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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.

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Vacationing in Vienna: Mujica speaks for Morales and for Latin America

5 Jul

Are you tired of reading Anglophone media covering the issue of Evo Morales’ trip to Vienna in the light of the extreme statements issued by Bolivia’s Vice-president or the declarations of other extreme (whether we like them or not) leaders of South America? I am.

Personally I don’t agree with everything Morales has done, I certainly disrespect Maduro and the way he campaigned for his election and I am suspicious of some of Fernandez’ more extreme measures of capital control, despite her achievements in human rights protection in Argentina. But that is beside the point. Whether Morales and his friends are leftist or not shouldn’t really matter.

Most articles I’ve read only focus on the “bad facts” of the leftist presidents when reporting the UNASUR meeting called by Humala to discuss this situation, but I’ve also been surprised by the lack of reporting of this issue, though I probably shouldn’t be as this is usually the way it is when it comes to Latin American issues.

It has to be said: it’s not just the leftist countries who feel attacked in Latin America. The OAS has issued a statement condemning that four countries (France, Spain, Italy and Portugal) revoked flight permission while the presidential plane was taking Morales home. Also, besides the UNASUR and ALBA countries, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua and Cuba have also condemned this act. Note the first two on the list are actually right wing governments. So it’s essentially  about a sense of regional humiliation and a right to demand, at least, an apology.

Was this legal? A question few media channels have cared to answer. BBC Mundo (Spanish version) consulted a professor of international law from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid who described the deviation of Morales’ presidential plane to Vienna as a “clearly doubtful act”:

This is not any plane, it is a presidential plane carrying on board a Head of State and as such, it enjoys full immunity and the same inviolability and freedoms it would have within its own nation. A measure of these characteristics, prohibiting the flyover, must be very justified: for example, that the president is being pursued for  an international crime. But when he isn’t, as in this case, it is very clearly an abuse of his sovereignty and highlights the impropriety of many governments.

A State may decide to close its airspace, but this has been done when a political leader is wanted for prosecution or linked to a measure of punishment, as in cases of international crimes, or to exert pressure to countries linked with these crimes. In this case it was a presidential plane, with a head of state on board, where there was no reason for a government to prevent him from transit and over flight of its space for peaceful behavior. What European countries did was based on a rumor that was not true. And clearly it is an action that is inconsistent with international law.

After a funny and detailed chain of tweets that President Fernandez wrote about her various phone calls with her fellow Heads of State during Morales’ “trip” to Vienna, the leaders of UNASUR decided to gather in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to define what actions they will take regarding these acts.

I just saw the video of José Mujica’s speech on this UNASUR meeting. I might be biased by the fact that I believe him to be one of the few good leaders we have on my continent, and definitely, the most consequent leader when it comes to living what you preach. If you don’t know much about Uruguay’s President, know at least that he was a political prisoner for 14 years, that he lives with his wife in a small shabby farm, refused to move to the presidential palace and gives 90% of his monthly salary to charity. You can read more about him here.

I translated his speech because I believe it to be authentic, and a true representation of what Latin Americans are feeling regarding  this issue. Watch the video if you speak Spanish as well.

First, it seems that there are world powers that want to apply a kind of ideological terrorism over the right to asylum, an institution that all fighters of the world’s history defend. In the name of those that have been persecuted and will continue to be persecuted, the right of asylum is sacred and it’s a principle that we must uphold for humanity.

Second, the worst, to be benevolent, they screwed up. They were wrong. I think they ate a screw! I suppose that the intelligence services that sent them to ruins are probably sitting down folding little papers in a dungeon. I suppose so, because this is very embarrassing for the Old Countries, so called Mother countries.

But the worse is that now, they treat us like toddlers. Instead of assuming, with republican humility, that they made a mistake, no one says anything! It seems that Evo was vacationing in Vienna! No one denied him a right, no one did anything. I mean, the answer is almost an infantilism, and I think we, Latin Americans, have a right not to be treated as toddlers.

We are not their sons anymore, we aren’t colonies anymore, we are what we are, we try, and we deserve respect. And when a country, a leader, is abused, we all feel abused in Latin America. So, we ask them, in name of civilization: dignity, dignity and decency.

Being wrong is part of life. Making mistakes is inevitable. When you do, you have to show your face, assume responsibility and say so to the international community. Not take us for idiots. Thank you.

So at the end it isn’t about left and right, it’s about which countries you can bully and which are treated with respect. Do you wonder if this would have been done to a European leader, or a country that could pose a threat to international peace in response to what Bolivia considers an “act of aggression”? Do you wonder if this would have been covered more seriously by the media if that was the case? If Spain, Portugal, France or Italy would be issuing apologies? I do.

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.

The Personal Might Actually Be Political After All

4 Dec

Anne-Marie Slaughter really likes to talk about the private/public divide these days. After her article  on how illusionary it is for women to be both super moms and super careerists (which might be true, I just don’t understand how this is any different for careerists who are both male and fathers), I just read an article by her on the private life of public persons got me thinking.

She started off by wondering whether Petraeus had an obligation to step down because he betrayed his family and the marriage vows he gave to his wife, indicating a betrayal of intrinsic values which the general public believed he stood for.

Now, I find this a very tricky subject. On the one hand, such claims – that a leader did not live up to a perceived set of moral standards opens the door to all forms of hypocrisy and political exploitation. On the other hand, does it really say nothing about you as a human being that you accept that your partner, to whom you owe your family life, upon discovery of the affair, might be exposed to public humiliation and ridicule?* Yes, I know it is a dangerous terrain with the risk of self-righteousness looming nearby.

I talked about the Petreaeus affair with a Hungarian friend over lunch the other day. Or, more precisely, she started talking about it, invoking it as one of the reasons why she found the US such a weird country. ‘It’s not anyone’s business. It is so different. Here (meaning Hungary) or in France, the guy would receive a pat on the back and would be cheered on’ she said (or something along those lines). Yes, he stepped down because he was no longer sustainable in a position in which it is crucial to not make yourself vulnerable to being blackmailed. But still, the fact that he cheated on his wife and what that means for him as a man with values was discussed in the US (the above-cited article may be cited as proof). 

Again, I do think it is generally a good idea not to judge the personal lives of people and their mistakes unless you know all the circumstances. So that is not the point of this post. But this whole affair (no pun intended) got me thinking of the differences in society and in what is considered private/public that contributes to these differences? For I think my friend was right, this discussion would have been totally different in most parts of Europe. Why is it that we very easily refer to something being private, being their own personal business when it comes to how public figures arrange their family lives, even though we know, we accept that by exposing their own personal mistakes in the public forum, someone else’s life achievements (the building and maintaining of a family life) were also reduced to nothing? 

Countless politicians, CEOs, persons holding similar positions of power do work more or less constantly in their waking life to achieve, maintain, foster, or increase something. Most men in such position have a family. Many women in such position, few as they are in the first place, have not. The reason is that when you are such a high-flying power person and you do want to have a family (and you do accept that your day holds merely the 24 hours it has in stock for everyone else), this is virtually impossible if you do not have a partner who stays at home to manage family and household (yes, there are exceptions. But if you chose a career that demanding that it needs your constant attention, you do inevitably accept to cut back in other parts of your life). You need someone who, out of passion, pragmatic consideration or bowing to expectation dedicates their life to your career and your family. Something that – given history, tradition, and societal expectations – women are far more often inclined to do than men. This alone could make us question the admiration for a specific group of public figures and their life achievements, in which it is traditionally forgotten that none of this happened in a private vacuum and none of this would have been possible without the compromise of someone else. Why do we consider someone a role model for undoubtedly morally valuable or even heroic acts without taking into account whether or not they able to live up to the same moral standards with regards to a person at home who enabled them to have some sort of family life in the first place. Someone in the comments section to AMS’ article mentioned JFK as an example, a person you would probably not have wanted for a friend and most certainly not for a husband. Another example I think about is HanneloreKohl, Helmut Kohl’s wife. After she killed herself in 2001, much had been speculated about the reasons for her suicide, which is mainly attributed to a rare photo allergy that had made her a captive in her own house. However, since then, both of the Kohls’ sons also came forward with accounts of how terribly their father failed as a husband and as a father, being constantly absent and, when physically present, uninterested and condescending. In an interview that Hannelore Kohl gave in 1992 she stated that “after four or five hours of real waiting, one can expect only of a dog that he is still looking forward (to seeing someone) (…) I have learned from our dog “.  Does it not have an implication on our judgement of the person as a decent human being if, notwithstanding any public mighty deeds, he fails so miserably in being there for the persons he loves?

So, is it really a sign of a more liberal society of Europe when we refrain from discussing our leaders’ judgements with regards to their private lives? Or is it an indication of some boys-will-be-boys-attitude coupled with an internalisation of traditional gender roles that assign women the role of an auxiliary and make their lives and how they live them matter less than their partner’s. The answer to that question does not mean that a public person who is highly competent and exceptionally skilled and generally amazing at his or her job should step down for any sexual or emotional mishap (unless you are the CIA director, I’m afraid). But it should be clear that they did not get there in a private vacuum and when they depend on the understanding and support of the people close to them in order to climb the career ladder, how they relate to these persons in private cannot be totally disregarded in the evaluation and definition of their success.

* (By the way, family here means people who are a couple, with or without kids. I don’t feel confident making vast assumptions about gay families with kids and high-flying careers and the issues they have to deal with (subtract everyday gender crap and the expectations it brings, insert everyday homophobia its effects), so I won’t write about them. Whether two people are married or not does not matter as I do not believe that any vow makes any relationship more legitimate or stable or sacred).

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