Category Archives: Sofia Lotto Persio

Controversial Nobel Peace prizes were still a human rights victory

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THE NOBEL PEACE Prize Committee once again recognised the dedication of individuals in standing up for peace and human rights, after two years of celebrating institutions. This year’s focus was on children’s rights. Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai were jointly awarded the Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Kailash Satyarthi has been leading the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Children Movement) in India since 1980. Together with a group of 80,000 volunteers, he liberated more than 78,000 children from labour exploitation, as he denounced than many more – tens of millions –  are still used in some form of labour or almost slavery.

Malala Yousafzai is a campaigner for girls’ education. At 11 years of age, she was contributing to the BBC Urdu language service, describing life in her home region of Swat, Pakistan, which was under the Taliban’s control. She documented the Taliban’s crackdown on music, culture and education for girls. She became known worldwide in 2012, when the Taliban attempted to murder her by shooting her in the head. She has since received medical care in the UK, where she presently resides with her family after having received asylum. At 17, she is the youngest ever Nobel laureate, and became the fourteenth woman to win the Peace Prize since 1901.

While this year’s victory is not as extravagant as Al Gore’s in 2007 or Barack Obama’s in 2009, not everyone agreed with the Nobel Committee decisions. Supporters of other nominees, notably Edward Snowden, were disappointed. Others are not fully convinced by Malala’s victory because it is not about “peace” or because she is seen as an opportunity for the West to reiterate the narrative of the evil savages while remaining silent about the damaged caused by their wars and drone strikes.

Despite Western media focusing on some of the things Malala says, while understating her Muslim and Socialist convictions, Malala remains a remarkable, deserving Peace Prize winner. Whatever the West’s depiction, she does and says what she believes is right – not what she thinks will please people’s ears. When she opposed the Taliban’s regime, it was her own initiative: there was no “West” to protect her. She proved herself to be an inspirational young woman, taking charge of her own destiny and standing up to those who tried to silenced her. Her honesty, bravery and compassion, in spite of what she’s suffered, is worthy of respect and recognition.

Most importantly, this year’s Peace Prize has to be understood as a union of both Malala and Mr. Satyarthi. Focusing on Malala only not only diminishes the impressive work that Mr. Satyarthi has carried out, but also is missing the point of the award. The Committee specifically selected a man and a woman, a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, a younger and an older person. This was to send the powerful message: that anyone can do something to improve people’s lives, and promote peace and development.  The education of children is a fundamental step in building peace in and across nations: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” read the motivation.

Is this a Western narrative? Is it too political? The Nobel is a Western institution, it will most certainly look at the world from a Western perspective, especially when choosing prizes for their less scientific categories like Literature and Peace. These prizes are very often politically motivated, and mostly tend to “pander to their audience and honour worldwide harmony” as the satirical website The Onion mockingly described it. This year, the political motivation was to bring closer two activists involved in similar struggles in two neighbouring countries facing tensions and a not-so-frozen border conflict. It was a message of unity in face of divisions.

Many more years will have to go by before an institution like the Nobel Committee will acknowledge the noble efforts of those who have tried to make the US accountable for their actions. That time will come, one day. For now, let us celebrate and be inspired by two people who also fight against powerful forces exploiting the innocents. The recognition of those who are standing up to oppressors and improving the lives of others is always a cause for celebration.

 

Written by Sofia Lotto Persio

Image: screenshot from The Nobel Prize’s Twitter account

From Tolerance to Detachment: How the Dutch Policy is Failing Asylum Seekers

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We continues our series of articles on refugees, this time looking at concrete countries’ cases, starting with the Netherlands.

The Dutch treatment of asylum seekers has come under fire. A German court in Darmstadt decided against the deportation of a Somali asylum seeker to the Netherlands, as the risk of inhumane treatment is too high.

The man saw his application for asylum rejected in the Netherlands, and then went to Germany. There the authorities tried to deport him under the Dublin III Regulation, which states refugees have to apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrive, and should be sent back to that country if they try applying elsewhere. The German court decided against deportation claiming that the Netherlands cannot provide basic necessities such as shelter and food.

Though the ruling is not very common, precedents exist. In 2012, a German court ruled against the deportation of a Palestinian family to Italy due to the poor conditions the refugees experienced, living without shelter or reliable access to food, water and electricity. Also in 2012, recognising the extremely difficult situation of refugees in Greece, German authorities imposed a moratorium on deportations, which have been halted by German courts on several occasions.

Yet, this is the first time such a ruling affects Germany’s neighbouring country, the champion of tolerance and respect for human rights the Netherlands prides itself to be. The State Secretary for Security and Justice Fred Teeven’s lack of action in facing the deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers in the country is hardly worth of this reputation.

The Dutch way

Dutch law states that immigrants seeking asylum should not be denied entry into the country; they can however be subject to lengthy detention while their asylum claims are processed.

Amnesty International describes these detention centers as similar to regular prisons. The organisation claims migrants and (rejected) asylum-seekers are held under a regime described as ‘harsh’ and even ‘inhumane,’ denouncing ineffective procedures for investigating ill treatment, as well as poor access to medical care and to lawyers, and humiliating routine procedures like invasive body searches.

Human rights are fundamentally guaranteed in the Netherlands, but the Dutch history of dealing with asylum seekers remains controversial. Until the 1970s, the Dutch immigration policies were considered lenient. However, when it became clear that the immigrants arriving in the country were going to stay permanently, the country’s migration policies became increasingly restrictive. At the same time, the number of detention centers increased. In 2005 a fire in the Schiphol Airport detention facility that killed several detainees sparked a public debate over the conditions of such structures. In the next few years, reforms were set to improve the asylum seekers’ conditions: main goal was to make detention centres safer, reduce the time of detention, and provide families with children with alternative facilities.

All talk little action

These measures feature prominently on the Justice ministry’s website. Yet, as of today, asylum seekers are still not allowed to work in the Netherlands during the first nine months of their arrival, and they receive no financial support by the government. Following the suicide of the Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov in the beginning of 2013, Teeven promised the immigration service would adopt a more humane approach to asylum seekers: “What happened is extremely sad,” Teeven told Amnesty International in an extensive interview, “If you put someone in unjustified detention and don’t even take care of this person, then you have a big problem.” Despite Teeven’s recognition of the problem, the suicides have not stopped. The latest, in April, was an Armenian asylum seeker with a mental illness who was denied medical support. His lawyer Eva van den Hombergh told the Dutch newspaper NRC that not enough had been done to humanise the asylum seekers’ conditions: “IND [Immigration and Naturalisation Service] simply followed procedures, without any attention to his problems.”

She is not the only one concerned with the current state of asylum seekers’ conditions. Dorine Manson, director of Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, and Eduard Nazarski, director of Amnesty International, wrote a column in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant last April reminding Teeven to keep his promises. They thought little improvement happened despite the positive headline on the ministerial website: “It’s an extra hour of sports activities here and a few hours more spent outside the cell there,” they claimed, adding that the detention centers still effectively work as prisons, the full body searches still occur, and that it will be at least another year before even the smallest changes will be implemented. “Meanwhile detention is the reality for many, including vulnerable groups like children or people with serious physical or mental problems,” they wrote.

Teeven admitted that detention centers could be better, yet according to him, the situation is not that bleak as the activists see it: “I don’t think [detention] is a hotel and it’s not even close to that. It is not a pleasure at all, but we do treat people well in detention.” In the detention centers, refugees are provided with food and shelter while their claim for asylum is being processed.

However, if their claim is rejected and they refuse to go home, they can be evicted from refugee centres and left to fend for themselves. In Summer 2012, asylum seekers from Iraq were denied staying in the Netherlands as the war was officially over and Iraq was considered ‘safe’. With the Dutch authorities denying documents, and Iraq not accepting forced returns, these people were left in a limbo. Many former refugees had nothing to go back to, so they staged protests all over the Netherlands, which ended that December when police in different municipalities forcefully dismantled the camps they had set up. Since then, they have been cared for by an organisation called Vluchtkerk, which survives thanks to the help of people’s donations of blankets, food supplies, and other basic necessities, but it is not a sustainable situation. In October last year, the European Committee of Social Rights ruled that the Netherlands had to provide shelter, food and clothing even to the rejected asylum seekers in the country. However, Teeven has so far refused to do so unless children are involved.

A better policy

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), the Dutch treatment of asylum seekers is outdated. They suggest that the Netherlands take an example from Sweden. The latter tries to avoid the detention of asylum seekers, as they are not serving a sentence. According the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, in 2012 only Sweden received almost 44.000 asylum requests, five times more than the Netherlands. However, Sweden detains a much lower number of people, for an average stay of 12 days, whereas in the Netherlands the average in 70 days. The Swedes also have a more “human” regime. In their detention, people have the key to their own room. They are not inspected and are allowed to receive visits daily. They can have their own mobile phone and have internet access. Also, they can order groceries from the local store and are free to move around the gardens at any time. “In Sweden they are very reluctant when it come to detention. The Netherlands and Sweden really differ on this point,”Teeven told Amnesty International, simply accepting the difference between the countries.

Improvements in asylum seekers’ conditions require strong political will and motivation. Teeven downplayed the German ruling to “an isolated case” from which one “could not derive general conclusions about the Dutch System.” The only concession he is willing to consider is unlikely to significantly change the current situation: “Asylum seekers could have unpaid jobs at asylum centers, like mowing the lawn. Then they would make a useful contribution to society, but giving them a work permit would be too excessive,” Teeven said. But as even the European Council’s High Commissioner for Human Rights joined the Dutch detention centers’ critics, Teeven may have to reconsider his priorities before other negative rulings decry the country’s human rights record.

By Sofia Lotto Persio and Lotte Kamphuis

Illustration: Tjebbe van Tijen – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7141213@N04/8656682733

Looking the other way will not make the migrants disappear

 

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One year after the tragedy at Lampedusa, Pandeia remembers what led to it, and runs a week of articles dedicated to refugees. Our opening article takes a deeper look at the EU’s refugee policies.

THE SINKING OF a migrant boat off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 was the most deadly shipwreck, but wasn’t the first nor the last to occur in the Mediterranean Sea. The tragedy sent a strong signal to the EU that it was time to rethink its immigration policy. Yet, a year since the tragedy, a new report from Amnesty International suggests that not enough has been done to prevent new deaths at sea.

Immigration policies are one of the most divisive issues in the EU. Partially due to nationalistic sentiments, most governments are reluctant to negotiate policies allowing a higher number of migrants to cross the borders into their countries, despite the increasing influx of immigrants due to conflicts and famines in the Middle East and Africa.

Struggle within the EU

The EU commissioner for interior affairs Cecilia Malmström called for an EU rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea a week after the Lampedusa tragedy. The plan would have involved the EU’s border agency Frontex in an operation covering the Mediterranean shores in an effort to track, identify and, if necessary, rescue migrant boats. As The Guardian wrote at the time, Italy, one of the main recipients of migrant boats, repeatedly called for more EU help to control the migration influx. Still, Malmström’s call failed to receive much support from the 28 Member States. While the Italian interior minister reminded that those are not just Italy’s, but EU’s borders, too, the German interior minister instead claimed that other EU countries are doing their part by hosting a great number of asylum seekers. He also warned that most migrants are seeking better economic conditions, rather than escaping adversarial political conditions at home.

Italy and Germany’s positions are emblematic of the arguments dividing the Member States: the countries receiving migrants on their shores ask for increased support in patrolling the sea, while the countries hosting most asylum-seekers claim they are playing their part already.

In the past year, more than 130,000 refugees and migrants irregularly crossed Europe’s southern borders by sea. Nearly all of them have been rescued by the Italian Navy, writes Amnesty International. In ‘receiving countries’, like Italy, many migrants that are detained, waiting to be identified and for their their claims to be addressed. During this process they have to live in inadequate centres which cannot offer them decent conditions.

This did not seem to concern Germany’s interior minister, whose attempt at differentiating between ‘economic’ migrants and political refugees suggested that the EU is unable (or unwilling) to accommodate migrants looking for better living conditions. His argument also disregarded the difficulties in distinguishing between economic and political adversities in countries affected by wars and famine, and even then, it does not propose solutions to control the inevitable migratory movements.

This tension plays against the background of the Dublin Regulation, now at its third update, which criminalises those who provide help to struggling migrants, and places the responsibility of refugee claims on the country where the migrant is first identified. This effectively fuels illegal immigration and human trafficking within the EU as migrants seek to reach countries more “asylum-friendly” than the one where they arrive. A group of Italian filmmakers captured the absurdity in this legislation in a documentary called “On the Bride’s Side” in which they staged a wedding convoy travelling from Italy to Sweden to allow five people fleeing from the Syrian conflict to ask for asylum there.

A solution to immigration issues won’t be easy to find. Member States agreeing to prioritise the dignity of migrants’ lives in their policy-making, as expected by an institution winning the Nobel Peace Prize, would undoubtedly be a good first step in that direction.

By Sofia Lotto Persio.

Photo: Noborder Network

We’ve had enough – Ched Evans’ petition means standing against rape

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ONE OF PANDEIA’S  senior editors and co-founders Sean Gibson published
this piece yesterday commenting on the petition against convicted rapist Ched Evans’ return to football. His concerns are not entirely convincing.

Ched Evans was a Sheffield United footballer until one day he was found guilty of raping a girl. He was sentences to five years and was recently released from jail after serving half his sentence.

He is back with his girlfriend, Natasha Massey, daughter of a millionaire businessman, and he has expressed his wish to return to football, his apologies to his girlfriend, but no apology whatsoever to his victim.

Ched Evans has always proclaimed himself innocent. The case is quite complex, here you can find a detailed description of the claims and of how the jury reached its verdict, for those who want more context. The jury’s decision was based on the idea that the 19 year old with whom Evans had intercourse was too intoxicated to be able to fully express consent – and the absence of consent implies rape. Evans’ refusal to admit guilt, or even a simple sign of remorse, is a sign of him not having recognised or understood the nature of his crime.

This is ultimately what worries those people, more than 150 thousands of them, who signed the petition against Evans’ return to Sheffield United. It is not a case of mob-rule, or a matter of a parents outsourcing their responsibilities, but a community’s expression of concern over the reinstatement of an unrepentant rapist to a position of prestige within their community.

What infuriates people is not so much that footballers, or athletes in general, are “nouveau-riche wankers” but that these “nouveau-rich wankers” get away with things unlike a normal citizen. It’s the idea that anyone with enough money and fans can rape a 19 year old, serve only half of his sentence, and then go back to his privileged life as if nothing happened.

Rape, like sexual violence and abuse, is a vicious crime that the victim can never fully put behind. The trauma of the abuse suffered is a scar that may only eventually heal with time and therapy, at a great emotional cost. The 19 year old of the case in question has to live the rest of her life with the consequences of what happened.

The identity of the young woman was supposed to remain secret due to laws protecting the identity of rape claimants, but Evans’ fans revealed her identity on Twitter following the jury’s unanimous verdict. She was given a new identity, but her cover had been blown up another two times. Adopting a new identity means having to start a completely new life, in a new location, with a new job, without ever been able to talk about what is happening to anyone but your close family.

She is paying a high price for what happened. Evans might have been in jail for two years and a half, but she’ll live like a fugitive for the rest of her life. What kind of message does this send to other people who may get harassed, abused or raped by famous, powerful people? Sure, you can go ahead and press charges, but be aware that your life is going to be turned upside down and you may have to end up living under a false identity to protect yourself by angry Twitter mobs.

The alternative, to go on with your life and try putting this behind you, seems a lot more attractive. Only the idea of doing justice and potentially preventing the further perpetration of a crime can motivate a victim in going forward and pressing charges.

There is just so much that the justice system can do to right the wrongs the victims suffer. There is a lot that we, as a society, as a community, can do to help and support those who are undertaking the difficult path to justice. One of them is to stand up together against those who are in a position privileged enough to ignore the consequences of their actions. That we are finally taking the rape victims’ side is something to commend instead of condemn.

 

Written by: Sofia Lotto Persio

Photo: screenshot of the petition from change.org

Emma Watson’s speech was remarkable, but nowhere near game-changing

THINKING OF FEMINISM, how many see women marching in the streets compared to performing in TV shows and conferences? Feminism has usually been a bottom-up movement, its arguments brought to public attention by grass-roots activists. However, recently an increasing amount of celebrities have become spokespersons for the feminist cause. Beyoncé brought the word and its definition to the houses of millions of Americans (especially young Americans) during the VMAs last August, and last week Emma Watson delivered a powerful speech at the UN.

Given the hostility that many self-proclaimed feminists face online and in real life, the British actress recent speech at the UN was remarkable. Even if she did not speak for everyone, she spoke candidly and openly to everyone. Her speech was significant not just for the way it put feminism even more in the (positive) spotlight, but also because it touched upon a crucial, often debated issue in feminism, the role of men: “Gender equality is your issue, too,” she said.

Celebrities’ involvement does not fail to raise criticism, as they are accused to portray a more “mainstream” version of feminism than the one advocated by “radical” feminists. To some, Watson’s speech was diluting the essence of feminism, to others the idea of “HeforShe” reiterates the idea of women needing men’s support and protection. Yet, showing that men suffer from gender stereotyping does not necessarily mean prioritising their issues or putting them at the centre of the movement, it simply means showing that feminism is a movement that men too can and should embrace. Watson firmly called for ceasing to see gender as binary, and appreciate it as a spectrum instead.

Her words are fair, her intentions are good, and she should receive the media attention that she has, but she’d probably be the first one to reject the idea of being a “game-changer.” In fact, many of what some magazines consider her “best quotes” are things that a lot of people have been saying for a lot of time already. Given the audience and the attention receive, Watson actually missed an opportunity to properly discuss the issue at the heart of the fight for gender equality worldwide: the idea of privilege, both in terms of gender, and also in terms of social class.

Watson started one of her sentences with the words “I am from Britain…” and went on to explain how lucky she was to grow up in a society that valued her development as much as that of a man. The emphasis on her country of birth was problematic because it suggested that the Britain, a developed, Western country, was somewhat of an oasis of equal opportunities. Having access to equal opportunities though, is often not a matter of where you are born, but of which family you are born into.

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In fact, while many so-called developed countries, including the UK and the USA, face gender inequality issues of their own, high barriers to good education, health services, and good jobs hardly allow the same opportunities to all citizens. Ms. Watson comes from a background that allowed her to attend private schools and receive the best and most exciting possible education. Actually, children born out of prosperous families in developing or less developed countries also share these same privileges. If Ms. Watson had been born from a family of a different social background, this may not have been the case, or her path to success would have likely been steeper.

The acclaimed “genius response” of the 15 year old boy who wrote a letter to The Telegraph in support of Watson’s speech is no better in this sense. Its opening sentence is “We are lucky to live in a Western world where women can speak out against stereotypes.” Granted, he’s only 15 years old, but even then, he should consider what happens to those women, in the West as in everywhere else in the world, who speak out against stereotypes. They get bullied, they get harassed, they suffer violence. Some women in fact are not that free to speak out to begin with. Not everyone is a Beyoncé, or an Emma Watson.

The recognition of privilege and the fight against it is essential in moving towards a more equal society, one that truly grants equal opportunities in the sexes and within those sexes, too. Emma Watson’s speech is a timid step in that direction, but hopefully one that will encourage more and more people to look at these issues, and to move on from there to dismantle the ubiquitous system of inequality together. That, is what feminism is all about.

Written by Sofia Lotto Persio
Picture Credits: UN Women Gallery 

You’re ‘against’ Feminism? Let’s think about that

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We need to re-contextualise feminism in order to stop spreading nasty rumours about it.

Believe it or not, but a bunch of young women decided to join a Tumblr campaign called Women Against Feminism, started by an anonymous creator. The website features different women photographing themselves with a piece of writing that explains why they do not need feminism.

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As Ruby Hamad on DailyLife.au beautifully explains in 5 succinct examples, these women are a confirmation of the fact that feminism is needed and, in some cases, has actually won battles.

All seemed well and harmony was restored in the online debate. Despite this Miles1984 felt the need to write this comment in response to Ruby’s article:

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Mark these words, dear reader, because this is the quintessential argument against feminism, or, in fact, any kind of movement fighting to achieve equal rights in a struggle with a dominant social class. Perhaps it will be useful to better understand the misinformation and ignorance in Miles1984’s opinion if we changed it around and replaced feminism with “civil rights movement.”

Feminism is in essence a civil rights movement, though the latter became associated mostly with the fight of African-Americans to demand the end of separatism and equality between ‘races’ and the protection of everyone’s rights, not only white people’s. Feminism’s fight is similar as, between other things, it aims at ending discrimination on the basis of gender and the protection of everyone’s rights, not just male’s.

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Admittedly, the “between other things” remain a bit of a blurry and fuzzy cloud of all sorts of claims made by all sorts of definitions of feminists. Feminists do not agree between themselves on a many issues, like pornography, sex workers, etc., but still a common area can definitely be found on the idea of ending gender-based discrimination. Just like the African-American civil right’s movement struggle to end race-based discrimination.

Miles1984’s comment in relation to African-American civil rights movement would sound like this:

“Civil rights movement does NOT represent all African-American people and never actually has. Civil rights movement can only really speak for African American civil rights activists, NOT for all African American people. Civil rights movement is not truly about equality. It fights for African-American people’s rights, not really white people’s. Sure there may be some side issues that are put behind white people’s issues. But African-American civil rights movement cares for African-American people. It does not give priority to both races. It is not equal. It is as divisive as its name. I don’t see much future for civil rights movement, tbh.” – Ridiculous, right?

Feminism is not a political ideology. It fights for all women’s rights. Not all women may decide to make use of laws allowing them to fight in the military’s frontline, but a few of them wanted to do so, and then were allowed to do so because of an ongoing fight to give women the same employment opportunities as men.

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Feminism does not fight for men’s rights in the same way as African-American civil rights movement were not fighting for white people’s rights, but a) white people were still welcome to join civil rights movement and protest just as much as males are welcome to support feminism and b) feminism’s fight for women’s rights will also produce benefits for men as it is a widely accepted economic principle that more empowered women will contribute to society’s growth and development.

And let’s get one last thing straight, no matter what the Women Against Feminism or Shailene Woodley may think: feminists do not hate men nor do they want to ‘take their power away’. Feminists condemn the patriarchy, which is an abstract concept to indicate society’s norms and customs that discriminate against women. Enforcers of the patriarchy are, in fact, both men and women, yet feminists do not hate these people, they merely think that their actions are detrimental to a vast percentage of the world’s population.

So if feminism is eventually just a movement for societal change as much as the civil rights movement, why does it have such a bad reputation? Is it because of angry women who were burning bras a few decades ago? And what exactly was wrong with that? Women did and do have a right to be angry just like any other part of society which sees itself diminish, discriminated, and in some cases even threatened by the dominant group – just like African-American people were ( and to some extent, still are). Some resorted to violent action, like those who joined the Black Panthers. As far as I know, feminism on all its forms has, to this day, remained peaceful. That’s because feminists, contrary to some people’s beliefs, do not hate other human beings.

When Caroline Criado Perez started a campaign to have more women featured on British currency, she did not hate the Bank of England, or her own country. She simply thought that not enough women were sufficiently commemorated on the British banknotes.

Jane Austen is expected to replace Charles Darwin in 2017. But no one hates Charles Darwin or belittles what he has accomplished. Figures on banknotes periodically change. It is time to remind the world that women have a place in our countries’ histories, too. Otherwise, we may run the risk of people forgetting about their contributions and taking for granted the rights we continue to enjoy because of their work.

By Sofia Lotto Persio
Photo Credits:Knight_Before and women against feminism tumblr

Refusing choice of birth control to employees is not ok

IT SEEMS SILLY in 2014 to still have to explain why an employee’s right to choose her contraceptive has to be protected. Yet, recent events show that this is still not an accepted and respected principle.

 

The Supreme Court of the United States, creatively called SCOTUS in Washington slang, ruled on June 30 that Hobby Lobby, a company with more than 500 shops across the USA owned by hardcore Christian Green family, has the right to refuse paying for certain kinds of contraception under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to its employees if these contrast its religious beliefs. The ACA already allows an opt-out option to non-profit and religious organisations.

 

The sentence on the case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., was approved with a majority 5-4, with all female judges voting against it. It effectively allows for-profit companies to refuse coverage of healthcare plans on religious grounds, and could be use as a precedent to actually opt out of any other law, except tax laws, were it to interfere with religious beliefs.

 

This ruling carries heavy economic, political and cultural implications, and none of these are good news for those who do believe in freedom of choice. Under the ACA, contraception is seen as a necessary provision included in the healthcare plan employers have to guarantee their workers. The reasons for this seem obvious, as family planning is not only beneficial for the economy, but it also protects a woman’s health, allowing her autonomy in deciding what to do with her life, and effectively decreases the number of abortions, since contraception prevents unwanted pregnancies. Not all contraceptive are the same, however, and some people have a hard time understanding this.

 

The birth control pill is one of the most common form of contraceptive but it is not the only option, and it does not suit everyone. Other women prefer IUDs, which are instead inserted internally to prevent fertilisation of the egg. Those, along with the morning after pill, are part of those contraceptive opposed by Christian believers, including Hobby Lobby ‘s owners, because they are “abortifacient,” as in they expel the fertilised egg to prevent pregnancy, a fact absolutely not supported by science.

 

In fact, all contraceptive, including the morning after pill, work with the principle of preventing the attachment of the egg to the uterus wall, which may or may not happen even when having unprotected sex. The religious grounds to reject contraception are, from a scientific perspective, virtually non-existent, unless the real matter at hand is not abortion, but having sex for reasons other than procreation.

 

Let’s get one thing straight: women of all ages and relationship status use some form of contraception when they are sexually active, fertile and want to avoid pregnancy or using condoms. Providing the free contraception of choice is not about helping 18 years old sleeping around, but it means helping 40 years old women with two children working two jobs to enjoy a healthy relationship with their husbands without having to worry about putting into this world a new mouth to feed.

 

It is simply not acceptable for a for-profit company to refuse women their right to choose the most suitable form of contraception. The SCOTUS ruling allows a private, money-making business to dictate employees’ individual, private choices. Internet commentators on conservative websites pointed out that Hobby Lobby is not an evil company, but actually offers a minimum wage higher than the national one – a whole 14$ an hour instead of 7.25$, and suggest that the negative comments regarding the ruling are negatively affecting the image of a company that does hold its employees’ best interests as high as its religious principles.

 

Apparently, employee meetings start with a prayer from the Bible, and interpersonal conflict are solved by looking at the Bible, and generally speaking the Green family runs its business according to principles in the Bible. No doubt that a book written more than two thousand years ago is a great blueprint to run a business in the digital 21st century world, but it is unclear how highlighting the ways in which the Green family imposes its religious beliefs on its employees does much to defend its image.

 

Regardless, offering a higher minimum wage than normal is not a reason to look the other way when basic individual rights and freedoms are at stake. Workers’ rights in the US are much less protected than in Europe, but there should be at least an understanding that working for a company does not mean embracing the company’s values as your own just because they pay you at the end of the month.

 

You are not selling your soul, you are merely employing your skills for the profit of a business. Your job should not define who you are and what you do when you are not working there. Having your boss decide whether you have access to healthcare plan is pretty much the farthest thing there is to ensure human dignity and justice.

Written by Sofia Lotto Persio
Image credit: American Life League 

Cross-section Euroscepticism

Xesc Arbona

Xesc Arbona

Euroscepticism and the far-right were on everyone’s lips ahead of the elections last week. However, while the anti-EU parties certainly made gains across Europe not all countries sent such a strong message to the European parliament.

Three countries who were all expected to send a strong anti-EU message all had different results. Italy, the Netherlands and the UK all voted and had different reactions to the expected wave of support for the Eurosceptics.

Italy: A victory for the mainstream

40.8 per cent of the vote went to the center-left Democratic Party (PD) of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Five Star Movement (M5S), facing its first European election, emerged as the second biggest party, with about 21 per cent of the votes, followed by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which still manages to convince 16 per cent of the voters. The left-wing Italian list supporting Tsipras’ “Other Europe” scores a modest 4 per cent, still enough to send three MEPs to Strasbourg.

Palazzo Chigi

Palazzo Chigi

Even in Italy, the Democratic Party’s (PD) striking victory came as a surprise, as media and pollsters had predicted a close run between their party and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). For the PD, a party which was born in 2007 from the union of Social and Christian Democrats, this is a record victory in its history and the second biggest in the history of modern Italy.

The party is also the biggest winner in Europe, winning 31 seats, even more than Merkel’s CDU in Germany, which took 29. This is an incredible result considering PD’s reputation as a “loser” party, especially following the Pyrrhic victory achieved in the 2013 national parliamentary elections. This was when Bersani did win a majority, but was unable to form a government coalition. It’s strange to see such election results following those events.

One key factor is Matteo Renzi. Disliked by the hardcore left for being too centrist, Renzi’s charisma conquered instead the moderate voters who are not anti-immigration like Salvini’s Northern League, who agree with the capitalist market system unlike Tsipras’ Other Europe, who are honest unlike Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and who dislike Grillo’s Five Star Movement’s loud and simplistic slogans.

Despite not having accomplished many of the promises he made upon becoming Prime Minister, Renzi’s aura of optimism and “can-do” attitude, so reminiscent of 1994 Berlusconi, is well received by the Italian electorate who simply cannot resist the charm of a leader presenting himself as a natural born winner.

The Democratic Party was also the only party in Italy belonging to the European Socialist Party, supporting Martin Schulz’s bid for EU Commissioner. Instead, the M5S refused to support a candidate to the Commission or join an existing parliamentary group, declining Marine Le Pen’s invitation. However, a parliamentary group needs to have at least 25 members from at least seven countries, so the M5S’s members would have just sat between those in the  “mixed group,” thus leaving them with limited influence. In a European election, voting for a party is more than expressing a preference at the national level, and people voting PD might have recognised that.

Renzi is likely to seek a prestigious role for Italy in the new EP, perhaps with an Italian becoming President of the European Parliament (the post previously occupied by Martin Schulz) or in the future Commission. In July, Renzi will also become President of the European Council as Italy takes over the leadership from Greece. This may be the time for a stronger Italian influence in Europe. But as in Italy, politics always comes second to football, in the next month Italians will look at Brazil: if the azzurri win the World Cup, Renzi’s popularity may soar way above 40%.

By Sofia Lotto Persio

Netherlands: Geert Wilders’ stumbles

Roel Wijnants

Roel Wijnants

Dutch political parties had 26 seats to sort during the elections last week. Ahead of the elections, the battle seemed to centre around a pro-European and an anti-European party: D66 (Democrats) and the PVV  the far-right, party led by Geert Wilders. However, exit polls showed that it was the Christian Democrats of the CDA that came out ahead. Thanks to an alliance with other Dutch Christian parties, the CDA won an additional fifth seat, whereas D66 and PVV obtained four each. D66 gained a seat, while PVV lost one compared to the 2009 elections. Another winner is the PvdD, the Party for Animals. For the first time in history, a party that focuses on animal rights gained a seat in the European Parliament.

Wilders’ PVV joined forces with the French Front Nationale, but as the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant suggests, it remains to be seen if these two parties can find other allies in the European Parliament. The British UKIP and the Italian populist party run by Beppe Grillo are not interested in joining Front Nationale in an anti-European alliance. De Volkskrant quotes its EU correspondent in saying that “experience shows that among this kind of [anti-European] parties, egos are slightly bigger than election victories.”

By Lisanne Oldekamp

United Kingdom: Farage humiliates the establishment

In stark comparison to the election results in Italy and the Netherlands, there has been a sharp rise in support for the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which won over 30 per cent of the popular vote.

European Parliament

European Parliament

This was a remarkable election and has rattled a few cages among the main parties in the UK. The Conservatives have criticised Europe and some of their MPs have called for a promised referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union to be brought forward.

Meanwhile, the centre-left parties of Labour and the Liberal Democrats had mixed fortunes. The Labour party narrowly beat the Conservatives to second place, but remained a long way behind UKIP. The Liberal Democrats suffered a massive defeat losing ten of their eleven MEPs and falling into fifth place behind the much smaller, a less well-funded Green Party.

The rise in support for UKIP has been blamed on the inability of British political parties to represent ordinary people following the financial crisis and tough austerity measures which has squeezed many in the UK. This has also been linked to a rise in anti-EU rhetoric among the main parties, most notably the Conservatives, as UKIP begins to steal voters from the main three parties.

Another important factor is the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, who has managed to portray himself as an ordinary person who knows what the electorate want. Criticisms have been made of this image – both regarding Farage’s privileged past and his parties electoral policies which are strongly right wing – however the protest vote appears to believe the message he has to say.

The long term impact of these results is unclear, but Britain’s relationship with the EU looks set to be a key point of contention heading into the 2015 General Election and beyond.

In Scotland, the SNP continued their electoral dominance winning the majority of the popular vote. However, in a shock result UKIP was successful enough in Scotland to win enough votes for a representative from Scotland.

By Greg Bianchi

While these elections are certainly a turning point in the European Parliament’s relationship with its citizens, the division between European countries is stark. The anti-EU movement has grown, yet it failed to record the large wins it was predicting across the European Union. This will provide the EU with some comfort, but the future composition of the union is still up for debate.

 

 

Why does everyone hate the EU?

Rock Cohen

Rock Cohen

THE BEAUTY OF democracy is that for every idea there will be someone opposing it and proposing something different. In the European election this dynamic is obviously at play. Each country can count between its parties at least a nationalist, if not totally Eurosceptic party.

Ironically enough, this is yet another aspect uniting some Europeans across the union: their apparent dislike of the EU. Some commentators think this election will see the largest number of Eurosceptic party members occupying seats in the Parliament, even though the exit polls in the Netherlands, where voting occurred on Thursday, show an unexpected slump of Wilder’s Freedom Party, which is aiming to forge an alliance with Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

Whereas each party colours its agenda with nationalistic tints, the core issues that the parties propose in their programme are similar across countries. They blame the EU for the crisis, they want less immigration, less EU involvement in national affairs, oppose further integration, and in some instances even reject gay rights.

We chose to look at four countries to have a better idea of what kind of Eurosceptic forces.

 

Boyan Yurukov

Boyan Yurukov

 BULGARIA

According to the latest Eurobarometer research, Bulgarian society is fairly optimistic about the future of the European Union, with positive votes of up to 60 per cent. Public opinion in the country has repeatedly  equated the EU with a bright future, low rates of unemployment and general prosperity, yet nationalist and Eurosceptic parties are a presence in the country, and provide Bulgarian media with news stories every day.  Two of the most prominent nationalistic parties are Attack (Aтака) and Bulgaria without Censorship (България без цензура). The two parties were respectively created in 2005 and in 2014, and the leaders of both are  well-known faces. Volen Siderov, the leader of Attack, had his own TV show before launching the party, while Barekov was the morning newsreader for one of the biggest TV stations in Bulgaria.

Being around for a longer time, Attack is a well-known party to anyone who has followed the country’s political life in the past ten years. Hardly a day passes without Siderov making a controversial speech which  reverberates in the media. The party relies on nationalistic rhetoric, often disregarding or even openly attacking ethnic, gender and religious minorities in the country. The party’s European Parliament election  manifesto proclaims Christian values, demands equal pay for Bulgarian and French farmers, and condemns gay-marriages, interracial relations and paedophilia. Another priority is “stopping the flood of Islamic aliens  from entering the EU.”  Social opinion polls from April says Attack will win between 3 and 5 per cent of the votes in the European Parliament elections.

In contrast, Barekov’s party, although only several months-old, has already gathered momentum with an estimated support ranging from around 5 up to 14 per cent. Created at the beginning of this year, BWC started  with an ambitious proposal for an initiative suggestively named “Clean Hands”. Its aim is to create a new institution to trace down the origins of any property belonging to the political elite. The party argues for income-based taxation, decentralisation of local authorities, free tablets for students and free health-care for children up to 7 years old. Bulgaria Without Censorship also demands minimal pay according to EU’s standards, reviving the country’s railway system with EU funds and halving the number of MPs in the Bulgarian parliament. For the elections on May 25th, BWC formed a coalition with three of the oldest, but less-popular parties: the oldest nationalist political party in Bulgaria – IMRO, the National Agrarian Union, and the Movement Gergyovden.

European Parliament

European Parliament

Lesser known Eurosceptic parties include the Communist Union and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), which is a splinter group from Attack. The Communist Union argues for leaving the EU, while NFSB criticises the structure of the agglomeration. Both parties didn’t receive the necessary minimum of votes to enter parliament at the last national elections.

Petya Yankova

UNITED KINGDOM

Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have dominated the run up to the European elections. The party has grown to represent a genuine electoral challenge on the right of UK politics – mostly by advocating strong anti-EU rhetoric. Farage has managed to portray himself as a genuine alternative to the Westminster elite and has taken votes from all major parties, but most notably the Conservative Party.

The Conservatives are expected to suffer in the European and UK local elections as a result of this with some opinion polls even putting UKIP in first position. This has forced a shift to the right in the discourse of British politics, most notably over the issue of immigration and the question of the UK’s membership of the EU. The Conservatives backed stricter immigration rules over the lifting of labour restrictions on migrants from Bulgaria and Romania. Furthermore, they have promised an ‘in-out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if they are re-elected and gain a majority in 2015.

This is all the result of UKIP, who have managed to tempt disenfranchised voters from the traditional Conservative Party and as such are expected to perform particularly well in these European elections.

Greg Bianchi

 

 

EU Exposed

EU Exposed

POLAND

The Polish National Movement was born during the independence marches that took part in Warsaw to celebrate Poland’s independence day on 11 November each year since 2010. It’s a broad coalition of nationalist organisations. Their main election slogan is “Radical change”. Nevertheless, EU topics do not dominate the political claims. The National Movement tries to present itself as the only credible eurosceptic political force – contrasting with the old ones of (as they say) “Lisbon right”. They stand-up for Europe of free nations, similar to the French Front National and Austrian Freedom Party.  They have links with the far-right, ultra-nationalist Hungarian Jobbik party. In the past they even exchanged some European Parliamentary candidates – a Hungarian candidate in Poland and a Polish one in Hungary.

They also advocate a firmer defence of Polish national interests, especially in such fields as ecology and energy – mainly the Energy Package that might harm Poland as the biggest coal producer and consumer in the EU. They also campaign on social and ideological issues such as multiculturalism, LGBT, and gender. Finally, they want to renounce the Lisbon Treaty and oppose federalist tendencies in EU integration.

Ziemowit Jóźwik

Matteo

Matteo

ITALY

The eurosceptic voter finds quite a diverse range of choice in Italy. Hit by the crisis, affected by three government changes in a little more than a year, suspicious of being somehow  manipulated by Germany, many Italians look at the EU with disaffection. On the whole, right wing parties have taken up the initiative to denounce what they see as Brussels’ interference  in Italian politics; even Prime Minister Matteo Renzi himself has lent his voice to the choir of people dissatisfied with EU policies. In all these eurosceptic voices, the former comedian-  turned political leader Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is most distinct, despite rejecting the label of eurosceptic and calling itself “the only truly European force in Italy”.

 

The party is not quite as xenophobic and anti-EU as the Northern League, which is similar to Wilders’ and Marine Le Pen’s parties. However, the Five Star Movement gathers support from  voters of all sides of the political spectrum proposing an Italy with a stronger voice in the EU and less financial control and austerity. The party proposes the adoption of the ‘Eurobond’ and rejects the fiscal compact and even  calls for a referendum over staying in the Eurozone – they have been advocating for going back to the lira. This is a referendum which, according to Italian law, cannot be valid. This is because financial matters are not subjected to popular consultation according the Constitution. It is fair to say that the Five Star Movement is against the Euro more than against the EU, but as the party has not defined a clear position on many issues, like border security and immigration, furthermore it has not forged an alliance with any existing European party. They represent an interesting player in the European parliament, a Jolly that can be used both for and against the EU.

Sofia Lotto Persio

Collation by: Sofia Lotto Persio

 

Taiwanese Students Take to the Streets: ‘Everything Is A Black Box’

Taiwan protest, 2006

Taiwan protest, 2006

TAIWANESE students have flocked to the streets to protest a recently passed trade agreement. 

While Chinese President, Xi Jinping, faced little resistance at home or abroad over a trade agreement with Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou found himself unable to ignore the Taiwanese students. For the first time in a long time, they are voicing their anger and dissatisfaction with the government through massive demonstrations. On a weekend afternoon that would normally see Taipei residents stare at assorted cute paper pandas on Liberty Square (as some still did), the real action was happening just a block away. In the centre of the city, a large group of students continued an unprecedented occupation of the national parliament which had been going on for more than two weeks.

Friday evening, when young people usually fill neon-lit shopping streets, the stores appeared empty as young people flooded the streets surrounding the parliament for the eleventh day in a row, that prolonged a sit-in that has effectively deterred police from entering and clearing the parliament. As various professors from Taipei universities were lecturing in the streets, flood lights illuminated streamers and banners suspended from the broken windows and doors through which protesters entered parliament and supplied the protesters. No end to the siege was in sight. Sunday marked a milestone in the protest when at least a hundred thousand Taiwanese, more according to other sources, filled the avenues around the presidential office in a mass demonstration nothing short of spectacular.

“Revoke the treaty! Safeguard democracy! Scrutinise legislation! Oppose the black box!” the protesters chanted as they carried the symbol of the Sunflower Movement. Outside of Taiwan, there is still considerable confusion as to what this movement is about.

Proximity of China and Taiwan

Proximity of China and Taiwan

A special situation

Many foreign publications have dryly remarked that China quite openly aspires to appropriate the island state that itself and until very recently claimed to ‘own’ China. This fact alone should make any agreement with China problematic. The first significant trade deal in 2010 famously sparked a physical fight in parliament in which at least one legislator was hit with a clock and transported to a local hospital.

Some people in Taiwan, as well as some abroad, see any rapprochement between the countries leading to unification, such as Xunyu, 25, who has been helping out as staff at the protest for almost two weeks now: “We are Taiwanese, not Chinese. I would always oppose an agreement.”

However, Xunyu represents only a minority. The focus on China and Taiwan’s relations hides the fact that, in reality (predominantly for domestic reasons) these protests have spun out of control, and authorities have been very hesitant to react and use force. A poll by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly shows more than 50 per cent of respondents are against the treaty. In fact, most people are not simply opposed to trade agreements with China, they are opposed to what they call the ‘black box’, or the opaqueness of Taiwanese politics and the undemocratic way the Nationalist Party (KMT) decided to ratify the treaty in “less than 30 seconds”, as the protesters claim.

Taiwan Parliament 2 ‘Everything is a black box’

  For Xiaoyun, 19, this is her first protest. She is camping in the open air against the barbed wire of the barricades with her    boyfriend  Youwei, also 19, who is doing homework as required by the protests’ leaders so students do not get behind on their  education. Like  many, Xiaoyun still lives with her parents, who now discuss politics at home and support her. “Everything is a  black box,” she says.  “Yes, I fear China, but I am actually really worried about the way this has been pushed through.”

At the beginning of the process, ruling party KMT promised to review every clause of the agreement in cooperation with the  opposition Democratic People’s Party (DPP). When instead the KMT decided to promptly withdraw from the talks and pass the  agreement in a hurried vote, many people felt betrayed. “The government never explained anything well to the people and has  only insisted on the good points,” says Ziyan, 25, who works at the smartphone producer HTC. Her colleague Cheying, 25, thinks  that she would “surely benefit from the treaty,” but that this not the point. “What we want is procedural democracy,” she says. “I want them to protect small business and vulnerable people better,” adds Ziyan.

The protesters demands include: special regulations for the ratification of future treaties, that the treaty will be revoked and modified to better protect vulnerable people and industries, and lastly constitutional reform.

This last complaint is especially sensitive in Taiwanese society, as President Ma Ying-jeou appears to be acting on China’s behalf, which is perceived as a service to  the enemy power. His approval rating has been extremely low for a long time, and ‘Ma 9%’, as the nickname goes, is speculated to be targeting history books rather than news reports in desperate search of accomplishment. The president is an important political force in Taiwan, and many blame him personally for not explaining the treaty, showing instead a defensive attitude that leaves little hope for a compromise.

More than a student movement

Originally a radical student movement for Taiwanese measures has evolved into protesters breaking into the parliament and turning it upside down. They have garnered support from diverse sections of society, in a country still heavily influenced by Confucian deference and not accustomed to violence. Most of them admit that at least one parent actively supports their cause. Tsang-chiang, DPP councillor on Kinmen Island, less than two kilometres off the Chinese coast, has flown in with his two children just to join the protest. Many appear to understand that the issues at hand matter especially to the young, who are concerned about becoming part of China one day.

Taiwan protests 2Currently, Taiwanese students graduate into the labour market of an ageing society where low economic growth has meant stagnating wages, while prices have increased and housing property is increasingly hard to obtain for newcomers. While promising much-needed economic growth, the current agreement threatens to make property values jump, as mainland Chinese would be able to buy apartments in Taiwan. According to many observers this would help investment banks and real estate sectors, while exposing vulnerable industries to Chinese competition and influence. Many Taiwanese fear that their country, which has excellent, though hard to finance collective health insurance and other social policies, will become a more unequal society.

Politics at play

The case of the Taiwanese trade agreement is a classic example of far reaching policies that are negotiated in the twilight zone of international diplomacy rather than in the arena of national politics. Taiwanese citizens feel vulnerable in negotiating an agreement with an economic giant like China without any backup of a larger trade block, such as the EU or ASEAN.

The Taiwanese black box may not be opened any time soon, but protesters like Alice are not easily discouraged in their newly found political engagement: “I don’t think our government is afraid of anything any more. They know this is just a very temporary outburst of people. But even though I know things might not change, I still want to stand up.”

By Shir Bashi, Sofia Lotto Persio

Pictures: Paul Chang (Anti-Chen protest), Planet Observer (China and Taiwan satellite image), Jimmy Tseng (Protesters scaling parliament), Y.J. Wang (Female protesters with banners).