Having voted to make women’s rights our next campaign topic, we were going to focus on maternal health rights in Ghana and Sierra Leone and help ensure that the the UK government’s promises to maintain its development fund are kept. But then we went to the Student Conference, and there was a change of plan. Women’s rights in Afghanistan is currently one of AIUK’s main campaign topics, and so in the interests of priorities we’ve decided to switch to this.
Some background, for the sake of dispelling some myths. We hear a lot today about the binary between the ‘civilised’ West and ‘backward’ Islamic countries. In fact, Afghanistan in the post-war period was one of the most liberal places in the Middle East, and for a while more so than in the West. Women gained the vote in 1919 (a decade before the UK) and were involved in drafting the 1964 constitution which granted equal rights to women and men. There were no clothing restrictions and many women were in high-level business and government jobs years before this became commonplace in UK or USA.
Western troops are currently engaged in a protracted ‘handover’ period with the Afghan governmental forces. Because of the recent Taliban resurgence this means, in some cases, cutting deals with Islamist militants. Amnesty wants to make it clear to the UK government and others that, in these negotiations, women’s rights are not sacrificed for an easier withdrawal. Crucially, we’re pushing for women’s involvement with the peace deal, which has been severely lacking – the slogan for the campaign is ‘No Women, No Peace’.
So, we’ll be running a petition-collecting session on campus on 5th December, putting pressure on the UK government to honour their promises. We hope you join us!
This week our Amnesty society decided to take a step back and address the question we are frequently asked – what right do we have to make a judgement or interfere in the way other cultures function?
15 year old Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head by the Taliban on October 9th in north-western Pakistan, whilst participating in a protest for women’s education in Pakistan. So we asked ourselves whether we have the right to interfere with Pakistani culture and demand that they allow women’s education, or whether this is imposing our own western values on others. Furthermore, is Britain and the United States’ involvement in eastern countries’ affairs cultural imperialism or the upholding of basic human rights?
The core conclusions we drew where these:
– Western involvement in eastern affairs is legitimate so far as they do not send troops in but simply attempt to end the violence: a human right is to live in safety and peace and without constant fear of attack, thus ending conflict (not fuelling it by providing more troops) is an action worth taking.
– Arms embargos and attempts at aiding diplomacy or protecting the people whose safety is in jeopardy are legitimate acts of defending basic human rights.
– Cultural imperialism only occurs when a culture is forcing its own ethics and beliefs onto another system. However there are basic human rights that exist beyond culture and are rooted in our integral needs as human beings.
- The right to choose the lifestyle we wish to lead
- The right to live free from oppression
- The right to not endure bodily harm from another person or governing body
- The right to practise our religion in the way we wish.
Malala’s argument for women’s education was supported by many others in her country (including two other girls who were also injured in the attack) thus proving supporting her cause is not forcing one culture onto another, but supporting a cultural change which the inhabitants of the culture believe necessary. The Taliban claims that they are the voice of the Muslim world, but Malala and her companions are Muslim and disagree with the Taliban’s decisions and therefore they cannot be accurately representing the entire Muslim conscience.
Our protection of Malala while she resides in Birmingham hospital recovering is a protection of her right as a human being to free speech and control over her own life. The Taliban has breached these human rights through their violent attack on a 14 year old girl.
It is a fine line to tread between cultural imperialism and simply protecting human rights but in order to defend these rights it is necessary to negotiate it.
In summary: every human has the right to not be shot in the face for requesting an education.
The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was signed after World War II in 1953. Europe was in ruins, and crimes of humanity had led to calls for a document that set in stone new levels of human rights protection. Article 3 recognises positive and negative duties on states to protect an individual’s fundamental right to be free from “torture, inhuman & degrading treatment.” Its inclusion as a core human right (one that cannot be ignored at any time) was never questioned, and no nation in the world holds a ‘pro-torture’ stance. In this case it must be asked: why are you mentioning such an uncontroversial right? The answer is that in the aftermath of 9/11 there have been attempts to avoid legal duties, in the climate of hysteria created. I am looking to increase awareness of the UK Governments specific attempts to deport terrorists using the ‘memorandum of understanding’ with foreign states lacking effective human rights protection.
The ‘memorandum of understanding’ is essentially a political agreement, without legally binding force. The UK has attempted to create agreements for deportation with countries that previously would have been outlawed from doing so, as they have a poor human rights record, and the suspect may not have a fair trial, or may be tortured further for evidence or confessions when sent there. The courts in legal proceedings have stressed that no suspected terrorist should be deported where they face a ‘real risk’ of torture, yet in 2008 they first accepted that a memorandum of understanding with a foreign country could remove this risk. This leads to the question: why would a piece of paper without legal significance be acceptable? In reality, once the individual is sent from the UK there is little media coverage of what happens to him, and as a result if a country breaks the ‘memorandum’ few will realise. The High Commissioner for Human Rights takes a similar position, stating the memorandum’s have an “acutely corrosive effect on the global ban on torture”.
These political assurances have come as a result of public pressure and a climate of fear around terror suspects in the UK, however it must be remembered that human rights serves to protect the most vulnerable in society. Torture can reduce a human to a screaming animal, and a government looking to take a hard line on criminals shouldn’t breach the fundamental rights of a human being to satisfy a hysterical media. These memorandums reflect a popular modern view that “if the stakes are high enough then torture is permissible. Nobody that doubts that should be in a position of responsibility”. Often the “ticking bomb scenario” is debated, where if a bomb is hidden somewhere that will potentially kill hundreds, and one person knows where it is, then they should be allowed to torture them to gain the information. I argue that this case is so rare, that a hypothetical scenario should not allow justification for breaching one of the cornerstones of modern society. The fact that despite substantial opposition, the UK government has aggressively pursued memorandums of understanding with states that have dubious human rights records is a regrettable trend that one can only hope will be halted by public protest.
This video shows US TV host ‘Mancow’ being waterboarded (an interrogation technique used in Guantanamo Bay in the USA) in an attempt to prove that it is not a form of torture. He soon realises how mistaken he has been.