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Women and human rights: Front and centre at the Oscar ceremony this year

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Cate Blanchett (right), a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at "Capernaum" film screening with director Nadine Labaki (left), in London, UK. © UNHCR/Tom Pilston

Gender equality, the marginalization of indigenous languages, migration, the refugee crisis, the lives of domestic workers, poverty… All these issues which are at the heart of the United Nations’ work, are also front and centre in some of the films celebrated this year at the Academy Awards.

Two women, Yalitza Aparicio and Nadine Labaki, could make history this Sunday during the 91st Oscar ceremony taking place this Sunday in Los Angeles, in the United States. Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio could become the first indigenous woman to win the prestigious golden statuette for her role in the feature Roma, by director Alfonso Cuarón. As for Nadine Labaki, from Lebanon, she could become the first Arab filmmaker to be awarded an Oscar, for her film Capernaum.

Their nominations came two years after a heated debate over the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards’ lists of nominees and winners.

This year, the Academy has also shown greater range in its thematic coverage by nominating films that highlight major international issues, in particular related to human rights. For example, the film Roma highlights the need to protect indigenous languages such as Mixtec, as well as the life of domestic workers, and societal inequalities. As for Capernaum, it puts the spotlight on the suffering of migrant and refugee children. Green Book and BlacKkKlansman, also nominated, highlight issues of racism in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

This human-rights focus in the world of cinema takes place as the world just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Focus on indigenous issues and economic inequalities

Director Alfonso Cuarón has hailed Yalitza Aparicio’s nomination in the Best Actress category as the most relevant nomination of the 10 his film Roma secured. 

The young woman, who made her acting debut in this feature, plays Cleo, a domestic worker who is Mixteca, an indigenous community in Mexico, specifically in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Puebla. Cleo works for a middle class family in the early 1970s in the neighborhood of Roma, in Mexico City.

In an interview with UN News, Mr. Cuarón noted that, in his country, indigenous peoples are particularly affected by social inequalities. “It isn’t difficult to notice that economic power is closely linked to the color of one’s skin, and indigenous peoples are those who usually end up having the least amount of privilege.”

The director stressed that the film had started a conversation on the racism that persists in Mexico, which he said “has been ignored for too long”. He added this racism had “not just been ignored” but that its very existence had actually been “denied.” He also noted that the topic of domestic work and the rights of indigenous peoples have been overall taboo.  

Regarding indigenous languages, of which 2019 is the International Year, Mr. Cuarón lamented that they are “very repressed.” Cleo and her friend and fellow domestic worker Adela only speak it when they are alone “in their own spaces” – i.e. the kitchen or their bedroom – or with the “girl who is belittled, ignored and unappreciated by the masculine part of the family.”

Labaki’s ‘duty’

In Capernaum, director Nadine Labaki, nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, sheds a light on the plight of refugee children, their violated rights, and how extreme poverty affects them.

The movie tells the story of 12-year-old Zain, a Syrian refugee who, caught in the limbo of conflict and forced displacement, files a lawsuit against his parents for having been born.

In an interview with UN News, Ms. Labaki said that she had “a duty” – “not even a choice” – to record the reality of the refugee crisis playing out on the streets of her native Lebanon. The small country, which is also facing its own political and economic challenges, currently hosts close to 1 million refugees from war-torn Syria.

“I’m actually surprised when people ask me [what pushed me to make this film] because I think, you know, if I can do something about it, and I can use my voice to do something about it, it would be a crime not to do so,” she said. “So I decided to use my tool, which is filmmaking, to tell that story, to put that story out there and to talk about this struggle because it’s my responsibility.”

Stressing that the refugee problem is visibly growing – as one can see in Lebanon “children working on the streets, carrying very heavy loads and doing very difficult jobs” – Ms. Labaki said she purposely chose to tell this story through a child’s perspective. A child “sees things so much more clearly than any adult because he is not informed or altered by societies’ codes or hypocrisy or politics.” 

Referring to Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler found washed ashore on a Turkish beach in September 2015, she said when she saw his picture, she wondered: “if this child could talk, what would he say? What would he tell the world? How would he address the adults that put him in this situation?”

The different characters in the film are not played by professional actors, but by migrants and refugees who themselves faced very similar situations to those shown in the movie. The main character, Zain, is himself played by a refugee who fled Syria eight years ago.

Ms. Labaki explained he faced “very difficult circumstances” and “never went to school.” The only difference with the film, she explained, is that the real Zain has “loving parents.”

Since the film was made, Zain was resettled in Norway where he lives now, through the efforts of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

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Human Rights

Belarus human rights situation deteriorating further

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

A “systematic crackdown” against dissent in Belarus is continuing, months since the country’s disputed presidential election last year, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has told the Human Rights Council.

In comments to the Geneva forum on Thursday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights insisted that curbs on demonstrators had got worse since last August’s poll returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office.

Those protests had led to “mass arbitrary arrests and detentions” of largely peaceful demonstrators, along with “hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment”, Ms. Bachelet said, before noting that “not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment” had been investigated.

The High Commissioner highlighted concerns about Government proposals which would reportedly “enable harsher punishments” for those taking part in peaceful demonstrations from now on.

To date, nearly 250 people have received prison sentences on allegedly politically-motivated charges context of the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Bachelet said.

‘Unprecedented’ human rights crisis

The OHCHR report “covers serious violations” of rights between 1 May and 20 December last year. “The events that unfolded before and immediately after the election have led to a human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country”, added Ms. Bachelet.

All of the violations detailed “committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear”, she said, noting the further deterioration since December.

She said journalists were being increasingly targeted, “and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually. Just last week, large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna (A Minsk-based human rights centre) were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for ‘mass disorder’”.

Release innocent protesters

She told the Council it was “essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established. All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released.”

The rights chief called for “thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations” into all the allegations of serious violations, with perpetrators being brought to justice, as well as an “immediate end” to the Government policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.

“I further recommend comprehensive reform of the national legal framework”, she concluded. “Our report includes specific recommendations, which address key systemic issues, including with respect to fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.”

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw named latest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

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British actor, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who has been named as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador visited Uganda in 2019. © UNHCR/Caroline Irby

British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw was on Wednesday appointed a global Goodwill Ambassador with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR

Ms. Mbatha-Raw highlighted the need to support refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to work in support of refugees and help amplify their voices. I am always amazed by their courage and strength in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds and it’s a real honour to play a part in sharing their stories”, she said

“The Covid crisis has made us all aware of the fragility of the lives we build and the importance of doing all we can to support those who have had to leave the place they call home”, she added. 

“The crisis has also taught us that, in this interconnected world, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable in society. Inclusion of refugees is vital in ensuring the wellbeing of whole communities.” 

Advocacy and engagement 

Ms. Mbatha-Raw is no stranger to UNHCR as she has been working as a High-Profile Supporter for the agency since 2018. 

She has spent time in the field, including visiting Burundian and Congolese refugees in Rwanda and Uganda, meeting with women who survived conflict-related sexual violence and also with youth living with albinism. 

The new Goodwill Ambassador has also taken part in UNHCR’s EveryOneCounts campaign, challenging xenophobia and advocating for stronger partnerships to find solutions to global displacement.  

She also contributed to the agency’s COVID-19 awareness appeal and to Films of Hope, a partnership between UNHCR and IMDb, the online movie database, to raise funds for the Covid Solidarity Appeal. 

The partnership continues 

 “We appreciate Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s heartfelt advocacy and support for refugees and welcome her to the UNHCR family. We look forward to continuing our work together to help raise attention on the issues and needs facing refugees”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. 

“Now more than ever, in the context of the unprecedented impact of the COVID pandemic, the voices of refugees – some of the most marginalized and forgotten people on earth – need to be heard and amplified”. 

Ms. Mbatha-Raw is known for her award-winning role in the 2013 film Belle, and has starred in other projects, most recently The Morning Show

She will next be seen in Loki, the Marvel limited series set to premier in June on the Disney+ streaming service.

‘Belle’ and the slave trade

In 2014, the star visited UN Headquarters in New York to discuss her film role in ‘Belle’, as part of the organization’s commemorations of the devastating Transatlantic slave trade that year. Watch the video below for more details:

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‘No place’ for coups in today’s world

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photo: Wikipedia

On the opening day of a new UN Human Rights Council session on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his “full support to the people of Myanmar”, three weeks after the military takeover that has brought thousands out onto the streets in protest. 

“Coups have no place in our modern world”, Mr. Guterres said in a pre-recorded video address at the Council’s 46th regular session, his comments coming after the forum held a special session on 12 February, in which it adopted a resolution expressing deep concern at the junta’s move. 

“Today, I call on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately”, the UN chief continued. “Release the prisoners. End the violence. Respect human rights and the will of the people expressed in recent elections. I welcome the resolution of the Human Rights Council, pledge to implement your request, and express my full support to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.” 

14-year old victim 

Mr. Guterres’s comments followed his censure at the weekend of the use of “deadly force” in Myanmar, in which a protester – reportedly 14 years old – was killed in Mandalay, along with one other. 

Also addressing the Council at the start of its month-long session, which is being held almost entirely remotely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, focused on the massive and negative impact of pandemic. 

“I think we all realise that the use of force will not end this pandemic. Sending critics to jail will not end this pandemic. Illegitimate restrictions on public freedoms, the overreach of emergency powers and unnecessary or excessive use of force are not just unhelpful and unprincipled. They deter public participation in decision-making, which is the foundation of sound policy-making.”  

Help for the most vulnerable 

In another video message, President of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, underscored the need to focus on people’s basic needs – including new coronavirus vaccines – as the best way to recover from the pandemic. 

“It is essential that all responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are centred around human rights, and promote the protection of our citizens, including the most vulnerable who need our care and consideration the most”, he said. “This includes ensuring the equal and fair distribution of vaccines for all. It is critical that civil society, the private sector, and all stakeholders are facilitated to participate and provide feedback throughout the planning and assessment of responses.” 

Vaccine unfairness 

Echoing the call for equitable vaccine access in a wide-ranging address that included a broadside against right-wing extremists becoming a “transnational threat” and the manipulation of personal digital data by Governments to control citizens’ behaviour, the Secretary-General described the fact that only 10 countries had administered “more than 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines” as “the latest moral outrage”.  

Vaccine equity “affirms human rights”, he said, but “vaccine nationalism denies it. Vaccines must be a global public good, accessible and affordable for all.” 

Taking up that theme, Ms. Bachelet insisted that the new coronavirus crisis had illustrated the “deadly realities of discrimination”. 

Deep inequalities and chronic under-funding for essential services were to blame, she added, with policymakers largely responsible for ignoring these basic needs. 

Pandemic rolls on 

“Today, the medical impact of the pandemic is far from over – and its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people have only just begun”, she said. “The global rise in extreme poverty, accelerating inequalities; setbacks to women’s rights and equality; to education and opportunities for children and young people; and to the Sustainable Development Agenda are shocks that could shake the foundations of societies.” 

Despite the scale of the challenges posed in this second year of the pandemic, the High Commissioner struck a positive note, insisting that “we have the possibility of rebuilding better, more inclusive systems, which address root causes and prepare us to meet the challenges we will certainly face”.  

Among the many major problems facing people everywhere, the UN Secretary-General highlighted the disproportionate gender impact of COVID-19. 

Crisis ‘has a woman’s face’ 

“The crisis has a woman’s face”, he said. “Most essential frontline workers are women — many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups and at the bottom of the economic ladder. Most of the increased burden of care in the home is taken on by women.”  

Persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples had also paid a higher price than others during the first year of the pandemic. Mr. Guterres continued, before calling for “a special focus on safeguarding the rights of minority communities, many of whom are under threat around the world”.  

Cautioning against “policies of assimilation that seek to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities”, the UN chief maintained that the diversity of communities was “fundamental to humanity”.

Extremists a ‘transnational threat’ 

And without identifying any specific countries, Mr. Guterres also spoke out against the rising and potentially international threat of right-wing extremist movements. 

“White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are more than domestic terror threats. They are becoming a transnational threat”, he said. “Far too often, these hate groups are cheered on by people in positions of responsibility in ways that were considered unimaginable not long ago. We need global coordinated action to defeat this grave and growing danger.” 

Under the presidency of Jordanian Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, the 46th Human Rights Council session is due to meet until Friday 23 March.

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