Archive for the ‘Human Rights and Cinema’ Category

A Human Rights Review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Monday, December 28th, 2015

As Yoda might say: “Human Rights about Star Wars not”

Sci Fi films and fiction are often a good place to find the kinds of moral conundrums and ethical challenges, which lend themselves to thinking and teaching about Human Rights. But the Lucas/Disney/Abrams Star Wars franchise isn’t. As Yoda might say: “Human Rights about Star Wars not” – nor for that matter is it about democracy, emancipation, ambiguity, science or egalitarianism.

The universe imagined by Lucas, who saw Star Wars as the “hero’s journey,” gives us little in the way of awareness of the human condition, indeed it eschews any celebration of shared humanity and instead embraces the mass killing of combatants, non-combatants and seemingly sentient human-like androids with little sense of loss or accountability.

Intellectually unchallenging, the films lack any sense of moral ambiguity (Light Side, Dark Side) – which has appealed ever-since to men like Dick Cheney, who once remarked “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will,” as a defense of torture, which occurred at “dark sites” around the world following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Moreover, whatever politics there are seem to be dominated by a quasi-hereditary unelected Senate, whose rebellion seems motivated as far as I can tell by concerns over trade routes and the political autonomy of peripheral planets where the grossest of human rights violations are routinely practiced and without comment from that Senate: slavery, human trafficking, genocide and the destruction of indigenous cultures — and that’s just on Tatooine; I hate to think what’s happening on Endor.

Dr. Watenpaugh debates the finer points of Trek vs. Star Wars with his son, Aram, while his daughter looks on in appropriate bemusement

Dr. Watenpaugh debates the finer points of Trek vs. Star Wars with his son, Aram, while his daughter, Arda, looks on in appropriate bemusement

Presiding over it all is a zealous Gnostic sect, the leadership of which bases its religious practices on the idolization of the tools of extreme violence (light sabers), the ability to violate the privacy rights of others and enter their minds without permission (Jedi mind tricks) and who view the world through absolutes while claiming only their opponents do so (“Only Sith deals in absolutes.”)

Like in Lord of the Rings, technology is bad and the foot soldiers of the enemy are merely a one-dimensional Other (Orcs and Stormtroopers), whose origins in torture and rights-violations are obscured and whose easy and mass deaths are played for laughs. We learn in the most recent “Star Wars” that Stormtroopers aren’t just clones anymore, but are child soldiers stolen from their families in the vein of Joseph Kony and his ilk.

But isn’t it just a movie? Sure, but “Star Wars” is also a cultural phenomenon that is both a reflection of our zeitgeist and a shaper of it. J.J. Abrams is smart enough to know that and rather than just pandering to aging Fan Boys with call backs to “A New Hope” and bringing us yet another Disney Princess in the form of Daisy Ridley’s Mary Sue Rey, he had a chance to use the films in the best tradition of SciFi to pose some decent questions.

But then again, he made the last two Star Trek films, which didn’t do much of that either.

Still, I enjoy and admire Star Trek for many of the same reasons I find Star Wars so problematic. The anthology science fiction series that came from the imagination of Gene Roddenberry has been around for 50 years and shouldn’t be judged only by the last two movies – which weren’t that bad and even asked decent questions about ethics and rights. Kirk and Spock take seriously the idea of exploration, the role of Starfleet in humanitarian efforts and seek to arrest their enemies for the crime of genocide (the destruction of Vulcan) before joyfully blowing them up.

In fact, for years I’ve led a freshman honors’ seminar on the Human Rights of Star Trek. I even use in my 80+ student Human Rights course the brutal interrogation of Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean Luc Picard by a Cardassian Gul played by David Warner in the episode “Chain of Command” (“There are four lights!”) to illustrate how little torture is about information and more about power and fear.

Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) who was the first African-American women to play an officer of any kind on a t.v. show always remembered how Roddenberry told her that Trek was about “something.” Sci Fi was a safe space from which to explore the tough issues of the ‘60s, including the Vietnam War — “Private little war” — and race — “Let that be your last battlefield.” In the 90s it covered homosexuality; in the Aughts, anthropogenic climate change.

The fact that Trek was about something has given its actors the kind of post-t.v. platform from which to support the arts and respect for rights and dignity we’ve never seen those of the Star Wars universe even attempt. Being Sulu has given George Takei the credibility and trust of legions of fans that made him not just a gay rights icon, but also a moral leader in the remembrance of Japanese Internment and most recently anti-Muslim and Arab hysteria.

The movies we love and stand in line for tell us a great deal about who and where we are as a people on the critical issues of the moment. I’m not sure that “Star Wars” is where we should be.

“Syria’s Lost Generation: A Human Rights Challenge to American Higher Education”

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

“Syria’s Lost Generation: A Human Rights Challenge to American Higher Education”

By Sara Phelps – UC Davis Human Rights Minor

Educators, academic leaders, and students gathered in early December at UC Davis to discuss the role of U.S. universities, including UC Davis, in helping student refugees access higher education. The public event was organized as part of a joint effort between UCD’s Office of Global Affairs, the UCD Human Rights Studies Program and the Institute of International Education to develop principles and best practices to support Syrian refugee students and others in this time of crisis.

Dr. Keith David Watenpaugh, the director of the UC Davis Human Rights Studies Program, opened the event by arguing that the human right to education is “about justice” and that U.S. universities have a responsibility in “creating a culture of human rights through education.”


Opening of No More Last Generation Workshop

Human rights professionals from two NGOs, the Institute of International Education (IIE) and Jusoor, an organization that provides scholarships and other resources for Syrian refugees, discussed the different programs they have developed to assist refugee students. Daniel Obst, the Deputy Vice President of IIE, provided an overview of IIE programs, which include the IIE’s Emergency Student Fund and the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Maya al-Kateb, the Director of Jusoor, described her organization’s mentorship and scholarship programs for Syrian refugee students.

The key word of the event was “resilience,” which presenters argued was fostered through education and support. Adrienne Fricke, the Syria Advisor to Physicians for Human Rights, discussed the importance of specialized educational training in resilience-based capacity building. The event concluded with an inspirational presentation by Megan Mozina, the Director of the International Initiatives and Strategic Alignment at the Illinois Institute of Technology, on the success of the “Syrian Students for a Better Future” program. In this program, the university partnered with Jusoor to grant several dozen Syrian students scholarships to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The next steps of the initiative include the creation of a document on the principles and best practices of supporting refugee students in higher education, which universities around the US will be asked to sign on to as a guide to further implementation.


Thursday, December 10th, 2015

Rescues at sea are dangerous and come with great possible cost to those involved.  In this brief essay, I consider why, beyond a simple explanation of the imperative to protect life, civilian sailors rescue refugees at sea, and explore how specific extreme environments and professional identities may interface at the boundaries of humanitarian imagination, thought and action

Before MSF and the navies of EU states became more involved in intercepting boatloads of refugees sinking into the Mediterranean, the job of pulling them out of the sea often fell to the crews of rusted fishing boats sailing from Greek and North African ports and great container ships headed to the Suez Canal and points further East.

For the men on those vessels these kinds of rescues required them to stop fishing, pull their nets and return to port; or bring a massive 165,000 ton vessel traveling at 21 knots to a halt, drop smaller boats over the side and deploy ladders — and delay the arrival at their next port of call.  For both the fishermen and the container ships’ captains rescue came with a cost to their livelihoods.

It’s also dangerous: moving on and off a boat adrift on a rolling sea is among the most treacherous and delicate of maneuvers; and bringing a group of desperate strangers fleeing war in Syria and Iraq or brutal dictatorships in African on board carries with it a whole host of health and safety concerns.


In the case of the current Mediterranean refugee movement, the UNHCR prepared a legal brief outlining the responsibility of ships’ masters and others to conduct rescues at sea and apply many of the same rules governing refugees and others moving across land boundaries to this situation.  The responsibility to rescue draws its modern legal basis from a series of 20th century conventions on maritime law which evolved out of an even earlier body of European and Islamic laws and customs on salvage, stowaways, enslaved sailors and piracy.

Among the most relevant documents cited by the UNHCR is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to its “Article 98: Duty to render assistance:”

  1. Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him…

In general this duty applies to ships in international waters – and primarily those moving between ports in different countries or on the high seas— it doesn’t apply to fishing boats just offshore. In any case, a master always has an escape clause from acting if a rescue is considered too “dangerous.”

Recent UNHCR rescue of Syrian children

For the fisherman, whose knowledge of international law may be limited or the container ship captain on a tight schedule, it’s unlikely that any state would ever hold them accountable for failing to rescue an un-flagged, overcrowded vessel; in fact the burden in most cases would be on the refugees to show in an admiralty or similar court that the ship passed them by without helping them.  This is a situation where the international legal mandate to act is very weak and suggests a kind of voluntary compliance.

In a more traditional rescue-at-sea scenario, one in which a flagged ship founders, runs aground or is involved in a collision with another ship, an iceberg or a whale, the act of rescue may be done in anticipation of reciprocity for the state’s own fleet of ships.  That anticipated reciprocity functions as a kind of mutual assistance pact among states; and one can imagine how that same balance might work on a more local level, where fisherman, and even recreational boaters, would aid one another to maintain that pact.

At this moment, though, a boatload of refugees, their states of origin and the failed state of Libya from whence they have come isn’t going to be involved in reciprocal rescues anytime soon.  There is no “reward,” no reciprocal recognition of rights and privileges involved.  The very lack of possible reciprocity helps define the humanitarian nature of the act of rescue.  Humanitarianism itself is predicated on the lack of the reciprocal possibility. Were states and organizations that provide the majority of aid and assistance only to do so for individuals from states that could “return the favor,” humanitarianism would be quite limited in scope, indeed.


Instead, I think the act of rescue has something to do with the nature of the sea and our relationship with it as humans.  That thesis is based on my own thinking about the reason of humanitarianism and humanitarian rescue, but also my own experience as a sailor.

This last July, as the Mediterranean refugees were still being largely ignored by the EU,PBS Newshour’s Lisa Desai interviewed Captain Slaheddin of a Tunisian fishing boat that sails from the port town of Zarzis.  As the captain explained:

One time we rescued 10 migrants. [though in Arabic he used the word for refugee, al-laji’. When they got on the boat two of them started praying. It gave me chills, all over my body. We are fisherman. We are here to make a living. We are not here to rescue people, but we have a feeling of humanity. So if I find someone on the sea I will save him…

It’s a powerful feeling to see someone helpless, hungry and being burned by the sun. It’s very hard: you are in front of someone who is calling for help.

Captain Slaheddin used the very old Arabic word al-bashariyya for the concept of humanity, rather than the modern neologism al-insaniyya, which an Arabic-speaker familiar with the concept of human rights would probably use.  The older word carries with it a broader sense of the feeling of corporeal human and human-ness – the feeling of belonging to a humankind, as opposed to an animal or supernatural kind. That solidarity of the human against the vastness of the sea and an empathetic consciousness of how small and fragile human life is in the face of it is what moved him to rescue.  Like most fisherman, Captain Slaheddin most likely grew up fishing as the son of a fisherman and had seen the terrible price the Mediterranean can exact throughout his entire life.

On the other side of the rescue equation, I’ve experienced myself that sense of being helpless in the face of the sea.  As a boy I fell overboard from the foredeck of a 27ft sloop while my father steered it North through the Swanson Channel in British Columbia.  When I returned to the surface, I watched the boat grow smaller and smaller as the crew — my family — readied to come about and attempt a man-over-board rescue.  In that moment no matter how hard one tries to remain calm, your legs and arms claw at the sea around you; your lungs ache to breath and your mouth and eyes burn from the bitter taste of salt.  Your world has turned into a small white right triangle of sail in the distance and a green-blue heaving sea.  The line between being and not being is that rescue.

Those onboard know that, too; and a well-trained crew can pull you from the water before hypothermia takes you or you drift from reach. I was back on board, shivering and embarrassed in just a matter of minutes.

I still sail, but now mostly in the San Francisco Bay and off the wild coast of Marin. The water is as cold and the currents as treacherous as anywhere on the West Coast.  While sailing, my crew and I have helped in rescues and we practice and practice throughout our sailing careers the figure eight technique that brings the boat abeam of those in the water.  As I stand at the helm of my own boat, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, and watch my kids move around on deck, I know that the sea, so beautiful, would become the merciless enemy the moment one of them trips and tumbles into it.

The Watenpaugh twins and their father sail the San Francisco Bay

The exquisite beauty and danger of the sea is the certain knowledge all sailors have and have had for the 50 centuries of human seafaring.  The sailor knows the danger and has thecapacity to rescue.  This creates a specific burden on their humanity, which is both a response to their own experience of the overwhelming nature of the sea and their specific professional expertise as a seafarer. A failure to rescue becomes a problem of the sailor’s humanity that drives him to act and pull the refugee onboard.

The unique challenge of the sea to the problem of humanity is suggestive of how the human response to human need and suffering can be influenced by the way we interact culturally and traditionally with extreme environments or different kinds of natural disasters.  This relationship is an under-recognized and certainly under-studied element of humanitarian thought and imagination, though it has the very real potential to connect it with emerging fields like environmental humanities and human geography.

With the IOM estimating that some 30,000 might drown in the Mediterranean this year, the sea is exacting its toll.

Recent interview with on Human Rights in Syria

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

On the situation of Human Rights in Syria

Interview with Armenia’s Civilnet on situation in Aleppo

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 Aleppo and Armenians in the Syrian Civil War

A team of UC professors and a leading UC expert on election administration have completed an elections monitoring mission in the troubled region of Nagorno Karabagh.

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

A team of UC professors and a leading UC expert on election administration have completed an elections monitoring mission in the troubled region of Nagorno Karabagh. They concluded that the elections adhered to international standards and that this was a critical election in the democratization of the entire Caucasus.

Nagorno Karabagh, an internationally unrecognized republic which broke away from the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1992, held its fifth presidential election this last Thursday (July 19, 2012).

L-R Heghnar Watenpaugh, Karin Mac Donald, and Keith David Watenpaugh at the polling station in the village of Nngi, Nagorno Karabagh

The election returned to office Bako Sahakian with 66% of the vote, and 33% going to his challenger, Vitaly Balasanyan, a former commander in Nagorno Karabagh’s war with Azerbaijan who ran on a platform of anti-corruption and economic development. In a region where past incumbents have often received 80% of the vote, the relative success of challenger Balasanyan is seen as a marked improvement in the democratic nature of that region’s electoral environment.

A team of experts from the UC including Karin Mac Donald of UC Berkeley Law, Professor Keith David Watenpaugh, Director of the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative and Professor Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, an Art Historian and affiliate of the Human Rights Initiative, were part of a group of Californians that traveled to the troubled region of Nagorno Karabagh to observe its citizens cast ballots.

The team met with elections officials, candidates and their staff, local human rights advocates, including the NK’s Human Rights Defender, journalists and likely voters.

Despite some concerns about voter accessibility and possible voter intimidation, the members of the team observed that the election generally adhered to international standards and was marked by a relatively high voter turnout.

UCB Law’s Karin MacDonald was “very impressed with the professionalism, dedication and training at all levels of election administration, in particular that of local election boards.”

UC Davis Human Rights Initiative’s Keith David Watenpaugh, was equally impressed and while noting his personal concerns about the intimidation of voters, said, “One very important dimension of this election that we observed is that even the major losing candidate and his campaign, despite their allegations of unfairness and irregularities, viewed this election as a critical step in the evolution of a fully democratic society. This same sense of what the election meant was shared by most of the people we spoke with.”

The team’s preliminary report is available at The EARC’s website ( and the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative,

Seif al-Islam, the ICC – Human Rights Justice and the Arab Spring

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Last night came word from Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, the 39-year-old son of Muammar al-Qadhafi had been arrested and that the ICC had communicated its arrest warrant to the Libya Interim Governing Council.

Were Seif al-Islam to be turned over to the Hague, he would be the first of the Arab Spring’s fallen dictators and their families to face justice at the world court for crimes against humanity. Ben Ali in Tunisia fled with his family to Saudi Arabia, Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa are in a cage in a military court in Cairo. Before them other dictators and their sons met more gruesome fates: Saddam was hanged after a trial that many international observers considered problematic at best and his two sons, Qusay and Uday were found and killed by US forces in their Mosul safe house. Uday was a psychopathic playboy, whose brutality even shocked his own father. Thanks to Dominic Cooper and the new film “The Devil’s Double,” his deeds are now the stuff of popular culture.

If Seif al-Islam does go, it would represent an important moment in the fuller integration of Arab societies into global human rights and international justice norms. Through the instrument of an ICC indictment, Qadhafi’s war – and Seif al-Islam’s part in it – on his own people was declared a crime against humanity, that is against our humanity. To close the circle, the Libyans should now transfer those indicted to the ICC. This reciprocity is crucial if the court is to have any authority as it unseals indictments against other kings and dictators who have turned on their own people.

I understand fully the desire to try him at home, of putting him on display like Mubarak and his spawn. No matter how guilty Seif al-Islam is held by the ICC, he won’t face more than a decade or so in a luxurious Northern European prison. It doesn’t seem like enough now. But the value of foregoing what amounts to revenge for participation in an international system of justice will have the benefit of drawing concrete distinctions between a new democratic and rights-recognizing Libya and the brutal police state of his father.

Of human rights in unlikely places (part one)

Friday, August 19th, 2011

Sitting with my friend and colleague Dr. Andy Jones, UC Davis’ academic technology czar and a consummate “information age” man, the conversation turned to the remade “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  We both enjoyed the movie.  Andy, an English professor liked the Shakespearean vibe; I saw it, like Pierre Boulle’s original novel, La Planète des singes as a fable that used sci-fi and inter-species relations to explore core concepts of the study of human rights from dignity and racism to torture.  But for me the critical human-rights moment was when Caesar the altered chimpanzee utters “no” in the face of abuse and imprisonment.  As I told Andy, one of the key questions about human rights is where do they come from? Among possible explanations is that they exist because we claim them in what we do and what we say.  For some this is why chimps and great apes can’t have human rights: no chimp or gorilla has asked for them. This fact didn’t impede the Spanish Parliament from passing legislation, fostered by the Great Ape Project, from extending human rights protection to them in 2008.

What the movie also hints at is that science and technology will continue to move the human rights frontier in novel and unexpected ways.

The UC Davis HRI has set aside this blog as a place to broach the question of the role of the Humanities in the study, teaching and promotion of Human Rights.  Future blog post will give UC Davis scholars and students somewhere to “think out loud” about this (un)likely connection between humanistic study and human rights.

Keith David Watenpaugh, Director

UC Davis Human Rights Initiative