Sunday, December 15, 2013

A previous post on human rights

Thanks to my friend Vishwanath for pointing out that I have blogged about Human Rights before - this had completely slipped my mind! In 2008, I attended a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton by Mary Robinson. On its 60th anniversary she touched on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights repeatedly and I was greatly impressed by her talk. You can read my 2008 blog post about it here.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hill of Madame Penh

Just before I left on vacation, a well-meaning colleague asked: “Cambodia? I mean, is that a place where people go?” Good question. Here’s my list of properties for a desirable tourist destination:

(i) culturally interesting and also beautiful – so one has a reason to go in the first place,
(ii) not on the map of mass tourism, like Phuket or Majorca – because then it's crowded with foreigners and doesn't feel authentic,
(iii) not totally devoid of tourists either, like Pyongyang or  Bishkek – because then you are lonely and feel you've ended up in the wrong place.

So yes, it has to be a place “where people go” but not too many, and I can testify that on these counts Cambodia qualifies perfectly. But don’t count on (ii) remaining true forever, as Phnom Penh, Battambang and Sihanoukville are destined to become huge tourist destinations  and Siem Reap is pretty much there already. In short, the best time to go to Cambodia is right now. Then again, if you do go in large numbers it will no longer remain as nice...

There are many similarities between Thailand and Cambodia – the predominantly Buddhist culture of self-discipline, the lemongrass and fish-paste-scented food, the script of their languages and the appearance of temples and palaces. The kings of both countries are highly educated, liberal, artistically inclined figures. Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an accomplished saxophonist and composer, nicknamed “The King of Jazz” (below you can see his picture on the side of a Bangkok building). Meanwhile, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni is a ballet dancer by training. (As an aside, Wikipedia tells us: Sihamoni remains a bachelor. His father Norodom Sihanouk has stated that Sihamoni "loves women as his sisters". Although Wikipedia does not develop the subject further, it's fairly clear what we are expected to conclude.)

 Both kings seem to be extremely popular, while the governments are much less so – Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra is heartily disliked by the urban populace, some of whom are currently trying to topple her government. And in Cambodia, a tour operator startled us by narrating over the PA system his frank opinions of controversial Prime Minister Hun Sen and his “2000 uneducated bodyguards” who he said were “responsible for the death of many of my fellow Khmer people”.

The similarities pretty much end here. Cambodia is far poorer than Thailand and is still recovering from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970’s when a couple of million people (a quarter of the population!) were tortured, maimed and killed. The Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh presents this history in the place where much of it happened (the building was first a school and then a Khmer Rouge prison). It's a chilling and depressing reminder of how barbarous human beings can be. (As a technical point, I don't think "genocide" is the correct word to describe the killings by the Khmer Rouge, but this hardly seems worth arguing over.)

Today Cambodians are averagely dressed and noticeably slimmer than the Thais, who – at least in Bangkok – have started manifesting very un-Asian signs of plumpness in consequence of their prosperity. Still, Phnom Penh is a charming and generally cheerful city. The endless green fields and occasional farmhouses that I saw from the plane when coming in to land made a perfect antidote to Bangkok, a city of office blocks, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and brothels - sometimes all in the same building. Phnom Penh is predominantly low-rise, though an ugly mega-hotel is coming up right across the river from the Royal Palace. On the 6-hour drive from there to Siem Reap I observed that villages were very clean, and villagers though modest were far from dirt poor. The houses were all very neat and propped up on stilts, some with beautiful exteriors of painted wood inlaid with blue windows and decorative curtains, and set among paddy fields or wetlands. Very picturesque indeed.

Cambodian food is wonderful. Phnom Penh has been steadily acquiring a reputation for trendy bars and restaurants. For me the high point there was Malis, an elegant establishment with open-air seating around an ornamental pool. Here I got to sample the national dish, Amok, consisting of fresh fish steamed in a coconut sauce perfumed with lemongrass and other spices. It was divine. The staff would smile at us in a genuine, friendly way each time they passed our table. This kind of charm used to be present in Thailand but is fading rapidly there.

Phnom Penh literally means "The Hill of Penh". According to legend, Madame Penh discovered  five Buddha statues inside a tree floating on the river. She had a small hill ("phnom") made from piles of earth and built a temple on it to house the statues. While she immodestly named the temple after herself, today the whole city is named after her. But that's only the informal name. The formal name of the city is Krong Chaktomuk Mongkol Sakal Kampuchea Thipadei Sereythor Inthabot Borei Roth Reach Seima Maha Nokor. Hindi speakers will be amused to realise that the last two words are really महानगर , and I'm also guessing that "Chaktomuk" is चतुर्मुख (four-faced, referring to four rivers) and "Mongkol" is मंगल or bliss. I can confirm that the name is appropriate.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Crux of the matter

While people were busy singing the praises of human rights on World Human Rights Day yesterday, Justices Singhvi and Mukhopadhyay of the Supreme Court of India were preparing quite a surprise. Today they struck down the 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court which in turn struck down part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Popularly known as the anti-gay law, Section 377 is not quite that at all. Its specific provision reads as follows:

Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. 
Explanation.-Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

This law is entirely silent about the gay issue and entirely vague about what is meant by "against the order of nature". It is the latter, and not the former, that is the crux of the matter. If interpreted unfavourably, it would criminalise not just gay sex but also many things that men and women do together in private, even within marriage. In 2009 the Delhi High Court, in a lengthy judgement that can almost be read as a treatise on human rights for the modern world, argued that this section violated several aspects of the Indian Constitution, which incidentally came into existence nearly a century later. The vagueness of the law was one of the key criteria for their decision.

Today the Supreme Court has produced an equally lengthy judgement (can't these judges just say what they think in a few comprehensible words? It gets to be really heavy going when "impugned" and "injunction" and "counter-affidavit" keep looming at every turn). Their judgement deconstructs the Delhi High Court judgement in great detail and refers to a number of past court cases related to 377, some of them nearly a hundred years old. All of these are full of embarrassing (even to me!) details about sex, usually involving A's "injunction" going into B's "counter-affidavit", if you know what I mean. It gets even more embarrassing as unintended puns like "thrust of Section 377" start to appear (page 4).

But jokes apart, where all this is going starts to become clear on page 78, when their lordships sarcastically tell us that the Naz Foundation (which filed the original case in the Delhi High Court) was "singularly laconic" about something and "miserably failed" at something else. No, clearly this is not going well for the Naz folks. The learned justices add that a "miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders" (at last count, that miniscule fraction was more than the entire population of most countries). They castigate the Delhi High Court for "its anxiety to protect the so-called rights of LGBT persons".

"So-called rights"??

And now to the crux of the matter - the vagueness of Section 377. On page 83 their lordships tell us that "vagaries of language must be borne in mind and prior application of the law must be considered". In other words, vagueness is something we just have to live with. In support of this view, they dig out a 1970 judgement which says:

"...if a law is vague or appears to be so, the court must try to construe it, as far as may be, and language permitting, the construction sought to be placed on it, must be in accordance with the intention of the legislature..."

In the present case, this suggests that any vagueness in Section 377 must be resolved by finding out what the British had in mind when they framed the law in 1860. Fascinating idea.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On World Human Rights Day

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations.  It's a beautiful document and you should take a break right away to read it here. Given its age, it's natural that it should appear a little dated - for example it freely uses "his" and "him" instead of trying harder to be gender-neutral, it makes no specific mention of gender harrassment, let alone LGBT issues, and its first seven paragraphs open with "Whereas" until in the eighth one we are finally rewarded with a "Now therefore...". But the spirit shines right through it and some of the lines still give me the chills. More below.

Somewhat to my own surprise, as I grow older I find myself more and more motivated to support human rights and more and more concerned when they are violated. From an ethical standpoint, the statement of universal rights is obviously correct - but from a practical view it is just as obviously unpopular, embodying as it does the rather quaint notion that all human beings are equal. Personally, I've never met anyone who truly believes this! It seems to be an essential part of human nature to look up with awe and respect at the rich and powerful, and in the same breath look down with contempt at the poor and unfortunate, so "equal" is not the most familiar way of thinking. While equality appeals powerfully to me, even I can't claim to have always been sincere or committed about implementing it. Human fallibility, after all.

I love the opening paragraph of the UDHR despite the fact that it dangles without a resolution (and continues to dangle for six more paragraphs!):

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

"Inherent dignity" and "inalienable rights" are two of the most musical phrases I've ever heard.

The lack of appreciation of human rights in India is widespread. Most Indians would be baffled to learn that:

Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

This runs strictly counter to the traditional approach when dealing with suspected criminals, viz: "Let's beat him till he confesses". Education does not always help. The socially conservative middle-class, by whom one is so often surrounded within academia, may express a vague sympathy with the concept of human rights until you get to specifics. Then the gloves come off and it's back to "why don't we beat him till he confesses?". On two separate occasions, Directors of different Institutes have told me in a scolding tone: "You always talk about human rights", as if I was praising a particularly smelly variety of fish. Those were proud moments for me.