The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'human rights'
LGBT+ Australians and their allies can breathe a cautious sigh of relief as one prolonged chapter of the national culture-war pantomime comes to a close, with 61.6% of Australians voting to legalise same-sex marriage. Sorry, did I say voting? It wasn't a referendum, or even a plebiscite, but a non-binding postal survey, whose sole purpose was for Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister to pander the alpha-males of the hard right, putting the human rights of part of the population to a survey and declaring a legal gay-bashing season, giving bigots carte blanche to gather their best arguments on why those people are disgusting and shouldn't be allowed, and shove them into every letterbox in the nation. LGBT mental-health help lines have, as expected, been busy.
Anyway, it turns out that most Australians are happy to let gay people marry. Which is to say, LGBT+ Australians can be somewhat reassured by knowing that, out of any five Australians they might see, statistically, more than three are happy for them to exist; which, one supposes, is progress. So now, a marriage equality bill will soon be debated in parliament. We can probably expect to see the LNP hard right, abetted by the Australian media's right-wing commentariat, use the fact that they have just under ²⁄₅ of the population opposed it to rationalise larding the bill with amendments effectively legalising all forms of discrimination and vilification against sexual minorities, as long as it comes from religious belief or deeply-felt visceral disgust. Hopefully, such amendments will get smacked down, as moderate Tories vote them down or abstain, though this is complicated by the fact that the electorates which returned majority results against marriage equality were predominantly Labor electorates with large ethnic-minority populations; and while this might not put them within easy reach of the (right-of-centre, big-business-oriented) Liberal Party, its more reactionary/traditionalist offshoot, the Australian Conservatives, not to mention the handful of religious fringe parties that cluster around the bottom end of Senate results, may be salivating at the prospect.
It is a good thing that the campaign is over, and that (hopefully) this issue will be sorted before the end of the year (after which, Australia may, slowly and painfully, have entered the civilised world where centre-right parties have realised that they have more to gain from affluent, established gay couples who can be persuaded that they should pay less tax than from a handful of burned-over religious zealots and the embittered and fearful). However, that is not the same as saying that this is a good result. For one, the legitimacy of a survey into whether a minority should be given fundamental human rights is, to say the least, deeply questionable. (Imagine, if you will, a survey on whether women should be allowed to own property in their own names, or if non-white people should be considered to be human for legal purposes.) Human rights should not be a matter of public opinion, and, if this has demonstrated anything, making them such serves only to embolden bigots.
Beyond the impact on the question, this episode may have other consequences. For one, the highly unorthodox way it was organised may have set a problematic precedent. Not being an election, a referendum or a plebiscite, the survey was not organised by the Australian Electoral Commission; instead, the Bureau of Statistics, until now a quiet, apolitical bureaucracy concerned with gathering data and tabulating it, was transformed by fiat into a parallel electoral commission, only without the responsibilities of one. From this, it is not hard to see it being used as a political football, and made to trot out an endless succession of surveys designed to bolster populist arguments and beat up on scapegoats. (Perhaps some year, to get One Nation's support at passing something in the Senate, there'll be an official ABS postal survey on whether Muslims should be allowed to enter Australia, and a 30% “no” result will be used to legislate for a ban on the sale of halal snack packs to under-18s, or something similarly idiotic?)
Secondly, and more immediately, in agreeing to this exercise, Turnbull may have inadvertently doomed his own party to losing the next election. While they have been polling badly recently, they have a history of scraping through with narrow victories. However, one thing that a
referendum plebiscite survey on whether gay people should have human rights has achieved is a record surge of younger Australians, who vote predominantly left-of-centre, registering to vote. Many of these young people will be living with their parents, in marginal LNP seats, what with the traditionally left-leaning inner cities becoming unaffordable; when the next election comes around, they will vote. The LNP has reasons to be nervous about this, and the ALP probably shouldn't sleep too easily, given how poorly its rightward triangulation on various policies (particularly Australia's harsh deterrence policies against refugees) plays with younger voters.
Spain uses force to suppress outbreaks of illegal voting, as Catalonia's secessionist government defies a ban on an independence referendum. Having failed to seize all ballot papers in the days running up to the election, Spain has ordered riot police to fire with rubber bullets on those defying the ban; currently, 460 people are said to have been injured. The optics, as they say in this age, are not good; meanwhile, somewhere in the circle of Hell reserved for tyrants, Generalissimo Franco is rubbing his hands with glee, knowing that his life's work has, in some way, endured.
The optimistic liberal commentariat on Twitter, of course, is adamant that this is the day that Spain's right-of-centre anti-separatist government has lost all democratic legitimacy, and will suffer a crushing judgment from History and or Public Opinion; the corollary being that, however questionable Catalan independence may have been until now, it is as inevitable as, say, the Irish Free State became after the Easter Rising. Though that conclusion neglects a few things: firstly, can a government that uses force against its population automatically be said to have lost in the court of public opinion, in an age when the public looks to Dubai as a model of aspirational glamour and gets its news from the Daily Mail, FOXNews and the like? These days, the idea of “human rights” has fallen from favour somewhat, and is regarded with suspicion, if not outright contempt, by a large proportion of the public, whose rights are assumed to be assured by the natural order of things. (After all, if decent folks' rights are in no danger, the reasoning follows, then “human rights” can only be a scam to take from us and give to those people. If you hear some nice well-meaning liberal talking about “human rights”, check your wallet.) Would your typical person, who's relaxed and comfortable with wearing clothes made by slave labour and holidaying in locations where uppity minorities are kept in their place by the threat of deadly force, judge Mariano Rajoy's Spain to have overstepped the mark? As long as any future settlement ensures that Spain remains a sunny holiday and/or retirement destination, this is fine.
Secondly, Turkey has set a precedent for how a member in good standing of the club of free democracies (which Turkey remains, and will remain as long as it keeps the threatened tidal wave of Islamic refugees from entering Europe) may deal with internal dissent. Turkey, as you will recall, was faced with its own ethnic/linguistic minority—the Kurds, who had been left without a homeland by the Sykes-Picot treaty—who had their own party (the HDP), held mayorships in Kurdish-majority towns, and at the last election, won a large number of seats in the parliament, becoming a de facto liberal opposition to Erdoǧan's authoritarian rule. Erdoǧan responded by escalating tensions, jailing most HDP politicians, dissolving Kurdish-run regional governments and replacing them with non-Kurdish administrators, and, in places, using military force against resistant populations. This, too, was judged to be fine, and in no way inconsistent with Turkey's good standing in the democratic world. And in doing so, it set the baseline for what any other free democracy faced with secessionist dissent may freely do.
There seems to be no way back; the Catalans will not surrender unconditionally and forever rule out independence, as would be the minimum required. Therefore, the only option Madrid has is to decisively crush the secessionist movement and salt the ground to ensure it does not return. In the short term, Madrid will probably impose martial law, possibly backed with a shoot-to-kill curfew, which will be in force until immediate tension dissipates. Voting materials will be seized and destroyed, and any ringleaders still at large and within Spain arrested. (Whether neighbours will honour extradition requests for Catalan nationalist activists remains to be seen; Germany, for one, has been refusing to hand over Turkish dissidents.) In the longer term, there are likely to be sweeping Turkish-style purges of the public service, media and universities, with anyone who liked any Catalan independence materials on Twitter/Facebook likely to face dismissal.
Which leaves the longer term, and the whole question of “Catalonia” in the first place. Does (or should) it exist in any way that, say, “Kurdistan“ or “Palestine” officially don't? Does allowing a regional government to exist, to maintain its own laws and mandate that signage must be in Catalan, undermine national cohesion and sovereignty? A Spanish government seeking to eliminate the possibility of future secession might take a number of courses of action, from demoting Catalan from a first-class language to a vulgar dialect, removing it from place names and official materials and school curricula, up to eliminating the region of Catalonia altogether, subsuming its component parts into neighbouring regions for administrative purposes. (This would also serve as a warning to the Basques not to get any ideas; you have a lot of privileges, it would say; this is what happens to those who abuse them.)
Of course, this is assuming that Spain does prevail. A strategy of raising tensions could escalate into an actual civil war, or if not, then into a guerilla conflict like the Basque one, which could fester on for decades, and interact unpredictably with events abroad (if, say, France goes fascist after the next election, or Russia decides that a frozen conflict in western Europe serves its geopolitical ambitions, or post-Brexit Britain turns it into some kind of jingoistic proxy war over Gibraltar or something, anything could happen).
The other big news this weekend, of course, Ireland voting in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. The margin (62%) was decisive enough, even without taking into account the fact that only one of Ireland's 43 parliamentary constituencies reported a majority against. The case is pretty much settled; even senior Catholic clergy have conceded that history was on the side of the change.
This result shows how much has changed in Ireland over the past few decades, and in particular, how much the influence of the Catholic Church, which once controlled all aspects of life in the republic, has waned. It has only been 22 years since homosexuality itself stopped being a crime in Ireland, and a decade or so longer since divorce became legal. Of course, the Church Holy Roman and Apostolic's influence still weighs heavily in one conspicuous area: abortion remains strictly illegal in Ireland, with several referenda in the past decades failing to reverse this. It is, to say the least, not at all clear that this would be repeated in any future referendum. (On the other hand, the experience in the US has shown that it is possible for a liberalisation in gay rights to occur alongside a rolling back of womens' reproductive rights, so legalised abortion in Ireland is by no means inevitable.)
The decision's impact will spread beyond the Irish Republic; calls for reform in Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is illegal, are likely to be strengthened (though still face an uphill battle, with the conservative Democratic Unionist Party coming increasingly under evangelical Protestant influence. Considerably further afield, Australia is another place where this may have an impact. Australians famously like their politicians to be more conservative and moralistic than they themselves are, which has been reflected, as recently as a few years ago, in both major parties being against same-sex marriage. The vein of religious conservatism that animates this opposition, meanwhile, stems largely from Irish Catholic conservatism (the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is an conservative Catholic whose political views stem largely from the ultra-conservative, Democratic Labor Party, which emerged when the Catholic elements in the ALP left, citing creeping Communist influence in the party); while it is possible that Australia will remain as a sort of Galapagos of the Irish Catholic Right circa 1950, preserving this otherwise extinct culture in the way that a 19th-century dialect of English remains alive on the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, the fall of the Old Sod to secular modernity could have an effect.
The House of Commons voted today to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales; the bill passed by 400 votes for to 175 against. About a third of Conservatives voted for it, with slightly more voting against and the rest abstaining; a handful of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs voted against it, though most voted in favour. (Aside: according to accounts of the session, there are surprisingly many openly gay Tory MPs in Britain, a sign that the country has moved on since Tory electoral materials openly carried homophobic dog whistles and Thatcher tried to push through Section 28.)
The bill now needs to pass through the House of Lords; in theory, this should not be too much of a problem for a bill with this degree of support. Assuming it makes it through, it will become law and gay couples will be able to marry and have equal status to opposite-sex married couples.
The public acceptance of homosexuality has been one of the greatest social changes of the past half-century. It is scarcely to be believed that there are still men alive who went to prison for practising it. The real breakthrough may come only when gay people cease to demand the exceptionalism of a "victimised" group, when they can shrug off the intolerance of a few, having won the acceptance of the many.A few residual anomalies will remain, however: it will be impossible for a same-sex couple to claim adultery as grounds for divorce, as adultery remains defined as an opposite-sex act (illicit hanky-panky with one of one's own sex falls under “unreasonable behaviour”, and barring a change in the law, will continue to do so even when one's spouse is of one's own sex), and nor is there any legal definition of non-consummation of a same-sex marriage. Also, while same-sex couples can marry, opposite-sex couples who dislike the idea of marriage still may not obtain civil partnerships, though those remain on the table for same-sex couples. What eventually happens to these anomalies remains to be seen.
Meanwhile in Australia, not only is there still bipartisan opposition to gay marriage in parliament, but the nominally progressive government is moving to allow religious groups broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, for example allowing Catholic hospitals to fire employees who are gay or have children outside of a marriage.
Prison administrators in China have found a new use for prison labour: putting inmates to work in multiplayer video games, generating in-game gold, which is then sold online for real money:
Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.
"Prison bosses make more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu told the Guardian. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."
More Wikileaks revelations, this time about Cuba, the world's grooviest totalitarian dictatorship: a US diplomat complains that countries including Spain, Switzerland, Canada and nominally loyal Washington ally Australia have stopped criticising Cuba's human rights record, ostensibly in return for commercial favours.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Cuba banned Michael Moore's film Sicko, which decries the state of privatised health care in the US and contrasts it with a glowing image of Cuba's health system. The reason Cuba banned it was apparently because its portrayal of Cuba's system was so mythically positive that it could have led to a popular backlash against the real thing; in particular, one of the Cuban hospitals is only available to the Communist Party nomenklatura and those who can pay bribes in hard currencies:
The cable describes a visit made by the FSHP to the Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital in October 2007. Built in 1982, the newly renovated hospital was used in Michael Moore's film as evidence of the high-quality of healthcare available to all Cubans.
But according to the FSHP, the only way a Cuban can get access to the hospital is through a bribe or contacts inside the hospital administration. "Cubans are reportedly very resentful that the best hospital in Havana is 'off-limits' to them," the memo reveals.
The Independent has a profile of Geoffrey Robertson QC, the eminent human-rights lawyer who recently wrote an indictment of the Pope for knowingly fostering child abuse and whose next project is likely to be defending Wikipedia editor Julian Assange from extradition to the US on espionage charges:
Robertson decided that his future lay in Britain. He was eventually called to the bar 1973 and embarked on a remarkable career. Cause célèbre followed cause célèbre. In 1978 he defended two journalists who had been accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act when they interviewed a former intelligence officer. The acquittal of the journalists was a landmark victory for press freedom. Robertson went on to defend Gay News and the National Theatre from the legal assaults of Mary Whitehouse. These trials – and their outcome – helped to deliver the coup de grâce to cultural censorship in Britain.
As a QC he prosecuted the Malawian dictator Hastings Banda and defended dissidents detained by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. He appeared in many Caribbean death sentence appeals at the Privy Council. And in 2002 came a move from defence to judgment, when Robertson served as a judge on the United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Robertson's private life has been as eventful as his public one. But his marriage to the wisecracking Australian novelist Kathy Lette has kept him close to the media spotlight, even when not in the court. The two met in Brisbane 20 years ago filming an episode of Robertson's long-running Australian current affairs television programme Hypotheticals. Both were in relationships at the time, Robertson with the future television chef Nigella Lawson, and Lette married to the Australian television executive Kim Williams. "Opposites attract" is Robertson's explanation of the unlikely union of the crusading liberal barrister and the author of such works as Foetal Attraction and Men – A User's Guide.IMHO, Robertson is one of the heroes of our age.
A Berlin-based advertising agency has created some clever ads for the International Society for Human Rights' press freedom campaign:
Veteran human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, has published a new book, in which he calls for the Vatican to be treated as a rogue state until it substantially alters its ancient canon law, which, among other things, protects child rapists:
''The worst that can happen, other than an order to do penance, is 'laicisation', that is, defrocking, which permits the paedophile to leave the church and get a job in a state school or care home without anyone knowing of this conviction. Canon law has no sex offenders registry.Robertson also argues that the Pope is not a legitimate head of state, with the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which established the Vatican, not being a legitimate international treaty, but rather a deal between Mussolini and a pro-fascist Pope.
The current Pope is about to make a visit to the UK, which is being treated officially as a state visit. Various humanist, secularist and human rights groups are organising protests.
Having discovered a sophisticated attack, presumably by Chinese security forces, against its infrastructure, aimed at compromising the details of Chinese human-rights activists, Google has announced a new hard line on dealing with the Chinese government:
These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
A heterosexual couple in London are planning to sue for the right to enter a civil partnership. Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle want the same rights as a married couple, but reject the separate-but-equal doctrine that separates gay and straight couples into "civil partnerships" and "marriages". Unfortunately, the law insists that, being heterosexual, they are only entitled to marriage (an institution with its roots in religious tradition, to the point that the government created "civil partnership" to keep the queers from defiling it with their existence).
Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, both 25, want the same legal rights as any husband and wife, but said they did not want to be seen to be "colluding with the segregation that exists in matrimonial law between gay civil partnerships and straight civil marriage".
The couple applied for a civil partnership at Islington register office, in north London, but were refused because UK law bans opposite-sex civil partnerships.Freeman and Doyle have the support of gay- and human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
I wish them the best of luck. To say that a heterosexual couple's partnership automatically lumps them in with all other heterosexuals and separates them from non-heterosexuals is a denial of freedom of association. Furthermore, it casts light on the oddness of the concept of "marriage", which, on one hand, is a secular institution provided by a secular state, and on the other hand is robed in so much fusty religious tradition that the state imposes absolutely inflexible barriers along lines of ancient prejudice. It would be far more sensible to abolish secular marriage altogether, and have the state-recognised component be a civil partnership; if couples want to get married by their church (and their church approves), they could do that in addition to the state institution. The process could be streamlined, with churches acting as agents for the civil partnership agency whilst performing marriages, but at the end, all partnered couples, gay and straight, religious and irreligious, would have exactly the same title and status in the eyes of the law.
Some news from Venezuela, the Another World that Is Possible. There, the "Bolivarian" authorities have criminalised "violent" video games (a move which may be intended to shut down internet cafés which depend on game players for revenue but also bypass official means of the dissemination of information), and routinely round up gays and lesbians:
One Friday at around midnight, on Villaflor Street, a favourite spot for gays and lesbians in the Venezuelan capital, Yonatan Matheus and Omar Marques noticed two Caracas police patrol vans carrying about 20 detainees, most of them very young.
When Marques and Matheus, who are gay leaders of the Venezuela Diversa (Diverse Venezuela) organisation, approached to find out what was happening and take pictures, they were picked up too.
"Like most of those arrested, our identity documents and mobile phones were taken away, we were beaten, our sexual orientation was insulted in degrading language, and we were refused permission to speak to the Justice Ministry officials and members of the National Guard who were present," Matheus told IPS.
(via Boing Boing)
Google Earth scores another scalp; thanks to its satellite imagery, a group of amateurs has been able to build up a comprehensive picture of North Korea, thwarting the hermit kingdom's hermetic borders. The picture is, as one might expect, not a pretty one:
Among the most notable findings is the site of mass graves created in the 1990s following a famine that the UN estimates killed about 2 million people. "Graves cover entire mountains," Melvin said.
The palaces housing dictator Kim Jong Il and his inner circle, clearly shown on the maps, contain Olympic-size swimming pools with giant waterslides and golf courses.The data is available as a Google Earth layer, peppered with detailed landmarks, from the project's web site. While Google Earth was crucial to it, other information sources, from sketches by defectors and escapees to the North Korean state press's own carefully circumscribed reports of the
The authors of the data have notified North Korean embassies about it but, for some reason, received no response.
Meanwhile, OpenStreetMap has actual maps of North Korea (sometimes even with labels); here, for example, is central Pyongyang.
The Independent has an article on the dark side of Dubai. The economic boom apparently owes itself to the unique and dynamic qualities of Dubai's autocratic legal environment, which short-circuits a lot of the inefficiencies of a more liberal society. For example, if you can lure workers over with promises of wealth, then take their passports, force them to work in inhumane conditions and not bother with paying them, you can achieve miracles of efficiency:
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.That's the construction workers building the marvels of architecture. The maids hired by the ruling classes of Emiratis and expatriates don't have any more rights, and don't have it much better:
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."The sense of terriblisma is heightened by some choice quotes from some particularly charming-sounding expatriates (mostly found in a tacky British bar):
"If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"The expatriates, however, are not citizens and have no rights there; life's good for them, but only while they have money to spend and don't rock the boat:
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.It gets worse, though: the article starts with the account of a woman who moved there with her husband when he got a senior management job. All was well until he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and resigned to leave; his payoff wasn't enough to cancel their debts, their passports were confiscated, and he was thrown in a debtors' prison.
Of course, it can't last forever; some say the Great Recession could wipe Dubai out:
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."This article concurs that Dubai is in a world of trouble, citing the fact that those who have passports and their wits about them are fleeing, abandoning their cars at the airport with the keys still in the ignition before anyone can detain them.
One of the arguments for giving the Olympics to China—a contentious choice, 12 years after the crushing of the Tienanmen Square protests—was that such an event would force China to improve its human rights. Even while we couldn't expect China, a totalitarian state, to become a model nation in this respect, the argument went, surely the eyes of the world upon it would cause the situation to improve somewhat.
This argument has been shattered by a recent Amnesty International report, which finds that the Olympics have actually made things worse, with the Chinese authorities stepping up repression, censorship and arbitrary imprisonment and relocation to make sure that the games run smoothly.
The report says that Chinese activists have been locked up, people have been made homeless, journalists have been detained, websites blocked, and the use of labour camps and prison beatings has increased.
"We've seen a deterioration in human rights because of the Olympics," said Roseann Rife, a deputy programme director for Amnesty International.The authors of the Amnesty report have the extraordinary naïveté to suggest that this has "undermined" the "Olympic values" of human dignity. Surely the values that would go best with putting on a huge spectacle of commercialism and national chest-beating would be those of totalitarianism; making the trains run on time, crushing any uncomfortable dissent, and all, and China would be a more natural host than any liberal democracy which would be obliged to pass uncomfortable laws suspending civil liberties (as Sydney did in 2000; the laws, still on the books, have since come in handy for other mass spectacles, such as the Catholic Church's World Youth Day this year). Meanwhile, with the exception of a few granola-eaters and Guardian readers, the West doesn't care as long as they get their entertainment product shipped into their sitting rooms through the TV.
Perhaps when the location of the next Olympics is decided, the IOC should consider North Korea; after all, coordinating mass events with ruthless precision is one thing the Hermit Kingdom excels at.
As the Olympic torch continues its worldwide tour, surrounded by aggressive Chinese guards and hounded persistently by human-rights protesters, some have called for the protesters to shut up and keep politics out of sport. They would do well to read up about the history of the whole Olympic torch ceremony, which originated not in ancient Greece but in Nazi Germany:
He sold to Josef Goebbels – in charge of media coverage of the Games – the idea that 3,422 young Aryan runners should carry burning torches along the 3,422km route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin. It was his idea that the flame should be lit under the supervision of a High Priestess, using mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays, and passed from torch to torch along the way, so that when it arrived in the Berlin stadium it would have a quasi-sacred purity.
The concept could hardly fail to appeal to the Nazis, who loved pagan mythology, and saw ancient Greece as an Aryan forerunner of the Third Reich. The ancient Greeks believed that fire was of divine origin, and kept perpetual flames burning in their temples.
But the ancient Games were proclaimed by messengers wearing olive crowns, a symbol of the sacred truce which guaranteed that athletes could travel to and from Olympus safely. There were no torch relays associated with the ancient Olympics until Hitler.
The route from Olympus to Berlin conveniently passed through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia - countries where the Nazis wanted to extend their influence. Before long, all would be under German military occupation. In Hungary, the flame was serenaded by gypsy musicians who would later be rounded up and sent to death camps.
Great news on the human rights front: China is no longer one of the most systematic human rights violators, according to the US State Department's annual human rights report. This is the first time in many years that China has been removed from the list, now containing Iran, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Sudan, Uzbekistan and, from this year, Syria.
Which raises the question: is China really that much less repressive than Iran, or is it just a more valuable trading partner? And where's Saudi Arabia?
A man in Stoke-on-Trent was arrested by armed police, DNA tested and thrown in a cell after a bystander mistook his MP3 player for a gun. Darren Nixon was released, but
has been banned from the internet after copyright-enforcement officers found pirated MP3s on the player will now have his DNA stored on a national database for life with a record that he was arrested on suspicion of a firearms offence.
A pilot for Indonesian national airline Garuda has been jailed for poisoning a human-rights activist on a flight to Amsterdam in 2004 (considerably after the end of the Suharto regime). It is believed that he acted on behalf of the Indonesian security services, though no-one from the services was actually charged.
Wall Street is experiencing a Chinese surveillance-led boom, with US hedge funds pumping more than $150m into the growth industry of developing high-tech means of detecting dissent and maintaining the control of the Communist Party over the world's most populous nation — namely, of squaring the circle of having economic freedom with totalitarian political and social control.
Terence Yap, the vice chairman and chief financial officer of China Security and Surveillance Technology, said his company’s software made it possible for security cameras to count the number of people in crosswalks and alert the police if a crowd forms at an unusual hour, a possible sign of an unsanctioned protest.
Mr. Yap said terrorism concerns did exist. His company has outfitted rail stations and government buildings in Tibet with surveillance systems.
In Shenzhen, white poles resembling street lights now line the roads every block or two, ready to be fitted with cameras. In a nondescript building linked to nearby street cameras, a desktop computer displayed streaming video images from outside and drew a green square around each face to check it against a “blacklist.” Since China lacks national or even regional digitized databases of troublemakers’ photos, Mr. Yap said municipal or neighborhood officials compile their own blacklists.
(via Boing Boing)
The Guardian has an article on the lengths to which the police went to persecute homosexuals in Britain before 1967, when homosexuality was decriminalised:
But his memories of the period are precise. In the early days, they tell me, living together was a dangerous business. When a drunk coach driver crashed into their car outside their house in the night, 'the first thing we had to do was make up the spare bed. We knew from experience that if you called the police and they suspected you were homosexual, they would ignore the original crime and concentrate on the homosexuality.'
For all that the law was draconian, it was also unenforceable. As a result, arrests often seemed to have an arbitrary, random quality. When Allan Horsfall became a Bolton councillor in 1958, he discovered that a public lavatory used for cottaging was well known to police and magistrates, yet there hadn't been a conviction in 30 years. On the other hand, there would be intermittent trawls through address books of suspected homosexuals, with the result that up to 20 men at a time would appear in the dock, accused of being a 'homosexual ring', even though many of them might never have met many of the others.Of course, whilst homosexuality was legalised in 1967, the age of consent was set to 21, and actually meeting other men for sex were still crimes, as "procuring" or "soliciting", up until 2003:
We shouldn't think this provision was quietly ignored either. In 1989, during the Conservative campaign for family values, more than 2,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency, as many as during the 1950s and nearly three times the numbers in the mid-Sixties.
A court in Sicily has overturned a decision by road authorities who suspended a man's driving licence because he was gay:
In a written ruling released on Monday, the Sicilian court said: "It is clear that sexual preferences do not in any way influence a person's ability to drive motor cars safely."
The judges added that homosexuality "cannot be considered a true and proper psychiatric illness, being a mere personality disturbance".
Homosexuality is legal in Italy, but openly anti-gay comments from politicians and officials rarely cause a stir.
Attempting to soften its hardline image somewhat, the Australian government recently "granted freedom" to several imprisoned asylum seekers. Only, according to a recent letter to The Age, not quite:
Reports of the Government "granting freedom" to 10 long- term detainees (The Age, 31/5) are misleading. These 10 people are being released into the community on the Removal Pending Bridging Visa (RPBV). This is a visa that can be revoked at any time without notice and requires the person to abandon all their current legal proceedings and future legal rights to seek asylum. This means that an asylum seeker will have no access to judicial review against any decision to revoke or cancel this RPBV and cannot do anything to stop their removal.
All this visa does is prey on the desperation of people who will agree to it to get out of the hell of being in detention. It is designed to circumvent involuntary return, and provides no solution to those who cannot return and rather just leaves them in limbo, possibly
Is this what we call "freedom" these days in Australia?
Kon Karapanagiotidis, co-ordinator, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Avondale Heights
Canadian academic Russel Ogden has spent the past decade studying the assisted-suicide underground; for this, he has been kicked out by various universities (and is now doing a PhD remotely at a Norwegian university) and had his research notes (unsuccessfully) subpoenaed by the authorities:
But the biggest surprise was that many of these deaths were not the "good deaths" often described in proeuthanasia books, which tend to romanticize the process. Of the 34 euthanasia cases, Ogden found that half were botched and ultimately resulted in increased suffering.
These people were first- or second-timers, "not serial death providers," Ogden remarks. "They weren't sure what they were doing." He concluded that the lack of medical knowledge, as well as the unavailability of suitable drugs and ignorance of lethal doses, contributed to the additional suffering. "This study showed that without medical supervision and formal regulations, euthanasia is happening in horrific circumstances, similar to back-alley abortions," he declares.
NuTech's approach is to take medicine out of assisted death, with methods that are simple, painless, inexpensive and impossible to trace. Suffocation devices, such as the "debreather," a modified piece of scuba diving equipment, and the "exit bag," a plastic bag equipped with Velcro straps, are commonly used. Most popular, Ogden has found, is the plastic bag in conjunction with helium gas. "This is the quickest way to go; used properly, you're unconscious after the second breath and dead in about 10 minutes," he reveals. Such methods are more efficient and reliable than lethal drugs, but suffocation devices remain unappealing and undignified to people. Most still want something they can drink.
Two academics from Victoria's Deakin University have published a paper calling for torture to be legalised to help fight terrorism. Not that there's much new in this (celebrated US lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued a similar point in his call for "torture warrants" some years ago), except perhaps for the extreme utilitarian stance they take, advocating even the torturing to death of innocents if the ends justify it:
Asked if he believed interrogators should be able to legally torture an innocent person to death if they had evidence the person knew about a major public threat, such as the September 11 attacks, Professor Bagaric replied: "Yes, you could."
Applying utilitarian cost-benefit calculations to matters of human lives is tricky; taking the strict numerical approach, it should be OK to kill an innocent person to harvest their kidneys if it would save the lives of two terminally ill patients; after all, the net gain is one life. Of course, Bagaric and Clarke are not asserting such an absolute a-life-for-a-life arithmetic, though by allowing the killing of the innocent to save others, they are crossing a line towards it. And that is not even looking at the question of whether torture works (the value of testimony obtained under torture has been somewhat dubious).
Anyway, I suspect that Bagaric and Clarke's law lectures are probably going to become a lot less quiet.
In the U.S., a small minority of pharmacists are refusing to sell birth-control pills to women, sometimes even confiscating their prescriptions, on "moral grounds". State legislatures are divided between outlawing such actions and enshrining them in law:
At a Brooks pharmacy in Laconia, New Hampshire, Suzanne Richards, a 21-year-old single mother with a 3-year-old son, was denied the morning after pill because of the pharmacist's religious convictions.
Richards says she felt "humiliated and traumatised", and was too frightened to approach another pharmacist the next day, allowing the 72-hour limit for taking the pill to pass.
One can understand people getting squeamish about the abortion of developed foetuses with nervous systems and such, but refusing to sell morning-after pills is just stupid. For one, it ignores the fact that between 60% and 80% of fertilised embryos are naturally spontaneously aborted, in much the same way that the morning-after pill would do (an argument which, when combined with pro-lifer ideology and a dose of logic, implies that much of the population of Heaven would be comprised of never-born embryos). This is clearly not about saving lives but rather about assertion of power; the Religious Right flexing its muscle and seeing how much it can get away with in Bush's America.
A trade union representing retail employees in Austria has claimed that excessive playing of Christmas carols in shops is "psycho-terrorism":
From morning to night, for weeks before Christmas, there was the same Christmas music in department stores over and over again, said Gottfried Rieser of the Union of Private Employees.
"Many staff in the retail sector suffer psychologically from it," Mr Rieser said. "They get aggressive. On Christmas Eve with their families, they can't stand Silent Night or Jingle Bells any more."
Next time you buy the mandatory diamond ring for your beloved, spare a thought for the child soldiers who valiantly fought to get it for you, or the civilians in Sierra Leone whose limbs they hacked off:
Over the course of the decade-long war, the rebels have mutilated some 20,000 people, hacking off their arms, legs, lips, and ears with machetes and axes. This campaign was the RUF's grotesquely ironic response to Sierra Leone President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's 1996 plea for citizens to "join hands for peace." Another 50,000 to 75,000 have been killed. The RUF's goal was to terrorize the population and enjoy uncontested dominion over the diamond fields.
The Powers That Be assure us they're reforming the process to ensure eliminate the perception of such inequity; however, without much success.
Unfortunately, neither action is halting the lucrative trade: "Efforts to end the trade in conflict diamonds ran into a major obstacle in the Bush administration, which has been reluctant to impede business in any way or have its hands tied by any international agreements, even when the U.S. diamond industry has called for it," says Akwei.
(Does that mean that Halliburton, the Carlyle Group or some other band of highly-connected kleptocrats have a stake in the diamond trade, or are the Bush administration just being recalcitrant out of principle?) (via Adbusting)
A Russian national has praised the conditions in Guantanamo, where he is being held. Ayrat Varikhtov, a Chechen is on record as saying that the US military prison compares favourably to Russian health resorts. "Nobody is being beaten or humiliated," he added.
A reportedly brilliant Canadian physicist with bipolar disorder is fighting a court case to prevent psychiatrists from forcibly medicating him. Scott Starson asserts that forcible medication would slow his thinking, dull his inspiration and make him appear disoriented, and that that he would rather be locked up for life than medicated. The psychiatrists, however, don't see it that way. Starson was committed to a mental institution after threatening a neighbour.
"Being 'normal' would be worse than death for me, because I have always considered normal to be a term so boring it would be like death," he remarked bitterly during one hearing.
(Amen to that.)
Mr. Starson, who repeatedly insisted that he be called "Professor Starson" and that the word "if" not be used in questioning him, said he is confident that he will prevail. Breaking off a train of thought involving moon-walking astronauts, his claim to have invented the modular telephone and his plans for a team of 200 lawyers scattered worldwide, Mr. Starson addressed his case: "Here, I'm basically dealing with the bottom of your species," he said. "Your species deals with force so much. Force is not the way science operates. And the worst religion on the planet is psychiatry."
U.S. officials complain about Canada's human rights. That's right, not "human rights abuses" (which are only a bad thing if the other party has oil and isn't willing to share), but human rights. Canada has too many civil liberties to effectively pull its weight in the War On Terrorism. The U.S. has also singled out Canada's plan to decriminalise marijuana, as something that will have Serious Consequences if it goes ahead. Clearly the Canadians have abused their sovereignty, and if they continue to do so, their sovereignty may, by the rules of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, be forfeit.
On a similar theme, Little Johnny's loyalty to Washington has paid off, with Uncle George offering him a "free trade deal" between Australia and the U.S., agribusiness lobbyists permitting. Mind you, one aspect of the treaty will involve harmonisation of "intellectual property" laws, which will be bad for both sides. It's not just the matter of Australia's copyright laws being co-written by Jack Valenti and things which inconvenience Big Copyright becoming crimes in Australia; Americans stand to lose when their politicians decide to amend the DMCA and realise that they can't because international treaties prevent them. Closer to home, one effect of the "free trade" treaty's copyright provisions is likely to be a ban on multi-region DVD players and "mod chips", neatly sidestepping Alan Fels' attacks on DVD region coding.
Who says the Chinese government is unconcerned with human rights? In the Yunnan province, China is equipping its courts with mobile execution vans, replacing the traditional bullet in the back of the head, seen by many as barbaric, with the "civilised" and "humane" execution method of lethal injection. They even had the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences design a kinder, gentler lethal drug, putting China at the forefront of the humane death penalty. Beat that, Florida.
Britain is considering withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights; Blair must have been hanging around with George "Treaties? We don't need no steenkin' treaties" Bush for too long.
(To give them credit, they intend to re-sign the bits of the treaty they don't object to (i.e., all but the clause about freedom from torture or degrading treatment) almost immediately.) (via Leviathan)
A number of young idealists are on their way to Baghdad to act as "human shields", lending their moral authority to defend the peaceful Iraqi state against US imperialist aggression. As one guitar-wielding peacenik says, "Baghdad is probably the most peaceful, mellow place I've ever been in my life. Everybody is so laid-back it's unbelievable." Though this neglects the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime is monstrously brutal, with a shocking record of torture and murder.
According to Amnesty International the regime was busily torturing and executing various enemies, real and imagined. Eyes were being gouged, tongues ripped out and heads cut off. The torture of political detainees, said Amnesty, "generally takes place in the headquarters of the General Security Directorate in Baghdad or in its branches in Baghdad".
Now it could well be that Amnesty International has been infiltrated by Dubya's disinformation operatives (perhaps via Phony Blair's "Nu Labour" government) and turned into a pro-US propaganda engine, with their strident denunciations of US capital punishment and racism merely acting to lull bleeding-hearted Guardian readers into a false sense of trust and get them to swallow the bigger lie; it could be, but I doubt it.
This Iraq war is a sordid affair. On one hand, Saddam Hussein is a monster. (Not even the most delusional Marxist could argue that he's the leader of a liberation movement... well, maybe the Spartacists could, but everybody knows they're barking mad.) I doubt that there's much support given to him by the Iraqi people that's not the result of blind fear of what happens if they don't. On the other hand, the Saudis are just as bad, by all accounts, but they're Our Allies so it's OK. And pretending that the US invasion of Iraq will be all about giving a helping hand to the poor downtrodden Iraqi people (who happen to be sitting on one of the biggest, and most strategically important, oil fields in the world) stinks of hypocrisy. Given that the US is reportedly considering pocketing Iraqi oil to pay for its occupation (how fortunate that those poor Iraqis have this means of repaying their benefactors!) adds to suspicions that it's all about oil.
OTOH, the "peace activists" who plan to go to Baghdad to act as human shields for a murderous regime just because it opposes the US don't seem to be the sharpest knives in the drawer. In fact, they make student-newspaper pro-Cuban apologists (whose ability to excuse away the apparatus of totalitarianism as a higher form of freedom never fails to amaze) look like mature and well-reasoned political commentators.
While eager to ride into Baghdad and capture Saddam dead or alive, on the scantest of "evidence" of terrorist involvement, our noble leaders have been careful not to criticise Saudi Arabia, tiptoeing around its Taliban-like human rights record and going to great pains to not make trouble about its equivocal relationship with anti-US terrorists. But what's a little thuggish authoritarianism, oppression of women and financial and moral support for terrorists when you're dealing with a special friend in the region, right? I mean, the alternative would impinge on every American's God-given right to drive an oversized SUV from their suburban home to the shops, and that's not negotiable.
Being a professional heartless bastard can take its toll. The daughter of immigration minister Philip Ruddock, of detention camp infamy, has left Australia to work in a developing country. Kirsty Ruddock gave distress with her father's policies and politics as one of her reasons for leaving.
She says she has asked her father not to wear his Amnesty International badge when discussing immigration matters as the organisation opposed his policies.
What does one have to do to be kicked out of Amnesty International these days?
Proof that Australia's foreign policy isn't just about sucking up to Uncle George: Australia votes against UN anti-torture protocol, joining an elite club of such esteemed defenders of human rights as China, Cuba, Libya and Nigeria. (The US, incidentally, abstained.) I've no idea why Australia rejected the protocol; perhaps supporting such bleeding-heart initiatives would make Australia look temptingly humane to refugees, undoing all the work of setting up draconian detention camps? Or perhaps because such naïve concerns have no place in the grim, warlike post-9/11 world?
When a boy in rural Pakistan was seen walking with a girl of a higher social status, violating age-old conventions, the tribal council decided to punish him and his family by ordering the gang-rape of his sister.
This is the sort of thing that argues that, not only is the belief in the superiority of Western liberal-humanist values consistent with progressive thought (rather than the shameful manifestation of racism that many naïve ivory-tower leftists would say it is), it is perhaps an essential part of it. Human progress won't come from respecting barbaric ideas of "family honour" as equally valid, in the name of diversity and cultural relativism. (via Reenhead)
The Bush administration vetoes a UN declaration on children's rights, refusing to sign it unless provisions for sexual health services are removed, replaced with abstinence-based programmes. The US is supported by the Vatican in this (and possibly the Australian government as well). It is predicted that if the US gets its way, it will exacerbate the AIDS crisis in the third world, not to mention the other consequences of unwanted children being born. But hey, think of all the souls that will be saved...
Happy May Day: In a heartwarming example of notional-socialist solidarity, the Australian Labor Party seeks to establish formal ties with the Chinese Communist Party; a move which may alarm some ALP members concerned with China's human rights record.
Did the era of human rights end on September 11? It looks a bit like it, with the preservation of Empire taking precedence over feeling warm and fuzzy about doing the right thing, western countries diplomatically shutting up about their new allies' human-rights problems and everyone from Australia to Zimbabwe using "terrorism" as an excuse to dismiss human rights issues as a holdover from a softer, more decadent era.
But, as the Cold War should have taught the US, cozying up to friendly authoritarians is a poor bet in the long term. America is still paying a price for backing the shah of Iran. In the Arab world today, the US looks as if it is on the side of LouisXVI in 1789; come the revolution in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, American influence may be swept away. The human-rights movement is not in the business of preserving US power. But it should be concerned about stability, about moving strategically vital states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia from closed to open societies without delivering them up to religious fundamentalists.
Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner says that conditions in detention centres breach UN conventions; in particular, the culture of despair among the children detained there. Though, then again, Australia doesn't need no stinkin' UN conventions; we're the America of the South Pacific, after all. Don't fuck with us or we'll have a talk to Uncle George, and see if he can lend us some daisy-cutters to drop on your ass. Yee-haw!
The Chaser has more articles online. Of particular note: "Harry Potter fans warn against dangerous effects of Bible", "CAMP X-RAY 'INHUMANE': Ruddock asks for brochure".. and don't tell me that Ratcat have reformed. (If so, wonder what they would sound like; would they just playing their 1990-vintage skater-pop hits on the nostalgia circuit for all the mortgaged new parents who used to be into them when they were kids, or have they jumped on the mook/rap-metal/big-yellow-shorts bandwagon and tried to reach out to a new crop of suburban teens?)