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Freedom of the press: an essential cornerstone of human and civil rights


Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, an outcome of a 2013 United Nations General Assembly resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. Drawing on a range of resolutions and human rights treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which affirms the right to freedom of expression, the General Assembly recognised the importance of a free media to the upholding of democracy, peace and good governance. However, the General Assembly also noted with concern the fact the journalists’ work often puts them at risk of harm, and that protection of journalists is compromised by impunity for their attackers. Four years on from the initial adoption of this resolution, which followed the 2012 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, is the world safer for journalists?

What is freedom of the press?

Freedom of the press is a manifestation of the freedom of expression, often considered a cornerstone of other freedoms; as civilians, journalists are exercising their rights to freedom of expression in the course of their day-to-day work. Attacks on journalists therefore constitute a major threat to freedom of expression more generally, and indeed violence against journalists is often accompanied by other attempts to thwart communication by and between citizens.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies has established a project on Media Freedom in the Commonwealth to examine, analyse and draw attention to threats to freedom of the media in the 52 countries which make up the Commonwealth, to consider the links between different ways in which the media is silenced, and to develop ideas for how the Commonwealth Secretariat can support the upholding of the right to freedom of expression in member states.

One way of supporting journalists is challenging impunity for their attackers. Impunity for crimes against journalists can be deeply entrenched. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has published its Global Impunity Index, Getting Away with Murder, annually since 2008: eight countries have appeared on this list since it was first published. Since 1992, only 13% of murder cases against journalists have resulted in prosecutions. Impunity was identified as a major challenge to media freedom across the Commonwealth by several speakers at a conference in April 2017 which launched the Media Freedom in the Commonwealth project. In some countries the only possible challengers of violence against journalists are journalists and media workers themselves, who therefore place themselves at further risk by speaking out against attacks on their colleagues.

There are some early signs that the Commonwealth Secretariat is taking threats to the freedom of the media across the Commonwealth seriously. Delivering a keynote speech at the April conference, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, called for greater co-operation between civil society and the Commonwealth Secretariat to realise a shared vision on media freedom. This, she hoped, could become the foundation for a doctrine on media freedom and good governance similar to the Latimer House Principles, which govern issues around separation of powers in Commonwealth countries.

The picture in 2017

Photograph courtesy of Anna M Weaver

So far, the CPJ has recorded 11 murders of journalists where the motive for killing was a direct reprisal for their work. Five of these murders occurred in Mexico alone, largely related to the journalists’ coverage of organised criminal activities. (Latin America and the Caribbean was the second-deadliest region for journalists in 2014-15, accounting for 24% of all murders of journalists globally in this period). A further 15 journalists have died in 2017 as a result of being caught in crossfire and combat, most in Iraq and Syria. Unsurprisingly, as print media declines and online news outlets become more prominent, the number of online journalists murdered is rising. This is accompanied by a trend of violence against citizen journalists and bloggers – and sometimes even users of social media. While a by-the-numbers approach suggests the picture is improving slightly for journalists – 2015 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in the last decade, for example, with 115 journalists being killed – a complacent view of the right to freedom of expression is not yet warranted.

Threats to media freedom and freedom of expression go beyond physically attacking, harassing and killing journalists: governments exercise a range of techniques to silence news organisations, including through internet shutdowns, such as those which occurred during the Ugandan elections of 2016, or through restrictive laws ranging from libel and defamation to sedition to anti-cyber crime. Such attacks on the media’s ability to challenge governments serve to highlight both the fragility of democratic institutions and the hugely important role a responsible media plays in underpinning democracy by challenging corruption, monitoring elections and acting as a barometer for freedom of expression more widely.

The Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights covers topics of contemporary relevance in human rights, including issues surrounding freedom of expression, assembly, and the interactions between securing human rights and strengthening democracy. The degree is now also offered by distance learning with the University of London’s International Programmes.

Reminding ‘Power’ about the historical importance of ‘Truth’


By Adam Hughes Henry*

Annotation on Letter from KFX Burns South East Asian Department, 23 June 1981 in in UK Policy toward East Timor FCO15/2992, National Archives, United Kingdom.

The Quaker concept ‘Speaking truth to power’ is an approach based on the idea that it is an act of bearing public witness. There is also the hope that the information they present will shine a light on the darkness of hidden human rights abuses, crimes against humanity etc. and that the powerful to whom they speak may act. Depending on the place and location ‘speaking truth to power’ could be personally be dangerous, but why would this be so? If the ‘powerful’ are truly ignorant of crimes against humanity perhaps such testimony may force them into considering action. However, the act of bearing public witness becomes more profound when the ‘powerful’ reject human rights testimony precisely it is politically embarrassing. It is also very likely that the powerful often do not need to be informed about the ‘truth’ by outsiders regarding human rights abuses etc., they may already possess a much more complete appreciation of the situation. Human rights testimony in such situations (whether brutally supressed or by other softer measures) are undermined precisely because it is public testimony which embarrasses the powerful.

In some cases, human rights advocates face a range of obstacles to ever publishing their findings, others might face prison, torture or assassination. These advocates might be in locations where they are within reach of the very governments whose repression, torture and other human rights abuses create the environment which they study. In these places, it is perhaps to be expected that there is risk management in field research into human rights abuses. Advocates might then bring their findings back to secondary locations considered safe from physical harm (and presumably open to debate). There are other researchers working already in far safer locations who do not face such physical threats per say, but irrespective of the location of the researcher they might all face official tactics designed to undermine their findings. Softer official efforts to undermine human rights research certainly falls within the world of public relations or propaganda where advocates and researchers encounter sophisticated spin efforts and smears on their reputations.

East Timor – A Brief Case Study

In recent research in the National Archives (UK) regarding the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and East Timor three things emerged repeatedly in the voluminous archival documents. The first was that the British had clear information (both from their own sources) and by liaison with friendly Embassies (such as the Australian) on almost all events and developments inside East Timor before and after the Indonesian invasion. Second, the British (like their Australian counterparts) were very well informed about numerous human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military during and after the invasion. Third, the British (like their Australian counterparts) were committed to undermining the question of East Timorese human rights in favour of expanding diplomatic and economic relations with Jakarta. Here we have an example of nations particularly fond of lecturing others about human rights knowingly and flagrantly enabling crimes against humanity (if not genocide) to occur. The United States (who along with Australia, Britain, Japan, Europe and Canada etc.) were committed to expanding ties with the Suharto regime – the perpetrators of great crimes. Further, the US and UK (including Australia) maintained military ties, vital weapon sales and continuously provided diplomatic cover for the Indonesian military while it committed these crimes. Without such support (freely given and blatant in its near total ethical disregard for spirit of international law), the Indonesian military could never have seriously contemplated any war of aggression against East Timor let alone a 25-year occupation claiming the lives of up to 200,000 men, women and children.

Grassroots human rights advocacy on East Timor faced a major challenge in the UK (as it did in Australia and the US), but not because of the threat of official violence or oppression. The activities of the East Timorese Information Network for example in Australia (and similar organisations in Britain) assembled an impressive array of analysis and publications. Friends of East Timor groups (and other human rights advocates) in both nations were never short of information to highlight the plight of Portuguese Timor or physically prevented from making their information public. There are of course numerous individuals who tirelessly advocated and supported the cause of human rights in East Timor, many more then could be named in one short article. But a few examples highlight the detailed accuracy of the information they provided on the topic. For example, James Dunn whose research and analysis of Portuguese Timor (at all stages) highlighted the ethical issues at stake often in painstaking detail, or Carmel Budiardjo who founded the TAPOL organisation in 1973 who documented the clear and ongoing oppression suffered by political prisoners in Indonesia (and human rights abuses in East Timor, West Papua etc.) Others like Hugh Dowson whose personal commitment to human rights in East Timor not only inspired serious research uncovering the complicity of the British government, but conducted a 100 hour fast in order to bring attention to the cause. The late Andrew McNaughton was not only dedicated to the cause of human rights in East Timor risking his own life to document human rights abuses he produced documents demonstrating direct culpability of the Indonesian authorities.

Confidential Report in UK Policy toward East Timor FCO15/2992, National Archives, United Kingdom, 1981 (Page 10)

It is important to emphasise that the information about events in East Timor was most often highly accurate, this is not only demonstrated by the documentation with have in the present about what occurred between 1975 and during 1999 – when Indonesian authorities orchestrated one last crime against humanity following the independence referendum – but in the Australian, British and American archives. There were two shields which protected the perpetrators in East Timor, the first was that they were actively supported by the Australians, British, Americans, Japanese and Europeans etc.; the second was that the Indonesians were hostile to any independent witnesses (media or any other organisations) likely to report critically on what was occurring. Once in occupation, the Indonesians virtually cut East Timor off from the outside world (other than officially approved visitors).

Notoriously, five Australian, New Zealand and British journalists were deliberately murdered by Indonesian special forces (and axillaries) in Balibo during October 1975 while another Australian journalist Roger East was later murdered in Dili in December 1975 by Indonesian forces and thrown into the harbour. Despite the severe restrictions placed on East Timor (testimonies, refugees and other sources) continued to provide accurate information for human rights supporters and advocates outside. Journalists such as John Pilger even secretly entered the territory and filmed the documentary Death of a Nation highlighting not only the human rights catastrophe, but the complicity of the Australians, British and Americans. Other journalists such as Max Stahl and Amy Goodman were instrumental in filming and witnessing the Dili Massacre. However, there were also others extremely well informed about events within East Timor and Indonesia in general – the governments of Australia, Britain and the United States.

It is difficult to imagine from archival sources (particularly diplomatic) that there was much reported about East Timor from non-official sources that was unknown or particularly surprising to the Western diplomatic establishment. When ‘power’ is not only well informed about various crimes, but becomes actively complicit in these crimes then those ‘speaking truth to power’ merely become an irritation to be managed. From the very beginning (even before the Indonesian invasion) the concern regarding Indonesia was to continue building the relationship with President Suharto and the Indonesian military. Neither the massacres of 1965-1966 (where an army led slaughter of at least 500,000 people occurred), or The Act of Free Choice in West Papua in 1969, had dented the enthusiasm of Canberra, London or Washington for Suharto. Reports of the massacres and oppression in West Papua becoming little more than a public relations issue. There was no intention of ever seriously pressing Suharto or the Indonesian military over their human rights record. Therefore, East Timor merely continued an established paradigm around the relationship with Suharto which was the primary concern irrespective. The publication of critical material highlighting human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in East Timor (as it was elsewhere) was problematic because Canberra, London, Washington etc. were determined to carry on the relationship with Jakarta.

Crimes against humanity as serious as what had already occurred in 1965-1966, West Papua and then later East Timor could each have warranted prosecutions under international law and justified the diplomatic isolation of Suharto’s Indonesia. The rationale for adhering to international law being more than an adequate explanation for punishing the perpetrators of these crimes. There is an important difference, Indonesia under Suharto and the military were cultivated as an important diplomatic and strategic ally and “their crimes” were not merely ignored they were supported. Therefore, information highlighting the reality of Indonesia’s human rights record (and its array of crimes in East Timor) were to be managed while trying to minimise potential diplomatic damage. This pattern was held virtually until the very end of Indonesian rule in 1999, and only broken then when the public outcry over Indonesian actions following the referendum demanded action. Within the Australian or British documents there seems to have been very little internal questioning about the ethical or moral propriety of associating so closely (economically, militarily, or diplomatically) with those responsible for a systematic crime against humanity for such a long period of time (1975-1999).

In examining Australian and British diplomatic documents on Portuguese Timor, the major concern of the Australian and British governments was clearly not ‘human rights’ or ‘international law’, but the relationship with Suharto. Although Suharto is long gone, the Indonesian military continue an established pattern of abuses in West Papua. The question of ‘human rights’ were largely irrelevant to official policies apart from (as already noted) the question of the public embarrassment certain revelations might cause. Human rights abuses in East Timor committed by the Indonesian military and security forces were known to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and others.  Archival documents show beyond any shadow of doubt that the British had little to no concern about what the Indonesians would and then did do in East Timor. Even the deliberate murder of two British journalists, (members of The Balibo Five) was treated as a potential public relations obstacle. So much so, that despite two of the murdered journalists being UK born, the British wanted nothing to do with the matter leaving all responsibility for investigation to Canberra. The Australians of course had little bureaucratic or diplomatic enthusiasm to confront the perpetrators of the crime, and only the potential public outcry (and ongoing advocacy) forced them to carry out any investigations at all. The inadequacies of Australian investigations (or cover up) were clearly demonstrated by the Pinch Coronial Enquiry into the death of Brian Peters.

FCO Guidance for Government MPs and Peers Supplementary Questions (on East Timor) in UK Policy toward East Timor FCO15/2992, National Archives, United Kingdom, 1981.

The British archival documents also show the PR strategies of the FCO designed to undermine human rights advocacy on East Timor, cast doubts over Indonesian human rights allegations, and minimise public knowledge regarding the true intentions of British foreign policy. At the core of these were British trade relations with Jakarta (particularly opportunities to sell UK arms). This PR strategy required no serious questioning of the information provided about human rights allegations, instead the FCO could smear the reputations of human rights advocates such as James Dunn or Carmel Budiardjo with internal gossip and hearsay. Detailed human rights allegations were belittled as not being particularly serious, that the worst of these excesses had now passed and things were improving, or that advocates for East Timor were in some way driven by an irrational or unreasonable mission. The PR strategy revealed in the British archival documents is striking, in some cases the FCO seemingly sought out the Indonesians themselves about human rights allegations. Presumably the Indonesians could then supply the FCO their rebuttals (which would naturally be quoted in official correspondence). The FCO also provided detailed internal information guidance to various politicians to help shape answers regarding East Timor and human rights. A particularly ferocious advocate defending the Indonesians was Baroness Vickers in the House of Lords.

While public declarations of Britain’s long standing commitment to international law and principles of self-determination were reassuring, they were a gross misrepresentation of the true British position on East Timor. The FCO reaction to queries and reports about the human rights situation in East Timor sought to explore ways to sideline and indeed publicly sidestep the validity of the criticisms, but again they understood very well from a range of sources (including their own) most of these reports highlighted real abuses. The ongoing dedication of those supporting human rights in East Timor were then an irritation to be managed, and for a great deal of the period in question, the public profile of East Timor was not high in mainstream coverage. Sir Allan E. Donald, Assistant Under Secretary FCO Asia/Far East, South East Asia (1980-84) and later Ambassador to Indonesia (1984-1988) annotated a 1981 FCO document highlighting the lack of media interest in East Timor. This was no doubt pleasing to the FCO.

In terms of sheer scale the atrocities committed by the Indonesians between 1975 and 1980 alone, the ability to overlook such crimes against humanity required great commitment from the Australians, British and Americans to maintain their relationship with the perpetrators. At least 80,000 Timorese (possibly much higher) died as a direct and indirect result of the Indonesian invasion and occupation during these years alone. In that time the Australians, British and Americans had not only acquiesced to the Indonesian invasion, provided diplomatic and material support for the occupation, they also sought to further their own interests by expanding the relationship with Suharto. For the British and Americans, this involved the sale of weapons which would be used directly in East Timor and West Papua. For the Australians, this would involve providing de jure recognition of the Indonesian occupation in return for beginning negotiations over maritime boundaries in 1979. By closing the Timor Gap, the Australians would eventually gain access to Timorese oil and gas. Archival documents show that the British were concerned to explain to the Indonesians that while they supported (and indeed agreed with the Australians moves from 1978 to offer de facto recognition and then de jure recognition in 1979), they could never publicly do likewise. Publicly the British would maintain the fiction of supporting the principle of self-determination, privately they would do nothing to regarding the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. The British wanted the Indonesians to understand that they wished to avoid any UK overseas territories or colonies coming under scrutiny regarding self-determination. The lives of the East Timorese being obviously irrelevant to such thinking.

In no page of the many documents examined at the UK National Archives is there even the slightest concern or contrition over the fate of the East Timorese – only the problem of how to continue the relationship with the perpetrators. There is little doubt that East Timor is more significant demographically and statistically than many other terrible modern examples often labelled ‘genocides’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’. It is telling that human rights advocates discussed in the FCO documents provided information that was not only highly accurate at the time events were occurring, but that governments (all well informed of the realities of East Timor) remained steadfast in their determination to ignore their work. Human rights advocates therefore should not assume that in speaking truth to power they speak to the ignorant – as Noam Chomsky has noted – such people already possess a far more complete truth particularly when they are closely complicit to the crime. However, in bearing public witness this can be a catalyst for public action and organisation. Continued advocacy highlights that those hoping to hide their complicity behind weasel words find this advocacy simultaneously irritating, provocative, and potentially personally embarrassing. It is therefore important to carefully document the true record of ‘power’ over issues like East Timor reminding those who would prefer to forget their actions of their selective disregard for human rights in pursuit of base self-interest.

*Dr Adam Hughes Henry is a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study and has been investigating British documents related to human rights abuses in East Timor.

Thinking Human Rights?


by Dr Adam Hughes Henry*

shutterstock_1626257The question of human rights is often presented by many experts as a vexing one. What can be done? How can justice be implemented? How can outcomes be improved? How can atrocities be prevented?

Having explored some of these questions in relation to aspects of my own work the vexing issue does not appear (at least as far as the great powers and the hegemon – the USA) to be connected to any absolute need for the moral enforcement of ‘universal human rights’. The vexing issue is not in my view ‘enforcement’ but elite diplomatic and political resistance to the idea that human rights require any such natural universality in their application. Therefore, the powerful nations decide in selective ways which reflects many concerns (perhaps even the notion of human rights under international law), but also many others including their national interests. Second, not only do powerful nation states often undermine and evade existing international law (and protect less powerful allies from scrutiny) when it suits them, they also tacitly reject (where national interest collides with human rights) the idea that there is any real legal equality amongst nations under international law. Power is after all wielded selectively in striving for certain advantages and goals, and nation states have unequal and varied abilities with which to influence the international system, the politics of human rights is therefore another opportunity to observe the maxim posed by Thucydides.

While many applaud Responsibility to Protect (R2P) it seems reasonable to conclude that such an option in practice could only be utilised by the USA, supported by its closest allies and/or NATO, and be implemented against human rights abusers already uncooperative or hostile to Washington or the West in general. The example of Libya certainly comes to mind. Yet no one talks anymore of humanitarian intervention in Libya today even though the nation (and its suffering civilian population) is now in a far more catastrophic state. In other words, intervention (where, when, its timelines and focus) will be selective in its applications and do nothing (or very little) against human rights abusers with which there are close and ongoing diplomatic and economic relationships if history is any guide. Although the language of R2P uses human rights and all that goes with it, the reality leaves us in much the same situation we have already known for decades if not centuries of diplomatic history.

The manner in which human rights debates are conducted are also compromised not only by definitional disputes (for example over genocide), but also by the reality that responses to atrocities etc. are not only selective they often quantify human suffering as something to be measured against the so called national interest. That is, we are told that we should genuflect to international law and human rights, but to do anything in practice to our own economic or strategic detriment would be naive, therefore our diplomats and politicians must learn how the world ‘really works’. It would be worth noting that by behaving in such ways governments, often through their diplomats, do not adapt to how the world really works but are instead actively creating the very environment most suited to justifying selfish amoral strategies and excusing immoral outcomes. The defence of a moral principle such as human rights or equal justice when it is difficult and comes with a price is the very reason that such decisions matter, encourage change and command ethical respect, this is central to whistle-blowers, numerous social justice movements and characteristic of famous figures praised for their moral courage such as Wilberforce, Gandhi, Luther King, or Mandela etc. The difficulties of adopting a moral stance for most governments (in my observation) is that while the language of justice and international law is useful in certain circumstances they often have little to no intention of ever implementing any such ethical philosophy on an absolute basis even when they claim the opposite in public. Many are of course interested in the economic and strategc benefits of a diplomatic relationship, but this easily extends to close relations with systematic human rights abusers. In reality, the embrace of corrupt and despotic human rights abusers for selfish benefits is routine practice in diplomatic history. Here we might reflect on the multibillion dollar arms industry, big oil, or the mining industry in the global south. We can reflect on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to see self-interest continue to trump a human catastrophe of historical proportions.

shutterstock_369754433In my own work examining Australian, US and British diplomacy toward Indonesia and East Timor this attitude of self-interest over human rights is blatant. While some human rights offenders (and accessories) might rightly find themselves prosecuted and convicted, perhaps their government even overthrown by outside intervention, the likelihood of this process increases or diminishes on the basis of their diplomatic alliances, politics and economic relationships with the rich and powerful. Questions of human rights and violence in modern history do not have (if examined closely) a convincingly glorious chronology of progress. Progress has certainly been made but many issues remain and if examined geographically by region there are large discrepancies in human rights practices, personal freedoms, labour laws and wages, wealth, education and life expectancy. It is telling that in many of these places where all or many of these factors are the worst, that is the human rights conditions are lacking, conditions exist where vast profits, low costs and other political benefits are extracted by eager multinationals and wealthy nations.

One of these philosophical issues is how many in the West view our own relationship with human rights and human rights abuses. While the liberal democracies (particularly the Anglosphere) heralded a new age of enlightenment following World War Two this would quickly be subsumed (as it is often claimed) by the Cold War. That is, but for the Cold War human rights would have been treated differently because the necessities of opposing communism required pragmatism from the American led West for the greater good. This is highly debatable as the histories of the Western powers (and numerous other cultures throughout history) demonstrate a long and enduring tendency to ignore, justify and minimise their own violence, particularly in regards to strategic or economic gain, imperialism, colonialism, and war. This is evident in many national histories which are uncomfortable with words such as imperialism, colonialism, massacre, genocide, nationalism or the suffering of indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities. This trend existed before, throughout and after the Cold War with each era offering its own excuses and methods to render human rights subservient to national interest.

While Responsibility to Protect (R2P) envisages intervention to protect citizens from their own governments many of those that adhere to the most righteous human rights rhetoric (such as Australia, UK or US) have great and ongoing difficulty acknowledging their own roles in historic and continuing human rights abuses domestically or internationally. The social and political legacy of universal human rights and human rights abuses does not begin solely with World War Two and its aftermath so we should be digging deeper into the historical contexts and seek the ‘blind spots’ we either fail to see, or choose to ignore. With each of us doing so (in our own ways and areas of interest), collaborating and sharing unique perspectives on these Blind Spots, perhaps we can forge the small beginning of a new and equal dialogue of shared respect, justice and accountability for the past and present?

BLIND SPOT – Mass Killings, Massacre and Atrocity. Representations and Reactions to Violence

*Dr Adam Hughes Henry is a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study.

Keeping the Memory Alive: Guarani Kaiowá fight for ancestral land


Brazilian Indigenous Delegation Visit to London in October 2016

by Genna Naccache*

From October 3IMG_20161004_174158rd to the 6th I had the privilege to join the Brazilian Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous delegation in their mission in London. My professor Dr Corinne Lennox put me in touch with Chris Chapman of Amnesty International, who was organising the visit. My dissertation is on the ongoing genocide of the Guarani Kaiowá. This seemed like a great coincidence and a perfect opportunity to gain an insight into the group’s culture and its centrality to ancestral land, as well as a deeper understanding of the conflict they are experiencing and its destructive consequences for them. The delegation was formed by Elizeu Lopes Guarani Kaiowa – Aty Guasu Guarani Kaiowa; Flavio machado and Ruy Menezes – Conselho Missionário Indigenista (CIMI) and Valéria Buriti – FIAN International, and Ruy Meneses – CIMI.

The first meeting which took place at Amnesty International was a round-table discussion on what each participant/organisation has been doing on this case and what expertise they could offer. In the meeting, the delegation raised attention to the dangers the group is facing in Mato Grosso do Sul. Mato Grosso do Sul has been centre stage for severe land conflicts between the ruralist farmers and the Guarani Kaiowá, and much indigenous blood has been shed. At the roots of the conflict lie the drastic changes in the Brazilian landscape with the global demand for exports such as soya for farm feed and sugarcane for the biofuels. This has had a devastating impact on the rights of the Guarani Kaiowá who has become internally displaced as a result, and now live in destitution confined to small parcels of land or roadsides that inhibit their practice of cultural rituals as hunter-gatherers. Their ancestral land, so crucial to their existence, has been taken away by the agribusiness, which promotes deforestation and intense agricultural practices using chemical fertilizers, known to pollute the environment and drinking water. The Guarani fight for their ancestral land elicits violence from cattle ranchers and plantation owners.


At the Amnesty International meeting, CIMI, FIAN and Elizeu talked about the murders, suicides of young people, the camping on roadsides while waiting for the demarcation of their land, malnutrition and child mortality, the ancestral land demarcation process and the Brazilian government’s failure to respond to the Guarani Kaiowá urgent crisis. Life in the campsites is especially dangerous for children who are often run over by trucks, adding to the already high indigenous child mortality rate in the area. Suicides are also major factors in claiming Guarani Kaoiwá young people’s lives. These further amplify the tragedy which undermines the life of the group. Elizeu told during the meeting that on the border with Paraguay, farmers conduct regular attacks with impunity. Crimes range from systematic assassinations of their leaders, kidnappings, beatings, torture and rape. During 2015, at least five chemical attacks were launched by tractors and airplanes. Poison is deliberately deposited in the river, the only available water source, on the group’s plantations, the only food source, and directly over indigenous tents. While this is happening, gunmen prevent people from leaving the area.

The suicide rate among the Guarani Kaiowá is one of the highest for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the world. According to CIMI 2015 Report, there were 752 indigenous suicides from 2000 to 2015. The National Health Foundation (NHF) reported that 221 children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 19 were among the group. In 2008 alone the suicide rate among the Guarani Kaiowá reached 8,797 per 100,000. The homicide rate in the Dourados reserves is 145 murders per 100,000 habitants, higher than the national average by 49%, 24.5 homicides per 100,000. Since 1980, approximately 1500 young indigenous people took their own lives’ in Brazil.

The delegation’s mission in London aimed to seek ways on how to combine international efforts for the protection of the rights of Guarani Kaiowá. During the open discussion in the Amnesty International event, the participants talked about innovative campaigns, thinking of legal actions; UN and other international forums; media, public awareness raising, and more. We had a full agenda as the delegation had meetings with the Brazilian Embassy, CAFOD, Global Witness, Amnesty International’s business and human rights researcher, as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where we had a very productive meeting with Nigel Baker, the Head of South American Department and Deputy Director of the Americas, and his team.

The highlight of the delegation’s visit was the panel event Indigenous Peoples of Brazil: Human Rights and Environment in Crisis held at the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) on Tuesday 4th October with the indigenous delegation and Chris Chapman of Amnesty International, chaired by HRC Director, Dr Damien Short. Both of the events provided a crucial platform to raise awareness on the situation of Guarani Kaiowá and to generate international support to prevent violence against them.


Today in Mato Grosso do Sul more than forty indigenous camping sites line roadsides, sit at the back of farms and/or on town peripheries, while their inhabitants wait for the demarcation of their traditional territory. In the context of social instability, violations to life, health, security and dignity occur. Sadly, the government is also responsible for these crimes, as it is not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the group despite being aware of the problems facing them. The history of oppression and violence, explains CIMI, is the result of a disastrous State policy, which is fulfilled in the name of acute greed. Unable to access clean water, basic sanitation and decent housing, the Guarani Kaiowá live without the basic conditions for existence, which makes the farmers’ violations even more inhumane. This is an extremely urgent cause as the Guarani Kaiowá are experiencing a process of genocide. Not only their leaders are being murdered, their youth are committing suicide, their food is contaminated and they live in destitution, but their group is disintegrating under the harsh life in the small reserves and with them their cultural heritage is also dying.

Government’s economic development policies are influenced by the agribusiness. Not only is the indigenous right to ancestral land, decreed in the 1988 constitution, being denied, but the Guarani Kaiowá are being systematically murdered, and their youth are committing suicide due to the lack of perspective which stems from the lack of access to ancestral land so central to their identity and way of life. This is described by Brazilian Academics as a slow and ongoing genocide of the Guarani Kaiowá, due to the losses experienced when they were forcibly moved into small reserves where they start experiencing the dispersal of families, breaking of alliances, suppression of their cultural practices, the suicide of their youth and the beginning of constant conflict and violence.

The delegation’s visit to London sought an answer to how the international community can contribute more effectively to the protection of the group in the face of the imminent dangers they face in Mato Grosso do Sul. Besides assisting them as an interpreter during the official meetings and events, I also had the chance to interview the Guarani Kaiowá leader every day with questions related to all aspects of the conflict, their culture with a focus on religion, and their everyday lives. I hope my dissertation, which highly benefited from this mission, will be another contribution to the efforts to develop a deeper understanding on the conflict facing the Guarani Kaiowá.

* Genna Naccache has recently finished her MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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.

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 <>


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.

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