindu-Muslim politics and religious freedom issues. This is the complicated space that the anti-Khatna movement rests in.

In December 2011, a 45-year-old woman from the Dawoodi Bohra community launched an anonymous online petition seeking signatures to call for a ban on Khatna. Even though the petition garnered merely 400 signatures, it was the first time that someone had initiated a conversation on this rite of passage that has - over the past few centuries - been clandestinely performed on the community's six-year-old girls. The petition snowballed into a full-blown movement with several young Bohri women coming forward to collectively challenge, speak out and create awareness about the ritual using social media activism, news media reports and global collaborations. A petition launched against the practice in 2016 received more than 50,000 signatures. These amplified debates have in turn led to a rift in the community between those calling the practice a violation and others, who are defending it as an act of purity and reaffirmation of a common Bohra identity. 

What makes the anti-Khatna campaign so interesting is the fact that it tries to open up discussions about female circumcision at the global level first. Trying to link Khatna to the global anti-FGM norm, the activists use English instead of their local languages, Hindi and Gujarati. This might benefit their goals of attracting international attention and making the global community recognise Khatna as a form of FGM, but at the same time it makes it difficult for activists on the ground to engender solidarity with their cause within the community. Their online messages are mainly targeting mothers, who are seen as the main agents that perpetuate this custom and system of 'honour'. As one Khatna supporter interviewed by Reetika put it, ‘Our genitals are mutilated not our femininity’. Thus, paying attention to anti-Khatna narratives and how the issue is framed is important in tackling female genital cutting in India and around the globe.

Georgiana Epure, the author of this blog post, is an MPhil candidate in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.

BLOG: The Case of Giulio Regeni, with Dr Antonio Marchesi (President of Amnesty Italy)

last modified Feb 16, 2017 08:10 PM

Giulio Regeni was an Italian student studying for a doctorate at Girton College, Cambridge, researching Egypt's independent trade unions. While doing research in Cairo, he was brutally tortured and murdered, his body abandoned by a highway and found just over a year ago, on the 3rd February, 2016. Although an Italian autopsy concluded that he had been systematically tortured for around a week before his murder, what precisely took place between the day of his disappearance and his death remains clouded in mystery. It has been, and continues to be, Dr Antonio Marchesi explained, Amnesty Italy’s mission to find out the truth about what happened to Giulio Regeni, and to have those responsible brought to justice. In addition, Amnesty Italy has sought to use the case to bring attention to the hundreds of other forced disappearances and human rights violations  that have taken place in Egypt over recent years (an estimated 789 in the 12 months after August 2015 alone).

Dr Marchesi explained Amnesty Italy’s strategy behind their ongoing campaign "Verità per Giulio Regeni" (Truth for Giulio Regeni). As Regeni’s case is an unusually international one, rather than focusing on just one government, Amnesty has targeted three: the British to some extent, but principally the Italian, and through them, the Egyptian authorities. The basic idea behind the campaign is to have as many people hang a yellow banner with the words "Verità per Giulio Regeni" in as many places as possible, especially on public buildings. This gesture has become contagious: its simple, memorable message, and its prevalence have made it an issue prominent in the public imagination. The campaign also involves the formation of alliances with the media, especially investigative journalists, universities, NGOs and local governments to put Giulio’s case on the political agenda. Most of all, the support of Giulio’s family has been crucial; they have fully supported Amnesty’s mission to present Giulio’s case as symptomatic of the wider problem of human rights violations in Egypt. The family’s outspoken support and, Dr Marchesi added, the fact that Giulio could be presented as kind and generous, a symbol of well-educated, ambitious Italians all helped make the campaign of raising awareness a success.

What has proved more difficult, however, has been converting this public awareness into governmental action, which is the campaign’s ultimate objective. Amnesty Italy has been lobbying the Italian government to respond forcefully to Giulio’s murder by suspending diplomatic relations with Egypt, and ceasing its supplies of arms and security transfers until Giulio’s case is fully resolved. Initially the government’s response seemed promising: the Italian ambassador was withdrawn and Italy suspended its supply of replacement aeroplane parts to Egypt. But Amnesty has a challenge ahead, Dr Marchesi observed, in preventing the Italian government drifting back into full cooperation with Egypt. The temptation for them to do so is real: the Italian government sees the Egyptian government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, Italy’s primary foreign policy objective is stability in Libya (where Egypt wields great influence), and there are also many commercial interests at stake: many Italian energy firms have operations in Egypt. To stymie the attraction of realpolitik, Amnesty is fully dependent on public engagement remaining high. The risk of interest dropping as time goes on, Dr Marchesi cautioned, is high. But by the same token, the reason for people at the grassroots to remain vigilant and proactive is powerful.

Florence Gildea is an MPhil candidate in the Sociology Department. Sign up for future CGHR talks.

BLOG: Dr Laurie Denyer Willis on Exclusion, Citizenship, and the Promises of Pentecostalism in Rio de Janeiro's Subúrbios

last modified Feb 15, 2017 01:10 PM

Social exclusion and rival visions of belonging were at the heart of Dr Laurie Denyer Willis's presentation "Life Beside the State: Refusing citizenship in Rio de Janeiro's Pentecostal Subúrbios." Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in Rio's suburban zones, Dr Denyer Willis used individual stories of marginalisation and resilience to highlight the state's troubled relationship with some of its most vulnerable citizens. Alternative support structures offered by Pentecostal communities were a key theme – and much of the session focused on why the promises of Pentecostalism could appear more durable and appealing than those of citizenship.

The term "subúrbio" brings to mind social marginalisation as much as a sense of being on the geographical periphery – and the area researched by Laurie has, like many others, recently seen the impact of government "pacification". While the suburbs tend to be seen as hotbeds of crime or sites of victimisation, Laurie argued that the violence marking those "pacification" efforts has fuelled a sense of alienation from the supposedly benevolent and rational state.

Her previous work has explored the theme of abandonment in modern Brazil, with state structures failing to act as guarantors of individual rights. This was vividly illustrated by two personal stories from a western suburb of Rio. State neglect formed the backdrop to the story of workersat a perfume factory, carrying out toxic waste products to sell them as a "holy fragrance" – a much-needed way of supplementing their income, with their customer base sourced through Pentecostal networks. It was no less evident in the case of a young mother, hastily discharged from a public clinic with premature twins and turned away by her partner. She, too, was able to find solace and community through Pentecostalism. While highlighting the precarity of her informants' situations, and the seemingly tokenistic nature of faith-based "remedies", Laurie elaborated on the concept of abandonment as "more than an endpoint".

Too often, she insisted, we view "abandonment by the state" as a final event, allowing stories of suffering and deprivation to gradually fade from view. Instead, she argued, it should be considered as a series of ongoing processes – an undertaking greatly facilitated by her anthropological approach.

She hinted that Pentecostal communities provided vital support to those seeking to distance themselves from state structures – she gave examples of women refusing to let in health workers or accept federal cash transfers. The reasons for choosing, or being faced with, this "life beside the state" are manifold, with abandonment providing just one salient example.

As a medical anthropologist, Laurie has explored the intersections of urban spaces and places, governance, and the rise of Pentecostalism in Brazil and Lusophone Africa. She is currently a Research Associate at the CGHR, working on a project on radio, epidemics and methodological evaluation in Mozambique and Cape Verde. She has spent over three years living and conducting research in Brazil, and has gained a deeply personal insight into community life in its subúrbios. What stood out during the talk was certainly her ability to gather individual stories and handle sensitive material, while never losing sight of the structural issues at play. Laurie's ongoing research focuses on novel forms of citizenship emerging from religious movements, in particular various forms of Pentecostalism. One question she has grappled with is whether a globalising Pentecostal discourse – concerned with citizenship and belonging, marginalisation, uncertain livelihoods and changing cities – can be thought of as a "social movement", transforming societies as it has been transforming lives. 

Joanna Kozlowska works on the CGHR Student Group as an MPhil candidate in IR and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.

CGHR Trip to Parliament for South Sudan Panel Discussion

last modified Feb 03, 2017 02:00 PM
CGHR Trip to Parliament for South Sudan Panel Discussion

Scott, Nikta, Georgiana, and David from the CGHR Student Group

In late November, the CGHR Student Group launched the first of its 'Day in the Life' events, which aim to connect students with human rights practitioners in their places of work. The group brought seven students to the UK Parliament to attend a panel discussion developed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan. The meeting explored the concerning trend of increased violence in South Sudan in recent months and discussed potential solutions to the country's desperate human rights situation.

An enlightening and engaging discussion, the panel was comprised of three individuals, offering three traditional frames of the human rights narrative: former British Ambassador to Sudan, Rosalind Marsden, representing the diplomatic-bureaucratic lens; Emma Fanning, an Oxfam official who offered insight from the development perspective; and Anna Oosterlinck, a UN Panel of Experts adviser, representing the security lens. Hearing these views first-hand was particularly intriguing for students of Cambridge's graduate Politics of Africa course, who had recently explored the unspoken assumptions associated with transnational justice, as raised in Kamari Clarke's Fictions of Justice.

There was unanimous agreement amongst panellists that the human rights situation in South Sudan is deteriorating rapidly, and that international alarm has not translated into an effective response on the ground. The rise in hate speech, the risk of genocide, and the growing disillusionment towards a power-sharing political solution involving both President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar was shared by all parties.

Despite this alignment on the panel, however, the panellists offered different solutions for mitigating the conflict. The former UK Ambassador emphasised the need to engage with trusted institutions on the ground, including churches, to distribute aid. She also recommended a 'national conversation' to promote dialogue amongst conflicting parties. By contrast, the expert adviser urged for decisive action from the Security Council, and a need to learn from earlier mistakes, particularly the inadequacy of a power-sharing solution. The effectiveness of arms embargos also prompted debate, with the conclusion reached that whilst the arms embargo could prevent the import of high-tech weapons, the embargo would have little effect on the wealth of small arms already in the country.

These disagreements spoke to the notion that although the international community has launched rhetoric to avert the further escalation of violence and to promote the cessation of hostilities, it has fallen short of creating ideas to implement these goals. Indeed, the real challenge over the coming months will be how to establish a framework for conciliatory dialogue, for as one South Sudanese audience member commented, how can the world tackle this crisis, “when there is no peace to be kept”? It is only by addressing this challenge that a more inclusive and peaceful future for South Sudan can emerge.

David Orr works on the CGHR Student Group as an MPhil candidate in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.

Special thanks to Will Archer, Secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan and South Sudan for kindly inviting us.

BLOG: In Conversation with Sandrine Tiller, Médécins Sans Frontièrs

last modified Feb 01, 2017 11:05 AM

On the 24th of January, the CGHR held the first lecture of this year’s practitioner series with Sandrine Tiller, Programmes Advisor for Humanitarian Issues for Médécins Sans Frontièrs (UK). On her way to Berlin, Tiller passed through Cambridge to talk about her career in humanitarian aid and policy, as well as share her thoughts on the current state of the profession. Tiller began her career by working at the ICRC and afterwards at the British Red Cross. Amongst her diverse working locations are Jerusalém, Beirut, Eritrea and Tanzania. The discussion Tiller led was absorbing, for she described her personal experience with a critical point of view, even steering the discussion into the role of development versus humanitarian aid.

Tiller started her career working in rural development in Venezuela. As she explained, it was hard to separate this activity from its colonial shadow. Individual development goals are on a losing stance right now. Development policies, such as women’s empowerment, used to be considered neutral in the past, but nowadays, the negative consequences of these actions are being assessed. These policies are taken as political goals introduced by Western countries, possibly representing a patronising relationship. Tiller, therefore, stated her preference for humanitarian principles, which guide her as personal values. She feels that the notions of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, for instance, become most poignant in the current political context. As Tiller put it, while humanitarian issues are at the top of the international agenda and are mentioned daily in the news and throughout social media, this popularity for humanitarian matters is not supported by meaningful political action. We have unfortunately observed lack of action on current humanitarian crises such as the Syrian conflict, the Ebola crisis, cholera in Haiti or peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. The number of people who are meant to be reached by humanitarian aid has increased, and yet the assistance provided is massively insufficient. Amongst modern obstacles to political action are the continuous politicisation of humanitarian aid, the lack of funding, the generalised lack of confidence in international organisations such as the UN, and the well-known rise of authoritarian nationalism.

Lastly, Tiller addressed the question of whether international solidarity was dying. The modern approach to humanitarian aid is based on transactions and shifting resources from international organisations towards local movements. Although the empowerment of local actors is relevant, Sandrine fears that this shift might lead to a future scenario in which merely sending money supplants actual personal and social aid. In war scenarios such as the one currently seen in Yemen, it is difficult to foresee whether this new version of humanitarian aid will actually make a difference, or whether it will merely serve as a means to avoid interference in critical matters and to shift the burden entirely to domestic actors.

Beatriz Esperanca works on the CGHR Student Group as an LLM student. Sign up for future CGHR talks.

BLOG: In Conversation with Richard Leakey on Kenyan Politics and Conservation in Africa

last modified Nov 14, 2016 11:01 AM

Providing a glimpse into a life of adventure worthy of a Hollywood film (sadly cancelled), the CGHR was honoured to host Dr. Richard Leakey at Cambridge this week for a discussion on Kenyan politics. One of the key figures in Kenya's post-colonial history, Dr. Leakey shared erudite and often entertaining anecdotes from his diverse career as a revered paleoanthropologist, former head of the Kenyan civil service, retired director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and a former opposition leader.

Dr. Leakey began by discussing the challenges he faced whilst creating an opposition party during the "hurly-burly of opposition politics coming out of a dictatorship", and the tactics he employed to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Kenya's civil service. He noted that many of his tactics – such as the removal of seventeen ministerial posts – were deeply unpopular amongst established political elites, yet these ameliorations fostered a sense of pride amongst ordinary Kenyans. However, he swiftly realised that these radical changes produced an evaporation of political will, preventing him from continuing as head of the Kenyan civil service.

Whilst Dr. Leakey's experience as head of the Kenyan civil service and his relationship withPresident Moi dominated much of the discussion, Dr. Leakey also extended his observations to other fields. His stories of meeting with a wealth of former and current East African leaders including Paul Kagame, Julius Nyerere, and Uhuru Kenyatta were particularly informative, as were his insights on Kenya's foreign policy in Somalia. However, the most memorable anecdote was his story of persuading the Kenyan Air Force to conduct their training exercises over Tsavo National Park instead of Nairobi, thereby solving two problems at once. First, the arrival of helicopter gunships frightened poachers and reduced poaching in the park, and second, Dr. Leakey could sleep better in Nairobi because the "dreadful racket" of the training exercises was no more!

Dr. Leakey also had several predictions about the future of Kenyan politics. Naming corruption as the singular most destructive force in Kenya today, Dr. Leakey noted that its pervasiveness makes educated members of the diaspora wary of returning. He also mentioned the challenge of tackling fundamentalism.

However, Dr. Leakey was considerably more positive about the future of Kenya. He noted that Kenya's new constitution and the devolution of powers to the county level has provided 'tribalism'  with a "place in the sun", and that this exposure of ethnic divisions will encourage greater inter-ethnic cooperation over the distribution of resources, thereby sounding the death knell for 'tribalism' in Kenya. This positive end-note echoed a conviction of Dr. Leakey's, that in pursuing change, one must be optimistic and inventive. His career is a testament to this belief.

David Orr works on the CGHR Student Group as an MPhil candidate in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.


Bede Sheppard

Bede Sheppard
Bede Sheppard
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