Saturday, 18 September 2010

Foreign tourists and travellers as witnesses for human rights

One of the important incidental roles that travellers can sometimes fulfill is as witnesses and messengers to the outside world of human rights violations. The known presence of such international witnesses, whose foreign passports and greater ability to escape the country often make them less vulnerable than local observers, can even deter or mitigate such violations.

Some nonprofit organizations, notably Peace Brigades International, specialize in organizing volunteer international accompaniment for local human rights activists, journalists, and other people at special risk. But even ordinary tourists can bear witness to events they chance to witness, and can sometimes (if they take great care to protect their anonymity) relay messages from people they meet.

In practice, individual foreign tourists are often the only foreign witnesses to some of the world’s worst, and least-known, atrocities. This role of travellers is especially important in places from which foreigners who identify themselves as journalists are banned by local authorities. And it is one of the reasons that a boycott or embargo against travel is likely to be counterproductive if it is supposed to serve as a corrective to violations of human rights.

A couple of examples from reports this past week on how intent human rights violators are to exclude foreign observers, even tourists — and what they do when they think they are out of sight of the outside world:

Last weekend was Eid, the period of prayer, feasting, and community celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. It’s the most holy time in the Muslim year, making its choice as a date for Koran-burning in the U.S. vastly more offensive and provocative than the Koran-burners, who regharded 9/11 as a sacred date for other reasons, probably realized. In places where Islam plays an important role in national culture and resistance to foreign oppression, and where secular political gatherings are suppressed, Eid observances provide a rare opportunity for collective expression of dissident ideas and identities.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

A curfew was imposed in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and all air services put on hold Tuesday after incidents of stone-pelting and violent clashes in major towns killed at least 15 people and injured hundreds in the past two days, according to state police officials.

Meanwhile, Indian police patrolling the streets of Kashmir Tuesday threatened to shoot anyone defying the round-the-clock curfew, the Associated Press reported.

There is only one open road in and out of the Kashmir Valley, and India’s occupation government allows no direct international flights between Kashmir and countries other than India. So control of movement, including denial of passports to Kashmiri nationalists and exclusion of foreigners who might witness Indian human rights violations, especially at times of “troubles” like this week when Indian soldiers, police, and paramilitaries were firing on Eid processions, has been a routine Indian tactic of image management.

The particular isolation of the Kashmir Valley has thus made it a poster child for the significance of the right to travel to the protection of other human rights.

Just across the Himalayas to the north in Kashgar, cultural capital of the area the indigenous population call East Turkestan (its former name as an independent country in the 1930’s) and the Chinese occupation government and Han (ethnic Chinese) immigrants and settlers call Xinjiang (“New Dominions”) Province, the Chinese army showed its typical fear of the power of foreign witnesses.

According to the New York Times:

At dawn on Friday, the first day of Id, a convoy of military trucks and police cars with flashing lights rolled past the public plaza outside the Id Kah Mosque, where thousands of men and boys were congregating outdoors for morning prayers. Police officers blocked foreigners trying to go to the rooftop of the Orda Hotel, which overlooks the distinctive yellow mosque, the largest in China, to watch the prayer ceremony.

“It’s not as tense as last year, but the police are still worried about problems,” said one ethnic Uighur man who, like many in this city, spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities are attacking not just human rights but the most important symbols and expressions of the cultural heritage of the indigenous people, physically destroying the historic center of the (non-Chinese) community. According to the same article:

In a new concrete home on the edge of the old city, a young woman, Guli, invited two foreigners to try freshly baked lamb-filled pastries that her family was eating at twilight. A stove burned in the courtyard.

Almost all the traditional, mud-walled dwellings around Guli’s home had been razed as part of a government plan to build new housing that began in early 2009. It appeared that at least two-thirds of the labyrinthine old city south of the Id Kah Mosque had been destroyed, leaving nothing but lots full of dust where some of the most atmospheric neighborhoods in Central Asia once stood….

[O]ne Uighur man said most people were opposed to the destruction of the old city. “The government is doing it no matter what people think,” he said.

He opened a picture book with an old photograph of the Id Kah Mosque. In front of it was a green park that he said had been destroyed in the mid-1990s to make way for a modern plaza. “Our history is being lost,” he said.

On Friday morning, ethnic Han policemen stood on the corners of the plaza as Uighur men carrying prayer rugs streamed there from all corners of the city for the first prayer of Id….

I’ve been to Kashgar and travelled extensively throughout Central Asia, and there is no question in my mind or that of most visitors that the old-city of Kashgar, inside its almost entirely intact millenia-old city wall, was one of the best preserved and most significant examples of classical Central Asian urban architecture, especially in remaining an active residential district and not just a tourist sight. If it has not been designated as a World Heritage Site, that’s almost certainly a consequence of Chinese government fear that anything that enhances recognition of East Turkestan’s distinct culture and history would strengthen the nationalist opposition to continued Chinese occupation of “Xinjiang”.

China’s bulldozing of the old city of Kashgar (like India’s less-complete razing of portions of the old city of Srinagar, in Kashmir), is a cultural crime of the same order as Napolean’s blowing off the nose of the Sphinx with a cannonball, or the Taliban’s blowing up the giant rock-carved Buddhas of Bamiyan. It deprives local people, and future visitors, of irreplaceable knowledge, and deserves the same condemnation as would be warranted if China were bulldozing the Patala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of the other main region of Chinese occupation, Tibet.

In the face of foreign acquiescence to such cultural crimes, it’s hard to offer any other explanation than the one taken for granted by most of the world’s Muslims, and those who defend their rights: Global Islamophobia that drives a global double standard toward crimes against Muslims, crimes (including denial of self-determination) against Muslim-majority nations like Kashmir and East Turkestan, and crimes against their national, political, and cultural rights.

As travellers, must we bear mute witness to such desecration we observe first-hand, or of places we know from our personal travel experience? What can we do? Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

[Update: More on the real estate boom in Kashgar in the wake of the destruction of the Old City]

Link | Posted by Edward on Saturday, 18 September 2010, 14:42 ( 2:42 PM)

Witness marks both the seer and the seen. it takes courage and effort, and may also place innocents in harm's way. I traveled to Burma in the past year and saw mostly the generosity of its underclass. I also experienced an identical no-photo military threat at the gates of the american embassy and the street barricade of prime-minister Daw Aung San (captive for 18yrs ssince her electoral victory in 1992). blogging on (free myanmar, aung san suu kyi) for months since my return has garnered not one comment. witness is its own reward!

Posted by: smany, 21 September 2010, 08:52 ( 8:52 AM)

Very interesting article. I've never thought of it that way, that traveling should come with some responsibility, especially since it's a privilege reserved for those with saving accounts, and anyone can blog (though not as well as you do). This is one of the advantages social media brings, for all its glut of useless "information." Yay for democratization, though let's hope the mavens hold off the tide of shit.(thanks)

Posted by: Anonymous, 17 October 2010, 10:05 (10:05 AM)

I think your thesis, that tourists can serve as witnesses to deter human rights violations, is probably true, but I don't see that you've substantiated it here. Tourists typically don't have the contacts or resources to pass on information on human rights violations. They also, right or wrong, might not have a lot of credibility. Sure, violators prefer to commit their crimes in secret (except for cases of show violations), which often applies to local populations as well. How might tourists be informed and organized to report directly, promptly, and in detail about violations? That's an activist challenge worth considering.

Posted by: John LP, 17 October 2010, 18:26 ( 6:26 PM)

Thanks for your thoughts, John.

My goal wasn't to "prove" that tourists can can serve as witnesses to deter human rights violations. And I think you pose an interesting question as to how human rights monitors could organize a system for "crowd-sourcing" reports and documentation -- from tourists and others -- of reports and evidence of violations.

That said, I do think the reports I cited show that human rights violators themselves believe that tourists are capable of embarrassing them by getting out reports of violations -- which is why they try, as the stories I quoted show, to exclude not just journalists but tourists.

It used to be true that ordinary tourists would find it hard to get out the word about what they had seen, but that's no longer the case.

Increasingly, mainstream journalists rely on crowd-sourcing for news, descriptions, photos, and video, especially where they don't have reporters on the ground. And tourists' blog entries and cell phone videos can and do "go viral" and get picked up by mainstream news sources as well as human rights organizations.

Just as cheap video recorders and then pervasive availability in the hands of ordinary passers-by of cell phones with video recording capability have transformed reporting of police abuse in the USA, so they have created the *potential* for transformation of international human rights reporting and documentation.

To you as an expert, tourists' reports may have limited credibility compared to those of professional observers. But to the public, foreign tourists who "just happened to be there" are generally given fairly high credibility compared to representatives of organizations (including mainstream media) or even local people who might be thought to have an axe to grind.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 17 October 2010, 18:54 ( 6:54 PM)
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