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.”
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).
Pandemic highlights importance of indigenous self-determination
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to ensure the world’s indigenous people have control over their own communities, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has affirmed.
Michelle Bachelet described the pandemic as “a critical threat” to indigenous communities everywhere, at a time when many are also struggling against man-made environmental damage and economic depredation.
“Overall, the pandemic hammers home the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples can exercise their rights to self-government and self-determination”, she said in a message for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, observed this Sunday.
“This is about saving lives and protecting a precious web of cultures, languages and traditional knowledge, that connect us to the deep roots of humanity.”
Among the world’s poorest
There are roughly 476 million indigenous people worldwide, according to UN estimates.
Although less than five per cent of the global population, they account for 15 per cent of the poorest people on the planet.
Ms. Bachelet noted that many indigenous communities have “deeply inadequate” access to health care, clean water and sanitation, while their communal way of life can increase the probability of rapid contagion.
Ancestral knowledge lost
The UN rights chief said more than 70,000 indigenous people across the region have been infected to date, including almost 23,000 members of 190 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin.
“Over 1,000 deaths have been recorded, including several elders with deep knowledge of ancestral traditions”, she added. “They include the tragic death in Brazil this week of chief Aritana, of the Yawalapiti people.”
Lives under threat
The Amazon spans nine countries and Ms. Bachelet noted that indigenous communities in the vast region live on lands that are increasingly damaged and polluted due to illegal mining, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture.
Despite measures to contain COVID-19 spread, such as movement restrictions, many of these activities have continued, alongside movements by religious missionaries which also expose the indigenous to the risk of infection.
Meanwhile, those indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation from the modern world may have particularly low immunity to viral infection.
Ms. Bachelet said indigenous communities must have a role in pandemic response, stressing that “they must also be consulted, and should be able to participate in the formulation and implementation of public policies affecting them, through their representative entities, leaders and traditional authorities”.
Rights experts call on India to remedy ‘alarming’ situation in Jammu and Kashmir
UN-appointed independent human rights experts have called for urgent action in India’s Jammu and Kashmir, amid concerns of ongoing abuses against civilians there.
The appeal comes a year after the Indian Parliament revoked the special status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which provided partial autonomy and specific protections to its mainly-Muslim citizens.
In a statement, the group of 17 experts said that the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been in “free fall”.
International community urged to ‘step up’
“Urgent action is needed”, they said. “If India will not take any genuine and immediate steps to resolve the situation, meet their obligations to investigate historic and recent cases of human rights violations and prevent future violations, then the international community should step up.”
Twelve months ago, they wrote to the Indian authorities to end what they called “the crackdown” on freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful protests over the decision to end the state’s special status.
The experts also expressed concern about alleged arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, to which the Government recently replied, as well as the criminalization of journalists covering the situation and the detention and deteriorating health, of a high-profile human rights lawyer.
“We have yet to receive any reply to three of the four letters,” the experts said.
COVID compounding detentions, restrictions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the experts also said it was concerning that “many” protesters are still in detention, and that internet restrictions remain.
They added that the closure of the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission last October, was equally disturbing, as it removed one of the few ways that victims of rights violations could seek remedy.
No information had been provided about what would happen to the ongoing cases the commission had been investigating.
These include hundreds of suspected enforced disappearances dating from as far back as 1989, they said, while allegations regarding thousands of unmarked and some mass graves sites, have also not been properly investigated.
In 2011, India also extended an open invitation to Special Rapporteurs to visit, but has several requests pending. “We call on India to schedule pending visits as a matter of urgency, particularly of the experts dealing with torture and disappearances,” they said.
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
75 years after the bomb, Hiroshima still chooses ‘reconciliation and hope’
In a video message delivered to a Peace Memorial Ceremony in Japan on Thursday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has paid tribute to the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which devastated the city in 1945.
“Seventy-five years ago, a single nuclear weapon visited unspeakable death and destruction upon this city”, he said in his address. “The effects linger to this day”.
However, he noted that Hiroshima and its people have chosen not to be characterized by calamity, but instead by “resilience, reconciliation and hope”.
As “unmatched advocates for nuclear disarmament”, the survivors, known as hibakusha, have turned their tragedy into “a rallying voice for the safety and well-being of all humanity”, he said.
The birth of the UN in that same year, is inextricably intertwined with the destruction wrought by the nuclear bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Since its earliest days and resolutions, the Organization has recognized the need to totally eliminate nuclear weapons”, Mr. Guterres said. Yet, that goal remains elusive.
Dwindling arms control
The web of arms control, transparency and confidence-building instruments established during the Cold War and its aftermath, is fraying, said the UN chief, and 75 years on, the world has yet to learn that nuclear weapons diminish, rather than reinforce security, he warned.
Against the backdrop of division, distrust and a lack of dialogue along with States modernizing their nuclear arsenals and developing new dangerous weapons and delivery systems, he fears that the prospect of a nuclear-weapon-free world “seems to be slipping further from our grasp”.
“The risk of nuclear weapons being used, intentionally, by accident or through miscalculation, is too high for such trends to continue”, the UN chief added, repeating his call for States to “return to a common vision and path leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons”.
‘Time for dialogue’
While all States can play a positive role, the countries that possess nuclear weapons have a special responsibility: “They have repeatedly committed to the total elimination of nuclear weapons”, Mr. Guterres reminded.
“Now is the time for dialogue, confidence-building measures, reductions in the size of nuclear arsenals and utmost restraint”.
Calling for the international non-proliferation and disarmament architecture to be safeguarded and strengthened, the UN chief cited next year’s Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as an opportunity for States to “return to this shared vision”.
He also looked forward to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entry into force, along with that of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which he said “remains a top priority in order to entrench and institutionalize the global norm against nuclear testing”.
The commemoration took place in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Secretary-General said has exposed so many of the world’s fragilities, “including in the face of the nuclear threat”.
“The only way to totally eliminate nuclear risk is to totally eliminate nuclear weapons”, he spelled out.
“The United Nations and I will continue to work with all those who seek to achieve our common goal: a world free of nuclear weapons”, concluded the Secretary-General.
Recommit to disarmament
There truly is no winner in a nuclear war, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande President of the UN General Assembly told the ceremony.
“We must recommit to nuclear disarmament for there will never be a justification for the decimation caused by nuclear weapons”, he emphasized, urging everyone to “work relentlessly” to do so.
Calling the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons “a milestone agreement” in nuclear disarmament, he called on all Member States to sign and ratify it.
“In memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…let us work together to create the future we want: a future which is free from the existential threat of nuclear weapons”, concluded the Assembly president.
Meanwhile, the head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test -Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), Lassina Zerbo, said that the devasting blasts continue to “haunt humanity and raises a challenging question: Can we ever escape the destructive instinct that led to these horrific bombings”?
Calling the hibakusha a “forceful moral compass for humanity”, he maintained that their pain and stories have made nuclear risk more “perceptible and concrete”.
According to Mr. Zerbo, the hibakusha have taught that patience, determination and resolution are “indispensable in the long battle towards nuclear disarmament”.
“We must finish what we started because what happened in Japan must never happen again”, he said, adding,“we must hear them so we can act”.
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