Child Spies

July 20, 2018 § 4 Comments

News has erupted in the United Kingdom that Scotland Yard has been using children as spies for criminal cases.  Not surprisingly, most British are sickened and appalled by this, as are the usual array of human rights groups.  There can be no defence of this. None.  This is one of the most morally repugnant things I have ever come across in my life.

The children are pulled from a database about gang members, apparently.  And certainly, some have already decided that they’re criminals and therefore forfeit their civil rights.  It’s not that simple.  First, they’re children.  Second, being in this database is not necessarily an indication of criminality.  Third, even if they are, that is not an excuse to curtail someone’s civil rights. To do so is inhumane. It says that someone is less of a human due to past behaviour.

The House of Lords committee that revealed the existence of this programme is sickened.  Even David Davis, one of the most self-serving British politicians of our era (he resigned from PM Theresa May’s cabinet a couple of weeks ago) is appalled.  I wonder what Boris Johnson thinks?

And yet, here is May’s spokesperson defending this practice:

Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and they’re only used when it is very necessary and proportionate, for example helping to prevent gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. The use is governed by a very strict legal framework.

In other words, we don’t care about the rights of children, we think they are there to serve the needs of the police, and if you’ve got a problem with this, it is frankly because you are a bleeding heart.  This is disgusting.  And immoral.

And this is moral relativism at the root.  Doing something immoral, disgusting, and wrong can be explained away as just another policy in the Met’s crime-fighting tool kit.  We have reached the point where in one of the wealthiest, most powerful Western democracies in the world, exploiting children is seen as an acceptable practice by a circle of the government and the police.

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We, The Other People

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

constitution

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both.  Anxiety is running rampant across the nation.  He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself.  He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.  These are all things we must keep in mind.  Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.

Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost.  People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.

We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change.  We create a record of our dissent.  We demand our system of government work for us, not against us.  We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’

We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.

We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here.  We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

So why letters? Glad you asked:

Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered.  Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany.   Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.

Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.

We are collecting them for now on our website.  But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president.  This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Why Tom Cotton is Wrong about LGBT Rights

April 6, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) had a very clear message to LGBT folk in the United States: “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay.” This comes as Cotton’s defence of the now amended Defence of Religious Freedom Act passed by the Indiana legislature the week before.

So this is what is has come to.  A senator of this country is telling a group of its citizens that they’re lucky they don’t live in Iran.  In other words, shut up.  For Senator Cotton the United States should not strive to be leader of human rights in this world.  In his mind, the country should just forget the statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.”  Nope.  We should just forget what the State Department says on its webpage:

The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure the peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.

None of this matters to Senator Cotton.  And this is very sad.  Politics in this country is a blood sport, at least symbolically.  Whenever people throw up their arms and express frustration at the current impasse between Democrats and Republicans, I like to gently remind them it’s never really been any different here, dating back to the first fights in Congress between the Federalists and the Republicans (not, of course, the same party as that today, which dates from the 1850s).  On the one side, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in a strong federal government; the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred a smaller national government and favoured personal liberty, free from government interference.

Nonetheless, there was a general belief in the right of Americans to dignity and a protection of their human rights (unless, of course, one was African American).  But we’ve already fought this fight.  In the 1960s, Americans sought a “Great Society,” one which provided care for its dispossessed and one that sought to protect its vulnerable citizens.  Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) perhaps summed up how human rights work, including in this country:

Human rights are not a privilege granted by the few, they are a liberty entitled to all, and human rights, by definition, include the rights of all humans, those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, or the shadows of life.

Cotton clearly has this equation backwards, he seeks to refuse basic rights to LGBT people in this country.  It is not just that Cotton’s greatest ambition in terms of equality is to ensure American LGBT people are treated at least as well as the 75th ranked country on the 2013 Human Rights Index (the US, for reference, is ranked 5th).  That is not good enough and violates everything that this country is supposed to stand for.  And it does not represent the country that the vast majority of Americans hope for.

Tom Cotton should be deeply ashamed of himself.

The Haunting of Patrick Okello

January 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, there was a fantastic article in The Guardian about Uganda and the long-term fall out of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army amongst the Acholi.  The Acholi live in northern Uganda, not far from South Sudan.  Joseph Kony comes from the Acholi.  One of the many things that struck me about the article is the story of Patrick Okello.  Okello is a haunted man.

In 1996, five years after a horrible massacre at Amoko on 6 December 1991, Patrick Okello and his brother came across the dismembered remains of his father about 8 miles away from home.  Another victim of the LRA:

My brother and I found his body cut up into small pieces.  There was a lot of blood. We buried him quickly in a shallow grave with sand near our home. Then we ran away in case the LRA were still in the area. I think my father is still vengeful about the fact that his last funeral rite has not been carried out. He always tells me he needs a proper burial. He is angry.

Journalist Will Storr posits that Okello suffers from PTSD.  But Okello, as Storrs notes, lives in a small village, far removed from the world of medical intervention.  Instead, Okello is haunted.  Storrs writes,

Demons have been visiting him in the night; he wakes to see a strange glow in his hut as they surround him, whispering Okello, Okello, Okello. Flies, rats and bats crawl over him. The other day, he stripped off all his clothes and ran up the hill. “That’s what makes him run,” says elder Martin Olanya. “Because they’re calling his name.” The villagers have a theory as to what’s behind the haunting of Patrick Okello. “Ever since the burials took place,” says Martin, “the people in this community have not been settled. We assume it’s the work of vengeful spirits.”

The Acholi believe in this spiritual world.  Like all cultures, they believe in elaborate burial rituals that allow the spirit of the deceased to journey onwards.  If those rituals are not observed, the spirit cannot escape and they remain to haunt those left behind.  And during the terror caused by Kony and the LRA, which visited the most destruction, death and mayhem on the Acholi because they wouldn’t, for the most part, support Kony, it was near impossible to observe these rituals.  Storrs tells of other survivors of the 1991 massacre who buried their dead in shallow graves, quickly, to avoid running into the LRA again lest they be killed as well.

I resent the tone taken by Westerners in describing these belief systems (though Storrs actually does a wonderful job in NOT taking the usual tone), which reflects this sense of Western superiority, that somehow we are rational (yes, I know, this is the entire mindset that justified imperialism in the first place).  As if we in the (post)modern world do not have such beliefs, we are entirely rational and modernised.

When I teach World History, I spend a lot of time dealing with religion for the simple fact that religion is, amongst other things, supposed to offer a means of explaining the chaos and disorder of the world, a means of understanding why bad things happen.  In other words, religious beliefs have long since ordered and organised cultures, including our own allegedly post-religious society.  And belief systems like that of the Acholi do exactly that, it explains why the world works the way it does.  And we all need belief systems that help us to understand the world, which is why this theme I’ve been exploring when I teach World History, the Terror of History, is so appealing to me.  Religion is one of the main means by which human beings have sought to escape the Terror of History, as religion allows us to rationalise it, to give us meaning for why bad things happen and why we are all going to die.

And so this is what the beliefs of the Acholi do: explain the world to them, and to help them understand why Kony happened in the first place.  Indeed, Dorina Adjero, one of Okello’s neighbours, says that Kony is possessed by demons, “That’s why he does all the killings and all these weird things.  A normal person who is acting in normal conscience wouldn’t kill people in this way.”  As for Okello, his demons appear to have been quieted by an exorcism of sorts performed by pastors from the local evangelical Christian church.

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