Language of Rights Episode 8March 30, 2021

8. When does the language of rights have power?

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

In this final episode of the podcast’s first season, Akwe Amosu talks to Thailand-based human rights lawyer Emilie Palamy Pradichit and then to her colleague Chris Stone about when and where the language of rights has relevance and credibility and asks what happens when it is instrumentalized by politicians and governments? And in the Coda, Bangladesh’s human rights campaigner and lawyer Adilur Rahman Khan tells us about his country’s national poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and why his songs and poems still inspire so many, 45 years after his death. 

00:00 / 00:00

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device on Apple, Breaker, Google, Radio Public, Spotify, and Stitcher

The Interview

Why it matters who is doing the talking when human rights are at stake

For people who have made defending rights their life’s work, the language of rights comes as second nature. But what about those facing repression, exclusion or the illegitimate loss of their land and livelihood – how do they describe what is happening to them?  When politicians instrumentalize human rights language to justify their interests, does the idea of rights become fatally degraded?  In this episode we dig into where the language of human rights shows up, and who can legitimately use it. 

The Coda

A 20th-century revolutionary poet offers solace and strength to a contemporary human rights activist and and campaigner

Kazi Nazrul Islam is the national poet of Bangladesh, writer of impassioned political verse and composer of songs encouraging his people to rebel against British rule and throw off the colonial yoke.  Lifelong human rights campaigner and lawyer Adilur Rahman Khan grew up hearing Nazrul at home and continues to feel energized and inspired by his legacy.

Transcript

Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m at Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.

AA: Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the ideas driving and disrupting human rights movements around the world. In this episode

  • Everyday human rights work in Thailand, but is that the right name for it – and why does it matter what language we use to talk about rights?
  •  And then in the Coda, how Bangladesh’s national poet Nazrul inspires one of that country’s most senior advocates for justice

Part One:

AA: In this first season of our podcast, the people I’ve interviewed have talked about human rights in some very different ways, positively, skeptically, tactically, and so on. Most have made defense of rights their life’s work and take it for granted that the idea of rights is widely understood and accepted. But if you aren’t in the human rights world, do you take rights for granted? What language do you use to describe mistreatment and inequity? And can that tell us anything about the power of human rights to drive change?  Human rights lawyer Emile Palamy Pradichit founded the Manushya foundation in Thailand in 2017 and she works with a wide variety of clients, from indigenous forest communities fighting to remain on their land, to people in the corporate sector facing discrimination, and many others in between. Emilie herself grew up in Paris, interacting with multiple communities and nationalities across diverse class, ethnic and gender identities only choosing quite late to work in the rights world. So she seemed like a good person to explore this with.

 

AA: Welcome Emilie,

Emilie Palamy Pradichit: Thank you, Akwe, for having me.

AA: I’m hoping to ask you about the ways human rights are talked about in the course of your work in Thailand. But before we get into that, could you get us started by telling me something about your own introduction to the idea of rights?

EPP: As an international human rights lawyer, obviously the human rights language is important for me, but when I grew up and I was also going through some struggles and facing inequalities or, you know, discrimination and injustice, I didn’t know the language of human rights. I was born a refugee, so I grew up surrounded by refugees and migrants. My mom was working a lot, so she was raising us alone. So I was often with my neighbors and they were migrants from North Africa. They were Tunisian and Algerian and Moroccan, and they would always take me with them to City Hall to help them with the paperwork because I was, you know, a good student – I could read French, I could help them. And I was between eight and 10 years old and I would go with them and I would see them being mistreated. I would see them facing racial discrimination by the French administration, but I would also see them fighting back and using those words like,” you have to respect me, you have to respect my dignity. You cannot treat me this way. It is unfair. We should all be equal.” These were the words that they were using, but they were not human rights lawyers! They were just using words that made sense to them to describe the situation they were facing. And I found them so powerful. So in the eyes of the French administration, they were problematic and difficult women because they were fighting back.  In my eyes they became my heroes. And so I wanted to become like them. So I started like speaking up, standing up and I was very different from my family, you know, my family from Laos, you know – Southeast Asians tend to, they tend to be very quiet. They don’t challenge the system, but I took that side of standing up and speaking out from them, from the women I grew up with.

AA: So how did that then shape the choices you made?

EPP: I try to find ways of, what should I study to be able to, to be able to make sure that the people that I’m growing with, or the people I grew up with, can be heard,  because the challenge was, people were not being heard. And you have politicians speaking on behalf of marginalized communities without marginalised communities being involved in the discussions. I didn’t know what to study, I became a dancer. I had an accident. So then I went to law school because you know, education is free in France. I went to law school. It’s only when I came to Thailand in 2006 that I realized that I wanted to study human rights because I was seeing racial discrimination against Isan people, the Northeastern region of Thailand, where my family’s from, I was seeing racial discrimination. I was seeing how Thai people were talking down on me when I would speak Lao.  I was seeing a lot of corruption. And so I’m like, what is it that I have to study that actually can, can bring change? That’s how I became a human rights laywer. And I realized that human rights were this powerful tool to protect communities and that knowledge had to be shared with marginalized communities, because if they knew their rights, then they would be able to stand up and fight back. Uh, that’s what allows me to be able to work with indigenous communities, farmers, and peasants because I understand the language they’re using. I understand where they’re coming from.

AA: How do they define the problem that they are facing? Do they see it in terms of, “I have this right? I’ve always had this right. It’s been taken away and I want it back. I want my rights respected!” Or do they have a different way of thinking about what’s happened to them?

EPP: They don’t talk in terms of rights. They talk in terms of their livelihoods. So they would tell you that obviously they feel that what they are experiencing is unfair; for, if you look at the situation of indigenous people or land rights defenders, they will tell you “I’ve been living here forever. This is our indigenous land, but now the government wants us to leave. We understand the government wants to protect the forest, but the government does not understand that we protect the forest. The government does not understand that our shifting cultivation, our traditional ways of living and what we farm, are actually sustainable and protecting the forest.” So they will use words like “we are being oppressed and it’s unfair. The government does not understand us. We are invisible.” And you know, in a country like Thailand, all Laos – indigenous people – are not recognized under the constitution. And they have been facing racial discrimination by the authorities, but also by Thai population. So they are not necessarily, understood by the population. The first step in my job is to legally empower them,  to make sure that people know their rights so that they become empowered and they have the ability to push back. So we support them but we want them to be at the forefront of that pushback. We stand behind. Even if we might do the legal work, we must submit the complaints through international litigation. They need to be at the forefront of the fight.

AA: You do lots of other work as the Manushya  Foundation. You think about women’s rights. You think about transgender rights and you’re engaged in support of young people who are making demands for change. Beyond the indigenous rights, where do you see rights being successfully defended and having power for Thai complainants?

EPP: So I think Thailand is like many other countries. They are issues that are more easy than others, I would say. And so when it comes to LGBT rights, although there is no specific protective law in Thailand and there’s no anti discrimination law, the Thai government has always been keen on supporting LGBT rights. And so it has always been an easier, I would say, battle when it comes to Thailand. Although now the LGBTQ rights activists in Thailand are fighting for the marriage equality bill. But when you compare it with other countries, I would say the situation is better. But what we do when it comes to LGBT rights and in general, or transgender rights, our work is really to ensure that, first of all, they are being accepted by society. So we try to amplify the voices.  In my own team we have two transgender women, you know, so it’s being visible, it’s doing your advocacy and being visible.

AA: So that’s an area where you feel that it is possible to make good progress in upholding the rights of an excluded minority.

EPP: Yeah. When it comes to gender issues and LGBT rights issues, the people we are fighting against mainly are businesses. Because most of the cases that we receive are gender discrimination cases at the workplace. You know, the transgender woman who is trying to apply for a job and she’s been told, no, you cannot because you’re not a woman. Or people from the LGBT community not being able to dress the way they want at school, or they’re being fired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. So those are the people who are fighting against in Thailand businesses. So we are reminding them that Thailand has international human rights obligations. We are reminding them that Thailand is committed to implement the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. That Thailand developed a national action plan on business and human rights, that businesses have to respect that plan. And so then we meet directly with the company. The company has to apologize to the transgender woman or LGBT community member that has had its rights violated. And most of the time, we try to find a general solution beyond the apology. And for us, we want them to commit to human rights principles and we try to work then with the businesses, for them to put in place and to conduct a human rights impact assessment. So when it comes to LGBT rights in Thailand, it’s not the government that we are fighting with, its more businesses and companies. And it’s an easier issue to work on

AA: Do you define your own work as the Manushya Foundation as rights work? When you tell other people what you’re doing, is that the language you use?

EPP: When we just started, I was using the human rights language, you know why?  Because I’m a human rights lawyer or human rights advocate, but now, you know, I think over time we changed because of the people we’re working with. We are really saying that we work with marginalized communities to fight inequalities and injustice. I’m just going back to the words that I was using when I was a, you know, a kid growing up in France, it was always about equality and social justice. And because I’m working exactly with a similar people that I grew up with, marginalized communities, I’m using like the same language that I used to use. Human rights became a tool, a vehicle. Litigation became a way for us to, to achieve equality, to achieve social justice, because this is a language that most people understand.

AA: There has been, for many months, sustained protest by young people, calling for democracy, challenging a very authoritarian form of government and monarchy. What do you think all those tens of thousands of young people coming into the streets are thinking when it comes to this question of rights versus social justice, what’s motivating them, what language do they use to define what they are doing?

EPP: The ultimate goal, it’s to restore democracy. They want equality, justice, and respect of human rights for all, but the respect for human rights for all came after. It was always, “I’m fighting for democracy, equality, and justice,” you know? And then they were being approached by other groups, the NGO people joined the movement as well. And the NGO people start talking about safe abortion rights, LGBT rights, human rights – they added the human rights language. And so people start talking about rights. People were taking the floor, making speeches and talking about rights. It came after.

AA: And is that credible? Does that really resonate for the grassroots activists who didn’t bring that language themselves, but found it being added on by NGOs, as you say, I mean, is that an organic development or is that just a piggyback?

EPP: No, I think it came very naturally, very organically because you know, the pro-democracy protests in Thailand are being led by youth, studying politics, international relations. So they will use the language that they are studying. And because the youth left the democracy protests open to everyone and everybody were invited to take the floor very organically to speak about the issues, then you had land rights defenders talking about the land issues. You have activists from the South talking about religious minorities and the daily harassment they are facing in the South, and people start talking about human rights organically. I think human rights language, it’s still a language that would only be known to people who can study human rights, the elite – to NGO workers that are working on human rights, you know, and that had to follow this human rights framework for their work. But what it made me realize is that we are a minority working on human rights and we are a majority wanting democracy, a majority wanting equality, a majority wanting social justice, but we are a minority using the human rights language.

AA: Emily Palamy Pradichit, founder and director of the Manushya foundation. I spoke to her on the line to Bangkok. Our conversation made me want to go back to previous interviewees this season who took strong positions on the relevance of rights. There was Afghanistan’s human rights commission chair. Shaharzad Akbar, determined to convince her people that human rights were real and had power. And Victoria Tesoriero of Argentina’s legal abortion campaign for whom upholding rights was participation in a proud tradition. But on the more skeptical side, the former CEO of South Africa’s human rights commission, Kayum Ahmed expressed doubt that a rights framework could deliver radical change, and researcher Shawn Shieh thought that without building empathy, popular support for rights in China would be impossible – very different, even seemingly contradictory perspectives. Here at the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, our principal moderator, Chris Stone, felt strongly from the start of this project that we should get all these differences out on the table. I asked him why.

Chris Stone: Well, it started as a question for me, I think at the same time that there was a broad critique of human rights movements gaining steam, we were also watching George Bush use human rights as an excuse for invading Iraq. We were watching the language of rights be appropriated for actions that were hugely in violation of people’s rights of self-determination, of the right to life and, and countless rights. So it seemed to me, it was clear that a lot of people would be happy to use the language of rights instrumentally, but if the movement was going to get through this period, it was going to need to be aware of who was really committed to human rights, as opposed to just using it temporarily if it had some immediate political advantage. I started just with a question: how do you use the language of rights and do you use it because it’s what you believe or do you use it just because in this moment, in this minute, it’ll work politically?

AA: Looking back over the set of interviews that I’ve done for the series, it’s quite striking how differently people answer that question. You’ve got Shaharzad Akbar, passionately committed to use of the language and using it as a stake in the ground against those who think that all kinds of abuse are permitted. And yet you’ve also got Kayum Ahmed saying that he doubts that the words or the language has power. And so I don’t know what to make of that.

CS: What I learned from listening to Kayum and Shaharzad and the others you’ve interviewed is that the language has real meaning- and different meaning – in each of these societies. So Shaharzad is committed, herself, to the language of rights. She chairs a human rights commission with a short but strong history that she’s expanding, but she is the first to say that in Afghanistan, this is foreign language; this was introduced from outside. People want more from their government today than they ever wanted before, but they’re still seeing the language, hearing the language of human rights as something foreign. And in some ways, Kayum’s saying exactly the same thing – that in an Africa today where colonial baggage is illegitimate, the only question he’s grappling with is can you decolonize human rights or do you have to abandon it? The only two choices are,  allow it to remain a part of the colonial baggage in which case you have to discard it, or to try and decolonize it, to strip it away from its Western European philosophical roots and give it a more indigenous history and strength. And so that story is different in each place. Victoria’s account of human rights in Argentina, in the struggle to legalize abortion –  human rights for her is totally bound up in a moment of historical pride in 2004 and the story of the women, the grandmothers and the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo; you say “human rights” in Argentina, and you’re in the Plaza de Mayo. They use the language of rights specifically to connect with that legacy. In China, where the government is not embracing the language of human rights, you have Shawn explaining that if you’re going to build a human rights culture in China, you’re going to have to connect with the people there and you’re going to have to use the language that makes sense to them. So all four of these examples, it seems to me, are powerful illustrations of how the language of rights – it isn’t about the question I started with, it’s about what does the language of rights mean to the people your trying to connect to.

AA: And this is where I found what Emilie had to say very interesting. She starts out with people around her, those North African women she spoke about, using absolutely core human rights language about dignity and about respect. But she says that where she lands is that what people really care about is social justice. It’s equity, it’s democracy. They’re not using that language of rights. And she herself says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the rights language is used by an elite minority, people like me, who are lawyers, the language I’m now using with people at the level of the work I do is about social justice and equality.”

CS: I thought Emily’s account was masterful that way, but I thought what was so interesting in listening to her was when you suggested it’s a language of a minority and the NGOs, and she came back and said, it’s a language of the minority, but it’s a bigger minority than that. And she told the story of the youth in the streets protesting and that their taking up of the language of rights is – in her word – organic. It did not come from the outside. It doesn’t come from a bunch of international lawyers. It was an experience of an open platform and different people from different parts of the country, taking that platform and telling their stories. In fact, the taking up of the language in an organic way by young people is one of the themes, I think,  that’s come out from these stories, whether it’s the girls in Argentina who bring new power and hope to the women’s struggle to legalize abortion, or the youth in the streets of Thailand. I think we’re hearing from people that this language is continuing to resonate and in fact, being brought into the conversation often by a new generation.

AA: But I’m not sure that Emilie would say that the language of rights is what’s getting taken up. I thought she was saying that actually the language that’s to hand and that people prefer to use is the language of social justice and equity. And that they’re using that language to encompass a lot of these issues that have historically, or have previously been defined in terms of rights.

CS: Right. And I think over time, that’s probably always true for human rights movements. The human rights movements are powerful when they align with other movements, with other forces, with other organizations and many people in this series have been talking about these very impressive coalitions, across many different movements. But what seems to me important is not, you know, it’s not the word rights. It is. Whether these ideas of fairness, equality, of democracy, of justice come from the state or in some ways are inherent in human society. Those are really the only two choices. And it’s when these become dependent on states that they lose the character, the revolutionary character of human rights. That’s, what’s frightening about Kayum’s story – he’s almost despairing that the human rights struggle has lost its revolutionary power, that it’s lost its power to justify, in the end, rebellion against the state. He worries that in fact it’s just the opposite in South Africa, that somehow rights has been co-opted by the state as a check against rebellion. And I think that’s the worry in some ways that animated my own questions about the language of rights. What’s so hopeful is,  whether it’s in Thailand and the language of equality or the language of women’s rights in Argentina, these are movements that are taking up fairness, equality, dignity, as inherent in them. It is not only if the state says it’s okay, that in the end is the transformative power of rights.

AA: And by the state, you don’t just mean the government. You also mean the multilateral agencies and their statutes and their conventions, and even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself, that you don’t have to have the blessing of these formal structures and statutes.

CS: You know, the period from 1989 to, or even earlier, from maybe even a little bit from [the] Helsinki [Accords in 1975] until 2001, there was a lot of political power in the language of human rights so lots of people were willing to take it up and to use it in their interests. And then as it began to lose power, people were happy to talk about social entrepreneurship as a way to advance their interests. But people weren’t talking about a right to create a company, they were talking about, you know, a frame that was going to give them more power. I’m so grateful to these interviews to clarify this for me, there are people who identify themselves as part of the human rights movement, who frankly use the language of rights as a way themselves of exercising power. It becomes a special jargon. It becomes a, a field of expertise – they talk of particular treaties, they use acronyms, they talk about duty bearers and rights holders, they use a whole language of human rights that is completely constructed in this human rights profession. It’s used the way any expert jargon or argot is used, as a way of asserting authority, asserting power. That is not what your interviewees have been talking about. What they’re each talking about is listening to the language of the people who are themselves going to be the source of power of their movements. They’re not looking for power in the language. They’re looking for power in the people and whether it’s in China or in Thailand or in Argentina or in South Africa, what they’re listening for is how people are expressing and understanding their demands for justice, equality, dignity.

AA: Okay. Thank you so much, Chris.

CS: Thanks. Always a pleasure.

AA: Chris Stone is the principal moderator of the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights. You can find a transcript of my conversations with Emilie and Chris and other reading suggestions on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.

 

Part two: The Coda

AA: Time for our Coda, in which someone active in the human rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. This time, we’re in Bangladesh and meeting that country’s fiery and rebellious national poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, often known just as Nazrul, revered for his songs and his poetry, but also for his stand against British colonial rule. He’s an inspirational figure for Adilur Rahman Khan, a former Deputy Attorney General and advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and also the founder and secretary of Odhikar, a human rights organization.

Adilur Rahman Khan: Kazi Nazrul Islam was born in West Bengal. He joined in the First World War in the colonial British army, went to Iraq. He returned and he saw what has happened during the war. British colonial rulers said that if you help us in this fight in the first world war, we will give you freedom, but it didn’t happen. There were so many struggles in the sub-continent at that time and Nazrul inspired, he inspired the anti- colonial struggle through his songs and his poetry.

ARK: Bengali people, they love him.  When we had various political struggles against military dictatorship, and now against authoritarianism, Nazrul’s poems and songs play a very important role. Nazrul is our national poet. It’s a poem: the poem’s name is Bidrohi and this is the last few lines:

“I shall uproot this miserable earth effortlessly and with ease,
And create a new universe of joy and peace.
Weary of struggles, I, the great rebel,
Shall rest in quiet only when I find
The sky and the air free of the piteous groans of the oppressed.
Only when the battle fields are cleared of jingling bloody sabres
Shall I, weary of struggles, rest in quiet,
I the great rebel.
I am the rebel eternal,
I raise my head beyond this world,
High, ever erect and alone!”[1]

ARK: When I was in jail with my colleagues and my comrades. These songs inspired always because we could get carry one small radio with us. And these songs will keep us active, strong in mind, in the prison.

ARK: My mother, she was a teacher and a singer and writer, a social activist. So our house has been with the, you know, Bengali literature kind of place. And my father was a great admirer of that. Both of them are no more, but myself and my two sisters, we learned from her. My father joined in the language movement when he was a medical student and during the liberation war, my father, as a doctor treated the liberation fighters secretly. My mother was supporting them, sending medicines because my uncles were in the liberation war.

ARK: And after I was detained, and got bail, I asked my mother whether I’m on the right path, and she said: “Never compromise for justice.”

ARK: We want to go for total change of the society. We want to radically transform the institutions, which should provide justice to the people. And we are trying to make younger people aware so that they create a new future for this country where the people of Bangladesh, we live in peace and we extend their solidarity with the people of the world who are also struggling for peace.

AA: Thanks to Adilur Rahman Khan for sharing his reflections on Nazrul. Adilur was detained for two months in 2013 and charged with publishing false images and information under Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act, and with “ disrupting the law and order situation of the country.”  He’s been out on bail ever since, is awaiting trial and faces imprisonment if convicted.

AA: And that wraps up this eighth and final episode of Strength and Solidarity’s season. We’re taking a short break and we’ll be back with season two in just over a month’s time. If you like what you’ve heard, please do subscribe. That way you can be sure of reconnecting with us when we come back in May.  And we’d be grateful for a review because it will help others find their way to us.  Whether you liked or didn’t like something in the past eight episodes, your feedback is really welcome. Wherever you accessed us. You’ll find a link to send us your comments.  For now though, heartfelt admiration and appreciation for our producer, Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu, thanks for listening.

 

[1] Trans Kabir Chowdhury, Courtesy: Mohammad Nurul Huda. Poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam in English Translation [Dhaka: Nazrul Institute, 2000). pp. 12-16.