Wednesday 22 February 2017


Politicians have shamelessly been peddling a “toxic rhetoric” that is creating a more divided and dangerous world, said human rights group Amnesty International at the launch Tuesday of its annual report on rights around the world.

Speaking in Paris, France, the organization’s Secretary General Salil Shetty warned that the “politics of demonization” was threatening to unleash the “darkest aspects” of human nature.

“Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes,” Shetty told journalists.

He said the dangerous idea that “some humans are lesser than others” was leading to a world that is more fragmented and “less safe for all of us”.

The Amnesty International report, titled The State of the World’s Human Rights, covers 159 countries and provides a wide-ranging international analysis of the human rights situation.

The report cautions that the consequences of the "us versus them" rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is “fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak”.

While the current U.S. president came in for criticism because of his “poisonous campaign rhetoric” and actions since his inauguration, Shetty said that Donald Trump was not the only one fostering the current climate of fear, blame and division.

“More and more politicians are calling themselves anti-establishment and are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people,” Shetty stressed.

According to Amnesty International, many governments in 2016 turned a “blind eye to war crimes, pushed through deals that undermine the right to claim asylum, passed laws that violate free expression, incited murder of people simply because they are accused of using drugs, justified torture and mass surveillance, and extended draconian police powers”.

Salil Shetty
The organization chose to launch its report in France this year to highlight some of these issues in a country where human rights are “tightly woven into the fabric of the nation”, as Shetty put it.

Previous reports have historically been introduced in London, where Amnesty is based, but the group said it wished to draw attention to human rights abuses during France’s continuing state of emergency. The latter is in response to a series of terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of more than 300 people since January 2015 and injured hundreds of others in the country.

Amnesty and other rights groups have criticized “heavy-handed” French security measures that include thousands of house searches and detentions in the wake of the attacks.

“We understand that governments have to protect people but it has to be proportionate,” said Shetty, speaking at the Paris launch venue located along the river Seine - and overlooking a copy of the iconic statue of liberty that France offered to the United States.

“The emergency law is deeply discriminatory if you look at the people whose homes have been searched,” he added. “It’s one religion that has been targeted.”

The report also throws light on the treatment of refugees and migrants - “often an easy target for scapegoating”.  It records how 36 countries “violated international law by unlawfully sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk”.

Amnesty said that if the targeting of refugees continues in 2017, “others will be in the cross-hairs”.

A demonstration in Paris last year in support of protecting
civilians in Aleppo. (Photo: Brunaud / Picturetank)
“The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion,” Shetty said.

Government crackdowns on free expression have equally targeted writers, journalists and artists in many countries, the report shows.

In response to a question about accusations of bias on Amnesty’s part in its reporting of violations, Shetty defended the organization and its record. “I take criticism from some leaders as a plus point,” he said. (Critics include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who have respectively accused the organization of bias and naïveté.)

Shetty told journalists that it was easy to imagine a “dystopian future where unrestrained brutality becomes the new normal”, but he said that would only come to pass if people allowed it.

“Where leaders fail, people must step up,” he said. “Today we need that spirit more than ever before.”

Meanwhile, Camille Blanc, the head of Amnesty International’s French section, called on French people to act on behalf of human rights, especially in light of coming presidential elections where the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen is leading in polls for the first of two rounds of voting.

"Citizens should not allow themselves to fall into the trap of politicians espousing hate and fear," Blanc said. "It's important to denounce ... but also to act."

Wednesday 8 February 2017


The world is becoming “more violent, and violence is occurring in surprising places”, says a recent report by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Some 3.34 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, have been affected by violence over the past 15 years, according to the report. But many regions have also known violence for decades, if not centuries, and the arts have particularly borne witness to the issue.

In the Caribbean, writers and other artists are known for portraying societal violence in their work, and this depiction is now increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

Véronique Maisier, a professor at Southern Illinois University in the United States, is the author of a compelling book titled Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood, and she discusses the topic in the following conversation with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie.

A.M.: What was the motivation for researching and writing “Violence in Caribbean Literature”?
V.M.: My interest in Caribbean literature started in 2000 when I first read [Martinican writer] Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco. I found Chamoiseau’s novel to be challenging but also beautifully written, and fascinating. After reading it, I wanted to know more about Caribbean writers and cultures, and once I started reading novels by Simone Schwarz-Bart, Maryse Condé, Michelle Cliff, Edwidge Danticat, and Jamaica Kincaid, I could not stop. I realized early on that their narratives all emphasized the daily struggles of their protagonists. Most often, the characters had to contend with extreme poverty, and resorted to violence in order to survive, to express their frustration, or to reject an established order that had cruelly failed them. Other times, violence was triggered by jealousy, madness, prejudices, and resulted in murder, rape or domestic abuse. Whatever the causes, tensions were rarely absent from people’s interactions in Caribbean novels. A few years ago, it dawned on me that several of the novels I had read had in common a scene in which a protagonist grabbed a stone, and threw it at someone - a friend, an outsider, a child, a teacher. I decided to work on a comparative study of these scenes in order to look more closely at the violence that I had noticed in many Caribbean texts.

A.M.: Is violence more of a topic, theme or trope in “Caribbean” literature than in other regional writing, and, if so, could you summarize some of the reasons for this, according to your research?
V.M.: I think that violence is especially present in Caribbean literature because of the historical forces put in place since the beginnings of the diverse cultures that constitute the Caribbean region today. Caribbean societies were born out of the extermination of the local populations, followed by the kidnapping, forced relocation, and slaved labor of millions of Africans, in turn followed by the indentureship of many thousands of East and West Asians brought to the Caribbean region after the abolition of slavery.  Populations with different cultures, religions, languages, ways of life, etc. were brutally forced together to inhabit a foreign land where they would be denied their humanity for several centuries. As a result, contemporary Caribbean societies have inherited numerous divides from the past - divides based on race, on economic status, education, gender, religion or politics - that express themselves in the numerous examples of violence found in the literature of the region.

Professor Veronique Maisier
A.M.: In the book, you discuss common historical events as well as differences among Caribbean nations. Regarding violence, what were the commonalities you found across the region?
V.M.: While there are many cultural and political differences among Caribbean nations, I found that there were quite a few commonalities in the scenes of violence that I examined. For instance, the attackers were all young individuals, typically teenagers who were rebelling against the authority of an adult or against a perceived injustice. Except for one case of violence that had clear sexual undertones, the acts of violence were perpetrated against persons of the same gender as the attacker. The attacks took place abruptly but resulted from tensions that had been building up for months. Blood was drawn in each of the incidents, and the consequences of the attack were grievous for the victims while the attackers remained unscathed and safe from reprisals (with the exception of Merle Hodge’s young boy who was sent to the Orphanage as a result of his actions). Not surprisingly, the stone was the weapon of choice for the young attackers who did not have any resources to acquire more advanced weaponry, and who reacted swiftly, with whatever was close at hand, to what they perceived as an immediate threat. 

A.M.: Do writers from different islands treat violence in different ways?
V.M.: Writers might have different experiences with violence depending on where they live but I do not think that this necessarily translates in a different treatment of violence in their novels.  Violence is a universal concept. While personal experience may vary - and sometimes even for writers from one neighborhood to the next, a general understanding, and empathy tend to level out differences based on geography.  It is more likely that writers treat violence in different ways depending on their gender, age, political views, or ideology rather than based on their country affiliation. In my opinion, a writer’s treatment of violence has less to do with geographical origin than with life experiences, even though I realize that those can be tightly connected.

Poster for the film based on Zobel's novel.
A.M.: Regarding the historical aspect, how do earlier writers deal with violence in their work?
V.M.: That is a difficult question to answer in a few words. Violence in the works of earlier writers appears under control, contained within the text. There is plenty of violence for instance in Télumée Miracle [by Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart] or La Rue Cases-Nègres [by Martinican writer Joseph Zobel]. The treatment of violence in these beautiful texts, however, seems somewhat conventional, as it follows the classic construction in which the reader is led to feel sorry for the victim(s). Recent writers are more challenging in that regard; they question the positions of victim and attacker, and generally speaking they make things less “cozy” for their readers. What I find fascinating with many recent writers is that the violence is found at the level of the text itself. It is present in the language - with the creolization of the colonial language, for instance - and in the very structure of the text - with the polyphonic approach, the orality, the rejection of literary conventions, etc. With some books, the violence becomes textual, it disturbs the text, and is felt by readers who get closer to being participants than mere observers.

A.M.: Does the theme cut across different genres - poetry, short stories, plays, novels?
V.M.: Yes, the theme of violence cuts across different genres, and can be found in poetry, short stories, plays, novels, and we can add songs, films, paintings.

A.M.: Do you think that there is now a movement towards gratuitous violence in some works?
V.M.: I am not sure. I am not aware of such a movement but that does not mean that it does not exist. In the Caribbean novels that I have read, violence is never gratuitous. There are violent characters who hit, hurt, and abuse other characters for the flimsiest of reasons or for reasons that might appear gratuitous, but I do not think that it was the authors’ intention to write about violence for the sake of violence or as a marketing tool to appeal to a certain type of readers.  In my readings, violent acts that appear unjustified remain a way to express one’s anger, one’s frustration, or one’s powerlessness. I admit that one of the most disturbingly violent scenes I have ever read was in [Jamaican-born writer] Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, when Christopher massacres Paul’s family. On the one hand, that scene very much pushes the limits of comfort with its horrific details, and raises the question: “Was such a graphic description necessary?” On the other hand, in the context of Cliff’s portrayal of Jamaican society, the scene is an essential precursor of Jamaica falling into extremely violent political turmoil, as exemplified in Christopher’s gruesome descent into madness.

The cover of Michelle Cliff's novel.
A.M.: What do you hope readers (and writers) will gain from your book?
V.M.: I hope that readers might gain an understanding of the various elements at play in the violence found in the context of contemporary Caribbean societies. In the book, I try to explain why the situation can be so volatile today in these societies, and I hope to show that, given certain circumstances, violence becomes not only unavoidable but also understandable. Understanding does not mean condoning. While one cannot condone violence, one should understand its components, its mechanisms in order to be able to find ways to remedy it, and to defuse it. I would like to encourage a compassionate reading of the victims, but also of the attackers, and to recommend an awareness of the injustices faced by members of society who are wronged for reasons of race, gender, age, poverty, sexual orientation, lack of opportunity or representation, as well as an awareness of the dangers inherent in a society where such injustices take place.

(Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood is published by Lexington Books.)

For another version of this article, please see INPS / IDN news agency:

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale