29 June 2009

occupational hazard

the following are reactions that i encountered to human rights work on my recent trip to india (ok, the trip was three weeks ago; it's taken me this long to calm down and write about it):

-what do you do? human rights? why?
-you know, this human rights stuff is all spouted by rich countries, by america. they're just trying to interfere again.
-did you hear about that lady? she was opposing project x, causing a lot of problems for the state government, and in the end they found she was paid by some western groups to make a lot of noise.
-these so called human rights groups, all they do is oppose development projects.
-is your organization doing anything about all the human rights abuses committed by america? by other western countries? are you complaining to the australian government about the indian students who were recently killed? why are you focusing on india, on asia?
-after reading this report on burma's poor response to cyclone nargis, you're going to write an article? for who? will the burmese government care?
-look at the issue of nuclear weapons. why shouldn't india have nuclear power if everyone else does? america talks about non-proliferation, but refuses to destroy its own nuclear arsenal. what about our rights?

when i told some sri lankan friends about how frustrating an experience i had, they commiserated by sharing their own similar experiences. friends from korea, australia and elsewhere had other anecdotes to share, all of which underlined how dirty and unpopular a phrase 'human rights work' is.

they also show how little understanding there is of human rights, of the actual principles -the rights to life, to food, to shelter, to expression and opinion, to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention or punishment.

suddenly, i realize that my work involves not only fighting against the systemic abuse of human rights, but also the cultural attitudes and misconceptions surrounding those rights. (okay, not suddenly.. but i have to say that my india encounters were a bit of a slap in the face.)

in india, i also came across the opinion that corruption is normal; there is no harm in paying bribes to get your work done; it is what makes the world go round. under that mentality, rights can simply be bought, so what they are exactly and where they stem from is totally irrelevant.

on a lighter note: "A friend felt oppressed in the US. He returned to Delhi so he can ignore laws, be loud, yell at people, & smoke anywhere. Now, he is happy."

24 June 2009

june 26, international day against torture

"...The practice of torture remains the central defect in protecting, promoting and fulfilling human rights in the region. From the standpoint of state responsibility to protect, promote and fulfil human rights, the fight against torture is an important component of human rights work. In essence, human rights work is engaging in a dialogue with the state, reminding the state of its responsibility to serve the people and identifying its failures in meeting people's demands.

In most of Asia, states notoriously attempt to reduce the space for this dialogue by instilling fear, largely through law enforcement agencies. By using law enforcement agencies as a tool in this way, the state engages in a counter dialogue with citizens, reminding them it has the means to silence dissent and enforce its writ...

Working against torture is thus crucial to enlarging the space for democratic dialogue. Human rights work in the region and globally has yet to appreciate this fact..."


living in the now

this week's scmp sunday magazine has an interview with eckhart tolle, who said a few things that got me thinking. he said the present moment is usually seen as an obstacle to overcome, which is a crazy way to live since now is the only real moment you have. how true. and sad. (note to self: enjoy all moments hereupon!)

he also said that while everyone's life situation had pressures and conflicts, you must ask yourself whether at this very moment you have a problem. the answer for me--at this moment--would be no. but i feel a sense of denial or escapism here.. just recently, i was asked a question to which i replied, "i simply do not want to think about it right now." this prompted the response that i would have to address the issue at some point; the more i ran away from it, the more it would run after me. which is also true. so then, how is a balance found between the two?!

18 June 2009

people i meet

several of the blogs that i usually read have been on a hiatus for some time now. as i was mourning my daily post intake, i came across the 'people i meet' blog, which is awesome, and very inspiring.

what a great idea, to write about people you meet: whoever said 'the world is your classroom and the people your teachers,' had it right. even if we get so caught up in ourselves that we sometimes forget this.

in the past two days, i have tried to be more open, and pay more attention to, the people i interact with. needless to say, even though it takes up more time, it is definitely rewarding and educational. i'm sure i will get tired at some point, and revert to old habits however :p

thank you for the author of 'people i meet'!

17 June 2009

professors concerned about democracy in south korea

it is strange how the local and regional media are so silent about the present situation in south korea... the statement below about the country's receding democracy is signed by 240 professors from various north american academic institutions. you can see the full list of signatures here.

"The following represents the considered view of professors at colleges and universities throughout North America, whose thoughts are with Korea and Korea’s democracy. In light of recent developments in South Korea, we, the undersigned, cannot but express grave concern. Nurtured by the toils and sacrifice of many, democracy is a proud asset of the Korean people. The world has watched as the Korean people have moved deliberately, with determination and at human cost, from dictatorship towards democracy, over the last half a century. Regrettably, since the inauguration of the President Lee Myung-bak administration, Korean democracy has lost its way.

A democracy must not only allow the people to select their own representatives through votes, but also guarantee the freedoms of assembly and association in order that they can express diverse political opinions. We have observed how the state suppressed last year’s ‘candlelight vigils’, issued subpoenas even to ordinary citizens who had participated in the protests, and is restricting the lively online exchange of ideas. The recent police blockade of Seoul Square is an egregious example of the government denying its people a fundamental democratic right, the freedom to assemble.

A democracy acquires a capacity for self-regulation through the free press. We note with distress that the Public Prosecutor’s Office has questioned journalists critical of the government, and the replacement of major broadcasting networks’ executives with pro-government figures has infringed upon the professional autonomy of rank-and-file reporters. A foundation stone of any democracy, the free and independent press has suffered serious damage.

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea enshrines a system of checks-and-balances among the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of the government. We regretfully recognize and call attention to the fact that since its inauguration, the government has not upheld the principle of checks-and-balances. Moreover, administrative organs that should be politically neutral, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the police, and the National Tax Service, have exercised excessive state power in an arbitrary manner, weakening the legitimacy of democratic governance.

Speaking for North American professors interested in the health and strength of democracy in Korea, we express deep concern over the regression of democracy in Korea. Heart-wrenching incidents such as the death of forced evictees during the police suppression of their protest, the suicide of special contract workers, and the shocking decision by the former president to end his own life are some of the tragic consequences of a democracy that is taking backward steps in Korea; they highlight a democracy in crisis.

A democratically elected government cannot disparage its own people, because the mandate to govern derives from the people. We, the undersigned, urge the government of President Lee Myung-bak to recognize its responsibility for a regressing democracy and reorient itself as a government that respects the people’s sovereignty and democratic rights. Democracy, the pride of Korea, must again find its direction and return to the natural path of serving the people."

15 June 2009

azar nafisi on tehran elections

al jazeera has a nice interview with azar nafisi, author of 'reading lolita in tehran: a memoir in books'. i enjoyed that book very much, and am looking forward to checking out her new 'things i've been silent about'.

the interview is short but sweet, with several insightful comments by nafisi. her main point was that looking at the platform of the candidates--rather than the number of votes (particularly when chances are the votes were rigged)--tells you a lot about society and politics.
...just as important is the fact that many within the ruling elite in Iran are realizing they cannot rule the society the way they claimed they could. A good example is Mr. Mousavi himself.

In order to win Mousavi had taken up the progressive slogans, which he had previously fought against. I was there at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution when he was the Prime Minister, and implemented many of the repressive measures which he now denounces.

I (like many others) was thrown out of the university that Mousavi helped to shut down as part of the Cultural Revolution.

The fact that Mr. Mousavi or Karoobi choose to talk of freedom and human rights show the degree to which the divisions within the regime are affected by the resistance of the Iranian people. I think these are the important points about the elections and not only who won or who lost...

He didn't just campaign against Ahmadinejad but against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic. The fact that Mr Mousavi risked his political career to take up this position suggests that a sizable number of the population don't want what exists now.

you can read the full interview here. there's also a very nice photograph of nafisi!

14 June 2009

a cup of light

nicole mones' novel, a cup of light, is what i randomly picked up in the second hand bookstore to take with me on my recent trip to india. i figured it would be easy, light reading, ideal for the circumstances and my then state of mind. it was all that, and more; by speaking to me, it made escape a little difficult.

"He remembered the feeling of being sliced, of an ice pick through the center of him... Even now he still felt the sharp blade of hurt here in this bar, the piano marching around him... Evaporate, he told his memory. Go away. It crinkled to nothing. It would be back, he knew, but not tonight."

"She had done her best and she had to let go of everything else. Let it be, she thought. Stand behind it as it is. And strangely enough, as her hopes and expectations of the ideal fell away from her, fear and all its grating tethers vanished too."

"Dream memory was different; she knew this much. It couldn't be commanded and controlled. It rose on its own, when ready. It was stored and triggered in the body, in the mystery of bones and muscles, not in the mental world where she felt most at home. It was not thought that recovered a dream. It was the shift of a leg, the slight turn of the torso."