The Ethics of Summit: the Commodification of the Sherpa People

Mountaineers seeking to summit Everest have always relied on Sherpa guides and porters to lead the way. Despite their critical role in ensuring the success of a summit, Sherpas have historically been regarded as subordinate to the very foreign climbers they help. More than just an issue of representation, the proliferation of mountaineering in the Himalayas has left Sherpas facing abuse, exploitation, and death. As they continue to risk their lives helping others achieve their mountaineering dreams, it is worth questioning the ethics of ascending the Himalayas.  

Image by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

By Depali Rai

Known as Sagarmatha in Nepal or Chomolungma in Tibet, Mount Everest has long captured the popular imagination. The sheer scale of the challenge and the natural beauty that accompanies it brings in some 35,000 foreign trekkers to Everest base camp every year and more than 4000 successful ascents of Mt Everest since 1953. Those that continue to live at the foothills of the Himalayas in areas such as at Namche Bazaar have had their livelihoods shaped around the influx of tourism and mountaineering expeditions.

As a previously closed-off nation, Nepal first began to open its borders to foreigners in the 1950s. Shortly after, the “first official ascent” of Everest in 1953 was completed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Consequently, the untouched Shangri-La of yore commenced its transformation into a global hub for tourism. The Sherpas are one core community that has experienced a permanent transformation of their culture and livelihoods.

Due to these early encounters between Sherpas and the West, the word Sherpa has entered mainstream usage and has come to denote several things. From fleeces to porters, the imprecise use of the term personifies a world in which Sherpa people have been misrepresented. Neither a clothing item nor a vocation, the Sherpas are an ethnic group indigenous to the Himalayas in countries such as Nepal and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

Human traffic jams at the summit of Everest and littering problems aside, the commercialisation of the Himalayas has brought with it many undeniable opportunities and benefits for Himalayan communities. Tourism is Nepal’s 4th largest industry and accounts for 6.7% of the nation’s GDP. As a developing nation boasting 8 of the ten world’s largest peaks, the mountaineering industry is a lucrative source of employment for communities that already struggle due to their remote and economically underdeveloped conditions. During a particularly successful climbing season, a Sherpa guide might earn up to 10 times the average annual salary in Nepal. Once remote misty villages some 3,440 metres above sea level now host Irish pubs, import Korean Ramyun and serve Nepalese and Western fare in equal measure. Travellers from across the world have made this rural corner of Nepal an incredibly cosmopolitan intersection. Entrepreneurship and investment have meant that even Everest Base camp boasts a high-quality internet connection. 

Nevertheless, the political economy of the Himalayas is not just a one-dimensional success story. The myth and glory of ascent are potent and enduring. Mountaineering expeditions held in the Himalayas has meant that Nepalese lives have increasingly become collateral damage in the search for success and profit.  

The employment of Sherpa men as mountain guides for foreigners began in the early 20th century when they were ushered away from their farms to carry loads as porters and guide mountaineers through the difficult terrain. Like many other indigenous to the Himalayas, Sherpas possess a remarkable degree of altitude adaptation, both physical and cultural, that make them critical to any mountaineering expedition. From their genetic advantages, which allow their bodies to more efficiently use oxygen at extremely high altitudes than normally expected of a human, to their historical understanding of how to navigate the hostile climate and terrain, Sherpas have long been the essential companions for any summit. There is not much else by way of economic opportunity in the Nepalese district of Khumbu (where Mount Everest lies) due to the immense geographical and climatic challenges.

Sherpas “do most of the legwork (…) carry their client’s gear, cover many more miles, lugging equipment, fastening ropes, setting up the camps and preparing the trail each season”. They lead the way across some of the most extreme environments, guiding climbers through harsh winds, crevasses, falling rocks and other hazards. The importance of Sherpas in helping to create a safe ascent is immeasurable. Reinhold Messner, a pioneer in modern Alpine climbing, is right to emphasise that “climbers who cross ladders set by Sherpas at the Khumbu Icefall then go up without ropes and claim to be special are parasites.”

Lucrative as their compensation might be, their employment comes with immense dangers that remain relatively unprotected and appear meagre compared to what Sherpas and their families risk. A Sherpa working above Base Camp on Everest is allegedly more than three and a half times as likely to perish than an infantryman during the first four years of the Iraq war. The common risks of working in such perilous conditions remain; frostbite, hypothermia, injuries, death, and the like. However, the challenges facing Sherpas are distinctively their own.

Sherpas make up a third of all Everest deaths, and a significant number of these continue to be avoidable tragedies caused by human agency. Sange Sherpa was one such near fatality at barely 19 years old. When working his second season on the mountain, a Pakistani client allegedly denied Sange’s request to abandon a summit attempt despite bad weather. As a result of his client’s insistence, both men were found unconscious by Sherpas from another team. Sange’s hands were so frostbitten that amputation was required. Sange has undergone treatment in the USA but only because of his personal supporters and a GoFundMe campaign.

In one extreme case, four Ukrainian climbers abandoned their guide, Sherpa Lam Babu, on a mountain. The group had come to Nepal as part of a publicity stunt sponsored by ASKfm. They were to scale the mountain and deposit a wallet containing $50,000 of the social media giant’s cryptocurrency at the peak. ASKfm then dared followers to collect the $50,000 prize from the summit. But when conditions went downhill, the team allegedly bolted, leaving their Sherpas behind. Babu never returned.

In another case, nine-time Everest summiteer Tenjin Dorji experienced one ascent where a client from South Korea announced he wanted to go to the top first and by himself. Despite Dorji’s assistance the entire way, guiding him, sharing his load, and laying down ropes to ensure his client travelled safely behind him, the climber then began swinging his ice axe at Dorji to prevent Dorji from trampling on his solo dreams.

Sherpas also confront monumental neglect by the Nepalese government. The Sherpa guiding business has been largely unregulated, leaving room for gross negligence and mistreatment. Tensions came to a head in April 2014, when an avalanche on Everest’s West Shoulder killed sixteen Sherpas. Following the incident, conflicts between the Sherpa community and the Nepalese government precipitated due to the refusal of the government to provide benefits for those injured or next of kin. The avalanche revealed the colossal neglect and exploitation underlying the Nepalese mountaineering tourism industry.

Initial outcry resulted in the government offering $400 to every family affected, less than a quarter of what a novice Sherpa would hope to bring home in a single season. After continued protests and a threat to cancel all climbing during the climbing season of 2014, the government set a relief fund with provisions such as pensions and educational assistance for Sherpa children.

The payouts of $400 rose to $5000. However, there has been continued criticism over the actual implementation of this policy. “I’ve seen so many broken promises” says Norbu Tenzing Sherpa, the head of the American Himalayan Foundation. The government has also started a policy requiring guide agencies to increase the life insurance policies for Sherpas from $10,000 to $15,000. Yet, this sum pales in comparison to the loss of the primary family breadwinner, leaving widows and their children poverty-stricken with little other income or savings. Hiring helicopters to airlift the dead out of the Himalayas and back home eats enough of this insurance money. With a rich and complex series of Buddhist funeral rites to follow, the payouts barely cover the essentials and are not fit to last Sherpa families a lifetime. Fundraisers organised by climbers and their supporters have been set up, such as in Sange Sherpa’s case, but no one should rely on philanthropy alone as their lifeline.

There are endless case studies and anecdotes detailing how the wider world has mistreated the Sherpas. Retelling them is an endless task. Melissa Arnot perhaps says it all when she mourns for Chhewang Nima, the Sherpa that died setting up her trail and fixing down ropes to ensure a safe passage for Arnot: “My passion created an industry that fosters people dying. It supports humans as disposable, as usable, and that is the hardest thing to come to terms with.”

Indeed, if we cast our minds back to 1953, even before the commercialisation of the Himalayas, the stark inequities are evident. Sherpas have been cast off as lesser achieving climbers. Where members of the British expedition team of 1953 received knighthood (i.e., Edmund Hillary became Sir Edmund Hillary), their guide Tenzing Norgay received the less significant award of the George Medal. Lord Hunt who was also a part of the British team later commented that Norgay’s contribution was good but  “within the limits of his experience” . To this, the New York Times rightly remarks Hunt’s comment about Norgay as “an odd thing to say of a man who had more experience of Everest than anybody else in the world”.  

Indeed, Tenzing’s son Norbu Tenzing Norgay is right to claim that: “if somebody in America climbs Everest 19 times, he’d be all over Budweiser commercials,”. Contrastingly, in Nepal, a Sherpa is expected to subserviently guide tens of foreign climbers up the highest peak in the world year in, year out, without expecting much in return for putting their lives on the line. The issue of representation is a whole different mountain to climb.

Whether it be foreign climbers who see Sherpas as disposable labour, or the Nepalese government who exploit their skills for a profit, Sherpas have sacrificed their lives for little in return. For mountaineers, the opportunity to achieve their dreams is worth the risk. In a remote region of the world so acutely transformed by the whims and wishes of modern travellers and profit-hungry governments, the Sherpas have little choice but to continue to risk exploitation and death every climbing season to feed their families. In response, they are rewarded with inadequate protections, mistreatment and minimal representation.

Fast Fashion, Slow Commitment: Fashion Brands and Human Rights in the Garment Industry

Image by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

By Katie McMillan

In a society wherein overconsumption and influencers’ fast fashion ‘hauls’ perpetually receive critique from climate activists (and rightfully so), it is hard to be ignorant of the negative environmental effects of fast fashion. It does seem, however, rather easy to forget that this is only one segment of the negative consequences produced by fashion brands. With some companies releasing thousands of new items daily, many are now wondering: Where do all these clothes come from? Unfortunately, the answer is not as pretty as the items we are purchasing.

As I write this, it has been almost exactly nine years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed at least 1,132 people and left another 2,500 injured. To this day, up to 77% of the now unemployed survivors are unable to work as a result of mental and/or physical injuries obtained during the collapse. Yet due to no legal obligations being set out for companies, most of those affected received little compensation after the incident. In the years following this tragedy, multiple internationally signed Accords were established – the most recent in August 2021 – which aim to improve safety for garment workers and hold the fashion brands, who are supplied by such factories, accountable. In signing these accords, brands are committing to uphold worker rights, improve working conditions, and disclose their supplier factories. The fulfilment of this commitment, however, has been extremely slow, and many brands are yet to sign the most recent accord.

Unfortunately, the commitment of most brands to improving working conditions seems to stop at the singing of Accords. Whilst these large companies make millions of dollars in profit daily, over 90% of brands do not pay their garment workers a living wage. This leaves many workers, who already live in impoverished conditions, unable to afford basic necessities. Often working for a minimum of 12 hours a day, and sometimes up to 24 hours, many garment workers receive no official payslip and, in fact, one month’s earnings is sometimes not enough to pay for even one of the garments that they produce. These conditions only worsened in 2020 with the COVID-19 outbreak. At the beginning of the pandemic, fashion brands made mass cancellations and refused to pay for orders that had already been made. Subsequently, many factories had little choice but to scale back operations or close down completely, leaving garment workers with reduced hours or unemployment. So, whilst the CEOs of these multimillion-dollar companies likely spent lockdown in the comfort of one of their many luxurious homes, their garment workers across the globe were thrown into situations of extreme precariousness, sometimes with no income and no way of providing for their families.

Garment workers are not voiceless victims, however, and have not simply suffered in silence. Just one year after the collapse of Rana Plaza, pleas for help were believed to have been made by Bangladeshi garment workers, as ‘secret’ messages, reading “Degrading sweatshop conditions” were found sewn into Primark items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, the company tried to pass this label off as a ‘hoax’, denying accountability and saving face. Similarly, messages were found in Zara clothing in 2017, with workers claiming that the company had not paid them. This time, the messages were confirmed as real by the garment workers themselves. One may think, then, that if not willing to create a change in the name of human rights, brands would at least create positive change to save their reputation. Though signing Accords is one thing, there is no doubt that these brands have the power to do more. Yet, unfortunately, conditions remain perilous.

Just when it seems it cannot get any worse – with dangerous working conditions, inhumanely long hours, and insufficient wages – it does. The abuse of garment workers, the majority of whom are female, occurring in these factories is rife. In 2018, with supervisors feeling immense pressure from buyers (I.e., fashion companies) to mass produce products in short time periods, over 540 workers across two factories reported incidents of abuse, including verbal, physical, and sexual violence. These abuses are daily occurrences and have not improved in more recent years. Only last year, a 21 year-old woman was murdered by her supervisor, who had been sexually harassing her for months prior. A few weeks later, numerous other women reported abuse in the same factory, which is the top supplier for the massive fashion brand H&M. Although it took them over a year to do so, H&M have since signed a legally binding agreement to tackle gender-based violence within the garment industry. The fashion brand, however, is the first to sign such an agreement. Without further signatories of this and agreements alike, such abuses will continue to go unaddressed, and more workers lives will be put at risk.

Consideration of these harmful conditions, inhumane hours, inadequate wages, and vicious abuses provides only a glimpse into the human rights horrors of the garment industry. The fast fashion industry continues to grow, and brands will continue to profit from the misery of the workers in their supply factories. Some brands may have signed Accords, but history shows that this is not enough – the lives and livelihoods of garment workers remain at risk. The responsibility is not that of individuals, but we can and should take action. We must put pressure on brands: ask them to be more transparent about their supply chains, call for them to pay up, ask who made your clothes. Thanks to campaigns and groups such as Labour Behind the Label, War on Want, Clean Clothes Campaign, Good Clothes Fair Pay, Fashion Checker, and Fashion Revolution, it’s as easy as the click of a few buttons.

Famine, Forced Migration and Fear: Tigray One Year Later

Image by Gerald Schombs on Unsplash 

By Sarah Rennie

In April 2021, when I last wrote about the Tigray war, four months of violence had plagued this northern Ethiopian region. At the time of writing this article (exactly a year later), the brutal conflict is still ongoing. While there are now many different factions involved, at its most basic level the war is a political dispute over who should be in charge of the Tigray region, with Ethiopian government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on opposing sides. Journalists and humanitarian organisations are not often permitted into Tigray, and it is not a conflict that we often see in western news, therefore many people are unaware of the massive humanitarian crisis that is now unfolding in the area. With thousands of people already killed on both sides of the war, innocent civilians are now the victims of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and famine. 

It has been continuously reported over the past 16 months of conflict that the civilian population in Tigray have suffered numerous crimes against them including “threats, unlawful killings, sexual violence, mass arbitrary detention, pillage, forcible transfer and the denial of humanitarian assistance”. In February 2022, in a long-awaited report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International confirmed that war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity had been committed since the outbreak of the war. At the beginning of the war, the TPLF massacred a town named Mai Kadra near the Sudanese border, killing hundreds. It has been said that the violence against Tigrayans since then can be understood as “revenge killings”.

More recently, in an extreme form of this ‘revenge’, there have been reports of “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Western Tigray, which Ethiopian federal forces have denied. Ethnically targeted restrictions on movement and access to farmland have been put in place and civilians have described threats and pamphlets giving Tigrayans “24-hour or 72-hour ultimatums to leave or be killed”. Authorities in Western Tigray have also been said to have imposed restrictions on speaking the native Tigrinya language. In some areas, this cleansing was even openly discussed at town meetings.

Against the backdrop of war crimes and a ruthless clearance of the Tigrayan populace, famine has been officially declared in Tigray. An estimated 5 million people are in need of food assistance, with over 115,000 children severely malnourished. Many refugees, being interviewed after leaving the Tigray region, mentioned a “worrying shortage of food”. Many also reported that crops, which are the “backbone of economic survival” for many communities in Tigray, had been looted or burned in certain communities. The last harvest in this region was half yield of a normal year, and very quickly this stock is being exhausted. Some Tigrayans have decided to stay put in the hope that they will soon plant and harvest new crops, however, if this is not possible many worry that there will be a mass exodus of Tigrayans fleeing a lack of resources.

 Due to the overspill of conflict, many people in neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar are also in need of assistance. Getting aid to those in need is proving to be a difficult task for many reasons. For many of the initial months of the conflict, main routes were blocked due to outbreaks of fighting between the two sides. As opposing militia competes for control of surrounding areas other roads have also been blocked, for example roads from the Amhara region to the south and Sudan to the west.

While the Ethiopian government states that the TPLF has been disrupting aid into the Tigray region, the TPLF itself declares that aid trucks have never been prevented from passing through the region. This back and forth detracts from the grave issues of starvation and malnourishment that are threatening millions of ordinary Tigrayan civilians. Only 10% of the intended supplies have reached the region since July 2021. The World Food Programme reported on 1st April (2022) that “3 trucks [have] arrived safely into Mekelle…This is1st humanitarian convoy to arrive in the Tigray region since last Dec”. As well as these issues, fuel shortages make it near impossible for aid trucks to travel all the way to Tigray to distribute aid and even nutritionally fortified food to treat malnourished children.

No party in this conflict is innocent. The constant blame-shifting and denial of action from the TPLF, the Ethiopian government, and the many other factions involved takes much needed attention away from the millions of victims in Tigray and those in the surrounding regions. It is imperative that the focus remains on the ordinary people that are being forced from their homes and left to starve. Parties to the conflict may continue to deny certain allegations of crimes against humanity, but what they cannot deny is the suffering being inflicted on their own people by their own people. 

Politics and Plastic Surgery: Eugenics, Race and Social Mobility in Brazil

Photo by Olga Guryanova on Usplash

By Charlotte Lang

While the Brazilian butt lift has supplanted itself into popular celebrity culture, oft-neglected is Brazil’s unique relationship with plastic surgery. It is the second-largest consumer of plastic surgery in the world and since the 1960s, free and low-cost plastic surgery has been available through the public healthcare system. Under the backing of president Juscelino Kubitschek, surgeon Ivo Pitanguy tied ugliness with societal ill, arguing for the ‘right to beauty’ in rhetoric borrowed from Eugenics. Opening a clinic for the poor, which doubled as a plastic surgery institute, he promoted the image of surgeons as humanitarians correcting the racialised pathologies of the population.

While plastic surgery encompasses congenital deformities and burns, most surgeries performed are cosmetic. It has been democratized in the private sector too. The 1994 plano real expanded access to consumer credit such that plástica financing plans became available. Companies targeted women in the service sector, and consumers formed lottery associations (plástica consórcios) to fund surgery. As with most nations with universal healthcare, Brazil operates on a two-tier system where private healthcare is luxurious and efficient while public hospitals are severely underfunded but provide basic services. It is thus striking that a crumbling public healthcare system provides this plástica, a factor that Brazil’s increased economic prosperity cannot account for. In truth, the democratization of plástica aligned with the rising economic inequality in the 1980s and 90s and the savage capitalism which eroded the middle class. Most of the procedures performed at public hospitals are carried out by medical residents with a vested interest in learning aesthetic techniques to bring to private practice. Brazilian plastic surgery is innovative precisely because of the masses of low-income bodies surgeons have at their disposal, circumventing the typical legal and institutional barriers.

Eugenics gained traction in Latin America following European indictment of widespread racial miscegenation, which imagined a population destined to degeneration. As until the 1850s more than half of the Brazilian population was enslaved, much of the population was mixed race. In the following decades, the intelligentsia would vindicate miscegenation. It was deemed beneficial as a force that would purify non-white populations. The central tenet of this neo-Lamarckian form of Eugenics was the view that populations were not bound by a hereditary destiny and could be perfected through social and environmental factors. Public health was a primary means of accomplishing this goal through vaccination, sanitation and hygienic education. This saw the rural population of Northeastern Brazil classified as an ethnic subcategory. Beauty was moralised such that ugliness connoted disease while beauty was seen as the teleological destiny of the nation.

One of the leaders of the Eugenics movement in the 1920s, Renato Kehl, saw plastic surgery as the natural continuation of the movement. This focus reflected a broader anxiety within elite families over non-European features, allowing the eugenic process to be undertaken on a individual scale. While such an overt eugenics movement disappeared, its tenets arguably took on new, subtler forms. From the 1930’s onwards, Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre advanced the idea of a ‘racial democracy’ where the nation was imagined as an interracial, intercultural melting pot. Brazilians were described as a cultural hybrid of African, Amerindian and European. This was consolidated by activists, intellectuals and writers from highly segregated societies, to whom Brazil appeared as a paradigm of harmony. The reality was a society beset by the legacy of slavery, where racial prejudice was entrenched in education, life expectancy, income and incarceration.

Modern plastic surgery borrows from these Freyrean notions of hybridity, Brazilian surgeons explain its popularity with miscegenation. White women desire the buttocks and breasts of the eroticised Black body, and Black women desire European noses that diminish their visibility as migrants and outsiders. This ideal of whiteness tinged with erotic blackness is not merely an aesthetic ideal that exists in a vacuum, but one which particularly affects working-class women. Service work places a unique emphasis on appearance, such that beauty, youth, and sexual allure carry a particular curency. Many surgeries are also carried out on children and teenagers at the request of their family, who fear certain characters will lower them on the aesthetic hierarchy, linking them with poverty and blackness in a way that would limit future job opportunities. 

When in 1951 job advertisements were forbidden from expressing a preference for white applicants, this was euphemistically replaced with boa aparência (good appearance) and traços finos (fine features). That racialised preferences act as a barrier to entry for high paying jobs suggests the ways in which beauty extends far beyond questions of vanity. It also has a kind of a kind of democratic appeal in an age when social mobility has dwindled and access to education is limited, the body thus replaces the mind as a basis for power and identity. This is a theme familiar to Latin American melodrama, where a poor girl’s beauty is enough to threaten class barriers. One could also argue that this is not unique to Brazil, the commodification of beauty is perhaps ubiquitous to neoliberalism with cosmetic surgery worth an estimated 66 billion dollars globally. A hybrid aesthetic ideal has been popularised digitally with ‘Instagram face’, the surgically crafted face which Jia Tolentino describes as ‘a look of rootless exotocism’ on white women. While this bears resonance to Brazilian ideals, in Brazil it directly reflects and maintains racialised heircharchies, those of colonialism and eugenics. 

Out of the Closet and Across the Border: LGBT+ Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan

Image by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

By Brigid Rawdon

Content warning: Homophobia, death penalty, sexual assault 

In August of 2021, the Taliban, an extremist armed militant group regained control of the nation of Afghanistan. The group had been driven out of power following the invasion by the American military in 2001. However, after American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban quickly seized control, striking fear within the nation’s LGBT+ community. In response, LGBT+ refugees have fled Afghanistan in search of safety. The UK government has stated that LGBT+ refugees are welcome. However, the process is complicated and LGBT+ refugees from other countries are often overlooked. 

Life in Afghanistan as an LGBT+ person was dangerous even before the Taliban came to power. The Afghan government criminalized homosexual acts, meaning that gay, lesbian, and bisexual Afghans could be imprisoned for prolonged periods of time if they were open about their sexuality, even to trusted friends and family members. In addition, gay men often experienced other forms of harassment my police such as assault and robbery. As the Taliban set up the new government, spokespeople claimed that the group would rule differently than in the past, such as by giving women more opportunities. However, many are sceptical about the truth of these statements and there is no expectation that the Taliban will change its laws against homosexuality. Similar to the previous government, the Taliban criminalizes homosexuality but imposes significantly harsher punishments on those who are found guilty of engaging in homosexual acts. According to a statement from a Taliban judge, gay men will be put to death either by stoning or by crushing. Media reports have suggested that gay men are experiencing similar levels of harassment and sexual assault by police compared to the previous Afghan government.

Consequently, since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, many LGBT+ Afghans have decided to flee the country for reasons of personal safety. They know that if they stay, it will be difficult to avoid being captured by the Taliban and subjected to the brutal treatment that the groups have claimed it will enact against gay Afghans. In order to flee, Afghans have been using a variety of methods to leave the country. Some were able to board evacuation flights out of the capital city of Kabul in summer. While most of the refugees fleeing Afghanistan headed to Pakistan or Iran, others sought refuge in the United States, United Kingdom, and other nations. 

In late October of 2021, the government of the United Kingdom helped 29 Afghan refugees who are members of the LGBT+ community to make their way to the UK. Here, the refugees filed asylum applications and began the process of resettling without fear of government persecution. The UK government, which has relatively progressive laws concerning the LGBT+ community, has welcomed these refugees and stated that they hoped to welcome more in the future. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities stated ‘We played a key role getting these people out and will continue to do all we can to help at-risk Afghans leave the country.’ In addition, various charities such as Rainbow Road, an organisation that helps LGBT+ people escape state-sponsored persecution, aided in the process of resettling these LGBTQ+ Afghan people in the United Kingdom. 

However, it would be naive to claim that LGBT+ people who seek asylum in the United Kingdom always have the eager support of the UK government. This process is often long, complicated, and dangerous for people fleeing nations with less widely-publicised persecution of their LGBT+ citizens. Like many other nations, the United Kingdom utilises the definition of a refugee set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which is ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.’ While this definition does not specifically mention persecution based on sexual orientation or gender, the UK accepts that being LGBT+ makes a person part of a persecuted social group. 

As such, once these LGBT+ refugees entered the United Kingdom, they were able to submit asylum claims at their port of entry. In order for an LGBT+ asylum seeker’s claim to be considered valid by the UK government, said asylum seeker must prove well-founded fear of persecution on account of their actual or perceived sexual orientation that is deemed not to conform to prevailing political, social or cultural norms in their home nation. In addition, the asylum seeker must be expected to be able to return to their home nation and conceal their sexual orientation. This is relatively simple for those fleeing Afghanistan because of the aforementioned well-documented persecution of LGBT+ people by the ruling Taliban government. However, it is important to note that if these LGBT+ Afghans are granted asylum, their claims only last for five years until they must reapply. 

These Afghan refugees are far from alone in their struggle to escape state-sponsored persecution of LGBT+ people. Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on February 24th, 2022, countless LGBT+ Ukrainians began to flee their home nation in fear of persecution by the Russian government. While LGBT+ people in Ukraine are protected from discrimination and are able to live openly, LGBT+ Russians are not protected from employment or housing discrimination and are subjected to fines if they speak out about anti-LGBT+ laws or are reported for discussing their life experiences as LGBT+ people. Many Ukrainians believe that if Russia gains control over the Ukrainian government, they will be subjected to the same censorship and discrimination that LGBT+ Russians face. If this happens, many of these Ukrainians will be forced to flee to more accepting nations. As a nation with aforementioned progressive laws concerning LGBT+ rights, there is a strong possibility that these refugees fleeing Ukraine will attempt to relocate to the UK. As a result, the government of the United Kingdom has the same obligation to these Ukrainians as it did to LGBT+ Afghan refugees. The UK government must continue to not only welcome LGBT+ refugees but also to expedite the process of granting their asylum claims and allowing them to resettle in the United Kingdom.

Economic Sanctions Hurt People, not Governments

Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

By Kathy Dimaya

In response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, sanctions on Russia have been a heated topic for several weeks. A closer look at the agenda, history, and context of these sanctions will demonstrate that regardless of the hopes and intentions of the US, UK, and EU governments, sanctions will not deter the Russian government and will only hurt its people.

A brief history

Imagined as a deterrent after World War I, sanctions in the modern sense were purposefully designed to threaten harm on civilians. As Nicholas Mulder, an expert on sanctions, discusses, the League of Nations intended to use sanctions as a pure threat that would not need to be implemented, as governments would have recently recalled the suffering of the Great War. But, in order to make the threat of sanctions credible, the threat needed to be total, severe, and thus, implicate not only the lives of military personnel but also of innocent people. A troubling reality given the purpose of sanctions as a method to preserve peace.

In recent years, Iran has experienced harsh sanctions from the West, yet, as noted in The Economist, sanctions imposed by the US “neither dislodged the mullahs who run [Iran] nor stopped its meddling in the region.” In Venezuela and Cuba, sanctions have also failed to change their regimes as intended. The reality is that when sanctions work, they should work quickly. If not, sanctions only worsen the conflict. In addition, “the more powerful sanctions are, the greater the risk of collateral damage, particularly when targeted regimes are indifferent to the suffering of citizens.” A vital detail to remember when assessing the Russian government’s response to sanctions in relation to its people.

Fortress Russia

To protect Russia against additional sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin has created a “fortress” to build “financial and economic sandbags around the economy.” Russia focused on reducing the number of transactions conducted in US dollars and engaged in more trade in other currencies. The country also decreased its import of Western goods in favour of manufacturing those goods domestically and increased cooperation with China. Russia’s fortress is estimated to be worth about $640 billion.

Despite Russia’s efforts, according to Wall Street Journal, the strategy has “limited economic growth and investment,” and “Russia has grown slower than the world since 2014,” making Russians poorer overall. On top of that, due to freezes on assets and the withdrawal of government bonds, according to NPR, “when you zoom out, this $640 billion fortress that Russia has spent years amassing kind of just boils down to $30 billion of cash.” Fortress Russia may not be much of a fortress after all.

Economic collapse

As of 15 March, economic sanctions implemented by the US, UK, and EU include bans on luxury goods exports to Russia, weighty taxes on certain Russian imports, limits on Russian oil and gas imports, and asset freezes of Russia’s central bank and other major banks. The West has also targeted Russian oligarchs through travel bans and individual asset freezes in an attempt to weaken Putin’s inner circle.

One of the most serious sanctions has been the ban of seven Russian banks from SWIFT, a network that links 11,000 financial institutions in 200+ countries. Deutsche Bank and others fear the move will incentivise the use of alternative messaging networks and workaround methods. That said, only large companies and high net worth individuals would be able to implement such workarounds, and as is typical with sanctions, this measure will be of greatest consequence to average Russians, such as households who are no longer able to remit crucial funds to relatives in Russia.

Moreover, corporations such as Ikea, H&M, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks, have announced closing their establishments and pulling their products in Russia. The self-sanctioning of these companies has raised concern for job losses should these companies decide to close doors permanently. The self-sanctioning of businesses has extended to Russian oil as well. Even though Western governments left certain energy sanctions off the table to prevent a global meltdown, buyers have willingly stopped buying Russian oil. The move is in solidarity with a collective aversion to conducting business with Russia, but the country is inordinately reliant on oil exports – the Fortress Russia plan depended on its oil industry to keep the country afloat. A significant loss in oil revenue would decimate their economy.

Lastly, the Russian ruble has lost one-third of its value since sanctions were imposed. Russian people have responded by withdrawing cash to buy foreign currency and goods that will retain value better than the ruble. The Russian government began limiting the amount of money people could withdraw, exchange for foreign currency, and transfer out of the country to prevent bank runs, and the Russian central bank raised interest rates to 20% to encourage people to leave their savings intact.

Even if Fortress Russia worked as intended, the effects would be felt by the Russian people. Exclusion from global systems has isolated Russians from the rest of the world. The departure of multinational corporations will lead to an increase in unemployment, high interest rates will deter investment, and a decline in the purchase of Russian oil will lead to oil revenues falling. As a result, the Russian economy is estimated to shrink as much as 35% this quarter.

In the realm of global politics, the violation of another country’s sovereignty must be met with a decisive response. Sanctions have historically been the only alternative to war to punish such transgressions against international law. However, time and time again, sanctions have been unsuccessful in driving behavioural change from bad actors. Sanctions merely succeed in punishing regular citizens economically for the misbehaviour of their autocratic governments and wealthy elite.

The Protocol Committee condemns President Putin’s War on Ukraine in the strongest possible terms. Please remember support is available from student services and other organisations.

Confronting the UK’s Human Trafficking Crisis

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash 

By Anna Videbaek Smith

Bilkisu was only 15 when she left her homeland of Nigeria behind. She had read of England, of course, but had never dared believe that she could one day trek the hilly fields of Hertfordshire like an Austenian heroine. Then a phone call from her uncle-turned-saviour changed everything: he gave Bilkisu the offer of staying with him in the UK, where she could further her education and send money to her family back home. Bilkisu could not believe her luck; it almost seemed too good to be true.  She quickly learnt that it was. At 5 am the alarm clock went off marking the beginning of her 16-hour work-day cooking, cleaning, and caring for her young cousins. If her aunt was not satisfied with her work by the end of the day, Bilkisu was beaten. Nine years trudged by with no change, no pay, and no days off. It was not until she reached her mid-twenties that she managed to escape the grim fate of modern-day slavery, with the help of a local pastor. 

Bilkisu’s story is far from unique. Though rarely talked about, the UK has seen an almost ten-fold increase in potential trafficking victims from 1,182 in 2012 to 10,627 in 2019. While this is partially a result of increased awareness and improved methods of identification, many non-governmental organisations are sounding the alarm. The most common form of exploitation is forced labour, as seen in Bilkisu’s case, though this is often combined with bank fraud, welfare benefit fraud, forced begging, or shoplifting. The government estimates the annual cost to the economy is between £3.3 and £4.3 billion. Leading experts in the field, however, take issue with these calculations, putting the real number of human trafficking victims in this country closer to 100,000 – which would have a real annual cost of almost £40 billion. These numbers will likely only be aggravated by two recent events: the UK’s official exit from the EU, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, now more than ever, the British human trafficking crisis must be thrust into the public consciousness.

Experts predict Brexit will exacerbate the state of human trafficking in the UK in two primary ways. Firstly, prevention of modern-day slavery will likely become much harder, in part because a significant portion of workers’ rights stems from EU legislation that has yet to be replaced. This lack of legal protection will conceivably make workers more vulnerable to exploitation, particularly forced labour. This is only worsened by the fact that many EU citizens in the UK are unaware of their rights under the new EU Settlement Scheme, putting them in a vulnerable position. Moreover, reports from the Human Trafficking Foundation suggest many employers are unprepared for the end of free movement of labour, creating the risk that this labour shortage will be filled by traffickers. A final point worth noting is funding; in the past decades British human trafficking foundations have received significant funds from EU-affiliated institutions, particularly the European Social Fund. Thus, one might justifiably worry that these charities will become underfunded, weakening an already feeble support system for victims of modern-day slavery.

A second problem posed by Brexit is intelligence sharing when preventing and/or prosecuting cross-border human trafficking. Since its foundation in 1998, the UK has played a leading role in Europol and benefitted from EU support when carrying out anti-trafficking missions. Following the UK’s official departure in 2020, however, British cooperation with Europol is a fraction of what it once was. British officers, for example, no longer have access to Europol databases making it much harder to identify traffickers. This is only compounded by the limitations of the EGates system, which relies on watchlists to flag suspected traffickers, meaning it will not identify people who have not already been flagged. This method will become even less effective at identifying human traffickers without access to the abundance of EU data. Hence, there is reason to believe Brexit will only worsen the state of modern slavery due to complications surrounding preventative measures and intelligence sharing.

Another cause for concern is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has undoubtedly aggravated the underlying conditions that make people vulnerable to human trafficking in the first place; poverty, unemployment, and inequality. Furthermore, lockdowns and social distancing significantly limit opportunities to identify victims, meaning more people will be trapped in unimaginable and infernal situations. Moreover, the pandemic has inevitably led to a reprioritisation of resources, meaning the prosecution of modern-day slavery cannot keep up with the rate at which these crimes are committed. This also means victim support and prevention programmes have received less funding. All of this, combined with the UK’s official departure from the EU, will likely create a perfect storm exacerbating the already historically bad state of modern-day slavery in Britain.

As I am wrapping up this article, I am left with one burning question; why is this not talked about more? Part of the explanation, I believe, involves the so-called optimism bias. It is difficult to face the fact that such gross violations of human rights can happen right here on British soil. To me, and I suspect most others, this country feels safe. Yet, the experiences of Bilkisu and thousands of others have been characterised by exploitation and suffering.  Another theory might point out that Brexit and COVID-19 have sucked up enormous amounts of oxygen in the media ecosystem, leaving little left for problems like this. As COVID-restrictions are lifted and Brexit’s final chapters are completed, now is the time to shed light on the human trafficking crisis in this country. 

President Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine: The UK Government Must Act Now

Image by Karollyne Hubert on Unsplash

The Protocol Committee 

There is no doubt that you are already aware of the recent invasion of Ukraine by President Putin and Russian government forces. This invasion is a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, as well as an attack on human rights and a peaceful democratic way of life. It must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. At the time of writing, the UN has reported that 227 Ukrainian civilians including children are confirmed to have been killed. However, the Ukrainian emergency services estimate civilian deaths to be closer to 2000. The number of total casualties in this conflict is significantly higher and across the country, Ukrainians are no longer safe in their own homes. It is crucial to acknowledge that President Putin’s actions do not represent Russian civilians, thousands of whom are facing arbitrary detention for protesting against the war. 

In recent days, the severity and aggression of attacks on Ukrainian cities by Russian government forces has increased significantly. There are fears of an increased level of violence and Amnesty International has accused Russia of committing a war crime by using cluster munitions in a deadly attack on a Ukrainian residential area. In particular, the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv has been besieged by shelling for days. These attacks have become increasingly indiscriminate and directly caused civilian deaths. The strategically important port city of Maripol is reported as being “near to a humanitarian catastrophe” by the city’s deputy major after continuous Russian military attacks. Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, is also under siege, with a key TV tower destroyed in a recent Russian missile attack. The Ukrainian people have been resolute in the face of these attacks and the country continues to be led by President Zelenskyy.

The UK government must do more in light of these events. It is not enough to simply say that we stand with the Ukrainian people. The UK, US and EU must now face up to the challenge and take action to stop this illegal invasion and loss of life. Another key way the UK government could do more is by committing to helping Ukrainian refugees who are now estimated to number over 1 million. The countries that neighbour Ukraine, are already facing the challenge of providing the necessary support for people who have been forced to flee for their lives. After facing criticism, the UK government has relaxed rules for Ukrainian who currently have relatives in the UK and have extended a refugee scheme. However, this is not enough and it does not provide support for those who need it now.

The invasion of Ukraine has triggered condemnation across the world, leading to protests,  and calls for a stronger response.  In St Andrews, Amnesty International and Divest Borders, alongside other societies, held a well-attended vigil on Monday night. The messages delivered by the speakers were clear: Keep the conversations going, stand in solidarity with Ukraine and take action where you can. If you would like to do more, some options include supporting humanitarian and refugee organisations, writing to your MP or joining protests demanding support for refugees and tougher actions against President Putin’s government. As a global community, we must come together in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and other communities affected by President Putin’s aggression. 

Please remember that there is support available from places such as from the University’s student services. 

Polite protest: fundamental rights, the British way

Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By Maya Zealey

“Democracy is not something that you believe in, or something that you hang your hat on. It’s something that you do, you participate. Without participation, democracy crumbles and fails.”

This is a quote from Abbie Hoffman, a controversial activist who rose to prominence protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. He articulates democracy as a verb, an action that requires participation, no matter where you live in the world. There tends to be an assumption that Britons are not at risk of being stripped of their most fundamental rights by their government because we live in a stable democratic country. This is a fallacy. Brits are facing an attack on their human right to peaceful assembly and their democratic right to protest, but what is scarier than this attack is the apathetic response from the public.

Peaceful protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have evoked a genuine fury from the public; a mob-like mentality the likes of which tend to be the exclusive domain of Twitter-trolls. I watched as citizens that could be my grandparents had ink squirted on their faces, horrified by scenes of grown men violently dragging elderly women off roads that they were sitting on. Television interviews revealed an unparalleled hatred of these protesters, despite their methods being completely peaceful and genuinely political.

Undoubtedly spurred on by coverage of their own population scolding the actions of this inconvenient few, the Conservative government has been trying to push through their response to these pesky protesters – the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts’ bill (PCSC). This bill would enshrine a particularly dangerous Catch-22 into English and Welsh policing law; our democratic right to protest would be reduced to the right to make our voices heard as long as we do not cause ‘serious annoyance.’ Whether a protest is allowed to go ahead is at the whim of the police and the Home Secretary. This seriously threatens our right to protest in opposition to the actions of our government.

This will not just impact rioters and nuisances, this will impact anybody who might want to use their voice to criticise or pressure the government. For a protest to go ahead legally, prior permission from the Home Secretary would have to be obtained. The government would dictate what protests, and therefore what causes, could legitimately take to the streets. Priti Patel’s approval would stand between you and your human right to peaceful assembly. 

The police are also being given greater powers to dictate the appropriateness of a protest. If this bill passes, police could legitimately shut down a demonstration if it was too loud or going on for too long. Currently, the police can only arrest you if you have been informed of a restriction and have ignored it but this would no longer be the case. It’s perfectly feasible that an attendee of a protest could be arrested and have absolutely no idea why. Protesters will be assumed to have knowledge that the police have never communicated to them. This has the obvious effect of discouraging protest by essentially criminalising it. You will not even have to attend to feel the power of the police, they would have the right to stop and search anybody in the vicinity of a demonstration without cause. This has potentially disastrous consequences for people at disproportionate risk of police violence such as BAME people. 

Furthermore, increased powers of the police will only exacerbate the erosion of the relationship that many in society already have with the police. Even those who disagree with the disruptive tactics of climate protesters were able to see the completely disproportionate violence that the police met Sarah Everard vigils with. Some were arrested for breaking Covid rules, a revelation even more disgusting in light of the Metropolitan Police’s disinterest in investigating the numerous illegal gatherings at Downing Street and Whitehall. The record of the British police gives me no faith that they will use these new powers proportionately.

For as much outrage as this bill has produced, it has produced equal indifference. The protests this bill has produced have been shockingly small, a far cry from making the front-page news. The disengagement the British public has with their democratic right to protest, and their human right to peaceful assembly is astounding. The reality is that the government would not have been able to seriously introduce this legislation without an awareness that large swathes of the British public would be delighted to see the ends of inconvenient protests that block traffic or make noise.

This is negligence from both the Tories and the wider public at large. Politicians, business leaders and bankers are some of the least trusted professionals in the UK, yet these are the individuals currently being trusted to manage the greatest threat to humanity in our history. Shell and BP have announced billions in profits and yet the UK government continues to provide them with tax breaks, all while the public faces a cost-of-living crisis over rising fuel prices. They have also just announced the approval of a new oil field, despite hosting COP only months ago. Without protest, what hope do we have to fight back against this dangerous attitude to the risks climate change poses? The effect of this threat to our rights is not academic, it could have very real consequences for the survival of us all.

Waiting to Drown: The Living Crisis

Photography by Tom Parsons on Unsplash. 

By Jack McGrath 

Despite apparently infinite sleaze and deceit, the ‘Great’ British government somehow slouches on, its thin veneer of shame sufficient to stave off collapse. (Each week that veneer takes a slightly different form – one-week complete disregard, another week half-hearted apology, and, in yet another, it nearly takes the form of crocodile tears. Absurdly, this government’s shame has become a matter for calculation.) It is as if they are propelled forward by their boundless and blatant contempt for anyone ‘beneath’ them. (Of course, people used to say that Johnson’s blundering was ‘priced-in’ to his election. I highly doubt that, now. His blundering, and the government’s disregard for decency, is the fuel for their enterprise.) How long the government will stay afloat is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain: the ‘upcoming’ living crisis (as if there is not already one) has the potential to be their wreck.

As things stand, inflation has already risen to 5.1%. Real wages have stagnated and are expected to fall for the rest of the year. This should be enough cause for concern. Yet, of course, the reality is worse. According to Ofgem, once the next government-mandated price cap is set on energy prices, households can expect to see a 40% rise in energy costs. Indeed, all things considered, it is entirely possible that households will see a doubling of their bills in the next year. As things stand and as they will come to stand, then, many, many households will be utterly crippled or simply collapse under the financial strain they are about to experience.

Now, Rishi Sunak has announced a supposed £9 billion support package for a solution. But its components are misguided. Key to it, for instance, will be the provision of a £200 loan for households. The assumption that such a policy would go any substantial distance to really helping the poorest households (or, indeed, middle-income households) is ridiculous. (What is more, Sunak did not even seem to understand that his policy is, in fact, the provision of a loan and not, as he chose to frame it, a bill ‘discount’. Of course, in actuality, he does understand – this is just one of his turns at the government’s long game of infinite deceit.) 

At the very least, the government should be implementing a windfall tax on the exorbitant profits enjoyed by oil and gas companies in the past year. To put those profits in perspective, Shell’s pre-tax profit reached £12 billion in the last three months of 2020, rising from £886,000 in the previous quarter. Of course, Shell CEO Van Beurden claims that, as opposed to being taxed, the best way Shell could help the upcoming living crisis is by “staying in business”, suggesting, unbelievably, that a windfall tax might be the company’s end. Since it has to be said: oil and gas companies did not collapse in 1982 when the then-Tory government implemented a windfall tax on their profits, they would not collapse now. In any case, what baffles the mind most of all is the abject lack of potential solutions on the table. Aside from the £200 loan, other suggestions have been: a temporary VAT cut, price subsidies for the poorest households and a return to austerity as soon as possible

What strikes me about all these proposals is how boring they all are – how dull, lifeless, and grey. The problems we are facing are changing – the solutions must change, too. Why we assume the same set of solutions will be appropriate for every problem we face is a maddening thought. (Who knew, I suppose, that such a wonderful fiscal and monetary skeleton key was being hidden from us all in 11 Downing Street.) No doubt, some of the responses to the reality of the pandemic were somewhat creative. But, if we were being creative then, why stop now? Why revert back to an approach that may have worked (though, I would wager that it did not) in a world gone? On the other hand, if we were not being creative then, why are we still not now? 

We cannot slump into a financial policy that time should have buried. VAT cuts, subsidies and loans, and return to austerity cannot be the way forward. If we are to have any hope at steering a calm course through an otherwise tumultuous decade, we must rethink the structures of our society and financial system. We must, in the first instance, rethink our taxation system. And we must, at the same time, rethink our welfare system. If we do not, it will not just be this government’s ship that will be wrecked. They will drown, no doubt, but so will we all.