Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 29 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to advance human rights around the world… Today
- The challenges of getting the UN to live up to its obligations
- and a meditation on a poem by Seamus Heaney about violence, complicity, and freedom
AA: The idea of rights has a long and deep history – a genealogy that starts more than a thousand years ago. There are stand-out moments in history where the existence of rights of different kinds were powerfully asserted but it is really in the 20th century that big steps to codify them are taken, in the League of Nations and then the United Nations– culminating in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the UN as the formal protector of the rights ideal. The most fundamental principle of rights is that they are inalienable, you are born with them. They are not subject to the whim of a state or its agents. Vesting the responsibility for upholding them in a body that has authority beyond the remit of governments, is a way to affirm that. And yet, the aspiration is one thing, the reality, another. While remarkable advances in the assertion and protection of rights have taken place under the aegis of the UN, we have all watched, particularly in recent years, as it has failed to live up to that task, with devastating consequences for the vulnerable. So I have been keen to talk with an NGO leader who works in and among the UN’s multiple institutions to understand better what does and doesn’t work, and why. I found that person in Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center whose international lawyers work on gender equality and justice.
AA: Welcome Akila.
Akila Radhakrishnan: Thanks so much for having me, Akwe,
AA: I think I was probably still a child when I was first told about the UN declaration. Obviously when you’re a child you’re quite idealistic, but I was overwhelmed by the idea that there were rules that everybody had to follow and that the highest, as I thought then, entity on the planet would enforce the rules. And of course I was growing up in Nigeria, there was a civil war, um, many reasons to long for such a highest court. I think it’s in some ways remarkable that if you talk to anyone, they will still reference that document, or if they won’t talk about the document, they’ll talk about the UN and its work to uphold rights. And yet at the same time, they’ll be disappointed. Does it still have power?
AR: I think it certainly still has power. It’s why people still reference it. I think the question is, are they using the power and tools that they have to actually realize their responsibilities? Um, and I think that’s more the question that we’re faced with today is, is whether the power is being utilized to achieve those lofty gains or if the power and the structures of the UN are currently doing something else.
AA: I mean, the world in which the Declaration was launched was a very different world to the one we now have, uh, It was coming out of a world war. And I think even those with the most hubris were chastened by what that war had wrought. And so it is perhaps easy to understand that now in 2022, with so much evidence that the UN’s writ does not run everywhere, that more and more governments are authoritarian and getting away with rights abuse that is explicitly barred in the Declaration, that it’s lost its ability to manage.
AR: Well and I think the way you’re phrasing it makes me think of two questions, right? One is the UN system that came out of a massive war that had global impact, there are very few places that were actually not affected in one way or the other by World War II, a system was set up that had a focus on peace and security. In parallel, a system was being developed that looked to achieve universal human rights. And I think obviously, for many of us, there’s a connection between achieving human rights, achieving equality, its connections to stability and conflict prevention, but that’s a long-term game, right? And a lot of the structures of the UN are actually meant to be, and they’re prioritized right where the power centers are, where the Security Council acts, they’re prioritized much more on short-term initiatives to prevent and/or respond to the outbreak of conflict and war. And that’s not necessarily a human rights-based response. So I think you have a system that in its design creates certain types of priorities over actions, on one rather than the other.
AA: You lead the Global Justice Center in New York, and you explicitly set out to make use of the multilateral infrastructure and standards to defend people whose rights are being abused. In practical terms, in trying to do that work, do you find that the mechanisms available to you yield – that they do produce the results that they were intended to produce?
AR: I don’t know what results they were intended to produce, my focus is on women’s rights, rights related to gender. And that’s a space where, you know, you do have deeply uneven laws, policies around the world. And I do think that the human rights system has actually been very important in helping to standard-set and level-set around what women’s rights are supposed to look like, right, when cultures are so deeply entrenched in misogyny and patriarchy, I do think that the standard-setting that something like a UN offers, that something like a human rights system offers, has been very useful and has been resorted to around the world successfully by feminist movements and feminist organizations, right. They have been utilized strategically to receive recommendations, decisions that can be utilized to help shift narratives domestically. I think Colombia comes to mind in terms of the trajectory of its reform on abortion, which was directly related to the fact that the Colombian constitution says that a part of their implementation is CEDAW. And
AA: CEDAW is the convention on women’s rights.
AR: Exactly. Right. And the, the court did look to CEDAW to say, you can’t have absolute prohibitions on abortion. And so it can be used. I think the question of whether it’s being done in a way that meets its original intention, I don’t know. I think feminists are creative and I think rights movements are creative. And I think that they have found ways to utilize these strategically, um, you know, to push forward on issues like abortion, on issues related to LGBTQI rights, where, you know, the space for domestic movement may be more limited and oftentimes can come with a lot of threats and danger. So I think there is a purpose that is being found and used by movements, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily what the UN charter set out to do.
AA: But I think you point to a, something really important, which is that setting a standard in the world, which is a positive intervention helps others raise the standards that exist where they are. It’s a sort of slow-burn effort to overall increase the space. In this case for rights relating to gender.
AR: It’s a tool. You know, it’s one of many tools that are often there when you’re looking as an advocate, you’re strategizing on how to move something forward. You know, sometimes that is not a useful tool at all. There’s no need to engage it. Sometimes it is, and it’s useful to have in your arsenal. Right. And so, again, I’m speaking about it less from “is the system performing on its own, the way it’s meant to be” versus how I think those who it’s designed to serve have found ways to use the system.
AA: Okay. And I, I like that we’re breaking this piece out because I think when you then take a look at the crisis situation in which protection is urgently needed, defense is urgently needed. You’ve got a different set of actors and a different set of tools in the human rights system. So say a little about how well you think that the multilateral system is able to respond in a, a moment of crisis.
AR: So I think largely what we’ve seen over the last few years, whether that’s Myanmar, Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen, I mean, you could – Mali – you have a list of places where what you see are the fractures of the system, right? I think so much of the system depends on the political will to act, the political will to go beyond the niceties of diplomacy, of protecting economic interests, of political interests, that if that’s not there, that system – there’s no way it’s going to work. You know, in some ways we can contrast the response to Ukraine in that, because what you see is you saw a large amount of political will, and even with a paralyzed Security Council, you actually saw a lot of initiatives come out of the UN, the system was in some ways working
AA: To do what? What kind of examples would you give there?
AR: So, I mean, I think you saw a couple of different examples. So one was the galvanizing, including a state like the United States, to support an initiative where the General Assembly now can take up any matters that are vetoed by the Security Council. That’s not something the US has ever supported before. Is that something they supported when it came to Syria, where Russia regularly vetoed resolutions, whether they were related to humanitarian access, um, or any other issues?
AA: Okay. So this is a, a, a good move, positive move, but at the same time, one that’s clearly threaded through with political interest.
AR: There’s nothing that’s not threaded – You know, that, that was my point at the beginning is, you need political interest, you need political will to break through, you know, the limitations that are placed on the system, right? You also saw a record number of states, all of a sudden supporting Ukraine’s self-referral to the International Criminal Court. You saw, you know, we now have over 10 interventions in support of different questions. in the case at the International Court of Justice. These are all tools of the multilateral system. Recourse to them, access to them, support for them is often deeply limited. But here you saw almost the mobilization of all parts of that system, except the Security Council, to try to do something. I’m not saying the response has been effective, but what you saw was a desire and a desire that you never see when it comes to many of the other situations that I named earlier.
AA: And we should go and look at some of those. But before we do so, just maybe as a side point, it’s interesting to hear that in a moment like the invasion of Ukraine, the system can galvanize itself to improve or break a deadlock that we’ve all become so used to um, that we thought could never be broken. And since there’s so much critique of the stranglehold that the, P5, the permanent members of the Security Council have on the institution and use to their advantage, I suppose, we should note it as an encouraging thing that in some circumstances, states were able and willing, as you say, to overcome that paralysis and try and move things in a better direction.
AR: Right. And I think it’s our job as advocates now to remind states of what they were able to do, right? You know, how did they respond? What did they see fit to support? Because that is something that in an ideal world, we would be able to utilize to, to bring it to bear for other situations. You know, the other thing I was thinking about is, the current Secretary-General has largely been absent in most issue areas and conflicts, but he did also get himself involved in Ukraine. He did help negotiate, you know, the grain exports, for example, so again, this is a reminder that even he was galvanized to act, you know. We can talk about Myanmar where we’ve been urging the Secretary-General to directly take action for a long time. And he just stays silent.
AA: Okay. So let’s go to an example, which you don’t think is working well. You just mentioned Myanmar. Why do you mention Myanmar?
AR: So I mentioned Myanmar because I think Myanmar is a lens through which we can see the systemic failures of the UN to do its job. And you know, I’m not the only one to say it, the UN actually had to in the wake of the Rohingya genocide, where the UN was an absolute failure, the UN itself commissioned a report, an internal report, to look at what went wrong in the response to Myanmar, followed on, you know, a similar report that was done in relation to Sri Lanka, the Petrie report, which looked at the UN systemic failures in Sri Lanka to prevent violence. And, in the context of Myanmar, what that report showed was the way that the UN is currently set up, where the priorities and power centers do not prioritize human rights necessarily, and they do not necessarily prioritize, you know, civilian protection over things such as, in the context of Myanmar, the, development aid and, you know, ability to continue to have access to the country.
AA: And from your point of view, we can come back to what the UN said about itself in a second, but from your point of view, reviewing that history, where do you see the systemic failure most obviously? Is it at this boundary between political interest, self-interest, um, and the statute or the standard, or is it in some other area like bureaucratic failure, inability to move resources, or – I just want to be open to the possibility that it isn’t just that states don’t want to do it.
AR: No, and I think that’s where Myanmar is interesting. we can certainly talk about state-based responses and bodies, like the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, but it wasn’t there that we were having the primary issues in the wake of the Rohingya genocide. It was the infrastructure of the UN, right? It was actually the battle between whether the voice of the human rights body, OHCHR – who were speaking out forcefully, um, and raising concerns about violations against Rohingya Muslims, other repressions that were going on in the country, versus UNDP which is focused on development, UNHCR, which is focused on refugee access and protection. Um, and you know, also frankly, the UN Envoy for Myanmar, who’s a direct appointee of the Secretary-General. None of these actually have anything to do with states at the end of the day, of course, they’re all state representative bodies, but this is the machinery of the UN that’s supposed to work on its own, generally speaking. Right? And some of these things are in the report, but they were being observed in real time by advocates working on the issues. You know, the idea of quiet diplomacy was being favored, the access that the UN is able to maintain, the funding that they’re providing to the country in development aid, can that be leveraged to gently and quietly pressure a repressive regime to change?
AA: And so if you take a contemporary situation, let’s stay in Myanmar, look at what is happening – I mean, we are seeing civilians being targeted, huge amounts of extra-judicial killings. uh, total lack of interest in accountability. We’re seeing false imprisonment, and torture. Uh, it is as egregious as it gets in Myanmar today. As you, in the context of what we’ve been talking about, as you view how the UN system is responding, what are your observations?
AR: So you’re seeing some of the same issues play out. Um, the UN’s access has been limited much more in the wake of the coup um, you know, there is some level of humanitarian access that remains, but the special envoy no longer has an office in the country. So the political access that the UN thought that they were negotiating that could help, is no longer there. So that dynamic has shifted slightly as a result of them being kicked out of the country. Um, but at the same time, you haven’t seen anything all that forceful come from anybody, right, so we’ve been calling for the Secretary-General to use what’s, um, known as an article 90 procedure to actually try to galvanize action from the Security Council. And we haven’t seen it. So we are looking more to this state-based framework as well, in this context.
AA: So where does that take you, that takes you to ASEAN, the regional grouping?
AR: Well, that’s where the UN is hiding behind is ASEAN. So ASEAN in the wake of the coup stepped up to say, “This is a regional problem. We will take the lead.” Unfortunately, ASEAN is not particularly known for having an ethos of strong engagement. In fact, you know, one of their principles is that of non-interference. And so they’ve set out a roadmap that has been entirely ignored and rejected by the military junta, but, you know, the UN Security Council continues to say, we’re going to stand behind ASEAN and take ASEAN’s lead on the issue. To me, it’s an abdication of their responsibility. Um, because it’s convenient. It’s not an issue that there particularly is political will to do a whole lot on, and it’s a whole lot easier to stand back and take deference.
AA: And I think that’s where the non-expert observer, who’s seeing what’s happening in Myanmar on the news or in their social media feeds, begins to just wonder why bother, like, why is this worth engaging with, and, and you seem to be a person who’s perfectly placed to answer that question, because you are doing your best to make use of this system in defense of victims of abuse. What is your answer to those people?
AR: So I think it’s, it’s two things. One, you know, our partners continue to ask us to look to the UN. So we, as an organization are guided by what the communities that we work with are asking for. And they do come to us to say, hey, we would really like to see a global arms embargo because stopping the flow of arms is really important. And those are the kinds of things that, in this architecture that we live in would be far better suited to something like a Security Council, because bilaterally, certain states have said that they’re not providing arms, but others have not stopped. Right? And it is enabling brutality. I remember in the wake of the coup, early days, you saw all of these people holding up signs. They even went to a protest in New York and they’re holding up signs that says, “UN we need R2P” R2P is the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. It was a part of an immediate response to say, “Hey, we know there’s a system out there that’s supposed to help us when people are suffering in moments like this.” You don’t see those signs anymore, by the way, those signs have disappeared. But in the early days, that was a big part of the galvanization of the UN. The other point and maybe this is just me being naive is, you know, when I see pockets of hope and glimmers of “yes, the system can work!” It makes me want to fight harder to make the system work for those who need it the most. Um, because there is power in the system and they are, whether we like it or not, they’re occupying the space.
AA: And no document in the world has ever guaranteed anything. Every action needs to be worked for, needs to be mobilized, needs to be advocated, leverage needs to be accumulated and used to get people to do the right thing, just because there are so many competing interests in any given situation. So to that extent, it is only as good as the pressure to do all of that. And so that makes me want to step back from the frame that we’ve been using, prompted by your observation about the demonstration, and just say, how much is this actually our fault? How much is it the case that nothing is going to happen in the multilateral system without external pressure and the lack of grass roots citizen solidarity for what is happening to the people of Myanmar, in the streets of powerful countries, may be actually the source of the problem.
AR: I think that’s certainly a key part of it, you know, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the United States, you saw solidarity protests all over the world, protesting police brutality and what was going on. In the wake of Ukraine, you saw solidarity protests, galvanizing efforts all over the world. In the context of Myanmar, other than ones that were self-organized by the community. I can tell you, as someone who works at an international NGO in New York, there weren’t others from international NGOs in New York who joined the protest even. Um, and so I think you’re right, that that failure to create the pressure also does rely on all of us. And I think the other thing is, in this professionalized human rights space, right, thinking about international NGOs, there is such a tendency to jump from issue to issue, follow what is both on fire and where the money is. And I think that is also a part of the problem – is that it’s hard to keep the sustained pressure. You know, in the wake of something big happening, you have so many people who are engaged. I remember getting calls from people saying, “what are you doing on Ukraine” and us saying “nothing.” Um, because for us, there were plenty of people doing work on Ukraine – it’s not because we don’t care about what’s going on in Ukraine, but with our resources, we thought it was better to continue to work on the issues and the situation that still needed resolving that were within our ambit. In the wake of the coup in Myanmar, I cannot tell you how many organizations were, all of a sudden, Myanmar experts and engaged in conversations on Myanmar. I don’t know where most of them are now. And so I think there’s both that solidarity piece of, how do we mobilize communities all around the world. And I think there’s also the lack of solidarity within the professionalized movement to continue to think about our responsibility, to the constituencies that we engage over the long term.
AA: I mean, your cynicism and critique is, is absolutely justified, but I think we should just acknowledge that there are a lot of fires. There’s a lot of shiny new crises that appear – every week there’s something new and you can view that with cynicism and say, well, you know, they should stay put and commit to the thing they commit to until the job is done, but you could also say that every one of those new crises demands protection, energy, effort. And so, perhaps an organization that would otherwise have been able to stay focused, has constituencies, board members, memberships that are anguished about the new, new thing, and that’s generating a kind of, you know, aggregate confusion about where to put the effort and how to stay focused on it.
AR: Fully, fully agree with that. For us, it was a decision of, with our priorities, our resources, our expertise, where does it make sense for us to be, in executing our mission and what it is that we have set out for ourselves to do. And so I think that’s a question that’s often not asked in this moment.
AA: And however, justified people are in being distracted by new challenges, new causes, uh, new urgent situations, they’re not going to get enough done on any one of those issues if they don’t stay focused on it. And I think that’s what you’re saying.
AR: I think so, so I think it’s a, it’s a balancing act of how that works. And, you know, I do think that, you know, this question is also raising for me as we think about, what does the multilateral system do? I do think the multilateral system is all of a sudden handling far more than it was ever designed to do. I don’t think the multilateral system is equipped to deal with climate change, which requires fundamental shifts across a range of domestic issue areas from every country in the world to address something with urgency. The system was not meant to be the way to address a crisis like climate change. I was looking at the UN charter the other day and one of the fundamental precepts of the UN charter is, is the sovereign equality of states. The idea that every member of the UN is equal in power when they sit there, but that’s not true in how the UN has turned out. And I think to think about an issue like climate change, if we are to give, you know, the small island states who are at risk of disappearing, that equality and power, we may need to think about what is a structure related to climate change that’s actually equipped to deliver on that.
AA: And I think the investment of the most powerful states in keeping a system that gives them the whip hand, means that we are unlikely to see a major change anytime soon.
AR: Yeah. But what do you do with the urgency of the climate change reports that say we have years left to take meaningful action to avoid catastrophe.
AA: It comes back to that point we were just making about solidarity. We need the people in the streets. If we are really to see any kind of change. And that’s what you were saying, Ukraine has demonstrated – that it is possible, but if people don’t show up, it isn’t the UN’s fault per se. It’s ours.
AR: I think the responsibility lies on all of us at different levels. Um, and it lies on the UN on its own, but it’s just not what it was meant to do.
AA: Sobering. Thank you, Akila
AR: Thank you, Akwe.
AA: Akila Radhakrishnan is the director of the Global Justice Center in New York. You can read a transcript of our conversation at strengthandsolidarity.org
AA: Our coda this time, comes from Chris Stone, the principal moderator of The Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, the project that makes this podcast. Chris has worn many hats over the years. These days he’s particularly focused on the state of the human rights field, and the health and governance of organizations and institutions. But he began his career as a criminal defense lawyer, and he has chosen to share a poem by Seamus Heaney that he encountered at that time, and to tell us why it means so much to him.
He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.
To him, my other life.
Sometimes, on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.
But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
His breath and trembled.
It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.
He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’
I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse…
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.
Chris Stone: I came across that poem just shortly after it was published. I think it was probably 1980. I was in law school. I had just come back from a year, living in England and I had befriended, in my year at Cambridge studying criminology, a wonderful man named Jack Gillespie, with whom I’m still in touch.
CS: He was a lawyer in Belfast. I didn’t know much about the troubles. I hadn’t followed the, the politics of Ireland and we talked about Ireland a lot that year. And in the spring in 1979, he took me to Belfast. It was, it was a bad year, 1979 in the troubles. It was a dangerous time to be in the streets of Belfast. And, it was my first time, in what was obviously a war zone. And it was very disturbing, and it focused one on issues of life and death and of Bloody Sunday – the deaths of the 13 that, that Heaney describes, by the Paras [Parachute Regiment], the British soldiers who gunned down the civilians protesting a law that allowed detention without trial. And I love the way Heaney, talks about the talk of eels at lunch and the Provisionals, like the talk of the troubles, the talk of the armed resistance, was just a part of talk, um, in the pubs, elsewhere.
CS: I think the reason the poem stays with me is at one level, it’s a genius poem! It’s a poem about Bloody Sunday without being about bloody Sunday. It’s a poem about the death of the 13, while actually being about this other man whom Heaney knew, who was killed a few days later. And it’s a poem about complicity and, and blame, right? The question Heaney asks himself, though, he hears his friend asking him, you know, is, was I at fault? Was I responsible for my own death because I broke the curfew and I didn’t obey, I wasn’t complicit in the rules the way the rest of my people were; was breaking from the tribe my fault? Because I needed a drink, that’s who I am! But I think the reason it sticks with me is something else in the poem. I think it’s, it’s the, it’s that theme about freedom…you know, the freedom of being out on the water, the freedom of the friendship. I don’t know, at least for me, because Heaney’s writing in his own voice, he’s writing, what breaks you away from the tribe? What breaks you away from that complicity? And in the poem, it’s not a political ideology that breaks you away. It’s who you are. It’s the drink you need, it’s poetry, it’s the sea, it’s nature. And I think, you know, in the same way that, the fisherman in the poem, won’t stay with the tribe. Heaney’s own poetry is a way of escaping the tribe. And I think it’s about how we all need to find, you know, our way to that freedom that breaks you away from the tribe.
AA: Thank you, Chris Stone, for that remarkable poem, Casualty by Seamus Heaney, and for sharing your reflections.
AA: That’s episode 29 of Strength and Solidarity… thanks for listening… Remember you can find all our past episodes on our website, strength and solidarity dot org, and while you’re there you can sign up to receive our podcast postcard – an email for each new episode, that provides some context and sometimes some bonus material. For now, from producer Peter Coccoma and me Akwe Amosu – happy new year.