We can’t eat gold in Bristol Bay – An interview with Yup’ik spokesman Bobby Andrew

First published January 23, 2014 on Intercontinental Cry.

This interview was conducted by Hannibal Rhoades and Jennifer Huseman at the 7th Native Spirit Film Festival, which featured We Can’t Eat Gold. Our thanks go to Bobby Andrew and Joshua Tucker for sharing their stories with us, and in solidarity with the people of Bristol Bay.  

Bristol Bay, Alaska, has re-captured headlines as the battle to protect the area from the extractive industry continues. Last week the Pebble Mine Partnership‘s efforts to establish a vast gold mine in the region was dealt a devastating blow by the EPA’s latest watershed assessment. This extensive study definitively reveals that large-scale mining operations would have severe detrimental effects on local fisheries, wildlife and Native culture in the home of the world’s largest and most spectacular wild salmon runs.

For the people of Bristol Bay, and its precious ecosystems, this victory comes just months after mining giant Anglo-American’s surprise decision to withdraw from the project, and could herald the end of the Pebble Mine saga. This is the hope of Indigenous community groups such as Nunamta Aulukestai, Caretakers of the Land, who have been instrumental in resisting the mine, fiercely protecting their culture, livelihoods and their beautiful home of wide bays and winding rivers.

Here Bobby Andrew, a Native Yup’ik spokesman and staunch opponent of the mine, discusses the struggle so far, the importance of Indigenous solidarity, and the award winning film We Can’t Eat Gold, directed by Joshua Tucker.

Bobby Andrew, Native Yup’ik spokesman

Bobby Andrew (Photo: Gigi Marcantonio)


Hannibal Rhoades: How long have your people lived in the Bristol Bay area and what is their relationship to the salmon, the caribou and the land? 

Bobby Andrew: The Native People within the region have probably lived there for over 10,000 years. In some of the ecological studies I’ve read up on they’ve found remnants of the type of food our ancestors were eating way, way back. Our way of life is similar to back then, like the primary diet – the wild game like moose, caribou, beaver. Salmon is number one, basically because during the summer time when the salmon return we immediately start preserving the five species of salmon. They don’t all come in at once – The King salmon come in first, the Sockeye next. The Silvers and the Dog salmon come in mixed with the Sockeye. Many of the people currently preserve enough fish for the winter. If I was to estimate, my family, we save probably about 300 pounds of salmon, dried, canned or frozen. And this being the primary diet, I sure don’t want to lose it (due to mining).

HR: The CEO of the Pebble Partnership, John Shivley, has said that if they can’t build a mine that will co-exist with a healthy fishery they won’t build it. The EPA and Native Communities clearly feel it will have negative impacts.  What would the cultural impact be if the mine was built?

BA: It’s going to have an impact culturally if ever it is developed, but we’re not prepared to let that happen. Myself, I’m going on 72 and I have my grandchildren and various other young families have their children and their grandchildren who will be impacted. I sure would not like to see my errors be responsible for the need to clean the environment in perpetuity.

HR: Will the mine be built on land over which the Native groups have a specific claim?

BA: The mine site is located on state land. I am a state resident and part owner of those state lands. There are 700,000 residents or maybe more in the State of Alaska and we’re all part owners and have the right to a voice in state governance. But it seems like they only have half an ear for us.

Joshua Tucker (Director, We Can’t Eat Gold): It’s also important to note, Bobby, that you’re older than the state of Alaska! Alaska achieved statehood in 1959, yet for 10,000 years or more your people have lived here. This designation of state land is really recent.

Jennifer Huseman: What was the Native community’s opinion of the project in the very beginning?

BA: In 2003 the village corporations signed off an MOU to get their own management of our in-holding land. We invited the State of Alaska biologists and the mineral processors as well, and we invited Northern Dynasty Mining Companythere. And when they gave their presentation it sounded like a very good project because they were going to be creating many jobs.

Then right after that, we started working with a group located in Anchorage and decided to do a mine tour. We took sixteen leaders from the region and toured four mines in Nevada. But prior to touring those mines we had a meeting withWestern Shoshone tribes and a meeting with the Paiute tribes to see what experiences they had had when those mining companies came in and mined outside of their reservations.

JH: Was that for copper and gold as well?

BA: Copper and gold, uranium as well. They told us that mining companies are going to be making promises that they won’t damage the environment, that they will make jobs for the tribes, if there’s any environmental damage they’ll give compensation and repair it. Our question was: ‘what will they do after they close the mine?’ They told us the mining companies go bankrupt, this way they don’t have to pay the damages.

In Nevada the companies had provided money for the schools, they gave money to make grants to some individuals as well as to tribal governments, so they were basically buying off the leadership. Similar things have happened in Bristol Bay.

When we got back to Bristol Bay we did more in depth research into the mining industry and what they do. We partnered with Earthworks and they provided us with quite a bit of information that changed our minds. I was one of the supporters (of mining) in the very beginning because of the creation of jobs, and being a president of the village corporation I thought it would help us. But knowledge of the long-term environmental damage is what made many of us change our minds toward the project.


JH: What mining activities have already taken place and what impacts have you seen?

BA: I believe they’ve drilled 12-1500 boreholes and the contaminants they use have already impacted the water. They’ve already done damage to the water and there have been some hydrology studies by organizations that have studied the water quality and the salmon that are returning to their spawning areas. They’ve mapped the majority of the spawning areas that are there. The mine site is right by the river and we have five species of salmon right on the Nushagak river: King, Sockeye, Humpy, Silver and Dog salmon.

JH: I’ve been told that Bristol Bay is actually the largest salmon producing area in the world…

BA: Well it’s the world’s largest salmon producing area and we call it the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. We have three or four river systems that have salmon right in the area. The Nushagak river, the Kvichack River, the Ugashik River, the Koktuli River and further down the chain we have the rivers that flow into the Chignik Lake System. We also have, on the west side of the snake river, the Togiak river – all of those are rivers that produce salmon in the Bristol bay area. So there’s, let’s see, the fishing districts – there’s the Togiak, the Nushagak, the Kvichak, the Naknek River – we have the Nushagak River – so there are many rivers that have lakes, that are spawning areas for the five species of salmon.

JH: What do you think the impacts will be on the ecology of the area – considering all those waterways – if The Pebble Mine was to go through the way that the Northern Dynasty Company want them to?

BA: With the many systems of groundwater it (the impact of the mine) could go north or it could go south. It could go west, and east. There’s potentially going to be an impact on Lake Clark, the Tikchik Lake as well as the Togiak Lakes and others. Some of the river systems are located in tidal areas, so the water moves from the Nushagak River, from the Kvijack River down and then flows into the Bering Sea, and then up in a kind of circle. So any of the contaminants that were produced if there was ever a breakage with the tailings ponds may have an impact on all of the waters in the Bristol Bay area.


HR: How have Native communities been resisting the mine? What kind of positive actions have they been taking themselves?

BA: After we created Nunamta Aulukestai across the nine villages, what we did is we rotated the location of meetings (about the mine) on a monthly basis in each of those villages.  Each time we had the meeting we invited the biologists, the scientists and David Chambers who is an expert in minerals.  In addition to that, we invited the Pauite tribe from Nevada to help us educate each of the communities on what the impacts would be.

Many of the elders in each of the villages have their natural or traditional knowledge and they were telling people, like myself, what to expect in the future. Anything that comes in, any development in a specific area, can have an impact on the environment and our renewable resources. So the education process started way, way back.

JH: Are there any native communities that are still supportive of the project?

BA: Opinion surveys done in our region show that at least 98% of the people oppose the project. I am aware of two or three communities who supported the project because of the contract they had with the Pebble Ltd Partnership. Now with Anglo pulling out I’m not sure about those contracts, whether they’re still in existence or if they’ve pulled them all out.

When Anglo-American pulled out I got a call at about 5:30 in the morning and they said ‘have you heard’ I said, ‘no’ and that same day I had a call from KTUU, a television station in Anchorage and they were asking me questions. That took me off guard because I had barely heard anything about Anglo pulling out.

JH: There’s a lot of opposition to this project compared to others in Alaska, which as a state seems to largely support mining projects, and a lot of unlikely alliances happening. What are the dynamics of that?

BA: The State of Alaska, one of their goals is to develop the resources and that’s one of the problems we have. Even if we meet with the state legislators as well as the governor, they want to see those resources developed. As a resource owner I’m in opposition to that part of the constitution relating to resource development and their goals. But sometimes we have a voice at the state government level because we meet with our state legislators. What we did at the very beginning (of the resistance process) is educate our State legislators on what the impacts would be, especially on water and critical habitat areas. So education goes both ways.

Many times when I make a statement, my statements include the opinion of the impacted member villages, and the majority of those people do oppose the Pebble project and don’t want to see it occur. Just recently we had a board meeting in beside the Nushagak River and we heard an Elder who said:

“There is a change going on right now. The salmon are decreasing in their habitat spawning areas. The Caribou and the moose are moving away because of noise pollution occurring at the mine site.”

He also said that what we need to do is assist the Elders in educating the younger generation on what the impacts will be. I appreciated the fact that he spoke out, and that he spoke out in Yup’ik, our Native language. Many of the younger generation in attendance were agreeing with what he had to say. This is because the younger generation are the ones who are doing the hunting and fishing on the Nushagak river and are starting to see the changes. Many of the Elders are saying we must stop the project, don’t let them get into the permitting stages.

JH: I’ve heard that the commercial fishermen are also against the mine development?

BA: Yes, the commercial fishing industry is against it, the tourism industry is against it and the Native People within the region are totally against the project because without clean water and salmon in the region we won’t be able to survive. The basis of our whole diet is salmon.

HR: Do these communities feel they have been properly consulted. Has there been a fair public participation process? Do you feel you’ve been listened to by the Pebble Partnership?

BA: Going back, we’ve had the EPA involved since the very early stages educating on what their permitting requirements are, as well as the State of Alaska’s Natural Resources Department. They’ve come in and educated us on what the mining industry’s process is. So we’ve got the education from both sides, as well as having the opinions of others who have already been impacted by the mining industry. We’ve also gone to the EPA in Washington DC and spoken to their high level staff to give our opinions on the process since 2005. It’s been ongoing.

We had meetings with Northern Dynasty Minerals in Anchorage and met with their CEOs and the chairman of the board prior to the days of the Anglo-American annual shareholders meeting. We’ve also met with the CEO and Chair of Rio Tinto.

I think Anglo American has listened to us. That’s how I consider their decision (to withdraw from the Pebble Partnership) because of the environmental damages. Maybe there were other reasons, but that’s my opinion.

HR: Has the Pebble Mine Partnership used any unorthodox tactics to get you or others on side? 

BA: I’ll go back to one of the meetings we had with Anglo American. One of the individuals there asked me: ‘What can we do to make you change your mind?’  I’m not going to give any names, but my response was:

“Show me a mine that you operate worldwide, in any country, and give me a tour of that mine that has not contaminated the environment.”

I had an invitation from ex-Anglo-American CEO Cynthia Carrol that never came to fruition, that they would be giving me a tour. She’s gone now, and I don’t think another invitation will ever occur…

In some of the villages they’ve created what they call ‘community associates’ and they pay those individuals $100,000 a year, and they are the ears and eyes of the Partnership. They get involved with their tribal governments, their city governments as well as their corporate organization. I do believe that by paying those individuals they were basically buying them out.

A little bit later they started an Elders group. I don’t know how much they were paying those Elders to attend their meetings. One of those Elders I know, I talked to him. They wouldn’t give me any dollar amount because they don’t like any opposition, and being a strong, vocal opponent I think they were afraid to say anything.

JT: Bobby, there was also the Nuna that they created in the villages.

BA: Ah, let’s see, Nuna Resources was created by one of their (The Pebble Partnership’s) contractors. It was fully funded by the partnership. Since Anglo pulled out I don’t know where they stand because the Partnership was paying 100% of their funding.

JT: Nuna was filming its own documentary called the ‘The Villages’. This thing was super patronizing.

JH: So, you’ve been lobbying at the state level, educating your own people, educating younger people. Have you engaged on an international level? With the UN or other Indigenous Communities, say in Canada with the Tar Sands, who are facing similar issues?

BA: This project isn’t just a state-wide issue, it’s a global issue. Having traveled globally I try to educate whoever I meet with of the dangers and risks of the projects and tell them that these are too high for the environment and for us, the Indigenous community, nationwide, worldwide.

HR: As far as you’re concerned, would it be a direct violation of your rights to Free Prior and Informed Consent under the UNDRIP if the mine were to go ahead?

BA: If the mining company were to go into production it would be a violation of the UNDRIP. In working with the Paiute tribe who have close connections with the UN, what we did is we provided a copy of all the resolutions that were opposing the Pebble Project through the Paiute to show we do oppose it. I don’t remember exactly when the UN Rapporteur came to meet with the tribal governments in Dillingham, I think I was traveling, so I never had the opportunity to talk with the representative.


HR: To support the campaign to stop the mine you’ve created the ‘We Can’t Eat Gold’ film. How did that come about and what are its aims?

Joshua Tucker (Director of ‘We Can’t Eat Gold’): I’m a public radio journalist and I was reporting for Alaska Public Radio. I would go to these Department of Natural Resources meetings with communities. I’d fly in a little plane off the road systems. I felt like the subsistence users, the people who have the traditional ecological knowledge, who live off the land passing down knowledge over 250 generations, I felt like in these meetings with the state they became the quiet person in the back of the room who doesn’t really get heard.  So I went to my editors and said I wanted to do something big about the Pebble Mine, and they said, well, the Pebble mine is our number one underwriter so you really can’t do anything there. I said, okay I’ll do it on my own then. The intention all along was to open a space for Alaskan Native elders and youth to share their ways of life. It’s a key principle for me in journalism to go to where the silence is; that the story is where people are not being heard, not where they’re being heard all the time.

We made the documentary classroom length, 45 minutes, so that hopefully within educational circles people will understand the value of passing on traditional ecological knowledge and be able to hear from people like Bobby and the elders who are the scientists of their community.

BA:  I didn’t realize I even made the statement ‘We Can’t Eat Gold’ because I’ve made so many different public statements for Nunumta Aulukestai. Each time I speak it’s coming from the heart and in the very beginning we’d be given written statements to say and I felt uncomfortable in that situation because it had to come from the heart, because we live it and I don’t want to see our way of life being changed by something we don’t want. I feel they can get gold and copper from somewhere else. The location for the mine site is wrong because of the habitat area for the salmon and other big game. It’s going to have an impact on too many people. The salmon fishing industry, the sports fishing industry and first and foremost it’s going to hurt the Indigenous people in the region. I’m doing this not for myself but for future generations.

HR: Bobby, do you have a message for the international community or for the many communities facing similar challenges around the world?

BA: For the international community and for communities anywhere around the world where there’s a mining claim. What they need to do is educate the people that are going to be impacted by the mining company and they need to really look at what the promises are and whether they can keep those promises. Because many times those promises aren’t kept. If a partnership or a mining company sells out to another mining company, the promises can be broken that way. That is what we learned from the Western Shoshone tribe. If ownership changes, those promises are no longer there.

If communities are going to be in opposition they need to organize and start partnering with other environmental groups at their state level, at the national level and at the global level. Which we have done. They also need to help their leaders attend the meetings mining companies may have among their communities and learn what their plans are. You need to keep on top of what their plans are because they change; what their permitting processes are; what your governments policies are on mineral extraction because each country’s policies are different.

See the following links for more information on current events surrounding the proposed Pebble Mine: 

Jennifer Huseman is currently undertaking her PhD at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and is a project researcher at the Human Rights Consortium, both at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has worked as a researcher and activist in both the US and UK for over a decade on the often interconnected issues of indigenous struggles for land, dignity, self-determination, the environment, women’s rights and genocide studies.  Since 2007, the primary focus of Jennifer’s work has been investigating the impacts of Canada’s tar sands oil industry on Native North Americans.

The next crisis: Student debt

By Manette Kaisershot

Manette Kaisershot is a postgraduate researcher in finance and human rights at the University of London.  She is originally from California, but now lives in Surrey.  She has been in higher education in both the US and the UK, and is particularly interested in credit, debt and their human rights impacts.

The effects of huge debt burdens are already being felt by the majority of graduates in the US. Is the UK treading a similarly dangerous path? How will the UK’s service-based economy function with increasing costs of education and basic human needs such as housing, most of which now require increasing amounts of credit? Should debt – as it is so essential to our economies and lives –be considered a human rights issue?

Student Debt

Financial experts say that student debt in America has the potential to be the next catalyst for a major financial crisis like the one experienced in 2008 when the sub-prime mortgage sector in America collapsed, pulling many of the world’s strongest economies into recession (from which, one can argue, they still haven’t emerged).  Populist media, such as the documentary Inside Job, highlight the ways in which financial institutions were instrumental in the economic crash; manipulating the market to work in the favor of elite investors and leaving the burden of the recession on the shoulders of the rest of society.

In the US social spending was cut and then cut some more – a real strain for those living in a nation that has no nationalized health services and where other public services are already under-funded, hard to access, and scarce. In the UK the recession and subsequent ‘austerity’ measures meant cuts to important public services such as legal aid, unemployment benefits, educational funding, public sector jobs – the list could go on and on. Pair the cuts on social spending with other socio-political factors: wage stagnation, continuing high unemployment, rises in university fees, and price rises for such essentials as transportation and energy – to name a few – and the picture that begins to emerge is a bleak one.

“Do such heavy financial burdens bode well for higher education in general?”

According to Forbes Online the student debt in America is over $1 trillion, with 11.5% of loan holders over 90 days delinquent with loan repayments. While other types of debt have seen a reduction in late payments, student debt delinquency continues to rise – as do the interest rates on these enormous loans. One in three loan holders say they would have been better off working than going into higher education. The burden of debt is affecting the ability for young Americans to buy homes, start businesses, or otherwise engage in activity that requires a bulk of capital upfront – i.e. savings. Unlike other kinds of debt in the US, student debt cannot be eliminated in bankruptcy proceedings. Furthermore, the student debt market is being likened to the mortgage market prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Or, in other words, huge amounts of money are loaned to high-risk individuals who have no history of credit or collateral to secure the debt. Yes, the debt is American, but the crisis will – again – impact beyond national borders and will affect more than just those burdened with student debt.

The situation in the UK is increasingly mimicking that in America. The UK outsources many of its jobs to nations overseas where costs are less and regulation is minimal. As a result, the UK now has an economy based on human capital. It is as important to the state as a whole as it is to the individual that the UK continues to turn out one educated, creative, and innovative generation after the next. However, considering that a growing number of new graduates feel their university degrees were, essentially, an expensive piece of paper, will future generations be as likely to engage in higher education?

Do such heavy financial burdens bode well for higher education in general? How will these burdens work within an economic model that relies on an educated public? In light of the obsession with economic competition and growth, how will this make Britain’s future generations competitive and innovative in the ways that are necessary to keep up the never-ending pursuit of economic growth?

There are also social expectations that cannot be ignored when it comes to higher education: struggling young Britons (and Americans) were told (perhaps by their baby-boomer parents) that a university education would result in better jobs, higher-paid jobs, a better life, a higher quality of life. This is the same generation of investors, policy makers, politicians that are enforcing the current situation in which salaries are stagnating, interest rates are stagnating (meaning, at the moment, if you are saving money you are actually losing money as inflation is higher than the savings rate offered by your typical high street bank), but tuition fees are on the rise. With one hand they give; with the other they take away.

Think back to your time in school. Did the teachers explain to you how to pay your taxes? Did they teach you what your taxes would go towards? Did they teach you how to register to vote or how to understand local or national policy? Did they teach you about finance? Investing? How to open a bank account? What pensions are and how they work? They taught us how ancient Egyptians made papyrus, but not what interest rates were and how they work. How were we expected to understand the implications of what life would be like under the burden on a mountain of debt when we weren’t taught the basic skills needed to live in an increasingly financialized world?

“Equal opportunities in education are important for minimizing the ever-increasing gulf between classes.”

Unless schools start teaching complex critical thinking and mathematical skills – the kind needed in order to be an informed, responsible, and productive member of society – then a university education should be free to those who want it or feel they need it in order to compete, understand, and belong to a world that seems to be unendingly complex.

Consider next part-time education, graduate courses, or professional qualifications: many of these courses in the UK are not funded by educational loans. Students in these circumstances, therefore, must borrow the money needed to complete their education in the form of a ‘career development loan’, which often required the borrower to start paying the loan back before they have completed their education, regardless of their employment status or salary level (not to mention the interest rates on these loans, the amount of time one has to repay them it, nor the unwillingness of banks to negotiate repayments should recently graduated students fall on hard times).

Take, for example, those engaged in the study of law: a student loan is offered for undergraduate education in law, but in order to become a solicitor or barrister the student must continue on to qualify by enrolling in a course that no state-backed educational funding will cover. Why should a student be given educational loans for an undergraduate course in law by the government, but not be allowed to complete their education with the courses necessary for them to secure the employment that their undergraduate training prepares them for? As a result, it is more difficult for individuals who do not enjoy the privileges of personal or family wealth to pursue a career that requires formal qualifications. In the case of law, this means that it is more likely that those seeking a place in the legal profession are from a certain kind of privileged socio-economic background; they are the ones that will end up practicing law. This potentially impacts the balance and perspective the legal system needs in order to be just and fair.  This is only one example in one industry – the wider-reaching implications of this example can be seen in many other industries. Equal opportunities in education are important for minimizing the ever-increasing gulf between classes.

“Does the cost of running a university justify the expense to the student?”

The UK, it seems, has rediscovered the beauty of privatization. Security, health, even the mail! It is all up for grabs in the fallout of recession. ‘Crony capitalism’ is one term that comes mind.  For every company or industry that goes private there is undoubtedly some ‘fat cat’ watching his ever-expanding bank account grow and grow.

Privatization has now also hit the UK student debt market. Government loan holders are selling on the student debt to private companies often without the consent of those who hold the loans. The agency an individual has to address wrongs with a private company are severely limited: public law does not reach corporations and, therefore, there is no way for these private companies, though they fulfill a public function, to be held accountable for bad practice and rights violations. What will this mean for university students whose government loans are passed on to private companies? How will their rights be affected? Will they, like those students who take our personal loans to complete their educational training, be subject to the harsh treatment of private lending intuitions?

Additionally, there is no barometer – either in the UK or the US – for measuring the appropriateness of a course and the subsequent loans that will needed to pay for it. For example, a student in the US could attend a $40,000-a-year art university and emerge from a four-year course in fine arts, but with very little potential to earn. How is that student expected to pay back a loan reaching far into six figures? Furthermore, in this especially unrelenting climate of job scarcity, low wages, and unemployment, allowing an 18 year-old to commit to spending the rest of their lives with this mass debt burden hanging over their head like a dark cloud is criminal. That 18 year-old isn’t to blame for being brought up in a world where they are taught that ‘anything is possible’ and to ‘follow your dreams’ and all of the rags-to-riches fairytales that are part and parcel of the ever-elusive capitalist ‘American Dream’. This reality also leads to other interesting questions such as: are universities priced to cost? If you consider the same $40,000-a-year tuition – per student per year – does the outcome of that degree justify the cost?  Does the cost of running a university justify the expense to the student?

But what is the alternative? A student debt jubilee is a popular idea in the US, but what happens to the next generation of university students? If student loans were no longer extended it would have a hugely detrimental effect on academia.  It might cause unemployment and closure of educational institutions. Those whose parents could not afford to help them through university would be completely unable to pursue higher education – much to the detriment of the economy and perhaps the intellectual advancement of society as a whole. Though the situation is dire – almost at crisis point – the alternatives are similarly distressing.

Those of us in the UK and US have a very dependent, very important relationship with credit: we need it. It is increasingly the case that we rely on credit to obtain the things in life that we deem necessary: education, housing, and transportation. Many people, when faced with a shortage on income obtain those things that they need (i.e. energy, food, clothes) by credit. When credit has become the means by which we access our rights (for example, our right to education, our right to housing – both defined as human rights in the United Nation’s Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) then our credit – and by extension our debt – needs to be duly protected.

What happens to the person who falls on hard time or slips up and cannot pay back their debt? They are then punished with a bad credit score, making it difficult or even impossible to secure for themselves housing, future loans, credit cards, and in some cases insurance, health care, or jobs.

Credit – that is exists, that we rely on it, that it makes us feel powerless, sad, angry, hopeless, that it makes us despair, that we need it just to cover the basics – is a big issue, a human rights issue, and it needs to be regarded as such. The economic rights of those who shoulder the massive burden of student debt in the US have been to date largely ignored – but ignoring the situation has become increasingly more difficult.  The looming US student debt crisis should be closely examined by those in the UK intent on increasing fees and privatizing student debt.

If crisis point is reached – in either country – will the students be given the same bailout packages as the banks? It seems highly unlikely, but we shall have to wait and see.

Human Rights Day 2013 – Standing firm on the Human Rights Act

On the evening of Human Rights Day 2013, the Human Rights Consortium are supporting the following event on the UK Human Rights Act in Westminster:

HR leaflet final_Page_1


HR leaflet final_Page_2

The Director of the Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, has signed the following letter that has been published in today’s Daily Telegraph:

Standing firm on the Human Rights Act

Britain’s commitments on Human Rights Day

SIR – Sixty-five years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we ask political leaders to acknowledge the continued relevance of human rights globally and here at home. As leaders of civil society groups, we see the vital role of human rights in ensuring a fair and healthy democracy, helping us all to live with dignity and respect. Yet while human rights are so often the inspiration for domestic law across the world, they rarely feature in current Westminster rhetoric.

This Human Rights Day, we ask political leaders to ensure that Britain’s recent commitments at the United Nations Human Rights Council to “work tirelessly for the promotion and protection of human rights, both domestically and abroad” are made a reality. We hope that Britain will stand firm on the European Convention on Human Rights and our Human Rights Act. Both of these were inspired by the UDHR and provide vital protection.

Stephen Bowen, Director, British Institute of Human Rights

Professor Francesca Klug, Chair, British Institute of Human Rights

Asif Afridi, Co-Chair, English Regions Equality and Human Rights Network

Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

Amanda Ariss, Chief Executive, Equality and Diversity Forum

Tom Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People

Rob Berkeley, Director, Runnymede Trust

Adrian Berry, Chair, Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association

Keith Best, Chief Executive Officer, Freedom From Torture

Julie Bishop, Director, Law Centres Network

Carol Boys, Chief Executive, Down’s Syndrome Association

Zrinka Bralo, Executive Director, Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum

Paul Breckell, Chief Executive, Action on Hearing Loss

Susan Bryant, Director, Rights Watch UK

Linda Burnip, Co-Founder, Disabled People Against Cuts

Jabeer Butt, Deputy Chief Executive, Race Equality Foundation

Annie Campbell, Director, Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland

Neil Campbell, CEO, Alternative Futures Group

Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary, the Royal College of Nursing

Rita Chadha, Chief Executive Officer, Refugee & Migrant Forum of East London

Shami Chakrabarti, Director, Liberty

Professor Sara Chandler, Chair of the Human Rights Committee, Law Society

Ann Chivers, Chief Executive, BILD (British Institute of Learning Disabilities)

Karen Chouhan, Chair, Equanomics

Barbara Cohen, Chair Discrimination Law Association

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive British Humanist Association

Martin Coyle, Director, Trust Voice

Sister Colette Cronin, Congregational Leader, Institute of Our Lady of Mercy Sisters of Mercy

Frances Crook, Chief Executive, Howard League for Penal Reform

Lynda Dearlove, Chief Executive, Officer women@thewell

Helen Shaw and Deborah Coles, Co-Directors INQUEST

Tom Doyle, Chief Executive, Yorkshire MESMAC Group of Services

Holly Dustin, Director, End Violence Against Women (EVAW)

Dr Mark Ellis, Executive Director International Bar Association

Pat Elsmie, Director, Migrants’ Rights Scotland,

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive Officer, National Council of Voluntary Organisations

Ceri Goddard, Chief Executive Officer, Fawcett

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

Gary Fitzgerald, Chief Executive, Action on Elder Abuse

Don Flynn, Director, Migrants Rights Network

Alison Gelder, Chief Executive, Housing Justice

Penelope Gibbs, Director, Transform Justice

Brian Gormally, Director, CAJ (Committee on the Administration of Justice)

Carolina Gottardo, Director, Latin American Women’s Rights Services

Professor Martin Green, Chief Executive Officer, English Community Care Association

Andy Gregg, Chief Executive, ROTA (Race on the Agenda)

Rob Greig, Chief Executive, National Development Team for Inclusion

Paula Hardy, Chief Executive, Welsh Women’s Aid

Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive, Scope

Jeff Hawkins, Chief Executive, Age Connect Wales

Vivienne Hayes, Chief Executive Officer, Women’s Resource Centre

Helena Herklots, Chief Executive, Carers UK

Steve Hynes, Director, Legal Action Group (LAG)

Deborah Jack, Chief Executive, NAT (National Aids Trust)

Vaughan Jones, Chief Executive, Praxis

Joyce Kallevik, National Director, Wish

Des Kelly, Executive Director, National Care Forum

Faiza Khan, Deputy Chief Executive, National Council for Voluntary Youth Services

Abdul Khan, Chief Executive Officer, BECON

Maia Kruger, Coordinator, Songololo Feet

Ratna Lachman, Director, JUST West Yorkshire

Shauneen Lambe, Director, Just for Kids Law

Marai Larasi, Executive Director, Imkaan

Annette Lawson, Chair, NAWO

Annette Lawson, Chair, Judith Trust

Shauna Leven, Director, Rene Cassin

David Mepham, UK Director, Human Rights Watch

Wayne Myslik, Chief Executive, Asylum Aid

Polly Neate, Chief Executive Officer, Women’s Aid

Peter Newell, Coordinator, Children are unbeatable! Alliance

Priscilla Nkwenti, Chief Executive BHA for Equality

Kunle Olulode, Chief Executive Voice4Change England

Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director, FORWARD

Simon Parkinson, Director for External Relations & Communities Royal Mencap Society

Kath Parson, Chief Executive, Older Peoples Advocacy Alliance

Elizabeth Prochask, Founder, Birthrights

Dr Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director The Equal Rights Trust

Dave Prentis, General Secretary, UNISON

Habib Rahma, Chief Executive JCWI

Mohammed Razaq, Executive Director West of Scotland Regional Equality Council Ltd

Bridget Robb, Chief Executive Officer British Association of Social Workers

Ewan Roberts, Manager Asylum Link

Paul Roberts, Chief Executive Officer, LGBT Consortium

Sarah Rochira, The Older People’s Commissioner for Wales

Revd Roberta Rominger, General Secretary The United Reformed Church

Alexandra Runswick, Director Unlock Democracy

Jago Russell, Chief Executive, Fair Trials International

Eithne Rynne, Chief Executive Officer, London Voluntary Services Council

Caroline Sagar, Chief Executive, n-compass NorthWest

Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director, United Nations Association – UK

Liz Sayce, Chief Executive Officer Disability Rights UK

Emma Scott, Director Rights of Women

Damien Short, Director Human Rights Consortium, University of London

Hannana Siddiqui, Coordinator Southall Black Sisters

Samantha Smethers, Chief Executive Grandparents Plus

Carol Storer, Director Legal Aid Practitioners Group

Robert Sutherland, Convener SCOLAG

Andy Thornton, Chief Executive Citizenship Foundation

Paola Uccellari, Director Children’s Rights Alliance for England

Aneeta Prem and Vineeta Thorhill, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Freedom Charity

Debbie Walker, Chief Executive Age UK East London

Paul Ward, Acting Chief Executive Terrance Higgins Trust

Phillip Watson, Chief Executive Manor Gardens Welfare Trust

Chris Whitwell, Director Friends, Families and Travellers

Maurice Wren, Chief Executive, Refugee Council

Patrick Yu, Executive Director Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities

Prof Katja Ziegler, Director, Centre for European Law and Internationalism

Mainstreaming business and human rights: what implications?

by Sumi Dhanarajan

Sumi Dhanarajan was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) from June–August 2013 and is an alumni of the MA in Human Rights at ICWS. She is currently undertaking a full-time PhD in Law at the National University of Singapore.

Google ‘business and human rights’ today and you will get over 800,000,000 hits. In 1997, the year I started the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the phrase was far from common currency.

My first introduction to the issue was actually through a job advertisement placed by Oxfam in March 1998. It featured a photograph of a woman from the Dominican Republic. Alongside her portrait ran an account of the abusive working conditions and the precarious terms of employment she faced as a garment worker in one of the many factories supplying multinational apparel companies. Oxfam was seeking to recruit a Business Standards Adviser to take forward its engagements with a number of UK-based clothing companies that it had recently targeted in one of its first campaigns against corporations. The Clothes Code Campaign called upon these companies to take responsibility for sweatshop conditions in their global supply-chains by implementing labour codes of conduct.

Before studying for the MA, my professional experience had been categorically within the civil and political rights domain. The MA programme however, with its multidisciplinary approach and the invaluable exposure it gave students to individuals working across the human rights spectrum and the multidimensional nature of human rights gave me the courage to apply for the job. That, and the look in the woman’s eyes.

“the advocacy team covered labour standards in global supply chains”

I was lucky. The interview panel took a leap of faith and offered me the post. (I was later told that they liked my honesty about not having any experience whatsoever in development or labour standards or companies! Suffice to say, I am not sure how far that would have gotten me in today’s competitive environment!). In the ten years following, I had the unique opportunity to play a small part in growing the business and human rights agenda through Oxfam’s work.

My work in the advocacy team covered labour standards in global supply chains in the apparel and supermarket sectors, right to health issues bound up in the pharmaceutical industry’s responsibilities with regard to access to medicines, human rights abuses in the extractive sector and in agricultural commodity chains.

This summer, some fifteen years after graduating from ICWS, I returned as a visiting fellow to engage with their Human Rights Consortium’s Corporate Power and Human Rights Project. The fellowship primarily supported my doctoral research which investigates the interactions between private, self-regulatory human rights regimes (such as those used by companies and multistakeholder initiatives) and public or state-based human rights regimes. This is with a view to understanding how the dynamic and outcomes of these interactions affect human rights praxis in a domestic context. But more on this later.

“During that time business and human rights was perceived as occupying a niche part of the broader CSR agenda”

Being back at ICWS also prompted a personal reflection on what has become of the business and human rights agenda. It is certainly much larger and more prominent today both in the governance space as well as in the public consciousness. That has not always been the case. In my view, business and human rights as an issue led the charge in calling for corporate accountability back in the mid-nineties, but then gave way to the emerging corporate social responsibility – or CSR – agenda with its ever-expanding portfolio which included philanthropy, environmental sustainability, sustainable development, base-of-pyramid investments and such like. During this period, business and human rights was perceived as occupying a niche part of the broader CSR agenda – where the radicals hung out and did battle with the more egregious perpetrators of rights abuses. This was the time when the UN Norms on Business and Human Rights – the first attempt at the international level to address the problem – were damned for being misaligned with what companies (and states) were prepared to do to address the rights-violatory aspects of business operations.

Then began the mandate of the UN Special Representative. In the six years that followed, the business and human rights agenda shifted from niche to mainstream. Whether this shift can be wholly attributed to the mandate and the development of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is, I think, worth a deeper look. It may be that the Guiding Principles tracked the inevitable evolution of the agenda brought about by exposure, experience, and increased capacity on the part of all the key actors. A point of critical mass was reached.

“concerns with the effects of institutional-isation”

Nevertheless, the Guiding Principles aptly capture (or maybe anticipate?) comfort levels and provide a useful framework to guide practices in this field. Their value is in reinforcing who is responsible for what – states have duties to protect; companies, the responsibility to respect – and in laying out what those responsibilities entail. The due diligence aspects as captured in the ‘corporate responsibility to respect’ pillar of the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework of the Guiding Principles have gained much traction.

Yet, with the mainstreaming of any agenda come concerns with the effects of institutionalisation. My own work intuitively reacts to these. And so to my study into how self-regulatory or non-state based regulatory regimes affect the way different groups of actors understand and behave towards human rights: One hypothesis contemplates these kinds of regulatory regimes – which could include company codes of conduct and company-operated grievance mechanisms, or multistakeholder initiatives that address corporate compliance with human rights standards – dampening the emancipatory qualities of human rights. This effect could be in the form of choking off resistance or struggle, or indeed changing perceptions of what are just remedies for human rights violations. (Is monetary compensation a just remedy for the loss of land rights, or the right to clean water or housing or health?) An alternative hypothesis sees a positive role for these private forms of regulation. For example, they may encourage or foster a ‘jurisprudence of ethics’[1] within the private space that then influences the human rights narrative in the public regulatory space.

Many of the questions that are raised in my study ultimately converge upon a broader inquiry into what these private forms of regulation for human rights mean for the future of human rights. One challenge that I see is the lack of adequate attention being paid to these implications. I hope that projects such as the Corporate Power and Human Rights project will encourage much needed research into this problem.

Sumi previously served as a Human Rights Officer to the Malaysian Bar Council, Senior Legal Adviser to the Hong Kong Democratic Party’s Secretariat for Legislative Councillors and as a Senior Policy Adviser and Private Sector Team Leader at the international development agency, Oxfam GB. Upon moving to Singapore, she led the Public Roles of the Private Sector Programme at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy from 2009-2011. Her advisory roles include being an editorial board member of the Journal of Human Rights Practice, a trustee to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and council member to the World Economic Forum’s Human Rights Global Agenda Council for 2012–2014.

Sumi holds an LLB from Durham University, an MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights from the University of London, and an LLM in Asian Legal Studies from the National University of Singapore.

[1] Simon Chesterman, The Turn to Ethics: Disinvestment from Multinational Corporations for Human Rights Violations – The Case of Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund (2008) New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers, Paper 84, at p.605. Accessed at <http://lsr.nellco.org/nyu_plltwp/84>


Visit to Migration Museum Project exhibition at Senate House

By Kai, student at Southfields Academy, London

Kai HRC blogMy name is Kai, I am 15 years old, and I was one of the pupils from Southfields Academy that attended the Migration Museum Project’s ‘100 Images of Migration’ exhibition at Senate House in October with others from my school to learn more about cultural diversity. Our school try their best to help us learn about different subjects in all kinds of ways; for example by taking us to the exhibition.

We went to the exhibition because in Health and Social Care we are learning about cultural diversity and our teacher thought the Migration Museum Project would be a good idea to help us understand cultural diversity and more. The photograph I liked the most was the one of the Somalian mum and her child as they looked very happy and excited, the picture was taken in Brighton which is a perfect setting to go with their mood.  They looked very happy; it made me feel happy to see how excited they were despite their story.

The picture that had the most impact on me is the one of the black guy getting harassed before getting arrested in the race riots that happened in Lewisham; this has an impact on me as I am from a multi-cultured background and see these kinds of events on an almost everyday basis.

map sweets HRC blog

I learnt how diverse the UK is and, more specifically, I learnt about diversity within our own classroom through placing sweets on a map to represent where our grandparents and parents had come from. I also learnt how many different cultures there are within England. The images in the exhibition notified me about how diverse our country is and has been throughout history.

“I would recommend this to other groups like ourselves; it benefitted us as we were able to look at how migration has moulded the UK into the way it is today.”

I think people from all backgrounds should see this exhibition and use it to help them understand just how people from different backgrounds have interacted with each other over here in the UK over the years.

PhD student view: building the Corporate Power & Human Rights Project

By Manette Kaisershot

Manette Kaisershot, PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has developed the Human Rights Consortium's new Corporate Power & Human Rights project.

Manette Kaisershot, PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has developed the Human Rights Consortium’s new Corporate Power & Human Rights project.

In my undergraduate degree at UCLA in English Literature I asked for advice from a teaching assistant (TA) I admired. I was debating if I should go on to study literature at the doctoral level. The TA’s advice was in the realm of: only do a PhD if you feel like there is nothing else you want to do more. As it turned out, though I enjoyed my studies in Literature enough to do a master’s degree in it, I lacked the passionate engagement that is a prerequisite for the doctoral study of any subject.

After doing a subsequent master’s degree in finance I had enough righteous indignation and academic interest to make the decision to study it further. I had developed a distaste for finance, but also an insatiable curiosity for the subject that the only logical conclusion, in my mind at least, was to study finance from a human rights perspective.  My TA’s advice was solid: it takes a certain amount of passion and dedication to the research to complete the challenge of a doctorate.

Continue reading

HRC conference brings cutting-edge human rights research to London

By Helle Abelvik-Lawson and Chloe Pieters

Chancellor’s Hall, Senate House, Migration Museum Exhibition at AHRI 2013

In September 2012, the HRC’s Associate Director Dr Corinne Lennox and newly-appointed Human Rights Project Officer Helle Abelvik-Lawson had the pleasure of going to Vienna for the Association of Human Rights Institutes (AHRI) 13th Annual Conference.  The AHRI network was supported by COST Action funding (COST being shorthand for European Cooperation in Science and Technology) and many delegates came from over 40 member institutions to participate.

At the end of the conference, the new Chair institute was appointed – the Danish Institute of Human Rights – but with funding running out, there were clear challenges ahead for the network.  Dr Lennox offered the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as the 2013 conference venue in order to enable the annual conference – which brings together so many academics to share ideas and develop collaborations – to go ahead as planned.

“This network enables researchers to meet, collaborate, explore new questions and respond to challenges”

Fast forward a year to September 2013.  At 9am on the morning of Monday the 9th, the first participants filtered through the doors of the Chancellor’s Hall, past the ‘100 Images of Migration’ exhibition which had been lent by the UK’s Migration Museum for the conference (and beyond).

The conference began with a welcome from the School of Advanced Study’s Deputy Dean, Professor Philip Murphy, who is also the Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He outlined the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ commitment to providing a world-class human rights programme in postgraduate education and research.  Dr Damien Short then welcomed participants as Director of the HRC, briefly introducing our projects and publication work.

Dr Jonas Christoffersen, the Executive Director of the Danish Institute of Human Rights, introduced the speakers on the first of two panels exploring ‘Emerging Research in Human Rights’.  Full details of the workshops in which delegates participated are available here.

Particularly touching was Dr Christoffersen’s welcome speech. He told the conference that, as he was preparing his speech, he posed the questions to himself

“Do we want AHRI? Do we need AHRI?”

His answer was clear as he saw almost 100 delegates sitting in Senate House that morning – clearly, we do want AHRI, and until human rights are fulfilled all over the world, research in human rights will always be relevant and necessary.  This network enables researchers to meet, collaborate, explore new questions and respond to challenges in ways they might not otherwise be able to.

Continue reading