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One size fits all – or else

6 Jan

Note of a conversation earlier today:

Me – ooh, the [UK Parliament’s] Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a report on the new Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

Friend – Anti-Social Policing? That’s surely not a good idea?

Me – No, there’s a comma after the crime. The Bill deals with anti-social behaviour, other crime, and police powers, all lumped into one.

Friend – What’s anti-social behaviour? Isn’t that just individualism?

What more can you say about the the current social and political climate in UK? One size fits all – or else.

If you’re interested in the Committee’s recommendations, you can find them here. They include quite reasonable ideas of having independent review and scrutiny of the exercise of police powers. Impressive that this still needs pointing out even today.

 

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Progression, regression – at least it’s developing?

28 Nov

We wanted to draw attention to a couple of recent events in the struggle for equality. Good news and bad news, but either way it’s good to highlight the wins when they come to give context to any steps back that may happen in other areas. Just keeping on walking.

The beginning of the month saw the European Court of Justice issue a preliminary ruling on an EU Directive relating to minimum standards for the qualification and status of third-country nationals or Stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection. For those unfamiliar with this judicial process, national courts can refer questions of interpretation of EU law that come up in cases brought before them to the ECJ for clarification on the legal rule. The ECJ issues its judgement, which is binding, and then the national courts decide the case before them based on that interpretation. (That’s a very simplified version of the process…) So the ECJ was asked by the courts in the Netherlands a series of questions, including whether foreign nationals with a homosexual orientation form a particular social group for the purposes of the EU Directive in question and as such entitled to protection. The ECJ ruled they did. The Court held “it is common ground that a person’s sexual orientation is a characteristic so fundamental to his identity that he should not be forced to renounce it”. The existence of criminal laws in the countries were the claimants where nationals specifically targeting homosexuals further supported the finding that those persons must be regarded as forming part of a particular social group. The ECJ ruling is obviously not the final step in the process, but as the ECJ’s ruling is binding on all other EU Member States, it could have significant impact on the implementation of these standards across the EU.

At the end of the month, there’s been an important decision on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the UK. For all the news that the UK seems to be winding back to the 17th century in many respects, but particularly in relation to the protection of human rights protection, yesterday’s judgement by the Supreme Court came as somewhat of a relief to those still holding on to modern principles. A couple who ran a small private hotel refused to provide a homosexual couple a double bedroom. The hoteliers hold strong religious beliefs and have a policy that they only provide double bedrooms to “heterosexual married couples”. By an oversight, the guests were not informed of the policy. The majority held that the policy was direct discrimination and, even if it was indirect discrimination, was not justified. It is still within living memory that such acts would not be considered to be discrimination, so quite a fantastic progression in many respects. (Press release here, for those with scarce time.)

Final thing to draw to your attention – the Swedish riksdag (parliament) today signed into law legislation that would prohibit advertising of infant formula and require packets to be labelled indicating that breastfeeding has benefits (among other things). Not all political parties supported the legislation but the reasoning behind it is that it transposes (or incorporates into Swedish law) an EU Directive (2006/141/EC), which does set out these requirements and which EU Member States are therefore bound to incorporate into their domestic legal systems. Whilst this all clearly stems from very important concerns relating to the health interests of children, it does make you wonder whether such a heavy emphasis neglects the pressures faced by women in early motherhood and their genuine right to choose for themselves what’s best for their bodies and their child, rather than have it dictated to them by a government.  Legislating on biological “truths” as some of this has been presented, similar to legislation on historical “truths”, always feels a little uncomfortable. The general conclusion seems to be an overall feeling of discomfort.

Still, a couple of steps forward. Let’s hope we all can keep on walking.

A sign of age

17 Jul

From the first point I stepped into a formal office environment, I’ve always been keenly aware of my age. When people find out that oh so important number of years that you have lived on this earth, it doesn’t matter how much respect or confidence in your abilities they built up before hand. It can all be completely shattered with just one (relatively) little number. Suddenly your valued opinion flies out the window and it’s all they can do to not pass you a lollipop in the meeting room just to keep you quiet until the end of the day.

So I’ve always played the trick of avoiding telling as far as possible (much more difficult in Sweden than the UK), and appearing older to be taken seriously. Even today, after numerous years of professional experience and three academic qualifications under my belt, I get this. I’m currently working in a predominantly male world of 40-50 somethings. There gets a point when you are  tired of this attitude, want to be taken seriously because you’re a serious person with enough perspective of your own to be able to comment on an issue, with very different life experiences that can add to the discussion – in short, merit.

It’s at this point that I’ve come across people several years younger than myself in the office space, striving with those early struggles of trying to push themselves forward in a world dominated by older people. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror five years ago. They consider me one of these older types with a world of experience they’ve yet to attain, but I’m still battling with those above me to think of me as something more than just a young one that still has a lot to learn.

While I’ve felt quite proud of not getting overly freaked out about ageing and keeping my own increasing numbers in perspective, I must admit this weird limbo between the two worlds has got to me.

Another recent realisation of age was reading about the changes in political leanings in my home country. It was with a heavy heart – after reading about privatisation of the NHS and more talk about withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights – that I read that the younger generation in Britain today is becoming more and more conservative in its views. For me, this can be attributed in part to the attitude of a government that seems to have forgotten that a nation is built on its people. Too many fundamental things are being taken from the people – be it their privacy or their access to basic services or the sense that justice and the rule of law will prevail – in the interests of national security for almost everything, in an effort to save the physical land that is the country.

Sigh.

Perhaps I’m simply out of touch with my age group, but it makes me feel old now to feel a collective conscience and leaning towards an ideal above individualism. Perhaps it’s living in a country where the attitude towards work, home life, community and government is so tremendously different that people at home simply can’t understand how a Government can deliver on collective benefits, a national heath system and better working conditions generally.

It’s not a perfect system and they’ve got their own problems, but it’s still worth reflecting on why Sweden has ranked consistently high on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index. The sad thing is I don’t think this is out of reach for the UK. But in the current climate with such a defeatist attitude, it may well be a step out of reach.

Perhaps all these feelings about age are just another sign of the times.

When the private becomes public, and we close our eyes at it

4 Jul

£££250PEOPLE-ONLY-Nigella-Lawson-1955474

We have all read about it. Nigella found herself a victim of domestic violence in the eyes of Britain and the world. The horrible event has been covered by the media from different perspectives that all dance around the Achilles’ heel of this particular form of abuse: are we really still categorizing this as a private matter?

Mainstream media in the UK covered the issue and public figures commented on it. The coverage revealed, with some exceptions, that people will bravely stand against domestic violence as long as they are talking about the topic in general, but not about a particular situation, person or woman. More importantly, we repeatedly read how accusing a man who might just have been joking or trying to make a point is surely not something we should rush into. After all: no one knows what really happened, is what people say. And it drives me crazy.

I saw the pictures and have a pretty good idea of what his actions against her were. I don’t know why he did it, but I don’t think it matters. Saatchi described the situation as a “playful tiff” and people seek to believe it: after all, who doesn’t dream about being choked in public by their husband? People just don’t understand humor these days…

Reading and talking about it, I am shocked by the amount of persons that insist they cannot judge the situation from those pictures. Have they really seen them? Unless these were fabricated (which no one, not even Saatchi, has alleged) the situation is pretty clear to me. Yet, these are some of the comments we were lucky to read from UK media and public figures on Nigella’s personal via crusis:

The only way the Saatchi marriage stands a chance is if everyone – including the Metropolitan Police – back off. Sadly, I doubt this is possible.” Said Christine Odone in The Telegraph. This one is so far out there I doubt I need to comment, right? I love the way she refers to the Saatchi marriage as an institution needing rescuing. Do take a look at the article though; you don’t want to miss Odone’s advice for victims of domestic violence: fry a Mars Bar to overcome your marriage crisis”.

Another one that made my day was Nick Griffin MEP’s tweetIf I had the opportunity to squeeze Nigella Lawson, her throat wouldn’t be my first choice”. Vote BNP!

Nick Clegg in a radio broadcast interview refused to comment on the issue because he wasn’t there and he had only seen the photos: “it could have been a fleeting situation”, he said. After all, it’s not violence if it was just this once… right Nick? He later rushed off to condemn domestic violence due to hard criticism, but only once Saatchi had himself gone to the Police and accepted a caution for assault.

Similarly, Greenslade had to issue an apology in The Guardian, as he initially said it was a rushed judgment to call this domestic violence and that the pictures only told part of the story. He made his point stronger by quoting Saatchi’s declaration: “I held Nigella’s neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point… There was no grip, it was a playful tiff.” In his apology Greenslade claims his doubts in condemning the act come from years of friendship with Nigella. With friends like these…

The Independent’s Ellen Jones could think of nothing better than to attack Nigella for lying to us: “Nigella has welcomed us into her home, but not her heart. More so than any other TV chef, she’s selling the illusion of intimacy – and we’re buying it”. Nailed! How dare Nigella not include her most private, difficult problems in her worldwide show!

While other newspapers took a strong stand on calling this abuse, they immediately dwelled on how this will have a catastrophic impact for her career and gave Nigella’s drama a paparazzi style coverage, rather than a serious analysis of a serious issue.

It’s not surprising to see all these comments and excuses stem from similar, old paradigms:

  • Domestic violence is private and no one should say, comment or do anything about it. It’s up to the couple to solve it and intervening is intrusive and unhelpful.
  • If it’s just once, not very hard, happened very fast, or was in any other way “excusable”; then it’s not really domestic violence and we shouldn’t rush to judge.
  • It’s good to condemn domestic violence in abstract and theory. However, when speaking about real people, let alone friends, one shall never comment on, even obvious, situations of violence.

Thankfully I have also read some articles (an exception to this trend, though) and some commentators still have the courage to call this what it was: outright abuse. Suzane Moore reflected on the fact that no one intervened despite later being eager to report on Nigella’s obvious distress. Moore writes: “If a man had his hands round the throat of another man during a meal would the waiters have carried on as normal?” I don’t think they would have…

Readers’ comments and non-traditional news sites have condemned this act: why didn’t any one help her? Erin Ryan for Jezebel has it right: this is NOT a private matter! And it isn’t really, when statistics say that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, that one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute and that on average, 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. It’s a complex issue to analyze and a complete picture of the extent and nature of domestic violence in the UK can be found at the British Crime Survey of 2004. However, those numbers are surely enough for us to conclude that it is a matter of public interest.

The issue is not simple: the reason why domestic violence is still affecting societies where gender equality has otherwise improved is the fact that it combines two problems we have a hard time dealing with; gender discrimination and the private sphere dilemma.

Domestic violence is a form of gender discrimination and a violation of human rights. Yet we seek to justify it or find an excuse for every concrete situation we come accross: there must have been something she said to provoke him, we don’t know his side of the story, etc. Saatchi’s ex-wife said he was never violent towards her, so there must be another explanation. We are desperate to find excuses for the powerful, dominant aggressor. He is, after all, the white, rich, male. If he says he was just joking, that surely should appease us all…

Take that and add the fact that we are taught to never intervene in private issues, and you have a perfect formula for the perpetuation of domestic violence. What should it mean, for the average Joe, that domestic violence is a public matter? And here I’m talking about any kind of domestic violence, where men and children can be victims as well.

It should mean that we should all stand against it when encountering it. A male victim of domestic violence said on BBC’s Radio 4 “Woman’s Hour” that the hardest thing for him was how his relatives, friends and neighbors isolated him when it started becoming obvious. They would look away on the street and it made him feel he was alone in it. His situation ended when someone anonymously called the police, but no one ever offered him help or approached his wife.

So all in all, it doesn’t matter if we all saw the fear and tears in Nigella’s eyes, if we saw the series of photographs of him grabbing her neck or pinching her nose like a school bully, or those of her fleeing the restaurant in tears. Let’s not rush to judge, right? Those must have been happy tears, she was still laughing and was surely just in a rush to buy her Mars Bars at Waitrose.

When we think of it, the reasons why we continue to be silent when we hear our neighbor’s walls bang and a crying voice are far beyond gender discrimination issues. We have lost (did we ever have it?) a sense of community and human solidarity. And I’m not talking about spying on your neighbors but about walking away when we know that there is an abusive situation going on. We say nothing when we see a parent hit his child or yell abusively at him on the street, even if we get enraged by it. We choose to walk away because “it’s a private matter”.

What do we fear will happen should we intervene? Embarrassment? Next time we’re confronted with a public act of violence or abuse we should stop and think. What does the person affected fear? Is our fear that important after all?

No humanity here: the voices of asylum seeking children

23 Mar

There is no humanity here… that thing, I can promise you (Asylum seeking child in Norway)

I was lucky to go see Nowhere Home on Thursday night,  a documentary screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London this year. Lucky because of many things: I’ve always wanted to go to this festival but this is the first time I am in one of the cities it’s held. The documentary is fantastic, and I got to see the director, the Norwegian Margreth Olin, for a Q&A session afterwards.

The movie exposes the Norwegian treatment of asylum-seeking unaccompanied children.  Basically, unaccompanied children under 15 years receive similar treatment to those national children under the State’s custody and are under the responsibility of the Child Protection Agency.  However, children from the ages of 15 – 18 are under the responsibility of the Norwegian Immigration Directorate (UDI); a practice criticized by the Committee on the Rights of the Child,  along with the fact that children are not given effective protection by their guardians, that the asylum procedures take too long and that age determining procedures are indecent, culturally insensitive and generally unreliable.

If you are one of these children between 15 – 18, you will be allowed to stay in a reception center where you get a roof over your head and food. However, you have no access to education (except for the preparation they give you for the day of your return, according to Olin).  As an 18th birthday present you get a ticket back to your country of origin.

The painful stories of 20 children are portrayed in this film, most of them are from Afghanistan or Iraq, and some from different African countries. Three particular stories are developed more in-depth; one is the story of Hassan and Hussein from Afghanistan, two brothers who are left alone after their families were slaughtered. The youngest, Hussein, was stabbed the same day his family was murdered, he was only 11 years old. In Norway, he suffers from severe PTSD and his legs are paralysed. They are alone against the system.

Goli, an Iraqi Kurd who is returned to Kurdistan the day after he turned 18,  is another one of the main characters in this film.  After the murder of his dad, his mom married another man who physically abused him. He has countless scars in his body, some a gift from his stepfather, but the majority are self inflicted. He narrates with pride that he beat his stepfather: he hurts himself more that anyone could. He can’t control it, he states, he can’t control his acts. When the authorities call his family upon his return, they receive a clear threat that if they send him, his stepfather will kill him.

The hardest part of watching these children’s testimonies is identifying the one common trait between them: utter hopelessness. No dreams, no future. They live, as one of them said, awaiting the day they turn 18 and are sent back, in his words, to their deaths.

But Norway isn’t alone in this. The Swedish Migration Board leads the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM), an EU project funded by the Return Fund – Community Actions. The Project partners are Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK. The projects make it possible to effectively and rapidly return rejected asylum-seeking children.  As the Platform’s website announces, it has established contacts and will cooperate with the governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the former has been described as UNICEF in 2010 as the “world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

According to UNHCR, 17.700 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in 2011 in 69 countries. The majority of them from Somalia and Afghanistan, at least 12,000  are thought to enter the EU each year.  12,000 children! God forbid they will destroy the EU’s economy!

Living in the UK, I find myself constantly disappointed by the anti-immigration media coverage of refugee and migrant issues.  Disappointment is a understatement, I’m being polite.  Are refugees really a burden for these countries? The UK for example, is home to less than 2% of the world’s refugees, while 80% of the worlds refugees live in developing countries. However,  we are still constantly enlightened by The Daily Mail‘s brilliant reporting on the issue. This, however, is a matter for another blog post.

The documentary has some amazing reflections made by Olin and the children she interviewed. Some stayed with me and have been bouncing around my head for the last 24 hours:

What kind of humanity are we talking about, when we stop seeing the individual? What kind of societies are we living in, when we treat children from another nationality as criminals and less deserving than our own?

Hussein, one of the children interviewed, states in the beginning of the movie: ‘God divided happiness and sorrow, he gave some people sorrow and other people happiness. I am one of the people living in sorrow’. I wish I could think otherwise, but there is little in the treatment of asylum seekers in these countries that gives me that possibility.

Olin believes change might happen in Norway, her activism has had individual impact in some cases and hopefully will have a more general one impact on policy too. It is possible to make a difference.

She starts her movie by making viewers imagine Norwegian children swimming to shore from a boat, desperate and vulnerable, and then being rejected by authorities. Do we really need to do this to be able to demand the respect for these children’s human rights? It all seems to point at that fact that we do.

One of the powerful reflections one of these kids makes seems appropriate to end this. After knowing one of them was granted a leave to remain on human rights grounds, he says: They say he can stay because of human rights concerns. Does this mean I’m not human?  I wish I could explain what that means, legally, to him. I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers for some time, so as a lawyer, I know I could. But not as a person. That, I simply cannot do.

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