Michael Bochenek Interview, Part I

Michael Bochenek Interview, Part I

The Harvard Human Rights Journal is proud to feature its interview with Michael Bochenek, the Legal and Policy Director for Amnesty International. In this two-part interview, Bochenek discusses Amnesty International’s Demand Dignity Campaign, which seeks to end the human rights abuses that perpetuate conditions of poverty around the world. In this first section, Bochenek discusses the genesis of the Demand Dignity Campaign, as well as some of its challenges and successes.

 Interviewer: James Tager, J.D. ‘13

Let’s start by talking about the genesis of the Demand Dignity campaign, and the reasons Amnesty decided to embark on such a campaign.

The Demand Dignity campaign was designed to address the violations that drive and deepen poverty. In other words, to address the kind of things that keep people poor and that make them poorer. The Campaign mainly has a three-part focus: slums, or the human rights violations that are associated with living in slums; preventable maternal mortality; and corporate accountability, with a specific focus on the extractive sector.  The Campaign also has a focus on enforcement—“making rights law”—as a common thread running through the other themes.

I see the impetus for the campaign as two-fold. The campaign aimed to draw together the work that Amnesty was doing on economic, social, and cultural rights, emphasize the indivisibility of all human rights, and to give an overarching focus to this work. The campaign also aimed to provide, in a prominent way, the message that these rights are human rights. Each of the Demand Dignity reports carries a slogan on the bottom, depending on the issue: Housing is a Human Right, Health is a Human Right. The slogan is meant to remind people, or to inform them if they don’t know, that these things that they associate with poverty—or with bad luck, or with poor circumstances—aren’t inevitable, and that they have a rights component and they require solutions that involve taking account of human rights issues.

Although the Demand Dignity campaign has been only recently founded, the campaign has been ongoing for a few years. Are there any success stories that come to mind, which for you demonstrate the success of the campaign?

It’s difficult to measure success, because although the Campaign has been going on for three years, it still does take time to make lasting change. But examples do come to mind.

I think the work that has been done in India, in corporate accountability, is one example. We’re seeing there, and in other places, a greater willingness on the part of corporations to take account of the views and the needs of people in the areas where they are developing their operations. There’s an example from India where our work on the activities of a mining company on an indigenous group’s traditional lands led to a real change in the approach the company took to consultation with the community.  The key was showing the company that there was a community that was able to engage in the consultation process and that nongovernmental organizations were there to support that community.  So the community was pushing back , and investors were starting to take notice as well.  The challenge here, as always, was to get beyond a “public relations” response and move the company toward actual, meaningful engagement with the communities affected by corporate operations.

Similarly in places like Paraguay and in Canada, what we’re seeing in the sphere of corporate relations with indigenous communities is greater awareness of the need to pay attention to what the communities are asking for. We are also seeing this in the sphere of government relations with these indigenous communities. And this approach is in contrast to the approach of effectively steamrollering the project through any objections on the part of the communities.

I think in the legal standard-setting and litigation realms there have been some good responses. In Paraguay, again with the issue of indigenous communities, the inter-American system has ordered measures that need to be taken to reflect free, prior and informed consent from the communities. That has been a principal issue: what achieving this consent means in practice, and what states and corporations need to do to comply with this principle and to ensure this right. And we have seen some good results from the inter-American system on this, with positive steps taken by Paraguayan authorities and companies in response.

In the area of our work on the slums issue, and maybe with maternal mortality as well, we have been at the very least getting greater awareness on the part of the governments. And I refer to awareness that these circumstances are not just . . . ‘bad luck, bad circumstances, isn’t it terrible’ kind of hand-wringing, but that there are actual steps that need to be taken.

For example, in the context of forced evictions, we’ve promoted awareness that governments need to take serious steps to make sure that people get notice, to make sure that they have the opportunity to contest their eviction, that alternatives are offered if it’s needed—if they would otherwise be made homeless—and that there’s a real process behind the evictive action that is protective of what’s really important: this fundamental right to have a roof over your head, that this right is protected.

And very concretely, our work has played a role in stopping some forced evictions, for example in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

And you mentioned maternal mortality, as well?

For maternal mortality, some of the earlier reports that we did for the campaign were in places like Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso. These are hard places in which to work, because the context is so dire generally. But I think that we were able to make some really detailed recommendations to governments about how to reduce the kinds of delays that lead to maternal death that would otherwise be preventable. And we also were able to make detailed recommendations on how to provide the kind of information that families need, that decision-makers need, to make the right decision. And I should point out, in contexts such as Sierra Leone the decision-makers for the family are often the male heads of the household, and we might prefer that the decision-maker be the woman in this case. But at least the male decision-maker can be informed of the need for early medical attention, and will make that happen if possible.

I think the challenge has always been, and maternal mortality is probably the easiest illustration of this, that we’re talking about issues where there are so many variables in play. So, the inability to get medical care may be the result of health clinics being located very far away. Now, the state can be doing more in this regard, by making sure that medical facilities are located in places where people need them, or by providing some form of transportation to get there.

Now, that is easy to say in principle, but in practice in a place like Sierra Leone it’s incredibly hard. I think when we looked at the total health budget of Sierra Leone, it was some laughable number; it was completely impossible to conceive of how you could even equip the facilities they have, much less staff them and put new facilities in, and provide transport and so on. But at least with these recommendations you can start a process of making sure that people are thinking about these factors among others, particularly when working with international cooperation and assistance. Just isolating one issue, the transport issue of bringing expectant mothers to hospitals, this is very difficult, but there are things that can be done to make this happen.

And finally, to tie this all back to your question about Campaign successes, I think there has also been a greater willingness from national governments recently to look at good practices from other countries. There are some examples from the fight against maternal mortality. In Peru, there is the idea of residential facilities, so that women who are close to giving birth will travel the distance needed before they require medical attention, and then they are near a medical facility when they give birth, making the process a little easier. There are lots of creative solutions like this one that can be implemented by governments. And governments, with appropriate assistance, are in a position to do this, rather than throwing up their hands and saying, ‘People are poor, isn’t that terrible.’

That is an interesting process you have described, moving from diagnosis of the right violated to prescription of specific actions the government can undertake. Your work on slums is an example: the campaign mentions Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares the human right to an adequate standard of living. Tell us about the work of moving from this diagnosis, to a prescription for action.

I think that the Demand Dignity Campaign’s work on slums has followed a trajectory of starting with issues that are easier for policymakers to grasp, because they involve more of the civil-political, negative rights: You shall not forcibly evict someone, you shall not deprive someone of a home without adequate notice and opportunity to contest, and so on. Now, the trajectory of this work moves on to a new area for a lot of human rights work, and I refer to the work of international human rights organizations like Amnesty International as well as legal policymakers (as opposed to social development policymakers). So the trajectory includes moving from a focus on forced evictions to looking at adequacy of housing more generally, and looking at the conditions of housing including access to water and appropriate sanitation, looking at related safety and security and policing issues that arise from this focus. All of these aspects of the Campaign’s work fall along this trajectory, and each of the reports or final work-products of the Campaign build on the previous work of the campaign.

An example that comes to mind involves a rockslide in Egypt a couple years ago, where we looked at the responsibility of the state, which was really two-fold. One responsibility is that the state knew or should have known that these houses were built on areas that were unstable. In fact, we found that the state did know, because we were able to look at the records from the state authority that’s responsible for this kind of investigation. So they were clearly aware of it. And after the state failed to act on this information for months, suddenly there was a mudslide, people died, and there was an imminent threat to the other families in the area. So the government suddenly had to move people from the affected area on an emergency basis. And this is an example of a natural disaster where an evacuation is needed, and in fact the state’s duty to protect life requires these kinds of emergency measures. In the immediate aftermath, however, you have to find some way of ensuring a longer-term solution, one that takes into account the needs of the people, one that is realistic and also inclusive in terms of involving the affected people in the outcome. Ultimately, it is the people who are going to be affected by this decision, and not the policy-makers.

So in this example, it was interesting issue on which to engage with the Egyptian government, but it was also a critical issue for us to be engaging in, because we were able to provide the Egyptian government with some really specific guidance on what the government should be doing in the immediate term, and to provide them with guidance on what they should doing in the longer term, to make sure that the outcome was appropriate in terms of securing the rights that were at stake for the affected population.

Another example comes to mind from the context of Demand Dignity’s work on slums, and this to me is an example of focusing on specific recommendations that arise out of our research, rather than trying to address all aspects of adequate housing. The example involves our work on slums in Kenya, where the issue that we were focusing on was violence against women and the way that the structural set-up was increasing the risk of violence. It had to do with the number and placement of latrines in the communities, and this touches upon something that is quite personal and quite central to one’s own sense of dignity: whether you can relieve yourself in a way that gives the sense of privacy that you need, and complies with the cultural context.

So in the situation we were examining, women were having to not use the facilities until late in the evening or early in the morning, when of course it would be dark and they would be at risk of attack in a way that wasn’t the case during the daylight hours. Women were going far away from their homes in order to have some privacy, again increasing the risk of attack. In any event, this set-up was not one that was going to safeguard women; on the contrary, it was increasing their risk of violence. And so again, our research resulted in some very straightforward recommendations, getting down to very practical things. We weren’t being as prescriptive as saying, ‘this is how many latrines you need,’ but we did talk about how many latrines were placed, how many households were having to share latrines, and we recommended a better way of locating these public services so that women didn’t have to go through this. So I think that this was a very useful contribution from Amnesty, and I think that for the government the new perspective was to have it framed as a human rights issue rather than a social development approach.

The Journal continues its conversation with Bochenek in Part II of the interview. For more information on the Demand Dignity Campaign, visit the Campaign website, available here.

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