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The Pantomime of Human Rights



Foreword
Readers unfamiliar with British theatre and the background to this blog, will need an explanation.  My theme in all postings is to relate earlier experiences in Northumbrian life to contemporary Cambodia, and/or to developing countries generally, for lessons to be shared.  The Theatre Royal in Newcastle dates back to 1788, and the present fine building to 1837.  Nobody today would deny that the UK in those days was enlightened when it comes to human rights, but very important reforms were begun, for example in relation to employment and children in 1833.  

The North East of England even today lags behind the South, making life harder for the poor, although the worst days may be over. Those were not so long ago as portrayed in local author Catherine Cookson's novels, who I refer to in another blog. (Her own life typifies the hardships.) Having said that recently the UK, Australia, and other “developed” countries have been found wanting in children’s rights, of girls and boys, suggesting to me that “we” in the West should not be exporting our solutions but helping developing countries to come up with their own.

The “Pantomime” is a staple of British theatre, a live comedy still much enjoyed by children, and adults who may pretend otherwise!
 
“Oh yes I am!” “Oh no you’re not!”

As children in post-World War II austere Britain, it was our first exciting, never-to-be forgotten Chrismas treat.  Longhoughton Village took us to Newcastle to see a pantomime.  The 30 mile trip was three hours each way (the XI8 bus today is 30 minutes faster!).  It was also the first time to a big city and a theatre like the Theatre Royal. The show was Widow Twanky and Wishy-Washy. We sang the signature song for months/years afterwards “There’a hole in my bucket.” I remember the words to this day.

Equally though I remember the audience participation section, definitely a major part in any pantomime, where two actors or sets of actors argue and contradict each other.  One may say “I am prettier than you”, then the other would respond with “Oh no you’re not!” countered by “Oh yes I am!” and so on and so forth, each seeking maximum audible support from the audience.

It is great fun.  However, it is far from high-brow intellectual debate.

Every time, we receive reports from august bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, advocates often seem incapable of rising above pantomime argument.  Indeed, even when very important issues are raised in human rights reports, spokesmen resort to “Oh, no you are not…right!” And then often all the other side can do is to reply “Oh yes I am!”

There are good reasons for this seemingly childish approach, and it is shame that the science of human rights is so slow to develop, despite 67 years since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Cambodia's human rights scene is typical of most countries.  It is one of inevitable conflict, especially due to the concentration on civil and political rights, as distinct from less controversial economic, social and cultural rights. 

The main professional or adversarial approach adopted by Human Rights Defenders, is the classic
legalistic-technical one, most visible with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch but followed by most other organizations.  The process involves identifying the violation and "naming, blaming and shaming" the violator.  Then law enforcement and judicial systems are supposed to work to correct the injustices.  Unfortunately that is rare, too often they make matters worse.

Usually the two sides approach things from totally opposite perceptions or frames of reference. The government and its supporters say “Look, we have come a long way in a short time since the worst crimes of the Khmer Rouge”.  Human Rights Defenders say “but Cambodia still falls far short of international standards as enjoyed in other countries, and to which it has signed up for in various international instruments”.  Both are true but both sides cannot even agree on that!

And while the two sides argue, very little if anything ends up being done for the victims in the middle, or to prevent more victims from suffering the same fate in future.

The “system” to put things right is not working.  Expertise, and any good will to change things on the part of both sides, is not mobilized for the sake of the country and the people.  There is no statesmanship – and I use “man” deliberately.  Instead the mentality persists of “If you are not my friend, you are my enemy”, and the two sides keep their distance. Some Human Rights Defenders argue that they must keep that distance, to retain their credibility on behalf of victims, by not being seen to be "in bed with the enemy!”.
 
One peculiar disturbing legacy in Cambodia is the disdain for Cambodians who have lived and worked abroad regardless of their circumstances - whether they fled to save their lives or if they have gained valuable education and experiences.  Sophal Ear of Occidental College in Los Angeles explains. He is the author of "Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy" and one of the few but growing number of us who question foreign aid interventions in Cambodia. “The term is anikachhun’ he explains "a particularly strong and sometimes derogatory term for Khmer foreigner.”

Defending the main Defender of Human Rights Defenders
Too many human rights debates are played out in public, rather than away from the glare of publicity, where things are more likely to get done.

Outgoing United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur, Professor Surya Subedi, will certainly be disappointed that in his time, there has been no tangible progress towards a genuine impartial National Human Rights Commission.  Agreement on one has eluded Cambodia for 20 years. The fact that politicians and human rights defenders cannot talk to each other, let alone agree to join such a body, reflects badly on both sides.

One thing I learned when growing up in Northumberland - and a self-evident truth throughout my career - is that “problems are best solved as quickly as possible and at the lowest-level”. 

To take issues out the country and all the way to Geneva may be good theatre but it does not make sense.

www.queens-theatre.co.uk ; Cinderella Dec 2011 - Jan 2012 photo by Nobby Clark

A scene from Cinderella when the maid in domestic servitude finally meets her Prince, escaping from tyranny to a better life, and living happily ever after.  The curtain then closes.  The show is over.

This article also raises questions about the way human rights are pursued:

http://sea-globe.com/human-rights-southeast-asia-david-hutt/

A few lighter comments on Pantomimes

The Theatre Royal pantomimes are still doing well in 2016 and 2017.

Pantomimes were really early human rights educational messages.

The story-line in all is one of good prevailing over evil in the end.

They also promote equality, and greater of equality of opportunity, as the central character usually a heroine succeeds to a better well-deserved life.

For many unfamiliar with the format, if they see it, they will wonder if it is not also one of  very early LGBT rights. Certainly the format ran for centuries without stigma or prejudice.

The plot is very simple: The girl dressed as a boy who is the son of a man dressed as a woman, will win the other girl (surprisingly dressed as a girl!  The main characters are usually the good Principal Boy (who is a girl) winning the heroine (a real girl) who is oppressed by her wicked relatives (men dressed as women).

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