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.

Tackling violence against women and girls in the UK: is a misogyny hate crime bill part of the solution? 

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

By Louise Palmer 

Content warning: Violence against Women and Girls/ Sexual Assult

When asked to think about Human Rights, it is common for people to picture places and situations that are distant or far removed from their everyday lives. However, this perception is deeply misleading as Human Rights remain as significant as ever in the UK. This argument is relevant to many different topics, but none are more pressing than the discussion concerning the epidemic of violence against women and girls. 

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’. Over the past year, news headlines have shown a pattern of women being violently deprived of their fundamental right to life. This issue was brought into sharp focus by the violent murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and more recently, Ashling Murphy in the Republic of Ireland. A collective outpouring of grief and anger has led to renewed attention on the everyday experiences of women and girls. Whilst there was an increased openness of conversations, the stories told were not new or surprising. Those who claimed to be shocked by these discussions quite simply had not been listening. 

The femicide epidemic (the killing of a woman or girl, by a man because of her gender) is not a recent development in the UK. Data suggests that a woman is killed by a man every three days. Only a minority of cases make national headlines, and those that do are still largely portrayed as single tragic events. Karen Ingala-Smith, the author of Counting Dead Women, describes a “hierarchy of victims”. “Men’s fatal violence against women cuts across all sections of society, across ages, class and ethnicity. But some women are afforded more empathy than others. Some are more likely to be disbelieved, to be blamed, to be sent away without the help they need”. Furthermore, we are less likely to hear about the women who are killed in their own homes or by someone they know. Despite this, data suggests that half of the women killed by men are killed by a partner or an ex.

Fatal violence against women and girls does not exist in a vacuum but is part of a larger issue across society. While both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse, it remains both strongly gendered and highly under-reported. It is thought that around one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Moreover, UN Women UK reported that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed. They also found that 96% of women did not report “those situations because of the belief that it would not change anything”. This is not surprising given that only 1.6% of UK [reported] rape cases led to charges in 2020

Tackling the epidemic of violence against women and girls requires wholesale societal change. As a country, we will have to confront the misogynic attitudes and mindsets which underpin these crimes. There is still value in short-term solutions to protect women, and they should be implemented by the government and authorities. This could include funding services but should not feature offering advice that inadvertently victim-blames. However, if we are to be committed to change, we cannot stop there. Longer-term progress will require uncomfortable discussions and soul-searching about the everyday realities of women and girls in the UK. One possible suggestion following this logic is to make misogyny (hatred or prejudice against women) a hate crime. 

This bill was presented by Labour MP Stella Creasy and passed by the House of Lords. Therefore, it will now return to the House of Commons to be debated again, after its initial rejection. In practice, the bill would mean that when a crime is carried out against a woman because she is a woman, it would be recorded as a hate crime and provide the opportunity for harsher sentencing (in England & Wales). A coalition of campaigners, including Citizens UK and Refuge, argue that this “would provide critical data on the link between hostility to women and the abuse and harassment women experience”. Campaigners also argue that this would help women to feel that they would be believed and supported in recording crimes. 

However, other figures have opposed the proposed bill arguing that it would further overstretch resources and dilute the impact of current hate crime legislation by creating too broad a category. Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that there was “abundant statute” to effectively tackle violence against women and girls. The BBC also reports that he argued that “widening the scope of what you ask the police to do, you will just increase the problem”. The challenge of overstretched police resources is undoubtedly an issue facing the government and local authorities. Be that as it may, it is not an excuse in 2022 to continue to avoid the reality of the epidemic of violence against women and girls. Accurate reporting and data on crimes motivated by misogyny are essential tools to expose the extent of this problem. 

Regardless of the outcome of this bill, the UK must continue to have uncomfortable discussions and confront the impact of misogyny on our society. Only by doing this, can we hope to make progress in tackling violence against women and girls. 

Confronting South America’s Violent Past: An Interview with Human Rights Scholar Dr Francesca Lessa

Image by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

By Clorrie Violet Yeomans

In this exclusive interview for Protocol Magazine, Oxford scholar Dr Francesca Lessa shares her two decades of experience researching human rights in Latin America. Lessa’s research focuses on accountability for past human rights violations and the politics behind these processes, which involve state, regional, and international actors, as well as civilian activists. She is currently a Departmental Lecturer in Latin American Studies and Development at the Oxford Department of International Development and the University of Oxford’s Latin American Centre.

MPhil candidate in Latin American Studies at Oxford University, Clorrie Yeomans, interviews Dr Francesca Lessa about her work on Operation Condor: a systematic plan of regional repression in Cold War South America. Lessa shares how her research, including her database and forthcoming book, aims to help combat impunity and restore justice today. The interview also reflects on the wider dangers of brushing the past under the rug.

How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I would introduce myself as a scholar-activist. I quite like this word because I believe, when it comes to human rights and issues of justice and accountability, it’s impossible to be impartial. In most cases, we are talking about extreme situations where people’s basic rights are being violated on a systematic basis usually by the state. The clear situation of injustice and abuse of power means that there is an activist element. I have always felt that my work was about revealing these situations of injustice and trying to find a way to improve the victims’ possibilities to access remedies for the past or present crimes they have suffered.

How do you deal with the ethical issues surrounding your research?

My research involves an abundance of ethical issues. I mainly work with victims of human rights violations and so the main concern is that the interview itself could turn into a situation of revictimisation. Generally, I try to ask very open questions so that the victims can choose what they share with me. For example, ‘why were you a political activist at the time?’. Of course, the darkest aspects of human rights violations are there but what interests me the most is the story of the person and why they became a political activist and a human rights activist afterwards.

In most cases, because many of the victims have since become human rights activists, they have had plenty of experience testifying either in trials or truth commissions. They have usually told this story many times before. However, some people may speak out for the first time and it’s much harder for them. In the case of South America, there is quite a significant time distance from these events. Most people, especially in Argentina and Uruguay, have had this previous experience of sharing their past militancy.

Now, with Covid-19, you have the additional element that, for these kind of personal topics, a remote interview would be a little bit uncomfortable. Doing it over a screen is far from ideal. On the other hand, most of the victims are in their sixties, seventies, or eighties and so they belong to the most vulnerable categories.

The second ethical issue is the risk to you as a researcher. Researching these topics that remain very sensitive in some countries can put you on the radar of some unpleasant people. Even when you think that you are going to a place that you know very well, it’s always good to look at all the possible risk scenarios because things can change very suddenly. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of our research. We think that people aren’t interested but sometimes they are, much more than we expect.

Another impact on the researcher is secondary trauma from listening to so many stories of people being tortured, abducted, and disappeared. Although you have not lived through the experience, the continuous listening to these very harrowing and heartbreaking stories can impact the researcher as well. We always feel that we can keep the distance but if you are doing prolonged fieldwork everyday, it’s tough. I remember when I was at the trials in Argentina, it really depended on the person’s testimony. Some people can really get to you and, even if after a year, when I thought I had heard everything I could possibly hear, there was still that testimony that really broke my heart. It’s something that never really goes away. These are difficult stories of human bravery but also human cruelty at the same time.

Would you like to debunk any myths surrounding the Cold War in Latin America?

There are very skewed narratives about the global Cold War and if we were in any of the formerly Russian-speaking countries, they would have a very different story to the one we tell in the West. Many aspects are presented as if it were a Cold War because there was no conflict, nothing really happened, and few people died. But, if you start digging under the surface of that narrative, 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared, 9,000 to 30,000 Argentines were disappeared, 400 people were disappeared in Brazil and 20,000 were tortured through the Brazilian military justice system. Those are not wars in the traditional International-Relations sense of two armies or sides fighting each other like during World War One or World War Two. Here, we had states who imposed a very specific view of how society was supposed to be functioning and whoever opposed that view was targeted. In the case of South America, if you were a trade unionist or a student activist, or even a lawyer or journalist sometimes, that was enough for you to stand out as an internal enemy. Even though you weren’t part of an army, your ability to criticise the system was enough to get you killed or disappeared. I think this narrative of ‘there was no conflict’ must be nuanced. There was no conflict as in the sense of a WWI-or-WWII-style-conflict, but each country had an authoritarian regime that was murdering its own people and that’s problematic, too. Even in cases like Guatemala and El Salvador, where there were civil wars, we know from the subsequent truth commissions that it was never a balanced war. In reality, it was the state committing systematic human rights violations against civilians. So, the peaceful image of the Cold War that we are taught at school is erroneous.

So, even the name ‘Cold War’ itself is problematic…

Yes, because it’s in opposition to the ‘hot wars’ of WWI and WWII where you have these traditional conflicts. I also don’t like the alternative discourse which is the discourse of the ‘Dirty War’. In Argentina and Uruguay, there were armed groups but you cannot consider them as being on par with the state. So, the narrative of the ‘Dirty War’ is a discourse that comes from the National Security Doctrine, the School of the Americas, and the armed forces themselves. They were saying that ‘this is an unusual war because we don’t have armies. The enemy is not another country invading you, it’s your own people. So you don’t know who the enemy is and that’s why you need to torture people to get information and to see who your enemy is.’ They tried to legitimise these practices by using the language of war when, in fact, there was no war. Rather, it was the state systematically violating the rights of citizens. Although this narrative is very problematic, it remains very popular in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay among individuals who try to somehow justify the past human rights violations.

Do you think that the UK can learn something from Latin America’s experience of transitional justice?

Definitely. I saw in the news over the Summer that the UK Parliament was planning to issue a blanket amnesty for the crimes committed in Northern Ireland. I read an article by Louise Mallinder in which she argues that the amnesty that the UK government was planning to implement would have been worse than the amnesties in South America… and those amnesties were bad enough! I think that Latin America definitely has many lessons for the UK, the US, and many of the European countries that have done a relatively poor job at coming to terms with the past.

I think that Latin America exemplifies that you cannot brush the past under the rug. It will always come back to haunt you. Even though there have been ups and downs, the demand to know the truth and obtain justice is always there in Latin America. I don’t know how the amnesty plan ended up in the UK Parliament but it will not be a lasting solution. Latin America shows us that the solutions of amnesties could work for a short period of time but they are not long-term solutions. In Argentina and Uruguay, these laws have been derogated and now we have lots of criminal trials. In Chile, the law is still there but it’s being derogated in practice. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been very clear that you can come up with any kind of legal tool that you like but you still have to investigate human rights violations. It’s very disappointing to see that, in 2021, the UK Parliament thought that a blanket amnesty might be the way forward in Northern Ireland.

The experience in Latin America shows that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to obtaining truth and justice. You can definitely be creative in your approach. For example, in Argentina they developed a kind of truth-trial which was a compromise between trials and truth commissions to try to access  information about the fate of the disappeared. There has been compensation paid to various groups including the stolen babies who are now adults. No one path exists. The challenge is that each society must come up with its own path, as long as it complies with all the international human rights standards.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your database on Operation Condor?

The database now has over 800 cases of victims of cross border human rights violations in South America between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The idea for the database came from three workshops I organised in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay on the issue of Operation Condor. One of the topics that was always debated was which cases of repression were part of domestic repression and which others were part of Operation Condor specifically. If you read about Condor, you can find anything from 50 victims to 100,000 victims. One of the challenges was defining which cases count as Condor. I invited survivors, human rights activists, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to these workshops to discuss this question.

Operation Condor was based on the exchange of information between countries looking for specific people living in exile. Sometimes, officers also travelled to another country to capture these people and take them back to their home country to kill them there. Since these cases can be quite complex, in Argentina, they originally said that all foreigners detained in Argentina were victims of Condor. When they then started looking at individual cases, they found, for example, a Paraguayan who had moved at two years old to Argentina. This individual had no connections to Paraguay and so it could not count as a transnational human rights violation.

By digging through all the stories, the experts came up with the following criteria. To count as Condor, the crime had to include a border crossing of information, foreign military officers, or deportees. I used these three criteria to build my database looking at all the information from previous research, truth commissions, and trials and going story by story. The database is not a finished product but I’d say that we have captured 80% of the cases. There are other cases that remain unreported since people are still very afraid.

Our aim was not to make categories of victims but to show how these states in South America really went the extra mile to expand their repression across borders. It shows an extra layer of sophistication in the repression through their communication systems, central headquarters in Buenos Aires, and hit squads operating in Paris against specific exiles. This also helps us to discredit the narrative of the Dirty War and ‘excesses’ because there was a plan throughout South America to tackle this Communist threat.

How has your database been used in practice?

So far, the database has been used by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a case of two Uruguayan brothers who were abducted with their parents and ended up going to Uruguay and being abandoned in Chile. They filed a petition to the Commission a few years ago. The Commission then used the database in their report to contextualise their case. When Argentina didn’t comply with the Commission’s requirements, the case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and there was a hearing in May this year. I presented a written piece showing very specifically the victims’ Uruguayan nationality and how members of their specific political party had been targeted. I highlighted how Argentina was also at the heart of this system as it was home to the headquarters of Operation Condor and the majority of South American exiles were living there.

Could you speak to us a little bit about your most recent publication?

I have just finished my next book called ‘The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America’. It’s tells both sides of this story of cross-border repression in South America. The first part of the book explains the transnational terror that was taking place throughout the region at the time. It focuses on Operation Condor, which is the most well-known component of this story. I also try to go beyond the narrative of Operation Condor because it did not appear out of the blue. I therefore begin my narrative a bit early than some of the other publications by showing how there were some conferences in the early XX [20th] century between the police forces in Latin America that were already sharing information about anarchists who had been migrating from Europe to South America. From there, we see a gradual evolution that becomes much more coordinated and consolidated as a very well-oiled system during the Cold War. I start each chapter with the story of a victim and I use this as a window through which to explain the different institutions behind their repression. It’s the voices of the victims that have enabled us to do our research because we have very few other sources, except for some archives. I therefore wanted to put the victims at the centre of the book.

The second part of the book is about justice. Justice is a reverse transnational effort because the crimes did not only occur in one place. We therefore needed Transnational Activist Networks (to use Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s term) to document testimonies, build archives, and file these cases. I focus on cases in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, but also Italy which was strategically used by some of the Uruguayan human rights activists when nothing was taking place in Uruguay. They used the European courts to access the justice that they didn’t have in Uruguay. This included some trials in Rome this year.

Find out more about Dr Francesca Lessa’s research: https://www.area-studies.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-francesca-lessa

Locating the Anthropocene: Man’s Devastating Impact Upon Earth

Image by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

By Matt Goodey

Humans have had a devastating impact upon the planet. There is no doubt to be had about this. CO2 levels have risen at an unprecedented rate in the last 100 years. And that does not look to be changing in any significant manner in the near future, as the underwhelming COP26 deal shows. What is more, the human population is projected to reach 11 billion by 2100. So, even though we already consume around double the amount of resources that the Earth can produce each year, it seems, paying no heed to this disturbing fact, we are bound to become ever more unsustainable. And make no mistake, in this we are unique: even bacteria know when to stop dividing as their population reaches a maximum. 

In light of the recent catastrophic human impact upon the planet, it has been suggested that the earth has entered a new era in its history: the Anthropocene. But is there any definite evidence for this? 

First of all, if we are going to pin the emergence (or lack thereof) of the Anthropocene down to a point in Earth’s history, we need to be able to picture it in light of Earth’s more general history.

That said, Earth’s is 4.567 billion years old. Most of its history has been relatively poorly recorded. Indeed, only the last ~500 million years (Ma) are sufficiently detailed for geologists to examine, and attempt to understand, events. The geological column is composed of eons (i.e. Phanerozoic or Archean) which in turn are formed from Eras (the Phanerozoic is split into Cenozoic meaning young life, Mesozoic meaning middle life and Paleozoic meaning old life) which are composed of Periods, split into Epochs. Usually, the transition into different periods is defined by a notable change in the fossil recorded. The most significant five major mass extinctions, where there was catastrophic loss of biodiversity, mark the transition into different periods, respectively. The appearance/disappearance of other globally distributed species mark the transition into different Epochs (this is known as biostratigraphy). The last epoch on the geological column is the Holocene, which describes the last 11,700 years.

So, the Anthropocene (which stems from Greek meaning new man) defines a new Epoch: a point in Earth’s history where human activities can be seen within the geological record. It could also be referred to as the sixth extinction, for species are disappearing around 100 times faster than they would without anthropogenic activities.

So, there is no doubt that the Anthropocene has begun; the question is when. 

Many would argue that it began with the start of the industrial revolution (~1800 AC), as this is when the burning of fossil fuels began changing the content of Earth’s atmosphere. Others would suggest that it began with the testing of the first atomic bomb, which occurred in the mid 1940s. Earlier dates have also been proposed, such as the start of the deforestation of Britain’s ancient woodlands, which now only occupies 2.5% of Britain’s total land mass. If we went with the last suggestion, then we would be suggesting that the Anthropocene began around the time that humans transitioned from Hunter-gatherers to cultivating livestock and crops some 10,000 years ago.

For a geologist, the physical appearance or disappearance of fossils or other such features in the rock recorded dictates the transition into a new period or epoch. Now, Plastic debris has been known to be melted and incorporated into lava flows which then solidify forming new igneous material. Sedimentary rocks are composed of fragments of pre-existing rocks cemented together in a process known as lithification. Sediment is carried into the ocean through various different processes, and microplastics have been shown to be present across the entire ocean floor. Sedimentary rocks containing plastic are known as “plastiglomerates” and have been recorded on beaches on Hawaii. So, from a geological perspective, the appearance of plastics, first produced in the 1950s, in the rock record is a logical way to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene.

I do not mean this suggestion to be definitive across the board. Rather, I stress it because, beyond being simply sensible, it effectively bars us from passing the Anthropocene off as something that began in distant history. It makes it a recent reality: our reality. Being so unique in nature in our destructive capacities, it reminds us that we must become unique in our capacities to regenerate, rejuvenate, and restore the only Earth that we have, now. The other option is a catastrophic worsening of the reality we have made: for ourselves and all life on Earth.

Not Even the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero Can Get Kagame in Trouble

The international community’s golden child at the 2018 Munich Security Conference. Photo by MSC / Hildenbrand

By Anna Videbaek Smith

Not even the late-night hours of August 27th 2020 could tame the scorching Dubai heat, as 66-year old Paul Rusesabagina boarded a private jet. While slightly jaded from ill health and the passing of time, Rusesabagina remained recognisable as the man who saved more than 1,200 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Accompanied by a pastor friend, the 2005 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and subject of Oscar-nominated film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ thought he was headed to Burundi to speak at churches. Instead, the pastor, cooperating with Rwandan intelligence services, lured Rusesabagina on a one-way flight to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The more than six-hour journey culminated in Rusesabagina’s arrest at a Kigali police station – the alleged torture, binding, and gagging he faced were but the cherry on top. A year later, in September 2021, the Belgian citizen and permanent US resident was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of terrorism.

The kidnapping and trial have received significant media coverage and have been condemned by the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the European Parliament. However, one major player has been eerily quiet; despite a bipartisan letter from 41 members of Congress urging the State Department to pursue Rusesabagina’s release, the Biden Administration has yet to adequately address the issue. The most the US has done is release a statement “[urging] the government of Rwanda to take steps to examine these shortcomings in Mr Rusesabagina’s case”. Will they do more? Probably not; Rwanda, and its president, Paul Kagame, are the golden child of the international community receiving more than $100 million annually in American foreign aid. Hailed as “one of the greatest leaders of our time” by Bill Clinton and “a visionary” by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Kagame even received the Clinton Foundation’s Global Citizen Award. Unsurprisingly, given his friendship with Bill Gates, Kagame is a regular at the Davos World Economic Forum where he victoriously parades around Rwanda’s 8% annual growth rate. The country was even set to host the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting showing its close ties to the United Kingdom. Rwanda’s links to France are even stronger with the former Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo working as the Secretary General of La Francophonie. In short, President Kagame has the West wrapped around his little finger.

This is all despite Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House loudly and continuously sounding the alarm on the country’s egregious human rights violations. Domestically, Kagame adheres to the authoritarian strongman’s playbook as evidenced by the many suspected assassinations of political dissidents on foreign soil. Notable cases include anti-government journalist Jean Bosco Gasasira in Sweden in 2013 and former chief intelligence officer Patrick Karegeya in South Africa in 2014. Lack of press freedom is another key element of Kagame’s tightly run ship; ‘humiliating’ the government was criminalised in 2018 and journalists engaging in independent reporting are regularly subjected to intimidation, criminal charges, or worse.  Finally, there are strong indications of governmental monitoring of personal communications, which the publication of the Pegasus Project has only lent more credence to. Taking it even further, authorities reportedly use informants to infiltrate civil society, reducing social and political discourse to whispers behind closed doors.

Why does the West – and the US in particular – tolerate this? Does it not go against our supposed values of freedom and democracy? Values we have fought so many wars to protect and promote. There is no obvious strategic interest in Rwanda; the country possesses few natural resources and there is no Islamic terrorism. Then why does Kagame possess this perpetual ‘get out of jail free’ card? I believe there are two reasons, the first being the West’s guilt surrounding the 1994 genocide. Over the span of three months, nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in cold blood. The West was unequivocally aware of it; in January, the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda received reliable intelligence that Hutu extremists “had been ordered to register all Tutsis in Kigali” most likely “for their extermination”. This was relayed to UN leadership and Western ambassadors in Kigali, yet very little was done. While there initially were 2,548 UN peacekeepers stationed in the country, the UN Security Council voted to withdraw all but 270 just two weeks into the genocide. At this point, an estimated 100,000 bodies had already piled up.  The mass murders did not end until the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi paramilitary group led by Paul Kagame, seized Kigali on the 15th of July 1994. Since Kagame helped end the genocide, while the West twiddled their thumbs on the side-lines, no external actors occupy the moral high ground, making our politicians reluctant to call the current Rwandan government out on their grotesque human rights violations. This seems to be an open secret in diplomatic circles with a former Rwandan ambassador to the US stating that “the Americans, the British, they become cowed by guilt”.

 A second explanation for the West’s inaction is that Rwanda provides a success story of economic development, which are few and far between. While Kagame’s government is ethically dubious, there is no denying it has improved the living standards of millions; under his rule, child mortality has fallen by more than 70%. This is in large part due to heavily subsidised compulsory health insurance, which has allowed Rwanda to handle COVID-19 exceptionally well. With only 18,000 cases and 260 deaths, the Lowy Institute has ranked their management of the pandemic first in Africa and sixth in the world. Frequently hailed as an “economic miracle”, Rwanda’s investments in agriculture, energy, and infrastructure have reportedly lifted more than one million people out of poverty. According to Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting for the New York Times, these are among the many reasons why diplomats and analysts often “[aren’t] entirely bothered by Kagame’s authoritarian streak”.

Will the Rusesabagina case change anything? This is not just another local politician or journalist, but a permanent American resident and internationally adored hero. If the US is unwilling to condemn Kagame’s government for these actions when they know the entire world is watching, the future of human rights in Rwanda seems bleaker than ever.

Another Pandemic? Covid-19’s Human Rights Abuses and How Best to Respond

By Jemma Clarke

Photo by Matteo Jorjoson on Unsplash

From the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, states and societies have faced a vast array of challenges. It has deepened and exasperated many pre-existing inequalities, vulnerabilities and divides. Much more than just a public health emergency, it has also created what UN Secretary-General António Guterres named “a pandemic of human rights abuses”. As we emerge from the pandemic, recovery and response should not only focus on preventing the spread of the virus or distributing vaccines but rather also should look to tackle the underlying factors that have worsened pre-existing inequalities. Human rights must be at the forefront of the framework, and a human rights-based approach is essential.

António Guterres has emphasised that cooperation and solidarity must be at the centre of an effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that approaches and methods “must have a human rights lens”. Such a rights-based approach is not new, emerging some 20 years ago. It is defined by the UN as “a conceptual framework for the processes of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights,”. It involves making sure that no one is left behind and places rights holders as the primary actors in decision-making processes. Amnesty International has emphasised the necessity for actions to be grounded in such a framework.

The objective to “leave no one behind” was adopted in 2015 by all UN member states as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously hindered achieving this goal. Gender equality has “been set back decades” since the start of the pandemic, with women comprising the majority of frontline workers, and taking on most of the increased duty of care in the home. Violence against women has also dramatically risen. Responses by governments towards the pandemic have disproportionately affected certain groups of people, including detainees, refugees, ethnic minority groups, disabled people, and elderly citizens across the world. In many different cases across the world, this has included breaches of human rights.

This includes rights regarding free speech. The Human Rights Watch documented that over 80 governments have used Covid-19 as an excuse to stifle dissent, restrict free speech, and repress peaceful protests. This is especially notable in authoritarian regimes. For example, it has been reported that in China there have been significant amounts of censors blocking information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese social media was found to have blocked neutral, speculative, and factual information about COVID-19. This ultimately produces misinformation and limits the effectiveness of public response and general awareness.

Furthermore, misinformation and disinformation campaigns have included concealing access to life-saving information, even by political leaders. One notable example is the former president of Tanzania, John Magufuli. Throughout his time in office, up until his death in March earlier this year, Magufuli was a staunch anti-vaxxer. He declared in July 2020 that “Corona in our country has been removed by the powers of God,”. He praised people for not wearing face masks, asserted that Covid is a hoax, and dismissed and rejected vaccinations. Given that Magufuli refused to recognise COVID-19 as a ‘real’ issue, no official information was released since May 2020, at which point only 20 deaths were reported. Tanzania has a population of around 60 million, and yet the World Health Organisation has only 725 deaths recorded to date: a remarkably small percentage of the population. Tanzanian doctors noted increased numbers of patients with symptoms of Covid-19, but they were unable to record these figures. As a result of underreporting and a serious lack of reliable, official data, it is fair to conclude the Magufuli’s leadership and legacy failed the people of Tanzania.

Guterres’ Call to Action for Human Rights outlined a framework on how to counter issues of restricted free speech, censorship and misinformation with human rights at the centre. Some methods include the creation of guidance on human rights due diligence on technology products and related policies to ensure they are not used for censorship, surveillance or repression; supporting more systematic participation of civil society in UN agencies and bodies; and general advocacy for the protection and promotion of human rights in digital spaces.

There have also been examples of human rights breaches in Western countries, including in the UK. Several studies have shown that marginalised groups and individuals, including the disabled and elderly, have been disproportionally affected and particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the pandemic. This includes experiencing human rights abuses and violations which can result in psychological distress. A report by the Joint Commission on Human Rights in May 2021 revealed that for those in care homes, official guidance prioritised Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the duty to protect residents’ right to life, above ECHR Article 8, the right to respect for private and family life. This led to many reports of resulting rapid declines in mental and physical health. Amnesty International emphasised these “devasting” effects and the human rights violations in elderly care homes in England caused by the UK. Reports noted that increased social isolation as in the case of lockdowns and curfews caused “significant adverse psychological effects”, and exacerbated sleeping problems for the elderly.

Likewise, people with disabilities have also faced increased isolation from the pandemic, and have struggled to get the support they need. This similarly has had a negative psychological impact. Many disabled people are also at increased risk to Covid-19. The Office of National Statistics published in November 2020 that disabled people made up 59% of Covid-19 deaths, which considering they make up only about 16% of the UK population, is a highly disproportional and shocking figure. While the Government must protect lives, they also have a duty to protect and maintain their right to family and prevent vulnerable individuals from being isolated and excluded. Unfortunately, exclusion and isolation has pre-existed the pandemic. Therefore, larger-scale work and actions are needed. Change can most effectively be achieved by placing human rights at the forefront of policies, ensuring marginalised and vulnerable individuals are involved in discussions, and that their needs are listened to and acted upon.

Ultimately, a human rights-based approach should be at the heart of our response to the virus and the pre-existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by the virus. We are in a unique situation that offers us the opportunity, as stressed by Guterres, to “ensure human rights for all,”. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to ignore.

Sexual Liberation in Morocco: Not just a matter of morality

Photo by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash

By Charlotte Lang

In an age of purported sexual liberation, it can be easy to forget that mandates around sexuality occupy not just a social sphere but a legal one. Since major reforms to the Moroccan Moudawawa (family code) were implemented in 2004, the nation has been lauded for its balance of women’s rights within an Islamic legal framework. While it has been described by the EU as being the most advanced country in the southern Mediterranean in terms of its legal system and democratisation, its conservative laws regarding sexual conduct continue to pose an imminent threat to civil freedom and women’s health. The imprisonment of a young single mother who was the victim of revenge pornograhy in February has reignited the debate on the penal code and sexual freedom at large. 

Legal Framework

Article 490 of the penal code criminalises sexual relations outside of marriage, and article 491 criminalises adultery. Moroccan-French journalist Leïla Slimani has described how young women are subject to cultural obsession with virginity in ways that are fundamentally distinct from that of western women. Indeed, a vast body of ethnographic literature supports the claim that women are judged more severely than men for their sexual conduct and purity in Morocco and the Arab world at large. Certificates of virginity are customary to marriage and naturally only applicable to women. Thus, regardless of individual beliefs, engaging in extramarital sex carries the risk of not only cultural shame but potential criminal charges. Figures from the public prosecutor’s office reveal that in 2019 15,192 people were charged under article 490. 

Pregnancy and Reproductive Health

While in practice most citizens do not abide by these laws, the fear of persecution is ubiquitous and has differing implications for women depending on socioeconomic status. Of course, conversations regarding sexual conduct can never be considered in isolation as they are inextricably linked to reproductive health and childbirth. In Morocco childbirth outside of marriage is not legally recognised, and while the reformed Moudawawa allows unwed mothers to register their children the legal process is heavily bureaucratic and daunting to low-income women. Laws in the amendment are also contradictory to the extent that local authorities understand them differently. Illegitimate children face not only social exclusion but impediments to accessing public services such as healthcare and education. Services that are not luxuries but fundamental human rights.

Abortion and abandonment are thus natural byproducts of such a legal framework. The charity Insaf estimates that in 2010 24 babies were abandoned each day. As scholars such as Irene Capelli have noted, while outlets for legal abortions exist within Morocco, reproductive governance is centred around neoliberal policies that emphasize personal responsibility. Women must meet certain criteria of social and material vulnerability to be entitled to care via NGOs, often marriage is one of those prerequisites. These bureaucratic burdens thus inadvertently incentivise women to seek illegal and unsafe abortions. The widespread culture of shame also deters unmarried women and men from consulting health centres for contraceptives and HIV screenings for fear of violating social norms of respectability. Women living in rural regions are similarly chronically neglected by the state due to a lack of healthcare infrastructure. The result is that hundreds of illegal abortions are carried out each day irrespective of class and educational status. In this way, the legal parameters for sexual conduct are not merely a debate on morality but of public health. Reform to the penal code must be accompanied by reform in the greater healthcare infrastructure in order to sufficiently address human rights within Morocco. 

Larger Context and Implications

Administered first and foremost by the state, Slimani has broached the idea that these penal laws ultimately produce citizens adapted to a larger system of oppression. The severe social controls that women are subject to denies them autonomy and makes men the government’s instrument of authoritarian control within the family sphere. Article 490 thus has a much more insidious effect on citizenship and social control in Morocco at large. It also reaffirms the importance of viewing gendered oppression as symptomatic rather than isolated from larger mechanisms of state control.

It is worth noting that discussions around gender and Islam are often reductive and culturally charged. Jasmin Zine has observed that Muslim women are caught between two competing discourses on their identity: the fundamentalist, patriarchal narrative concerned with confining their social and public lives and the western feminist narrative fraught with neo-colonial undertones. The latter is what we see most overtly in France with the banning of headscarves under the guise of secularism and liberation. A practice that has consistently been traced back to France’s imperial past, specifically the public unveiling ceremonies lead by the French army during the Algerian War of Independence in 1958 which were framed as spaces of empowerment and emancipation for Muslim women. There is also a pervasive tendency to view Islam as a monolith, whereas Islam, like other dominant religions, is a global phenomenon subject to cultural adaptations and interpretations. In the Arab world, a pre-Islamic patriarchal culture was wedded to Islamic jurisprudence and hence continues to be bound by it. In this light, Moroccan women must exist at the forefront of discussions regarding the repeal of the laws and gendered inequality in the nation at large.

Indeed, in stark contrast to notions of a helpless female Muslim majority, the call for reform in Morocco has been consistently initiated by its own women. Groups such as l’Union de l’Action Féminine called for changes to the Moudawawa for decades prior to its reforms on the grounds of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Islamic principles. Since 2019 grassroots collectives such as Hors-la-Loi, Collective 490, and Moroccan Outlaws have organised a new wave of protests, prompting numerous members of parliament to speak out in favour of repeal and a review of the penal code. Given the historical precedent, it is now more important than ever that Moroccan women and citizens alike mobilise and rally for legal reform in the fight for sexual liberation.