The limits of freedom of expression

As a Franco-American with strong ties to both cultures, I’ve always struggled a bit to reconcile what “freedom of expression” means in my two countries. While I’m – of course – a firm believer in freedom of expression (part and parcel of being a liberal/progressive), I did not grow up in a country where politicians and opinion leaders could lash out terrible racist or homophobic epithets with no consequences. In the United States, however, I am consistently shocked and angered by some of the stories I come across. Like this:

A South Carolina lawmaker on Thursday called a Republican gubernatorial candidate of Indian descent a “raghead,” saying we have one in the White House, we don’t need one in the governor’s mansion.

Or, this, which is down right infuriating:

An Arizona elementary school mural featuring the faces of kids who attend the school has been the subject of constant daytime drive-by racist screaming, from adults, as well as a radio talk-show campaign (by an actual city councilman, who has an AM talk-radio show) to remove the black student’s face from the mural, and now the school principal has ordered the faces of the Latino and Black students pictured on the school wall to be repainted as light-skinned children.
(emphasis in the original article)

Neither of these stories are particularly different from the hundreds of other stories of racism and intolerance. I think, as Americans, we’ve become numb to this, in spite of the fact that it’s completely outrageous and unacceptable that in 2010, in a supposedly modern and free America, people are still being vilified for their race, creed or sexual orientation – without any consequences.

Freedom of expression is a thorny issue, with deep philosophical implications, and I won’t take attempt to take on this subject in this blog – partly because I have not really made up my mind about my own views as to what freedom of expression should look like.

What I do know, though, is that I tend to prefer the French approach. In France, a 1990 law was passed to criminalize the denial of crimes against humanity. Publications or public expressions of support for these crimes are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. This meant that Holocaust deniers could no longer publicize their views, and, if they did, would be charged under this law. I’m sure many Americans recoil at the notion that people’s opinions cannot all be shared with the public – regardless of how offensive, outrageous and wrong they are. Another law, passed in 2004, “makes sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbids job discrimination against homosexuals.”

In my mind, while these laws represent restrictions to freedom of expression, they are also the sign of a society that has the moral courage to distinguish between right and wrong. I also believe these laws – while they do curb people’s individual freedom of expression – actually promote another type of freedom: that of the individual not to be discriminated against, belittled or victimized by bigots. I’ve always marveled at the stories out of the United States where neo-Nazis are prancing around denying the Holocaust, or talk-show radio hosts spewing their racist, intolerant venom. I don’t see what is so “free” about that.

In fact, just yesterday, French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux – well-known for his dislike of immigrants – was fined $900 “private insults of a racial nature.” While many in France are calling for his resignation, Hortefeux says he will appeal the decision. The New York Times recaps the incident which led to the fine:

The verdict comes nine months after Mr. Hortefeux was recorded on camera at an event in southwestern France on Sept. 5 making what to many sounded like anti-Arab remarks. The video, which was first posted on the Web site of Le Monde, shows the minister posing for a photo with a young party member of Arab origin when a woman in the crowd can be heard saying:

“Amine is a Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t work at all, then he does not fit the prototype at all,” Mr. Hortefeux is heard replying to general laughter.

Another female voice shouts: “He’s our little Arab.”

Mr. Hortefeux answers: “All the better. There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”

Seriously? Remember, this man is the Minister of Immigration. For French speakers, you can watch the video here.

I think it’s a real stretch to say freedom of expression is endangered in France, even though some members of the press who have clashed with Sarkozy and his administration might beg to differ. I see these laws, which protect individuals and groups from libel and discrimination, as necessary tools to fight against intolerance. When I read stories like the one about the Arizona school mural, I find it hard to believe that Americans continue to defend unbridled “freedom” of expression…

Outlaws

For people who flee violence and conflict and seek refuge across borders, pain and suffering does not necessarily end once their destination is reached. According to IRIN, as many as 46,000 Somali refugees are living in Kenya with an “unclear legal status.” (The Refugee Consortium of Kenya puts this number around 100,000.) For all intents and purposes, a refugee with an “unclear legal status” translates into “illegal”:

“Urban refugees live largely without material assistance or legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to police arrest at any time, and face high levels of xenophobia from the local population,” Okoro [from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said. “The challenges faced by urban refugees in Kenya falls within the broader issue of the ‘hidden’ urban humanitarian challenges.

“Confusion over the processing of legal status for urban refugees and fear of deportation is exposing more than 40,000 urban refugees to serious humanitarian challenges with significant protection issues,” she said. “Responding to protection issues for urban refugees is a challenge without a clearer and better plan for implementing legal status for urban refugees.”

“Illegal” refugees – as they are sometimes mistakenly called – cannot avail themselves of their legal rights as refugees, nor can they access educational or employment opportunities without risk of alerting the authorities. Another IRIN report from last week quotes the Kenyan commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration:

“The government has a duty to provide protection to refugees and this involves provision of shelter, food, health and medical care and education,” said Peter Kusimba, commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons. “These, however, are only provided to refugees with legal immigrant status or are mandated by the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to be in the camps.

“It would, however, be difficult to provide services to unregistered urban refugees because they wouldn’t come out for fear of arrest but we encourage them to come and apply for legal immigrant status so that they receive these services like everybody else,” he added.

Yes, I’m sure that the process of applying for legal immigrant status is simple, straight-forward and focused on protecting individuals…No wonder so many refugees linger in legal limbo.

International Women’s Day 2010

Today is the 100th year of International Women’s Day, and all over the interwebs, we are celebrating advances in women’s rights and decrying the obstacles still faced by women and girls everywhere. In a world where women still get attacked with acid; where girls are stoned to death for being raped; where, in certain places, not being born male is a handicap, I feel that the strides that have been made in the past century are still dwarfed by the challenges ahead.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist per se, but I do believe in the equality of men and women in every realm of life (except maybe in sports, fine). As an educated woman from France, I’ve been given every opportunity to realize my full potential, to take advantage of everything life has to offer. Being a woman, for me, has rarely been an hindrance – on the contrary, I’m fully conscious of the advantages that come with it. Professionally, I think I’ve encountered more young-ism than sexism. I credit my parents for having brought me up with solid values, and for providing an exemplary complementary partnership at home. My mother, a faithful reader of this blog, needs to be acknowledged here: in her ability to balance family life and career, in her relentless and vocal support for equality between men and women, she has always been an inspiration and a model.

Another source of inspiration for me has been the women of Liberia. The New York Times – fittingly – just published an article entitled about Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf “A Nation Full of Strong Women“, as part of their Female Factor series. I recently read Ma Ellen’s autobiography, “This Child Will Be Great“, in which her strength of character, intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination come across vividly. In her book, she acknowledges (somewhat in passing) the role that women played in helping her win the presidential election. I wish she had emphasized the critical role of women in the 2005 election, and in bringing an end to the 14 year conflict more than she did.

I’ve had the chance to meet some really incredible Liberian women, both in Liberia and in Ghana. Contrarily to what some may think, Liberia is a rather matriarchal society, where women make signficant economic, political and social contributions. Of course, as is often the case in poor places, women are still not on par with men: rape and violence against women are very real, and large, issues, and girls remain less educated than their male counterparts.

That being said, I’d like to focus on the commendable, inspiring actions undertaken by Liberian women. In particular, I wish to honor this International Women’s Day by recommending that you take an hour of your time to watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell“,a powerful documentary on the role of women in ending the war in Liberia. (I watched this documentary last year during the Vancouver International Film Festival, in the presence of the film maker and producer, as well as Lovetta Conto, a young lady who survived the war and is now engaged in supporting post-conflict development in her home country.) The women in this film are fearless leaders and peace-makers, the kind of people to draw inspiration and strength from. Seeing their determination in the face of adversity gives me a lot of hope: not only for the continued advancement of women’s rights, but also in the growing capacity of women to affirm themselves as leaders. For this 100th International Women’s Rights Day, my wish is that, 100 years from now, we no longer need to celebrate women, their achievements and their challenges on a specially dedicated day.

Here is the trailer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. PBS allows you to watch the full-length documentary for free; part 1 is here, part 2 is here.

Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change: Paradise Lost

Boy am I late in the game here…It’s not even *really* October 15th anymore, but hey. In any case, I’m really happy to contribute to Blog Action Day 09 (BAD09). If you haven’t heard of it, BAD09 is a great, simple initiative from our friends over at change.org. Basically, it’s “an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.” BAD organizers emphasize that the first and last purpose of BAD is to create a discussion – clearly, a blog post (or 10,000) can’t be the tipping point on an issue like climate change, which is not only broad and complex, but also divisive and polarizing. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I hope that this post will, at the very least, be thought provoking.

Few places in the world inspire awe like the beautiful atolls of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Their startling blue waters and white sandy beaches have inspired artists and attracted tourists since modern transportation has made these little pieces of paradise accessible. However, climate change has made these typically low-lying, coral protected islands atolls — such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or the Maldives — particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels, storm surges and the increased acidification of ocean waters, which contributes to the loss of coral reefs, are already threatening the livelihoods of these islands’ inhabitants. According to the Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

  • Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities
  • There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.

Studies from the University of Copenhagen (here and here) argue that island cultures have developed and refined coping mechanisms to handle variations in climate and habitat: storm surges, erosion and shifting sea levels are fundamental features of island life, and cultures have adapted to these realities. However, the current challenges posed by climate change patterns are so stark, that traditional coping strategies will likely not suffice:

Polynesian cultures on small islands in the Pacific have a long tradition for adapting to climate change and variability, as well as to changes in other factors, in order to maintain their culture and way of life. Current and future climate change constitutes, however, a qualitatively and quantitatively different set of challenges.

While there is still some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what the impact of current climate patterns will be on island atolls, there is a broad consensus that (i) these effects are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, a lot of it attributable to human activity and, (ii) that there is a strong chance that these islands will become unsuitable for people to live on. In fact, it is the very existence of island atolls that is at stake.

(Watch: Impact of Climate Change in the Pacific from Oxfam Australia on Vimeo.)

To draw attention to the threat faced by low-lying islands, the Maldives government will be holding an underwater cabinet meeting on October 17:

The president of the Maldives is desperate for the world to know how seriously his government takes the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to the survival of his country. He wants his ministers to know as well.

To this end, Mohamed Nasheed has organised an underwater cabinet meeting and told all his ministers to get in training for the sub-aqua session. Six metres beneath the surface, the ministers will ratify a treaty calling on other countries to cut greenhouse emissions.

pg-24-maldives-afp-_248191s
AFP/Getty

The Maldives, like other island atolls, may very well become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This raises a number of critical questions regarding the legal obligation of states to provide a territory to live on for its citizens. If entire island nations disappear, what then happens to its people, its culture? The Maldives government has been wrestling with this question, and is establising a sovereign wealth fund with revenues generated from tourism for the purchase of territory. President Nasheed said

Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.”We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.

In the Pacific, the Carteret Islands have become the poster child for the issue of climate related migration flows. The Carteret Islanders, a matrilineal community living on an island chain 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, have become the world’s first “climate refugees”. The government of Papua New Guinea has begun the evacuation, scheduled until 2020, of some 3,000 islanders.

While predictions vary as to the precise number of people around the world who will be forcibly displaced by climate related events, a commonly accepted figure is that an estimated 200-250 million people will have to migrate by 2050 as a result of climate change. According to Oxfam, 75 million of these people are living in poor islands and low-lying areas of the Pacific. And, as the evacuation of the Carteret Islands is a clear demonstration of, there is an urgent need to create legal safeguards for “climate refugees”.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 42 million displaced people in the world, 25 million of which are receiving assistance or protection from the agency. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which constitute a majority of the displaced (26 of 42 million) do not, in fact, fall under the mandate of the UNHCR de facto – the agency regroups certain IDPs, stateless persons and other special cases that do not fall under its strict, narrow mandate under the umbrella of “persons of concern.”

Migration and asylum-seeking due to climate change will likely be on the increase in the coming years, however, the UNHCR (or any other international organization, for that matter) does not have a mandate to protect or assist “climate refugees”. Legal and funding constraints mean that dealing with “climate refugees” will most likely not be a core UNHCR task.  Not only that, but there is currently a dearth of legislation (both international and national) that would guarantee the rights of people displaced by climate change. Rajesh Chhabara, writing for Climate Change Corp, explains:

Sources at UNHCR, who want to remain anonymous, add that UNHCR is not equipped or designed to handle hundreds of millions of refugees from climate change. It already finds its resources stressed in handling the 14.3 million political refugees in the world.

Clarifying UNHCR’s position, Yoichiro Tsuchida, UNHCR Senior Advisor on Climate Change, explains that the case for environment refugees is too complicated and disparate to fit within the current refugee framework. Justifying international migration due to natural disasters is difficult, as is the task of attributing environmental phenomena directly to climate change. “While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law,” she says.

Tsuchida claims that “the broader international human rights regime” should serve as the basis for guiding the responsibility of states towards people who are in need of international protection but who do not qualify for refugee status.

Elements of a response are being developed – Australia and New Zealand, whose small neighbors are sinking, are beginning to shape policy responses. New Zealand, for example, has a Pacific Access Category for migrants hailing from Pacific islands, a fast track, simplified immigration option. The Australian Labour Party published a policy paper in 2006, “Our Drowning Neighbours“, which outlines steps for Australia to take to assist Pacific islands. The paper includes recommendations regarding what sort of assistance Australia should provide Pacific islands to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as its responsibility as a leading voice for the advocacy of strong action internationally and locally to address climate change.

However, while these initiatives are necessary, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Some experts suggest that policy makers need to construe the inevitable migration flows resulting from climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. Indeed, while displaced people and migrants already suffer disproportionately from discrimination and difficulties in integration, it is critical for policy makers and governments to prepare us for increased and more complex migration flows. A paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009 argues:

There is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, in conjunction with income diversification, is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalisation. In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. Policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important for both adaptation and the achievement of broader development goals.

In addition to questions related to the development of an appropriate framework for managing migration due to climate change, the consequences of the impending disaster facing islanders is well summarized by Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. Of the displacement and relocation of islanders, she says: “It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said  “It is about your identity.”

Addressing climate change is more than just figuring out how and when a carbon tax is appropriate, or whether coal is clean or not. It will force us to grapple with very difficult and fundamental questions about the preservation of culture and civilizations.

One in eight

From the NYT Lens blog, “Showcase: from birth, death“:

Standing in the only operating room in the only medical hospital in all of Guinea-Bissau, Marco Vernaschi watched a nurse take an unsterile needle out of her pocket and, without anesthetic, suture a woman’s vagina after a difficult childbirth. The woman screamed. Mr. Vernaschi took a photograph. Moments later, she was required to walk out of the filthy room and go home.

The slideshow is not recommended for the faint hearted.

Amnesty International released a report today, calling the alarming rates of maternal and child mortality in Sierra Leone a “human rights emergency”, as one in eight women risk dying during pregnancy or childbirth.

According to USAID:

“Both maternal and child mortality rates in West Africa are among the highest in the world where outdated clinical, social, and cultural norms create obstacles to quality maternity services. It is estimated that for every woman who dies as a result of childbirth, at least thirty others are severely incapacitated from fistulae, chronic pelvic pain, and infertility. Poor sanitation and nutrition, along with inefficient health service management, put young children at risk of easily preventable illnesses.”

Gordon Brown is slated to announce millions of dollars of new funding to provide “free healthcare for millions more women and children in the developing world.” I wonder if this promise will go to rest in the great graveyard of broken promises. “Throwing money (with many strings attached) at the problem” has been the rich country M.O., requiring governments – like Sierra Leone’s – to spend inordinate amounts of time and resources proving to donors they can manage aid transparently. It takes months, years, for countries to turn around their public sectors and make their public health delivery systems functional.

Meanwhile, one in eight women in Sierra Leone faces the risk of death for becoming a mother – so how do we solve the “emergency” part of this equation?

One possibility could be training midwives and other pregnancy and child birth attendants in areas where access to clinics and health centers is limited. Many NGOs and agencies have the capacity to deploy such programs in a matter of weeks — pending funding. Africare was implemeting such a program last year in Liberia. I am cautiously hopeful that a renewed commitment to solve issues affecting women will create the political space necessary for emergency interventions to complement longer-term, more systemic efforts at improving the state of maternal and child health in West Africa.