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Kathleen Schwind: Water Security and How to ‘Ignite Your Story’

In our final episode of the season we are delighted to be joined by Kathleen Schwind. A 2015 Coca-Cola Scholar, Kathleen focusses her research on the issues of water security in the Middle East and North Africa. She has studied at MIT and the University of Cambridge and joins our host, Muna Gasim, to discuss the problem of water shortage and its interaction with politics and international relations, as well giving advice on how to find your passion and make a positive change at any level. An insightful and inspiring conversation, this episode offers a microcosm for what Declarations has sought to achieve over the course of this season: shedding light on pressing problems in our world today and, through our guests, offering guidance on how to solve them. 

Growing up in rural California, Kathleen quickly became aware of the problem of water scarcity and the extent to which it could divide communities. She remembers her high school days where farmers, residents and senior local officials would argue and debate access to water. It is this that captured her attention and represents the foundations of her recent and ongoing research into the issues around water in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The Joint Water Committee, formed as part of the 1995 Oslo Accords, was intended to be a temporary measure but quickly became one of permanent significance, with the reliance on political cooperation for continuous and safe water supplies in the region ensuring water cannot be forgotten when analysing the ongoing conflict. How the committee should be restructured and operate formed to the bulk of Kathleen’s research whilst she was at MIT but, as she and her childhood experiences inform us, issues of water are not confined only to areas on ongoing conflict, impacting the everyday life of people across the globe and from all walks of life. 

‘Water is a very political issue whether you like it or not’ 

Kathleen Schwind

In the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, water scarcity has only grown in significance. Across much of the world the message has been to wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, raising the question: ‘what about those who do not have access to fresh water?’. It is in this current climate that Kathleen has seen an increase in the number of small organisations, local communities and entrepreneurs seeking to take the initiative and bring change about themselves. Bridging divides, such as those between Israelis and Palestinians, these people have partnered with their neighbours to try and make a positive impact. Not only demonstrating the pressing nature of water shortages, these projects and ambitions also exemplify the benefits of finding your passion and seeking to act upon it. 

It is at this point in the episode that Muna turns to discuss Kathleen’s scholarship. Growing up in a rural community where there were few opportunities for young people who were not blessed with athletic talent, Kathleen decided she wanted to change this. Launching the Gifted And Talented Educational Olympics (GATE Olympics) when she was in 4th grade represented an opportunity for children to show off their problem-solving and intellectual talents. Kathleen was later offered the role of a Coca-Cola Scholar, reflecting the positive impact she had had on her community, offering a chance for both competition and recognition to young people who previously been celebrated to that degree. 

The initiative and ambition Kathleen showed in creating the GATE Olympics is the focus of her new book ‘Ignite Your Story’. Recounting the lives of other Coca-Cola Scholars she has encountered, their passions and actions are shown to have improved the world around them. This not only heralds their achievements, but also offers the reader examples of how to make positive change. Details of the book and where to purchase it can be found below. 

Links to further information:
www.igniteyourstory.com 
https://www.igniteyourstory.com/our-story  

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Season 5 Episode 13 – Foro Penal & Macro/Micro-Resistance in Venezuela, featuring Alfredo Romero

For this week’s episode, host Muna Gasim and panelist Eddie Kembery speak to Alfredo Romero, one of the founding members of Foro Penal, a human rights organization that won the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for its work in Venezuela. Beginning with Alfredo’s own story, this episode is a masterclass in grassroots activism as we explore what has driven Foro Penal’s growth from four lawyer’s pro-bono work to an organisation of over 7000 activists. On the way, we discuss the difference between macro and micro resistance, activism without sacrifices, and Alfredo’s unconventional use of music.

Alfredo begins his story by speaking about the death of Jesus Mohammed on April 11th 2002 during the protests against Hugo Chávez which left 300 people injured. Alfredo’s effort to assist the family of the young boy pro-bono was one of the first actions he took against repression. He says he never thought of himself as a human rights activist – he had studied banking law – but as he has kept helping more and more families, and recruiting and educating more volunteers to assist him, Foro Penal has steadily grown.

“One woman, three years in jail without a sentence, her trial never ends… she was pregnant, and tortured… no one knows what happened to the baby”

Alfredo Romero

He then takes us through the range of actions Foro Penal volunteers are encouraged to take, formalised in his Legal Litigations Manual. The main emphasis is on taking direct local actions, including going to courts, raising attention of opinion makers, trade unions or local communities in order to precipitate a release. As he points out, the judicial system is only one of multiple systems they leverage to get a victim released. Next, he will often try and encourage international support – he suggests Foro Penal is the leading Venezeualan NGO in terms of leveraging international attention. Underlining this are “communicative actions”: posts on social media, press conferences and traditional media, once more organised by a colossal network of activists. Finally, Foro Penal will occasionally stage non-violent protests as a way of increasing the political cost of the repression. Later, we return to the topic, and Alfredo summarises the effect of having a clear formula with a drawing that captures how it streamlines decision making and avoids the necessity of extended experimentation:

“Concerts in the streets of Caracas, we play on the streets, music … And we start talking about situations

Alfredo Romero

Alfredo talks about one example of staging non-violent social events. In Caracas, for example, the stage street concerts, where people will gather and speak about community issues as well as human rights. Alfredo will often compose songs that specifically address relevant issues. This reflects Alfredo’s own personality, as both a certified lawyer at the international court and musician who plays the guitar and sings.

“Before being a musician I’m a human being, but before being a lawyer I’m a musician”

Alfredo Romero

We then talk about the viability of Alfredo’s strategy at decreasing large scale repression. Obviously Foro Penal has released many people, but why are they still being put in jail? Alfredo calls it the “revolving door effect” – for each person that comes out, another goes in. For Alfredo, taking a stand against this micro-repression is enough, because little achievements stack up, and often those released or effected by the activism become supporters of Foro Penal’s efforts, and in time become a macro-problem for the government. What will happen in the next five years? Alfredo isn’t sure – he says that he has always been expecting liberation, it’s a necessary part of the job – but he is hopeful that Foro Penal’s network will continue to grow and give hope to the unlawfully detained.

“We haven’t stopped the macro-repression – as I mentioned, repression has increased – but be have made progress on the micro”

Alfredo Romero

We talk about the universal applicability of the Foro Penal model. Alfredo has written about the models of repression (The Repression Clock) and Foro Penal operates with a clearly defined formal system. Could this work everywhere? Alfredo thinks so. He thinks all regimes go through the same stages – appeasement, awakening, hopeful and darkening – and outlines what those mean to him in more detail. For him, Venezuela is in an “appeasement” phase – and is about to wake up.

“They don’t care about what ideology they have, they care about controlling power”

Alfredo Romero

Finally, we return to Alfredo’s personal journey. Alfredo speaks of “”the embrace of freedom” – liberation is an amazing feeling, but it is also an amazing feel to liberate someone else. “There are many people around the world who are looking for this satisfaction”, so that asking them is a gift, rather than a burden. That is what he means by activism without sacrifice.

Who ever wants to become a billionaire, do not become a human rights activist. But there is something more valuable about being a lawyer, which is the satisfaction of helping someone.

Alfredo Romero

Political Context

In April 2002, Chávez was briefly ousted from power in the 2002 Venezuelan coup d’état attempt following actions by some of the military and media and demonstrations by the minority opposition, but he was returned to power after two days as a result of demonstrations by the majority of the public and actions by most of the military. However, political unrest continued during his term including a national strike that lasted more than two months in December 2002 – February 2003. He was elected for another term in December 2006 and in 2009 called for a referendum to remove term limits for all elected officials. Re-elected in 2012, he died in office in early 2013. He was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro (initially as interim president before narrowly winning the 2013 presidential elections). A combination of policy and oil price collapse caused a recession in 2014, and economic conditions continued to deteriorate in 2016. Maduro’s push to ban potential opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from politics in 2017 also escalated protests.

On 20 May 2018, President Nicolás Maduro won the presidential election amidst allegations of massive irregularities by his main rivals. His inauguration resulted in widespread condemnation; provoking the National Assembly to invoke a state of emergency and some nations to remove their embassies from Venezuela. On 23 January 2019, the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, was declared the interim president by that body, and recognized as the legitimate president by several nations, including the United States and the Lima Group. About 60 countries recognised him as acting president, but support for Guaidó has declined since a failed military uprising attempt in April 2019.

Today’s Guest

Alfredo Romero is the executive director of Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights organization composed of more than 100 well-known lawyers and a group of over 5.000 human rights activists who provide legal assistance to victims of arbitrary detentions in Venezuela, as well as assisting the families and victims of oppression.

Alfredo graduated as an Attorney in Caracas before obtaining a masters in Latin American Studies from Georgetown and another in Law from LSE. He went on to work as a professional lawyer, before starting humanitarian efforts in 2002. Since then, Foro Penal has helped over 10,000 people, and Alfredo recieved the Orden Bicentenaria del Colegio de Abogados in 2014, the highest recognition given by this entity in Venezuela, as well as the Robert Kennedy award in 2017.

Foro Penal’s website can be accessed here.

And Alfredo’s book, The Repression Clock, published by the Wilson Centre, can be accessed for free online here.

Panelist’s Comment

In a country that has been failed by multiple decades of political leadership, his seemingly modest focus on emotional resonance, story-telling and community cohesion (over, say, political signalling or insistent street protests) is deceptively powerful and something that traditional journalism might fail to capture because it isn’t as fast-moving or flashy as rioting or grand pronouncements. At the same time, Alfredo was unusually aware of the government’s reasons for repression. Although he generalises about tyranny, the Venezuelan government aren’t monsters – they are acting rationally and effectively – and his balancing of emotional story with appropriate utilitarianism (ultimately “to increase the political cost of repression”) shows that Foro Penal can act with the head, as well as the heart.

– Eddie Kembery

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Season 5 Episode 12 – Reporting on Human Rights in Yemen with Afrah Nasser

This week, host Muna Gasim and panellist Akshata Kapoor welcome journalist Afrah Nasser for an in-depth discussion of human rights reporting, bias, gender inequity, and more in Yemen and the international community at large. Our discussion this week covers topics ranging from the role of objectivity in human rights reporting to both the benefits and pitfalls of technology and social media. Nasser shares insights with Muna and Akshata on finding role models and the most important ways that governments and residents alike can support Yemeni rights.

In 2011, there were civilian uprisings in Yemen alongside other Middle Eastern countries during the Arab Spring. In September 2014, the Houthi rebel group, in alliance with former President Saleh, ousted President Hadi and started a full-fledged war. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with a coalition of Arab countries started a military campaign to reinstate President Hadi. Governments of Western countries continue to supply arms to the Saudi coalition that has been conducting relentless airstrikes in Yemen, affecting large swaths of civilian infrastructure and the population. Six years later, there seems to be no end in sight to the war in Yemen. 

According to the Yemen Data Project, since March 2015 there have been 18,569 civilian casualties and 22,701 air strikes. Thousands died in 2017 due to an outbreak of cholera and a breakdown of the healthcare system, which has yet to recover. A starving population is denied access to aid due to restrictions imposed by the Houthis. Women, political dissidents, and journalists are victims of arbitrary punishments. How does one report on such a conflict where so many different parties are complicit in the violation of human rights? What standards do you hold different parties to, and to what extent is it even possible to hold parties accountable? 

From humble beginnings in Yemen to an early career in journalism and the role of a blogger in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, former Yemeni journalist, political writer, and human rights defender Afrah Nasser has been advocating for women’s empowerment and human rights in Yemen for over a decade. Nasser has written for and made appearances on numerous news outlets, including Al-Jazeera, The Monitor, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and others. She is the recipient of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society Organization’s 2017 Eldh-Ekblads Peace Prize, the Pennskaft Prize in 2016, the Swedish Publicists Club’s 2014 Dawit Issak Prize, and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 2017. In 2013, Nasser was named by BBC as one of the “100 Women Who Changed the World,” and has been featured three times as one of the 100 most influential Arabs by Arabian Business Magazine. Her blog, created during Yemen’s 2011 uprisings, has won her the recognition of CNN and Al-Monitor as one of the most influential blogs in the Middle East for her coverage of human rights. Today, she works as the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen.

“I think the question is, … what is your bias? Are your biases towards civilians? Towards human rights? Towards the integrity … the need for people to live in dignity, and, you know, for justice to be served? That’s my bias.”

Afrah Nasser

Our conversation begins with a discussion of the role of objectivity in journalism. Nasser shares that an emphasis on objectivity should not eclipse the humanity of the people in Yemen. Even those who believe themselves to be perfectly impartial, as academics often strive to be, are still likely to carry an implicit set of beliefs and biases which can skew data and information. To account for this, Nasser emphasizes the need for diversity of background and perspective – academics, researchers, human rights activists, witnesses, and other key stakeholders should come together at the same table.

“It’s really about having all these perspectives included. Because excluding local voices really harms what you’re trying to do.”

Afrah Nasser

Nasser also shares her experiences as a female journalist working in a male dominated field. She observes that even when female voices are represented, they are all too often disregarded or dismissed. Years of this disregard can culminate in imposter syndrome, or the belief that one does not deserve the position they have accomplished – when a woman is shown over and over that her opinions are not valued, this lowered esteem can become internalized. To help bolster confidence in women who are pursuing journalism – or any career – Nasser encourages finding and researching role models who have helped pave the way for the next generation to follow.

“It’s thanks to my mother actually, who taught me that your gender should mean nothing. It’s really about you, and your personality, and your hard work that determines what you want to be in the society.”

Afrah Nasser

With regard to the role of technology in sharing information, Nasser notes the clear benefits of heightened communication and access to information. The #MeToo movement in particular, she says, showed the power that women can wield when coming together to occupy new spaces and support one another. However, she is careful to raise the point that men and women encounter the online sphere in very different ways – while men and women alike receive negative commentary from adversaries, Nasser reflects on the trolling, sexual harassment, and hate speech, which combine to form what she calls “hate poetry,” which is directed disproportionately at women online. Governments and regulating bodies have a responsibility to end digital violence and make online presence safe for all.  

“Very often I live with that trauma, that my opinions don’t matter. And every time I was getting the awards I was like, really? Are they sure? Is my work this important? But I always knew I was so passionate about writing. Like I could physically get sick if I don’t write, if I don’t express the things that I was seeing, or just doing proper journalism.”

Afrah Nasser

Likewise, the rise of citizen journalism has helped grassroots movements and human rights defenders make great strides in understanding and fighting against the abuses taking place worldwide. Simultaneously, oppressive governments are able to weaponize digital platforms to target dissidents and protestors, and further restrict free expression. In many countries, journalists and activists feel as though it is just a matter of time before it is “their turn” to be arrested for speaking out in criticism of the oppressive state. Part of the responsibility for correcting this falls on the shoulders of Western states and diplomats, who have the ability to pressure governments to respect the rights of their people.

“Diplomats should use their freedom of expression to support the oppressed.”

Afrah Nasser

Nasser concludes by encouraging all listeners and supporters to show solidarity by uplifting the voices and experiences of Yemenis.

“As a principle, if you really want to show solidarity for any Yemeni just amplify their voices. it’s not about you, it’s not about hijacking their struggle, just amplify Yemeni voices.”

Afrah Nasser

Learn more:

Read Afrah Nasser’s bio on Human Rights Watch

Follow Afrah Nasser on Twitter

Human Rights Watch Articles about the Yemeni Crisis:

International Federation of Journalists: Yemen: Journalists continue facing harsh conditions

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Season 5 Episode 11 – Counterterrorism & Human Rights in Conversation with Tom Parker

This week, host Muna Gasim welcomes guest Tom Parker, counterterrorism practitioner and former UN war crimes investigator, for a discussion of situating the fight against terrorism within a human rights framework. They discuss the power of language, the use of force, PEACE method interrogation, Guantanamo Bay, the state of policing, and more. To read Tom’s latest book, “Avoiding the Terrorist  Trap: Why  Respecting Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism,” Tom Parker. Click HERE to claim a 55% discount on the Hardback and a 30% discount of the eBook – be sure to use offer code P995PARKERHC for the Hardback and P995PARKEREB for the eBook!

Tom Parker is the author of “Avoiding the Terrorist Trap: Why Respecting Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism”(2019). Until recently he was Chief of Party of a European Union project providing assistance to the Office of the National Security Adviser in Baghdad, Iraq. Tom has previously served as an adviser on human rights and counter-terrorism to United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), as the Policy Director for Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights for Amnesty International USA, as a war crimes investigator for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) working in the field in Bosnia and Kosovo, and as an Intelligence Officer in the British Security Service (MI5). As an independent consultant he has worked on transitional justice and security sector reform projects on four continents, and was one of the principal authors of the UN’s Preventing Violent Extremism Plan of Action.

After beginning his career as a self-described hard-charging counterterrorism officer, Tom’s focus shifted to research as he sought to better understand the complex role of Western powers in the project of counterterrorism and the project of protecting human rights. Muna and Parker discuss the political potency of language, particularly when it comes to defining labels such as “prisoner of war,” which not only carries legal ramifications but also affords legitimacy to the states in question.  

“In fact, if we really wanted to start digging into solutions to terrorism, we really have to turn the lens back on ourselves and understand the role that we were playing in this dynamic.”

Tom Parker

Tom and Muna also discuss the responsibility incumbent upon global powers such as the US and the UK to hold a high standard when it comes to the use of force. While Parker acknowledges that it is often unrealistic to expect a government not to act in the face of an imminent threat to its citizens, he underscores that the use of force should always be calibrated to the lowest necessary level. By conducting military operations which resulted in civilian casualty, the “soft power” long held by the United States as a global leader, promoter of liberal values, and human rights defender has begun to erode. Expanding on this, Parker explains how, particularly in law enforcement and interrogation, practicing the “PEACE method,” which protects the human rights of detainees, is not only the ethical choice, but the smart one. Humane interrogation practices are shown to actually be more effective at eliciting information than torture – which, Tom notes, is not only illegal, but is a universal crime, punishable worldwide, without statute of limitations.

“If you’re employing the right people, they should have the creative tools and the experience and the knowledge to find legal ways to achieve their objective. It really isn’t actually that difficult. And you should be challenged as a representative of the state to hold yourself to a higher standard, and you should be challenged to do your best work every day. So I don’t find this a particularly remarkable standard to impose on people working in counterterrorism.”

Tom Parker

Looking ahead to the future of human rights, Parker cautions that without significant attention to human rights protections, all of the components of a dystopian fantasy could come together into a reality. The ubiquity of facial recognition technology and surveillance hold tremendous and concerning potential for future human rights abuses – and this future may not be as far off as we would think.

 “It’s not hard to imagine a dystopia where everything you say is recorded, everywhere you go is recorded, everybody you meet is recorded and your space to be a private, free individual disappears. Now that’s, as I said, that’s something of a dystopian fantasy of the moment, but the tools to make that dystopian fantasy a reality do exist and they’re getting more and more powerful every year.”

Tom Parker

In parting, Parker urges listeners to hold tight to the essential value of human rights protections. Human rights, he says, are not just idealistic – they are profoundly central human values, which must be defended persistently. As nations, the practice and protection of these values is a challenge that must be met in every possible scenario, without compromise.

“ Infrastructure is pretty easy to rebuild. It’s actually really, really hard to recover your values once they start getting tarnished. Because hypocrisy is kryptonite to legitimacy.”

Tom Parker

LEARN MORE

“Avoiding the Terrorist  Trap:  Why  Respecting Human Rights is the Key to Defeating Terrorism,” Tom Parker. Click HERE to claim a 55% discount on the Hardback and a 30% discount of the eBook – be sure to use offer code P995PARKERHC for the Hardback and P995PARKEREB for the eBook!

Fighting an Antaean Enemy: How Democratic States Unintentionally Sustain the Terrorist Movements They Oppose,” Tom Parker.

Acting Ethically in the Shadows: Intelligence Gathering and Human Rights,” Richard Barrett and Tom Parker.

The Four Horsemen of Terrorism: It’s Not Waves, It’s Strains,” Tom Parker and Nick Sitter.

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Season 5 Episode 10 – Thai Protests & the Fate of the Future Forward Party

This week, host Muna Gasim and panellist Neema Jayasinghe speak with Chamnan Chanruang from the Future Forward party about the anti-monarchy protests ongoing in Thailand. Chanruang is also a former Political Science and Law lecturer at Chiang Mai University, and has a professional background as a human rights activist. He has taken a stand against coup d’états and was also a key driver in the movement to finalise the draft act for the Chiang Mai Self-Governing. He was previously appointed as the Chairperson of the Amnesty International Thailand Board.

I can say we have no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, especially related to monarchy or related to the institutions.

Chamnan Chanruang

In 2020, anti-government protests erupted in Thailand after courts banned the Future Forward Party, the country’s most vocal party opposing the government of former junta leader Prayut Chan-ocha. Due to the coronavirus, protests saw a brief pause, but the movement resumed in mid-July. Protestors were pushing for Prayut’s removal, a new constitution, and an end to the harassment of activists. Some protesters went further with a list of ten demands to reform the monarchy – demands that were cheered by tens of thousands of people at a demonstration in September. Currently, nearly one year after emergency decree, more than 380 protesters (including 13 children) face criminal charges and alleged protest leaders remain in detention. 61 people face charges for defamatory comments about the monarchy and more large-scale protests are expected to be ongoing alongside the possibility of a charter rewrite with two referendums.

Many people committed suicide, they have no money, no food. This never happened before.

Chamnan Chanruang

Chanruang explains that power in Thailand is influenced by three main forces: businesses, politicians, and the monarchy, which wields military support. Due to rampant economic inequality, the Future Forward Party found vast support amongst the younger generations living in Thailand. The current protests differ from those in the past because of the specific focus on the Thai monarchal power structure – for example, it had long been customary for audience members in Thai cinemas to stand for the royal anthem before each show, but protestors have remained seated in protest.

In [the] long run they cannot, they cannot destroy… the demonstrations of the young generations.

Chamnan Chanruang

At the core of the unrest, Chanruang shares, is widespread economic inequality. Facing a lack of business opportunity in the face of monopolies, saddled with student debt, and without employment or income, Thailand’s younger generations are seeking reform. But the risk of persecution for dissent is high, and the criminal justice system remains intertwined with the interests of the ruling monarchy. Even from abroad, Chanruang says, the international community has an important role to play in putting pressure on the Thai government to respect and uphold human rights. This episode also features discussions of the interplay of regional politics, coronavirus vaccine equity, and the road ahead for the FFP.

People will win, but it takes time.

Chamnan Chanruang

Learn More

Chamnan Chanruang: Future Forward Party Biography

Read: Thailand protests: Why are Thai people protesting and what is the significance?

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Season 5 Episode 9 – Existential Risk, Climate Crisis & Indigenous Rights with Natalie Jones

For this week’s episode, host Muna Gasim and panellist Eddie Kemberry are joined by Natalie Jones, Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, to discuss existential risk, the climate crisis, indigenous rights, and the ways that all three intersect. Natalie shares insights into the nature of global, existential risks and how we can think ahead to protect the rights of future generations. We also discuss the need for substantial and meaningful representation of indigenous peoples in decision- and policy-making.

Natalie Jones works on how global injustice and inequality can potentially contribute to existential risk, with a particular interest in climate change. Her PhD work focused on accountability and procedural justice in global governance. Her background is in international law and climate policy, including as a Staff Writer for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Research Assistant at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, and a judges’ clerk at the High Court of New Zealand. She holds an LLM in international law from the University of Cambridge, and an LLB(Hons) and BSc in physics from the University of Canterbury.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is an interdisciplinary organization bringing together researchers from the law, anthropology, engineering, maths, political science and more to understand existential risk (threats that are global in nature), how they are caused, and how to mitigate them. Existential risks include biological threats such as pandemics, risks stemming from developments in technology and AI, and perhaps most notably, the climate crisis. Each of these threats bears immense implications for human rights.

“Who is being heard in these conversations, and how? And under what conditions? And does participation translate into influence or power over outcomes? And if not, how can it do so?”

Natalie Jones

Eddie, Muna, and Natalie discuss the individual and cultural bias in favor of the present over the future, and the difficulty of protecting the health and rights of generations which will follow ours. In the face of current, widespread threats to human rights, there is a risk of postponing climate mitigation discussions, since the effects of climate change can seem far off. Natalie stresses that response to current human rights abuses and response to the climate disaster are not mutually exclusive – in fact, many programs, like the Green New Deal, understand the deep connectivity between capitalism, human rights abuses, and environmental exploitation, and seek to remediate social and economic inequality hand in hand with offering climate solutions. Abuse of the environment is inextricable from the exploitative economic systems which favor short term capital gain to long term communal investment. The climate crisis does not have a singular solution, nor do the complex economic, political, and cultural conditions which have given it rise.

“If you’re hearing the voices of the communities that are going to be affected by these policies, and if you know how they’re going to affect these communities, then … it’s a lot easier to actually get it right and to make climate policy that works for both communities that are really at the front lines and … reducing emissions and promoting climate action overall.”

Natalie Jones

When governments and international organizations are making critical decisions about climate mitigation and response, it is essential that the right people are not only being heard, but also having their perspectives honored and translated into actual action. Decision-making bodies are all too often at risk of perpetuating undue harm in vulnerable communities in the name of environmentally minded policies – as Natalie explains, these harms can be prevented by committing to meaningful participation and collaboration with stakeholders. Slowly, the global community is waking up to the urgent need to protect and expand indigenous rights. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples promoted this agenda, and recent years have seen an increase in protests, activism, and public outcry, including the Keystone XL Pipeline protests. While advances have been made by some governments and international organizations to include indigenous people at decision-making tables, this progress has been conspicuously lacking in areas like investment and trade, areas which would confer autonomy and lasting control.

“A sort of example here is the policies which have been called the Green New Deal type of policies, which are really aimed at combating inequality at the same time as combating the climate crisis. It’s about conceptualizing these two things as sort of both as crises and tackling them both … There’s a lot of literature out there that indicates that it can be done. That it’s not you know, human rights or the environment. It’s not like, prosperity or the environment. It’s really both, at the same time.”

Natalie Jones

The study of existential risk is a burgeoning field with abundant resources for listeners who are interested in getting more involved (see below for more details). Listeners who live on indigenous lands in countries that have colonial relationships with indigenous peoples are encouraged to start locally – learn the history of the land on which you now live. Listeners who live in the UK or elsewhere in Europe are encouraged to learn more about global history, particularly the global history of colonization that might not have been taught in schools. All listeners are encouraged to pay attention to ongoing movements and protests in defense of indigenous rights, learn about the issues and what is at stake, and determine how best to support these movements.

Learn More:

Natalie Jones is on Twitter at @nataliejon_es

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge.

Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

Future of Life Institute, Boston, USA.

The Precipice, by Toby Ord.

The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Report, 2021.

Some resources to learn more about indigenous rights and indigenous peoples’ role in combating existential risk:

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

How to Survive an Apocalypse and Keep Dreaming, by Julian Brave NoiseCat.

As you might hear, our guest today is a person who stammers. Stammering affects up to 3% of adults in the UK. To learn more:

Stammering resources: Stamma.org

Words Fail Us by Jonty Claypole 

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Season 5 Episode 8 – Human Rights in the Digital Age: A Conversation with Alina Utrata

For this week’s episode, we are delighted to welcome Alina Utrata, a Ph.D. candidate in Politics and International Studies and a 2020 Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, whose research focuses on the influence of technology on state and corporate power. She joins our host Muna Gasim and producer Sam Baron to discuss how Big Tech companies are impeding and restricting our human rights in the digital space, and what type of change is necessary to begin tackling this threat. Their conversation touches on the enormous amounts of power companies such as Facebook can wield on the global stage, and how poor data security can endanger and cost lives.

Although some tech companies try to adhere to their obligations set forth in international human rights frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Alina argues that these corporations still possess disproportionate amounts of power. As she points out, social media and other Big Tech companies are able to freely promote or suppress content on their own terms and with very limited oversight. She provides the recent example of Facebook’s removal of pages associated with the Myanmar military to illustrate how those at Facebook – namely Mark Zuckerberg – can freely decide what content the platform chooses to host or the crises the company decides to tackle.

Facebook’s removal of pages and accounts associated with the Myanmar military came several years after the UN concluded social media was playing an important role in the perpetuation and execution of genocide against the Rohingya people, with such platforms providing the military an outlet to disseminate misinformation, hate speech, and rhetoric throughout the broader population. As the podcast touched upon earlier in the season, the situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar remains dire. This begs the question: What influence could a ban on the military’s use of Facebook years earlier have done to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis? And are there ways we can more effectively pressure large tech companies to reform?

“Corporations have obligations to society”  

Alina Utrata

Underestimating the amount of power held by these corporations can have catastrophic consequences for activists or vulnerable groups across the world. During the conversation, Sam, Muna, and Alina all weigh in on the recent rise of the social networking app Clubhouse and how its poor data security protocols have left people in great danger. Though the app is banned in China, many Chinese citizens have accessed the site through VPNs, and worryingly, recent investigations have shown that the poor data security practices of the application have allowed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to access the data of those using the app, and identify potentially identify violators within their borders. 

As Alina discusses, many activists using the app to discuss politically sensitive material such as the ongoing Uyghur crisis leaves them and their contacts vulnerable to surveillance and retribution by the CCP. Alongside a VICE article from a few months ago which revealed that the US military had been buying the data of users of a Muslim prayer app, Alina shows us how “everything that you do online is tracked” and tech companies can sometimes unwittingly or even intentionally aid invasions of personal privacy by the state. 

The discussion concludes with Alina asking us to look at the bigger picture. To gain an understanding of the power corporations such as Facebook possess, we must begin to understand how they interact with other forces in our world, recognizing the relationship between big tech companies, repressive states, and issues like structural racism. Identifying the role of social media plays allows us to begin tackling the problem, and calling out hate speech on these platforms when we see it, and remaining conscious of the invasive powers they hold, are actionable steps we can take to mitigate digital risks.

ADDENDUM: Toward the beginning of the episode, Alina misspoke and says that “in Myanmar, Facebook is the military”, this should be “in Myanmar, Facebook is the internet.”

Further Resources
More on Alina: https://www.gatescambridge.org/biography/17662/  
Follow Alina on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlinaUtrata  

Alina’s podcast on the intersection of tech and politics, the ‘Anti-Dystopians‘: https://www.alinautrata.com/podcast

VICE Articlehttps://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqm5x/us-military-location-data-xmode-locate-x  

Just Security Coverage of the Nestle case
https://www.justsecurity.org/74035/nestle-cargill-v-doe-series-remedying-the-corporate-accountability-gap-at-the-icc/

Alina’s podcast episode with Matt Mahmoudi on technology, migration, and racism: https://www.alinautrata.com/podcast/episode/5d36f3c3/the-digital-periphery-technology-migration-and-racial-capitalism and an article on Matt’s research https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/race-in-the-digital-periphery-the-new-old-politics-of-refugee-representation/

Alina’s blogpost about the privacy implications of Clubhouse: https://powerswitchorg.wordpress.com/2021/02/14/data-collection-can-be-a-death-sentence-clubhouse-in-china-shows-that-even-harmless-apps-may-put-individuals-in-harms-way/

Alina’s blogpost on how we should reform social media sites: https://powerswitchorg.wordpress.com/2020/12/02/seeing-like-a-social-media-site/


Alina’s blogpost about Facebook mimicking governments: https://powerswitchorg.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/should-you-have-a-right-to-a-facebook-account/

Facebook still runs discriminatory ads, new report finds – The Verge https://www.theverge.com/2020/8/26/21403025/facebook-discriminatory-ads-housing-job-credit-hud

Los Angeles police ‘wanted Amazon Ring BLM protest footage’
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-56099167

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Dalit Rights Matter: The Fight for Equality and the Long Road Ahead

Our conversation this week turns to the question of Dalit rights in India, assessing the progress that has been made and what further change must come. To discuss this, we are thrilled to be joined by Dr. Sumeet Mhaskar from Jindal Global University. An Associate Professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, Dr. Mhaskar’s research takes in the experiences and vulnerabilities of workers both specifically in Mumbai and across the Indian nation. He talks with our podcast host Muna and panellist Akshata about the everyday persecution and discrimination Dalits still face, the failure of political and legal reforms to fight the Dalit cause and what the international community can do to bring about meaningful and long-lasting change. 


Though not codified in law or the Indian constitution, caste systems and hierarchies persist to this day, infiltrating all aspects of everyday life. Dr. Mhaskar describes how the effects are unavoidable, especially for those, such as Dalits, who fall at its lower end. From the area in which they are permitted to live to the type of job they are able to obtain, the caste system has an oppressive effect on all aspects of life for the Dalit community. They are frequently forced to take up manual and heavy labour jobs, with their hopes of more lucrative or skilled employment quashed by the persistent stigma that surrounds their background. Attempts to set up and create their own businesses are often met within police intervention or strategic abstinence from higher caste citizens. They can be denied the right to live in certain, typically more affluent, areas and attempts to marry those of a higher caste are still far too frequently met with the practice of ‘honour killing’. As Dr. Mhaskar outlines, such is the practice of killing one or both of the man and woman in a perceived attempt to save the reputation of the higher caste family. As Akshata and Sameet discuss, the presence of almost two sets of laws, one constitutional the other based on the strictures of the caste system, is greatly hindering the closing and combatting of social divides. With these inequalities so deeply ingrained across society, radical change is needed. 

“we cannot think about Hinduism without thinking about Caste” 

Dr. Mhaskar

Conversation also takes in the failings of political and legal reforms, which have been proven to do little to tackle the deep-rooted prejudices faced by communities like the Dalits. From the adopting of a modern constitution in 1950, in the eyes of the law, all Indian citizens have been viewed as equal regardless of their caste. Nevertheless, as Dr. Mhaskar alludes to, this is still yet to become a reality. Though legal rights may be increased through measures such as the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, in everyday life these benefits are rarely felt. Many in the police continue to adhere to caste norms and perpetrators of caste-based crimes and atrocities can be seen to often receive sentences or punishments that do not accurately reflect the severity of the crime they committed. Our guest gives an example of this, citing the case of a 13-year-old Dalit girl who had been kidnapped and raped. In the legal processes that followed, those charged with the crime should have been done so both under the Protection of Children and Sexual Offences Act 2012 and legislation relating to the committing of caste-based crimes. Nevertheless, issues of caste were brushed aside and such is representative of the struggle Dalits face in having both their voices heard and their lives respected. As the discussion throughout this episode shows, discrimination is deeply rooted in all aspects of life. 

“A complete system failure” 

Dr. Mhaskar

In turning to changes in recent years, however, there are glimmers of hope. Amongst the Indian diaspora there is increased recognition of the need to apply pressure and show solidarity with the Dalit cause in India. Social media plays an important role here, increasing awareness of the problems. Indeed, Dr Mhaskar talks of how, from around 2007, there has also been a growing diversification of students on university campuses in India. The changing of the demographic in this sphere offers hope of both more inter-caste friendships as well as increased recognition of the need to push for substantial change in the treatment of Dalits.

 
It is important, however, that we are not too optimistic. Whilst social media platforms such as Twitter can bring pressure to bear, there has been evidence in recent months of Twitter officials in India not approving tweets or hashtags that openly discuss issues surrounding caste. Equally, whilst student cohorts become more diverse this does not directly translate into significant legislative or legal change. Without sustained and persistent pressure on the Indian government and state to tackle the issues faced by Dalits, Dr. Mhaskar sees little hope of meaningful change. Both within India and the international community we must work to promote and push for change, levying sustained pressure on the Indian government and individual state legislatures to address the blatant inequalities that still exist. 

Further Resources: 
Dr. Mhaskar’s recent work on Ambedkar’s fight against the caste system and labour activism: https://t.co/A3WoUBnXK6?amp=1 
Follow:  
https://twitter.com/sumeetmhaskar  
@DalitCamera 
https://twitter.com/ambedkariteIND 
https://twitter.com/dalitwomenfight 
https://www.youtube.com/c/DalitCamera/featured

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#NoRightsNoGames: The Uyghur Genocide & the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games

This week, host Muna Gasim and producer Sam Baron are joined by Zumretay Arkin, the Program and Advocacy Manager at the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella organization based Berlin, Germany that advocates for the rights of Uyghur people, an ethnic group from the province of Xinjiang in Northwest China. Despite the severe human rights abuses taking place against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China, Beijing remains the host of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, which has vast political and humanitarian implications. Muna, Sam, and Zumretay discuss the atrocities being committed against the Uyghur people, the political power of the Olympics, and how governments, corporations, athletes, journalists, and citizens can take action.

Overview of the situation in Xinjiang

“I’m just going to say it bluntly. Currently, there’s a genocide.”

Zumretay Arkin

The Uyghur people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. It is currently estimated that more than 1.8 million Uyghur people are being held in concentration camps in China as a result of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s efforts to assimilate and eradicate minority groups. Since the beginning of CCP Chairman Xi Jinping’s tenure, perceived differences from the Han Chinese majority have been considered a threat to the national interests and thus attacked and criminalized. As a result, ethnic and religious minorities such as the Uyghurs have been subject to language severe religious persecution including the criminalization of religious practices such as wearing a veil or having an ‘abnormal’ beard, and the destruction of sacred cultural and religious sites such as mosques and gravesites.

The Uyghurs have been targeted with mass arbitrary detention in concentration camps and subjected to abhorrent abuses including unsanitary and unsafe living conditions, constant surveillance, sexual abuse, rape, forced sterilization and abortion, family separation and placement of children in state-run orphanages, and forced labor. Recent satellite imagery suggests that the network of camps is expanding, raising major concerns about the future of the Uyghur people.

These abuses constitute crimes against humanity and, as Arkin emphasizes, amount to genocide under Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games

“[The IOC] told us that they could not save the world, basically, through the Olympics, which is pretty condescending to human rights activists and groups. We’re not asking them to change the world. We’re just asking them to respect their own set of values which is clearly indicated in their own charter.”

Zumretay Arkin

While Arkin acknowledges that general awareness of the plight facing the Uyghurs has greatly improved over the past few years, she notes that concrete actions by the international community have been slow, and there remains much to be done. The selection of Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics has been widely criticized by human rights advocates, who view the selection as a tacit endorsement or excusal of China’s human rights abuses, not only against the Uyghur but also against persecuted peoples of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Mongolia.

Arkin recounts her experience during a meeting between human rights groups and the IOC – a meeting eighteen years in the making – which ultimately led to little more than empty promises and a dispersal of responsibility. Despite the soft power wielded by China both economically and diplomatically, Arkin and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) have called on national governments across the globe to orchestrate a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games.

Acknowledging the lifetime of work that goes into competing in the Olympics, Arkin is careful to note that the WUC is not calling on athletes to boycott the Olympics – instead, they celebrate the power that athletes can wield to call attention to the human rights abuses taking place in China. Similarly, broadcast networks and journalists can use their platforms to elevate stories about the Uyghur genocide and persecution, giving essential context to any coverage of the 2022 Games.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re not involved in these crimes,’ but many of these sponsors or brands, they might not even know their own supply chains.”

Zumretay Arkin

Muna, Sam, and Zumretay also discuss the implications for corporations, sponsors, and consumers before and during the Olympics, and beyond. Uyghurs detained in the concentration camps are also subjected to forced labor, particularly as part of the massive cotton farming industry located in Uyghur territory.

More than 20% of the world’s cotton supply originates in this region, and many large clothing companies, including Adidas, Puma, Nike, and Zara source materials from this region. While several nations, including the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have either implemented or proposed bans on cotton goods from this region due to the high likelihood of slave labor, it is still incumbent upon corporations to interrogate their supply chains and ensure forced labor has not assisted in the creation of their product. Consumers can also become informed and avoid shopping from companies which source materials from regions known to force slave labor.

The #NoRightsNoGames Movement

Arkin notes that social media has played a very important role in raising awareness and building solidarity around the Uyghur persecution. The #NoRightsNoGames hashtag has gained momentum and helped to spread information about the atrocities taking place in China. Social media helps connect people with actionable steps they can take to make a difference, from simple one-click actions like sharing a post, to signing petitions, to writing and sending letters to elected officials calling for action. While Arkin celebrates the power that social media has to democratize information sharing, she also notes that the strict restrictions imposed by the Chinese government make this tool much less effective within the country.

“Just last week I was speaking at the UN and China… replied to my statement saying that we should not be speaking at the UN… they basically tried to intimidate me at the UN… that means that our words, our work has some kind of influence and power, because they’re feeling threatened. For me that also counts as a victory.”

Zumretay Arkin

Reflecting on the advances that the WUC has made, Arkin first notes that it is difficult to connect with small victories when confronted on a daily basis with the realities of genocide, persecution, and the disappearance of members of her family. Still, she views the heightening public awareness of the Uyghur genocide as a sign that their campaign is moving in the right direction.

When brands support calls to stop sourcing materials from regions with forced labor, as M&S did just recently, these are important steps towards ending the persecution of the Uyghur people. By persistently and fearlessly advocating for the Uyghur people, Arkin and the WUC have drawn criticism and intimidation from the Chinese government – but Arkin says these repercussions only serve to reinforce the power and importance of their work fighting for the human rights of the Uyghur people.

“Behind all of these statistics and numbers, there are real people on the line … and they have human stories to share.”

Zumretay Arkin

When asked how listeners can get involved, Arkin encourages getting informed and using the power available to you to effect real change. Everyone has the capacity to become informed about this critical issue and to thoroughly engage with the Uyghur stories, not just at a surface level. Recently, the app Clubhouse has become home to multiple discussion boards addressing the persecution of Uyghurs.

As consumers, we have the power to affect change by boycotting brands whose supply chains exploit forced labor. Arkin encourages us to use our political voices to call our elected officials’ attention to the Uyghur genocide. Before we are athletes or spectators, we are human beings, and as much as the controversy surrounding the 2022 Olympic Games is a political issue, it is important to remember that it is a humanitarian crisis with real human lives at stake. 

Further resources: 

Follow:
@ZumretErkin
@UyghurCongress

Zumretay’s Op-Ed in the Hong Kong Free Press: https://hongkongfp.com/2021/02/06/in-a-year-china-will-host-the-first-genocide-olympics/

For an overview of the general context of the crisis in Xinjiang, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has a catalogue of theme-specific case studies/research called “Xinjiang Data Project.”

BuzzFeed News resource on the overall camp network with multiple parts.

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Season 5 Episode 5 – Understanding the #EndSARS Protests, Part 2: Women in Activism, Social Media, and the Road Ahead in Nigeria

This week, for the second in our two-part series focusing on the #EndSARS Movement, we are joined by three powerful activists working to end police brutality and abuse of power in Nigeria: Aisha Yesufu, Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaar, and Lola Omolola. Our guests share stories about living under SARS control, insights about the power of the #EndSARS protests, and their visions for Nigeria’s future. To listen to Part 1 of this series, click here.

Aisha Yesufu is an activist, community leader, and financial literacy educator who demands good governance. She is unapologetic about her stance in fighting for justice and equity. Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaaris an award-winning chemical engineer and energy consultant. She is the founder of Ignite Energy Africa, an online community and resource hub which provides data and promotes innovation in the energy sector. She is also the author of Everyone Deserves to Sparkle and the founder of the Sparkle Initiative,which supports STEM education and encourages young people everywhere to pursue their passions. Lola Omolola builds communities that change people’s lives. She has more than twenty years of experience in journalism, spanning radio, television, and digital project management. She is also the founder of the Female IN Facebook group, which has brought together more than 1.7 million members across 100 countries to share experiences and forge a meaningful community.

Building upon our conversation in Understanding the #EndSARS Protests Part 1, our guests this week provide on-the-ground insights into life in Nigeria under the corrupt reign of SARS. Although SARS (the Special Anti-Robbery Squad) was established as a sub-unit of the police force to curtail armed robbery and kidnapping, as our guests explain, SARS was soon corrupted by the power they wielded. Before long, SARS became the perpetrators of the very corruption, violence, and terror which they had been tasked with policing. Young men were profiled and targeted by the police for things as simple as owning an iPhone or driving an expensive car. Police officers also routinely harassed, threatened, stalked, and violated young women.

“This is not acceptable. Citizens have a right to protest in Nigeria and nobody can stop that.”

Aisha Yesufu

In October 2020, protests erupted across the country. Aisha Yesufu emphasizes the fundamental importance of social media to the surge and coordination of public outcry and protests. Social media helped disperse information – not only about the murders and violence being perpetrated by the police, but also key details about protests. This enabled larger groups of people to join in the movement. Social media also provided an invaluable record of the offenses committed by the police during the protests. When protestors were attacked and teargassed by the police, videos and photos that were posted to social media became key evidence against the attempts of the government to gaslight the public and deny the attacks. The rise of social media has also democratized the exchange of information in Nigeria. Unlike the days of Yesufu’s childhood, when news broadcasts were controlled by the government and dispatched only twice a day, social media has all but destroyed the barriers to both sharing and receiving information.

“Every time women are coming together, it scares the structures, the traditional structures…”

Lola Omolola

Social media has also created space for Nigerian women, in particular, to share their experiences and find community. As our guests share, women have long stood at the forefront of the movements to advance change while also bearing the brunt of the pain inflicted by injustice. Lola Omolola notes the power that can be ignited by finding community and recognition through social media and through pages such as FIN, which empowers women to organize and mobilize to rectify unjust power structures.

We also discuss the collaborative, community-focused nature of the #EndSARS protests, a key pillar of the movement’s effectiveness. Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaar shares that a strong commitment to the movement inspired not just activists, but others such as lawyers and doctors to contribute their skills and resources to supporting the cause. Our guests also stress that a successful movement is made up of whole communities contributing their different skill sets – from marching, to writing, to policy-building, to political organizing – to a shared vision of a more just future.

“Young people want to also be engaged, have a say in the future of our nation. We want to know that we are being listened to… The country belongs to us and our children and our generations to come.”

Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaar

When looking ahead to Nigeria’s future, Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaar envisions a country which works for and listens to its younger generations, tapping into the nation’s vast potential. Omolola is working to build a community in which every woman truly knows the power and importance of her own voice. In Yesufu’s view, cycles of corruption will not be broken until the people become invested and involved in politics. When people reclaim the power of their voice and vote through government, there will be meaningful and lasting change. Our guests encourage all listeners to first, educate themselves, and then get involved as best suits their skills, their abilities, and their passions.

Read more

“I am proud that young Nigerians are driving change – we will no longer be ignored.” Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaar, The Independent

Female IN (FIN) Facebook Group

Aisha Yesufu: ‘#EndSARS​ is a fight for the next generation of Nigerians’ – BBC Africa