Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

‘Human rights’: how meaningless can this phrase become?

A really important article – and a bitter expose of the ironies of Western ‘human rights’ work – came out last night from Electronic Intifada. By Lebanese journalist and fixer Moe Ali Nayel, it recounts his experience translating for the some Harvard ‘human rights studies’ academics. Their subject was a woman who had fled Yarmouk camp in Damascus and was staying in Sabra camp in Lebanon while she tried to find medical help for her young son, who had been hit in the head by shrapnel. The coldness, presumption and arrogance of the Harvard researchers has to be read about to be believed; it is shocking, but sadly not surprising. It is also a vital warning to any of us trying to work out how our academic work and our ethics work with one another, and a reminder that nothing is worth humiliating and diminishing another human being in this way.

Some illustratory excerpts:

At the end of a narrow alleyway we stopped at a pile of shoes by the steps of a small apartment; the heap of shoes indicated the many people who were inside. While we added our shoes to the pile the professor and her students murmured: “We are not here to talk about her son, we just want to ask about her experience fleeing from Syria to Beirut.” And: “fine let’s just give her a quick five minutes to talk about her son and we’ll move on.”

and:

“Tell us exactly how long it took you,” the trainee insisted, keen on the minutiae for her records. “Was it 20 or 30 minutes? Try to remember, and how long you waited at the checkpoint. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Try to remember.”
As this routine continued, Um Muhammad’s answers became more vague and troubled, the students desperate for details. I was told to translate that they were from Harvard and they are here to document her experience so it was important for her to remember… Um Muhammad shot me looks of astonishment throughout, as if her words were not credible enough for them. As she was made to repeat her answers over and over, she sighed and went on. At one point, answering politely, but tired of the tirade of questions, Um Muhammad lit a cigarette… “Please tell her to put out her cigarette.” Um Muhammad didn’t need me to translate this one, she instantly noticed the grimaced looks.

And:

I took my chance, while the coffee was being served, to tell Um Muhammad about a doctor I know from Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, a reputable orthopediatrician who I thought Um Muhammad should go to, who treats people for no charge.
The human rights trainee, who couldn’t understand our Arabic and seemed to feel as if she was being excluded, suddenly snapped: “What’s going on? You can’t just talk to her without telling me. What are you talking to her about? I need to know everything that is being said,” interrupting my conversation with Um Muhammad. Further awkwardness filled the air in the room.

The full article is here.

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