Archive for the ‘Civil and Political Rights’ Category

The rights of man

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

On 26 August 1789, the French National Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article 1 proclaims:

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Thirteen years earlier, on 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia had proclaimed the Declaration of Independence, the second paragraph of which famously states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Both texts recognize the principles of equality and rights with which men are endowed. Both texts recognize these principles and rights for men.  Both texts are recognized as landmarks in the history of human rights.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

The influence of the American text on the French Declaration has been much debated. Some will argue that the French text owes everything to its American predecessor, citing as ample evidence the very presence in Paris in 1789 of Jefferson - the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. They will also mention the friendship between Jefferson and La Fayette, recalling that La Fayette submitted a draft of the French Declaration. To this, others respond that the American Declaration was itself inspired by the writings of European philosophers, primarily the French-speaking ones, such as Rousseau and Voltaire.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, in 1902, a famous controversy opposed Georg Jellinek, a Heidelberg professor of public law, to Émile Boutmy, a professor of political science in Paris.  To Jellinek’s argument that the roots of both texts originated in a teutonic concept of individual liberty, Boutmy responded that the French idea of liberty was different from either the American or the Teutonic ones, which were more concerned with ensuring that rulers had less power over those they governed.

It has also been argued that the Americans of 1776 were fighting for their freedom and independence from a foreign power, while  the French of 1789 were building a new society, based on the recognition of rights, which they wanted to be applied universally, to citizens of all nations.

Ideas of freedom, and the texts that expressed them have had many authors, and many sources, not just one.

Only a couple of weeks before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, on 12 June 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopts the Virginia Bill of Rights. Its principal author, George Mason based his text on the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Like the two other declarations, Article 1 recognizes that men are free and entitled to rights.

1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Jefferson, himself a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress, is familiar with Mason’s text, and is obviously influenced by the Virginia Declaration, which will serve as the basis for the 1789 American Bill of Rights. Happiness is definitely a Virginian pursuit.

Common Sense, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Common Sense, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

With Common Sense published in January 1776, the English Thomas Paine argued vehemently for independence from British rule. The pamphlet was extremely influential in inspiring the colonists to fight for their independence.

In 1791, the same Thomas Paine publishes The Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. Before him, another English radical, Thomas Spence used the expression rights of man in a lecture. As early as 1775, Spence was advocating the end of aristocracy and landlords, for land to be publicly owned by democratic parishes, and for universal suffrage. Freedom and rights were definitely in the minds of many 18th century thinkers.

Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen, 1789

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789

Suggested on 9 July 1789, the principle of drafting a declaration of the natural and imprescriptible rights of men is adopted by the Constitution Drafting Committee. It is on 27 July, that the final title is retained, based on a proposal of Champion de Cicé, Archbishop of Bordeaux.

More than twenty drafts are considered, including the one presented by the marquis de La Fayette, as well as a proposal by Abbé Sieyès. On 12 August, a proposal to convene a drafting committee is retained. The Committee of Five is comprised of Claude Redon, Jean-Nicolas Desmeuniers (Bishop of Langres), Antoine Garaby de La Luzerne, the marquis de Mirabeau and François-Denis Tronchet. The Committee of Five’s draft is rejected in favour of yet another proposal, known as the Sixth Bureau draft, which becomes the working draft that is discussed in plenary. This draft is heavily modified during the final discussion that lasts from 20 to 26 August  when the Declaration is finally adopted.

Both the American and the French declarations therefore reflect not the genius of a single man, but the collective wisdom of many, all working together for the benefit of their nation.

A night to remember

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

The Three Estates: A faut esperer q'lu jeu la finira ben tot

The Three Estates: A faut esperer q'lu jeu la finira ben tot

The night of 4 August 1789 in Paris was a night of uncontrolled passion. And the morning after, quite a few of the partakers had second thoughts.

That night, in the course of a few hours, members of the nobility and of the clergy renounced many of the centuries old privileges that came with their social position.

In 1789, France was a nation of about 28 million people, in which society was divided into three classes, the Estates. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate, nobility, and the Third Estate included everyone else: from rich and educated bourgeois to poor illiterate peasants.

While the first two Estates were the richest and paid hardly any taxes, the Third Estate was heavily taxed not only by the King but also by the other two Estates, through the system of privileges. In early 1789, when invited by Louis XVI to express their concerns, the French had bitterly complained about the unfair tax system in the more than 50,000 Cahiers de Doléances that were to register such concern.

So widely spread was the complaint that it is reflected in the imagery of the time, including caricatures and ceramics. Famous are the images that show the Third Estate bent over from carrying the weight of the clergy and nobility, with such taglines as: Hopefully, this game will be over soon, or I am weary of carrying them…

Less than a month after the storming of the Bastille, the night of August 4, 1789, officially marked the end of feudalism in France. The event was initiated by the need to respond to unrest that accompanied the 14 July event throughout the country. As food had become scarce nation-wide, local militias formed in the provinces, searching for hoarded grain. Violence against the hoarders grew, peasants refused to pay taxes, and rumours spread about nobles that were enacting revenge disguised as brigands. A number of castles were attacked, and feudal records destroyed.

In an attempt to calm the countryside, a night session of the National Assembly, which was working on the drafting of a constitution for France, was called at 8pm, on 4 August, 1789.

French Revolution barber dish: Je suis las de les porter

French Revolution barber dish: Je suis las de les porter

The day before, in a small gathering of liberal nobles who were trying to find a response to the crisis, the Duke d’Aiguillon, the second richest man in France after the King, had proposed to renounce feudal rights. Giving up on such rights meant that the Duke would become a lot poorer.

During the August 4 night session, the Viscount de Noailles, who in terms of wealth had much less to lose, pre-empted the Duke and spoke first. He delivered an impassioned speech in which he proposed to give up feudal rights. D’Aiguillon followed him and supported the proposal.

One-by-one, the many privileges that benefited the Second Estate were mentioned and renounced by delegates of the nobility who responded enthusiastically to the generous proposals that were being made. Goaded by the nobility delegates, the clergy had no other option than to respond to the challenge and agree to also renounce their tithes. It became a competition between the two Estates as to which would give up the most of their privileges.

The meeting went on late into the night, and collective rights, those of regions, towns, and civic corporations, were also gradually relinquished.

So many rights had been abolished during that one selfless night, that it took one week to complete the Decrees, and more than six months before they would start being implemented.

The privileges that members of the nobility and the clergy gave up covered a wide range of rights, from feudal, including serfdom, to hunting rights; even the right to maintain pigeon houses was abandoned…

French Revolutionary plate, 1791: Je suis las de les porter

French Revolution plate, 1791: Je suis las de les porter

ARTICLE I. The National Assembly hereby completely abolishes the feudal system. It decrees that, among the existing rights and dues, both feudal and censuel, all those originating in or representing real or personal serfdom shall be abolished without indemnification…

II. The exclusive right to maintain pigeon houses and dovecotes is abolished…

III. The exclusive right to hunt and to maintain uninclosed warrens is likewise abolished, and every landowner shall have the right to kill, or to have destroyed on his own land, all kinds of game…

This passionate abolition of rights - the rights of a few at the expense of a majority of others - marked a step in the adoption, at the end of August, of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

10 days and 13 years

Saturday, July 17th, 2010
10 days and 13 years separate two 18th Century July events that have become national holidays commemorating the American and the French Revolutions. Both resulted in major legal texts recognizing human rights.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia adopts the American Declaration of Independence, which rejected British rule and layed out the principles of basic rights for the American people. A Committee of Five, which included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, had tasked Jefferson with producing the first draft.

Storming of the Bastille

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, the medieval fortress which, as a jail, had become a symbol of the royal arbitrary power. It was used by the French Kings to emprison a number of free thinkers, who would be sent there for having printed, expressed or advocated liberal ideas. If the King so decided, anyone could be sent to prison on the basis of a lettre de cachet, the executive order that did not need the validation of a court. Although on July 14 only seven people were still held prisoners, the storming of the Bastille is considered as one of the critical events that marked the beginninng of the French Revolution.

Much has been written about the links between the American and the French July events. On both sides of the Atlantic, a number of individuals have played a role in, or been eye-witness to, two of the most determining episodes in the history of human rights. As it happens, the same individuals have been involved to some degree in the two events.

One year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and elected George Washington to be its Commander-in-chief. Washington had been nominated by John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts.

Developments in America were closely followed in France. Beaumarchais is allowed to found a commercial enterprise which provided the American rebels with weapons, and necessary supplies. The Marquis de La Fayette chooses to serve in the Continental Army, and although he has received strict orders from the French King not to leave France, he sails for America and lands in Georgetown, South Carolina, in June 1777. He offers to serve without pay and two month later becomes an aide to George Washington, is wounded at the battle of Brandywine, and continues fighting in the Revolutionary War for two years.

John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and the Treaty of Paris

From left, John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and the Treaty of Paris

Having made a number of friends in America, back in France, La Fayette settles at the Hôtel de La Fayette, rue de Bourbon, which becomes the headquarters of Americans in Paris. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and his wife Sarah, and John and Abigail Adams, became frequent guests, visiting once a week. John Jay, who had served for one year as President of the Continental Congress until 1779 just before taking an assignment to Spain, in 1782, is sent to Paris along with Franklin and Adams. As ministers plenipotentiary, the three men were to negotiate to end the American Revolutionary War. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris is signed, which formally brought peace between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States of America. When Thomas Jefferson replaced John Jay in Paris, he worked with La Fayette to facilitate trade agreements between the two countries.

In 1788, La Fayette is appointed to the Assembly of Notables that was to advise Louis XVI on the financial crisis which had been partially initiated by the cost of the intervention in the American Revolution. La Fayette protests against proposals to raise taxes, and recommends calling for a meeting of the Estates General, which will bring together the three French social classes: the nobility, the clergy and the commoners.

Just as George Washington becomes the first United States President under the Constitution, and takes the oath of office on April 30, 1789, in France, the Estates General are getting ready to meet. They first meet at the beginning of May 1789, with the Third Estate (Tiers Etat) having been awarded double representation. Voting however will be by Estate, and not by head. The Third Estate refuses and starts meeting separately. On 17 June, they declare themselves as the National Assembly; gradually members of the clergy and the nobility - among which La Fayette - join them. Work then starts on a constitution and a declaration of the rights of man, and on 11 July, La Fayette presents his own draft of the Declaration. The draft borrows heavily from the American Declaration of Independence. It is not retained.

On 15 July, following the storming of the Bastille, La Fayette is appointed Commander in Chief of the National Guard of France and orders the Bastille demolition.

Model of the Bastille

Model of the Bastille

Symbolically, La Fayette sends to George Washington the key to the west portal of the Bastille on March 17, 1790, and writes: Give me leave, my dear General to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition,- with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide - de - Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch. The key is still on display at Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.

In letters to friends, Thomas Jefferson, then Minister to France, has provided his analysis of the events that led to the French Revolution. In a January 8, 1789 letter addressed to a Dr. Price, he writes: The court was well disposed towards the people, not from principles of justice or love to them; but they want money. No more can be had from the people. They are squeezed to the last drop. The clergy and nobles, by their privileges and influence, have kept their property in a great measure untaxed hitherto. They then remain to be squeezed, and no agent is powerful enough for this but the people. The court therefore must ally itself with the people.

Marquis de La Fayette

Marquis de La Fayette

On May 10, 1789, Jefferson shares the following concern with George Washington: I am in great pain for the Marquis de La Fayette. His principles, you know, are clearly with the people; but having been elected for the Noblesse of Auvergne, they have laid him under express instructions, to vote for the decisions by orders, and not persons… I have not hesitated to press on him to burn his instructions, and follow his conscience as the only sure clue, which will eternally guide a man clear of all doubts and inconsistencies. If he cannot effect a conciliatory plan, he will surely take his stand manfully at once, with the Tiers Etat.

To John Jay - who preceded him as Minister to France and as American Secretary of Foreign Affairs - Jefferson writes in June: This day ([June] the 25th) forty-eight of the Nobles have joined the Tiers. Among these, is the Duke d’Orleans. The Marquis de La Fayette could not be of the number, being restrained by his instructions. He is writing to his constituents, to change his instructions or to accept his resignation.

On July 11, the future American President writes to the author of Common Sense and The Rights of man, Thomas Paine: The National Assembly then (for this is the name they take), having shown through every stage of these transactions a coolness, wisdom, and resolution to set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves, rather than to relinquish an iota from their plan of a total change of government, are now in complete and undisputed possession of the sovereignty. The executive and aristocracy are at their feet; the mass of the nation, the mass of the clergy, and the army are with them; they have prostrated the old government, and are now beginning to build one from the foundation. A committee, charged with the arrangement of their business, gave in, two days ago, the following order of proceedings.

1. Every government should have for its only end, the preservation of the rights of man; whence it follows, that to recall constantly the government to the end proposed, the constitution should begin by a declaration of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man…

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

His account for July 14 is again addressed to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay. Jefferson recalls the events of the preceding days, including Finance Minister Necker’s dismissal which, together with the gathering of foreign troops, led to the insurrection of the people of Paris. He describes the efforts of the Paris Bourgeoisie to arm itself for the preservation of order in the city… On the 14th, they sent one of their members (Monsieur de Corny, whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides, to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalides came out, and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms… Monsieur de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai, Governor of the Bastille. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed four people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired; the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of the fortification, defended by one hundred men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges, and had never been taken. How they got in, has, as yet, been impossible to discover. Those who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories, as to destroy the credit of them all. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners, and such of ther garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the Greve (the place of public execution), cut off their heads, and sent them through the city in triumph to the Palais Royal…

Jefferson later describes the reaction of the aristocracy and of the King who the next day went about eleven o’clock, accompanied only by his brothers, to the States General, and there read to them a speech, in which he asked for their interposition to re-establish order… He returned to the chateau a foot, accompanied by the States. They sent off a deputation, the Marquis de La Fayette at their head, to quiet Paris. He had the same morning, been named Commandant-in-Chief of the Milice Bourgeoise…

The National Assembly becomes the National Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a constitution. On August 4, 1789 the new Assembly officially abolishes feudalism, and in the course of a few hours, in a meeting that runs into the early morning hours, members of the nobility and the clergy surrender many of their special privileges. The Viscount de Noailles, who has served under La Fayette in the American Revolutionary War is the first to speak.

Work continued throughout the month of August on the drafting of the proposed declaration of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man… A number of drafts, including La Fayette’s, were considered and reviewed. Finally, on 26 August 1789, that the Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The right to kvetch

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Going through the rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one may not immediately find the right to kvetch.

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild, 2001

It is there, though not maybe quite in those terms: but one can definitely identify it as an expansion of freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. As I was discussing my previous post on the right to privacy (Article 12 of the UDHR) with a friend, we joked about the right to kvetch.

Well, granted kvetching’s definition (complaining persistently and whiningly) may fall a bit short of the concept of freedom of expression, but the right to freely express one’s opinion is one of the civil and political rights recognized by Article 19 of the UDHR.

Expressing one’s opinion is actually a fundamental right, and one that was exercised quite early on. Its recognition has maybe taken some more time, but people have persistently fought to ensure that this right be recognized.

If one ignores the whiningly part of the definition of kvetching, it could be argued that complaining persistently when one’s condition is unfair is a true exercise of freedom of expression.

Historically, a number of human rights activists, before human rights were even known, have defended their right to expressing the opinion that their condition was unfair. Repeatedly, brave slaves have stood up, and at the risk of losing their lives, protested their loss of freedom. Spartacus is famous for having led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, which the 1960 Stanley Kubrik movie has immortalized with the I am Spartacus affirmation repeated one by one by all of the slaves, in an act of disobedience and freedom of expression.

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Lesser known is Zumbi dos Palmares, who spoke up and led a slave rebellion against the Portuguese in Brazil. Born a free man but captured at the age of six, at 15, he escaped to the Quilombo dos Palmares, a fugitive slave settlement. When the Portuguese offered freedom to the Palmares leader, Zumbi argued to not accept freedom when others remained slaves and became Palmares’ new leader. After 15 years, the Portuguese used artillery to attack the Quilombo, and Palmares fell. Zumbi escaped again but was eventually betrayed and captured in 1695, and beheaded there and then.

At the end of the 18th century, freed slave Toussaint Louverture led Haiti to independence from France, making it the second nation in the Americas to become a Republic. His fight started when he traveled from plantation to plantation and addressed slaves, advocating that freedom could be achieved.

It is through impassioned speeches that these leaders were able to rally their fellow slaves and convince them to act, but the circulation of revolutionary ideas was also advanced through the writings of various thinkers.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century accelerated the dissemination of the work of theologians and philosophers. Fairly quickly, governments reacted and established controls over printers throughout Europe. Punishment for propagating heretic ideas was severe: French scholar and printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546, charged as an atheist.

In England, John Milton argued for the right to freedom of expression, publishing in 1644 Areopagitica, a protest against the re-introduction by the British Parliament of government licensing of printers.

With the Pennsylvania Gazette, started in 1729, Benjamin Franklin established a reputation for using his right to freedom of expression and openly speaking his mind. The Gazette was followed in 1733 by the Poor Richard’s Almanach. Proud of the impact his ideas were beginning to have, Franklin took to signing his written production as B. Franklin, Printer, even as he became one of the leaders of American Independence.

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

In France, Voltaire is famous for having been victim of his free speech: to avoid being sent to the Bastille, several times he had to chose exile, first to England, and later to Geneva and Ferney. Many other French philosophers suffered similar treatment, and the Bastille has come down in history as having been home to a number of free thinkers.

Then, if it was not the Bastille, it was another prison. The Vincennes fortress hosted Diderot for a few months, where he had been sent after having published his Lettre sur les aveugles, just as he was about to embark on what was to become his life’s project: l’Encyclopedie. An example of freedom of expression, more than twenty years in the making, the various instalments of the Encyclopedia were met with censorship and numerous police raids.

Rousseau, who visited Diderot daily when he was imprisoned in Vincennes, contributed a number of articles to the Encyclopedia. But it was for Emile, his essay on education in which he gave his views on religion, that Rousseau was banned and his books were banned and burned. Rousseau escaped to Neuchatel, and then to England. The protectors who helped him flee also ensured that his banned books would continue being circulated under cover.

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

La faute à Voltaire, la faute à Rousseau: the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and the Encyclopedists have been credited for having helped spark the French Revolution. They certainly contributed to raising awareness about social justice and paved the way to the revendication of human rights.

In the midst of a deep financial crisis accompanied by a famine, protest movements started all over France in the late 1780’s. In early 1789, the people of France were invited to draft their lists of grievances in the Cahiers de Doléances, an open invitation to kvetch as much as the French would care to. And kvetch they did in the more than 50,000 Cahiers that were presented to King Louis XVI during meetings of the Etats Generaux. The Cahiers authors complained repeatedly about the unfairness of the tax system, which was hitting more heavily the underprivileged in the nation. Most impopular among all of the taxes was probably the infamous gabelle, the iniquitous tax on salt that made it mandatory to purchase a given amount of salt which was sold as a State monopoly at a fixed price.

The end of the 18th Century saw the beginning of a number of rights being granted in the United States and in France. Finally, in spite of censorship, police raids, imprisonments or losing their lives, the kvetchers prevailed and the right to freedom of expresssion is now a recognized right.

Slowly giving in on the right to privacy

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Facebook, the social networking company

Facebook, the social networking company

So, what is the password on your Blackberry?
What is it? I know my mom’s. You want to know it, it is…
No, I don’t want to know your mom’s cellphone access code.
The eight-year old is a bit upset that I will only let her play with the Blackberry, but won’t share the password, a concept of which she obviously does not understand the meaning.

This episode brought back the memory of yet another little girl in Cambodia, the daughter of new acquaintances. Based on an afternoon spent together for the first time ever the day before, she was willing to share all of her family secrets during a chance encounter the following Monday at the Phnom Penh market. When her mother returned from whatever errand she was running, she half-joked that the only thing her daughter had not shared with us was the safe combination. It is likely that on the way home the little girl was reminded that some things are private and not to be shared with what boiled down to almost perfect strangers.

Then it is the next seat neighbour who, on the flight back from my last week’s mission, is keeping tabs on the number of drinks I order (and drink). He also is noticeably unimpressed at the fact that I am keeping away from salad and raw fish, in acknowledgement of the more than six colleagues who suffered from food poisoning during our stay at the fancy establishment we stayed at during the trip. The thought crosses my mind that maybe I should explain I normally love my greens, but… Of course not, no need to explain anything. He can think whatever he wants, he is just a temporary witness of my semi-private semi-public behaviour, and I will never see him again. And I have a right to keep to myself, even on a flight.

The magazine I am reading on the flight reminds me that Facebook is soon about to welcome its 500 millionth user. The May 31, 2010 issue of Time is marking the event with a cover story on Facebook and the issue of privacy. In a connected world that has become smaller, a Nairobi newspaper was expressing similar privacy concerns about Facebook just a week earlier, as were a number of media around the globe. Unfortunately, the article I had saved and placed on my bedside table for later reading was trashed by the hotel maid before I was able to get around to it. There is no real privacy in an hotel room: a friend of mine always leaves the Do not disturb sign on the door knob for the duration of her stay as she (maybe rightfully) views hotel staff re-arranging the room as an intrusion. 

Very recently, I gave in to convenience and reluctantly started using Fandango to reserve tickets in advance for just opening movies that were sure to be sold out by the time we would get to the theater. Having been the victim of identity theft, I tend to err on the side of caution. But using the service twice in the same week convinced me that registering was the way to go. I gave in and signed up to save time on each of my upcoming movie ticket purchase. As I reluctantly entered my personal information, I was concerned that nothing is truly private in the online world. And sure enough, I started getting my fair share of unwelcome Fandango emails.

YouTube, Broadcast Yourself

YouTube, Broadcast Yourself

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Fandango and other new media are slowly redefining the way we look at the right to privacy. While early adopters quickly embraced new media, a number of people looked at the phenomenon quite cautiously. Gradually, however, people around me who, for the longest time resisted signing on to Facebook for fear of exposing their privacy, started giving in, as I am sure hundreds of others have.  

What are the new boundaries between the private and the public arenas?

This blog is both public and private. Public in the sense that it can be accessed publically over the internet by anyone who chances upon it. Private because, I will only tell that I am the author to people with whom I feel comfortable sharing this information. Recently, someone I had told about this site mentioned my blog during a luncheon. This person not only mentioned it but, without even checking with me, sent the address to our lunch companions. I felt my permission should have been asked first, not that it is a secret, but whether or not to share should be my decision. Did this oversharing constitute an intrusion on my right to privacy, however?

Protecting my password in a one on one exchange with a pressing little girl seems OK, although I am not sure what risk I would seriously have incurred by giving her my password. The conversation with the little girl at the Phnom Penh market seemed pretty innocuous, until her mother took exception at her oversharing with people who after all were mostly strangers.

Being aware of my next seat neighbour’s silent judgement on my choice of meal is OK. What do I really care? I usually prefer to keep to myself on a flight and not speak to the next seat neighbour, apart from the polite Hello, as we sit down.

Twitter, the micro-blogging site

Twitter, the micro-blogging site

In a companion piece to the Time cover article, a commentary introduced the concept of intimate strangers. Friends once or twice removed will check Facebook or Twitter status updates for people they actually don’t know. At a time when oversharing is becoming the norm, we are all becoming voyeurs to others’ supposed exhibitionism. If we only want to share with people we trust, it becomes our responsibility to carefully understand how to use the privacy settings that Facebook provides.   

In our new interconnected age, we need to redefine what we see as our right to privacy and set up the guidelines – at the individual, family, or community level - that will ensure proper respect for a private life.

Abolishing the transatlantic slave trade

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Portraits of Amistad former captives

Portraits of Amistad former captives

It took all of twenty indefatiguable years for William Wilberforce to succeed in his battle to convince the British Parliament to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While Wilberforce, the best known of the British anti-slavery campaigners, offered his first motion in May 1787, it is only on 23 March 1807 that the Parliament finally passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Act entered the statute books on 25 March, and it is the bicentennial of that later date which was commemorated three years ago. The 2006 movie Amazing Grace tells the story of the long fight to abolition.

The Act made the capture, transport, and trade of slaves illegal, but slavery remained legal. It would be another 15 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Other countries however were participating in the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, then a colony of Portugal, was the first to bring slaves from Africa to the New World, around 1550. The Spanish colonies followed suit. Relying heavily on slaves to work in the sugar cane plantations, and then in the gold, diamond and silver mines of Minas Gerais, Brazil was also the last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade, in 1831.

Amistad, 1839
Amistad, 1839

In spite of the ban, slaves continued being trafficked as illustrated by the famous Amistad mutiny. In 1839, a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora left West Africa for Havana, Cuba. Onboard were 500 kidnapped Africans. Some of these men were then transported from Cuba to Puerto Rico, on the Amistad, a ship on which were no slave quarters. The captives managed to free themselves, killed the captain and seized the ship. The Amistad was later captured off the coast of Long Island by the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Ensued a long court case, the court having to decide to either return the captured men as slaves to Cuba or to Africa as free men. The case was finally referred on appeal to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of a return to Africa.

Abolition of slavery in the United States came as the result of a long civil war: it was enacted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. In Portugal, the Marques de Pombal abolished slavery on the mainland in 1761, but it is in 1888, more than sixty years after Brazil became independent, that slavery was finally abolished by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil. 

Remember the ladies: last Monday was International Women’s Day

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Today’s post is dedicated to a friend, a long-time advocate of women’s rights, who just passed away this Thursday. When I visited her in Boston last fall, she took me to Faneuil Hall and told me about Lucy Stone.

March 8. For some, the date will immediately evoke formal ceremonies of all kinds, big panel discussions about the rights of women, or maybe images of women receiving flowers. At least, this is my experience, having been exposed (treated?), on that very day for a number of years, to the presentation of a rose handed by a beaming male colleague from one of the former Soviet Republics.

For others, the 8th of March is just another day. On Monday, I jokingly wished a male colleague “Happy Women’s Day” and was met with a totally blank stare. “What is she talking about (again)?”

March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD). When dit it start? What does it mean?

Right to vote, New York City

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Originally observed as a Socialist party event, the day has been marked since the early 1900’s. A National Woman’s Day was observed across the United States on 28 February 1909. A year later, at an International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen, German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin proposed that the day be marked internationally on the same day.  The first official IWD was honoured in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March with rallies advocating the rights of women to work, vote, vocational training, and hold public office.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, in New York, 140 working immigrant working girls lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The tragic event has been commemorated during subsequent IWDs and led to more attention being given to labour legislation and working conditions in the United States.

In 1913-1914, women rallied for peace in Russia and all over Europe, and the date retained to mark IWD was 8 March. With more than two million soldiers dead in the war, Russian women in 1917 started a strike for bread and peace, which four days later resulted in the Czar’s abdication. The provisional government established to run the country immediately granted women the right to vote.

Until the 1960s, IWD was mostly observed in Socialist Europe, when it was revived in the West with the rise of feminism. The United Nations has been officially marking the day since 1975 to recognize the struggles of women worldwide to be granted political and civil rights.

Such struggles have taken many forms. With her famous Remember the ladies, Abigail Adams in 1776 invited her husband, John Adams, one of the Massachussets delegates to the Continental Congress, to take into account the interests of women, when drafting the American Declaration of Independence, or else…

…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

In last year’s post on IWD, in addition to Abigail Adams, I also mentioned Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft. This year, I would like to feature another early day suffragist: Lucy Stone. 

Lucy Stone, Faneuil Hall, Boston

Lucy Stone, Faneuil Hall, Boston

The first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree (in 1839), Lucy Stone is also the first American woman to retain her maiden name after marriage, leading to the late 19th Century term a “Lucy Stoner”. An abolitionist and a suffragist, Lucy Stone spent her life fighting for women’s rights. She is also the only woman to be honoured in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

In 1858, to protest taxation without representation, she refused to pay property taxes on her home. On the 100th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, in December 1873, she called for a New England Women Tea Party in Faneuil Hall in Boston and told the crowd that attended the meeting:

We are taxed, and we have no representation. We are governed without our consent. We are fined, imprisoned, and hung with no jury trial by our peers. We have no legal right to our children, nor power to sell our land, nor will our money.”

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Almost a century and a half after  the New England Women Tea Party, one decade into a new millennium, where do we stand? This week, a text was given to me by a 23-year old for posting on Rights from the Start.  It is included below and provides a young European woman’s perspective on the status of women’s rights today.

Women’s day.

Today is the 8th of March. Does it mean anything to you? Well, I must admit that it also took me a few years to realize that this was a very special event as it is… International Women’s day!

And every year I ask myself why there has to be a special day to remind the world that women have to be treated equally to men.

In 1791, French activist Olympe de Gouge wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women. Her purpose in writing such a text was not only to affirm that women had/have the same rights as men (article 1) but also to fight to obtain new ones.

This was 219 years ago, and yet it’s impossible to affirm today that women’s rights are respected.

From an historical perspective, we can distinguish between two categories of women in this world. The ones lucky enough to be born with a set of rights recognized to them and the ones that
still have to fight for those rights. But in the end, both categories are threatened.

If the last generations gained many powerful rights, such as the right to vote, to own a bank account, divorce, abortion, birth control or just work, new generations have to fight to retain these rights. This is true for the lucky women category. The other category still has a long way to go. The opportunity to study and work is still a luxury for a number of women. And, being able to represent themselves is to this day only a dream for many others.

What frightens me the most today is not the fact that there’s still a lot to do, because fighting to gain something is always a positive motivation to obtain new opportunities; it is more that we might lose all the chances that we had to fight for over so many years.

Let’s take the right to abortion for instance. If it took a long time to obtain, and mostly to accept, it’s not a given any longer. In Italy, if women can freely ask for an abortion, the physician is always entitled to a « droit de regard » and can refuse to perform such an act if it is against his/her convictions. And I’m absolutely devastated when I hear politicians (and most of the time women politicians) saying that abortion should be prohibited again. Here, I cannot help myself from thinking that, it’s not homo homini lupus but women who are dangerous to women.

When will we stop religion beliefs to influence our choices? When will we be entirely free to dispose of our body?

As for the right to vote or to work, if it is absolutely obvious nowadays, women are still underrepresented, not only in politics but also in the work place. And, when women succeed in reaching higher responsibility jobs they will always be submitted to higher pressure than their male colleagues. Not only should we be clever and efficient, we should also be beautiful, a good mother, a good wife when we shouldn’t also be a good cook or house hostess! And all this without even being guaranteed to have the same salary as our dear males.

But, you got it, this is for group number one, the shiny group. Our second group, as I said, has a long way to go. The right to be educated should be the priority for everyone in this world. This is our only way to have wings and to be able to progress not only in the public but also in the private arenas.

Every woman in this world should have the possibility to be educated, to study, to work, to be a mother, to refuse to be one, in one word: to gain independence. Choice shouldn’t be a luxury.

And for all of these reasons, we cannot use the 8th of March as the only day to claim and fight for our rights. Every single day has to be a fight for freedom and equality.

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

On gold, toothpullers and attempted revolutions

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

 While a number of people will know that July 1789 marked the beginning of the French revolution, fewer may be aware of the Inconfidência Mineira (the Minas Gerais conspiracy), a rebellious movement which attempted to proclaim a Brazilian republic in February, that same year. 

Following the landing of Pedro Alvares Cabral at Porto Seguro in April 1500, Brazil became a Portuguese colony. Sugar rapidly ranked first of the colony’s exports, but once gold was discovered in Minas Gerais some time around 1693, gold mining soon replaced sugar as the main economic activity. A number of towns were built around this activity, such as Vila Rica, known today as Ouro Preto.

The extraction of gold was totally controlled by the Portuguese Crown. It was allowed on the condition that a payment of one fifth (the quinto) would be made to the colonial government. To ensure better control over the gold production, goldsmiths were driven out of the region, and foundries where established where the gold was cast into bars, and marked with the royal seal. Gold could only circulate in that form. As happened in other parts of the world, the heavy control and taxation eventually led to rebellious movements, such as those we have seen in the case of tea or salt.

A first rebellion took place in 1720: the Levante de Vila Rica (the Vila Rica uprising) demanded the relaxing of the drastic measures. The movement was fiercely repressed by the Governor, who ordered the arrest of the leader, Felipe dos Santos, and the burning of hundreds of houses in Ouro Podre where he owned many houses. The hamlet is now called Morro da Queimada. Dos Santos was eventually sentenced to death, hanged and his body quartered.

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

More than sixty years later, inspired by the 1776 American independence from yet another colonial power, as well as by the French philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, the Inconfidência Mineira took place in 1789, also in Vila Rica. While books and other publications were being banned in the colony, the Inconfidência Museum in Ouro Preto displays clandestine editions of forbidden books, including a Recueil des loix constitutives des Etats-Unis, 1788, which is known in Brazil as Tiradentes’ book.

As gold mining was decreasing in the Minas Gerais captaincy, the Crown had asked for an additional tax on gold, the derrama. The plan was to start the rebellion on the day the derrama was to be instituted. The movement brought together a number of liberal thinkers who wanted to create a Republic, open harbours to stimulate trade with other nations, create a university.

Tiradentes, Brasilia

Tiradentes, Brasilia

The movement lacked cohesion however, with some of the members being republicans, while others were monarchists. Members of the conspiracy eventually denounced the proposed uprising. A long trial ensued in Rio de Janeiro. Joaquim José da Silva Xavier decided to assume responsibility of leader of the movement.

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

A dentist, he was given the nickname of Tiradentes (toothpuller) during the trial. While 11 of the conspirators, including famous Brazilian poet, Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, were banned to Mozambique and other Portuguese colonies in Africa, Tiradentes was sentenced to death. He was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in 1792, and his body, like Felipe dos Santos, quartered. To ensure proper publicity to the strong reaction of the Portuguese Crown to any rebellion, Tiradentes’ body parts were displayed in several towns. His head was placed in Vila Rica, while his house was torn down and salted.

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Tiradentes has survived his execution to become a symbol of the struggle for Brazilian independence. The anniversary of his death is a national holiday and many Brazilian cities, including Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, or Ouro Preto have named a square after him, or display his statue.

The members of the Inconfidência Mineira had planned for a whole new way of life after independence, and had even designed a flag, which has since been adopted by the State of Minas Gerais. The motto reads: Libertas Quae Sera Tamen (Freedom, even if it be late).

The first stone

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Stiffelio, Metropolitan Opera, January 11, 2010

Stiffelio, Metropolitan Opera, January 11, 2010

Stiffelio, a lesser known opera by Giuseppe Verdi, tells the story of a Protestant minister and his adulterous wife, Lina.

It also features Lina’s father who, in what is today described as an honour killing, reclaims his damaged honour by successfully using his sword against his daughter’s seducer. 

In a final sermon, the initially enraged Stiffelio is pushed to compassion and forgiveness by being directed to read from the Bible. The book opens on the story of Jesus and the adulteress, and when Stiffelio reads ”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, Lina is forgiven.

Interestingly, the opera in the version it was played tonight has been rescued from the censors. Following its premiere, Stiffelio was heavily criticized by the Catholic Church, and most of the plot had to be transposed to eliminate any religious allusion. As a result, Verdi decided to find and destroy all the printed scores; it is only in the 1960s that an autograph version was finally discovered, which allowed for the restoration of the original text and music.

Beyond being the victim of censorship, Stiffelio is about a magnanimous husband but it also tells the story of a woman who is a victim. Lina has little choice in her actions or indeed freedom, between a father, a husband and a seducer. A number of other opera heroines are victims of their male relatives’ decisions. One of the most famous may be Lucia di Lamermoor, who, because she is forced to marry someone she does not love, and rather than being unfaithful to her true love, succumbs to madness and kills her husband on her wedding night.

Stiffelio’s Lina, the victim of a seducer, fares better and is forgiven by a compassionate and religious husband. This tale of redemption and forgiveness takes increased relevance at a time when honour killings are practiced on a too regular basis, and when world media still report news of adulterous women and men being stoned to death.

The most iniquitous of all taxes

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Sea salt

Sea salt

Salt started being taxed in China, around 300 B.C. Salt being essential to daily sustenance, the proponents of taxation argued that people would be willing to pay a higher price to ensure this vital commodity would remain available.

Revenues derived from the salt tax at one point represented half of the State income, and over the years were used to build armies, as well as defensive structures including the Great Wall. In 9th Century Canton, the main sources of revenue were the duties on tea and salt.

In Ancient Rome, the Via Salaria, Salt Road, was built to ensure that a constant supply of salt could be transported to the soldiers and horses of the Roman armies. According to many sources, that are now disputed, salt was also used to pay soldiers, and the latin word sal is at the origin of the English word salary, the French word solde, from which the word soldier is derived. Rather than taxing salt, the Romans actually subsidized it so that it would be available to plebeians.  

India had an ancient tradition of salt making and trading. The West Coast Gujarat marshland is famous for its solar-evaporated sea salt, while two kinds of salt are found in Orissa, on the East Coast: the naturally evaporated kartach and the much sought after panga, a salt produced by the malangis (salt labourers) by boiling salty soil in sea water. Orissa salt had a large market in neighbouring Bengal.

Salt taxation existed in India from early on, with differences in the way it was imposed. In Bengal, during the time of the Mughals,  it was not uniformally applied: while Muslims paid a 2.5% tax, Hindus were imposed at 5% of the cost.  

Starting in 1759, the British East India Company repeatedly tried to derive income from salt and to bring its trade under the Company’s control. Orissa salt was in high demand, including to manufacture gunpowder that was necessary for the British army. 

In 1780, a new tax system was introduced. The malangis would sell their salt to Agents, who managed Agencies, under which the salt works were now placed. The buying price was set at two rupees a maund, while a maund would in turn be sold with an additional tax of 1.1 to 1.5 rupee per maund. With the new tax, the Company saw its revenue increase from 80,000 rupees in 1780 to over 6 million rupees for the period 1784-1785. The tax was later further raised to bring the price of a maund to about 4 rupees.

Meanwhile, in Cheshire, England salt was also being produced in large quantities and new markets had become necessary. There was however no comparison between the Cheshire salt and the higher quality and cheaper Orissa salt: to ensure a market for the Cheshire product, the British banned Orissa salt from Bengal. Smuggling of the better salt ensued, which eventually resulted in 1803 in the annexion of Orissa by the British. The goal was to control smuggling, and on 1 November 1804, Orissa salt became a British monopoly. Salt could only be sold by the government at a fixed price.

With no direct source of income, malangis had no choice but to work for the British authorities who would pay them in advance for future salt production. Paying their debt became a heavy burden for the malangis, many of whom ended up leaving.

Custom checkpoints were established throughout Bengal to stop smuggling activities, and gradually, a thick thorn hedge was built. This eventually grew into the Great Hedge of India, covering more than 2,500 miles and guarded by close to 12,000 men.

It had become illegal to engage in any activity related to salt: even scraping salt for private consumption was considered a punishable offence.

The British Raj took over administration of the salt trade, which by 1880 was bringing in seven million pounds, representing close to 10% of the nation’s income. 

Indian rupees and sea salt

Indian rupees and sea salt

In 1878, it was decided to impose a uniform salt tax of two rupees and eight annas to the whole of India, resulting in certain cases in a decrease.

The taxation on salt had a serious impact on the health of the population of India, who for the most part could not afford the high price of the iodine rich commodity. More than in other countries, the high temperatures that can be reached in India made it imperative for people to increase their salt intake.

Protest against the salt tax started in India with a mention during the first session of the Indian National Congress, in 1885 in Bombay. In February 1888, the first public meeting to protest the salt tax took place in Cuttack. From 1888 forward, the tax was discussed in various sessions of the Congress.

It is while he was in South Africa,  in 1891, that Mohandas Gandhi wrote first against the salt tax: according to him, ”salt is an essential article in our diatery. It could be said that the increasing incidence of leprosy in India was due to the salt tax.”

Thanks to Gandhi, protest against the salt tax became part of the Indian National Congress strategy in its fight for independence. On 31 December, 1929, in Lahore, the Indian National Congress had raised the flag of India, and on 26 January, 1930, the Congress issued the Purna Swaraj, a Declaration of Independence from the British Government. “We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth.” 

As a sign of independence, a symbolic act of civil disobedience had to be planned. Gandhi suggested to target the Salt Act, in a nonviolent protest, the Salt Satyagraha, which was based on his previous attempts at using strength through nonviolence.

In a highly publicized campaign, which reached out to the world, Gandhi prepared a 23-day march that was to leave from his ashram on March 12, pass through 48 villages and reach the coastal village of Dandi, in his native Gujarat.

Gandhi gave ample time to the British authorities to grant his 11 demands, one of which was the abolition of the salt tax. He would stop the march were his demands to be met. Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, ignored Gandhi’s letter.

On March 12, as scheduled, Gandhi left his ashram. He was accompanied by 78 male satyagrahis: the decision had been made not to include women, as the risks were too high. He was met on the way by growing crowds, and by the time they reached Dandi, thousands had joined the march, including women, and thousands more were waiting for them.

International media coverage was sustained throughout the march. Gandhi was well aware of the impact such coverage would mean for their cause, and as the satyagrahis were about to reach Dandi, he declared: “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.”

Gandhi, Union Square, New York

Gandhi, Union Square, New York

On April 6, Gandhi walked to the sea and picked up salty mud from which he produced illegal salt. He then asked his fellow Indians to follow his example. Millions listened to him who made or bought illegal salt. The movement was rapidly joined by women of all ages, a turning point in the fight for independence.

By the end of April, the British authorities had arrested over sixty thousand people. The salt satyagraha then turned into a mass campaign of civil disobedience, with British goods, including cloth, being boycotted, and Indians refusing to pay taxes all over the country. The Indian National Congress was declared illegal.

As part of Gandhi’s plans, the fight against the salt tax was to continue with a raid on the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. Again he informed Lord Irwin who this time reacted by having him arrested on May 4. Gandhi’s arrest did not stop the plans, even though more leaders - including Gandhi’s own wife, Kasturba - were arrested on the way to Dharasana. The march was then led by a woman, Sarojini Naidi, who reminded the marchers that they were neither to resist nor to try to protect themselves. Marchers were repelled by British soldiers armed with steel tipped wooden clubs.

From Dharasana again, the world media reported on the protest. The British authorities unsuccessfully tried to censor United Press Webb Miller’s story, which got picked up in 1,350 newspapers around the world. Time Magazine compared Gandhi’s Dandi march “to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied a British tea tax” with the Boston tea party.  

The British authorities finally gave in to the civil disobedience campaign, and in early 1931, Gandhi, along with all other political prisoners, was released from prison and invited, as the sole representative of the ndian National Congress, to attend a conference in London. They were to discuss the issue of Indian independence.

It took close to another 17 years before India would become independent following World War II, on August 15, 1947. The salt tax was only abolished in October 1946 by the Interim Government led by Jawaharlal Nerhu.