Reimagining Human Rights at home

December 10 is Human Rights Day, a date which celebrates the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year’s theme is reducing inequalities and advancing human rights.

In Britain, poor human rights are widely regarded as an issue that other nations face rather than a domestic issue. David Cameron declared in 2012 that Britain had a long history of respect and advocacy of human rights, citing the Magna Carta and referencing British involvement in Libya as further evidence of British support for human rights

This widespread perception of human rights as a solely foreign issue fails to confront the fact that Britain is not, either currently or historically, a paradise for human rights. Cameron referenced abolition of slavery as evidence of Britain’s respect of human rights, neglecting to mention Britain’s extensive role in the slave trade and history of colonialism, both of which can be considered to be such extreme violations of human rights that they continue to have devastating impacts to this day. 

Modern day Britain also is the site of repeated human rights violations. Refugee and migrant rights in Britain, especially the right to freedom of movement, have been repeatedly undermined by the British government. Home secretary Priti Patel is currently planning to ‘pushback’ refugees on small boats in the Channel, a policy which if it takes place will arguably violate the refugee convention. The Immigration Act, passed in November 2020, ended free movement and created a points-based immigration system.  

Human rights violations are also evident in the British police force. Discrimination in policing is rife, with Covid-19 lockdown fines disproportionately targeting Black and Asian Britons

In May 2020, London police carried out nearly 44,000 stop and searches related to Covid lockdowns, of which 10,000 were aimed at young black men. Black people in Britain are not only more likely to be stopped and searched, but they are also significantly more likely to be victims of police brutality, with black people eight times more likely to have a Taser used against them than white people in 2018 and 2019. The British government is not only guilty of allowing and causing human rights violations domestically, but also abroad. £17 billion of UK arms were sold to human rights abusers over the past decade, including the sale of £9.3 million of rifles to Libya, and the sale of over 50% of the combat aircraft used by Saudi Arabia against Yemen. This figure does not include the sales of arms to nations which are British allies, but which have also used these arms to commit human rights abuses, such as the American use of British arms to use excessive force against Black Lives Matter protestors

While the UN Human Rights Council visited Britain and criticised racial discrimination in 2019, this criticism has seemingly been the full extent of the UN’s action. The UN’s recommendations for action on racial discrimination have not been enforced. Nor has there been any substantive effort from the British government, who are sometimes the perpetrators of human rights violations, to improve the nation’s human rights record. The British government has failed to challenge perceptions of the UK as a human rights haven, or confront its own complicity. 

On Human Rights Day (and always), it is vital to challenge any understanding of human rights which does not acknowledge that human rights abuses can occur anywhere, and can be committed by governments who may view themselves as proponents of human rights abroad.  Human rights abuses can take place close to home, and we need to recognise this in order to truly support human rights globally. 

Image Wikimedia

South Africa and its ‘Staggering Economy’

South Africa’s ‘Rainbow nation’, defined by its generational struggle for racial equality, has one of the  highest inequality rates in the world.  South Africa is unfortunately a country in which violence and state dysfunction continues to grow, and over many years these conditions have produced imminent mass unrest. 

Jacob Zuma has been described as both a tyrant and a saviour, but his supporters and detractors agree on one thing: he is a political survivor. Since apartheid, South Africa has done everything it could to move on from its turbulent and violent past, presenting an example of viable, if not successful, political transition. Leading that process in 1994 was the former president Nelson Mandela and his party the ANC. More than twenty years later, the ANC remains in power, currently on its fifth consecutive election victory, led by their second term President, Jacob Zuma. However, during this election cycle, South Africa was confronted with a governance crisis and a stagnating economy, with Zuma at the centre of it all. 

Although Zuma is known to have been involved in corruption in the past, including money laundering and racketeering stemming from a $2.5 billion (£1.98bn) in 1999, as well as accusations of raping a family friend in 2005 (albeit acquitted a year later), harming the reputation of the ANC and himself, it is his current activities which have done serious damage to South Africa to which his corruption nonetheless translates today. 

It was not the poverty, violence in the streets or rising unemployment that triggered the worst unrest in South Africa since the end of apartheid. Rather, it was the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma on July 7th, 2021 that unleashed mayhem in South Africa’s two most popular provinces, Gauteng and Zuma’s hometown, KwaZulu-Natal. Lootings, violence, and the burning of vehicles, buildings and shopping centres, has left over one billion rand worth of damage and destruction. Protests, clashes with the police, vigilante attacks and stampedes have killed more than 330 people and the army, 25,000 South African National Defense Force soldiers being deployed by South Africa’s current President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to quell the violence to afflicted areas, the largest deployment of troops since the advent of democracy in 1994.

Reports suggest that attacks on the streets were part of an effort to sabotage the economy, and destabilise South Africa’s democracy, raising a bigger question: were the riots politically motivated action taken by defenders of  Zuma? As Ramaphosa has said, “…the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack…”. Alternatively, the riots may have been the expression of outrage at insufficient punishments imposed on Zuma. 

On the 29th of June, the constitutional court issued a fifteen-month prison sentence to Zuma for failing to provide evidence of his innocence to numerous corruption scandals during his presidency. To which, many of those scandals are closely related to the two brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta who own one of the largest enterprises in Johannesburg, Oakbay Investments Ltd – which range from mining to real-estate to news and media. Their relationship with Zuma has caused issues over the years and is without doubt, complicated. Reports suggest that the relationship between the Gupta brothers and Zuma was more business than personal; Zuma would finance them with state funds in exchange for positive representation through Gupta’s media outlets. Therefore, anything close to the truth would be kept hidden and the world would be none-the-wiser until it’s too late. 

However, systemic economic corruption has always been a concern for South Africa particularly among politicians and businessmen, fat-cats, who draw their wealth from state funds, whilst neglecting a staggering economic crisis. The combination of mass unemployment and rises in the cost of living has resulted in citizens, young and old, being forced into starvation. So as the wealthy drain state funds and line their pockets, the impoverished suffer, having food taken out of their hands with opportunities for work few and far between. 

A notable example of such corruption is Gavin Watson, also known as the Kingpin of Bribes, who became headline news in 2019 for bribing officials. The testimony of four whistleblowers showed that Watson’s company, Bosasa (notably, prison services) garnered state contracts worth $140 million dollars between 2000 and 2016; all former Bosasa executives were paid around $5 million dollars in bribes. The whistleblowers alleged an operation that generated cash through money laundering and then distributed it to buy influence, secure contracts and prevent prosecutions. Transactions were described as cash stuffed into Louis Vuitton bags as gifts and handed over in monthly installments on the side of the highway. Unsurprisingly, Zuma was also at the centre of this scheme, playing a role in Watson’s case during investigations in 2007. Officials have gone as far as confirming that Watson paid Zuma a fee to stop the prosecution of his company and himself. Even Ramaphosa, elected on the promise of being a voice of reason and sweeping away systemic corruption, also accepted a fee from Watson to help with his campaign strategy. 

Moreover, this corruption expresses itself in a nation that is still deeply affected by its recent colonial past, amplifying the consequences of injustice along racial lines. So as African resources are developed and sold ostensibly to give greater share to the Black population, the economy remains overwhelmingly in the control of White owners. 
The evidence presented here shows how easy it is to manipulate the system. Just like Watson, his colleagues, former and current Presidents, and the Gupta Brothers, have all abused the system to the exclusive benefit of themselves and ‘have captured the organs of the state to do so’.

SOAS university director under attack for using the ‘N-Word’

On 11th March 2021, SOAS Director Adam Habib was under attack for using the ‘N-word’ in an online conference call with students. This all began with Habib responding to a series of questions over the lack of funding for African Studies at SOAS and the cancellation of the BA African Studies. The students also spoke about lecturers casually using the N-word in class without any serious consequences and the need more broadly to address race and race related issues throughout the School. In response, Habib, to an uncomfortable degree, expressed racial slurs, specifically the ‘N-word’. Two students in the meeting told Habib they found it unacceptable for him to use the N-word, while another male Black student told Habib that without having lived the experience of a Black person, he cannot use that word. Habib then proceeded to defend himself and explain why it was ‘okay’ for him to use the word, arguing he “comes from a part of the world where we actually do use the word”. 

Habib is South African of Indian descent, which he believes makes him the ‘exception’ arguing that his use of the term should be acceptable because he fought against aparthied and believes this affords him a degree of immunity.  Of course, Habib’s personal origins do nothing to change the history of the term, created and used by colonial masters to subordinate Black people. Habib did apologise once he realised the offence caused in the online meeting but followed that with a 17-tweet thread defending his use of the term in an attempt to justify himself and avoid ‘misinterpretation’, explaining that “the context matters”. Students fired back with responses and criticism of his defence which spread rapidly on social media. 

Following this incident, the same evening the SOAS Student Union Dead Philosophers Society released a statement, calling what happened in the meeting “unacceptable”.The Student Union stated that SOAS must address “institutional racism” as this is not the first time that racist language has been used by staff at SOAS and demanded Habib’s resignation, launching the hashtag #FireHabib. The Art & the African Mind group also released a statement:  “infuriatingly insulting and hurtful, we do not care for or want an apology, we are calling for Adam Habib’s dismissal in 31 days”.  

South Africa’s left wing political party Economic Freedom Fighters then went on to say that Habib’s attempt to ‘normalise’ the N-word by saying ‘where he is from’ people use it every day is, “a blatant and filthy lie”. Meanwhile Helen Zille weighed in supporting Habib using the N-word, commenting that this is a “textbook study of cancel culture”. Habib also claimed that the online footage of the offensive meeting had been cropped so as to misinterpret his comments, going on to say, “the question is that after this apology, some are still politicizing the issue. What is their agenda…?” which others read as an effort in self-victimisation. 

On reflection with friends and colleagues, it seems clear that the racial and historical implications of the N-word make it racist no matter its ‘context’. Of course, Habib can’t exactly be accused of ‘ignorance’; after all, how can an educated Professor, Director of one of the most prestigious Universities with one of the most diverse campuses, be unaware of the word’s history and weight? More shocking was the timing of Habib’s use and defence of the word in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Now it should be made clear that I, being of Bangladeshi descent, am hardly the appropriate candidate to opine on the use and history of that particular term. Still, it remains the case that the use, interpretation and intentions of the term have seen enormous change over the course of history. It would be short-sighted to ignore the possibility that this variation also applies geographically so that how the term is used and what it is understood to mean may vary from one nation to another (to say nothing of the particular racial history of South Africa). Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that Professors have a means of discussing these issues at their disposal that will not offend, insult or harm their students regardless of ‘contextual ambiguities’, even if only to avoid the accusation of ‘closet racism’. Although SOAS has now reacted to the incident, with Habib stepping aside pending further investigations on this matter, the bigger question now is, how will SOAS respond to show that it can satisfactorily navigate this issue and support the Black community and students at SOAS?