Human rights off the table?

Street scene in Beijing

Street scene in Beijing

This article was originally published at G20 Watch

Given that the G20 is being billed as the most significant leadership meeting that Australia has ever hosted and will ‘address the global growth challenge in an ambitious and meaningful way” we need to ask where the discussion on human rights is taking place.

Should we be worried that there appears to be a distinct lack of reference to human rights at the biggest meeting of world leaders? Does it really matter if human rights are not discussed openly, if at all, in reference to global economic growth?

In a word, yes, because the absence of discussion that takes into account human rights obligations and responsibilities means that the Summit may make recommendations that are counter-intuitive to current human rights instruments.

Take for example The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)which focuses on socio-economic rights and responsibilities such as labour rights, access to education, standards of living and the right to health.  All G20 members have ratified the Covenant except for the US, Saudi Arabia and the EU (France and Germany have ratified the Covenant).

Under Article 6 of the Covenant, State Parties recognise the right to work in an occupation of choice and must take appropriate steps to safeguard this right. This can include ensuring that there are technical or educational frameworks in place as well as ensuring that the State creates specific policies or legislation to realise such a right.

It is encouraging that one of the main focus’ of the Summit will be expanding the paid workforce, especially to boost the participation of women and young people. However, this aim needs to be backed up with concrete plans on how to make it happen, especially in contexts where young people are not able to access proper education and women still face discrimination in the workforce and spend a lot of time caring for children and elderly relatives.

In line with creating new growth in the workforce, the G20 needs to reform current tax and business practices. Under the ‘growth and development stream’, G20 participants will examine tax and banking reform and has, as one of its aims, already suggested a digital approach to the tax and banking environment by digitising payments.

How would a move towards a digital tax and banking system impact upon the ability of a citizen to participate in business when the barrier to access such infrastructure is high?

Arguably, the Summit needs to consider how a global move to digital services will impact upon the day-to-day business of micro-economies in areas such as Africa or Asia where small and medium enterprises (SMEs) deal in small cash transactions and where access to digital infrastructure is minimal and/or prohibitively expensive.

There should be frank and open discussion about the importance of human rights because global growth does not occur in a vacuum. Yet the G20 will not explicitly address human rights. A desktop review of the G20 website, as well as policy papers and working group outputs arguably illustrates a distinct lack of independent research or discussion around human rights and the effect the role that the G20 can or could play in safeguarding or expanding such rights.

How can human rights be heard and seen at the G20?

One obvious suggestion is that the Summit should consider human rights not as a separate issue to be discussed outside of the Summit, but rather something that should be embedded into each and every discussion concerning future and current policies. This means human rights issues will be reflected within the agendas and working groups co-chaired by States.

Surely greater discussion concerning human rights is expected at such an important global platform.

The Love Story of East-Timors Independence

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia

Alias Ruby Blade

Review by Maya Borom

Alias Ruby Blade | Alex Meiller

Alex Meillier’s documentary Alias Ruby Blade is as much a love story about two people – Kirsty Sword and Xanana Gusmao – as it is about their love for Timor-Leste and the country’s struggle for independence in the face of Indonesian occupation and oppression.

Activist, filmmaker and First Lady of Timor-Leste, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, first went to the country in 1990 when it was under Indonesian control and communications in and out of the country was tightly controlled. It was to be a visit that altered the path of not only herself, but arguably that of Timor-Leste itself. Despite the strict conditions prohibiting contact with foreigners, Kirsty was smuggled photographs and letters about the resistance fighters the Falintil (The Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor) and came across images of leader Xanana Gusmao. So began Kirsty’s work to help liberate the country and to make the international community aware of the struggle of the people against Indonesian brutality and torture.

Returning to the country under the guise of setting up adventure tourism ventures, Kirsty and a group of filmmakers including Max Stahl were able to interview key activists and film a peaceful protest calling for independence and showing support for Xanana. Unbeknownst to the Indonesian authorities, Kirsty and her team were able to capture first hand video footage of Indonesian military firing live rounds into the crowd and killing and wounding many. The footage was picked up by the international media who condemned Indonesia’s actions and whom sparked a global interest in this small country struggling quietly for independence.

Interspersed with interviews with Stahl and Kirsty about the shootings, Meillier is able to provide a contrasting viewpoint to the officially sanctioned Indonesian one which was based on an argument of self-defence. The use of footage from within Timor-Leste during this time period thus becomes an invaluable source of evidence for human rights abuse for both the international community but also for the local Timorese in that there is an alternative “truth” to that of the “official” version of events.

The eventual capture of resistance leader Xanana and his subsequent jail sentence did not mean that the resistance to Indonesian rule ceased for each initiative still required approval and sign off by Xanana himself. It was here, as courier, that Kirsty became a crucial player in the struggle for Timor-Leste’s future independence. It was also here, acting in her role as liaison between the outside resistance and Xanana that Kirsty (now operating under the alias of Ruby Blade) developed a deep bond with the leader and it was here that the first whispers of love occurred. Meillier is able to use intimate home video and prison video footage of them both to illustrate the growing relationship between them at a time when it was dangerous to even hint at a liaison.

The documentary Alias Ruby Blade is essential viewing for those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the major players of the resistance in the lead up to Timor-Leste’s freedom from Indonesian rule. It provides a glimpse behind the public facade of Xanana Gusmao and shines a light on how he rose to Prime Ministerial office. It also tells the story of how one Australian women’s dedication to change and human rights forever altered the history of a country and it’s people.

Copies of Alias Ruby Blade are available to purchase for personal or community/fund raising screenings at, or by emailing  

Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror by Barnett R. Rubin

This article first appeared in the London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

Barnett R. Rubin’s Afghanistan From the Cold War through the War on Terror is an essential read for those interested not only in the socio-economic and political history of Afghanistan but also for those interested in the role that foreign powers can have on a state, writes Samaya Borom. Essays cover human rights, security, the narcotics trade, and post-conflict statebuilding.

Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror. Barnett R Rubin. Oxford University Press. April 2013.

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Not long after the 24th of September 2001, a Central Intelligence Agency operative carried $3 million in cash into the Panjshir Valley to disperse money to Afghan commanders to try to overthrow the Taliban and to ensure strategic alliance with the United States. After the funds were initially dispersed, the CIA Counterterrorist Center dispatched $10 million more and as the cashed up commanders exchanged their USD funds for local currency they flooded the market, devalued the dollar and effectively crippled Afghanistan’s economy.

The insights revealed throughout Barnett Rubin’s Afghanistan, from the Cold War through the War on Terror come from essays collated over more than a decade whilst Rubin was employed by the Council of Foreign Relations and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and crucially while he was also acting as a consultant to the United Nations mission to Afghanistan. Rubin is a world renowned political science expert, if not the expert, on Afghanistan and it is his intimate understandings of the country and the international and domestic political forces that have shaped it (and continue to shape it) that make this book a must read.Rubin’s previous book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System detailed the troublesome period of Afghan political history from the 1978 coup to the fall of Najibullah and the subsequent mujahideen taking Kabul. His newest collection of essays on Afghanistan cements his standing as a pre-eminent scholar of contemporary Afghan political history. The introductory chapter provides an illustration as to how deeply involved Rubin is with the country, from speaking to refugees camped by the road after fleeing fighting in Kabul to attending a meeting of the US State Department shortly after the 9/11 attacks and listening to intense debate about the role the US could or should play in nation building.

Though the book was written over a timespan of ten years, a common thread exists between the essays in that Afghanistan and its people have been shown to have suffered tirelessly and often needlessly at the hands of people and groups funded by powers that work towards an unseen strategic roadmap. It is a subject that Rubin revisits in most essays and is backed up with comprehensive evidence or references so that the collection is not merely looked upon as a collection of memoirs but rather a solid reference material in its own right.

An elderly Afghan man at an International Red Cross Distribution camp. Credit: United Nations Photo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the chapter “Blueprint for Afghanistan” Rubin explores how the country’s lack of monetary transparency or accountability allowed for international terrorism to gain a foothold in the region. Increased global awareness of the country saw a decrease in domestic participation in governmental and non-governmental institutions. The increase in external interest in ‘assisting’ Afghans to build institutions often saw donor and non-governmental agencies establishing themselves with relatively little frameworks in place to ensure that the requisite Afghan participation in activities occurred. The appearance of external groups on local real-estate markets was often disastrous and Kabul saw rent increases from $100 to $10,000 per month to accommodate the influx – to the detriment of local establishments who were unable to compete with the inflation and had to either move elsewhere or dissolve.

This chapter segways nicely to “The Politics of Center-Periphery Relations in Afghanistan”, co-researched with Helena Malikyar, an independent researcher and writer based in Kabul with extensive experience on governance related projects with the United Nations and USAID. It argues that the current administrative approach of the government is not a new approach, and that the country often looked to foreign support in order to maintain balance and control. This background proves essential in moving forward through subsequent essays that broach topics such as the difficulty in crafting a Constitution as a roadmap to re-establishing government institutional processes, and implementing and deploying a successful strategy to deal with insurgents where the occupying foreign forces disagree with local government.

The essays covered in the book vary in length and detail, however are all clearly well-researched. It is common for Rubin to include figures and graphs where referring to economic indicators or reconstruction efforts and these help to paint an intimate image of the Afghanistan he so clearly feels deeply about. Rubin’s professional standing, both at the international and domestic level, afforded him access to people and areas outside of the normal writer/researcher gaumut and this has allowed him to present material rich in observation as well as facts. The essays themselves work seamlessly together which is fortunate for the reader as it provides an authentic aggregated view of Afghanistan.

Barnett R. Rubin’s Afghanistan From the Cold War through the War on Terror is an essential read for those interested not only in the socio-economic and political history of Afghanistan but also for those interested in the role that foreign powers can have on a state.

German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism by Guido Steinberg

This article first appeared in the London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

Guido Steinberg argues that since 2007, the German jihadist scene has become Europe’s most dynamic, characterized by an extreme anti-Americanism, impressive international networks, and spectacularly effective propaganda. In German Jihad, Steinberg interprets the expanding German scene as part of a greater internationalization of jihadist ideology and strategy, swelling the movement’s membership since 9/11. Samaya Borom has nothing but praise for this work at the forefront of terrorism studies. 

German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism. Guido Steinberg. Columbia University Press. July 2013.

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An astonishing three out of four pilots responsible for the 9/11 attacks came from a terror cell in Hamburg, Germany. Though jihadists were active in Europe before 2001, relatively little research had occurred on the movement as it was perceived to have a domestic socio-political agenda, rather than a global agenda. The attacks on the United States shifted the perception of Al-Qaeda as an exclusively Arab organisation concerned with domestic struggles to one that was seen as transnational with a global outlook. It soon became apparent that cells were working within Europe, and since 2007 Germany is considered to be one of the hotspots of the jihadist movement, resulting in serious domestic and international implications – not only in areas of law enforcement and security but socially, culturally and politically.

The central premise of Guido Steinberg’s book, German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism is that the internationalization of the current jihadist movement only began after the events of September 11, 2001 and, that, since then, the movement has matured, internationalised, and profoundly altered its characteristics. He argues that as a movement, it is no longer solely concerned with domestic (traditionally Arab) matters and sees instead an opportunity to attack those states that had traditionally been outside of their purview and indeed outside of their domestic reach. This ideological shift resulted in recruits being radicalised in their own countries first before proceeding to reach outwards for training and further instructions.

Since the attacks on the world trade centre, terrorism research – particularly that on the rise of jihadism in the west – has increased markedly from pre 9/11 levels. Works such as Russell Burman’s Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad or Peter Neumann’s Joining al-Qaeda: Jihadist Recruitment in Europe provide a much needed overview for those interested in European terrorism. Steinberg’s contribution to the field of terrorism studies however goes further than a general overview, as his focus is almost exclusively on Germany, or German nationals and their involvement in jihad. By specialising in this niche field, Steinberg is able to bring a unique perspective to the motivations behind the growing jihadist movement in Germany, and how these nationals link into the wider global jihadist movement. The book is thorough both in its research and in its focus on Germany as a key player in the cultivation of European jihadists. This no doubt stems from the fact that the author is one of Europe’s leading terrorism experts and was an advisor to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin on international terrorism issues.

Steinberg’s introductory chapter, ‘Unlikely Internationalists: Putting German Jihadism into Perspective’ provides an overview into the beginnings of the internationalisation process, starting with the 1990s alliance between Osama Bin Laden and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and moving towards Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan in late 2001. It sets the pace for the second chapter ‘Two Hamburg Cells: A History of Jihadist Terrorism in Germany’ which details Al-Qaeda’s presence in Germany itself as early as 1998. Given that the group was only created ten years beforehand, the fact that a leading operative was arrested in Munich is significant and Steinberg carefully draws out the relationship between jihadist groups in Germany and their significant counterparts internationally.

The book offers key insights into the internationalization of German jihadism and pays particular attention in providing case studies as evidence of the growing movement. In Chapter three, provocatively titled ‘A Second 9/11: The Sauerland Plot’ Steinberg introduces the reader to the story of three young German men who went on to hatch a terrorist plot against the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate after extensive training with the Uzbek IJU in North Waziristan in Pakistan. It follows their metamorphosis from young disaffected German nationals to jihadists researching potential bombing targets. Steinberg plots their movements from several countries including Germany, Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan to illustrate the international nature of the movement.

The same level of detail is paid in additional chapters of the books, including Chapter seven, ‘The German Taliban Mujahideen’, in which Steinberg details how propaganda and communique by the group left an indelible impression on the German public shortly before the elections in 2009. Chapter 9, ‘Germans in the Taliban Stalingrad: Fighting the Kunduz Insurgency’, highlights the growing issue of trans-terrorism where German nationals are deployed willingly to Afghanistan to join the jihadist movement. Given the recent Al-Shabaab attacks on the Westgate Mall in Kenya that involved nationals flying in from outside the country to participate, the internationalisation of the movement is worrying and clearly deserves more attention and research in the field. Steinberg is clearly at the forefront with this contribution.

Steinberg’s German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism is an impressive piece of research that distinguishes itself from the plethora of terrorism research currently available. The ability to focus so comprehensively on the German connection in highlighting the internationalisation of Islamist terrorism is remarkable – and illustrates how the tendrils of terrorism reach far and wide.