By Sibyl Adam
On 15th June 2015, the 800th anniversary of the creation of the Magna Carta, David Cameron vowed to put right the ‘complete mess’ of Britain’s human rights laws. The current government are now making plans to employ a British ‘bill of rights’ in place of the Human Rights Act 1998. Human rights as an entity have become increasingly contentious and are now also being used as a political tool. The theme of the Northern Postcolonial Network’s symposium, which took place on 2nd July 2015 in Sheffield, was therefore a timely and fitting subject. This event was truly interdisciplinary: we had speakers and audience members from English Literature, Law, Geography, History and Sociology. Some of the key themes that arose from discussion throughout the day centred upon the inherent contradictions of human rights, namely their claim to apparent universality and the difficulties that arise as a consequence. Indeed, a point raised several times during the day concerned the tension between human rights abuses at ‘home’, fuelled by austerity politics, and more abstracted conceptions of human rights violations as something that are more likely to happen in ‘other’ countries. Speakers and audience alike debated the role postcolonial studies has as a critical practice in relation to both the UK’s problematic role as an apparent defender of rights (i.e. the right to freedom of speech) as well as the laws concerning rights abroad in countries with a history of colonialism.
The day began with papers by Claire Chambers and Ana María Sánchez-Arce. Claire’s talk explored the generic implications of human rights reports as well as the overlap between these reports as a genre, and documentary films and novels from Pakistan. The quasi-academic nature of testimonies of human rights abuses intersects with film and fiction about the same topic. Claire detailed the recent wave of cultural production dealing with human rights in Pakistan, including Saving Face, a documentary about acid attacks on women in Pakistan. In particular, we can see the two genres (human rights reports and fiction) come together in Mohammed Hanif’s The Baloch Who Is Not Missing & Others Who Are, where his novelist’s flair makes this journalism seem like stories. This makes them moving in a way that statistics can never be. Questions included the interesting role of the child narrator in texts about human rights.
Drawing on contemporary examples including the Charlie Hebdo attack and subsequent march of world leaders in defence of free speech, as well as ongoing British and Spanish restrictions of free speech, Ana María shared some thoughts on the relationship between discourses of nationality and censorship. She argued that issues of censorship are seen to be something that happens elsewhere, away from ‘us’ in keeping with the myth of American exceptionalism. In fact, the principals of ‘freedom of speech’ are generally seen through performative speech acts, which mask the reality of actualised events whilst reinstating national identity through dogma. In particular, Ana María argued that contemporary Northern/Southern European distinctions hark back to the history of colonialism (e.g. Muslim Spain) and the gothic tradition, which was a particular move by Northern Europe to orientalise Southern Europe. Questions following this talk discussed structural violence as performative and invisible.
In the postgraduate roundtable, we heard some brief descriptions of on-going PhD and early-career projects on the theme of human rights. Ella Kent discussed Joshua Oppeheimer’s Indonesian documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence in light of the colonial inheritance of the Cold War and post-Holocaust responses to trauma. In The Look of Silence a paradox is seen with the overthrowing of the communist government where the USA depended on colonial attitudes (‘we know best’) whilst at the same time representing themselves as anti-colonial. This point shows a running theme in the papers during the day, namely the difference between discourses that endorse human rights as propagated by governments, and the reality of world events that undermine these assertions. Indeed, Claire’s talk highlighted how Western perspectives on women’s rights in Pakistan tends to link them to the country’s Muslim culture (which ties in with the West’s own reasons for restrictions of freedom of speech, explicitly terrorism), when in fact there is a complex network of issues at the root of the problems (corruption, failing institutions, healthcare, etc). Ella discussed some of the issues that the films bring up, including how the unknowability of trauma excludes the possibility of guilty and the possibility of developing a reading practice for considering perpetrator trauma that has an ethical, functional basis.
Next up, Sarah Newport discussed the Hijra (third gendered people) in India, their changing position in governmental discourses and the consequences of this for these people. In particular, her talk highlighted the paradoxes seen in the government’s attitudes towards the Hijra, as they recriminalised homosexual sex acts in 2013 (with the legal wording of ‘unnatural sex acts’ implying that if you are seen together with another of the same sex you can be arrested), yet in 2014 the government legally recognised transgender as a third gender. Therefore, the issue becomes one of identity vs. action in human rights discourse (i.e. terrorist acts can lead you to losing some of your rights).
Gemma Scott’s talk explored the unmet needs in historiography regarding women’s role as victims of sterilisation during India’s internal emergency (1975-77). There is a lack of attention in reports and archival material in the Shah Commission of Inquiry that was set up by the Janata Party Government to investigate citizen rights abuses under Emergency concerning the impact of the sterilisation of women. Despite being 25% of those sterilised, women are absent from this particular history. Gemma argued for a need to reorient discussions of human rights abuses in this period of Indian history to include women. Following this panel, questions included that of relativism in postcolonialism and whether postcolonial theory had limits in addressing human rights, how one can have rights without statehood and how we can set up non-normative meanings of the human.
After the postgraduate panel, we heard from Robbie Aitken and Sam Durrant. Robbie’s talk on black Germans in Nazi Germany was of particular interest following the exhibition on the history of black Germans that we looked at during the lunch break. Robbie discussed the largely unknown history of Germany’s black population prior to and during the Second World War. He talked about the ambiguity at the heart of the Nazi Party’s policies on Germany’s black citizens, which fluctuated between protection and persecution. There was a maximum of 3000 black people living in Germany at the time, a combination of Africans from Germany colonies (who were never considered citizens and were given ‘alien passports’), about 600-800 Rhineland children (born of French colonial troops), Liberians, and African-American performers and sportspeople. The Nazis had state-sponsored shows featuring colonial migrants in an attempt to control them and stop miscegenation whilst promoting the colonial cause. Violence against black people escalated as time went on, based on racial policy guised as ‘political’ arrests, and eventually many went into hiding. Questions after the talk queried German colonial amnesia and definitions of ‘black’ (North/Sub-Saharan Africa) when considering the differing legal status of Liberians and African-Americans in comparison to colonial migrants.
In his talk, Sam asked whether we can read human rights literature as an identification with those forms of life ignored by the normative logic of representation, namely ghost or spirit writing, with the example of Chris Abani’s Song for Night. He discussed how the identification of some humans with the ‘creaturely’ is contested in this text through an exploration of the double erasure of subjecthood (the protagonist has his vocal chords cut and his body is blown up at the beginning of the narrative) in light of the necropolitical conditions of life in the postcolony. Sam’s paper particularly focused on how the function of literature as representational (i.e. in terms of human rights) is a Western conception of literature as mimesis – as testimony, documental – which responds interestingly to previous papers of the day. He gave a critique of anthropocentrism in human rights (the ‘creaturely’) and asked us to consider, in place of human rights, communal responsibilities, in order to open up a space of agency for the child soldier by showing how humans and animals are suspect to levels of power. Abani takes the place of both the figure of the ghost writer and the passage through which ancestralisation happens. Questions following the talk included the relationship between rights/rites/writes and the mimesis between the character’s mode of writing and Abani’s act of writing the text.
In the final panel of the day, we heard from Jamie Grace and the keynote from Anshuman Mondal. The audience commented on the refreshing nature of Jamie’s talk due to his perspective as a Law scholar, which meant the majority of his talk was grounded in examples of court cases and legal judgements. His talk detailed the problematic nature of the Human Rights Act 1998 and its link to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe, which brings forth the tensions over the UK-EU relationship. Jamie described several court cases brought about by the most disadvantaged in the UK using European legal norms which were then rejected by the UK ‘establishment’ (including the judiciary) due to austerity politics that then only caused an increase in inequality. Overall, Jamie argued that neoliberal doctrines of austerity conflicts with the values of human rights, which in itself only has as much weight as we can give it – indeed, the precarious position of so-called fundamental rights have been chipped away by the current government. Jamie’s talk inspired the continual querying throughout the day over how human rights can be universal, if, as we can see here, there is so much discrepancy between legal systems and countries; rights are not self evident nor applicable to all humans. Comments from the audience emphasised the perspective of thinking about human rights as ‘close to home’ rather than something that is only contentious far away. Jamie also helped to detail the ‘proportionality principle’ that accounts for the manipulation of judgment under the guise of the communitarian language of ‘duties’ found in austerity politics.
Anshuman’s talk reflected on two particular rights from the UDHR – articles 18 (freedom of religion) and 19 (freedom of opinion). He argued that ultimately freedom of expression has prior legitimacy over freedom of religion in dominant public discourses by popular cultural figures. Indeed, Kenan Malik has discussed how freedom of expression is the foundation of liberty on which everything rests. Anshuman detailed the nuances involved in considerations of the difference between criticalness towards religion and hatred and how to disentangle the person from the beliefs. In particular, the idea of religious identity needs to be interrogated in order to see the slippage between racial and religious identity. Furthermore, we need to inspect how the myth that people chose their religious identity rationally, that it is voluntary rather than affectively experienced and socially constituted, also reveals the limits of secular liberal beliefs. Drawing on recent debates about multiculturalism, Anshuman concluded that the framing of laws based on human rights needs to take into account the ways they might exclude some groups of people whose religious identity is akin to racial identity. The concept of religion, therefore, needs to be enlarged to include wider ideas of social belonging. Questions following the talk included issues of how the concept of blasphemy shows secularism to be Christianised, and the idea of the good/bad Muslim where Sufism is held up as the acceptable type of Islam by cultural figures such as Rushdie.
All in all, the symposium opened up many avenues of discussion based in examples and issues from around the world. It was a thoroughly successful and interesting event that responded to pressing conversations happening in the UK and internationally.