Doctors of the World: how we discovered GCHQ was spying on us

Open Democracy News Analysis - 19. April 2015 - 17:30

Why do intelligence agencies think it's acceptable to identify our humanitarian doctors, nurses and midwives as a threat to national security?

A Medecins du Monde operation in Niger. Doctors of the World UK/Martin Courcier. All rights reserved.

I was in a Brick Lane restaurant on our Christmas work night out when I received the email from someone purporting to be a Guardian investigative journalist.

“We’re working on a story which suggests your organisation may have been the victim of surveillance by an intelligence agency....”

At the bottom of the email read:

“PS THIS IS NOT SPAM!!”

My colleague reassured me, “it’s spam, ignore it,” and so I ordered some more poppadoms and tried to do just that.

But I had some niggling questions: what would be the point of spamming in this way? If it was a scam, what could they gain?

The next morning I rang the Guardian to speak with the journalist. It was him, the email was legit and what he was about to tell me would send the next few days into a whirlwind. He would not go into fine details but files leaked by Edward Snowden suggested several humanitarian organisations, including the one I work for, Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) had been secretly monitored by British and American security services, GCHQ and the NSA respectively. He asked if we had anything to comment. 

My first thought was if I’d said, written, whispered, posted, noted or insinuated anything that could be vaguely perceived as a threat to national security. I imagine this is the kind of irrational fear any person can feel when they’re told they’ve been spied on. Then he told me that it was mainly our operations in Africa that were targeted, but it still left an uneasy feeling.

We do work in some quite sensitive areas, such as Mali, Somalia, and Algeria. But how could our doctors, nurses and midwives be seen as in any way a threat to national or international security? 

I knew they were not, and guessed this was part of blanket and overreaching snooping by the security services. They had also targeted other innocuous organisations such as UNICEF and the United Nations development programme which made us feel confident enough to put out a statement before we’d seen a response from GCHQ or the NSA, something which was not forthcoming even after the story broke.

And boy did it break. It was front page news across the world including the Guardian, New York Times and the German newspaper Der Spiegel. I appeared on the BBC evening news while my colleague appeared on the ITV version. It was everywhere.

We told the media that we were shocked by the allegations which amounted to a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money; money that would be better spent vaccinating Syrian children against polio, rebuilding the Philippines’ shattered health system or in any other place in the world where help was urgently needed at that time.

We reiterated that our doctors, nurses and midwives are not a threat to national security and that we’re an independent health charity with over 30 years’ experience in delivering impartial care in some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous places. Our aid priorities are indeed calculated on the basis of need alone and we felt the need to make clear that this aid is never used to further a particular political or religious standpoint. Also, like other humanitarian actors, we adhere strictly to the fundamental principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality in our work and we have robust anti-fraud and anti-corruption policies and procedures in place. So why target us?

This question becomes more pertinent when you consider that such clandestine and unrestrained activities could have serious repercussions for a charity like ours. Our medical professionals, many of whom are volunteers, risk their lives daily in countries such as the Central African Republic and in and around Syria. Any erosion of understanding and trust in our impartiality and confidentiality not only limits our ability to work but could put the lives of our staff and volunteers at risk. 

And this is the crucial point: we’re able to reach patients in need in sensitive locations because communities understand we are a neutral intermediary.  If local people think we are in league with the UK or US government – or even that their information will end up in the hands of these governments unwittingly – it could risk the whole credibility of our operations in these countries. Alongside this is the huge issue of doctor-patient confidentiality. If medical surgeries are being listened in on this would be an egregious impingement on medical ethics.

We sent a letter to the head of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, asking him to clarify what information his agency held about us and explain why this information is held and what it has been or may be used for. This was the rather terse reply:

“The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act) does not apply to GCHQ by virtue of s.84, which provides that GCHQ is not a government department for the purposes of the Act. This means that GCHQ is excluded from the list of public authorities listed in Schedule 1 and to which the Act does apply. As such we are not obliged to comply with the provisions and requirements of the Act and we cannot assist you further.” 

So it seems that GCHQ does not need to explain itself. We assume these revelations have caused the security services to no longer target our operations but without people like Edward Snowden we have no real way of knowing if they still are - or how we would be able to stop them if they were.

The recent victory in the courts by Privacy International shows that GCHQ and the NSA can be held to account and that it’s the responsibility of us all to challenge any such overreach by security services when we are made aware of it, if not through the legal system then by raising awareness via the media as the Guardian and others did so well. 

But as for the charity I work for, we’d rather be concentrating on helping people who need us, wherever they may be. Much like mass surveillance, suffering and vulnerability is omnipresent and not going away anytime soon.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Scope-creep in Denmark PODCAST: Defending human rights in a digital age How generalised suspicion destroys society Mass surveillance: wrong in practice as well as principle Will the democratic debate over counterrorism gain the edge in battle?
Categories: les flux rss

Charlie Hebdo, and being non-European

Open Democracy News Analysis - 19. April 2015 - 13:13

Being European is a form of life beyond ethnicity, religion, skin color, or sex; it is a peculiar ontology that is open to everybody, that is an achievement of world history. 

London crowd. Flickr/Ant Jackson. Some rights reserved.Charlie Hebdo reminds us that life is much more complicated than the simple contrast between the bad guy, “the Islamist,” vs. the good guy, “the European”.

Left and Right

The Political Left always points at something “beyond,” or more precisely, “beneath” this simple picture where the truth proves much more complicated. The power of the arguments of the Left is hidden in premises with which the great majority of European people are assumed to agree.

Thus. It is indeed a simple “postmodern fact” that those Islamists who killed eleven people were not born killers. As we all start from zero, from pure nothingness and contingency, it must be concluded that there could be no unchanging, perennial, ahistorical essence in this world. If they “could” kill those innocent people just because they depict something, for them, wrong, then something external must have made them that way.

We are all born innocent. If we agree on this point, then this massacre only raises the one question of how and why a human being reaches such an extreme point in depravity that he can commit such a barbaric crime.

These assumptions allow Slavoj Zizek, in his article on this precise issue, to claim that “those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism."

For the Left, the pure givenness has never been enough, as what is given is taken to be a material construction. Hence, if we really desire to resolve this mess that is growing day by day at the borders of Europe, we have to think more deeply, indeed “critically”.

The keyword here is “critical” which, within the European context, always-already entails a peculiar prefix, namely, “self”. Self-criticism is the glorious tenet that marks the ontology of European Leftists; it is not only the “natural disposition” of the Left towards the world, but also its selfish obsession that it cannot give up – an issue we will come back to later. 

Having discerned responsibility not in the Islamist perpetrators but in the larger picture, the Left urges us to desist from Islamophobia, fascism and any kind of essentialism about the Other; and it struggles to keep the multicultural ideal alive.

The Political Right, on the other hand, is not as “simple” as historically the Left takes it to be. It is not that they do not grasp the contingency of our beginnings. Yet, the Right still misses something that the Left so benevolently embraces. People on the Right are bereft of self-criticism; they are in love with their own image in a world where anything non-European serves only as a justification for this well-deserved narcissism. For them, if Charlie Hebdo, or any such event, raises any question at all, it can only be the one that leads directly to a reinforcement of their self-love. So, the Right will simply wonder, “Why can’t they become just like ‘us’?”

If there is no essence, or, as Sartre puts it, if existence precedes essence; and, if, consequently, you are the one who chooses what you are to be, then why would you like to be like them? Look at them, at how inferior they are, how barbaric, how ugly they are? Just be like “us”, accept “our” supremacy.

Notice how the word “us” takes on an insidious twofold sense here. You will become like “us”, but you ought not to forget the original. You ought to be grateful to “us” that “we” have accepted you into “our” community.

The Right accepts the contingency of beginnings only to the extent that this very acceptance proves the strength of their unique history which in spite of this absurd arbitrariness could built something tremendously meaningful and unique out of what it was that made “us” ‘Europeans’ and them ‘non-Europeans’.

The randomness of the singularity therefore only reinforces the unparalleled stability of western history; after all, it is Europe that epitomizes the highest peak that humanity has ever reached, not the Middle East, not China, and not India.

We have the Right and the Left with their own peculiarities; man may not have essence, but doctrines, ideologies and political positions inevitably do. This is the “general panorama” of Europe that is full of repetitions and no more reductive than any representation would be.

non-European Europeans

However, it is not my aim to discuss in this essay for or against the Left or the Right; that has been done abundantly by many authors, much more extensively and professionally than I can. What I would like to point out here, rather, is something that does not yet exist in this general panorama even though it is there. Along the lines of Gayatri Spivak’s famous question “can the subaltern speak?”, I will try to reveal something whose existence is denied not only by the Right but more arduously and surprisingly by the Left. This “something” is a concept which is not my creation, but it is already there, given, created by history. Let me call it “the non-European Europeans” and ask: “can non-European Europeans exist?”

In order to understand what this concept signifies, we must, first of all, understand how thousands of people can join IS, not only those whose lives have been shattered by the chaos American forces visited on the Middle East, but also those who were in the periphery of these events, and, therefore, in a sense, lack the direct justifications to join any radical organization, but nevertheless, choose to do so.

I refer to those hundreds of European citizens who went to Syria to join IS. But I also include those moderate people living in relatively liberal Muslim countries who one day decided to join IS. Or, let me put it in this way, I register the silence of the “innocent” Muslim people before the phenomenon fundamentalist, extremist, or jihadist – the violence that takes whatsoever form. Without noting this silence, we can neither understand the attack on Charlie Hebdo nor discern what is so crucially missing in this picture.

This silence is the restlessness of hypocrisy. It is the inquietude of hypocrisy that pushes people into the arms of IS and of any other fundamentalist groups. Precisely, it is the hypocrisy of being in the middle of modernity and tradition. The latter can be Islam or anything else; that is not what is decisive here. Rather, the problem is the unbearable split of being two different people in one, single body: it is a conscious schizophrenia. It is suffering. It is not being able to know what you are, the ultimate loss of your integrity, consistency, and self-attachment; an uprootedness that floats in the middle without finding any secure corner for itself.

Hence, there is a spectre of hypocrisy hovering above the non-western world. And one can claim that the home of this spectre is the Middle East: the counter-image of a Europe that Edward Said extensively analyzed from Aeschylus to the twentieth century. 

The ultimate force behind any fundamentalist organization in the Middle East is therefore the breakdown of this hypocrisy; the moment that the non-European man recoils: “Enough, I cannot bear this!”

This existential collapse is followed by taking shelter in the nearest form of integrity that one can find; and the crux of the problem is that there is only one choice which has integrity in the Middle East, and it is offered by fundamentalism. In other words, there is only one resolution of the conflict between tradition and modernity. The split, the subjective reflection of this conflict, is what fundamentalist groups such as IS exploit to the letter. They know that the more pressure the world exerts on Muslims, the more people will join them.

What is right or what is wrong is secondary in this dialectic; first comes the existential anguish that non-European man suffers from. And just to emphasize: it is not an anguish arising from the plenitude of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the scarcity of reality hits him hard and cracks his ontology.

Coming back to our concept of the non-European European. This is the other pole of this equation; the split resolved in favor of (post)modernity; the integrity that is found in European values. However, despite the fact that IS signifies an absolute hatred towards the West, the non-European European does not bear an unconditional love for the West, for being European does not necessarily mean self-love and narcissism. And precisely on this point, not only the Right but also the Left fails to realize what it is to be a non-European European.

Being superior to the Other

Let me begin with the political Right which, at first appearances, seems surprisingly more open to this concept than the Left is. However, behind its alleged openness hides yet another hypocrisy. The Right does not care about the Other qua Other, or, it cares insofar as the Other satisfies its own desires.

There is a predominant, almost a “natural” sense of superiority in the political Right of Europe. The Right will welcome non-European Europeans indeed, but only in order to hear the echoes of its own supremacy, to fortify its edifice.

It is not the Other here that exists; rather, it is the European ego that appraises itself by mediating itself through itself while acting like it is the Other; that is, the Other is just a means to intensify the satisfaction of being superior to the Other.

Hence, the non-European European exists insofar as it serves the desires of the “original” European. In a word, there is neither equality nor solidarity with the non-European European on the Right. There is pure submission, if you like to be like “us.”

What about the Left?

The situation is much more subtle when it comes to the Left. The hypocrisy is well hidden behind the good-will of the Leftists. This good-will takes the form of “self-criticism” here. The Left loves and rejoices in criticizing itself, i.e., the West. There is a striking similarity here with the Right: while the Right falls in love with the image of itself, the Left is seduced by the flaws in this image. The former loves the beauty of itself, the latter loves the ugliness of itself, for the beauty cannot be criticized.

This will to criticize is yet another form of European ego, but this time, it talks not only for those who claim to be European, but, for everyone around the world, from the farmer working in a rice field in Asia to the fisherman in a village in the Middle East.

The Left loves to announce: “this is all because of the West!” Notice how everything Other has been eliminated from the picture. Everything is because of the West. “How ugly we are, and yet how seductive this ugliness is that we cannot do anything but criticize.” If there is a problem in this world, it should be “our” problem. If there is a responsibility for all the evil in the World, it has to be “us.”

Discern the obsession here, the masochistic pleasure of being ugly, the same enormous European ego that has been turned upside down. It is hard to decide if the Left in fact desires a solution at all; or if it rather indulges in the problems. With its “Grand Theories” in its inventory, ingenious eclectic capabilities and superior logic, it relishes being the one who develops yet another magnificent piece of explanation of what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with “us”.

The Left is a site for one-man shows. It seems to me that the people suffering in the Middle East are received by the Left with a sly smile as yet more material that they can deconstruct, psychoanalyze; and show the world how brilliant they are in their analyses.

Just like with the Right, in this picture too one cannot encounter the Other. The Leftists would disagree here, they would claim “’we’ are the ones who support the rights of Muslims and all Others. Furthermore ‘we’ already are listening to Muslim intellectuals and the Third World.”

But notice again the twofold sense of the word “we” here. The question, on the other hand, is not if Muslims can talk. The whole world is waiting for them to talk, for them to say something, anything. And, indeed they talk. If what they say is not intelligible or does not bring any change, the problem lies somewhere else.

The subject here is not Muslims; for not all non-westerners have to be that or this. There is “more” than what Europe wants to see in the Middle East. Let me put it even more simply: not everybody who was thrown into the Middle East has to be a Muslim, or, to be crushed under European confession. The non-European European is not the Other that the Left supports and communicates with; it is the Left itself, it is Europe itself. An insidious exclusion is at play here.

Let me illustrate the problem with a metaphor. Imagine that Europe is a cottage. A small, beautiful cottage. The non-European European is doomed to hover over it. Whenever she gets too close to the door, the Leftist comes out (not the Rightist!) with a friendly smile on his face. He stands next to her, puts his arm on her shoulder and begins to tell her how ugly in fact this cottage is! How cruel, how merciless, how brutal, how savage… He explains to her one by one – and he explains quite well – why she should never ever desire to go inside. He convinces her and after ensuring that she has returned to her purposeless wandering, with a smile, he goes back inside.

Yet, she is stubborn, stubborn to exist. She comes back to the door, and in the blink of an eye, the Leftist appears next to her again. He starts repeating himself; she interrupts him and insists, “but I want to see! I belong there!”

Then things get serious. The hospitality of the Leftist suddenly turns into a restive hostility; he begins with accusations: “You are Islamophobic, you are a neo-liberal, you do not respect difference. How could you desire to be like us? Are you sick?”

The “Europeanness” of the non-European, this eagerness to be a part of the ugliness, is what the Left cannot bear. It loves to hate itself, it has dissolved so hard in its love that it cannot share the slightest part of it. If someone will hate himself, it can be no one but the European. Let the Leftist hate himself also for you, for all humanity. You should not be contaminated by the West. “We” spare you, run as fast as you can, let us tackle this enormous problem; after all, “we” created this: it is all “us.” Hence, the non-European European does not, cannot exist for the Left. In its obsession with the beauty of its ugliness, the European Left is one of the most conservative constituencies of Europe. The hypocrisy here, as with everything else the Left does, is “impressive.” It denies the existence of the Other for the sake of the Other while celebrating its own existence. This is how similar the Left and Right become in the face of the non-European Europeans.

In short, it is indeed correct that everything that happens in the world is about the West. But the West is not only about the West. Being European is no longer a geographical destiny. It is rather a form of life beyond ethnicity, religion, skin color, or sex; it is a peculiar ontology that is open to everybody, that is an achievement of world history.

The non-European Europeans are the culmination of this fact. The concept itself is a contradiction that conveys the collapse of any essentialist claim.

The non-European European is not an autonomous puppet that the “genuine European” keeps close to itself in order to remind itself of its own superiority. It is as “European” as anyone who claims to be so without feeling any obligation to show its gratitude. There is no generosity of “original Europeans” here. Nor is the non-European European a puppet who has to wait for its great European masters to cut its ropes and set it free. It can speak for itself, the whole drama unfolds around her or him; it can and must criticize itself. It also has responsibilities, freedom and morality.

Hence, the non-European Europeans exist, whether Europe likes it or not. And if Europe wants to change anything at all, it should start acknowledging this fact and recognize their existence

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Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Equality Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Contradictions and challenges of the Podemos phenomenon

Open Democracy News Analysis - 19. April 2015 - 11:01

Podemos came from the streets, social media platforms and out of a horizontal ideology not found in the traditional parties.

Teresa Rodriguez celebrates Podemos coming third in Andalusia. Demoted/JaviTorres. All rights reserved.The party Podemos has been representing the hope of millions of Spaniards to overcome the crisis that hit Spain, part of the massive protests since 2011 that have rocked local political structures and spread throughout Europe. In its internal constitution process and its leadership elections, the party presents a new model of horizontal internal organization, with broad participation from its base in its debates and discussions. It proposes a left-wing programme for the country.

The path chosen, however, is not easy, and there are internal contradictions within the left spectrum itself. Let us look at some of the challenges confronting the party in its (short) walk hitherto.

From the streets

Podemos (We Can) emerged as a spotlight in Spanish politics, exposing the dead-end features of a nominally bipartisan political system. After the death of dictator Francisco Franco and the return to some kind of democracy, PP and PSOE alternated in power and despite some differences in the social field – such as the defence of abortion and LGBT rights by the PSOE - in the economic field and also when it comes to corruption, both parties are in tune with the discourse imposed by the EU Troika.

Podemos was born of the Indignados and of the 15M movement that spread through Spain’s streets a few years ago. Podemos is constituted from those movements or local circles of dissatisfied citizens who managed to channel this discontent into a political project. It drew also on the Partido X (Party X), based on the heavy use of social media tools, and the Guanyem (We'll Win) in Catalunya, which will compete in alliance with Podemos in the Catalan region. It is a response to the profound Spanish and European capitalist crisis that has seen employment plummet, "desahucios" (evictions) and even hunger and child malnutrition on a significant scale. So Podemos has pulled together the feeling of dissatisfaction with austerity policies pushed through by the conservative PP (often with support from a PSOE posing as the left alternative) and of the lack of alternatives to this. On May 15, 2011 (the 15M movement) finally found an alternative to the traditional parties of power, and named the problem the "caste".

The "traditional" left, represented by Izquierda Unida (United Left), whose base was the PCE (Spanish Communist Party), did not convince many that it was a real alternative, because they seemed so attached to political traditions considered outdated if not defunct. Podemos came from the streets, social media platforms and out of a horizontal ideology not found in the traditional parties. As we shall see, the maintenance of that horizontality is one of the biggest challenges the party faces as it attempts to secure for itself a decisive parliamentary presence.

Challenges in institutional participation: apathy

In its first year of life, Podemos ​​managed to surpass the mark of 300,000 members (or registered members), all of them with the right to participate in internal debates and to vote via the Internet in the policies and candidates for internal party positions. In the first internal elections, just over 50% of those registered to vote ‘attended’ the virtual polls in October 2014. Only 42% voted in the November 2014 elections that elected Pablo Iglesias as Secretary General of the party and in December the same year the number dropped to 34% of voters in the election for regional leaders.

The party has grown in the polls, threatening the hegemony of the PP and in some research even surpassing it, prompting PP party leaders to explore the prospects of a broad German-like coalition with the PSOE. However, an announcement prior to the election of the mere possibility of a coalition with PP could result in a stampede of voters from PSOE to Podemos. But though the number of people affiliated to Podemos has grown, the number of actual voters within its ranks apparently has not. This is a serious problem for Podemos if this apathy is reflected in the vote in the Spanish elections, at the end of 2015. Can Podemos do anything about the general apathy in Spain, whereby previous elections to the Spanish Parliament presented a no-show of almost 30% of registered voters.

Podemos did succeed in gathering at least 100,000 people in Madrid for a rally/protest on January 31 (numbers were much disputed – some said 400,000) a way of measuring their strength that was effectively tested during the elections in the region of Andalusia.

Local autonomy, internal fractions and centralization of power

Podemos must also struggle to maintain internal cohesion while respecting the many differences of minority groups. The largest of the fractions is led by Pablo Echenique, who was elected MEP with Iglesias and other members of the party.

Podemos has been much criticised for the reverse problem -- precisely the centralization of the party around Iglesias, and his right arm men, Iñigo Errejon and Juan Carlos Monedero. These three are the undisputed leaders of the party, which especially displeases the minority fractions.

So how much will this centralization hinder one of the most important Podemos "brands", i.e. decentralization /horizontality and local circles? It is worth noting that the election that brought Pablo Iglesias into the top post of the party also turned down the option of electing a committee of managers instead of a Secretary General – the  proposal that came from  Echeniques' fraction.

Another major challenge will be to combine the idea of ​​a federal Spain as advocated by the majority fraction of the party and the "right to decide" advocated by members of Catalonia and the Basque Country (along with Navarre). In such very thorny issues, Iglesias generally searches for an intermediate position, trying not to alienate potential Catalan and Basque nationalist voters or unionist Spanish voters (and Spanish nationalists in some cases). The danger is that in the end this just displeases both sides. But so far all signs are that voting intentions put Podemos in an excellent position in the Basque Country and Catalonia in its alliance with Guanyem.

It is clear that voters with a Basque or Catalan nationalist profile not only have some sympathy for Podemos, but they can be sure that whatever happens, the party wil at least oxygenate the debate on the Basque conflict and the Catalan situation. But will Podemos be able to talk these issues through and remain open to listening to the voice of minorities, if even some are not pleased by the path chosen by the party's leadership on so many issues?

At least in one of the Podemos circles, in Navarre, the nationalist issue caught fire in the city of Orkoien, where the local circle dissolved due to disagreements with the statist orientation (focused on Madrid) of the party, even in issues whose relevance was confined to the regions or autonomous communities. These kinds of tension are always present in any party that proposes itself as a new solution, but has not been able to talk frankly about the issue of minorities and the right to self-determination.

In the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country two major local fractions of the party, "Euskal Hiria" (Basque City) and "Orain Ahal Dugu" (Now We Can) differ on the right to decide and on the ETA issue. While the first group adopts a speech setting aside Basque national aspirations, as well as requiring the end of ETA without further measures, the second argues that the right to decide is an important topic and not a secondary one and also calls for a truth commission to determine not only the alleged crimes of ETA, but also those of the Spanish government against Basque citizenship.

A third group, "Si se puede Euskadi" (Yes we can Basque Country) decided to compete at the last minute and has a more nebulous agenda. In common among the three fractions is the fact that they differ from the official line of Pablo Iglesias, though Si se Puede Euskadi is said to be the closest. In the event, Euskal Hiria won the elections in the Basque Country on March 2014. Their position concerning Basque rights might yet be a problem in the local elections to come.

While this option of non-alignment to the majority fraction of the party is an important feature of a horizontal organization born of the radical left, it is also accompanied by visible attempts to soften positions in order to become more palatable to voters of a more centrist persuasion. Differences between members of different fractions have become public and vocal, causing some discomfort in the leadership, and leading to further rumours criticising alleged maneuvers to centralize processes, decisions and policy paths.

There are also debates on apparent setbacks in the relationship with the European Union, on the euro, over minimum/universal basic income, the retirement age and the calculation of debt. Critics (and even supporters) are cautious about some of the changes to the programme since the European elections, and cast doubt on the "purity" of a party that has somehow adopted more "realistic" positions despite these not being exactly the ones chosen by its party members.

The first test

The result of the elections in the autonomous region of Andalusia in southern Spain have led some to argue that Podemos had a victory, while others point out that they were also losers.

On March 22, the results of the regional elections were announced. One of the regions worst affected by the crisis, the big winner of the elections was nevertheless the PSOE, who managed to distance itself from the crisis in the region and keep its 47 seats in the Andalusian Parliament. The PSOE successfully saddled the PP with the crisis and the national problems of unemployment, impoverishment and other social ills, since this is the party that governs Spain.

Podemos ended up getting 15 seats in parliament, a large number for a party born just over a year ago and still in the process of organizing internally, exposing fractures and conflicts and sometimes ideological inconsistencies - and having little time to effectively organize for an election campaign of such a considerable size. Despite the creditable number of votes - the party doubled the number of votes obtained in May 2014 to the European Parliament elections, jumping from less than 200,000 votes to 500,000 - Podemos ended up short of its electoral expectations and projections in Andalusia. According to the latest polls before election day, the party hoped to get more like 19 to 22 seats.

The bipartisanship that persists not only in the Spanish Parliament, but also in different regions - among them Andalusia – remains very persistent. Over 60% of the Andalusian parliament will be dominated by PSOE and PP, although new parties have dawned to challenge this hegemony.

Yet more tensions

Around 60 members of one of the internal fractions of the party in Andalusia - anticapitalist heirs of the Izquierda Anticapitalista or Anticapitalist Left political party that dissolved itself within Podemos, were recently expelled from that fraction, due to disagreements with Teresa Rodríguez (herself a member of the same fraction and leader of Podemos in the region and former candidate for the local presidency) and Pablo Iglesias. 

What has been exposed is the plans of Rodríguez and Iglesias to decrease the power of the Anticapitalist fraction regionally in order to facilitate agreements of the party with the re-elected PSOE, and also to undermine the radical left programme approved by the majority of the party members.

There is nothing new in the fact that Iglesias and other leaders of the party seek to soften their programme and adjust their speeches to become more palatable to broader audiences, especially now with the eruption of a fourth strong contestant to the general Spanish elections, the right-wing Ciudadanos (Citizens). It is clear that Iglesias is convinced that many potential voters for Ciudadanos could be won over if Podemos simply lowered its tone on some issues.

But those 60 former Anticapitalists maintain their membership in Podemos and they will remain, as they announced earlier this month, working inside and for the party.

In the beginning of April, election fraud reared its head in the choice of candidates to  run in the local elections in La Rioja (north of Spain). The process was annulled and the local secretary general of the party, Raúl Ausejo - himself the head of the annulled list - was suspended. 

Is this just the typical problem of all traditional political parties, or is it more likely to occur where left-wingers are used to factional struggles for power and intestinal disputes?

Doubts and hopes

Podemos has quickly reached its political maturity (with the vices and common problems of all traditional parties). But it is still too early to tell if the hopes placed in the "new" as allegedly represented by Iglesias and his team were nothing but a dream. Four parties fiercely compete for the lead in the polls (Podemos, PSOE, PP and Ciudadanos) in the general elections, but lots may still happen before that even t in December, 2015.

Meanwhile, the Andalusian regional election and the party's behavior in other regions has left progressive analysts and left-wing militants worried. Despite many seeing the party as their central hope for change in Spain, there are many doubts.

Impertinent criticism from right-wing individuals and groups are joined by more pertinent and valuable challenges from broad sectors of the left and from within the party. While the majority fraction has some interest in cultivating an image of internal cohesion, minority groups are bound to seek ways to be heard and to raise theircounter-arguments.

Spain is a country that still refuses to look to its past, to the dictatorship and the thousands of political assassinations and mass graves still untouched. Left-wing political movements not aligned to the PSOE have been subjected to persecution - even from the PSOE - in a country that still has open wounds.

Podemos was born from these same Spanish streets. Will it be able to continue to be the unexpurgated voice of those streets?

Country or region:  Spain Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The renewable revolution

Open Democracy News Analysis - 19. April 2015 - 9:06

Four reasons why the transition from fossil fuels to a green energy era is gaining traction.

Look at Spain: as Juan Cole reported recently at his Informed Comment website, that country is now getting almost 70% of its electricity in ways that do not generate carbon dioxide. That’s little short of extraordinary.

It’s possible that somewhere down the line that country could even become “the first net-carbon-zero G-20 state”! As of this March, it received 22.5% of its electricity from wind power (with solar trailing badly behind), 17.5% from hydro power, and 23.8% from nuclear power (which will make some environmentalists uneasy). And the country hopes to almost double its wind power contribution to 40% in the next five years.

In other words, depending on what you care to look at, this planet offers a grim vision of humanity preparing to scourge and flood its own home or--and this is a new development--a more hopeful one. In that, humanity, under pressure and moving too slowly by half, is nonetheless beginning to reshape our world yet again in unexpected ways, using new technology that is quickly becoming ever cheaper and easier to employ. TomDispatch energy expert Michael Klare suggests here that while nothing may be settled, damage is clearly being done, and the fossil fuel machine remains deeply entrenched and determined, there are nonetheless unexpected signs that we, like the cavalry of movie fame, may finally be saddling up to ride to our own rescue.

This is the sort of news that should stir the blood and soul in all of us. It should leave us thankful for the years of toil in the wilderness by climate activists like those at 350.org who have worked so hard to bring us to awareness of the dangers ahead, and of activists like those in the fossil fuel divestment movement who want to shake what may be the most profitable industry in history to its core.

Tom Engelhardt

The renewable revolution 

By Michael T. Klare

President Xi Jinping promises to work with the US in 2015 Paris conference. Demotix/ Gregor Fischer. All rights reserved.Don’t hold your breath, but future historians may look back on 2015 as the year that the renewable energy ascendancy began, the moment when the world started to move decisively away from its reliance on fossil fuels. Those fuels--oil, natural gas, and coal--will, of course, continue to dominate the energy landscape for years to come, adding billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon to the atmosphere.  For the first time, however, it appears that a shift to renewable energy sources is gaining momentum.  If sustained, it will have momentous implications for the world economy--as profound as the shift from wood to coal or coal to oil in previous centuries.

Global economic growth has, of course, long been powered by an increasing supply of fossil fuels, especially petroleum. Beginning with the United States, countries that succeeded in mastering the extraction and utilization of oil gained immense economic and political power, while countries with huge reserves of oil to exploit and sell, like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, became fabulously wealthy.  The giant oil companies that engineered the rise of petroleum made legendary profits, accumulated vast wealth, and grew immensely powerful.  Not surprisingly, the oil states and those energy corporations continue to dream of a future in which they will play a dominant role. 

“Fossil fuels are our most enduring energy source,” said Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, in April 2013. “They are the driving force of economic development in the US, Saudi Arabia, and for much of the developed and developing world [and] they have the capacity to sustain us well into the future.”

But new developments, including a surprising surge in wind and solar installations, suggest that oil’s dominance may not prove as “enduring” as imagined. “Rapidly spreading solar technology could change everything,” energy analyst Nick Butler recently wrote in the Financial Times. “There is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in old energy systems.”

Normally, transitions from one energy system to another take many decades.  According to Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, the shift from wood to coal and coal to oil each took 50 years. The same length of time, he has argued, will be needed to complete the transition to renewables, which would leave any green energy era in the distant future. “The slow pace of this energy transition is not surprising,” he wrote in Scientific American. “In fact, it is expected.”

Smil’s analysis, however, assumes two things: first, that a business-as-usual environment in which decisions about energy investments will largely be made within the same profit-seeking outlook as in the past will continue to prevail; and second, that it will take decades for renewables to best fossil fuels in terms of cost and practicality. Both assumptions, however, appear increasingly flawed. Concern over climate change is already altering the political and regulatory landscape, while improvements in wind and solar technology are occurring at an extraordinary rate, rapidly eliminating the price advantage of fossil fuels. “The direction of change is clear,” Butler writes. With the cost of renewable installations falling, solar power has moved “from being a niche supplier to being a major regional competitor [to fossil fuels].”

Experts largely agree that renewables will claim a larger share of the global energy budget in the years ahead. Nevertheless, most mainstream analysts continue to believe that fossil fuels will be the dominant form of energy for decades to come. The US Department of Energy (DoE) typically predicts that the share of world energy provided by renewables, nuclear, and hydro combined will climb from 17% in 2015 to a mere 22% in 2040--hardly change on a scale that would threaten the predominance of fossil fuels. There are, however, four key trends that could speed the transition to renewables in striking ways: the world’s growing determination to put a brake on the advance of climate change; a sea change in China’s stance on growth and the environment; the increasing embrace of green energy in the developing world; and the growing affordability of renewable energy.

Taking climate change seriously

Resistance to progress on climate change is widespread and well entrenched. As Naomi Klein documents in her latest book, This Changes Everything, the major fossil fuel companies have mounted well-financed campaigns for years to sow doubt about the reality of climate change, while politicians, often in their pay, have obstructed efforts to place restraints on carbon emissions. At the same time, many ordinary people have been reluctant to acknowledge what's happening and so consider steps to bring it under control (a phenomenon examined by George Marshall in Don’t Even Think About It). As the devastating effects of extreme weather, including droughts, floods, and ever more powerful storms, gain greater prominence in everyday life, however, all of this is clearly in flux.

Considerable evidence can be assembled to support this assessment, including recent polling data, but perhaps the most impressive indication of this shift can be found in the carbon-reduction plans major nations are now submitting to UN authorities in preparation for a global climate summit to be held this December in Paris. Under a measure adopted by delegates to the most recent summit, held last December in Lima, Peru, all parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are obliged to submit detailed action plans known as “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) to the global climate effort. These plans, for the most part, have proven to be impressively tough and ambitious. More important yet, the numbers being offered when it comes to carbon reduction would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

The US plan, for example, promises that national carbon emissions will drop 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, which represents a substantial reduction. There are, of course, many obstacles to achieving this goal, most notably the diehard resistance of Republican legislators with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry. The White House insists, however, that many of the measures included in the INDC can be achieved through executive branch action, including curbs on carbon emissions from coal plants and mandated improvements in the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks.

Other countries have submitted similarly ambitious INDCs. Mexico, for example, has pledged to cap its carbon emissions by 2026, and to achieve a 22% reduction in greenhouse gas levels by 2030. Its commitment is considered especially significant, since it’s the first such pledge by a major developing nation. “Mexico is setting an example for the rest of the world by submitting an INDC that is timely, clear, ambitious, and supported by robust, unconditional policy commitments,” the Obama White House noted in a congratulatory statement.

No one can predict the outcome of the December climate summit, but few observers expect the measures it may endorse to be tough enough to keep future increases in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius, the maximum amount most scientists believe the planet can absorb without incurring climate disasters far beyond anything seen to date. Nevertheless, implementation of the INDCs, or even a significant portion of them, would at least produce a significant reduction in fossil fuel consumption and point the way to a different future.

A sea change in Chinese energy behavior

Of equal importance is China’s evident determination to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels--a critical change in stance, given its projected energy needs in the decades to come. According to the DoE, China’s share of world energy consumption is expected to jump from an already impressive 19% in 2010 to 27% in 2040, with most of its added energy coming from fossil fuels. Should this indeed occur, China would consume another 88 quadrillion British thermal units of such energy over the next 30 years, or 43% of all added fossil fuel consumption worldwide. So any significant moves by China to reduce its reliance on those energy sources, as now being promised by senior government officials, would have an outsized impact on the global energy equation.

China has not yet submitted its INDC, but its plan is expected to incorporate the commitments made by President Xi Jinping in a meeting with President Obama in Beijing last November. Xi promised to cap China’s carbon emissions by 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by that time. He also agreed to work with the US “to make sure international climate change negotiations will reach agreement as scheduled at the Paris conference in 2015.”

Although the Chinese plan allows for continued growth in carbon emissions for another 15 years, it substantially reduces the amount of new energy that will be derived from fossil fuels. According to a White House statement, “It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030--more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today.”

It appears, moreover, that Chinese leaders are preparing to move even faster than their pledge would require in transitioning away from fossil fuels. Under pressure from urban residents to reduce punishing levels of smog, the authorities have announced ambitious plans to lessen reliance on coal for electricity generation and rely instead on hydropower, nuclear, wind, and solar power, as well as natural gas. “We will strive for zero-growth in the consumption of coal in key areas of the country,” Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, this March.

As in the United States, the Chinese leadership will face opposition from entrenched fossil fuel interests, as well as local government structures. However, their evident determination to reduce reliance on oil and coal represents a real change of mood and thinking. It’s likely to result in a far different energy landscape than the one laid out by the Department of Energy and, until recently, most other experts. Despite repeated predictions of ever-increasing coal consumption, for instance, China actually burned less coal in 2014 than in the previous year, the first such decline in decades. At the same time, it increased its spending on renewable forms of energy by an impressive 33% in 2014, investing a total of $83.3 billion--the most ever spent by a single country in one year--to a renewable future. If China leads the way globally and such trends continue, the transition from fossil fuels to renewables will occur far sooner than expected.

Green goes global

The giant oil companies have long acknowledged that the most advanced countries, led by the US, Japan, and Europe, would eventually transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but they continue to insist that developing nations--eager to expand their economies but too poor to invest in alternative energy--will continue to rely on fossil fuels in a big way. This outlook led ExxonMobil and other oil firms to make massive investments in new refineries, pipelines, and other infrastructure aimed at satisfying anticipated demand from the global South. But surprise, surprise: those countries are also showing every sign of turning to renewables in their drive to expand energy output.

The global South’s surprisingly enthusiastic embrace of renewables is impressively documented in Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2015, a recent collaboration between the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and the UN Environment Programme. It reports that the developing countries, excluding China, spent $30 billion on renewables in 2014, a substantial rise over the previous year. Together with China, investment in renewables in the developing world totaled nearly as much as that spent by the developed countries that year. Significant increases in spending on renewables were registered by Brazil (for a total of $7.6 billion), India ($7.4 billion), and South Africa ($5.5 billion); investments of $1 billion or more were posted by Chile, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey. Given how little such countries were devoting to a renewable future just a few years ago, consider this a sign of changing times.

No less striking is the degree to which oil-producing countries are beginning to embrace green energy. In January, for example, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority awarded a contract to Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power International to build a 200-megawatt, $330 million solar electricity plant. The deal received widespread attention, as ACWA promised to deliver electricity from the plant for $58.50 per megawatt-hour, one-third less than the cost of natural gas-fired generation.

“This is a major breakthrough in the oil-fired Emirates and a clear demonstration of the ongoing global energy transition,” suggested Mark Lewis of Kepler Cheuvreux, a European financial services company. “We think this is a landmark deal both in terms of the extremely competitive cost at which the project will generate power and the potential for a much greater take-up of renewables in countries that have so far been slow to embrace them.”

The falling price of renewables

As the Dubai deal indicates, price is playing a crucial role in the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Listen to the apostles of coal and oil and you’d think that poor countries had no choice but to rely on their chosen form of energy because of its low cost compared to other fuels. “There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world,” said Rex Tillerson, the CEO and Chairman of ExxonMobil. “They need electricity they can count on, that they can afford... They'd love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably.”

Until recently, this would have been gospel among mainstream energy experts, but the cost of renewables, especially solar power, is dropping so rapidly that, even in a moment when the price of oil has been halved, the news on the horizon couldn’t be clearer: fossil fuels are no longer guaranteed a price advantage in delivering energy to developing countries. Among the harbingers of this change: the cost of solar photovoltaic cells (PVs) has plunged by 75% since 2009 and the cost of electricity generated by solar PVs has fallen globally by 50% since 2010. In other words, solar is now becoming competitive with oil and natural gas, even at their currently depressed prices. “Cost is no longer a reason not to proceed with renewables,” concluded a report released by the National Bank of Abu Dhabi in March. Says Lewis of Kepler Cheuvreux: “Over time, as renewable-technology costs continue to come down and economies of scale continue to increase, the relative competitiveness of renewables in the global energy mix will only increase further.”

Keep in mind as well that developing nations have a powerful reason to favor renewables over fossil energy that has nothing to do with price and everything to do with costs of another sort.  As the most recent reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make clear, poor countries in the global South will suffer more (and sooner) from the ravages of climate change than countries in the global North. This is so because these countries are expected to experience some of the sharpest declines in rainfall and so the most droughts, endangering the food supply for hundreds of millions of people. Combine such concerns with the plunging prices of renewable energy, and it appears that the transition away from fossil fuels will occur faster than predicted in the very regions that the oil companies were counting on for their future profits.

A new world’s a-coming

Add up these factors, all relatively unexpected, and one conclusion seems self-evident: we are witnessing the start of a global energy transition that could turn expectations upside down, politically, environmentally, and economically. 

This transformation won’t happen overnight and it will face fierce opposition from powerful and entrenched fossil fuel interests. Even so, it shows every sign of accelerating, which means that while we may be talking decades, the half-century horizon previously offered by experts like Vaclav Smil is probably no longer in the cards. Fossil fuels--and the companies, politicians, and petro-states they have long enriched--will lose their dominant status and be overtaken by the purveyors of renewable energy far more quickly than that. 

Even with the quickening of investment in green technology, the likelihood that world temperatures will be held at a 2 degrees Celsius rise, that all-important threshold for catastrophic damage, is unfortunately vanishingly small. Which means that our children and grandchildren will live in a distinctly less inviting world. But as the destructive effects of climate change become more pronounced and more embedded in daily life across the planet, the impetus to slow the warming phenomenon will only intensify. This means that the urge to impose strict curbs on fossil fuel consumption and the companies that promote it will grow, too.

We’re talking, in other words, about the building of genuine momentum for an energy transition which, in turn, means that the majority of people alive on the planet today will experience the ascendancy of renewables. As with previous energy transitions, this shift is going to produce both winners and losers. Countries and companies that assume early leadership in the development and installation of advanced green technologies are likely to prosper in the years ahead, while those committed to the perpetuation of fossil energy will see their wealth and power decline or disappear. For the planet as a whole, such a transition can’t come soon enough.

This piece, including Tom Engelhardt's introduction, is reposted from TomDispatch.com with that site's permission.

 

Country or region:  United States Mexico China Topics:  Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Science
Categories: les flux rss

Shelters without walls: women building protective infrastructures against rape

Open Democracy News Analysis - 19. April 2015 - 7:27

Women from Colombia, Syria, Nicaragua and Iraq are implementing multi-layered prevention strategies in their communities against rape being used as a weapon of war, offering immediate protection and countering stigma.

“Once a woman is raped, she loses her name.” When Rose Cunningham, an Indigenous women’s human rights defender from Nicaragua spoke those words, she paused for a moment.  “People just call her ‘la violada’: the raped one.”

This is the stark, dehumanizing power of sexual violence, wherein a person’s identity is erased, pushing her outside the safety and solidarity of community bonds. When these community ties are frayed, the dangers multiply, both to the survivor who is deprived of the caring she deserves and to the community as a whole.

This is also what gives rape as a weapon of war its destructive power. Perpetrators know that it can traumatize, and even destroy a person, and that the impacts do not stop there. The trauma of rape reverberates through families and communities. When people ostracize, reject or, as is all-too-common, kill survivors because of the stigma attached to rape, it tears apart the ties that bind families and communities. Resilience resides in these bonds of support vital to people’s ability to sustain each other through armed conflict. Armed groups in war will eagerly use a weapon that attacks those bonds, rendering a community even more vulnerable to domination and control.

Rose Cunningham, director of the Indigenous women’s organization Wangki Tangni, shared her troubling observation at a gathering of women’s human rights defenders at the recent United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women. At a public event, she joined colleagues from Colombia, Iraq and Syria, who exchanged their direct experience working to prevent sexual violence in their war-torn and "post-conflict" communities.

Women human rights defender speaking at the UN CSW, 2015. Photo: MADRE

Prevention of rape as a weapon of war is an elusive concept, often more difficult to conceive than the concrete notions of protecting survivors and prosecuting perpetrators. The challenge lies in measuring and portraying that which was prevented and never happened. Yet, prevention is obviously a vital strategy, one that should be inextricably linked to protection and prosecution. In the vibrant conversation between these four women, they quickly identified core commonalities in their hard-earned experience to create and implement multilayered prevention strategies.

Prevention strategy: providing immediate and long-term protection to prevent sexual violence

Grassroots women facing the threat of rape as a weapon of war will mobilize to create or expand secure spaces where women and girls are protected. For instance, Yanar Mohammed, director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), explained how they have built crucial infrastructure, such as shelters and safe houses, and set up escape routes maintained by networks of women human rights defenders. These avenues provide an essential conduit for at-risk women to escape the northern part of Iraq, occupied by the extremist group ISIS, as well as for women facing sectarian violence in the government-controlled parts of the country. They also offer sanctuary from heightened levels of violence against women that predate the 2014 incursion of ISIS and that are born of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

OWFI has also advocated for changes in policies that undermine women’s rights. In particular, the government has refused to officially recognize women’s shelters run by non-governmental organizations. This grey area in the law leaves women’s shelters vulnerable to police raids and other harassment, forcing human rights organizations like OWFI that provide vital services to vulnerable women to run their shelters clandestinely.

Similarly, Nawal Yazeji of the Syrian Women’s League presented a case of a woman who transformed her own home in Damascus into a shelter for women escaping violence. In another example, she told of young women who organized their own self-defense classes, if only to strengthen their personal sense of agency.

“These are just a few small but important examples. There may be many more women like this, but this war makes it difficult for us to communicate and share our stories,” Nawal explained. “But we Syrian women are active, trying to protect each other and to create peace.”

This protective infrastructure is not only a refuge for survivors of rape as a weapon of war. It is also a preventative barrier against future violations.

Prevention strategy: awareness-raising to transform stigma, rigid gender norms and violent masculinities

Stigma is what gives rape the power to control and manipulate communities, making it an appealing weapon for armed groups and violent extremists. Each of the four experts identified attacking stigma as a key priority to prevent sexual violence. Nawal highlighted a popular mobilization campaign by Syrian women’s rights activists with one resounding message: “Rape is never the fault of the survivor.”

Grassroots women activists can also model what acceptance and solidarity with a survivor looks like. Yanar shared OWFI’s practice of visiting refugee camps in northern Iraq to listen to and validate the stories of rape survivors.

“Everyone in the community knew what had happened to these women, yet no one spoke of it,” Yanar said. She described the subtle but important shifts in people’s perceptions of blame and accountability when they listened directly to the women who, supported by Yanar, wanted to tell their own stories.

Using artistic expression and creative performance is an innovative way to heal individual trauma and to shift community perspectives on sexual violence. Stella Duque, the Director of Taller de Vida (Spanish for “Workshop of Life”) in Colombia, emphasized the need to end the silence and shame that fuel stigma, giving the example of a photography exhibit.

“We created the Take My Body Out of War photo project to show the impact of war on young survivors,” Stella said. This project allowed former child soldiers, many survivors of sexual abuse, to transmit their testimonies through photography and to build a constituency of support for national policies that protect the rights of ex-combatants and vulnerable communities.

Like stigma, another harmful social norm that spurs sexual violence is the prevalence of violent masculinities. These learned attitudes and behaviors cause men and boys to define themselves and, in particular, their manhood through aggression. For men caught in this mindset, real or perceived affronts to their safety, well-being or identity are supposedly remedied by violence. Extremist and armed groups can appeal to potential recruits by offering them the opportunity to re-assert themselves through violence.

Human rights defenders provide an antidote to this mindset by promoting positive ideals of manhood rooted in gender equality and in opposition to sexual violence. For example, in Colombia, Taller de Vida mobilizes a mixed gender constituency in their community outreach programs, bringing boys and girls together with men and women mentors to teach them about developing healthy, collaborative relationships and to diminish the allure for young boys of joining an armed group. Nawal shared examples of Syrian women meeting for tea and using this informal social gathering to talk frankly about how to prevent their sons from joining ISIS.

In Nicaragua, Rose tracked the violence that persists long after a conflict has officially ended. She gave the example of a woman who was raped over 30 years ago during a campaign of sexual violence by US-backed Contra militias. This woman lives in the same community as her rapist and who still faces his taunts. Rose linked the enduring abuse that women face, in their homes and at the hands of traffickers, to the high rate of violence against women that became normalized during that war.

Explaining her strategy to prevent future violence, Rose said, “We are creating a shelter without walls.” Together with other grassroots women activists, she envisions a community where each woman can move freely without fear of violence. To create this condition, they are engaging with local leadership who hold powerful influence over community perspectives and practices. For instance, women successfully secured a commitment from local traditional judges called Wihtas, often men, to uphold national laws prohibiting the trafficking and sale of young girls.

These prevention strategies - offering immediate protection and countering stigma and other harmful social norms - provided a connecting thread in the conversation between the women leaders from the Middle East and Latin America. These and other women human rights defenders have critical expertise and vital local experience. Given governments’ frequently-stated aim to combat sexual violence in conflict, they must turn to these women for solutions to the scourge of rape as a weapon of war.

Yifat Susskind will be speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the Defence of Women Human Rights Defenders, 24-26 April.  50.50 will be reporting live from the conference.  Read more articles by participants and speakers.  

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Hope as a survival strategy for Defensoras in Honduras Challenging militarized masculinities Who do they think they are? War rapists as people Our bodies as battlegrounds Hidden women human rights defenders in the UK Stopping sexual violence in conflict: gender politics in foreign policy Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders Child soldiers, child wives: wounded for life Rape: a basic tool of militarism Rape in war: ending impunity Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Crime not shame: challenging the ideology of rape Sudanese women demand justice Zimbabwe: speaking from where I feel safe Stopping sexual violence in conflict: gender politics in foreign policy Women defenders of human rights: the good, the great and the gutsy Sexual violence, access to justice, and human rights Country or region:  Colombia Syria Iraq Nicaragua Topics:  Civil society Conflict
Categories: les flux rss

Where is another Europe now?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 20:05

Europe either hangs together or - as the American revolutionaries liked to point out - the nations of Europe will be hanged separately.

Brookings Institution, Washington DC. Wikicommons/Gryffindor. Some rights reserved.The game of Greek chicken is unending. At the Brookings Institution in Washington DC where the world’s finance ministers assembled for the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank this week, Germany’s austere finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble was asked, ‘Is Europe ready to lose Greece?’

‘No,’ he replied in his one-word answer to the questions that came from the floor. Fifteen minutes previously, also in Brookings, Yanis Varoufakis, who likes to portray himself and his country as the victim of hardline German economic philosophy dating from the pre-1914 Austrian school of Ordoliberalismus had spoken with his usual passion about how the previous corruption and clientelism of past Greek politicians had brought down his country. 

Both men are trapped in the iron grip of politics, rather than economics.  Varoufakis represents Plato’s philosopher-king, the man of ideas who becomes a ruler, catapulted from the backwaters of academic life into being the most famous finance minister the world has seen this century. But Varoufakis is right when he says that he has a mandate. And so does Schäuble. Varoufakis cannot return to Greece and say to voters – ‘You were wrong and previous governments who imposed austerity were right’. Schäuble cannot return to Germany and say to his voters, ‘You are wrong and Germans should agree to wipe off debts and give Greece lots of money to start growing again.’

The Greek drama has been presented as an economic crisis. It is, but it is also profoundly political. The disaster of the last ten years of EU economic management under leaders like Barroso, Sarkozy, Cameron, Berlusconi and Merkel was never seriously challenged until the arrival of Syriza.

There was opposition but it was diverted into support for populist rejectionist politics expressed by new parties of the right (UKIP, Front National, Swedish Democrats, Dutch Freedom Party) or new parties of the left (Syriza, Podemos) as well as the rise of nationalist partitionist parties like the SNP or Sinn Fein in Ireland.

The failure of the classic post-1945 ruling parties to work out a coordinated, EU-wide response to the crisis of the global banking failure in 2008 opened the way to the rise of all of these. The post-1945 party elites responded with bluster and denunciation or the smugness in Germany of saying, “we took all the pain years ago, and Vorsprung durch Leiden (in French one could paraphrase this as il faut suffrir pour être bon) is the only way forward.”

So today for Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble to ask the over-taxed and under-consuming Germans to accept more sacrifice to fund Greeks, even if for the Paul Krugmans and Paul Masons of the world it may make perfect economic sense, is no more politically possible than it is politically possible for the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to tell the people who elected him, “You were all fools to believe a change of government could undo economic reality and the only way forward is years and decades of misery, pay and pension cuts and the continuing impoverishment of an entire nation.”

The economics may be with Athens, but the politics are with Berlin. Because behind Berlin are all the democratic left governing parties of Europe who watch with loathing and fascinated fear the spectre of their toeing of the austerity line since 2009 being repudiated. As Pierre Moscovici, the French socialist EU Finance Commissioner noted, it is impossible for European social democracy to accept Varoufakis’s demands as this would give a green light to the anti-austerity critique of Podemos in Spain, the left in France of Jean-Luc Mélanchon, Sinn Fein in Ireland, the SNP in Scotland, the Greens in England and other parties challenging the deficit and debt reduction priorities of the centre-left parties either in power as in France or Italy, or hoping to win power as in Spain or Britain.

These have watched with horror as Syriza has installed anti-Semitic or pro-Soviet ministers and broken ranks with blatant crawling to Putin. The economic analysis of Varoufakis actually meshes with the undeclared view of many of the mainstream left that the EU under the dominance of the centre-right since 2005 has made endless wrong decisions on major economic policy issues.

But the politics of Syriza, with its invocation of the old leftist themes and the vanity of the philosopher-kings who treat political relations with every other democratically elected Party of European Socialists government in Europe like a radio phone-in - the louder you shout and hurl abuse the better the programme ratings - has lost Greece so many friends and people of influence to the point that in Washington, Berlin and other EU capitals there is now a sullen passivity with regard to the idea that Grexit may be unavoidable. 

This will be a disaster for Greece, for Europe, for EuroAtlantic values that after 1950 delivered the  best years Europeans have ever enjoyed in their history.

It will accelerate the EU centrifuge driving European peoples and nations apart. The idea that Grexit will be a painless amputation is absurd. Europe either hangs together or - as the American revolutionaries liked to point out - the nations of Europe will be hanged separately.

But unless Syriza can rethink its political language and accept some compromise with the rest of Europe, this is a tragedy waiting to happen.

Denis MacShane spoke at Brookings on April 17 about his book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe but to a much smaller audience than Yanis Varoufakis and Wolfgang Schäuble

Sideboxes Related stories:  Still a chance for another Europe? What's in a game? A Great German Greek Grexit Game? The Greek Game: Dominance or Chicken, Fear or Reason? High-stakes European poker: a reply to Curzon Price The Varoufakis game is not chicken Country or region:  Greece Germany EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Debating the long and the short-term view of sexual violence in war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 14:30

Sexualized violence is an issue of security.  It is also an issue of women’s equality and rights. It's imperative that we use the traction generated by UN Security Council resolutions to move forward.

“I make myself stiff as stone, shut my eyes, concentrate on my body’s veto, my inner No.” The words of a 34-year old woman who tries to find ways to cope with “the unbridled raping sprees” that she and thousands of women experienced during the Russian occupation of Berlin, in 1945.  Documented in her anonymously authored diary, A Woman in Berlin, these words could be those of the many women today who are also caught up in wars that are not of their making.

These events in 1945 are neatly book-ended by two significant moments that mark the passage of a one hundred year-period of women’s global activism on peace and security. At  one end, is the 1915 International Congress of Women, which we commemorate this week in the Hague. This Congress brought together over 1,300 women from twelve different countries, to collectively respond to the events of World War I. Through a resolution adopted at the Congress, they expressed a stand in favour of peace and a transformation to modes of international relations away from options centred on masculinist belligerence. 

At the other end of this period, are the events of this year.  We mark 15 years since transnational women’s activism once again brought global attention to issues of peace and security from women’s stand-point. This time, women’s efforts prompted the adoption of Resolution 1325 in 2000 by the UN Security Council.  Their efforts drew the attention of this body to concerns specific to women in the contexts of war and peacebuilding.  Between 2000 and 2015, six further resolutions have been passed by the Council. Remarkably, the issue of “women, peace and security” has also become a bi-annual item on the agenda of the world’s foremost security body.

Alongside the demand to bring an end to World War I, the resolution adopted by the 1915 International Congress protested “vehemently” against “the horrible violation of women which attends all war.” At the time of the Congress, who could have imagined the proliferation of small arms, the use of armed technologies, and the ideologies of violent extremism and associated violence that women (and men) experience in wars today? And who also could have imagined the architecture of multilateralism that has been established out of the events of World War II?  The United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” And yet, wars continue, and in today’s version of the “modern warfare” noted at the Congress a century ago, women’s bodies are still horribly violated.

What has happened in this one hundred year period, in which the mid-way point of World War II defines much of our contemporary modes of multilateral relations, and the standards of rights that we attempt to uphold?  Where has our understanding of women’s lives, war contexts and associated “horrible violations” evolved to? 

The gains

It is important to firstly acknowledge the gains that have been made. We know more now about women's lives in contemporary wars than ever before. We are in an era where "asking the woman question" has become somewhat acceptable. It is not asked enough. And it still requires perpetual and repetitive asking.  However, there has been increasing visibility of women, women’s lives, rights and experiences related to war and peacemaking in recent decades. 

This gradual shift has lent unprecedented and particular attention to the issue of wartime sexualized violence. Our understanding of women’s localization in war as being “nothing but booty, dirt,” as articulated by the anonymous author of the 1945 A Woman in Berlin diary cited before, has shifted. Sexualized violence is no longer considered an inconsequential feature of war’s absurdity. We now have contemporary recognition that the violation of women during wartime, just like in peacetime, is a violation of the bodily integrity, dignity and rights of women globally.  Feminist inquiry has nudged the boundaries of “conflict” and “peace,” exposing the connections between violations in armed conflict and the violence, discrimination and exclusion that are ordinarily a feature of women’s lives. Significant moments in women’s transnational activism, such as the series of world conferences on women have had significant impact. Thanks to feminist inquiry, international legal prosecution for the sexual assault of women in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s was achieved.  Further inquiry has revealed the ubiquitous yet diversified presence of sexualized violence in multiple war contexts globally.  We have come far in making this issue visible and making it count in accounts of war today.

The enduring challenges

It is also important to acknowledge that the gains made have ironically been accompanied by some critical challenges and drawbacks. Reflexive critique by activists and scholars has pointed to an over-focus on the issue that has counter-productive impacts. Important analysis by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern prompts us to pay attention to the problem of the hyper-politicization of sexualized violence that has evolved at global policy levels. This is largely hinged on the Security Council’s adoption of four successive sexualized violence focused resolutions, which are perceived to centre on the need to protect the sexed bodies of women. This approach has prompted the emergence of a governing global discourse that centres primarily on a penetrative sexual act wrought by monstrous men, understood as a calculated “weapon of war” scenario. This reductive discourse excises a wide range of sexualized and other harms that women experience alongside, and distinct to strategic rape.

In its resolution in 1915, the International Congress of Women stated its opposition “to the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare.”  This assumption, which these pioneering activists foresaw and so strongly castigated in 1915, arguably endures today, glaringly evident in the aforementioned resolutions. The Security Council was established to “maintain international peace and security,” and despite this expectation, it seldom succeeds in preventing the kinds of wars that entrench militarization and enable war-based violations to take place.  Instead, the sexualized violence focused resolutions effectively attempt to stymie sexualized violence by combatants, and provide protections to women that it imagines being possible during war. That men create the wars from which women need protection, seems to elude those men who propose that ridding wars of sexualized violence means that we can (and perhaps should) have  wars that are simply void of sexualized violence.  And this would happen while wars would remain replete with a myriad of killing and harms that impact women and men directly and indirectly, and that entrench militarism.

In addition, it is notable that the Security Council resolutions focused on sexualized violence do little to draw on concepts of gender equality and rights. Framed as an issue of “security,” there appears a fissure in the connections that activists have long sought to establish between gender equality, endemic violence against women and continuums of this violence into war contexts. Sexualized violence is indeed an issue of security. It is also however, an issue of women’s equality and rights. Eroding the conceptual and empirical connections between concepts of gender equality and sexualized violence decouples these resolutions from the multiple forms of violence that women experience outside of war. These international frameworks sit incomplete.

Where are we now?

One hundred years later, we are in a moment of critical healthy debate. On the one hand, our critique exposes how an exponential focus on sexualized violence can eclipse the totality of women’s experiences. Reductive approaches hide the intersecting influence of patterns of violence in peacetime through to war contexts. The sexual violation experienced by men is not fully exposed. There is evidence of fatigue of the rape story and the rape question in contexts such the Congo. There are some suggestions that we need to pull-back somewhat from entrenching too-heavy a focus on the issue.

On the other hand however, it is evident that the reality of brutal sexualized assaults in warfare endures. One hundred years later, the “horrible violation” of women in wars remains an urgent concern, and the demands made by the first women’s peace conference remain valid.

This moment of collective reflection in 2015 provides an opportunity to find ways to deftly navigate these lines of tension. How can we find a way to create enough noise about the sexualized harm impacting women in wars, while at the same time engaging in ways that are nuanced enough to push the boundaries of the reductive frames that have emerged? 

It's imperative that we use the traction generated by the Security Council resolutions to continue to move forward. There is for example, ongoing need to counter prevailing assumptions that women can be protected in war, and indeed that making war safe for women could be construed as a sign of progress.  Protections for all women and girls caught up in conflict, regardless of their role, is urgent. The idea of protection could however be rooted in rights-based modes that establish a connection between this specific interest of the Council, and their own articulation of the need for women’s empowerment in Resolution 2122. It is not enough to start at the “war moment”. There is need to go beyond war’s operational mechanics and tackle violence against women writ large - if  such acts are to be prevented in the first place.

There is also need to consider how we might evolve a more nuanced approach to the range of harms that women endure during war. A Woman in Berlin in 1945 cogently reflected on what her own experiences might mean to her:  “What does it mean, rape??.…It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything – but it’s not.” The meaning attributed to experiences of harm vary considerably whether socio-culturally or in response to the ways in which this violence is performed.  Sexualized violence may indeed be the worst experience or ultimate harm for some women.  For others it might be something else - the loss of entire families, livelihoods, the loss of ability to make choices over one’s life. A key challenge going forward is to find ways for broad categories of harm to matter in ways that the “worst” harms do, and to enable women to seek redress for these harms as if they matter.

Our wealth of (still incomplete and growing) knowledge also tells us that there is much over the past one hundred years, and before, that still requires visibility.  Asking the woman question was as valid in the past as it is now. However, in the era before and after the International Congress, it was not easy to do so. We have entire “official” histories of the world wars, colonial wars and earlier revolutions in which women are invisible. Women's lives were of little interest in men’s wars. A Woman in Berlin, could only be officially published in 2000. The 1945 version received such back-lash from the recovering post-war society that it had to be withdrawn. The foreword of the book notes that the author herself was publicly critiqued for “shameless immorality” for speaking about the rape that had occurred. She was compelled to become anonymous, and only allow the book to be published following her death (while still remaining anonymous). Thirty years post the International Congress, and sixty years prior to today, it was evidently impossible to publish an account of the mass rape that she and thousands of other German women were subjected to.

Our contemporary focus on sexualized violence could act as a catalyst and prompt us to generate a fuller picture of women’s experieces of war.  A longer-term view that looks back as well as forwards will build on, and complement, our immediate-term view. Two recent volumes further stitch together the gaps that have yawned in women’s stories and experiences during World War II. If this is a Woman (2015) by Sarah Helm documents the events in Ravensbruck concentration camp in which over 46,000 women were held.  Sonja M. Hedgepath and Rochelle G. Saidel’s (2010) have published a book on Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, which pieces together Jewish women’s experiences. Collectively, these works illuminate the experiences of women from multiple social, ethnic and political identities in one context. A long-term view offers us critical context to today's engagement on the issue.  It allows us to contest ill-informed hyperbole.  Most importantly, it substantiates the need for questions to be asked about women's lives today in ways that they were not before. A truer picture emerges in ways that it has not done in the hundred years since the International Congress declared that “women should share all civil and political rights and responsibilities on the same terms as men.”.

“Violence is not inevitable. It is a choice.” The manifesto developed for this 2015 International Congress of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom(WILPF), which convenes in the Hague April 22-24th, sets out once again very clearly what our priority must be. While approaches to sexualized violence in war requires constructive onward critique and appropriate ways of researching, teaching and learning about it, we cannot negate what contemporary response has gained in terms of understanding and addressing the issue in praxis. There is need to foster nuanced, deepened and engaged responses that make connections between prevention (of war and of violence against women), response and redress.  

Read read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War in the run up to WILPF's centenray congress and  international civil society conference in the Hague, 22-24 and 27-29 April 2015.

 

 

 

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The quest for gender-just peace: from impunity to accountability We must not make war safe for women Women's power to stop war: Hubris or hope? This is what a feminist foreign policy looks like Stopping sexual violence in conflict: gender politics in foreign policy The meaning of peace in the 21st century Sexual violence, access to justice, and human rights Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Challenging militarized masculinities Feminist peacebuilding - a courageous intelligence The holistic approach to peacebuilding: From hubris to practicalities Topics:  Civil society Conflict Equality
Categories: les flux rss

Debating the long and the short-term view of sexual violence in war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 14:30

Sexualized violence is an issue of security.  It is also an issue of women’s equality and rights. It's imperative that we use the traction generated by UN Security Council resolutions to move forward.

“I make myself stiff as stone, shut my eyes, concentrate on my body’s veto, my inner No.” The words of a 34-year old woman who tries to find ways to cope with “the unbridled raping sprees” that she and thousands of women experienced during the Russian occupation of Berlin, in 1945.  Documented in her anonymously authored diary, A Woman in Berlin, these words could be those of the many women today who are also caught up in wars that are not of their making.

These events in 1945 are neatly book-ended by two significant moments that mark the passage of a one hundred year-period of women’s global activism on peace and security. At  one end, is the 1915 International Congress of Women, which we commemorate this week in the Hague. This Congress brought together over 1,300 women from twelve different countries, to collectively respond to the events of World War I. Through a resolution adopted at the Congress, they expressed a stand in favour of peace and a transformation to modes of international relations away from options centred on masculinist belligerence. 

At the other end of this period, are the events of this year.  We mark 15 years since transnational women’s activism once again brought global attention to issues of peace and security from women’s stand-point. This time, women’s efforts prompted the adoption of Resolution 1325 in 2000 by the UN Security Council.  Their efforts drew the attention of this body to concerns specific to women in the contexts of war and peacebuilding.  Between 2000 and 2015, six further resolutions have been passed by the Council. Remarkably, the issue of “women, peace and security” has also become a bi-annual item on the agenda of the world’s foremost security body.

Alongside the demand to bring an end to World War I, the resolution adopted by the 1915 International Congress protested “vehemently” against “the horrible violation of women which attends all war.” At the time of the Congress, who could have imagined the proliferation of small arms, the use of armed technologies, and the ideologies of violent extremism and associated violence that women (and men) experience in wars today? And who also could have imagined the architecture of multilateralism that has been established out of the events of World War II?  The United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” And yet, wars continue, and in today’s version of the “modern warfare” noted at the Congress a century ago, women’s bodies are still horribly violated.

What has happened in this one hundred year period, in which the mid-way point of World War II defines much of our contemporary modes of multilateral relations, and the standards of rights that we attempt to uphold?  Where has our understanding of women’s lives, war contexts and associated “horrible violations” evolved to? 

The gains

It is important to firstly acknowledge the gains that have been made. We know more now about women's lives in contemporary wars than ever before. We are in an era where "asking the woman question" has become somewhat acceptable. It is not asked enough. And it still requires perpetual and repetitive asking.  However, there has been increasing visibility of women, women’s lives, rights and experiences related to war and peacemaking in recent decades. 

This gradual shift has lent unprecedented and particular attention to the issue of wartime sexualized violence. Our understanding of women’s localization in war as being “nothing but booty, dirt,” as articulated by the anonymous author of the 1945 A Woman in Berlin diary cited before, has shifted. Sexualized violence is no longer considered an inconsequential feature of war’s absurdity. We now have contemporary recognition that the violation of women during wartime, just like in peacetime, is a violation of the bodily integrity, dignity and rights of women globally.  Feminist inquiry has nudged the boundaries of “conflict” and “peace,” exposing the connections between violations in armed conflict and the violence, discrimination and exclusion that are ordinarily a feature of women’s lives. Significant moments in women’s transnational activism, such as the series of world conferences on women have had significant impact. Thanks to feminist inquiry, international legal prosecution for the sexual assault of women in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s was achieved.  Further inquiry has revealed the ubiquitous yet diversified presence of sexualized violence in multiple war contexts globally.  We have come far in making this issue visible and making it count in accounts of war today.

The enduring challenges

It is also important to acknowledge that the gains made have ironically been accompanied by some critical challenges and drawbacks. Reflexive critique by activists and scholars has pointed to an over-focus on the issue that has counter-productive impacts. Important analysis by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern prompts us to pay attention to the problem of the hyper-politicization of sexualized violence that has evolved at global policy levels. This is largely hinged on the Security Council’s adoption of four successive sexualized violence focused resolutions, which are perceived to centre on the need to protect the sexed bodies of women. This approach has prompted the emergence of a governing global discourse that centres primarily on a penetrative sexual act wrought by monstrous men, understood as a calculated “weapon of war” scenario. This reductive discourse excises a wide range of sexualized and other harms that women experience alongside, and distinct to strategic rape.

In its resolution in 1915, the International Congress of Women stated its opposition “to the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare.”  This assumption, which these pioneering activists foresaw and so strongly castigated in 1915, arguably endures today, glaringly evident in the aforementioned resolutions. The Security Council was established to “maintain international peace and security,” and despite this expectation, it seldom succeeds in preventing the kinds of wars that entrench militarization and enable war-based violations to take place.  Instead, the sexualized violence focused resolutions effectively attempt to stymie sexualized violence by combatants, and provide protections to women that it imagines being possible during war. That men create the wars from which women need protection, seems to elude those men who propose that ridding wars of sexualized violence means that we can (and perhaps should) have  wars that are simply void of sexualized violence.  And this would happen while wars would remain replete with a myriad of killing and harms that impact women and men directly and indirectly, and that entrench militarism.

In addition, it is notable that the Security Council resolutions focused on sexualized violence do little to draw on concepts of gender equality and rights. Framed as an issue of “security,” there appears a fissure in the connections that activists have long sought to establish between gender equality, endemic violence against women and continuums of this violence into war contexts. Sexualized violence is indeed an issue of security. It is also however, an issue of women’s equality and rights. Eroding the conceptual and empirical connections between concepts of gender equality and sexualized violence decouples these resolutions from the multiple forms of violence that women experience outside of war. These international frameworks sit incomplete.

Where are we now?

One hundred years later, we are in a moment of critical healthy debate. On the one hand, our critique exposes how an exponential focus on sexualized violence can eclipse the totality of women’s experiences. Reductive approaches hide the intersecting influence of patterns of violence in peacetime through to war contexts. The sexual violation experienced by men is not fully exposed. There is evidence of fatigue of the rape story and the rape question in contexts such the Congo. There are some suggestions that we need to pull-back somewhat from entrenching too-heavy a focus on the issue.

On the other hand however, it is evident that the reality of brutal sexualized assaults in warfare endures. One hundred years later, the “horrible violation” of women in wars remains an urgent concern, and the demands made by the first women’s peace conference remain valid.

This moment of collective reflection in 2015 provides an opportunity to find ways to deftly navigate these lines of tension. How can we find a way to create enough noise about the sexualized harm impacting women in wars, while at the same time engaging in ways that are nuanced enough to push the boundaries of the reductive frames that have emerged? 

It's imperative that we use the traction generated by the Security Council resolutions to continue to move forward. There is for example, ongoing need to counter prevailing assumptions that women can be protected in war, and indeed that making war safe for women could be construed as a sign of progress.  Protections for all women and girls caught up in conflict, regardless of their role, is urgent. The idea of protection could however be rooted in rights-based modes that establish a connection between this specific interest of the Council, and their own articulation of the need for women’s empowerment in Resolution 2122. It is not enough to start at the “war moment”. There is need to go beyond war’s operational mechanics and tackle violence against women writ large - if  such acts are to be prevented in the first place.

There is also need to consider how we might evolve a more nuanced approach to the range of harms that women endure during war. A Woman in Berlin in 1945 cogently reflected on what her own experiences might mean to her:  “What does it mean, rape??.…It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything – but it’s not.” The meaning attributed to experiences of harm vary considerably whether socio-culturally or in response to the ways in which this violence is performed.  Sexualized violence may indeed be the worst experience or ultimate harm for some women.  For others it might be something else - the loss of entire families, livelihoods, the loss of ability to make choices over one’s life. A key challenge going forward is to find ways for broad categories of harm to matter in ways that the “worst” harms do, and to enable women to seek redress for these harms as if they matter.

Our wealth of (still incomplete and growing) knowledge also tells us that there is much over the past one hundred years, and before, that still requires visibility.  Asking the woman question was as valid in the past as it is now. However, in the era before and after the International Congress, it was not easy to do so. We have entire “official” histories of the world wars, colonial wars and earlier revolutions in which women are invisible. Women's lives were of little interest in men’s wars. A Woman in Berlin, could only be officially published in 2000. The 1945 version received such back-lash from the recovering post-war society that it had to be withdrawn. The foreword of the book notes that the author herself was publicly critiqued for “shameless immorality” for speaking about the rape that had occurred. She was compelled to become anonymous, and only allow the book to be published following her death (while still remaining anonymous). Thirty years post the International Congress, and sixty years prior to today, it was evidently impossible to publish an account of the mass rape that she and thousands of other German women were subjected to.

Our contemporary focus on sexualized violence could act as a catalyst and prompt us to generate a fuller picture of women’s experieces of war.  A longer-term view that looks back as well as forwards will build on, and complement, our immediate-term view. Two recent volumes further stitch together the gaps that have yawned in women’s stories and experiences during World War II. If this is a Woman (2015) by Sarah Helm documents the events in Ravensbruck concentration camp in which over 46,000 women were held.  Sonja M. Hedgepath and Rochelle G. Saidel’s (2010) have published a book on Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, which pieces together Jewish women’s experiences. Collectively, these works illuminate the experiences of women from multiple social, ethnic and political identities in one context. A long-term view offers us critical context to today's engagement on the issue.  It allows us to contest ill-informed hyperbole.  Most importantly, it substantiates the need for questions to be asked about women's lives today in ways that they were not before. A truer picture emerges in ways that it has not done in the hundred years since the International Congress declared that “women should share all civil and political rights and responsibilities on the same terms as men.”.

“Violence is not inevitable. It is a choice.” The manifesto developed for this 2015 International Congress of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom(WILPF), which convenes in the Hague April 22-24th, sets out once again very clearly what our priority must be. While approaches to sexualized violence in war requires constructive onward critique and appropriate ways of researching, teaching and learning about it, we cannot negate what contemporary response has gained in terms of understanding and addressing the issue in praxis. There is need to foster nuanced, deepened and engaged responses that make connections between prevention (of war and of violence against women), response and redress.  

Read read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War in the run up to WILPF's centenray congress and  international civil society conference in the Hague, 22-24 and 27-29 April 2015.

 

 

 

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The quest for gender-just peace: from impunity to accountability We must not make war safe for women Women's power to stop war: Hubris or hope? This is what a feminist foreign policy looks like Stopping sexual violence in conflict: gender politics in foreign policy The meaning of peace in the 21st century Sexual violence, access to justice, and human rights Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Challenging militarized masculinities Feminist peacebuilding - a courageous intelligence The holistic approach to peacebuilding: From hubris to practicalities Topics:  Civil society Conflict Equality
Categories: les flux rss

Tory plans to deny patients the right to refuse treatment are an assault on human rights

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 10:00

The Conservative manifesto has announced that people on benefits who refuse treatment may have their benefits cut - but will professional ethics stop such a repellent policy?

The Conservative Party’s 2015 election manifesto contains an extraordinarily retrograde assault on the rights of people with mental and physical health problems in receipt of benefits. On page 28 of the manifesto, under the euphemistic heading; "We will help you back into work if you have a long-term yet treatable condition”, they propose that; "People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.”

 

In other words, people with mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems, or who are overweight will no longer be able freely to choose to consent, or withhold their consent, to treatment. To decline a recommended treatment will result in benefits sanctions, and consequent misery and poverty.

This seems cruelly ironic, given that poverty and social inequality are significant contributory factors to many long term health and mental health difficulties in the first place.

This policy has been trialled before. Leading mental health professionals thought that they had successfully lobbied the Minister for Care Services, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, to reject the idea. Sadly it seems that Ian Duncan Smith has resurrected the spectre of the workhouses. Obey the rules, take the treatment and work for your dole, or suffer the consequences.

This policy is repellent. The suggestion that people should suffer financially if they choose to decline a healthcare intervention deemed to be in their best interests undermines a fundamental principle of medical and psychological healthcare, namely that of informed consent. A person who is capable of giving their consent has the right to refuse to receive care or services. It is wholly inappropriate to threaten the withdrawal of benefits in order to influence that decision. This is particularly true in mental health care, where therapy based on coercion simply will not work.

Leading professionals and academics have already united to oppose this proposal, in an open letter to the Conservative Party. We might perhaps hope that no properly regulated medical professional would touch such a policy with a bargepole. Perhaps that’s right. But exactly who will be relied on to deliver the policy – who will recommend, and who will deliver, ‘treatment’ - and will they be regulated? 

 An illness like any other

If we treat mental health problems, alcohol or substance use, and obesity as medical issues – as some do – then the issue is straightforward. Questions of coercion and professional conduct more generally clearly fall under the remit of medical ethics.

But I and many of my fellow psychologists and sociologists see such problems in a social, rather than bio-medical context.

 Regulation and non-regulation

Crucially, clinical psychologists are statutorily regulated – so we are bound by our professional codes of ethics.  Our professional code understands these subtle distinctions between the biomedical and social models - and still stresses the importance of consent. 

The HCPC (which regulates psychologists) insists that; “A person who is capable of giving their consent has the right to refuse to receive care or services. You must respect this right”.

 IAPT and other ‘cost-effective’ interventions

IAPT (the services established under The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme) is a good example of the social approach. They provide valuable services – as do other community services for people with drug and alcohol use problems, people who need to lose weight, etc.

Whilst some have criticised what they see as ‘cut-price’ services, I think on balance it is better to work with policy-makers to offer effective, and cost-effective, services to as many people as possible (surely a principle of public health and socialised healthcare).

But the possible challenges to the ethics of services delivery, including issues around coercion, may be sharper when our colleagues delivering the services are less well trained, and less regulated. Is it right that we should be ‘offering’ people interventions that are likely to bring people into benefits sanctions should they decline them, when the people delivering those interventions are not, in all cases, subject to statutory regulation?

 Agents of the State

There can be benefits to moving services from the remit of expensive NHS professionals behind a referral wall and consequent waiting list, to a range of community settings, provided by NHS employees but also third-sector bodies, even commercial organisations contracted to the NHS, and also to other statutory agencies such as JobCentre+ and Probation, training their workforce in these kinds of interventions.

But along with the benefits there are also potential conflicts of interest. What happens where, for example, an employee of the Department for Work and Pensions (and therefore responsible for benefits sanctions) is also exploring, therapeutically, a person’s motivation for work?

These are complex issues. I believe in the wider and more cost-effective provision of services, and I believe in a psychosocial model. But I repudiate the Conservatives’ sanctions regime.

As well as, of course, arguing that any commissioning and service provision model should respect social justice, I also believe that we would all be better protected if all providers were subject to statutory regulation, such that there could be a sanction on any professional who did not respect the individual’s “right to refuse to receive care or services”. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Take our 'treatment' or we'll stop your benefits, Tories threaten mentally ill
Categories: les flux rss

Tory plans to deny patients the right to refuse treatment are an assault on human rights

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 10:00

The Conservative manifesto has announced that people on benefits who refuse treatment may have their benefits cut - but will professional ethics stop such a repellent policy?

The Conservative Party’s 2015 election manifesto contains an extraordinarily retrograde assault on the rights of people with mental and physical health problems in receipt of benefits. On page 28 of the manifesto, under the euphemistic heading; "We will help you back into work if you have a long-term yet treatable condition”, they propose that; "People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.”

 

In other words, people with mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems, or who are overweight will no longer be able freely to choose to consent, or withhold their consent, to treatment. To decline a recommended treatment will result in benefits sanctions, and consequent misery and poverty.

This seems cruelly ironic, given that poverty and social inequality are significant contributory factors to many long term health and mental health difficulties in the first place.

This policy has been trialled before. Leading mental health professionals thought that they had successfully lobbied the Minister for Care Services, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, to reject the idea. Sadly it seems that Ian Duncan Smith has resurrected the spectre of the workhouses. Obey the rules, take the treatment and work for your dole, or suffer the consequences.

This policy is repellent. The suggestion that people should suffer financially if they choose to decline a healthcare intervention deemed to be in their best interests undermines a fundamental principle of medical and psychological healthcare, namely that of informed consent. A person who is capable of giving their consent has the right to refuse to receive care or services. It is wholly inappropriate to threaten the withdrawal of benefits in order to influence that decision. This is particularly true in mental health care, where therapy based on coercion simply will not work.

Leading professionals and academics have already united to oppose this proposal, in an open letter to the Conservative Party. We might perhaps hope that no properly regulated medical professional would touch such a policy with a bargepole. Perhaps that’s right. But exactly who will be relied on to deliver the policy – who will recommend, and who will deliver, ‘treatment’ - and will they be regulated? 

 An illness like any other

If we treat mental health problems, alcohol or substance use, and obesity as medical issues – as some do – then the issue is straightforward. Questions of coercion and professional conduct more generally clearly fall under the remit of medical ethics.

But I and many of my fellow psychologists and sociologists see such problems in a social, rather than bio-medical context.

 Regulation and non-regulation

Crucially, clinical psychologists are statutorily regulated – so we are bound by our professional codes of ethics.  Our professional code understands these subtle distinctions between the biomedical and social models - and still stresses the importance of consent. 

The HCPC (which regulates psychologists) insists that; “A person who is capable of giving their consent has the right to refuse to receive care or services. You must respect this right”.

 IAPT and other ‘cost-effective’ interventions

IAPT (the services established under The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme) is a good example of the social approach. They provide valuable services – as do other community services for people with drug and alcohol use problems, people who need to lose weight, etc.

Whilst some have criticised what they see as ‘cut-price’ services, I think on balance it is better to work with policy-makers to offer effective, and cost-effective, services to as many people as possible (surely a principle of public health and socialised healthcare).

But the possible challenges to the ethics of services delivery, including issues around coercion, may be sharper when our colleagues delivering the services are less well trained, and less regulated. Is it right that we should be ‘offering’ people interventions that are likely to bring people into benefits sanctions should they decline them, when the people delivering those interventions are not, in all cases, subject to statutory regulation?

 Agents of the State

There can be benefits to moving services from the remit of expensive NHS professionals behind a referral wall and consequent waiting list, to a range of community settings, provided by NHS employees but also third-sector bodies, even commercial organisations contracted to the NHS, and also to other statutory agencies such as JobCentre+ and Probation, training their workforce in these kinds of interventions.

But along with the benefits there are also potential conflicts of interest. What happens where, for example, an employee of the Department for Work and Pensions (and therefore responsible for benefits sanctions) is also exploring, therapeutically, a person’s motivation for work?

These are complex issues. I believe in the wider and more cost-effective provision of services, and I believe in a psychosocial model. But I repudiate the Conservatives’ sanctions regime.

As well as, of course, arguing that any commissioning and service provision model should respect social justice, I also believe that we would all be better protected if all providers were subject to statutory regulation, such that there could be a sanction on any professional who did not respect the individual’s “right to refuse to receive care or services”. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Take our 'treatment' or we'll stop your benefits, Tories threaten mentally ill
Categories: les flux rss

Hope as a survival strategy for Defensoras in Honduras

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 7:33

We're living in an undeclared war, staring into the eyes of death daily. People who don’t know the kind of insecurity women human rights defenders confront every day can’t imagine how hope helps us to survive.

Oh, how difficult it is
to love you as I do!

It’s your love that makes the air,
my heart
and my headache.

García Lorca

In Honduras, leaving your house without knowing if you will return is a daily reality.  Even ordinary daily routines - like taking kids to school or going to the market - force us to stare into the eyes of death. Even though this is a new “normal”, our hearts still can’t fathom the levels of violence that Honduras is reaching.

Since the 2009 coup d’état, Honduras has earned the painful status of being the country with the highest homicide rate in the world. We’re living an undeclared war. Our lives are overflowing with weapons, endless acts of repression and violent crime, and fear of violence. Army troops, military police and their heavy weapons fill the streets and occupy shopping centers, banks, parks.

They overwhelm our lives.

Everyday more than a million firearms circulate among us within reach, but only 282,000 of them legally registered. Amazingly, the Bearing Weapons Act allows every citizen to possess up to five commercial firearms. Women are not safe anywhere, not even at home. Those that are speaking out and fighting against injustice live in fear of being killed, slandered or harmed in many ways. But most of all, they fear that violent acts aimed at silencing them will be directed at their families.

It is those who stand up against violence, injustice and abuses of power who face sanctions and repression, while perpetrators walk free in a context in which impunity rates are 94%. Described as a fragile state by some, and a failed state by others, Honduras’ fledging legal and political institutions have been rapidly dismantled and captured by elite interests since 2009. 

Gladys Lanza. Photo: JASS (all rights reserved)This is vividly illustrated by the recent high profile case of Gladys Lanza, a life-long women’s human rights activist for over 30 years. She was recently convicted of defamation for her defense of a woman who had been sexually harassed by her boss. The accused, Juan Carlos Reyes, is well-connected to the ruling party through his wife, who’s a member of Congress.  The courts sentenced Gladys to 1 year and 6 months in prison - using the case to both punish a woman human rights defender and undermine one of the most vocal women’s organizations defending women’s rights in the country. This case illustrates a common saying in Honduras, “justice has never seen the interior of a Honduran courtroom.”

In a country armed to the teeth but where crimes go unpunished, statistics show an even grimmer scenario for women. From 2005 to 2013, the number of women killed violently rose by 263.4%. From January to October 15, 2014, the violent death of 441 women had been registered (according to IUDPAS, University Institute for Democracy, Peace, and Security). Over the past six years, the average rate of impunity in all crimes is 93.5%. Rape is the number one cause of denouncement of crimes against persons, and the rate of reported rapes in the population increased from 4.6% in 2008 to 8.6% in 2010.  Rape crimes have many familiar characteristics. “He told me to get in the car. I tried to keep walking but the car kept coming after me. They threatened me: Either you get in the car or I shoot you.” The psychological impact of an epidemic of rapes takes its toll not just on women, but on all of society. The sentiments of one victim are echoed by many.  “I felt dirty after the rape, I felt that I lost a part of me, I did not want to live after that”.

Although most crimes go unresolved and unpunished, punishment for speaking out against injustice is almost certain. When the social fabric is unraveling and the government has so little respect for life, anyone can be punished for exposing the truth or challenging corruption. Since June, 2009, thirty two Honduran journalists—mostly in broadcast media—have been killed. Similarly, between 2002 and 2012, more than 684 cases of criminalization of women human rights defenders were recorded.

Women leading a protest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2013. Photo: JASSIn this alarmingly violent and lawless environment the task of defending women’s human rights and promoting justice requires many innovative strategies and tactics. Above all, it demands that we build and sustain strong movements. Movements make our voices stronger and importantly, keep us safer and together - we keep hope alive in all of us. It is vital in the midst of such adverse conditions for women human rights defenders to be everywhere - bearing witness to and documenting abuses, and proposing and demanding solutions.  

People who don’t know the kind of insecurity we confront every day can’t imagine how hope or a sense of a better future helps us to survive. This violent context of undeclared war has generated some of the most inspiring acts of courage and innovative citizen organizing imaginable. Guided by our great faith in women’s know-how and their capacity for resistance, we have built women’s collectives that are connected to broad networks and alliances - indigenous, rural, black, trans, young women together with trade unionists, journalists, and feminists. We are bound together by the complex realities, and by our hope and vision for the future.

Our collectives are so embedded in communities that they cannot be killed, sold, bought, nor drowned out by the brutal repression of our government or the violence of organized crime. They act to protect and defend the lives and the work of those whose daily existence is about building a better reality with their own hands.   

I feel privileged that, through our organization JASS (Just Associates), we are able to incubate, protect, and strengthen these collectives, working from within them to make the voices of all women defenders heard. As human rights defenders, we are putting their hearts and lives on the line to ensure that these powerful stories of resistance and change are shared more widely through radio and through social media.

The women of Honduras want others to know that we are building a more peaceful and just world every day, and they can join us.

Read more articles by participants and speakers attending the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defenders, 24-26 April. Jennifer Allsopp and Marion Bowman will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Claiming rights, facing fire: young feminist activists Being Malala Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line CSW: the vital need to defend women human rights defenders The "best time to be born female": the worst to be a feminist advocate Women defenders of human rights: the good, the great and the gutsy Women's rights have no country The call of Sudanese women human rights defenders When scarred female bodies demarcate the Indian subcontinent's polity Visible players: the power and the risks for young feminists Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders Young feminists: resisting the tide of fundamentalisms The Handmaid's Tale of El Salvador Country or region:  Honduras
Categories: les flux rss

Hope as a survival strategy for Defensoras in Honduras

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 7:33

We're living in an undeclared war, staring into the eyes of death daily. People who don’t know the kind of insecurity women human rights defenders confront every day can’t imagine how hope helps us to survive.

Oh, how difficult it is
to love you as I do!

It’s your love that makes the air,
my heart
and my headache.

García Lorca

In Honduras, leaving your house without knowing if you will return is a daily reality.  Even ordinary daily routines - like taking kids to school or going to the market - force us to stare into the eyes of death. Even though this is a new “normal”, our hearts still can’t fathom the levels of violence that Honduras is reaching.

Since the 2009 coup d’état, Honduras has earned the painful status of being the country with the highest homicide rate in the world. We’re living an undeclared war. Our lives are overflowing with weapons, endless acts of repression and violent crime, and fear of violence. Army troops, military police and their heavy weapons fill the streets and occupy shopping centers, banks, parks.

They overwhelm our lives.

Everyday more than a million firearms circulate among us within reach, but only 282,000 of them legally registered. Amazingly, the Bearing Weapons Act allows every citizen to possess up to five commercial firearms. Women are not safe anywhere, not even at home. Those that are speaking out and fighting against injustice live in fear of being killed, slandered or harmed in many ways. But most of all, they fear that violent acts aimed at silencing them will be directed at their families.

It is those who stand up against violence, injustice and abuses of power who face sanctions and repression, while perpetrators walk free in a context in which impunity rates are 94%. Described as a fragile state by some, and a failed state by others, Honduras’ fledging legal and political institutions have been rapidly dismantled and captured by elite interests since 2009. 

Gladys Lanza. Photo: JASS (all rights reserved)This is vividly illustrated by the recent high profile case of Gladys Lanza, a life-long women’s human rights activist for over 30 years. She was recently convicted of defamation for her defense of a woman who had been sexually harassed by her boss. The accused, Juan Carlos Reyes, is well-connected to the ruling party through his wife, who’s a member of Congress.  The courts sentenced Gladys to 1 year and 6 months in prison - using the case to both punish a woman human rights defender and undermine one of the most vocal women’s organizations defending women’s rights in the country. This case illustrates a common saying in Honduras, “justice has never seen the interior of a Honduran courtroom.”

In a country armed to the teeth but where crimes go unpunished, statistics show an even grimmer scenario for women. From 2005 to 2013, the number of women killed violently rose by 263.4%. From January to October 15, 2014, the violent death of 441 women had been registered (according to IUDPAS, University Institute for Democracy, Peace, and Security). Over the past six years, the average rate of impunity in all crimes is 93.5%. Rape is the number one cause of denouncement of crimes against persons, and the rate of reported rapes in the population increased from 4.6% in 2008 to 8.6% in 2010.  Rape crimes have many familiar characteristics. “He told me to get in the car. I tried to keep walking but the car kept coming after me. They threatened me: Either you get in the car or I shoot you.” The psychological impact of an epidemic of rapes takes its toll not just on women, but on all of society. The sentiments of one victim are echoed by many.  “I felt dirty after the rape, I felt that I lost a part of me, I did not want to live after that”.

Although most crimes go unresolved and unpunished, punishment for speaking out against injustice is almost certain. When the social fabric is unraveling and the government has so little respect for life, anyone can be punished for exposing the truth or challenging corruption. Since June, 2009, thirty two Honduran journalists—mostly in broadcast media—have been killed. Similarly, between 2002 and 2012, more than 684 cases of criminalization of women human rights defenders were recorded.

Women leading a protest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2013. Photo: JASSIn this alarmingly violent and lawless environment the task of defending women’s human rights and promoting justice requires many innovative strategies and tactics. Above all, it demands that we build and sustain strong movements. Movements make our voices stronger and importantly, keep us safer and together - we keep hope alive in all of us. It is vital in the midst of such adverse conditions for women human rights defenders to be everywhere - bearing witness to and documenting abuses, and proposing and demanding solutions.  

People who don’t know the kind of insecurity we confront every day can’t imagine how hope or a sense of a better future helps us to survive. This violent context of undeclared war has generated some of the most inspiring acts of courage and innovative citizen organizing imaginable. Guided by our great faith in women’s know-how and their capacity for resistance, we have built women’s collectives that are connected to broad networks and alliances - indigenous, rural, black, trans, young women together with trade unionists, journalists, and feminists. We are bound together by the complex realities, and by our hope and vision for the future.

Our collectives are so embedded in communities that they cannot be killed, sold, bought, nor drowned out by the brutal repression of our government or the violence of organized crime. They act to protect and defend the lives and the work of those whose daily existence is about building a better reality with their own hands.   

I feel privileged that, through our organization JASS (Just Associates), we are able to incubate, protect, and strengthen these collectives, working from within them to make the voices of all women defenders heard. As human rights defenders, we are putting their hearts and lives on the line to ensure that these powerful stories of resistance and change are shared more widely through radio and through social media.

The women of Honduras want others to know that we are building a more peaceful and just world every day, and they can join us.

Read more articles by participants and speakers attending the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defenders, 24-26 April. Jennifer Allsopp and Marion Bowman will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Claiming rights, facing fire: young feminist activists Being Malala Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line CSW: the vital need to defend women human rights defenders The "best time to be born female": the worst to be a feminist advocate Women defenders of human rights: the good, the great and the gutsy Women's rights have no country The call of Sudanese women human rights defenders When scarred female bodies demarcate the Indian subcontinent's polity Visible players: the power and the risks for young feminists Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders Young feminists: resisting the tide of fundamentalisms The Handmaid's Tale of El Salvador Country or region:  Honduras
Categories: les flux rss

Hidden women human rights defenders in the UK

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 7:27

Without recognising the work of women who seek to protect human rights domestically, the UK government risks seeing the activist’s role as a stage of international development rather than as a core function of democracy. 

Focus E15 march, London 2014. Photo: Philip RobinsTwenty years after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s globally resonant speech which declared that ‘women’s rights are human rights’, the term Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) has become a zeitgeist of the international development and protection framework. It’s a welcome response to the acute violence faced by women activists around the world. The term refers to – and is commonly adopted by – both those who fight to secure women’s human rights, and women working to secure the human rights of all. As Betty Makoni, Zimbabwean activist and founder of Girl Child Network, once told me, as WHRDs ‘we hold the front-line.'

WHRD is a label that’s truly international in nature. It encompasses women in Burma and the DRC seeking justice in the face of state violence; activists in the biggest arms producing nations campaigning against killer robots; and those sheltering their communities from the devastating effects of environmental degradation. The term also carries a normative punch, the subject of a number of regional and international instruments and missions including the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; 2013 UN General Assembly Resolution on the Protection of WRHD; 2004 EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders; and work of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

This political resonance, coupled with growing recognition of the commonality of the objectives and challenges experienced by women activists across diverse contexts, provides the backdrop to this year’s Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defendersThe Nobel Women’s Initiative is headed by eight female Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Between April 24 and April 26 they will join over 100 women from around the world in the Netherlands to take stock of the progress made to date, explore ways of building global support and scope out the potential for future change. At openDemocracy 50.50 we are publishing articles by participants framing this year's theme, and we will be reporting live from the gathering.

As I prepared for the conference I was curious to see whether the message of solidarity towards WHRDs had reached grassroots activists in my home country, the UK. For while the term is readily employed to serve the government’s development agenda abroad, with ring-fenced funds in the international development budget and consistent attention from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK is often accused of operating a politics of denial or ‘double standards’ when it comes to domestic women’s human rights.

I spoke to three women activists who are part of the UK’s increasingly animated civil society landscape about their experiences.

Human rights in the UK: ‘the dustbin of history’?

27 year old Danielle is an environmental activist. Does she identify as a WHRD? ‘I’ve not heard the term before’, she comments, ‘but it makes sense. I see human rights and climate change as being inextricably linked. It’s primarily a huge social justice issue linked to people’s right to survive and our ability to maintain basic human rights. The more we talk about this existential challenge in terms of human rights rather than the environment the stronger it is’. Danielle cites Naomi Klein’s analysis on capitalism versus climate as fundamental to her understanding of the environment, human rights and social justice. She believes that the systemic changes needed to tackle the climate crisis provide ‘a real opportunity to re-establish structures in a more socially equitable way’.

Sarah, a 27 year old London based anti-austerity activist with campaign groups Sisters Uncut and Focus E15 has also never heard the term WHRD. Does it resonate? ‘On some level it does’, she reflects. ‘Human rights is not something I refer to, but a lot of what I do is to defend something along the lines of human rights and social justice. It’s about addressing the lack of social justice for women, people of colour and working class people at the brunt of marginalisation.’ We discuss how austerity in the UK has eroded human rights in concrete terms, devastating the lives of single mothers, survivors of sexual violence and disabled individuals by closing key support services which provided access to food and housing. In the space of a year almost 1 million adults and children have been forced to rely on food banks.

Much of Sarah’s current work centres on the housing crisis. ‘We have a situation of forced displacement’, she explains, ‘working class and ethnic minority people are being pushed out of their communities based on financial speculation.’ I ask whether human rights come into it. ‘Yes’, she reflects, ‘despite problems in the media and the way human rights are presented in Europe there’s a consensus that people should have access to a general level of being.’ But her concern is that human rights alone are not enough: ‘signing up to more legislation is not going to solve a lot of the problems for me. Human rights can help but not take it away. Women’s suffering will stay until certain people stop having massive interests in maintaining inequality and the capitalist system’.

Latefa, an Algerian born activist, is the only one of the three women I interview who has previously heard the term WHRD. It resonates with her work promoting women’s human rights in the UK asylum context. ‘For me’, says Latefa, ‘being a WHRD is a useful identity, it means to fight or give voice to other women who have no opportunity to talk or fight because they’re still under oppression’. The oppression, she explains, can be familial, societal or because of one’s insecure immigration status.

Before she came to the UK, Latefa was a woman’s human rights advocate in Algeria, working with trade unions against sexual harassment and for the promotion of labour rights. ‘I was shocked when I came to the UK and faced racism’, she explains. ‘I remain shocked by what I see here – when I see pregnant asylum seeking women detained or deported. What I see in the UK is relativist human rights, human rights are for some people but not for everyone’. The UK government has been criticised in recent years for slashing legal aid to vulnerable migrants and domestic violence survivors and remains the only country in Europe without a time limit on detaining migrants – including the pregnant, the elderly and the disabled.

Solidarity protest for women refugees

In her experience it’s hard, says Latefa, for some British citizens to empathise with the human rights abuses happening on their doorstep. She tells the story of a Pakistani lady deported with her child after many years living in Wales: ‘a white middle class woman who knew her asked me, “but you’re not asking for all women who have suffered domestic violence to come here?” Her message was, “domestic violence is a norm in Pakistan so she can live with that; but she can’t live with that in the UK – under my nose.” She wanted to believe herself that she was in the country of human rights. But there are issues that transcend borders.’

At risk defending human rights

Much international work which seeks to protect WHRDs focuses on documenting the challenges, risks and harms which come with confronting such issues. My next question to the activists is, what challenges do they face in the UK?

For Sarah, the main risks in London stem from the police. ‘My experience has been the opposite to what you’re brought up to believe’, she tells me, ‘as a kid you’re told if you’re lost go and talk to a police woman, when you’re an activist it becomes the opposite. There’s a lot of concern about police infiltration and intelligence gathering, raising issues of safety and also welfare’. The second risk comes from physical confrontation with the police. ‘A few years ago I witnessed horrendous stuff happening in the context of the education riots, massive heavy handedness.’ As a woman of colour, Sarah is also concerned about institutional racism.

Danielle has also faced intimidating encounters with the police, including being arrested and prosecuted for actions which involved shutting down core parts of infrastructure. ‘Coal and gas power stations are high stress and high risk’, she explains. ‘It’s quite an intense and terrifying process to go through so the ability to support others is really important’. The best kind of groups she’s been involved with, she tells me, are the groups that respect each other and put effort into building and maintaining relationships. ‘The environmental direct action movement has previously been characterised as very white and very male’, she continues, ‘there’s a certain culture around it. Being a woman in that space is important to distil and dilute that, to bring in a less macho component. The actions I’ve done in all women groups have had a distinctly different tone; we’ve been able to deal with difficult situations with less bravado and more honestly. I’m motivated by the fact more women need to be out there doing bold things.’

For Latefa, like Danielle, often challenges can lie in the makeup of the group: ‘sometime there’s division, she laments, ‘the challenge is to put gender above your dress, your religion, your culture, even your nationality, but it’s hard. They look at you as a refugee, or the brown one, or the Muslim one. This, in the UK, is something I challenge.’

Looking outwards

If a significant contrast exists between the UK government’s discourse on human rights abroad and at home, I wonder how the activists relate to the efforts of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to unite women activists around a common agenda to strengthen women’s participation and access to their human rights.

Sarah agrees that this is important: women, regardless of their backgrounds, need to be at the forefront of the rights conversation at all levels: local, national, and international.  ‘There are so few positive women led spaces in the world that have any kind of impact politically’, she continues, ‘so if this is the beginning of that then it’s amazingly positive. The next question is, what’s the action?’

Danielle sympathises. In recent years she’s felt the power of international solidarity. ‘What I do is in solidarity with the rest of people in the world who will feel the effects of climate change’, she explains, ‘but I feel a responsibility stemming from the birthplace of the industrial revolution to do the bulk of the action here’. She recounts how on Global Divestment Day they worked alongside Bangladeshi and Colombian communities directly influenced by fossil fuel extraction funded by British companies and investors. ‘It was brilliant’, she reminisces. ‘We also had a solidarity letter coming from Uganda saying keep up the fight and that was so much more powerful than we realised. We just suddenly received this email from a group of activists saying “Divest London we stand with you” and I just cried.’

Divest London. Photo: Peter Marshall

In conversation with Danielle, Latefa and Sarah I became aware of the big risk which the UK government runs of exoticising WHRD, as seeing their work as a stage of international development rather than a core function of society and democracy. Without committing to human rights – and recognising rather than stalling the work of those who seek to protect them at home – the UK risks spreading a dichotomous and hypocritical narrative of international development and domestic denial.

The challenges faced by women activists in the UK are clearly different from many WHRDs around the world, but there are also important overlaps. And as human rights become increasingly stigmatised in Britain – with headlines from popular tabloids such as ‘End of Human Rights Farce’ and ‘We’ll Put the Rights Act in the Dustbin of History’ – we must be careful that, in our pragmatism, we don’t become isolated and stop communicating with our international allies. Transnational solidarity is fundamental because patriarchy affects us all and can only be reformed with a global movement. This is not a new message, but one that comes to us from one of Britain’s most celebrated female activists, Sylvia Pankhurst. Although remembered for her role in the domestic women’s suffrage movement, Pankhurst was also a friend of Ethiopia and spoke out loudly and often in solidarity with its national independence movement. Though now a national heroine, in her writings, she once noted, ‘I would like to be remembered as a citizen of the world’.

Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing this year's Nobel Women's Initiative conference theme: 'Defending the Defenders'.   Jennifer Allsopp will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line Focus E15: the young mothers' struggle for universal housing CSW: the vital need to defend women human rights defenders Kenya: the women who stand to be counted The missing link in women's human rights Refugee women in the UK: Pushing a stone into the sea Due diligence for women's human rights: transgressing conventional lines The call of Sudanese women human rights defenders Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders Seeking safety in Algeria: Syrian refugee women’s resilience Zimbabwe: speaking from where I feel safe Country or region:  UK Topics:  Civil society Equality
Categories: les flux rss

Hidden women human rights defenders in the UK

Open Democracy News Analysis - 18. April 2015 - 7:27

Without recognising the work of women who seek to protect human rights domestically, the UK government risks seeing the activist’s role as a stage of international development rather than as a core function of democracy. 

Focus E15 march, London 2014. Photo: Philip RobinsTwenty years after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s globally resonant speech which declared that ‘women’s rights are human rights’, the term Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) has become a zeitgeist of the international development and protection framework. It’s a welcome response to the acute violence faced by women activists around the world. The term refers to – and is commonly adopted by – both those who fight to secure women’s human rights, and women working to secure the human rights of all. As Betty Makoni, Zimbabwean activist and founder of Girl Child Network, once told me, as WHRDs ‘we hold the front-line.'

WHRD is a label that’s truly international in nature. It encompasses women in Burma and the DRC seeking justice in the face of state violence; activists in the biggest arms producing nations campaigning against killer robots; and those sheltering their communities from the devastating effects of environmental degradation. The term also carries a normative punch, the subject of a number of regional and international instruments and missions including the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; 2013 UN General Assembly Resolution on the Protection of WRHD; 2004 EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders; and work of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

This political resonance, coupled with growing recognition of the commonality of the objectives and challenges experienced by women activists across diverse contexts, provides the backdrop to this year’s Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defendersThe Nobel Women’s Initiative is headed by eight female Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Between April 24 and April 26 they will join over 100 women from around the world in the Netherlands to take stock of the progress made to date, explore ways of building global support and scope out the potential for future change. At openDemocracy 50.50 we are publishing articles by participants framing this year's theme, and we will be reporting live from the gathering.

As I prepared for the conference I was curious to see whether the message of solidarity towards WHRDs had reached grassroots activists in my home country, the UK. For while the term is readily employed to serve the government’s development agenda abroad, with ring-fenced funds in the international development budget and consistent attention from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK is often accused of operating a politics of denial or ‘double standards’ when it comes to domestic women’s human rights.

I spoke to three women activists who are part of the UK’s increasingly animated civil society landscape about their experiences.

Human rights in the UK: ‘the dustbin of history’?

27 year old Danielle is an environmental activist. Does she identify as a WHRD? ‘I’ve not heard the term before’, she comments, ‘but it makes sense. I see human rights and climate change as being inextricably linked. It’s primarily a huge social justice issue linked to people’s right to survive and our ability to maintain basic human rights. The more we talk about this existential challenge in terms of human rights rather than the environment the stronger it is’. Danielle cites Naomi Klein’s analysis on capitalism versus climate as fundamental to her understanding of the environment, human rights and social justice. She believes that the systemic changes needed to tackle the climate crisis provide ‘a real opportunity to re-establish structures in a more socially equitable way’.

Sarah, a 27 year old London based anti-austerity activist with campaign groups Sisters Uncut and Focus E15 has also never heard the term WHRD. Does it resonate? ‘On some level it does’, she reflects. ‘Human rights is not something I refer to, but a lot of what I do is to defend something along the lines of human rights and social justice. It’s about addressing the lack of social justice for women, people of colour and working class people at the brunt of marginalisation.’ We discuss how austerity in the UK has eroded human rights in concrete terms, devastating the lives of single mothers, survivors of sexual violence and disabled individuals by closing key support services which provided access to food and housing. In the space of a year almost 1 million adults and children have been forced to rely on food banks.

Much of Sarah’s current work centres on the housing crisis. ‘We have a situation of forced displacement’, she explains, ‘working class and ethnic minority people are being pushed out of their communities based on financial speculation.’ I ask whether human rights come into it. ‘Yes’, she reflects, ‘despite problems in the media and the way human rights are presented in Europe there’s a consensus that people should have access to a general level of being.’ But her concern is that human rights alone are not enough: ‘signing up to more legislation is not going to solve a lot of the problems for me. Human rights can help but not take it away. Women’s suffering will stay until certain people stop having massive interests in maintaining inequality and the capitalist system’.

Latefa, an Algerian born activist, is the only one of the three women I interview who has previously heard the term WHRD. It resonates with her work promoting women’s human rights in the UK asylum context. ‘For me’, says Latefa, ‘being a WHRD is a useful identity, it means to fight or give voice to other women who have no opportunity to talk or fight because they’re still under oppression’. The oppression, she explains, can be familial, societal or because of one’s insecure immigration status.

Before she came to the UK, Latefa was a woman’s human rights advocate in Algeria, working with trade unions against sexual harassment and for the promotion of labour rights. ‘I was shocked when I came to the UK and faced racism’, she explains. ‘I remain shocked by what I see here – when I see pregnant asylum seeking women detained or deported. What I see in the UK is relativist human rights, human rights are for some people but not for everyone’. The UK government has been criticised in recent years for slashing legal aid to vulnerable migrants and domestic violence survivors and remains the only country in Europe without a time limit on detaining migrants – including the pregnant, the elderly and the disabled.

Solidarity protest for women refugees

In her experience it’s hard, says Latefa, for some British citizens to empathise with the human rights abuses happening on their doorstep. She tells the story of a Pakistani lady deported with her child after many years living in Wales: ‘a white middle class woman who knew her asked me, “but you’re not asking for all women who have suffered domestic violence to come here?” Her message was, “domestic violence is a norm in Pakistan so she can live with that; but she can’t live with that in the UK – under my nose.” She wanted to believe herself that she was in the country of human rights. But there are issues that transcend borders.’

At risk defending human rights

Much international work which seeks to protect WHRDs focuses on documenting the challenges, risks and harms which come with confronting such issues. My next question to the activists is, what challenges do they face in the UK?

For Sarah, the main risks in London stem from the police. ‘My experience has been the opposite to what you’re brought up to believe’, she tells me, ‘as a kid you’re told if you’re lost go and talk to a police woman, when you’re an activist it becomes the opposite. There’s a lot of concern about police infiltration and intelligence gathering, raising issues of safety and also welfare’. The second risk comes from physical confrontation with the police. ‘A few years ago I witnessed horrendous stuff happening in the context of the education riots, massive heavy handedness.’ As a woman of colour, Sarah is also concerned about institutional racism.

Danielle has also faced intimidating encounters with the police, including being arrested and prosecuted for actions which involved shutting down core parts of infrastructure. ‘Coal and gas power stations are high stress and high risk’, she explains. ‘It’s quite an intense and terrifying process to go through so the ability to support others is really important’. The best kind of groups she’s been involved with, she tells me, are the groups that respect each other and put effort into building and maintaining relationships. ‘The environmental direct action movement has previously been characterised as very white and very male’, she continues, ‘there’s a certain culture around it. Being a woman in that space is important to distil and dilute that, to bring in a less macho component. The actions I’ve done in all women groups have had a distinctly different tone; we’ve been able to deal with difficult situations with less bravado and more honestly. I’m motivated by the fact more women need to be out there doing bold things.’

For Latefa, like Danielle, often challenges can lie in the makeup of the group: ‘sometime there’s division, she laments, ‘the challenge is to put gender above your dress, your religion, your culture, even your nationality, but it’s hard. They look at you as a refugee, or the brown one, or the Muslim one. This, in the UK, is something I challenge.’

Looking outwards

If a significant contrast exists between the UK government’s discourse on human rights abroad and at home, I wonder how the activists relate to the efforts of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to unite women activists around a common agenda to strengthen women’s participation and access to their human rights.

Sarah agrees that this is important: women, regardless of their backgrounds, need to be at the forefront of the rights conversation at all levels: local, national, and international.  ‘There are so few positive women led spaces in the world that have any kind of impact politically’, she continues, ‘so if this is the beginning of that then it’s amazingly positive. The next question is, what’s the action?’

Danielle sympathises. In recent years she’s felt the power of international solidarity. ‘What I do is in solidarity with the rest of people in the world who will feel the effects of climate change’, she explains, ‘but I feel a responsibility stemming from the birthplace of the industrial revolution to do the bulk of the action here’. She recounts how on Global Divestment Day they worked alongside Bangladeshi and Colombian communities directly influenced by fossil fuel extraction funded by British companies and investors. ‘It was brilliant’, she reminisces. ‘We also had a solidarity letter coming from Uganda saying keep up the fight and that was so much more powerful than we realised. We just suddenly received this email from a group of activists saying “Divest London we stand with you” and I just cried.’

Divest London. Photo: Peter Marshall

In conversation with Danielle, Latefa and Sarah I became aware of the big risk which the UK government runs of exoticising WHRD, as seeing their work as a stage of international development rather than a core function of society and democracy. Without committing to human rights – and recognising rather than stalling the work of those who seek to protect them at home – the UK risks spreading a dichotomous and hypocritical narrative of international development and domestic denial.

The challenges faced by women activists in the UK are clearly different from many WHRDs around the world, but there are also important overlaps. And as human rights become increasingly stigmatised in Britain – with headlines from popular tabloids such as ‘End of Human Rights Farce’ and ‘We’ll Put the Rights Act in the Dustbin of History’ – we must be careful that, in our pragmatism, we don’t become isolated and stop communicating with our international allies. Transnational solidarity is fundamental because patriarchy affects us all and can only be reformed with a global movement. This is not a new message, but one that comes to us from one of Britain’s most celebrated female activists, Sylvia Pankhurst. Although remembered for her role in the domestic women’s suffrage movement, Pankhurst was also a friend of Ethiopia and spoke out loudly and often in solidarity with its national independence movement. Though now a national heroine, in her writings, she once noted, ‘I would like to be remembered as a citizen of the world’.

Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing this year's Nobel Women's Initiative conference theme: 'Defending the Defenders'.   Jennifer Allsopp will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line Focus E15: the young mothers' struggle for universal housing CSW: the vital need to defend women human rights defenders Kenya: the women who stand to be counted The missing link in women's human rights Refugee women in the UK: Pushing a stone into the sea Due diligence for women's human rights: transgressing conventional lines The call of Sudanese women human rights defenders Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders Seeking safety in Algeria: Syrian refugee women’s resilience Zimbabwe: speaking from where I feel safe Country or region:  UK Topics:  Civil society Equality
Categories: les flux rss

Russian dissidents seek asylum in Kyiv

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. April 2015 - 16:12

As oppression heats up in Russia, post-revolutionary Ukraine is attracting political émigrés from the Russian opposition.

 

From the moment the Maidan started in Ukraine, Russian authorities rushed to pass judgement on the emergent revolution, supporting President Viktor Yanukovych in any way they could. Russia’s leadership feared that the revolution could spread to Russia. Accordingly, Russian state media responded with a massive information campaign against the Maidan, convincing citizens that Ukraine had suffered an illegitimate coup and that all members of the opposition are 'fifth columnists' and 'agents of the West.'

The Russian government’s apprehensions were, in a certain sense, justified. Despite mass propaganda, some citizens in Russia began calling for a Maidan in their own country. After the change of leadership in Kyiv and the outbreak of conflict, the majority of the Russian opposition came out in favour of Ukraine in its war against separatist forces in the country’s Donbas region.

But in a country where writing a provocative Facebook post, attending a protest action or making a public declaration out of line with the government’s position are potential grounds for criminal prosecution, individuals and groups have started to make their way to Ukraine. 

Russia’s activists continue the fight in Kyiv

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv. Despite their ideological differences, they’re all one degree of separation or less from one another, and they gather at a certain cafe in the old city centre to discuss politics and their plans for the future of Ukraine and Russia. One wants to simply split up Russia into independent republics, another wants to make Russia part of Europe, and the third is anxious for reform.

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv.

But they are united, at least, by a shared dissatisfaction with Putin’s government and an inability to return to their homeland.

Take Irina Belacheu, a chemical engineer from suburban Moscow. Belacheu first travelled to Ukraine in December 2013 – first, simply as a tourist to the Maidan, but then as full participant in the proceedings. Given that Maidan protesters were perceived in Moscow as merely a disgruntled mob at the time, Belacheu organised a ‘school of resistance’ with her colleagues. Here, participants discussed the construction of a democratic state, inviting economists, lawyers, and political analysts to give lectures. The Moscow school continues, but now, after the Maidan, Belacheu decided to open a branch in Kyiv, even if she does miss home. 

Irina Belacheu, one of several Russian oppositionists now based in Kyiv.

‘I was just an activist,' Belacheu says. 'I went to protests and marches against Putin’s policies. We saw that they were leading the country towards a catastrophe. After taking part in various events, I understood that I could no longer fight the propaganda that’s infiltrated the whole of Russian society.

‘When I protested with a picket that read, “Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, no to war”, I encountered strong aggression. One man even wanted to fight me! People in the office reacted very negatively to me. In Russia, people simply do not accept the truth. And I decided to go to Kyiv and organise the School of Resistance,’ she explains.

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv. Over social media, they can make contact with other people who’ve already left Russia under a cloud. 

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv.

This is exactly what Pavel Shekhman, a blogger from Moscow, did. ‘I was against Putin from the start. Since 2007, I’ve been taking part in unsanctioned protests. That was the first time I was arrested. For me, the Maidan was the fulfilment of our dreams. What we wanted to see in Moscow had happened in Kyiv,’ Shekhman told me.

Pavel Shekhman fled Russia after facing charges of calls to violence and hatred against a social group.In Moscow, a criminal case was brought against Shekhman for a blog post, which reproduced news of the shooting of 11 Ukrainian soldiers. The post stated that the 11 soldiers had been shot for refusing to give interviews to Russian journalists, and in response Shekhman called for these journalists themselves to be killed. Shekhman was first arrested and ordered not to leave the country, then placed under house arrest. Shekhman was later accused of inciting violence and hatred of a social group. On 14 February, Shekhman managed to escape from house arrest and went straight to Kyiv.

Upon arrival in Kyiv, Shekhman was cared for by virtual – now real – friends from Ukraine, who had supported him in his journey. He was known, after all, as a Russian who opposed Putin’s government in Russia. 

Vladimir Malyshev now runs a newspaper with Pavel ShekhmanShekhman was met at the border by Vladimir Malyshev, an activist who regularly took part in marches and protest actions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Malyshev had already been in Kyiv for a year; like many others, he had travelled to the capital of neighbouring Ukraine to take part in the Maidan. He had the same logic for leaving as them: the fight wasn’t going to bear fruit in Russia, so it had to start in Ukraine.

Together, Malyshev and Shekhman decided to start a newspaper about Ukraine. They had no desire to leave Ukraine, nor to return to Russia.

'Imperialists are the real traitors in Russia'

Sitting in Kyiv, Olga Kurnosova has been involved in Russian politics for a long time. While Kurnosova was elected a local deputy in St Petersburg (specialising in science and research) during the early 1990s, in 2003 she joined Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasia party.

Later joining Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, Kurnosova was an active participant in 2006 protests, including the Marches of the Dissenters in Russia's second city, and later the Marches of Millions in 2011-2012. Later, in 2008, Kurnosova joined the Solidarity movement, but was expelled four years later on grounds of nationalism. 

More recently, in January 2014, Kurnosova formed the Committee of Solidarity with the Maidan – a Russian anti-war movement which aims to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia – together with other members of the opposition. 

But in October 2014, Kurnosova left Russia in the middle of the night, travelling by train across the territory of Belarus with her mobile switched off. She bought the ticket using someone else’s passport.

Olga Kurnosova in Kyiv‘My flat in Moscow had already been broken into a few times,' Kurnosova says. 'I wasn’t even living there anymore. I was living at friends’ flats. Three days after I moved to another friend’s place, the police showed up at my flat again. And it was then I understood that there was no point sticking around waiting to find out when I’d be arrested.'

Finding herself in Kyiv, Kurnosova decided to continue the fight for a democratic and European Russia. Kurnosova declined to get into details about how she has been doing this, noting that revealing her methods may hamper her desired results. 

The newly-minted émigré believes that the future of Russia depends on Ukraine and openly confesses her love for both countries. ‘In my view, as long as war rages between Ukraine and Russia, I cannot leave this place. Without a victory for Ukraine, there can be no victory for Russia.’ 

Back in 2003, Kurnosova supported Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasia party and espoused what she now views as ‘imperialist’ talking points, which centred on the creation of the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet space. However, she now considers 'imperialists' the main enemies of Russia, criticising the idea of a unified ‘Russian world’ (Russkii mir). 

‘It’s all a political construct created to justify the debauchery that’s currently taking place. It has no relation to the words they use for it. The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin,’ says Kurnosova. 

The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin.'

According to Kurnosova, the Eurasian Economic Union was established in order to justify an Asiatic style of governance – Russia has gotten lost and ended up in Asia, and needs to return home. And its home is Europe. For Kurnosova, though, home is St Petersburg and she wants to return, even though her work in Kyiv is more important. 

'Imperialists are the true traitors. Empire is a feature of the last century. A proper place [among countries] isn’t won by brandishing nuclear weapons, but by top-level education, advanced sciences, and cities with good roads and nice buildings. I want Russia to be a country in which people are happy. This is a lot more than empire,’ concluded Kurnosova. 

'Russia will soon split up'

The political analyst Pavel Mizerin, who specialises in Russian-Ukrainian relations, has lived in two homes since 2004. 

Mizerin has worked on election campaigns in both Russia and Ukraine, choosing primarily liberal candidates. Having returned to his hometown of St Petersburg in 2012, Mizerin admits that he could hardly recognise his own country. At that time Mizerin began to feel that democracy in Russia was under threat, while in Ukraine, the situation was, at least, more open. 

Mizerin is an activist in the Free Ingria movement, a fringe group which supports the separation from Russia of the former Novgorod Republic (territory conquered by Muscovy in the 15th century). The political analyst believes that St Petersburg and all of ‘Ingria’ should shift towards Europe and cast off ‘Moscow’s Asiatic authoritarian type of government.’

It is this very idea that first brought Mizerin to the attention of the authorities. But the FSB intervened directly for an unexpected reason – his position regarding EuroMaidan.

When the first demonstrations began in Kyiv in November 2013, Mizerin often commented on them in the media, connecting the outcome of the EuroMaidan with the future of Russia and the whole of Eastern Europe. Mizerin published a whole string of articles with his predictions on the victory of the protesters. Then the FSB invited him to come in for a chat.

The conversation with the agents was not a friendly one. A young man came in with a thick binder of documents, listing Mizerin's activities in Ukraine over the past two years. 

The meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

The conversation took on increasingly dark tones. According to Mizerin, the meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

‘My colleagues helped me find a lawyer. He advised me to leave the country for a while. He said that I could be issued a notice not to leave. On 8 February, I left Russia and by 9 February I was in Kyiv,’ said Mizerin. 

Mizerin ended up in Kyiv at the most critical period of Maidan and immediately got involved in the action. Breaking up cobblestones and building barricades, Mizerin simultaneously described everything he saw on social media and giving interviews to Russian opposition outlets. Two weeks after Mizerin arrived, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. 

This activist for the secession of the northwest part of Russia is sure that the Russian Federation cannot survive without splitting up. ‘We’re looking at the agony of a state, where Tatar and Mongol political culture has been imposed on Moscow and [the city of] Vladimir’s political traditions. The result is a monster – first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and now modern Russia,’ Mizerin explains. 

Mizerin hopes that instead of Russia there will be a confederation of free provinces and republics, and his region – St Petersburg and Novgorod  – will become independent and join the European Union. 

Digging in

While the conflict between Russia and Ukraine drags on, Russian political émigrés see Kyiv as an island where their brave slogans are not shouted down, but amplified. Finding themselves in a Russian speaking space where the media are prepared to broadcast their ideas, they have no intention of leaving their ideological battlefield in Kyiv.

Sideboxes Related stories:  How Russia’s opposition learned to stop worrying and love Crimea Sorting out the opposition in Samara Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Russian dissidents seek asylum in Kyiv

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. April 2015 - 16:12

As oppression heats up in Russia, post-revolutionary Ukraine is attracting political émigrés from the Russian opposition.

 

From the moment the Maidan started in Ukraine, Russian authorities rushed to pass judgement on the emergent revolution, supporting President Viktor Yanukovych in any way they could. Russia’s leadership feared that the revolution could spread to Russia. Accordingly, Russian state media responded with a massive information campaign against the Maidan, convincing citizens that Ukraine had suffered an illegitimate coup and that all members of the opposition are 'fifth columnists' and 'agents of the West.'

The Russian government’s apprehensions were, in a certain sense, justified. Despite mass propaganda, some citizens in Russia began calling for a Maidan in their own country. After the change of leadership in Kyiv and the outbreak of conflict, the majority of the Russian opposition came out in favour of Ukraine in its war against separatist forces in the country’s Donbas region.

But in a country where writing a provocative Facebook post, attending a protest action or making a public declaration out of line with the government’s position are potential grounds for criminal prosecution, individuals and groups have started to make their way to Ukraine. 

Russia’s activists continue the fight in Kyiv

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv. Despite their ideological differences, they’re all one degree of separation or less from one another, and they gather at a certain cafe in the old city centre to discuss politics and their plans for the future of Ukraine and Russia. One wants to simply split up Russia into independent republics, another wants to make Russia part of Europe, and the third is anxious for reform.

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv.

But they are united, at least, by a shared dissatisfaction with Putin’s government and an inability to return to their homeland.

Take Irina Belacheu, a chemical engineer from suburban Moscow. Belacheu first travelled to Ukraine in December 2013 – first, simply as a tourist to the Maidan, but then as full participant in the proceedings. Given that Maidan protesters were perceived in Moscow as merely a disgruntled mob at the time, Belacheu organised a ‘school of resistance’ with her colleagues. Here, participants discussed the construction of a democratic state, inviting economists, lawyers, and political analysts to give lectures. The Moscow school continues, but now, after the Maidan, Belacheu decided to open a branch in Kyiv, even if she does miss home. 

Irina Belacheu, one of several Russian oppositionists now based in Kyiv.

‘I was just an activist,' Belacheu says. 'I went to protests and marches against Putin’s policies. We saw that they were leading the country towards a catastrophe. After taking part in various events, I understood that I could no longer fight the propaganda that’s infiltrated the whole of Russian society.

‘When I protested with a picket that read, “Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, no to war”, I encountered strong aggression. One man even wanted to fight me! People in the office reacted very negatively to me. In Russia, people simply do not accept the truth. And I decided to go to Kyiv and organise the School of Resistance,’ she explains.

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv. Over social media, they can make contact with other people who’ve already left Russia under a cloud. 

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv.

This is exactly what Pavel Shekhman, a blogger from Moscow, did. ‘I was against Putin from the start. Since 2007, I’ve been taking part in unsanctioned protests. That was the first time I was arrested. For me, the Maidan was the fulfilment of our dreams. What we wanted to see in Moscow had happened in Kyiv,’ Shekhman told me.

Pavel Shekhman fled Russia after facing charges of calls to violence and hatred against a social group.In Moscow, a criminal case was brought against Shekhman for a blog post, which reproduced news of the shooting of 11 Ukrainian soldiers. The post stated that the 11 soldiers had been shot for refusing to give interviews to Russian journalists, and in response Shekhman called for these journalists themselves to be killed. Shekhman was first arrested and ordered not to leave the country, then placed under house arrest. Shekhman was later accused of inciting violence and hatred of a social group. On 14 February, Shekhman managed to escape from house arrest and went straight to Kyiv.

Upon arrival in Kyiv, Shekhman was cared for by virtual – now real – friends from Ukraine, who had supported him in his journey. He was known, after all, as a Russian who opposed Putin’s government in Russia. 

Vladimir Malyshev now runs a newspaper with Pavel ShekhmanShekhman was met at the border by Vladimir Malyshev, an activist who regularly took part in marches and protest actions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Malyshev had already been in Kyiv for a year; like many others, he had travelled to the capital of neighbouring Ukraine to take part in the Maidan. He had the same logic for leaving as them: the fight wasn’t going to bear fruit in Russia, so it had to start in Ukraine.

Together, Malyshev and Shekhman decided to start a newspaper about Ukraine. They had no desire to leave Ukraine, nor to return to Russia.

'Imperialists are the real traitors in Russia'

Sitting in Kyiv, Olga Kurnosova has been involved in Russian politics for a long time. While Kurnosova was elected a local deputy in St Petersburg (specialising in science and research) during the early 1990s, in 2003 she joined Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasia party.

Later joining Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, Kurnosova was an active participant in 2006 protests, including the Marches of the Dissenters in Russia's second city, and later the Marches of Millions in 2011-2012. Later, in 2008, Kurnosova joined the Solidarity movement, but was expelled four years later on grounds of nationalism. 

More recently, in January 2014, Kurnosova formed the Committee of Solidarity with the Maidan – a Russian anti-war movement which aims to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia – together with other members of the opposition. 

But in October 2014, Kurnosova left Russia in the middle of the night, travelling by train across the territory of Belarus with her mobile switched off. She bought the ticket using someone else’s passport.

Olga Kurnosova in Kyiv‘My flat in Moscow had already been broken into a few times,' Kurnosova says. 'I wasn’t even living there anymore. I was living at friends’ flats. Three days after I moved to another friend’s place, the police showed up at my flat again. And it was then I understood that there was no point sticking around waiting to find out when I’d be arrested.'

Finding herself in Kyiv, Kurnosova decided to continue the fight for a democratic and European Russia. Kurnosova declined to get into details about how she has been doing this, noting that revealing her methods may hamper her desired results. 

The newly-minted émigré believes that the future of Russia depends on Ukraine and openly confesses her love for both countries. ‘In my view, as long as war rages between Ukraine and Russia, I cannot leave this place. Without a victory for Ukraine, there can be no victory for Russia.’ 

Back in 2003, Kurnosova supported Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasia party and espoused what she now views as ‘imperialist’ talking points, which centred on the creation of the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet space. However, she now considers 'imperialists' the main enemies of Russia, criticising the idea of a unified ‘Russian world’ (Russkii mir). 

‘It’s all a political construct created to justify the debauchery that’s currently taking place. It has no relation to the words they use for it. The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin,’ says Kurnosova. 

The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin.'

According to Kurnosova, the Eurasian Economic Union was established in order to justify an Asiatic style of governance – Russia has gotten lost and ended up in Asia, and needs to return home. And its home is Europe. For Kurnosova, though, home is St Petersburg and she wants to return, even though her work in Kyiv is more important. 

'Imperialists are the true traitors. Empire is a feature of the last century. A proper place [among countries] isn’t won by brandishing nuclear weapons, but by top-level education, advanced sciences, and cities with good roads and nice buildings. I want Russia to be a country in which people are happy. This is a lot more than empire,’ concluded Kurnosova. 

'Russia will soon split up'

The political analyst Pavel Mizerin, who specialises in Russian-Ukrainian relations, has lived in two homes since 2004. 

Mizerin has worked on election campaigns in both Russia and Ukraine, choosing primarily liberal candidates. Having returned to his hometown of St Petersburg in 2012, Mizerin admits that he could hardly recognise his own country. At that time Mizerin began to feel that democracy in Russia was under threat, while in Ukraine, the situation was, at least, more open. 

Mizerin is an activist in the Free Ingria movement, a fringe group which supports the separation from Russia of the former Novgorod Republic (territory conquered by Muscovy in the 15th century). The political analyst believes that St Petersburg and all of ‘Ingria’ should shift towards Europe and cast off ‘Moscow’s Asiatic authoritarian type of government.’

It is this very idea that first brought Mizerin to the attention of the authorities. But the FSB intervened directly for an unexpected reason – his position regarding EuroMaidan.

When the first demonstrations began in Kyiv in November 2013, Mizerin often commented on them in the media, connecting the outcome of the EuroMaidan with the future of Russia and the whole of Eastern Europe. Mizerin published a whole string of articles with his predictions on the victory of the protesters. Then the FSB invited him to come in for a chat.

The conversation with the agents was not a friendly one. A young man came in with a thick binder of documents, listing Mizerin's activities in Ukraine over the past two years. 

The meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

The conversation took on increasingly dark tones. According to Mizerin, the meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

‘My colleagues helped me find a lawyer. He advised me to leave the country for a while. He said that I could be issued a notice not to leave. On 8 February, I left Russia and by 9 February I was in Kyiv,’ said Mizerin. 

Mizerin ended up in Kyiv at the most critical period of Maidan and immediately got involved in the action. Breaking up cobblestones and building barricades, Mizerin simultaneously described everything he saw on social media and giving interviews to Russian opposition outlets. Two weeks after Mizerin arrived, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. 

This activist for the secession of the northwest part of Russia is sure that the Russian Federation cannot survive without splitting up. ‘We’re looking at the agony of a state, where Tatar and Mongol political culture has been imposed on Moscow and [the city of] Vladimir’s political traditions. The result is a monster – first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and now modern Russia,’ Mizerin explains. 

Mizerin hopes that instead of Russia there will be a confederation of free provinces and republics, and his region – St Petersburg and Novgorod  – will become independent and join the European Union. 

Digging in

While the conflict between Russia and Ukraine drags on, Russian political émigrés see Kyiv as an island where their brave slogans are not shouted down, but amplified. Finding themselves in a Russian speaking space where the media are prepared to broadcast their ideas, they have no intention of leaving their ideological battlefield in Kyiv.

Sideboxes Related stories:  How Russia’s opposition learned to stop worrying and love Crimea Sorting out the opposition in Samara Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Times of war in Russian arts and culture

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. April 2015 - 14:54

In times of war, what can Russian arts and culture do to withstand interventions by the Russian state? An exhibition at Garage in Moscow could provide an answer.

The Russian state has tightened its grip on contemporary arts and culture in recent years – most notably via the June 2013 law that criminalises acts which ‘offend’ Orthodox believers. The hooliganism charges and subsequent court case brought against Pussy Riot in August 2013 exposed the extent of state intervention even further. 

Last month, a state-run theatre in Novosibirsk ran into trouble when Orthodox activists instigated a court case against the theatre's director (who later lost his job).  What was the crime? Displaying a crucifix between a woman's legs on a poster during the play. In this increasingly conservative cultural climate, there is, however, one major arts institution that seems to resist – Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Times of war

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection. The exhibition highlights Eastern European artists' 'common struggle for artistic and individual liberties', stressing 'art's potential in making individual voices heard and in confronting or overcoming ideology, conflicts, and not least, wars'.

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection.

Snejana Krasteva, the curator of the exhibition, states that the concept emerged in the search for a common thread to unite East European postwar avant-garde art. Artists from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and today’s Central and Eastern Europe all face(d) similar problems in their life and work, which variously motivated them to engage with their environments artistically, impeded their artistic production, or induced them to develop strategies to deal with these problems. No matter how the curating process of the Grammar of Freedom exhibition started – with the concept behind the exhibition or with the artworks, which were supposed to be shown – given the increasingly conservative political situation in Russia, the exhibition arguably comes at a very sensitive point in time. 

Indeed, it was only in March that Nikolai Starikov, a patriotic 'AntiMaidan' activist, accused the National Centre for Contemporary Arts Nizhny Novgorod (NCCANN) branch of organising an exhibition in Krasnodar that allegedly promoted a 'Russian Maidan'. Moreover, Starikov claimed that the NCCANN not only receives state funding for its 'Western-style' exhibitions, but also impedes the 'patriotic education of citizens' – it occupies part of the old kremlin [fortress] of the city. Whether Starikov's subsequent call to relocate NCCANN, whose staff worked hard to renovate the recently opened kremlin, will be answered, remains to be seen.

Marchers in a February 'AntiMaidan' march, led by activist Nikolai Starikov. (c) RIA Novosti/Aleksei Filippov

Ilya Budraitskis, a socialist activist and curator, who gave a presentation on 'The Power of the Powerless: Artistic Strategies in Times of War' at the conference that was organised as part of the educational programme of the Garage exhibition, states that specific initiatives against ‘liberal’ cultural productions are often launched by ultra-Orthodox or self-proclaimed ‘patriotic’ individuals, while the framework for action is provided by the government’s legislation and discourse. As Rachel Donadio, arts correspondent for the New York Times, reports, cultural figures say the government is sending a clear message: 'Fall in line with the emphasis on family and religious values, or lose funding, or worse.'

And as Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva argue, the Kremlin increasingly uses symbolic politics, stressing 'a series of masculine, historical, and religious touchstones that defined a core constituency of true Russians pitted against a radical, Westernised, and very limited opposition' in order to secure its power.

Freedom is for beginners

As stated on its website, Garage presents itself as a 'place for people, art, and ideas to create history'. And the museum’s extensive educational programme puts this participatory approach into practice.

At the exhibition opening, curators, artists, and experts reflected on the notion of ‘freedom’: it cannot exist in a vacuum, only be experienced when one is aware of its boundaries; fighting for freedom implies taking risks; and lastly, 'as a word, freedom is for beginners, as a practice, it’s more advanced'. 

But what is the grammar of freedom? The exhibition is organised around five lessons: (1) the body as a tool for liberation, (2) the transformation of systems (understood as revealing any system’s inherent structures in order to change inequities in the distribution of art and ideas), (3) the power of collaboration, (4) the practice of self-organisation and resistance and (5) uniting through adversity against a common enemy.

While some of these might not be lessons in the narrow sense of the word, they all illustrate strategies of artists in the struggle for professional and individual liberties. For example, in Blood Ties (1995), the artist Katarzyna Kozyra uses her body as a tool to express (particularly female) vulnerability in wartime Bosnia and Kosovo. In her photographs, the artist poses naked in front of a red crescent and a red cross, symbols of the humanitarian organisations that provided aid, but even more so of the religious groups that had come to fight each other in the so-called ‘fratricidal wars’ on the Balkans. 

'Blood Ties' (1995) by Katarzyna Kostyra at Garage. Image courtesy of the author.

In Triangle, a provocative 1979 performance, Sanja Iveković exposes the lunatic accuracy with which totalitarian regimes try to control even the most private aspects of their citizens’ lives. On the day of a presidential visit to the city, Iveković sits on her balcony and pretends to masturbate, expecting the security guard on the roof of the building across from her balcony, who is the only person who can see her, to notify the policeman on the street in front of the house through his walkie-talkie. Things turn out as anticipated: soon the policeman rings her doorbell and orders that 'persons and objects should be removed from the balcony'.

In another powerful work in the exhibition, the video I am Milica Tomić (1998), Milica Tomić reflects on the relationship between personal and 'state-ordered' collective identity, and the exclusionary impact the latter has on anyone who does not want to or cannot relate to the propagated identity.

As a last example, in the video Barter (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group, Mykola Ridniy takes off to the Ukrainian countryside to trade copies of famous contemporary paintings for produce or livestock.

'Barter' (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group. Image courtesy of the author.

Not all of the villagers are convinced by the paintings. Giggling next to a work by Neo Rauch, one lady wonders out loud which 'fool painted that thing' and 'which idiot would buy the original.'

All in all, the works clearly show that humour and irony can be powerful tools in the struggle against unjust regimes – be they political, economic, or ideational. During the last years, this has become an established finding. In an article for Foreign Policy, Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksic argue that 'laughtivism', a humorous form of activism, helps to break fear, builds confidence, and simply makes a protest movement seem 'cool'.

Most importantly, however, laughtivism 'confront[s] autocrats with a dilemma: the government can either crack down on those who ridicule it (making itself look even more ridiculous in the process) or ignore the acts of satire aimed against it (and risk opening the flood gates of dissent).' Only a few days ago, a Moscow court ruled that it is illegal to add celebrities’ images to internet memes that 'have nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.' Could this be the end to shirtless Putins on birds and bears?

‘Special status’

Curator Snejana Krasteva says there were no major negative reactions to the exhibition. But while other cultural institutions struggle for their right to expression, how come no one seems to mind Grammar of Freedom being shown in the centre of Moscow? 

Though the political relevance and radicalism of some of the works is striking, most of the works shown at Grammar of Freedom comment more on dominating regimes and how they govern the visibility art has than politics per se. The exhibition hardly makes any direct references to current Russian politics and society – conclusions are to be drawn by the visitors themselves, and these certainly vary a great deal. Furthermore, while Grammar of Freedom might appeal to the liberal and the well-educated, it might founder when it comes to the majority of society, even though Garage makes a big effort to reach out to all kinds of visitors. 

Garage’s 'special status' may well have something to do with its ownership structure. A private institution, Garage is protected from direct state interference. Garage was founded by Dasha Zhukova together with her husband Roman Abramovich. In a 2012 London court case, the judge ruled that 'Mr Abramovich enjoyed very good relations with President Putin and others in power at the Kremlin' and that he 'had privileged access to President Putin, in the sense that he could arrange meetings and discuss matters with him.' For this reason, in March 2014, opposition politician Alexei Navalny called for Abramovich’s inclusion on the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals.

Famously, Vladimir Lenin once proclaimed that the best way to control the opposition is for the government to lead it itself. For all we know, Garage, one of the last major places for seemingly truly free debate, might be part of a clever governmental strategy to ‘allow’ an opposition arts and culture movement.

Aleksei Kosolapov's 'Lenin and Coca-cola'. Image courtesy of the author.

According to Holger Albrecht, who scrutinised the Egyptian opposition before the Tahrir revolution of 2011, a 'controlled opposition' can provide several functions to the state, for instance observing, channeling, and moderating societal dissent; yielding certain democratic legitimacy to the state and thereby appeasing critical individuals; and lastly, playing out several factions of society against each other, in order to keep them busy with each other, and creating an equilibrium in which the government can act as a mediator.

As Budraitskis claims, the latter is exactly what is happening in Russia: 'the regime's policy is not to build a total cultural patriotic hegemony. Its policy is to strengthen the feelings of the conservative majority, to feed these feelings, and to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.' Indeed, one could argue that the existence of a liberal minority helps the regime to balance the two poles of the Russian opposition.  

Whether Garage is part of a government strategy or not, Snejana Krasteva reminds us that 'any system reacts to its own critique. Does that mean that there shouldn’t be an opposition?'

'The regime’s policy is to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.'

'Without art, societies would be boring and uncritical'

In the context of Grammar of Freedom, the question remains how art and artists can contribute to more just and liberal regimes. According to Krasteva, artists have 'no obligation whatsoever to change society', but 'without art, societies would be boring and uncritical.' 

What artists can do is render objectionable political and societal developments visible. They can imagine alternatives that may or may not be taken up by the rest of society.

At the same time, Budraitskis argues that 'if there are no ideas in society, there is no inspiration for artists.' Writing in July 2014, Budraitskis asserted 'if the new war (or prewar) footing into which Russian society is sinking deeper has a point of consensus that unites different social and cultural strata, it is the smothering, eerie awareness of society’s total powerlessness in the face of interstate conflict.’ 

One hopes that irony and dark humour, two aspects which unite so many works at Garage’s Grammar of Freedom, will continue to flourish, and not wither away under difficult present conditions.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A storm in a paint pot Novosibirsk's cultural history of loss Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Times of war in Russian arts and culture

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. April 2015 - 14:54

In times of war, what can Russian arts and culture do to withstand interventions by the Russian state? An exhibition at Garage in Moscow could provide an answer.

The Russian state has tightened its grip on contemporary arts and culture in recent years – most notably via the June 2013 law that criminalises acts which ‘offend’ Orthodox believers. The hooliganism charges and subsequent court case brought against Pussy Riot in August 2013 exposed the extent of state intervention even further. 

Last month, a state-run theatre in Novosibirsk ran into trouble when Orthodox activists instigated a court case against the theatre's director (who later lost his job).  What was the crime? Displaying a crucifix between a woman's legs on a poster during the play. In this increasingly conservative cultural climate, there is, however, one major arts institution that seems to resist – Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Times of war

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection. The exhibition highlights Eastern European artists' 'common struggle for artistic and individual liberties', stressing 'art's potential in making individual voices heard and in confronting or overcoming ideology, conflicts, and not least, wars'.

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection.

Snejana Krasteva, the curator of the exhibition, states that the concept emerged in the search for a common thread to unite East European postwar avant-garde art. Artists from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and today’s Central and Eastern Europe all face(d) similar problems in their life and work, which variously motivated them to engage with their environments artistically, impeded their artistic production, or induced them to develop strategies to deal with these problems. No matter how the curating process of the Grammar of Freedom exhibition started – with the concept behind the exhibition or with the artworks, which were supposed to be shown – given the increasingly conservative political situation in Russia, the exhibition arguably comes at a very sensitive point in time. 

Indeed, it was only in March that Nikolai Starikov, a patriotic 'AntiMaidan' activist, accused the National Centre for Contemporary Arts Nizhny Novgorod (NCCANN) branch of organising an exhibition in Krasnodar that allegedly promoted a 'Russian Maidan'. Moreover, Starikov claimed that the NCCANN not only receives state funding for its 'Western-style' exhibitions, but also impedes the 'patriotic education of citizens' – it occupies part of the old kremlin [fortress] of the city. Whether Starikov's subsequent call to relocate NCCANN, whose staff worked hard to renovate the recently opened kremlin, will be answered, remains to be seen.

Marchers in a February 'AntiMaidan' march, led by activist Nikolai Starikov. (c) RIA Novosti/Aleksei Filippov

Ilya Budraitskis, a socialist activist and curator, who gave a presentation on 'The Power of the Powerless: Artistic Strategies in Times of War' at the conference that was organised as part of the educational programme of the Garage exhibition, states that specific initiatives against ‘liberal’ cultural productions are often launched by ultra-Orthodox or self-proclaimed ‘patriotic’ individuals, while the framework for action is provided by the government’s legislation and discourse. As Rachel Donadio, arts correspondent for the New York Times, reports, cultural figures say the government is sending a clear message: 'Fall in line with the emphasis on family and religious values, or lose funding, or worse.'

And as Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva argue, the Kremlin increasingly uses symbolic politics, stressing 'a series of masculine, historical, and religious touchstones that defined a core constituency of true Russians pitted against a radical, Westernised, and very limited opposition' in order to secure its power.

Freedom is for beginners

As stated on its website, Garage presents itself as a 'place for people, art, and ideas to create history'. And the museum’s extensive educational programme puts this participatory approach into practice.

At the exhibition opening, curators, artists, and experts reflected on the notion of ‘freedom’: it cannot exist in a vacuum, only be experienced when one is aware of its boundaries; fighting for freedom implies taking risks; and lastly, 'as a word, freedom is for beginners, as a practice, it’s more advanced'. 

But what is the grammar of freedom? The exhibition is organised around five lessons: (1) the body as a tool for liberation, (2) the transformation of systems (understood as revealing any system’s inherent structures in order to change inequities in the distribution of art and ideas), (3) the power of collaboration, (4) the practice of self-organisation and resistance and (5) uniting through adversity against a common enemy.

While some of these might not be lessons in the narrow sense of the word, they all illustrate strategies of artists in the struggle for professional and individual liberties. For example, in Blood Ties (1995), the artist Katarzyna Kozyra uses her body as a tool to express (particularly female) vulnerability in wartime Bosnia and Kosovo. In her photographs, the artist poses naked in front of a red crescent and a red cross, symbols of the humanitarian organisations that provided aid, but even more so of the religious groups that had come to fight each other in the so-called ‘fratricidal wars’ on the Balkans. 

'Blood Ties' (1995) by Katarzyna Kostyra at Garage. Image courtesy of the author.

In Triangle, a provocative 1979 performance, Sanja Iveković exposes the lunatic accuracy with which totalitarian regimes try to control even the most private aspects of their citizens’ lives. On the day of a presidential visit to the city, Iveković sits on her balcony and pretends to masturbate, expecting the security guard on the roof of the building across from her balcony, who is the only person who can see her, to notify the policeman on the street in front of the house through his walkie-talkie. Things turn out as anticipated: soon the policeman rings her doorbell and orders that 'persons and objects should be removed from the balcony'.

In another powerful work in the exhibition, the video I am Milica Tomić (1998), Milica Tomić reflects on the relationship between personal and 'state-ordered' collective identity, and the exclusionary impact the latter has on anyone who does not want to or cannot relate to the propagated identity.

As a last example, in the video Barter (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group, Mykola Ridniy takes off to the Ukrainian countryside to trade copies of famous contemporary paintings for produce or livestock.

'Barter' (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group. Image courtesy of the author.

Not all of the villagers are convinced by the paintings. Giggling next to a work by Neo Rauch, one lady wonders out loud which 'fool painted that thing' and 'which idiot would buy the original.'

All in all, the works clearly show that humour and irony can be powerful tools in the struggle against unjust regimes – be they political, economic, or ideational. During the last years, this has become an established finding. In an article for Foreign Policy, Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksic argue that 'laughtivism', a humorous form of activism, helps to break fear, builds confidence, and simply makes a protest movement seem 'cool'.

Most importantly, however, laughtivism 'confront[s] autocrats with a dilemma: the government can either crack down on those who ridicule it (making itself look even more ridiculous in the process) or ignore the acts of satire aimed against it (and risk opening the flood gates of dissent).' Only a few days ago, a Moscow court ruled that it is illegal to add celebrities’ images to internet memes that 'have nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.' Could this be the end to shirtless Putins on birds and bears?

‘Special status’

Curator Snejana Krasteva says there were no major negative reactions to the exhibition. But while other cultural institutions struggle for their right to expression, how come no one seems to mind Grammar of Freedom being shown in the centre of Moscow? 

Though the political relevance and radicalism of some of the works is striking, most of the works shown at Grammar of Freedom comment more on dominating regimes and how they govern the visibility art has than politics per se. The exhibition hardly makes any direct references to current Russian politics and society – conclusions are to be drawn by the visitors themselves, and these certainly vary a great deal. Furthermore, while Grammar of Freedom might appeal to the liberal and the well-educated, it might founder when it comes to the majority of society, even though Garage makes a big effort to reach out to all kinds of visitors. 

Garage’s 'special status' may well have something to do with its ownership structure. A private institution, Garage is protected from direct state interference. Garage was founded by Dasha Zhukova together with her husband Roman Abramovich. In a 2012 London court case, the judge ruled that 'Mr Abramovich enjoyed very good relations with President Putin and others in power at the Kremlin' and that he 'had privileged access to President Putin, in the sense that he could arrange meetings and discuss matters with him.' For this reason, in March 2014, opposition politician Alexei Navalny called for Abramovich’s inclusion on the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals.

Famously, Vladimir Lenin once proclaimed that the best way to control the opposition is for the government to lead it itself. For all we know, Garage, one of the last major places for seemingly truly free debate, might be part of a clever governmental strategy to ‘allow’ an opposition arts and culture movement.

Aleksei Kosolapov's 'Lenin and Coca-cola'. Image courtesy of the author.

According to Holger Albrecht, who scrutinised the Egyptian opposition before the Tahrir revolution of 2011, a 'controlled opposition' can provide several functions to the state, for instance observing, channeling, and moderating societal dissent; yielding certain democratic legitimacy to the state and thereby appeasing critical individuals; and lastly, playing out several factions of society against each other, in order to keep them busy with each other, and creating an equilibrium in which the government can act as a mediator.

As Budraitskis claims, the latter is exactly what is happening in Russia: 'the regime's policy is not to build a total cultural patriotic hegemony. Its policy is to strengthen the feelings of the conservative majority, to feed these feelings, and to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.' Indeed, one could argue that the existence of a liberal minority helps the regime to balance the two poles of the Russian opposition.  

Whether Garage is part of a government strategy or not, Snejana Krasteva reminds us that 'any system reacts to its own critique. Does that mean that there shouldn’t be an opposition?'

'The regime’s policy is to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.'

'Without art, societies would be boring and uncritical'

In the context of Grammar of Freedom, the question remains how art and artists can contribute to more just and liberal regimes. According to Krasteva, artists have 'no obligation whatsoever to change society', but 'without art, societies would be boring and uncritical.' 

What artists can do is render objectionable political and societal developments visible. They can imagine alternatives that may or may not be taken up by the rest of society.

At the same time, Budraitskis argues that 'if there are no ideas in society, there is no inspiration for artists.' Writing in July 2014, Budraitskis asserted 'if the new war (or prewar) footing into which Russian society is sinking deeper has a point of consensus that unites different social and cultural strata, it is the smothering, eerie awareness of society’s total powerlessness in the face of interstate conflict.’ 

One hopes that irony and dark humour, two aspects which unite so many works at Garage’s Grammar of Freedom, will continue to flourish, and not wither away under difficult present conditions.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A storm in a paint pot Novosibirsk's cultural history of loss Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Assyrian stories from the Caucasus

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. April 2015 - 14:39

Scattered throughout Russia and the South Caucasus, Assyrians are looking for recognition of their suffering.

 

'We had a saying in those days. To shine shoes like an Assyrian,' begins Valery. 'There’s a reason why that profession was so popular among Assyrians – when you live dispersed, all over the world, and nobody speaks your language, you need a job where you can be mute. Where you have no voice.'

The boom of his voice echoes through his kitchen, and outside into the gardens and courtyards of the village of Arzni. Arzni, a short drive from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, greets visitors with a trilingual sign – in Armenian, Russian, and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. This is an Assyrian village, and Valery is an ethnic Assyrian.

'Where there’s not quantity – there’s quality!'

The word 'Aturaya' (Assyrian) means many different things, and Assyrian identity stands at the centre of an intricate debate. The indigenous, Neo-Aramaic speaking Christian populations of northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southeast Turkey have long been divided along ecclesiastical lines. Recent moves to forge a common Assyrian, Aramaean or Syriac identity have made only limited progress.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) Church refer to themselves as Syriac, while Chaldean Catholics identify as Chaldeans. Those of the Assyrian Church of the East – also known as the Nestorian Church – also identify as Assyrians. Most of the Assyrians who arrived in Armenia after the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchai between Persia and Russia belonged to the Nestorian Church.

A sign at the entrance to Arzni village, Kotayk Province, greets visitors in Armenian, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Russian

To this day, Assyrians in Armenia refer to themselves as Urmijenāye – people from Urmia – in reference to the lake district in Iran, the location of their ancestral villages. After the First World War, Assyrian refugees from across the former Ottoman Empire joined them. Assyrians across the former Soviet Union bear Russified surnames – Bit-Tumas became Tumasov, Bit-Yonan became Yonanov.

Over the following years, Assyrians migrated across the Soviet Union. Two Assyrian villages can be found in Georgia, and even one – appropriately named Urmia – in Russia’s southern Krasnodar Krai. Tens of thousands also inhabit Russia’s largest cities, the result of emigration from villages like Arzni, Dimitrov, Dvin, and Nor Artagers. 'We’re not many,' laughs one interviewee in Yerevan. 'But where there’s not quantity – there’s quality instead!'

A home to many speakers of Neo-Aramaic, Dvin is undergoing a linguistic revival.

Rediscovering faith

'Shlama, Rabi!' calls out a voice from a walnut tree; “Hello, Priest!” – words familiar to an Arabic or Hebrew speaker. Father Isaac Temris smiles at one of his congregants, harvesting the nuts for buyers at the markets in Yerevan, and the occasional priestly passer-by.

For the villagers of Verin Dvin on the Ararat Plain, subsistence farming is one way to make ends meet, though only just. Father Temris is an Assyrian from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has served as pastor in Verin Dvin since 2013. As Temris sees it, his role has been to help Assyrians in post-Soviet Armenia rediscover their ancestral faith. Cultural differences between Assyrians from traditional Christian communities Iraq and those raised under Soviet atheism exist, but are not insurmountable.

A native of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Father Isaac Temris serves as the priest of Mar Toma church in Verin Dvin

A home to many speakers of Neo-Aramaic, Dvin is undergoing a modest linguistic revival. The language is now taught to local Assyrian children using the traditional Estrangela script. At Father Temris’s initiative, the Mar Toma Church – built in 1828, but converted to a warehouse during the Soviet era – was restored with generous donations from Armenia, Iraq, and Europe. Father Temris also aspires to finish a new school to replace the decrepit structure currently in use. A frame of concrete breeze-blocks stands as testament to this aspiration, with a wrought iron fence displaying letters of the Assyrian alphabet. A white, blue and red Assyrian flag has been painted on a nearby gate.

Verin Dvin’s school has dedicated a small room for Assyrian cultural events and festivals. The Patriarch of the Nestorian Church and secular Assyrian intellectuals alike stare down at the childrens’ handiwork: cardboard models of ancient Nineveh and clay cuneiform tablets.

Modern Assyrian nationalism traces its descent back to the glories of the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire. Younger generations of Assyrians have names to match: young Sargons, Ninvehs, and Ashurs walk the streets of Verin Dvin alongside the more traditional Christian names like Thomas, Maryam, and Isaac. A gaudy painting of a lamassu – a winged lion or bull with a human head – hangs in Verin Dvin’s local administration building, flanked by Assyrian and Armenian flags. These mythical beasts have been sited as guardians at the entrances of important buildings for thousands of years. The ruins of several monumental specimens still stand in Iraq – or did until very recently, before ISIS destroyed them. Some have survived in Western museums, taken abroad in the nineteenth century by European archaeologists.

Sargon Sergeyev, a friend of Father Temris, asks me incredulously: 'You have come here to learn Assyrian history? It’s all with you – in the British Museum!' 'Verin Dvin?' snorts Edik Yunanov, a veteran community activist, over coffee. 'The name doesn't do it for me. I'd prefer an Assyrian name. Nineveh, perhaps.'

An ancient Assyrian 'Lamassu' hangs in the office of Ludmila Petrova, mayor of 'Aysori Dvin' (Assyrian Dvin)

Attendance at Mar Toma Church does not always meet Father Temris’s expectations, perhaps the result of residual anti-clericism in Soviet days, but also the emptying of the town of young people – they move aboard to work in Russia. Poor economic prospects, notes Arsen Mikhailov, Assyrian Community leader from the Atur Organization, are a major problem for everybody in Armenia, his own community are no exception.

'Unemployment,' wrote Soviet researcher Konstantin Matveev in 1979, 'is a constant scourge among the Assyrian community.' The Assyrian population of the country numbered 6,183 in 1976, and has since declined to 2,769 primarily due to emigration. Locked houses with the words 'Vadjarvum e' (For sale) are a common enough sight in Armenia’s villages, and the four Assyrian settlements are much the same. With relatives and work in large South Russian cities such as Krasnodar and Rostov, what is left to keep families in Verin Dvin?

What is left to keep families in Verin Dvin?

An era of stability

For most Assyrians, the late Soviet era was one of stability and a comfortable (if modest) life working on one of eight Assyrian-majority collective farms across the USSR. Soviet scholars such as Matveev portrayed the Assyrians of the USSR as living testimony to the hope the Soviets had to offer to the peoples of the Middle East living under European rule.

Nevertheless, some memories remained buried. Soviet Assyrians – or 'Aysors' as they became known – were largely isolated from other members of the 2-3 million strong Assyrian Diaspora. Priests were exiled, churches closed or – in the case of the church at Nor Artagers – dynamited.

Until the 1930s, the Assyrian language had to be written in a specially devised Latin alphabet: to better to isolate its speakers from their traditional religious literature. Assyrian intellectuals such as Fraidoon Atturaya (1891-1926), leader of the Assyrian Socialist Party, were executed, often accused of collaboration with the British to further their 'bourgeois nationalism'. The year 1949 saw mass deportations of Assyrians to Siberia, where many perished. In a particularly grim stroke of irony, as Assyrian journalist Ilya Vartanov noted in his 2001 memoirs, many deported Assyrians were accused of spying for Turkey.

Flags flying high

In light of the Assyrians’ history under Turkish rule, this accusation was farcical, at best. The Sayfo, as the Assyrian Genocide is known, saw the deaths of between 300,000 and 700,000 Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac people (alongside over a million Armenians) under the Young Turk leadership of the Ottoman Empire.

Pogroms continued in the newly formed states of Turkey and Iraq during the interwar era. Demonstrations in Yerevan raised the profile of the Armenian Genocide in the USSR from 1965 onwards, and over the following decades, Assyrians began to ask – what of their own genocide?

Memorial to victims of the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide, in central Yerevan, Republic of Armenia 
In central Yerevan, Armenian and Assyrian flags fly over a monument decorated with lamassu on Nalbandyan Street. In Armenian, Assyrian, English, and Russian, the monument commemorates the 'innocent Assyrian victims of 1915,' to whom it was dedicated in 2012. Compared to the neighbouring Armenian-Russian friendship monument, this one is easily overlooked, but is a landmark for the Assyrian community.

'The difference between the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide,' says Assyrian community activist Irina Sagradova, 'is that the Assyrian Genocide still continues.' A stark statement, but one keenly felt as the centenary of both genocides approaches with ISIS massacring and driving what is left of Syria and Iraq’s Assyrian communities into exile. The Armenian government is prepared to help Assyrian refugees – that is, if they can reach Armenia first. 
 
Sweden (home to a large Assyrian community) was for many years the only state to recognise the Assyrian Genocide, though others have joined it in recent months. Armenia has only just recognised the Sayfo. The country’s minorities play an important role in Armenia’s nation-building: a common understanding is that the modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples – Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis – who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.

The modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples – Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis – who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.

Yet a recent attempt to extend recognition to these peoples, on the initiative of Heritage Party MP Zaruhi Postanjyan was rejected in 2012, one ground being the vague wording of the draft bill, which urged the government to recognise the genocides of Assyrians, Greeks, Yezidis 'and others'. Sagradova herself submitted a bill, but to no avail, and debate dragged on among Armenian lawmakers on possible recognition.

On February 16, the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations adopted a draft statement 'on condemning the genocide of the Greeks and Assyrians perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey in 1914-1923'. On March 24, the statement – and the recognition it implies – was unanimously accepted by deputies of the Armenian Parliament.

The Gevargizov family of Dimitrov examine an Assyrian-language gravestone 
Turkish recognition – and the reparations some Assyrians believe it implies – remains a pipe dream. 'Armenia owes it to the Assyrians,' suggested one civil servant in Yerevan, 'they may have been attacked because the Turks believed them to be Armenian.' The same reasoning is suggested for why the Assyrian community of Khanlar, Azerbaijan fled as Armenia and Azerbaijan prepared for war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-1991.

'We have lived everywhere'

Returning from Dvin and planning a visit to Dimitrov, I paid a visit to Misha Sadoyev and shared my impressions of the community. Misha was also an Assyrian – the Assyrian, in fact, in Armenia’s musical world.

Misha is a master of the duduk and the zurna, traditional woodwind instruments he carves from apricot wood. Misha's handiwork covers the kitchen: frying pans full of apricot sawdust, reeds on the stove. He plays to his guests over glasses of apricot vodka. A few Armenians are perplexed that a master craftsman of their national instruments is not 'one of their own'. 'I'm not a chauvinist,' insisted a grocer, a refugee from Baku, 'but I believe that only one ethnic group should live in each state.'

Despite a pamphlet showing a map of Iraq lying on Sadoyev's dining room table bearing the words – in Arabic, English, and Neo-Aramaic – 'State of Assyria', the Assyrians do not have a state. They have lived everywhere. Misha's ancestors arrived in 1848 as the Bit-Sado family – well before the events of 1915.

Armenia is described as a homeland for the Assyrians, who have no homeland. Misha agrees, but he is nonetheless compelled to ask: 'why am I here?'

All photographs courtesy of the author

Sideboxes Related stories:  A discourse of denial: memories of the Armenian genocide Armenian genocide, a century on Baba-Hadji, symbol of ethnic harmony Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Assyrian stories from the Caucasus

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. April 2015 - 14:39

Scattered throughout Russia and the South Caucasus, Assyrians are looking for recognition of their suffering.

 

'We had a saying in those days. To shine shoes like an Assyrian,' begins Valery. 'There’s a reason why that profession was so popular among Assyrians – when you live dispersed, all over the world, and nobody speaks your language, you need a job where you can be mute. Where you have no voice.'

The boom of his voice echoes through his kitchen, and outside into the gardens and courtyards of the village of Arzni. Arzni, a short drive from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, greets visitors with a trilingual sign – in Armenian, Russian, and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. This is an Assyrian village, and Valery is an ethnic Assyrian.

'Where there’s not quantity – there’s quality!'

The word 'Aturaya' (Assyrian) means many different things, and Assyrian identity stands at the centre of an intricate debate. The indigenous, Neo-Aramaic speaking Christian populations of northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southeast Turkey have long been divided along ecclesiastical lines. Recent moves to forge a common Assyrian, Aramaean or Syriac identity have made only limited progress.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) Church refer to themselves as Syriac, while Chaldean Catholics identify as Chaldeans. Those of the Assyrian Church of the East – also known as the Nestorian Church – also identify as Assyrians. Most of the Assyrians who arrived in Armenia after the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchai between Persia and Russia belonged to the Nestorian Church.

A sign at the entrance to Arzni village, Kotayk Province, greets visitors in Armenian, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Russian

To this day, Assyrians in Armenia refer to themselves as Urmijenāye – people from Urmia – in reference to the lake district in Iran, the location of their ancestral villages. After the First World War, Assyrian refugees from across the former Ottoman Empire joined them. Assyrians across the former Soviet Union bear Russified surnames – Bit-Tumas became Tumasov, Bit-Yonan became Yonanov.

Over the following years, Assyrians migrated across the Soviet Union. Two Assyrian villages can be found in Georgia, and even one – appropriately named Urmia – in Russia’s southern Krasnodar Krai. Tens of thousands also inhabit Russia’s largest cities, the result of emigration from villages like Arzni, Dimitrov, Dvin, and Nor Artagers. 'We’re not many,' laughs one interviewee in Yerevan. 'But where there’s not quantity – there’s quality instead!'

A home to many speakers of Neo-Aramaic, Dvin is undergoing a linguistic revival.

Rediscovering faith

'Shlama, Rabi!' calls out a voice from a walnut tree; “Hello, Priest!” – words familiar to an Arabic or Hebrew speaker. Father Isaac Temris smiles at one of his congregants, harvesting the nuts for buyers at the markets in Yerevan, and the occasional priestly passer-by.

For the villagers of Verin Dvin on the Ararat Plain, subsistence farming is one way to make ends meet, though only just. Father Temris is an Assyrian from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has served as pastor in Verin Dvin since 2013. As Temris sees it, his role has been to help Assyrians in post-Soviet Armenia rediscover their ancestral faith. Cultural differences between Assyrians from traditional Christian communities Iraq and those raised under Soviet atheism exist, but are not insurmountable.

A native of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Father Isaac Temris serves as the priest of Mar Toma church in Verin Dvin

A home to many speakers of Neo-Aramaic, Dvin is undergoing a modest linguistic revival. The language is now taught to local Assyrian children using the traditional Estrangela script. At Father Temris’s initiative, the Mar Toma Church – built in 1828, but converted to a warehouse during the Soviet era – was restored with generous donations from Armenia, Iraq, and Europe. Father Temris also aspires to finish a new school to replace the decrepit structure currently in use. A frame of concrete breeze-blocks stands as testament to this aspiration, with a wrought iron fence displaying letters of the Assyrian alphabet. A white, blue and red Assyrian flag has been painted on a nearby gate.

Verin Dvin’s school has dedicated a small room for Assyrian cultural events and festivals. The Patriarch of the Nestorian Church and secular Assyrian intellectuals alike stare down at the childrens’ handiwork: cardboard models of ancient Nineveh and clay cuneiform tablets.

Modern Assyrian nationalism traces its descent back to the glories of the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire. Younger generations of Assyrians have names to match: young Sargons, Ninvehs, and Ashurs walk the streets of Verin Dvin alongside the more traditional Christian names like Thomas, Maryam, and Isaac. A gaudy painting of a lamassu – a winged lion or bull with a human head – hangs in Verin Dvin’s local administration building, flanked by Assyrian and Armenian flags. These mythical beasts have been sited as guardians at the entrances of important buildings for thousands of years. The ruins of several monumental specimens still stand in Iraq – or did until very recently, before ISIS destroyed them. Some have survived in Western museums, taken abroad in the nineteenth century by European archaeologists.

Sargon Sergeyev, a friend of Father Temris, asks me incredulously: 'You have come here to learn Assyrian history? It’s all with you – in the British Museum!' 'Verin Dvin?' snorts Edik Yunanov, a veteran community activist, over coffee. 'The name doesn't do it for me. I'd prefer an Assyrian name. Nineveh, perhaps.'

An ancient Assyrian 'Lamassu' hangs in the office of Ludmila Petrova, mayor of 'Aysori Dvin' (Assyrian Dvin)

Attendance at Mar Toma Church does not always meet Father Temris’s expectations, perhaps the result of residual anti-clericism in Soviet days, but also the emptying of the town of young people – they move aboard to work in Russia. Poor economic prospects, notes Arsen Mikhailov, Assyrian Community leader from the Atur Organization, are a major problem for everybody in Armenia, his own community are no exception.

'Unemployment,' wrote Soviet researcher Konstantin Matveev in 1979, 'is a constant scourge among the Assyrian community.' The Assyrian population of the country numbered 6,183 in 1976, and has since declined to 2,769 primarily due to emigration. Locked houses with the words 'Vadjarvum e' (For sale) are a common enough sight in Armenia’s villages, and the four Assyrian settlements are much the same. With relatives and work in large South Russian cities such as Krasnodar and Rostov, what is left to keep families in Verin Dvin?

What is left to keep families in Verin Dvin?

An era of stability

For most Assyrians, the late Soviet era was one of stability and a comfortable (if modest) life working on one of eight Assyrian-majority collective farms across the USSR. Soviet scholars such as Matveev portrayed the Assyrians of the USSR as living testimony to the hope the Soviets had to offer to the peoples of the Middle East living under European rule.

Nevertheless, some memories remained buried. Soviet Assyrians – or 'Aysors' as they became known – were largely isolated from other members of the 2-3 million strong Assyrian Diaspora. Priests were exiled, churches closed or – in the case of the church at Nor Artagers – dynamited.

Until the 1930s, the Assyrian language had to be written in a specially devised Latin alphabet: to better to isolate its speakers from their traditional religious literature. Assyrian intellectuals such as Fraidoon Atturaya (1891-1926), leader of the Assyrian Socialist Party, were executed, often accused of collaboration with the British to further their 'bourgeois nationalism'. The year 1949 saw mass deportations of Assyrians to Siberia, where many perished. In a particularly grim stroke of irony, as Assyrian journalist Ilya Vartanov noted in his 2001 memoirs, many deported Assyrians were accused of spying for Turkey.

Flags flying high

In light of the Assyrians’ history under Turkish rule, this accusation was farcical, at best. The Sayfo, as the Assyrian Genocide is known, saw the deaths of between 300,000 and 700,000 Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac people (alongside over a million Armenians) under the Young Turk leadership of the Ottoman Empire.

Pogroms continued in the newly formed states of Turkey and Iraq during the interwar era. Demonstrations in Yerevan raised the profile of the Armenian Genocide in the USSR from 1965 onwards, and over the following decades, Assyrians began to ask – what of their own genocide?

Memorial to victims of the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide, in central Yerevan, Republic of Armenia 
In central Yerevan, Armenian and Assyrian flags fly over a monument decorated with lamassu on Nalbandyan Street. In Armenian, Assyrian, English, and Russian, the monument commemorates the 'innocent Assyrian victims of 1915,' to whom it was dedicated in 2012. Compared to the neighbouring Armenian-Russian friendship monument, this one is easily overlooked, but is a landmark for the Assyrian community.

'The difference between the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide,' says Assyrian community activist Irina Sagradova, 'is that the Assyrian Genocide still continues.' A stark statement, but one keenly felt as the centenary of both genocides approaches with ISIS massacring and driving what is left of Syria and Iraq’s Assyrian communities into exile. The Armenian government is prepared to help Assyrian refugees – that is, if they can reach Armenia first. 
 
Sweden (home to a large Assyrian community) was for many years the only state to recognise the Assyrian Genocide, though others have joined it in recent months. Armenia has only just recognised the Sayfo. The country’s minorities play an important role in Armenia’s nation-building: a common understanding is that the modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples – Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis – who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.

The modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples – Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis – who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.

Yet a recent attempt to extend recognition to these peoples, on the initiative of Heritage Party MP Zaruhi Postanjyan was rejected in 2012, one ground being the vague wording of the draft bill, which urged the government to recognise the genocides of Assyrians, Greeks, Yezidis 'and others'. Sagradova herself submitted a bill, but to no avail, and debate dragged on among Armenian lawmakers on possible recognition.

On February 16, the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations adopted a draft statement 'on condemning the genocide of the Greeks and Assyrians perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey in 1914-1923'. On March 24, the statement – and the recognition it implies – was unanimously accepted by deputies of the Armenian Parliament.

The Gevargizov family of Dimitrov examine an Assyrian-language gravestone 
Turkish recognition – and the reparations some Assyrians believe it implies – remains a pipe dream. 'Armenia owes it to the Assyrians,' suggested one civil servant in Yerevan, 'they may have been attacked because the Turks believed them to be Armenian.' The same reasoning is suggested for why the Assyrian community of Khanlar, Azerbaijan fled as Armenia and Azerbaijan prepared for war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-1991.

'We have lived everywhere'

Returning from Dvin and planning a visit to Dimitrov, I paid a visit to Misha Sadoyev and shared my impressions of the community. Misha was also an Assyrian – the Assyrian, in fact, in Armenia’s musical world.

Misha is a master of the duduk and the zurna, traditional woodwind instruments he carves from apricot wood. Misha's handiwork covers the kitchen: frying pans full of apricot sawdust, reeds on the stove. He plays to his guests over glasses of apricot vodka. A few Armenians are perplexed that a master craftsman of their national instruments is not 'one of their own'. 'I'm not a chauvinist,' insisted a grocer, a refugee from Baku, 'but I believe that only one ethnic group should live in each state.'

Despite a pamphlet showing a map of Iraq lying on Sadoyev's dining room table bearing the words – in Arabic, English, and Neo-Aramaic – 'State of Assyria', the Assyrians do not have a state. They have lived everywhere. Misha's ancestors arrived in 1848 as the Bit-Sado family – well before the events of 1915.

Armenia is described as a homeland for the Assyrians, who have no homeland. Misha agrees, but he is nonetheless compelled to ask: 'why am I here?'

All photographs courtesy of the author

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