SOAS and 67 other UK Universities strike again in March

Trade unions UCU and UNISON saw their members  taking further strike action from Monday 21st to Friday 25th March 2022. This is the latest move in a long saga as employers refuse reasonable negotiations on pay and working conditions and “force through” pension cuts despite the efforts of 68 UK universities who have already undergone 10 days of strike action between 14th February and 2nd March this year. 

University teaching and support staff have been protesting to tackle five main concerns: cuts to pensions, cuts to pay, precarious employment, pay inequality and unsafe workloads. It is estimated that on average university staff are set to lose 35% of their pension and since pay has dropped by 20% in the last 13 years, staff are essentially working for free one day every week. Additionally, there is a 9% ethnicity pay gap across the sector and a 14.8% gender pay gap. Alongside this, staff have been required to work more and are given unmanageable workloads, an established practice that has only been further compounded by the pandemic. The physical and mental health of staff has been detrimentally impacted with over half showing signs of depression.

SOAS students have an important history in standing alongside workers’ struggles and have played a fundamental role in bringing about effective change in the past. Similarly with recent strikes, students have been consistent and unrelenting in their support, participating in Walkouts, standing alongside the picket lines and attending Teach Outs. Some have even gone to great lengths and occupied management offices and have in-turn been subjected to security violence, intimidation tactics, threats of legal action and denial of basic facilities. Students are willing to put their own welfare at risk because they value the importance of fair and civil leadership, they support the right to fair and equal pay for teaching and support staff alike and recognise the impact that staff working conditions have on their learning. 

SOAS is a university that prides itself on its equality, diversity and inclusivity and through promotion of such values attracts its student customer base. It is therefore utterly disingenuous and hypocritical for it to not only be complicit in maintaining unequal and unliveable work conditions of its staff but to also be actively involved in suppressing them from protesting and voicing their concerns.

To regain the trust and confidence of students and staff at SOAS, students are demanding that management must “do everything in its power to prevent any disruption caused by the employers’ attack on pay and pensions by encouraging employers to re-enter negotiations with the Unions as soon as possible and to voice in UUK to put pressure on USS to implement the UCU proposals, which USS recently said were viable and implementable”.

Finally, as staff and student union members we must remember to always be compassionate and inclusive in our fight for better working and learning conditions. Let us recognise that whilst prioritising the needs of our own union is important, we must also extend ourselves in actively promoting  and supporting  the demands of more exploited staff. Perhaps that is a greater moral use of our strike action – protecting the weakest members of our community.

Photo credit: Sophie Squire for the Socialist Worker

Kurdish Londoners March for Ocalan on His 23rd Year of Incarceration

On February 13th, the Kurdish Diaspora and their allies marched from the BBC building to the Kings Cross area to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the illegal capture and incarceration of Abdullah Ocalan (APO), Kurdish liberationist and co-founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). 

The Kurdish freedom movement has long deemed the kidnapping of Ocalan from Nairobi, Kenya in 1999 by Turkish military forces as an international conspiracy and a threat to a Kurdish people’s liberation everywhere, specifically the freedom of women and jineology (the principle that without the freedom of women within society and without a real consciousness surrounding women, no society can call itself free). 

While his sentence was reduced by the Turkish state from death penalty to life imprisonment in compliance with EU law, the conditions of his incarceration remain controversial. In an interview İbrahim Bilmez, Ocalan’s lawyer for the past 18 years, described the conditions of his incarceration in İmralı: from being denied visits with family and legal support from 2011 until 2019, to direct attacks and imprisonment of 40 lawyers connected to Ocalan’s representation. It took a series of hunger strikes to motion a break in his isolation, when his lawyers were finally permitted time-limited and restricted visits in 2019. Bilmez further stated: 

“The government has done whatever it wants with him since 1999. No law applies, there’s no transparency there.”

The conditions of Ocalan’s imprisonment demands the attention of global human rights organizations for the unfair court process, illegal capture, and inhumane treatment while in prison. Kurdish movements across the globe also require Ocalan’s immediate release as a prerequisite to any glimpse of a future peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish question in South West Asia. His imprisonment is symbolic torture for the Kurdish freedom movement, as well as a sign of hopelessness for the over 10,000 people who are charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation” in Turkey. These so-called “terrorists” are no more than local lawyers, journalists, MPs, co-op members, and human rights activists, risking their freedom to see the end of Turkish state-sanctioned terror.

During this year’s demonstrations in London, speakers recited Ocalan’s literary work, ideology and vision for a liberated future through speeches, chants, and music. 

A commonly known phrase used amongst Kurdish liberationists is “berxwedan jiyane” meaning “resistance is life.” The spirit of these words breathes hope into struggle, paints a vision in the midst of atrocity, and ignites a sense of justice and solidarity for international hevals (comrades) who are trying to build simultaneous and revolutionary movements across the world. This year, those who marched the streets of London on February 13th, chanted the words “berxwedan jiyane” at the top of their lungs, for hours, and in the pouring rain. 

The demonstration concluded with a speech in the Sorani dialect, first thanking those who came out to stand in solidarity despite the weather forecast, and further stating:

“We have Reber Ocalan, we will not give up, even if all guerrillas, all Kurds cease to exist, we have the freedom on our side. Many international countries stood up to demand the freedom of Reber Ocalan, so we must join to yell: Bji Reber APO, Freedom for Reber APO, Freedom for Reber APO” 

Image credit: Wikimedia

Russia Against The World

The main news event of the past week has been Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which seems to be a premeditated plan executed after years of preparation. It is clear that Russia has maintained a high level of interest in Ukraine since it annexed Crimea back in 2014, in retaliation for ousting the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The motivation behind this major military assault is the perceived threat Ukraine might pose to Russia should it join NATO. For Putin, this would be unacceptable as it would allow NATO to acquire territories bordering Russia and therefore infringe on Russia’s sphere of influence. 

There have been numerous attempts at diplomatic talks between Russia and Western leaders in an effort to de-escalate the conflict that has long been brewing, which were evidently unsuccessful. Western leaders such as French and American presidents, Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden, held talks with Putin to negotiate a peace deal, but were never able to come to terms with Russia’s demands. The talks with Macron initially showed promise, but were unable to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine which he declared in a televised speech as an act of self-defence.

Putin has advised Ukrainians not to interfere with the Russian mobilisation in the Donetsk region, and has threatened that all foreign countries who intervene will be met with a swift and unprecedented response. On the other hand, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, has urged his people to defend their country at all costs, stating that Ukraine is their home and does not belong to anyone else. He reiterates, to domestic and international audiences, that Ukraine is a sovereign state and that the invasion violates international laws and threatens global peace. While much support has been pledged by international bodies, such as the United States and the European Union, in the form of arms and aid funding, Ukraine’s military stands alone in its defence against a much stronger opponent.

As of the 27th February 2022, Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert, signalling to international audiences that it has not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons. While many see this as a deterrent to other actors assisting Ukraine in its fight against Russia, it has increased tensions internationally. Any nuclear escalation presents a significant threat to global security.

Practical support for the Ukrainians has been provided through non-military methods, which the Ukrainian president has deemed inefficient in providing immediate support against the assault. Military intervention is being requested on top of the sanctions placed by the US and European states, the same sanctions that have dropped the Russian currency to a new low and has increased oil prices.

The Russian assault on Ukraine is dominating  the media, and protests have erupted worldwide in opposition to Russia’s actions. The ICC has even initiated an investigation into the allegations of Russia committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians. Only time will tell what plans Putin has in store, and how this act of aggression in Ukraine serves Russia’s interests. The invasion of Ukraine has polarised the international community and seemingly left Russia without allies, with the possible exception of China, which is now under pressure to act as mediator; Israel agreed to act as a mediator at the moment with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travelling to meet President Putin and Zelensky. The stakes for mediation are high: commentators recognise this is the most significant military event to occur in Europe since the Second World War and caution that further escalation could mark the start of the third.

Politics over Hijab in Karnataka: a Precursor to State Elections 2023

This weekly briefing is being published in retrospect due to the CCRJ solidarity with the 2022 University Staff Strike.

The Hindu nationalist movement (popularly known as Hindutva) is known for its conservative position and Hindu supremacist ideology. Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government has been the political force translating the ideology into policies and governance. It has once again flared up controversy by pursuing policies that target religious minorities in India. One instance of this is the number of institutions in the state of Karnataka which are witnessing protests predominantly led by upper-caste Hindu students against their Muslim peers wearing hijab in class. 

In January 2022, six female students in the Udupi district were denied access to their college campus for donning the hijab. Since then the state, with a BJP government at the helm, has witnessed similar incidents where students wearing hijabs were not allowed to enter their institution’s premises. In some cases, radical Hindu organizations mobilized Hindu students to protest against their Muslim peers by wearing saffron scarves, claiming that there was no equality in allowing religious clothing in “secular educational” spaces. There are video reports of saffron-clad men heckling women wearing hijab and burqa.

A Muslim girl student filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court against institutions claiming that Article 14 and 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees theirright to practice their religion and should protect them from discrimination. The State Government shutdown  colleges for three days until the High Court announced its decision on the matter, but the High Court has only passed an interim order so far, to prevent students from wearing any religious clothing until the final order is out. This order has established a false equivalence between hijab and saffron scarves: unlike the hijab, worn by only some Muslim women as part of their religious expression, the purpose of saffron scarves has been to intimidate Muslim women. 

Any observer of Indian politics would not find it surprising that a communal issue on religious lines has been instigated in a state with upcoming polls. Karnataka will be due for its Legislative Assembly elections in May 2023 and will be one of the few states where the Prime Minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)  will be in direct competition with its principal national opposition, the Indian National Congress (INC). The last elections to the house in 2018 resulted in a hung assembly with BJP winning more seats despite INC winning the popular vote. 

BJP has been known to instigate communal issues in poll-bound states and foster a polarised atmosphere to score electoral points and support. In 2021, civic bodies in Gujarat state, where elections will be taking place in December 2022, announced regulations against the sale of non-vegetarian food in public spaces. The Delhi riots in 2020 and the demonization of Shaheen Bagh protestors (which was led by Muslim women in the Delhi neighbourhood) occuredjust before the Delhi elections in May 2020. A similar attempt was made to demonise farmers’ protests as a Khalistani plot in January 2021 as the year-long movement was led by farmers from Punjab and Haryana, states with significant sikh populations. But the government had to concede as Punjab is due for polls in February 2022. 

It is a recurring strategy and somewhat tired script of Hindu nationalists to target religious minorities and impose hypocritical standards.  Despite empty political declarations to the contrary, the promise of secularism has always been in contradiction to the Hindutva project. Hindu nationalists, led by the BJP, argue that secularism is a tool of appeasement for minorities which is why there has been a systematic attempt at subverting the constitutional promise of equality. 

Prime Minister Modi, a member of the BJP, promised an “inclusive India” after winning his second term in 2019 but his party has continued to engage in communally polarising election strategies across the country. This controversy over hijabs has created tensions and division among students who were previously studying together, disrupted Muslim female students from accessing their educational institutions ahead of their final exams and set a disturbing precedent of religious discrimination. It is imperative that Mr Modi intervenes and reassures his commitment to his promise. 

Image Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

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

Deeds, not words: Delhi gasps for breath

Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was recorded at 400 units in October 2021, which is considered severe as per the scale developed by the Central Pollution Control Board. It is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Over the past few years, the discussion has centred on the health issues of its 30 million residents. Medical experts are clear: poor air quality leads to a number of respiratory problems, especially among the most vulnerable – children and the elderly. Dust particles from stubble burning in the farmlands of neighbouring Punjab and Haryana flow towards Delhi with a push from the North-western winds. This report by Vox explains the problem in detail and raises questions on the environmental importance of efficient agricultural practices. This continued issue highlights a critical lack of coordination between the state-level and central governments which is directly impacting the quality of life for Delhi residents.  

The Supreme Court of India had to step in to force the governments to chart a long-term plan to reduce the AQI. As a result, the Central Government has been ordered to devise an emergency plan in consultation with the Delhi and neighbouring states’ governments. The court heard the matter of Delhi’s pollution for the third time in 2021 alone and stated that ad hoc measures will not work to curb this problem. The court was responding to a petition filed by an 18-year-old environmental activist, Aditya Dubey who is seeking judicial intervention for measures to control worsening air quality in the city.

In response, the Delhi State Government introduced a 5 point plan to curb air pollution. The plan identified four key sources of air pollution and proposed solutions such as an anti-dust campaign, water sprinkling across areas with high dust emission, a ban on diesel generator sets, stopping open-burning of waste at landfills and spraying the bio-decomposer solution on 4000 acres of farmland within Delhi. It also proposed measures under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), such as banning coal furnaces, a key contributor to the city’s air pollution. Six of eleven coal powered plants in a 300 kilometres radius of Delhi have been temporarily shut and schools have been on a week-long leave as a part of the response. 
While these measures demonstrate an acknowledgement and an improvement in the response of the state government, they are not sufficient to address the critical issue which transcends state borders. The Delhi government has limited jurisdiction and is bound by geographical boundaries. The Central government must immediately intervene and, working with Delhi and surrounding state governments, generate a comprehensive and coherent emergency plan. Air pollution is an annual crisis for the city, making national and international headlines and impacting the health of an estimated 30 million people in the city. As the Supreme Court remarked, “This is the national capital. Look at the signal we are sending to the world”. It’s time for the Government of India to show leadership on reducing air pollution to protect the residents of Delhi and set an example for the rest of the country.

Photo Credit: Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty