WTF Friday, 7/25/2014

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Wednesday to establish an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Israel during its current Gaza offensive. Of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor, 1 (the U.S.) against, and 17 abstained.

Gaza vote

UNHRC Gaza votes

Four months ago, I was in the Council chamber as another probe into possible war crimes was debated. Here is the outcome of voting on that resolution, which established an international investigation into alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009:

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

Notice anything?

With the exception of a handful of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries, almost everyone has flipped their position.

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes. In March, I heard numerous Western countries stress the legal obligation to provide justice for international crimes and the duty of the Council to stand with the victims of human rights abuses. I heard non-Western countries object categorically to “country-specific” resolutions (i.e. initiatives that single out a country for censure or investigation without its consent) and emphasize that the Council must respect sovereign governments and avoid an interventionist approach.

This week, it appeared that none of these positions were particularly deeply held.

*Photos of the vote board are courtesy of the United Nations office at Geneva.

WTF Friday, 5/30/2014

Today’s WTF Friday comes to us from India, which has had yet another high-profile rape and murder. (If this keeps up, we’re going to have to introduce an “India: Land of Rape and Elephants” tag for the blog.)

The event itself was horrific: Two young girls from the Dalit caste, sisters aged 14 and 15, were found hanging from mango trees in a forest after being raped near Badaun, Uttar Pradesh.  But the circumstances surrounding the crime are what elevate it to true WTF status.

Circumstance the first: Police Involvement. Allegedly, one police constable was directly involved in the crime, while others at the local police station refused to lodge a report or investigate, even though the girls’ father reported the attack shortly after the girls were taken.  NOT GREAT, guys.

Circumstance the second: Rape as Retribution. The Times of India reported that the girls’ rape and murder may have been intended as retribution against their community, for daring to protest previous rapes committed by the same higher-caste assailants. The newspaper compared the violence to “the medieval times when feudal lords committed gory crimes to reaffirm their hold over the commoners.”  Hard to disagree.

Circumstance the third: Ugh, Politicians. Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, mocked journalists for daring to ask questions about the attack. “Aren’t you safe? You’re not facing any danger, are you?” he reportedly replied to journalists in Lucknow. “Then why are you worried? What’s it to you?”  Which makes sense, of course, because journalists usually only report on issues that are, at that moment, posing a direct danger to them personally.* Way to show sensitivity and leadership during a time of crisis, dude.


*On the other hand, if reporters did follow that rule, there might be more material like this discussion of whether Osama Bin Laden posed a threat to reporter Jim Rutenberg’s dog, (“[i]t was unclear whether Bush was referring to a specific and credible threat to Little Bear or merely indicating there was increased “chatter in the system” about chow chows in general”), which remains my favorite thing ever published by the Washington Post. So that’s something to consider.

WTF Friday, 5/23/2014

Ah, Britain.

That clammy island nation has given me so much: my husband, my first deep-fried Mars Bar, an unexpected quantity of master’s degrees. (Even, for a time, a job scaring tourists into unconsciousness. Youth!) But even though the UK and I are besties, I can’t give it a pass on this week’s bit of WTF-ery.

You see, it has come to my attention that UKIP gained more than 150 council seats in the local UK elections this week. According to the BBC, polls project that they would have taken 17% in a national election, if it were held today. That seems quite excessive.

“Why,” you ask, “what is a UKIP“?

That would be the UK Independence party, whose political platform is composed largely of xenophobic fear-mongering about “migrants” coming to the UK. Some highlights from their recent political escapades:

  • That time when UKIP distributed a flyer claiming that the EU was going to allow “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK,” a surprising claim given that the most recent World Bank statistics peg those countries’ entire populations at 7.3 million and 20.08 million, respectively. (In case you’re wondering, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to Britain has not, in fact, turned out to be more than the total combined citizenry of both nations.)
  • That time when their party leader, Nigel Farage, told the Guardian that British people should “be wary of Romanians moving into their streets,” because of the immigrants’ “culture of criminality.”
  • That time when the UKIP MP candidate for Leicester South explained that he thought Islam was “morally flawed and degenerate,” and that “the increase of Islam in the UK is going to be a problem for the welfare state.”
  • That time when the UKIP candidate for East Sussex claimed that “The Second World Wide War was engineered by the Zionist jews and financed by the bankers to make the general public all over the world to feel so guilty and outraged by the Holocaust that a treaty would be signed to create the State of Israel as we know it today.”

Oh, okay then.

Seriously, British local-elections voters, WTF?

Towards a Unified Theory of Celebrity Activism (With Bonus Advice For Scarlett Johansson)

In the course of thinking far too much about celebrity activism, I have come to the conclusion that the most successful celebrity-activism projects are those in which stars pick their causes the same way that they pick their scripts.

Think about it: George Clooney’s work with The Enough Project might as well be the humanitarian remake of Ocean’s 11, with Prendergast as Brad Pitt, Prendergast’s hair as Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle as Don Cheadle. UN Goodwill Ambassadorships are the charitable equivalent of Oscar bait, projecting gravitas and award-worthiness, so is it any wonder that Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts have signed on? And Ben Affleck is primarily interested in projects that he can direct and star in, so it’s fitting that he struck out on his own to found the Eastern Congo Initiative.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Stars pick their film projects because they suit their skills and personalities, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pick their charities the same way. Indeed, an actor’s star power will be most helpful if the cause ties comfortably into the narrative of the star’s films, red-carpet appearance, love life, and vacations. (Angelina Jolie is the undisputed master of this, having now come full circle to make a film drawing on her advocacy work, instead of the other way around.) Things go less well when a celeb chooses a cause that is out of step with her actual interests (think Madonna’s ill-fated adventures in Malawi) or is famous for something that just doesn’t translate comfortably into a humanitarian cause (it didn’t take long for the subtext of Downton-era British imperialism to become the text of Elizabeth McGovern’s disastrous trip to Sierra Leone with World Vision).

Perhaps that’s a silver lining for Scarlett Johansson, who has been sacked as an Oxfam Global Ambassador after accepting a gig as a paid spokesperson for the controversial SodaStream. Oxfam is the equivalent of a quirky British rom-com. If it were a film, it would be Love Actually, or perhaps The Girl In the Cafe (And by “would be,” I of course mean “literally was,” given that the former featured Alan Rickman working in an anti-poverty organization that might as well have been called Londfam, the latter was – honest to god – a love story set amongst attempts to convince the G8 to alleviate African poverty.) Scarlett Johansson, it goes without saying, would have no business being in either of those movies.

So – assuming that her embrace of Sodastream has not rendered her a permanent pariah, ScarJo should choose a new NGO partner whose work fits more closely with her other projects. Her sweet spot is the sophisticated indie drama, and her most career-making roles – from Girl with a Pearl Earring to Her – are muses, characters who inspire those around them, rather than the character the story is about. (I would argue that Lost in Translation fits that same theory, but with a more meta twist, as it is a movie about how Sophia Coppola’s own experiences inspired her to make Lost in Translation, with Johansson in the Coppola role – Johansson’s fictional past Coppola as muse to the present real Coppola.) If she follows the theory I set out above, then her next charitable collaboration should tap into that same narrative.

My suggestion is PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression around the world. Making the world safer for writers to tell their stories is a solidly Scarlett Johansson role, and it could lend further gravitas to her status as the thinking man’s manic pixie dream girl. She should wait for the Sodastream thing to die down (or, you know, just stop shilling for a product that takes advantage of an undemocratic and oppressive occupation), and then have her people call PEN’s people.

If Scarlett’s lucky, maybe some day Sophia Coppola will make a movie about how Scarlett’s selfless work saved a young Chinese dissident from prison, and then inspired him to write his Nobel-prize-winning novel about space robots who collect animals’ dreams and redistribute them to humans.

That movie would probably star Zoe Kazan, though.

Activism Wednesday: Pussy Riot, Part 2

While I don’t intend Activist Wednesday to be all Pussy Riot, all the time, I think we can all agree that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s performance on the Colbert Report last night deserves to be featured on this blog.

Highlights include their views on leadership (“We have different ideas about a bright future, and we don’t want a shirtless man on a horse leading us into that future”); their ability to control their narrative (when Colbert joked that he was going to edit out any critical comments about Putin, they replied, without missing a beat, that they were making their own tape of the interview – and good luck confiscating it, because “we have two years of experience hiding things from searches”), and their thoughts on their own release from prison (“we don’t think it was a very successful PR stunt. Maybe Putin made a mistake, and should just throw us back in jail”).

Watch for yourself. Part One:

Part Two:

Activist(s) of the Week: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Today’s Activists of the Week are Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, the recently-freed members of Pussy Riot who now advocate for prison reform in Russia.

Nature of activism: Currently focused on prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia, previously various protests in support of freedom of expression and civil and political rights

Activism highlights:

Participated in the 2007 “fuck for the heir Puppy bear” public-sex protest at the State Biology Museum in Moscow, while heavily pregnant (Tolokonnikova). As part of Pussy Riot, staged guerilla performances of punk protest songs, including the “punk prayer” performance in February 2012 that led to her arrest and imprisonment. Since their release, has advocated for prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia.

Notable Sacrifices: Imprisonment in Russian labor camps, where the living was decidedly not easy:

“Their high profile afforded some protection in prison—Alyokhina was not forced to work the extremely long hours of other inmates—but it also drew much unwanted attention. Prison authorities tried to ensure they were both isolated and scared; they threatened other inmates with retribution for associating with the women, whom they perceived as potential troublemakers, and rewarded them for harassing the Pussy Riot convicts. Alyokhina was threatened with bodily harm within days of landing in her dorm at a penal colony in the Urals in December 2012; she asked to be placed in protective solitary confinement.

Protective solitary differs from punitive solitary in name only — it is the same place, so cold that no amount of warm clothing can remove the chill. The fight for warmth is one of many battles for a semblance of physical comfort and human dignity that inmates face on a daily basis. Tolokonnikova and her lawyers battled the authorities for several long winter months before she was allowed to wear a warm kerchief instead of a chintz one; she fought a similar battle to wear warm boots in winter and light shoes in summer instead of the prison-issue shapeless plastic footwear, in which feet either freeze or swelter. The privilege of wearing what are known as “civilian” shoes was regularly revoked as punishment, not only for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova themselves but for other inmates, with the clear purpose of pitting the larger prison population against the activists.”

Got a nomination for the Activist of the Week? Email me!