Friday, 30 August 2013

Ai Weiwei: Chinese Artist and Human Rights Activist

Ai Weiwei: Chinese Artist and Human Rights Activist
This past week (August 28, 2013) I attended an exhibit of works of the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. I urge anyone reading this who lives in the Toronto area to go and see it.
Ai Weiwei is not only an artist, he is also a human rights activist who has taken considerable risks in order to protest rights-abusive actions of the Chinese government. One of his exhibits, in fact, is an enlarged photograph of a brain hemorrhage he sustained after being hit by a policeman; fortunately, he was on his way to Munich when this happened and was hospitalized and treated there. He is currently not allowed to leave China.
Ai Weiwei in 2009
The exhibit opens with a large set of photographs Ai Weiwei took of devastated lands expropriated by the government to permit construction of new buildings. Since all land in China belongs officially to the government, people whose homes or small businesses are destroyed don’t have the right to protest. This violates both the right to housing and the right to property.
Another set of photographs is of the famous “Bird’s Nest” Stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which Ai had helped to design. He refused to be involved further in Olympic propaganda, however, once he realized that people were being arbitrarily displaced in order to provide room for the Olympics. Many of the displaced were “illegal” (unauthorized) internal migrants to Beijing from other parts of China. All Chinese must take part in the household registration system, a form of internal passports. Migrants to Beijing who don’t have official permission to live there lack many fundamental rights; for example, many of their children can’t attend school.
Ai Weiwei was also horrified by the death toll from the 2008 earthquake in the region of Chengdu.  An estimated 90,000 people died, including thousands of school children who perished in the shoddily-constructed, government-built schools. Against the wishes of the authorities, Ai assembled a team of researchers who eventually accumulated names, ages, and other information about 5,186 school children. One of the most moving pieces in the exhibit was a wall installation of all the names and other information about the children. Although I do not read Chinese, I was still moved by the columns of birth dates of those who died. Also, Ai had used Twitter to teach people all over the world willing to read out the names of the dead, so as I read the birthdates, I heard a recording of voices—often those of children—reading the names. 
Free Ai Weiwei atop the Kunsthauses Bregenz Exhibition Centre
Ai weiwei thinks naming the dead is important: a quote from him about the installation read “A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights; no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue.” If we name the dead, we bring them back to life and remove them from the unfathomable multitudes, the millions who die.  Ai’s installation reminded me of an exhibit on Cambodia I saw in the University of Connecticut Museum in 2001, with pictures of some of the 20,000 people—many children—tortured and then murdered in the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.  These people remained nameless, but their faces reminded us of their individuality.
Since the United Nations’ Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, the official line of the human rights establishment has been that all human rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—are interdependent and indivisible. Certainly this is something I’ve been arguing for a long time. It seems that there is more than one path to “development,” considered merely as economic growth. One path was the messy model whereby Western Europe and North America became wealthier and freer, eventually—after much struggle by--protecting most human rights for most citizens most of the time. The other path is the East Asian model, where economic growth eased the lives of many people while the governments—as in South Korea until the late 1980s—remained dictatorial. China is definitely much wealthier than it was before it turned to state-organized capitalism in 1978, and many Chinese people live much easier lives than did their parents under communism. But as Ai Weiwei shows, without property rights the state can take away your home.  Without freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, the state can construct shoddy schools in which your children may die, and you can’t do anything about it.  Without artists like Ai Weiwei—as the Chinese government knows full well—it is difficult to represent their own suffering to the Chinese people. Ai Weiwei’s is an extremely powerful voice for freedom in China.
There was one discordant note in this exhibit. The souvenir shop attached to it was selling small books of reproductions of Chinese government propaganda posters.  I’m not sure what to think of that: I know that propaganda posters can be considered art that is interesting in its own right, but it seemed as if the Art Gallery of Ontario hadn’t got Ai Weiwei’s message at all.   

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Water Rights of West Bank Palestinians

Water Rights of West Bank Palestinians

On May 17, 2013 I posted a blog on Palestinian property rights: I was interested in this question because of my research on malnutrition in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), comprised of the West Bank and Gaza. This is part of a larger research project on malnutrition which also includes North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. I’ve also posted a blog explaining my position on criticizing Israel: I believe that Israel is a state that has the right to exist in peace, but that it must also obey international law. From what I’ve learned, Israel is not obeying international human rights and humanitarian laws that require that Palestinians enjoy their right to clean water. Some of what I’ve written in this post is based on a 2009 report by Amnesty International, “Troubled Waters-Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water: Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories  I’ve also used other sources that I can provide to interested readers.

The United Nations has proposed a human right to water, referring especially to the right to “an adequate standard of living” mentioned in Article 11, 1 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the right to the “highest attainable standard of physical…health” mentioned in Article 12. Israel ratified this Covenant  in 1991.The right to water is most clearly elaborated in the 2002 General Comment 15 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” International humanitarian law also states that an occupying power must ensure that the occupied population has sufficient water. Israel is also obliged under international law to ensure equitable distribution of groundwater between itself (as occupier) and the inhabitants of the area it occupies.
Access to clean water is a major problem for Palestinians in the West Bank. While Israelis in 2009 consumed about 300 liters of water per day,  Palestinians consumed about 70 (Amnesty International 2009, 3). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the percentage of people with access to improved water sources in the OPT as a whole declined from 97 in 1991 to 85 in 2010.
Israel has expropriated much of the water in the West Bank for its own use. The main source of water in the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer, but Palestinians in 2009 had access to only 20 per cent of the water it produces, while Israel used the rest. The right to water also includes protection from arbitrary interference in the water supply, yet Israelis authorities frequently cut off water from Palestinians. Individual Israeli soldiers often destroy private water cisterns and other traditional means by which Palestinians collect and conserve water. The Israeli military requires that Palestinians obtain permits to build new cisterns, yet often does not grant them.
States are also obliged by international law to “prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water,” yet Israel permits Jewish settlers in the West Bank to draw on water supplies traditionally used by Palestinians, even permitting individual Jewish households to have swimming pools while nearby Palestinians endure severe water shortages.  Many Palestinians rely on water brought in by tankers, yet segregated roadways often make it difficult for the tankers to reach Palestinian villages. Palestinians also have to tolerate deliberate contamination of their water supply by Jewish settlers who, for example, throw garbage or even dirty baby diapers into Palestinians’ water containers. Lack of water for agriculture means Palestinian farmers must rely on purchased food. As one farmer told Amnesty International (p. 23 of the AI report), “We can’t keep more goats because we can’t afford the water, and we can’t grow food for us and fodder for the animals, so we have to buy it and this is too expensive.”
As of 2008 Israel obtained almost 50 per cent of its drinking water and 40 per cent of its agricultural water from the West Bank. As early as 1990 the Israeli Agriculture Minister warned that Israel would lose nearly 60 per cent of its water if it relinquished control of the West Bank (Amnesty International 2009, 47). This strategic need for water may explain the desire to occupy the West Bank even more than does the desire for Jewish settlements. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require a detailed agreement on water resources, but Israel may not be willing to give up its access to West Bank water.
I used to be impressed when I heard people say that the Israelis have “made the desert bloom.”  Yet I now realize they’ve done so by using stolen water.