Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Individual versus Collective Rights

One class I am taking during my last quarter at DU (almost done!) is the Discrimination, Minorities, and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the major focus of the course is the debate on individual versus group, or collective, rights. Human rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, refer to rights as applied to individuals by virtue of being human. Therefore, opponents to the idea of collective rights argue that since individuals are human and individuals are the ones who comprise a group, there is no need to make a distinction between individuals and groups. All individuals, regardless of the group they belong to, are subject to the human rights as outlined in major international documents. On the other side, proponents to the idea of collective rights emphasize that there is often a failure to recognize and celebrate differences among distinct populations and as a result, certain groups consistently have their rights violated. These certain groups must then be afforded additional protections to make sure their rights as individuals, and as group members, are protected.

While I am able to understand the position on each side, I see the problem elsewhere. The issue is not whether human rights belong to individuals, to groups, or to both; the major issue is who falls under the category of a human. The reason certain people are consistently discriminated against is the fact that dominant groups often do not see them as fully humans. If someone is not viewed as completely human, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, age, or nationality, that someone will not be regarded as deserving the rights afforded to humans. She will be treated as less than human and so will the entire group she belongs to. If that individual’s rights are not respected, why should we expect that the rights of the group she belongs to will be respected? 

In my opinion, a focus on the debate about individual versus collective rights and on creating additional conventions and documents to protect these is a focus away from the real issue. Therefore, even though international documents on human rights are important to the further recognition of these rights, much more needs to be done in order for all people to be regarded as human and treated as such. 

-       Krasi

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Women's Representation

On January 11, 2013, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced that he is granting women 20 percent quota to the Shura Council, the legislative body that advises the king on matters pertaining to the country. This decision translates into 30 women in the previously all-male body. This decree is seen as the first step, albeit a small one, toward the ultimate goal of women suffrage and guaranteed women’s rights. King Abdullah has further declared that during the next municipal elections in 2015, women will be able to vote as well as run for office. Even with having each country grant women the right to vote, however, barriers still exist that prevent women from being nominated, running for, and being elected for a political office. With a few exceptions, primarily the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland), Belgium, and the Netherlands, most states have a long road to cover before women could have an equal chance of being nominated and elected for political office, and specifically for a leadership position, such as the President or the Prime Minister. 

Around the world, the numbers of women entering political elections and winning leadership positions are certainly at an all time high. According to the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (2013), the percentage of women heads of state is 42% in Europe, 23% in the Americas, 19% in Sub Saharan Africa, 16% in Asia, and 5% in the Arab World. Despite the increased number of elected women during the last several decades, however, it is evident that there is still a huge gap in terms of women’s political representation between countries in which women have the opportunities to advance and countries that still present both formal and informal barriers to women’s empowerment and success in the realm of politics. 

Several different approaches have been utilized to examine this persistent phenomenon in attempt to determine the variables with the greatest impact. A plethora of studies in the field focuses on the significant influence of institutional variables, such as the type of the electoral system and the presence of gender quotas in parties’ recruitment process.  Others have emphasized the role of structural variables as shaping the likelihood of female presence on the political scene. Some of the variables mentioned in that category often include the socioeconomic status of women and the number of women with professional careers in fields such as law or journalism. And yet a third group of scholars center on the significant effects of political culture on increasing or decreasing women’s chances of running for and winning an election. 

While it seems that proponents of the political culture approach have focused on the impact of culture in specific areas in the world, namely the Arab World and other restrictive in terms of women’s rights governments, I think it is of utmost importance to note the impact of culture and attitudes toward women in the developed Western world as well. While some nations, such as the Scandinavian countries, are leaders in respect to female political leadership, others, such the United States and France, are trailing behind. Even when women are in terms of law equal to men and have equal access to political offices, it is clear that beliefs about the nature of women, as not aggressive or rational enough to handle politics, impact the likelihood of women to be elected to higher political offices. In countries in which personal characteristics matter in a potential candidate, women tend to run for office in limited numbers if at all. The United States is a great example. It is clear that the representation in the media of female and male politicians is quite different. It has been argued that masculine characteristics are valued in the realm of politics and women either will not be elected because they are not aggressive enough or will be targeted for not acting as ‘proper’ women if they do behave in what is deemed “a masculine manner”. 

If those emphasizing the importance of factors that are part of the formal institutions in a state, such as electoral systems and types of quota, are correct, addressing the issue would be perhaps easier than addressing factors that are part of the informal structure of the state or political culture factors. The impact of personal characteristics and the influence of the traditional culture are hard to bypass and a paradigm shift is necessary for the beliefs and attitudes of those involved to change. More women in politics and a change in the treatment of these women - by other politicians, by the media, and most importantly by the general public - might result in an equal representation. Changing formal institutions, however costly and difficult it might be, is perhaps easier to imagine and implement than changing the informal institutions or the political culture of a state. 

If political culture is indeed what determines the likelihood of women running and being elected for office, then the road to addressing and targeting the barriers to such achievements will be hard to travel. If we take the Scandinavian countries as an example, it is well-documented that it took several decades for women to reach the level of high political representation in these countries. And even in these countries complete gender quality in politics has not yet been reached. I am not sure if women in other nations would like to wait decades before such equal representation is achieved. As such, I completely support organizations, such as MissRepresentation, that aim at changing the political culture as well as the beliefs of the general public toward women in politics in the hope of achieving a society in which one’s gender is irrelevant to the job position of a political leader. 

 - Krasi

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sherpa People of the Himalayas

On May 29, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first people to summit all the 29,035 feet of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Following their successful attempt, the region and its people to whom Norgay belonged became a fascination that prompted many to study the culture of the Sherpas. Initially, the interest came mostly from the mountaineering field and a few anthropologists, but subsequently, men and women from all walks of life, with a taste for adventure and the finances to afford it, started pouring into the area, which until recently had been accessible only to a selected few. Prior to the 1953 expedition, the Sherpas were largely unknown to the world, and those who had come in contact with mountaineers were simply regarded as “coolies” or porters who deserved no further mention. Even after the success of Hillary and Norgay, no one paid attention to the rest of the team, most of them Sherpas carrying the needed equipment, without whom the success would not have been possible. It is the obsession of Westerners with individualism and individual achievement that often prevents them from acknowledging the commitment and hard work of an entire team for a successful climb to the summit of Everest to take place. What is really important is the person who made it to the top, not the people who helped him along the way.

The quest for adventure in the most extreme of conditions is definitely sweeping throughout the world and young and old enthusiasts, women and men, seek and pay for the promise of experiencing the highest high in their lives. Of all the adventure sports, however, high-altitude mountaineering is by far one of the riskiest and most perilous sports. Even though special skills and equipment have significantly improved the chances of eager mountaineers to reach the summit of the highest mountains in the world, the success (or failure) of the whole endeavor ultimately depends on the weather conditions and the behavior of the mountain. Hidden crevasses and unstable ice could jeopardize or take the life of the human scaling up or down them in a matter of seconds. In addition, the elevation offers a different danger in the form of altitude sickness.

Considering the numerous dangers awaiting those taking up a contest against the mountain, it is no surprise that the Sherpas traditionally expressed not only reverence but also fear toward the behemoth. For Westerners, the fear and demoralization present in Sherpas were embarrassing and as a result, the Sherpas were often labeled as childish and immature, which, needless to say, did not improve the unequal relationship between the two groups.  From the Sherpa point of view, frostbite and avalanches meant death and leaving a family without an extra hand. To survive in the regions they inhabited, they had to learn to be aware of the hidden dangers of the mountain. The Westerners valued Sherpas’ physical strengths and adaptability, but they could not deal with their apparent lack of mountaineering spirit. This was a perfect example of people who did not understand the mountain judging the people of the mountain.

In addition to being dangerous, mountaineering is also a very expensive sport and it is often people who belonged to a certain social class that could afford to leave their normal lives behind and endure the uncomfortable conditions of a serious mountaineering expedition. It is also such people that are most disillusioned with their ordinary lives and sought the excitement of testing their limits and endangering their lives in order to finally feel alive. As Sherry Ortner illustrates, mountaineering emerged in response to modernity and this is why it is largely a 20-century phenomenon. There is something about modern life spent in monochromatic, regimented, routinized, and boring existence that pushes one to see escape and feel human again. Ortner writes, “the spirituality and transcendence of mountaineering contrasts with the crass materialism and pragmatism of modern life”. Life in the Western world is full of meaningless noise, the concept of busyness, the ultimate power of father time, characteristics which leave a person unable to stop and reflect, to commune with the self, nature, or a higher being. As a climber of the fifties illustrates: When I return to what is called civilization and find myself once again in crowded, bustling cities, jostled by men and women whose minds are warped by famous illusions, I experience a sense of dismay, a sense of uneasiness; I feel I should like to escape, to run away at once to some distant land, to return into the midst of simple, humble, primitive people—best of all, to return to one of the those barren wastes where man can be alone with himself and his God.

For the Sherpas, on the other hand, the mountain was their life. Day after day, their “routine” involved going up and down hills at 14,000 feet elevation to work, to survive. The mountain was not a source for excitement and adventure; for them, the mountain was a source of peace, and serenity, and harmony. Moreover, they knew the mountain does not appreciate pretence and while in the busy modern world, one is able to hide his true self, to hide his true faults and downsides, in the mountain, the true self is exposed and that allows one to be open and content, just like the Sherpas.

To refer back to the story of the first summit of Everest, Tenzing Norgay was the precedent that set the stage for other Sherpas to follow suit and show the world that they can do what Westerners can do just as successfully, and perhaps even more successfully. They are not the only ones, however, interested in the behemoth of a mountain. As Tashi Tenzing highlights, while fifty years ago the region was largely accessible only to experienced mountaineers interested in testing their abilities, in the present, anyone with enough money to afford a commercial expedition is now set to conquering Everest. Unfortunately, these are often amateurs with little respect for the mountain or the magnitude of the climb, and the Sherpas are astonished at their arrogance and belief in invincibility. For these “climbers,” the mountain is just a thing that can be conquered with the proper equipment by the almighty humans. Sherpas know better. They know that the mountain can be dangerous, tricky, and unforgiving and they respect it. They realize the importance of living in harmony with nature and even with modernization seeping into their lives, they have managed to keep their culture and traditions. However, while Tenzing remains optimistic about the impact popular tourism has had on the region, others warn that in its quest for global domination, the grip of materialism and consumerism might soon wipe out another traditional society. Only the future will show which group of analysts are right. 

- Krasi

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sexual Abuse by Humanitarian Actors

During the last decade, the world has seen its fair share of devastating disasters, both natural and man-made. Despite the negative impact of humanitarian disasters on all civilians involved, women, adolescent girls, and children hold a special place of vulnerability and regularly, without effort, find themselves in a position of extreme defenselessness and become exposed to abuse from both their country-men and those there to protect them. Long after a disaster hits a certain area, the region remains devastated and people lose all sense of civility and compassion. The suffering of the affected population persists and is in some cases exacerbated by those whose expressed purpose is to assist the people in need. Women in conflict and post-disaster regions lack the protection of a family, stable society and justice and often become commodities that anyone who has access to them can exploit for their own gratification. 

One of the core standards of the Sphere Project refers to the performance of aid workers, and a specific key action under that standard is that the organization needs to “establish codes of personal conduct for aid workers that protect disaster-affected people from sexual abuse, corruption, exploitation and other viola­tions of people’s human rights”. Respect for the affected population is vital to the success of the program targeting the amelioration of the conditions in which the affected individuals find themselves after a disaster or conflict. While many humanitarian actors live up to their name and contribute to the establishment of safe environments and the protection of vulnerable populations, a review initiated by the Executive Committees on Humanitarian Affairs and Peace and Security (ECHA/ECPS) Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) and completed in 2010 by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) reveals that there are many others who have instead been complicit in the abuse of those they are there to protect. Furthermore, the report found that even in cases in which policies were established, the implementation, adherence to, and acceptance of these policies was found to have been minimal. 

This is, in my opinion, a serious issue that demands a resolution if the field of humanitarian assistance is to establish credibility. The work of humanitarian actors deserves the attention of both the agencies that employ them and the general public that is interested in ensuring that their donations or tax money are not used for the further exploitation of those who have lost so much. Even in the second decade of the 21st century, disasters and conflicts continue to plague many around the world. As such, it is clear that humanitarian operations are here to stay as a vital part of modern relief efforts. Therefore, actions need to be taken to evaluate operations and demand changes where necessary. In order to properly and successfully address the issue of sexual abuse by humanitarian actors, organizations engaged in humanitarian work must be required to complete an assessment of their programs with a specific focus on the issue at hand and mandated to implement recommendations for the eradication of the problem. 

- Krasi