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Season 7 Episode 5 – ‘Women, Life, Freedom’: Poetry and Protest in the Iranian State

For our fifth episode, panellist Clare Francis discusses the interplay of poetry and protest in the Iranian state with Dr. Fatemeh Shams, an activist, award-winning poet, and Persian literary scholar. Alongside host Neema Jayasinghe, they explore the boundaries of art and activism in Iran, where successive regimes have historically sought to enforce strict limitations around acceptable versus unacceptable forms of activism. Protest movements challenge these boundaries in myriad creative ways, but they are at constant risk of co-option by the state. By examining the intersection of poetry and protest in Iran’s women-led uprising – known globally by the catch cry ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ – Dr. Shams gives voice to both the challenges and the revolutionary potential of women’s activism in Iran.

‘Keep amplifying the voices of Iranian people… If they do not make headlines, it doesn’t mean the movement is dead, or over. It’s just under the skin of the society, like an active volcano waiting for another moment to erupt.’

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

Iran has a long history of popular protest which predates the Islamic Republic itself. To begin, we explore the historical continuities between the current uprising and other historical protest movements in Iran. Dr. Shams tells us that we can understand the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution as the genesis of later mass protest movements, including the current uprising. Women, as activists and intellectuals, were politically awakened by this movement. By the beginning of the 20th century, many Iranian women publicly opposed the misogyny and hypocrisy of the other intellectuals and religious clerics of the time.

‘We must avoid the misconception that this is the first time Iranian women have revolted against the patriarchy.’

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

In the mid-twentieth century, Iranian women activists fought to reform marriage and inheritance laws in Iran. Therefore, from a historical perspective, we must acknowledge that Iranian women have been fighting for their rights for over a century. Yet, Dr. Shams appreciates the uniqueness of the contemporary ‘moment’ in Iran. While women have always played an integral role in Iranian revolutions and popular movements – from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution until the 2009 Green Movement – the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement represents the first time in Iranian history that women’s rights are decidedly at the forefront.

Our conversation then shifts to Dr. Shams’ membership of a feminist collective of Iranian activists, which has recently published the Iran Women’s Bill of Rights, calling for equality for women to be enshrined in the future Constitution of Iran, in accordance with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Dr. Shams speaks of how Iranian women, like women elsewhere, have always been excluded from the corridors of power and decision-making during critical moments in the past. By publishing the Iran Women’s Bill of Rights, the collective seeks to learn from history by ensuring that the voices, needs, and rights of women – and other marginalised populations – cannot be pushed to the margins. Dr. Shams notes that the Bill of Rights was developed in consultation with international human rights law experts so that it could one day form part of a new Constitution of Iran.

‘Women’s rights are a representation of the rights of all marginalised bodies.’

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

Dr. Shams’ membership of the Iranian feminist collective is part of her lifelong commitment to activism, both with Iran and, later, as part of the Iranian diaspora. While she became an activist as a university student in Tehran, her involuntary exile following the 2009 Green Movement led her to engage in new forms of cyber activism. Cyberactivism has allowed many diaspora activists to participate in and organise protests, and to create educational and creative content in service of social justice goals. Dr. Shams notes that social media has facilitated greater connectivity among the Iranian diaspora community. In our present moment, the reason for the ‘unprecedented unity’ of the diaspora is the noble cause of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement: human dignity and bodily autonomy. So, despite the restrictions imposed on the internet within Iran, it has played a tremendous role in uniting supporters from the global diaspora.

‘For poets, this pattern – resisting through words, and the state responding through force – has been a pattern we have seen over our history.’

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

Poetry has played an important historical role in the struggle for systematic change in Iran. Dr. Shams notes that poetry is intertwined with the lives and identities of Iranian people, reflecting the centrality of poetry to the Persian language and Iranian national identity. This importance is visible in poetry’s formative role in political activism; in the past seven months alone, poets who were outspoken in favour of the women-led uprising were immediately captured and imprisoned. Even now, dozens of Iranian writers remain in prison. Nonetheless, the Iranian affinity for poetry is reflected in the creative outpouring that has marked the uprising, as embodied by the chanting of social and political slogans in the streets of Iran.

‘What the slogan [‘Woman, Life, Freedom’] offers us, as nothing else does, is that affect, that emotional and affective force that you only understand if you are in the streets, with the people, at the forefront of the protests.’

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

Dr. Shams highlights the importance of understanding the uprising’s famous catchcry – ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ – and its origins in grassroots Kurdish women’s movements. The historical and political genesis of the slogan, which was first chanted at the funeral of Jina (or Mahsa) Amini in Saqqez, Kurdistan Province, reveals that the movement is about the rights of all marginalised bodies. In this context, we must remain alert to the first demand of the revolutionary uprising. Unlike ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, other protest slogans throughout history have sought to slander Iranian authorities through crude references to mothers, sisters, or genitalia. Dr. Shams notes that these slogans are antithetical to the feminist spirit of the current uprising, and reveal deep wells of misogyny and patriarchy.

We discuss the influence of Dr. Shams’ upbringing, in a relatively conservative social context, on her own poetic work. She tells us that she became an activist when she got to know herself as a woman because she had to resist patriarchal treatment from a very young age. It required an activist spirit; you had to be actively engaged in what was happening around you, and then actively resist and defy it as well. During her late teenage years, Dr. Shams’ poetry took on new life. It became a refuge, in which she could write about experiences – dancing in public, or eroticism – which could not be discussed elsewhere. Later, the loss, displacement, and exile which followed the 2009 Green Movement deeply inspired her poetry. Poetry, for Dr. Shams, serves both as a form of activism and is informed by her activism; yet her activism is also informed by her poetry – they are constantly in interaction with one another.

‘Poetry became a refuge, and at the same time, a place where I could speak about experiences that I could not otherwise discuss’.

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

As the episode draws to a close, Dr. Shams tells us she is hopeful for the future of the current uprising in Iran. Even in the United States, which has often been plagued by propaganda and misconceptions of Iran and its people, there is now a profound sympathy for the efforts of Iranian protestors. This reflects the world’s changing imagination of Iran and a growing realisation that Iranian society is not the Iranian government – and that in itself is a revolutionary act. Dr. Shams argues that we owe this revolution to the Iranian girls, women, and men who have put their lives on the line. Even the Iranian people themselves could not have imagined the events and acts of bravery that have recently taken place in Iran.

‘Girls on top of cars; burning their veils; making bonfires from their mandatory hijabs. For me, as a literary scholar, this is a metaphor for the corpse of a rotted ideology.’

Dr. Fatemeh Shams

While the Islamic Republic has responded to the current uprising with force – with rape, persecution, imprisonment, and sexual assault – Dr. Shams believes the time has truly come for the world to begin imagining an Iran without the Islamic Republic. The international community has a duty to do so, in recognition of the sacrifices made by the schoolgirls, men, and women at the forefront of the protests. Yet Dr. Shams notes the failure of the international community to support the uprising, in part reflecting the long history of foreign powers’ resource exploitation of Iran. The Iranian people are ready to divest themselves of the Islamic Republic, but they cannot break free alone, and the international community must be ready to make sacrifices in order for Iranians to achieve a democratic society. Dr. Shams concludes with a call to Declarations’listeners: we must continue amplifying the voices of the Iranian people and the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement.

Our Guest

Dr. Fatemeh Shams is an Iranian activist, award-winning poet, and expert on modern Iranian history and Persian literature. She is the author of A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option under the Islamic Republic (2021), which explores the state’s use of poetry as a tool of political legitimacy in post-revolutionary Iran. She has also published three highly regarded collections of contemporary bilingual poetry, including, most recently, the collection When They Broke Down the Door (2016). She is currently an Assistant Professor of modern Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Our Panellist

Clare Francis is an MPhil student in Politics and International Studies at Trinity College, from which she previously graduated First Class with Distinction with a BA(Hons) in Human, Social, and Political Sciences. Her research interests – including conflict, migration, resistance, and the rights of women and migrant workers – share a central connection to human rights issues. She has previously worked in foreign affairs and public policy.

Further Reading – Background Information

Afary, J. and Anderson, K. (2022, 2 Dec.). Woman, Life, Freedom: The Origins of the Uprising in Iran.

Dabashi, H. (2013, 12 Jun.). What happened to the Green Movement in Iran?

Moaveni, A. (2022, 3 Nov.). Two Weeks in Tehran.

Mottahedeh, N. (2022, 20 Oct.). Listening to Women in Revolutionary Tehran.

Further Reading – More From Dr. Shams

Chotiner, I. (2022, 2 Oct.). How Iran’s Hijab Protest Movement Became So Powerful.

Feminist Collective (2022). Iran Women’s Bill of Rights.

Poetry and Protest with Fatemeh Shams (2022, 3 Mar.). Woman, Life, Freedom: All In On Iran [Podcast].

When They Broke Down the Door: Poetry Reading by Fatemeh Shams (2016, 24 Jun.).

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Season 7 Episode 4 – Lawfare: The Modern Version of Warfare

Wars now take place both inside and outside of the confines of traditional borders. In 2001, Major General Charles Dunlap popularised the term ‘lawfare’ which he described as the ‘newest feature of 21st-century combat’. For this episode, host Neema Jayasinghe and Panellist Vanessa Dib are accompanied by guest Jason McCue in a thought-provoking discussion on this modern form of warfare. In particular, we focus on the Libyan civil war to situate lawfare within the realm of human rights litigation. What role did law play in creating a transitional government amidst the Libyan civil war? How can international human rights law be wielded by victims to confront repressive regimes? Through a rather practical lens, Jason provides his vision of what lawfare is and how it may be wielded in the future.

To begin, we examine what lawfare means in practice. Jason outlines that lawfare as a concept has been used by states from as early as the 19th century and is therefore not a modern construction. This can be seen in British emancipation laws, where Admiralty achieved secondary strategic aims by boarding and plundering Spanish ships under the initial concern for slavery. However, lawfare has admittedly evolved. Jason reasons that lawfare is no longer state-centric and instead tends to be used by civil society and the private sector across numerous facets of international law.

‘Lawfare should be called strategic law and policy.’

Jason McCue

In this sense, lawfare is seen in actors using theories and structures available to them as tools to achieve a strategic objective; it is a concept that takes important books as building blocks and answers what will happen in practice. Jason admits that all people’s objectives are different with some actors misusing lawfare to suppress information. Yet, there are many more NGOs and individuals using lawfare to achieve behavioural change for the better. Thus, lawfare is best viewed as a substantive means to support legal and policy lobbying to enact normative shifts. 

Our conversation then moves to a question specific to the Libyan context. We ask Jason what challenges litigators face in a transitional period that aims to reconcile the interests of competing players. In this role, you must find a way to talk to all parties involved which often proves difficult. Jason and his team successfully proposed the Benghazi Agreement which gave parity to all English victims not covered under the American Libyan Claims Settlement Act. Jason recalls that this moment – which promised money to victims once the war ended – was one of joy.

‘Since this date, we have not had a single government who have honoured the agreement.’

Jason McCue

Unfortunately, the team’s efforts have been met with limited success. The goal line is constantly moving in what has become a long-lasting diplomatic tussle. For Jason, it is important to keep looking for different angles to pursue despite outgrowing the stakeholders involved. When you build a dialogue with people in negotiations it can be incredibly difficult to start anew. Conversely, these fresh faces may also help to provide newfound momentum. The multilateral nature of these periods is not inherently good or bad and is instead what you make of it.

What role did law play in the creation of this transitional government? Jason believes that the question of recognising a state is a practical point rather than a legal one. As the former Presidential Envoy for Somaliland, Jason was part of a convoluted journey to have the state’s independence recognised. This journey was made even more complex by the fact that it was more theme-based than rule-based, with the ultimate goal of gaining a majority of the actors’ support.

‘Recognition certainly came down to legal concepts, but it was more their practical application.’

Jason McCue

During Jason’s early days in Libya, the application of concepts was of great importance. Jason’s team spent time debating how a rebel government could act like a state in a legal manner and the implications that would hold for other states recognising their statehood. Despite being in the throes of conflict, these actors are still concerning themselves with minuting meetings and appointing ministers to appear a functional government.

This episode’s discussion then turns to considering how international human rights law can bring justice to victims of repressive governments. Many argue that human rights have a glaring enforcement problem which makes it difficult to punish violators who control the state media, for example, which makes it almost impossible to obtain information. For Jason, this situation is exactly that – tricky, but not impossible. To overcome obstacles, you must think outside the box.

‘The two biggest problems of  human rights law are access to justice and jurisdiction.’

Jason McCue

Jason argues that the law will provide a solution because that is the point of the law. To protect and promote human rights universally, we must treat access to justice and jurisdiction as slightly separate; the former usually pertains to funding and the latter involves finding a courtroom that will take a case. Jason feels that the world needs a developed law that opens universal jurisdiction more. Other courts must become more accessible and open their jurisdiction, and while this trend is clear in both international and domestic law, it has not gone far enough.

‘In this lifetime, the biggest human rights issues are gender and environmental inequality.’

Jason McCue

Cases of gender and environmental inequality are often stopped due to issues of jurisdiction. Jason says that we are not developing laws enough to establish competent courts that deal with these expansive and necessary subjects. Around 90% of environmental harm is committed in the Global South by companies of the Global North. Yet, victims in the Global South have limited access to justice through their courts and cannot get access through other forums because of a lack of jurisdiction

‘You are fighting with one arm behind your back at all times.’

Jason McCue

Second, we discuss the issue of funding. A key issue with the litigation market and global funding is that there is a focus on commercial cases rather than on human rights cases. The financial services sector must come together with the human rights sector and develop a suitable funding scheme. For Jason, this is wholly feasible as it is not beyond humankind to provide money for an action for a return of investing in human rights. Still, gathering a consensus on this topic has proved trying.

‘Civil society lawfare is the key to keeping checks and balances on the world.’

Jason McCue

To close, we examine the failures of the international community to intervene in catastrophic events such as genocides. For Jason, civil society is not affected by politics and plays a pivotal role when the system fails. Inane problems that persist on a structural level, seen in the veto capacity of the United Nations, entirely stagnate contemporary efforts in the Ukrainian war. The Ukrainian state and the international community will rightly seek accountability through justice tribunals and international courts. But empirically, it has been shown that the ordinary individual will end up with little to nothing.

For sustainable peace to be attained, civil society lawfare must operate in parallel with government and international community efforts. Finally, Jason warns against numerous international actors essentially breaking laws to solve legal problems, such as taking sanctioned Russian assets and confiscating them in Ukraine. This means that the approach in Ukraine towards civil society lawfare is essential for reparations, and will only become more poignant in future conflicts.

Our Guest

Jason McCue is a Senior Partner of McCue Jury & Partners LLP, co-founder of Rigel International, co-founder of EBRO Global, and co-founder and general partner of Greenlit SA. He has served as General Counsel for numerous campaigns, such as Justice for Rohingya Minority and the Omagh Bomb Campaign. Additionally, Jason was the appointed facilitator to the joint UN/AU Darfur Peace Process, an adviser on transitional justice to the Transitional Government of Libya, and an advisor to leading stakeholders in the South Sudan peace process.

Our Panellist

Vanessa Dib is an MPhil student in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her interests lie in refugees, populism, and Europeanisation. Currently, Vanessa is writing a dissertation to examine differential treatments of refugees in the case of the Syrian and Ukraine refugees in Poland and Hungary. More specifically, she aims to understand how political and public discourses act as tools to shape responses to refugee crises.

Further Reading

Dunlap, C. J. (2001). Law and Military Interventions: Preserving Humanitarian Values in 21st Conflicts.

Kittrie, O. F. (2016). Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War. 

Thompson, L. A. (2022, 8 Jun.). UK Law Firm Seeks Damages From Russia on Behalf of Ukrainians. 

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Season 7 Episode 3 – Privacy for Public Figures

Many of us naturally assume that individual humans have the right to some degree of privacy. Yet, when it comes to the privacy of public figures, the legal framework provides a far more complicated answer. For the fourth episode of season seven, host Neema Jayasinghe and panellist Olivia Chen lead a discussion on the human rights of public figures, including issues of definition and the conflicts between privacy and free speech; Prof. Gavin Phillipson – our guest for this week – helps us to explore this difficult tension. Do public figures have a reasonable expectation of privacy? If so, should the public interest in disclosure then override their right to privacy? As an expert in freedom of speech and media freedom in English law, Gavin offers helpful and practical insight into these rather intricate issues.

Gavin begins by providing us with his thoughts on the reasonable expectation of privacy held by public figures, and how this may differ from ordinary citizens. In the US, public figures tend to lose their right to privacy completely, except in extreme circumstances. However, in the UK, this is a factor that courts will take into consideration alongside many others, and being a public figure does not imply an automatic loss of privacy. Gavin notes that in some cases, a public figure role may not even be relevant at all to the courts.

‘The press argues that if you decide to publicise it, you cannot complain if other people discuss it or report on it.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

By making a public statement about yourself, say regarding your health, you may no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy on that matter. However, an explicit declaration is not always required. For example, reality TV show participants consent to a considerable intrusion into their private life, and must also have a reduced expectation of privacy. While not public figures, per se, these individuals have deliberately placed their private life into the public domain.

This discussion begs an interesting question: What exactly is a public figure? Gavin states that the term itself tends to be quite vague and circular. As such, popular definitions tend to say broadly outline a public figure as any individual who plays a role in public life. This produces two key groups of people. First, we have major public servants, politicians, or any individuals who wield power within the country. Second, we have actors, sportspeople, and other celebrity-like figures. While not precise or necessarily helpful, this definition is used by most countries in privacy and defamation claims. 

‘The definition expands to include both a candidate for public office and a pop star who has received a lot of attention in the press.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

In terms of a reasonable expectation of privacy, there are both objective and subjective approaches to deciding whether an individual could have assumed a matter to be private. Gavin asserts that earlier cases tended to be rather objective, but there is now an emphasis on mixed approaches that increasingly take into account the characteristics of a claimant. Courts will recognise that you may be sensitive about a particular topic, be it your sexuality, health, family, or any other facet of your life. But, this sensitivity still must be reasonably foreseeable to others, and people will not be found liable for invading someone’s privacy if this is not the case.

‘Courts may say there is no reasonable expectation of privacy if other people cannot reasonably guess you would feel this way.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

A clear example of this idiosyncratic approach is that of Naomi Campbell and Mirror Group Newspapers. Campbell was photographed leaving a rehabilitation clinic and these images were published in the press. Campbell then brought a case that bridged a gap between a breach of confidence and misuse of private information. The Court of Appeal used a dryly objective test, including the ‘highly offensive’ formula, which tests whether it would be highly offensive to have the information in question publicly revealed.

The Court of Appeal arguably misapplied this test, instead examining offensiveness to a hypothetical reasonable reader. Once taken to the House of Lords, it was found that there was good reason to shift away from common legal objective tests. Instead, Campbell’s own perception would be considered. To this end, the issue was not really whether something was offensive, but whether it unreasonably intrudes into her private life. The case was extremely interesting in the way it approached this question, balancing Campbell’s public figure status alongside public interest.

‘Campbell had made a point of never having used drugs, so the press had a right, of sorts, to reveal this was a lie.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

In terms of precedent, this case revealed that the test of high offensiveness should be replaced entirely. This test depends on the seriousness of the intrusion, so is somewhat contained within looking at a reasonable expectation of privacy, and balancing this against public interest. This test was essentially side-lined and has rarely appeared in domestic case law following Campbell’s case. Though, it may be of interest to note that the test is still utilised in the US, where the right to free speech under the First Amendment tends to prevail over nearly all privacy and defamation cases for public figures.

‘Public interest is not just what interests the public.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

The aforementioned question of public interest often proves quite complicated. Gavin asserts that in the courts of the UK and Europe, a judge may be prepared to say that intimate knowledge of an individual’s sex life is no business of the public. Thus, public interest is not just general public curiosity, but only what the public has a legitimate interest in knowing. The controversial nature of this test is that individual judges are deciding on behalf of others, who may very well use such information when voting, for example. In the US, courts tend to say that citizens are entitled to make their own decisions on these matters

This logic is more easily applied to elected officials but becomes more problematic when applied to general celebrity figures. In these instances, the press tends to run a ‘role model’ argument. This argues that celebrities influence the way people behave so the public has a right to know details of their intimate life that contradict their image. In these cases there is often no evidence cited, rather role model status is asserted in a ‘common sense’ fashion. Though the press has won numerous cases on this basis, it is not always clear how the public benefits.

‘The press relies on the idea of a public interest in correcting mistaken impressions about individuals, but I am not sure this is often true.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

Our discussion then pivots slightly to analyse the role of methods used to attain information and how these contribute to what is public. In 1991, actor Gordan Kaye suffered a significant head injury and two reporters posing as doctors took images of him in the hospital. This case expressed the view that there is no common-law right to privacy in English law and is famous for effectively demonstrating the need for such a right. Gavin, therefore, argues that the method used to gain information is always considered an important factor by courts in the UK and EU.

‘If you have to resort to intrusive and surreptitious methods to gather information, then the individual must have been trying to keep that information private.’

Prof. Gavin Phillipson

Yet, if you are photographed walking down the street, there is no privacy breach as this is what anyone present on the scene would have observed. While the US is rather extreme in this idea, English law identifies that private things can very well happen in public places. Gavin offers the case study of a conversation between good friends in a popular restaurant. If two friends whisper a piece of information to one another, and a hidden microphone records it, the method of attainment is still intrusive despite the public setting.

To close, Gavin informs us of the recent controversy around the government’s plans which attempt to alter the relationship between freedom of speech and privacy in the UK through the Bill of Rights Bill. A particular focus of this debate surrounds the privacy rights of criminal suspects yet to be found guilty. Gavin mentions the case of Cliff Richard, where the BBC live-streamed Richard’s house being searched in connection to a crime he was never arrested nor charged for. These instances are incredibly damaging to individuals and are a cause for concern for many when looking at possible changes in approaches to privacy.

Our Guest

Prof. Gavin Phillipson is a Professor of Law at Bristol University Law School. He is the Visiting Fellow at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Oxford University, and has been published widely in top law journals in the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US. Gavin was also co-author of the leading text ‘Media Freedom under the Human Rights Act’.

Our Panellist

Olivia Chen is a third-year Philosophy student at Selwyn College. She is interested in examining human rights issues from the intersection between their philosophical basis and legal manifestations in both domestic and international spheres; her dissertation examines people’s rights to privacy and the relationship of privacy to other basic human rights. 

Further Reading

Elliot, M. (2022, 22 Jun.). The UK’s (New) Bill of Rights.

Fenwick, H. M. & Phillipson, G. (2006). Media freedom under the Human Rights Act.

Hughes, K. (2019). The Public Figure Doctrine and the Right to Privacy.

Kaye v Robertson & Anor [1990] EWCA Civ 21 (1990, 16 Mar.).

Library of Congress (2018, 11 Sep.). United Kingdom: Cliff Richard Wins Privacy Case Against BBC and South Yorkshire Police.

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Season 7 Episode 2 – The Policy that Never Took Off: Assessing the UK’s Rwanda Asylum Plan

In this week’s episode, Declarations host Neema Jayasinghe is joined by panellist Veronica-Nicolle Hera to discuss the UK-Rwanda asylum agreement with guests Dr. Peter Walsh and Colin Yeo. The Rwanda Asylum Plan – UK’s most controversial migration policy in recent years – saw 99 asylum seekers whose claims were declared ‘inadmissible’ scheduled to embark on a flight relocating them to Rwanda in June 2022. While never enacted, the plan attracted widespread media attention and the criticism of many NGOs fighting for migrants’ rights. Under the scheme, the UK’s legal responsibilities for such people would end once they have been relocated and they will not be able to apply for asylum in the UK. Instead, they would have to apply for asylum in Rwanda with no option to return. Our guests discuss the origin of this policy, its problematic nature, and what could be done in the future to avoid similar mistakes.

‘The Rwanda Plan is designed not to achieve a goal, but to send a message.’

Dr. Peter Walsh

The conversation begins with an outline of the current state of affairs. Colin aptly notes that the High Court upheld the government’s Rwanda Plan and that there is an ongoing appeal in place. This is an actively developing situation with many further appeals likely, and rumours of further legislation on the matter to be released. Regarding the broader immigration context of this policy, Peter adds that the number of individuals crossing the English Channel from France in small boats has risen quite substantially. In the last year alone, these numbers sat at 45,000 individuals.

‘Many agree it’s a blatant violation, but not the judges of the High Court who upheld the government’s policy and found that it breached neither human rights laws nor the Refugee Convention.’

Colin Yeo

The Rwanda Plan was found by the High Court to not be in breach of the Refugee Convention. Colin notes that may be partially explained by its very nature as just the second international convention drafted after the Second World War. In particular, the Refugee Convention is characterised by a poor enforcement mechanism and rather an ambiguous language that will challenge lawyers involved in the case.

Colin continues by outlining what he sees as the greatest problems within the Rwanda Plan, which can be helpfully divided into moral and practical concerns. In a moral capacity, the enforcement of removal will be – at least implicitly – a violent affair that may set a dangerous precedent for the international community to follow suit. On a more practical level, there is no substantial evidence that suggests the plan would work effectively.

‘The UK Immigration Minister recently admitted that Rwanda currently has the capacity to accommodate just 200 people at one time.’

Dr. Peter Walsh

Peter builds upon Colin’s notion of practical effectiveness, citing the lack of Rwandan processing capacity at a time when arrivals to the UK are in the tens of thousands. If arrivals continue at such a level, it would suggest the chance of any one individual being removed is likely to be very small. As such, these numbers would surely have to be scaled up tremendously for the policy to achieve the desired deterrent effect. Peter also mentions the fact that once transferred to Rwanda, individuals will not be detained and are free to leave if they so choose. A similar Israeli-Rwanda plan is an interesting case study where almost all ‘voluntary departure’ scheme participants left Rwanda.

Yet, as previously noted, the High Court refused to block the 14th of June flight to Rwanda citing a material public interest in the process. Colin states that many commentators found this surprising as it seemed to fail a proper legal test to maintain the status quo before a formal decision is made. Eventually, one claimant brought a Rule 39 application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the flight was halted due to the imminent risk of irreparable harm.

‘It is currently taking years for asylum decisions to be reached.’

Colin Yeo

Both Colin and Peter argue that the Rwanda plan diverts resources and distracts attention from more pressing issues within the UK asylum system. Colin expresses that there is currently a backlog of about 150,000 initial decisions that have not been made by the Home Office, revealing that the number one problem is the delay in the system. A majority of these decisions are positive, yet applicants are crippled both socially and financially before eventually being integrated into society as refugees. Peter notes that alongside timing concerns, the decision-making process also seems ineffective in terms of quality. Recent statistics suggest that over 50% of appeals are allowed, meaning the initial Home Office decision is deemed incorrect by a judge.

‘The UK’s refugee resettlement programmes have not picked up post-pandemic, so 70% fewer people are being resettled.’

Dr. Peter Walsh

Furthermore, another facet of the UK asylum system is refugee resettlement, where individuals are identified by the UN in refugee camps around the world, and then transferred to the UK. Unfortunately, this scheme has failed to operate anywhere close to its pre-pandemic capacity.

This policy can be viewed as a continuation of the hostile and restricted asylum environment which goes back to at least the Blair administration. There has been a recent tendency to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ refugees, with the government essentially not processing or accepting asylum claims from people who arrive without pre-authorisation, but at the same time setting up extensive schemes for Ukrainians. Yet, Colin cautions against complaining about the way Ukrainians have been treated, which he views as controversial in itself.

‘We should welcome the fact that Ukrainians are being treated generously, and look at how that can be expanded to other nationalities as well.’

Colin Yeo

To conclude, our guests provide their thoughts on how discriminatory migration policies can be prevented from taking shape again. Peter feels that an evidence-based policy approach will ensure similar shortfalls do not occur. The current assumption that asylum seekers have a detailed knowledge of deterrent policy is rather flawed. Instead, many are drawn to the UK due to familial or language ties, and the perception of the UK as a safe and tolerant country.

Colin partially disagrees with Peter on this point, noting that many policymakers are not all that interested in producing genuinely effective asylum policies. In this sense, the Rwanda Plan is an example of symbolic policy-making that simply looks to send the message that the UK is tough on asylum seekers. Hence, the politics of the issue must be engaged with more effectively by the wider sector to prevent similar future policy. 

Our Guests

Dr. Peter Walsh is Senior Researcher at The Migration Observatory, and Departmental Lecturer in Migration Studies, University of Oxford. He has authored over forty reports and articles on UK immigration policy.

Colin Yeo is an immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer, and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London. He is also the founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.

Our Panellist

Veronica-Nicolle Hera is a PhD student whose research focusses on public perceptions of trust in government across democracies and authoritarian regimes. Her interest in human rights stems from her work with the3million advocating for the rights of EU citizens in the UK.

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Season 7 Episode 1 – The Race for Justice in Ukraine

Declarations is back for season seven! In our second episode, host Neema Jayasinghe is joined by panellist Charlotte Duthie to discuss the contemporary race for justice in Ukraine with guest Dr. Felicity Gerry KC. The ongoing war in Ukraine has recently hit its year-long mark since the initial Russian invasion in February 2022. This episode will focus on discussing and evaluating the different avenues for achieving transitional justice for Ukrainians. Are Russian military leaders better dealt with by the international community, the Ukrainian judiciary, or a synthesis of the two? As a practitioner, Dr. Felicity Gerry KC offers a refreshing and optimistic insight into the capacity of international criminal and humanitarian law to prosecute such individuals in the future. 

‘Optimism can be realistic, too.’

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC

This episode opens with a brief explanation of the recent developments in Ukraine. Felicity states that a year on, data is emerging on the number of international crimes that are being committed in Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, these figures sit at a staggering 71,321 war crimes and crimes of aggression involving 639 military or political representatives of the Russian Federation. Such numbers elucidate an expansiveness that must be considered in efforts to truly achieve justice in Ukraine.

‘It’s a huge task to think about how law can cope with war.’ 

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC

Tremendous international pressure has been placed upon both the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Ukrainian judiciary to prosecute these crimes, even though both institutions have several jurisdictional and infrastructural restrictions in doing so. Felicity reasons that we must have some faith in the investigative capacity of the ICC which is evidenced by a history of experience in carrying out similar data collection. Simultaneously, Ukraine is doing its best to demonstrate that it is willing and able to carry out its own prosecutions, but it needs the assistance and expertise of the ICC. While this demonstrates a slight tension, it nonetheless shows that the capacity of these institutions to handle such cases exists. 

This still leaves the question of which form the tribunal should take to achieve justice in Ukraine, be it domestic or international. Following the Second World War, the Allied Powers set up an international military tribunal in Nuremberg – the first of its kind – to specifically prosecute and punish prominent Nazi war criminals. In the Ukrainian context, there are scholarly debates on how successful a Nuremberg-style tribunal for crimes of aggression would be. From a very practical perspective, Felicity is sceptical of a tribunal that deals solely with crimes of aggression, whether it be in Ukraine or more generally. 

‘I like the idea of domestic jurisdictions keeping their jurisdiction where they’re willing and able, and the ICC being supported, funded, and able to deal with international crimes itself.’

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC

However, Felicity acknowledges that she is not in the position to effectively summarise the debates within war crime scholarship. Both Carrie McDougall and Kevin Jon Heller are mentioned as particular authors of interest in considering the advantages and drawbacks of ad hoc tribunals. Regardless, Felicity’s practical approach illustrates a reasoned doubt about the fragmentation of the international legal system. 

In the past, hybrid tribunals have been utilised, such as the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber which famously supplemented the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Thus, it may be plausible for a hybrid tribunal to be set up between the ICC and the Ukrainian judiciary. Felicity acknowledges that if there were to be an ad hoc tribunal, there is no reason that it should not be able to function in such a way. So long as the right security, people, and methods are used Felicity is rather optimistic about the proposal’s possibility. One particular caveat is the situation of the defence; Felicity reasons that the defence account for around 2% of the ICC’s current budget. Hence, it is of central importance that the tribunal used is balanced and fair to make it possible. 

‘The defence is not treated equally to the prosecution.’

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC

With such factors in mind, it becomes apparent that the creation of a suitable tribunal will not necessarily happen quickly. Both the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda are international tribunals that have been extensively criticised. In particular, commentators note lengthy case processing times, incredibly high running costs, and the fact that a minority of perpetrators end up facing punishment. Based on a historical lack of success, one may be tempted to conclude that there is no hope for achieving justice for Ukraine.

Felicity warns against such a mindset. Equipped with invaluable optimism, Felicity finds important takeaways in the supposed failings of previous ad hoc tribunals such as the ECCC. For example, it is significant to note that the tribunal also serves as an inquiry into the situation, rather than solely the prosecution and defence of individuals. These findings are longstanding and their documentation means that the occurrence of similar events should decrease over time. As such, this will ultimately assist in what Felicity calls a shift from ‘war to law’ that the international community must buy into. 

‘A case may take forever, but that does not mean we should do nothing.’

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC

A failure to push for justice in Ukraine would see the international community withdraw from the commitments it made following the Second World War. Many people are facing the deaths of family and friends, so to prematurely conclude that there is no hope for achieving justice for Ukraine would be incredibly harmful. As Felicity puts it, the numerous logistical difficulties for achieving justice pale into insignificance in light of the clear acts of aggression and international crimes being committed. Therefore, Felicity concludes that it is possible justice can be achieved for Ukraine and that the international community must step up and do so. 

‘Whether it is a domestic criminal case or an international criminal case, it is important to look around the courtroom and ask where the women are when something is being negotiated.’

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC

To conclude, Felicity highlights the importance of valuing women’s voices within the realm of peace and security. While there is of course a practical optimism regarding the pursuit of justice for Ukraine, the practical reality of women’s involvement must also be analysed. 

Our Guest

Dr. Felicity Gerry KC is an experienced international barrister and professor of legal practice admitted in England, Wales, and Victoria (Australia). She has extensive experience in human rights cases being admitted to both the list of counsel for the ICC and the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague. Felicity has previously advised in relation to death penalty matters in Indonesia and the Philippines, on citizens held in Syrian camps, and on complicity in international criminal cases. As one of few women silks to defend in a terrorism trial, Felicity is a notable trailblazer within her field. 

Our Panellist

Charlotte Duthie is a final-year law student at Downing College, Cambridge. She has just returned from a year abroad in the Netherlands, with a research focus on the use of human rights law in the aftermath of mass atrocities. Having completed an internship at the ICC in The Hague, Charlotte is keen to highlight the issues surrounding transitional justice in the context of contemporary and historical crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Further Reading

International Bar Association. (2014). International Bar Association’s ICC Moot Court Manual. 

International Criminal Court. (2023, 23 March). Ukraine and International Criminal Court sign an agreement on the establishment of a country office. 

Heller, K. J. (2011). The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law. 

McDougall, C. (2013). The Crime of Aggression under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. 

Wintour, P. (2023, 20 Mar.). ICC prosecutor says world needs ‘stamina’ to get justice for Ukraine. 

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Season 6 Episode 8 – Deepfakes and Non-Consensual Pornography

In 2019, the Deepfake detection platform Sensity came out with a report that identified 96% of deepfakes on the internet as pornographic, with 90% of these representing women. Deepfakes are a modern form of synthetic media created by two ‘competing’ AIs, with the goal of replicating hyper-realistic videos, images, and voices. Over the past five years, this has led to major concerns about the technology being used to spread mis- and disinformation, carry out cybercrimes, tamper with human rights evidence, and create non-consensual pornography. In this episode, the last of this season of the Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir sat down with panellist Neema Jayasinghe and Henry Ajder. Henry is not only responsible for the groundbreaking Sensity report, but is also a  seasoned expert on the topic of deepfakes and synthetic media. He is currently the head of policy and partnerships at Metaphysic.AI.

Neema and Henry start with the question of definition. ‘Deepfakes,’ Henry tells us, can be defined as “AI-generated synthetic media, such as highly realistic synthetic videos, texts, etc.” There are legitimate uses of synthetic media technology, but the term ‘deepfake’ generally refers to malicious uses, such as those made for pornography. This phenomenon emerged in 2017 on Reddit on a subreddit of the same name, which was dedicated exclusively to swapping famous female faces into pornographic films. Back then, this was technically challenging; you needed a lot of skills and processing power. Today, the tools are much more accessible and even gamified – models are pre-trained, and you only need a few images. 

As it becomes more accessible people are no longer focusing as much on celebrities and moving more toward private individuals they know in daily and this has led to scaling in terms of victims.

Henry Ajder

Neema then asks what kind action can be taken to regulate deepfakes. Henry thinks the difficulty comes from the definition. If you are talking about synthetic images, regulation is an unrealistic prospect as there are so many aspects of our life that use such images: cinema, Snapchat filters, and more. So, according to Henry we should focus on malicious uses. The problem here is identifying culprits, and hoping they are in a jurisdiction where deepfakes are criminalized.

“This is truly a global issue, and countries around the world are trying to take action, but there is a question as to whether we are giving people false hopes.

Henry Ajder

Another problem is that, with technological progress, it is likely that these operations will require less and less data in the future. For instance, nudifying technology is increasingly accessible and will become widespread in the future. Henry is particularly worries about students, as they are generally tech-savvy and know how to use these tools. He is worried that young people – in particular, young women – are vulnerable.

Neema asks whether it would be good to bring these topics up in school, for instance in the context of sexual education. Henry thinks that schools are one of the places where deepfakes are most problematic, even if sometimes seen as “just fun” or “just fantasy.” As such, education on the damages could be useful. It is key to teach the younger generation that these technologies are profoundly harmful and cannot be construed as fun, even if they are not yet criminal. Henry is also deeply concerned about the way children are involved in these deepfakes, both as victims and perpetrators. 

“Making it clear that this is a form of digital sexual violence is key.

Henry Ajder

Could legitimate deepfake pornography be created – for instance, if a sex worker wanted to license their face? While an interesting question, Henry worries that the risks of misuse will always be very high, potentially obliterating any potential for legitimate use. Only though a mechanism such as biometric authentication and informed consent from all parties could such a system be safe and avoid misuse. 

Another issue is that it is basically impossible to check whether your image has been used against your will. When writing the report, Henry traced some of the videos back to their origins; after warning those involved of the malicious use that had been made of their face, he realized that most of them did not know their images were being used. If deepfakes are not used as weapons, victims generally don’t know they have been deepfaked. There is also a legal question over whether creating these fakes without sharing them should also be criminalized (Henry believes so).

“Can you build these systems in a way that avoids misuse? I typically think it would be difficult to do so.

Henry Ajder

Although the bulk of deepfakes concern women, there are also cases of men, in particular homosexual men, being targeted, especially in countries where homosexuality is banned or stigmatized. In such cases, deepfakes can literally be a question of life and death for the men whose images are used. Being pragmatic, Henry thinks one of our best bets is to push this technology to the dark corners or the Internet, and to make it clear that people who engage with it are engaging in criminal activity. 

“There was no doubt that the vast majority of these people had no idea they had been targeted.

Henry Ajder

Our panelist:

Neema considers herself to be incredibly privileged to have been able to work with those worst affected by society and governance over the years, which has fuelled her passion for Human Rights, an area in which she hopes to make a difference at both a policy and grassroots level. Neema has often found herself working in community development projects in Africa, especially Uganda and Tanzania, both in consultancy projects and NGO work. This inspired her to become the current President of the Afrinspire Cambridge Student Society and the fundraising officer for the Cambridge Hub. Years of community service led Neema to later establish her own education-based NGO in Sri Lanka. She is incredibly passionate about international development, the politics behind it and policy. It’s this that encouraged Neema to study Education, Policy and International Development at Cambridge.

Our guest:

Henry Ajder is a seasoned expert on the topic of deepfakes and synthetic media, he is currently the head of policy and partnerships at Metaphysic.AI and also co-authored the report ‘Deeptrace: The State of Deepfakes’ while at Sensity. This was the first major report published to map the landscape of deepfakes and found that the overwhelming majority are used in pornography. He is also a graduate of the University of Cambridge and is an experienced speaker, frequently presenting keynotes, panels, and private briefings. He is also an established media contributor, regularly featuring on the BBC, The New York Times, Vox, The Guardian, Wired, and The Financial Times.

Further reading

Ajder, H., Patrini, G., Cavalli, F., & Cullen, L. (2019). Deeptrace: The State of Deepfakes Landscape, Threats, and Impact (Sensity’s 2019 report)

Beres, D. (2018) Pornhub continued to host “deepfake” porn with millions of views, despite promise to ban (Mashable)

Cole, S. (2017) AI-Assisted Fake Porn Is Here and We’re All Fucked (Vice)

Gregory, S. (2021) ‘Deepfakes, misinformation and disinformation and authenticity infrastructure responses: Impacts on frontline witnessing, distant witnessing, and civic journalism. Journalism.

Harris, D. (2019). Deepfakes : False Pornography Is Here and the Law Cannot Protect You. Duke Law & Technology Review

Mirsky, Y., & Lee, W. (2021). The Creation and Detection of Deepfakes. ACM Computing Surveys.

Yadlin-Segal, A., & Oppenheim, Y. (2021). Whose dystopia is it anyway? Deepfakes and social media regulation. Convergence.

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Season 6 Episode 7 – AI and Workers’ Rights

In this episode, host Maryam Tanwir and panelist Archit Sharma discuss the impact of technology on employment with our guests, Martin Kwan and Dee Masters. Artificial Intelligence brings many promises, but to many it is a threat as well. As AI can increasingly perform tasks at a low cost, what happens to those whose jobs are displaced by robots? And if we are using AI in the workplace to monitor our employees and make recruitment decisions, how can we ensure workers’ rights are respected and that AI decisions are subject to sufficient oversight and accountability? This area is a complicated web of issues, but our guests have the expertise to help us better understand the stakes. Dee is a leading employment barrister at Cloisters Chambers with extensive experience in the intersection of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and employment who advises companies on how to ensure their AI systems are compatible with the law and the rights of workers. Martin is a legal researcher and journalist, and the 2021 UN RAF Fellow. He has written many articles on topical human rights issues, including a fascinating recent article on automation and the international human right to work.

We begin by examining whether the right to employment exists under international law. Our conclusion is that it does, and is inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23), as well as in the European Social Charter. States party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have an obligation (Article 16) to report the steps they undertake to protect these human rights to the UN committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Parties submit detailed periodic reports and take these seriously, as public exchanges with the UN Committee show. Governments are already starting to monitor the changes wrought by AI and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution.’ The Swiss government was, for instance, a pioneer in addressing this in their periodic reports. 

The whole review process is diligent and stringent. The scrutiny provides an incentive for states to showcase their efforts and commitment to the right to work.

Martin Kwan

Archit provides some context around AI’s potential impact on the labor market. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that, by 2030, 30% of jobs will be taken by robots, whilst the World Economic Forum claims that AI will have replaced 85 million jobs worldwide across several industries by 2025. Martin agrees that AI threatens to imperil the right to work. It is up to states to come to terms with this and implement strategies to cope with AI-induced unemployment. One potential response is to ban AI outright: for instance, India has banned autonomous cars to protect millions of jobs

“Mass redundancies can be prevented if the government is willing to and able to do so. But certain jobs are simply not savable in some countries or in some sectors.”

Martin Kwan

However, it is not always desirable to save jobs at all costs. Companies can make important gains thanks to AI and governments have an incentive to promote the use of AI to improve economic performance. Globalized competition means that consumers will shift to goods produced using AI technology, which will be more competitive in price. Martin believes that technological change cannot be completely halted, and that the practical reality may force companies and governments to favor policies that seek to use more AI and automation.

Martin believes corporations have an ethical responsibility to consider the human rights impact of their activities. It can be futile to ask them to protect jobs at all costs, but part of their ‘economic, social and governance’ (ESG) agenda could integrate workforce sustainability. It is important to convince companies that workforce and competition are not at odds: if society becomes pauperized because of mass redundancies, companies’ profits will also be slashed. Martin is rather optimistic about the potential of mass redundancy to become a priority in the business community. 

Beyond the rights of workers whose jobs are threatened by AI, what are the rights of those who will not lose their jobs, but will see their working life reconfigured by AI? Dee provides us with her insights into this question, made all the more acute by the explosion of technology in employment relations in the context of the pandemic. This has led to a boom in the amount of worker data collected and the expanded use of AI tools to determine whether jobs should be slashed. 

This raises clear issues of discrimination, as we know that AI is subject to significant biases. Indeed, AI is fundamentally about stereotypes, about creating ideal-types of characteristics considered “positive” and “negative”. If you are outside its boxes – because of your appearance, for example – you may be at a severe disadvantage. As Dee tells us, AI is not only used to decide who to employ, but also who to dismiss. 

She argues that our anti-discrimination law can deal with problems raised by AI, but that transparency is key. We see this with job adverts: if you are a woman, you will not be shown some job adverts, but in most of the cases you cannot even know you are being discriminated against. Auditing code or impact is absolutely essential to bringing transparency, but Dee would like to go beyond and see companies detail the AI tools they use and explain their functions. AI is perceived as neutral, but it can also replicate biases or even be intentionally used to reinforce them.

“There is a marketing spiel out there which is rely on AI because machines aren’t biased. That’s very attractive but when you look into it in more detail you realize that’s not always true.”

Dee Masters

Dee believes that AI can be useful in several cases, for instance to identify skills or distribute work based on these skills. We should not, however, march along that path just because it is useful. 

Another issue in which AI threatens to affect human rights is the right to privacy. Dee explains how, in the context of the pandemic and working-from-home, AI was used to detect whether employees were working “hard enough”, using cameras or keyboard detection software to observe employees at all times. This is extremely intrusive and violates the right to privacy. In the US, organizations were found to be using machine learning to assess which employees were most at risk of Covid-19 in order to decide who to lay off. 

“We’ve crossed this line in which these technologies have become normalized. It’s here to stay and it will be hard to rewind on that.

Dee Masters

Once again, the laws we have in place are sufficient, but the issue is that legislators and employers are not up to speed on how existing legislation translates to new technology. For instance, with data, the GDPR does not include statements stating explicitly that you cannot discriminate in data collection and treatment, and therefore leaves room for partial interpretations. Dee argues we need to tighten legislation and understand how data cuts across many areas of our lives. Enforcement is key, particularly avoiding the “siloing” that currently prevents these issues from being taken up in some forums. “Legal protection is meaningless if we don’t know how to apply it,” Dee tells us.

“We need to be more creative not only about these rights but also how they’re going to be enforced.

Dee Masters

The employment relationship, based on personal trust, is fundamentally challenged by management via app. We can try to mitigate some of these effects by ensuring a human is involved at key junctures, without which we risk allowing unfair and discriminatory decisions. We know that AI is making decisions about dismissal; to Dee, “this is inconsistent with legal protections in this country.”

Dee hopes that, when cases start to be adjudicated, courts will find that these dismissals were unlawful. Until then, however, it’s a “brave new world”. The law will get there, but it will take time, and this is unsatisfactory to both employees and employers. Rather than change the law, the government first and foremost needs to explain it better. 

“People are waking up to the idea that AI and algorithms are making important decisions and they’re not liking it.

Dee Masters

We need to build trust and show that this technology can be used in ways that are compliant with human rights. Dee would advise workers targeted by AI to use all legal frameworks available to them, and there are many: the right not to be unfairly dismissed, the right not to be discriminated against, and more. People may not know how they’re being unfairly treated and that there are channels for remedy. 

We also need to pay more attention to the companies higher up the value chain, which design the AI tools but are largely left off the hook today. The EU is looking at introducing obligations at every level in the value chain, a move that Dee thinks could be usefully imported to the UK.

So, if AI should not be stopped completely, there are red lines: we need to evaluate clearly the limits of acceptability. For Dee, AI should not make critical decisions about people’s lives; humans should not only review the decision, but also own it. Then – and only then – can we leverage AI for the common good.

Our panelist:

Archit is an LLM student at the University of Cambridge. He previously studied Law as an undergraduate there, and in his final year wrote a dissertation on how (and to what extent) human rights are protected in emergencies. This research was greatly influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has left Archit with a desire to engage more in the future with the question of how human rights can deliver on their promises.

Our guests:

Martin Kwan is a legal researcher and legal journalist. He is a 2021 UN RAF Fellow, and also an Honorary Fellow of the University of Hong Kong’s Asian Institute of International Financial Law. He has written and published many articles in recent years on topical and complex human rights issues, and one such article concerns Automation and the International Human Right to Work.

Dee Masters is a leading employment barrister with extensive practical experience in the technology space, especially in relation to artificial intelligence and its relationship with equality law, human rights, and data protection. She set up AI Law Consultancy with Robin Allen QC, which aims to help businesses navigate rapidly changing technological arena and the legal implications of using AI. She has written much on the intersection of law and technology, including co-authoring a highly influential report last year: ‘Technology Managing People – the legal implications.’

Further reading

Martin Kwan, ‘Automation and the International Human Right to Work’ (Emory International Law Review)

Dee Masters and Robin Allen QC, ‘Technology Managing People – the legal implications’ (Cloisters Chambers)

Calum McClelland, ‘The Impact of Artificial Intelligence – Widespread Job Losses’ (iotforall)

Lili Cariou, ‘How is Artificial Intelligence Shaping The Future of Work?’ (BusinessBecause) 

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Season 6 Episode 6 – Freedom of Expression and Internet Shutdowns in Pakistan

In this week’s episode of the Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir sat down with Munizae and Sulema Jahangir to discuss freedom of expression and internet shutdowns in Pakistan, and their implications for human rights in the country. Freedom of expression, attacks on civil society groups, and a climate of fear continues to impede media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups. Media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary, and journalists – who face threats and attacks – have increasingly resorted to self-censorship.  In several cases in 2020, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs. International conferences raising awareness on human rights and promoting initiatives safeguarding human rights (organized by the guests) have been mired in technology shutdowns. With our guests, we explore what’s at stake and what we can do about it.

Our guests start with some context on Pakistan, which is ranked 145th in the latest Reporters without Borders report on freedom of expression around the world. Although Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, in practice we observe instead state repression.

There is an atmosphere of fear, especially in the journalist community.

Sulema Jahangir

Munizae emphasises the drafting of Article 19 of the Constitution – which should guarantee freedom of speech – and the numerous exceptions it contains. The definition of such exceptions is so large that it’s possible to claim that practically anything said might violates one of them. The elephant in the room in Pakistan, our guest says, is the army – about whom one cannot say anything. When anyone talks about military intervention – such as in elections – the reports are banned. The new law under which journalists are charged with sedition (the “Pakistan Electronic Crime Act”) stems from exceptions in Article 19. Journalists, in particular, are targets of Article 19 charges, with cases blocked in the Supreme Court. Some journalists have been kidnapped and even killed for their reporting.

“We cannot talk about the biggest player in politics, and that is the military… If you do not have democracy in Pakistan, I do not think that journalists can be safe.”

Munziae Jahngir

There exists today an unofficial ban on television, and all the most popular anchors are banned. While this situation is not new, the current administration has been much more brazen toward journalists. The role of the judiciary has changed too, with decreasing independence; today it lets the state get away with an increasing number of charges pressed on the basis of the wide exceptions in Article 19. The political narrative has become very constrained, and major political parties have been banned from speaking on electronic media and even in private events. Islam is another dimension of the Article 19 carve-outs. People in Pakistan are generally very religious, and yet many people are lynched on charges of “blasphemy.” The government has used this weapon too, stoking fears and creating a climate of hatred.

“The judiciary, the army and the administration have made a coalition in curtailing freedom of speech.”

Sulema Jahangir

Munizae insists on the selectivity of the government, who does not hesitate to go around the law to help protect its allies. She tells us, for instance, how the government requested she and her team not release the interviews of the Taliban they made, while at the same time the same government was abundantly communicating on its relationship with the Taliban. This shows how the government was trying to control the narrative.

At a major conference organized conference last year by Sulema (featuring 2000 people and 160 speakers), the government shut down the internet. The conference’s closing ceremony, in which usually the opposition leader addresses the audience, was disturbed first by a shutdown of the WiFi network. The organizers had back-up internet cables, but the government realized this and called the cable operators to demand that they shut down the line – and the operators complied.

“It shows how petty they are. There are issues of hunger, schools, malnutrition and you are more concerned with cutting the internet at an event of lawyers with the chief justice in attendance. It shows you how petty the Pakistani state is.”

Sulema Jahangir

So what are the options to protect human rights, and what role does tech play? The broader question with respect to tech’s role, Sulema tells us, is one of access. In some areas, there is no reliable internet access. Language is another issue: there 82 spoken languages in Pakistan but social media is almost only used by English and Urdu speakers. Women, on average less educated, also have less access to the internet than men.

“Pakistan is a state made on national security and not welfare.

Munizae Jahangir

Our guests agree that social media is a double-edged sword: they are dominated by men. and right-wing, conservative voices, but are also increasingly used by activists as they are pushed out of national television. Many social movements have been greatly helped by social media, such as the massive Women’s March on 8 March, or the students’ march (in a country where student unions are banned). When events take massive proportions both on social media and in the streets, state-controlled media has no choice but to report it.

“Social media have given rights to people; they have democratized people, they have given a voice to victims, they have given the other side of the story. If you capture the imagination of the nation, you become a story. For Pakistan, I am so glad it is here.

Sulema Jahangir

Munizae emphasizes that social media may also aggravate divides, as many still lack access, but agrees that it remains a good alternative to tightly-controlled mainstream media. It is the only way to get alternative viewpoints across, despite numerous issues. As Maryam points out, social media have also helped the spread of violent content, especially of violence against women; social media can amplify certain misogynistic or conservative views.

So, what can we do to move the needle? It’s a plethora of issues, says Sulema, the main one being that Pakistan has been a national security state. Inequalities need to be addressed, and those privileged by power or money need to understand that others in their country do not have a fraction of what they do. Munizae says Pakistani women, students, and workers must engage in strategic collective action, which has proven to bear fruits despite the tremendous challenges.

Our panelist:

Maryam has a PhD and post-doctorate from the University of Cambridge. She has been teaching gender and development at the Centre of Development Studies for the last 5 years. She also works as a gender consultant for the World Bank and United Nations. Since the lockdown, Maryam has been branching out towards neuroscience courses, theatre acting and podcasts!

Our guests:

Sulema Jahangir is a dual qualified lawyer: she is a solicitor of the senior courts of England & Wales and an Advocate of the High Courts in Pakistan. Sulema graduated from Cambridge University in 2003. She is a partner at Dawson Cornwell. Sulema is also a board member of AGHS Legal Aid Cell, which is the oldest and one of the largest charities providing free legal aid to vulnerable people in Pakistan. Sulema practices in many cases with a human rights element including child abduction, domestic and honour-based abuse, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, bonded labour and constitutional cases. She was part of a committee behind widening the definition of domestic abuse under Practice Direction issued by the courts in England & Wales. Sulema has also assisted in advising parliamentary bodies in Pakistan in drafting laws for the protection of women. She is a regular speaker at conferences and regularly appears on television (including BBC, ITV and Pakistani media channels), the radio and in the press. She has both written and been featured in articles for newspapers (including the Sunday Times, Dawn Newspaper, the News on Sunday) and journals on legal topics in Pakistan and in the United Kingdom.

Munizae Jahangir is a broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker, currently anchoring a flagship current affairs show on one of Pakistan’s leading media news network Aaj TV, called, ‘Spotlight with Munizae Jahangir.’ Munizae is a co-founder and Editor in Chief of, a digital media platform focusing on human rights issues. Since 2004 Munizae has been anchoring and reporting for prominent news media outlets. Jahangir’s high profile interviews include Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Imran Khan, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Munizae’s first award winning documentary, “ Search for Freedom” depicted the lives of four women caught in the war in Afghanistan. Munizae was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She is on the board of the Asma Jahangir legal aid cell which provides free legal aid to marginalized groups. Jahangir is a founding member of South Asian Women in Media, and a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Further reading


Why Asma Jahangir was Pakistan’s social conscience – Moni Mohsin in The Guardian.

Pakistan: Media, Critics Under Increasing Attack – Human Rights Watch

International Forum Raises Concerns of Human Rights Violations in Pakistan and China – Business Standard

How Pakistan’s Military Manages the Media – Ayesha Siddiqa in The Wire

Pakistan Media Grows Spine; Takes on the Powerful Military – Seema Guha in Outlook


Ayesha Siddiqa (2007) Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.

Ayesha Jalal (1995) Democracy and authoritarianism in South Asia: a comparative and historical perspective

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Season 6 Episode 5 – Biometrics and Refugees

In episode 5 of this season of the Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir and panelist Yasar Cohen-Shah sat down with Belkis Wille, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, and former UN official Karl Steinacker to discuss the collection of refugees’ biometric data. Last summer, Human Rights Watch reported that a database of biometric data collected by UNHCR from Rohingya refugees had been handed to Myanmar’s government – the very government from which the refugees were fleeing. This scandal has brought to a head the debates surrounding the use of refugees’ biometric data: from Yemen to Afghanistan, Somalia to Syria, biometric data is now fundamental to how aid groups interact with refugees. But how does this affect their human rights, and can it ever be used responsibly?

Belkis kicks off the episode by presenting the results of the report authored by her organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the transfer of Rohingya refugees’ biometric data to the Myanmar government. The refugees’ data was collected upon their entry into Bangladesh in a registration process that was required before refugees could be granted a ‘smart ID’ and access aid and services. However, HRW was able to expose the fact that Bangladesh was sharing this biometric data with Myanmar’s government without the refugees’ informed consent, causing obvious concerns for the refugees’ safety and human rights. Disturbingly, HRW found that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) had in fact created the entire system by collecting data in the first place. 

“Rohingyas had no choice but to agree or lose access to services.

Belkis Wille

Karl, a former UNHCR official himself, highlights that the issue of ‘registration’ is not covered by the conventions that founded the UNHCR or created a legal framework for aid. This is a task that UNHCR took on much later. After decolonization, the Western powers had a direct interest in making sure that borders in the Global South stayed open so that refugees could find help in neighboring countries in the face of war. According to Karl, the prevailing philosophy of Western powers ran: “you put them in camps, we’ll feed them.” This is where the registration process began – initially in simple ‘paper-and-pen’ form – to organize distribution of food and supplies in refugee camps. As technology improved, this registration system became increasingly sophisticated, integrating photos and other personal details. The attacks of September 11 2001 brutally put refugee registration in the spotlight. From a niche, localized process, refugee registration became a security priority for the UN’s main donors, who pushed the UNCHR to adopt much more sophisticated methods.

“A lot of the push toward mainstreaming biometric registration comes from desire to prevent fraud.”

Belkis Wille

One reason why these tools were originally adopted is fraud prevention. Biometric registration is seen as a panacea to fraud, as it enables precise identification of refugees and avoids distributing resources to the same people using different identities. However, Belkis points out that research shows fraud is not happening at the micro level of distribution, but rather “higher up the chain.” The other issue is efficiency: agencies and organisations are under increasing pressure to provide more assistance, faster. Here again, there is no clear evidence that biometric technology has done much to improve this. This leads Belkis to think that some key donors and other organisations have jumped too swiftly to the conclusion that biometric data is the key. There are risks associated with these systems, which need to be weighed against the alleged benefits.

“Once you create these systems, you won’t be able to control what happens to them and how they’re used.”

Belkis Wille

Karl recalls how, as a young aid worker, he welcomed the arrival of biometrics. In the past, the head of household (generally a man) was identified and members of his family would depend on his registration – no individual records were kept. The way data was collected before was ‘undignified’: the police or military would enter a refugee camp, round up those living there and subject them to a long and painful registration exercise, collecting fingerprints with an inkpad. It was “almost traumatizing” even to the aid workers, not to mention the refugees who had to undergo hours or even days without being able to move. The promise of biometrics was to end this, and it did. However, it has also brought new risks: there is ample evidence that the number of aid beneficiaries plummets with biometric registration, for instance. Perhaps the problem today is an “overuse” of biometrics, Karl tells us. 

“I still think the advantages outweigh the way it was done in the analogue days.”

Karl Steinacker

Yasar points our guests to the notion of consent. In a world where biometric data is becoming so common, how can we guarantee the consent of populations who see their data collected? Belkis points out that the broad framework in the aid industry is that data capture is only possible if informed consent is provided. An official is supposed to point out why and how the data is collected. However, if an individual is fleeing armed conflict, what choice does she or he have when access to all forms of aid is conditioned on biometric registration?

“It’s hard to argue that they had a choice. Can we ever see someone in this situation making the decision without coercion?

Belkis Wille

Beyond consent, information is also key. In practice, the UNHCR fails to explain why data is collected and with whom it will be shared. The aid organizations themselves do not always know exactly what happens with the data. “Information and transparency” should, according to Belkis, become the new paradigm; “informed consent” can never be provided in these circumstances. There is also a problem with the collection of biometric information on children. In Kenya, some 40,000 Kenyan children were registered as refugees years ago and now, because of this previous registration, cannot get ID cards despite being Kenyan citizens.

UN agencies can enter into data-sharing agreements with countries, but the nature of these agreements is highly confidential. If you’re a refugee, you have no way of knowing where your data is going. In Jordan, for instance, the UN has admitted that they share refugee data with the Jordanian government, something that refugees are unaware of. This points to the power imbalances that plague the aid sector, with refugees unable to refuse that their data be shared.

“We have no idea what the UN is agreeing to share in a specific country context with the government.

Belkis Wille

Karl points out that data sharing with governments has always been part of the aid process, and does not worry about it per se. However, the situation in Bangladesh is different, as the government is sharing data with the very same state that persecuted these refugees; this is unheard of and particularly problematic. According to Karl, cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis. On aid in general, he notes there is no recourse for refugees. Comparing it with new legislation in the West, such as the GDPR, refugees are provided with little to no rights (such as the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’). The discussion on refugees’ rights has to take place within the international community as a whole, and in particular in states whose governments fund the UNHCR. 

“The first biggest shortcoming in the aid sector is that there is neither the right of individuals to know what data is collected about them, nor is there is a right to correct. Secondly, there is no institutional pressure to make this happen.

Karl Steinacker

In terms of future trends, Belkis notes that there are today more conversations taking place than a few years ago. She finds it positive that organizations have started hiring data protection officers and paying more attention to the issue. UN agencies have also published policies. These policies are good, according to her, but their implementation is lacking. For instance, a risk assessment needs to be conducted every time the UNHCR launches a new data collection process, and all too often these are not taking place for mostly logistical reasons: there are not enough trained staff. Belkis calls on donors to take action: at the end of the day, resources are key to train these new data protection officers; donors need to realize that more funding is needed if they want to provide refugees with sufficient data protection.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing organizations grappling with these issues much more seriously.”

Belkis Wille

Our panelist:

Yasar is an MPhil student in World History at the University of Cambridge. He is studying cultural pan-Africanism in Nkrumah’s Ghana in the early 1960s. He is originally from London, and previously studied History at the University of Oxford. After graduating, he hopes to work in international development, particularly with refugees.

Our guests:

Belkis Wille is a senior researcher with the Conflict and Crisis division at Human Rights Watch. Before taking up the role, Wille worked as Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher, and before that was the Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen researcher. Previously, Wille worked at the World Organisation Against Torture in Libya.

Karl Steinacker is an expert on digital identity. As a manager and diplomat of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees he was for several years in charge of registration, biometrics, and the digital identity of refugees. Currently he works with the International Civil Society Centre and Digital Equity on this and related digital issues.

Further reading


Biometric Data and the Taliban: What are the Risks? (The New Humanitarian)

The UN’s Refugee Data Shame (The New Humanitarian)

Head to Head: Biometrics and Aid (The New Humanitarian)

Biometric Refugee Registration: Between Benefits, Risks and Ethics (LSE International Development Blog)

Although shocking, the Rohingya biometrics scandal is not surprising and could have been prevented (ODI Insights)

Rights groups call on Greece to halt plans to collect biometric data (Info Migrants)

What’s the controversy with Ghana’s new ID card? (BBC Africa Daily podcast)


Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, The Politics of Humanitarian Technology: Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences and Insecurity (2017)

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Katja Lindskov Jacobsen (eds.), UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: Technology, law and results-based management (2016)

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Season 6 Episode 4 – Empathy Games

For Episode 4 of this season’s Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir and panelist Alice Horell sit down to discuss empathy games with Dr Karen Schrier, Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Games and Emerging Media program at Marist college, and Florent Maurin, creator of The Pixel Hunt, a video games studio with a focus on reality-inspired games.

Former American President Barack Obama thinks we are suffering from an empathy deficit. According to him, we need to see the problems of our world through the eyes of others. Could the socio-political crises of our time be solved with the use of ’empathy machines’, means of radically putting oneself in another’s shoes to create a more understanding and accepting world? Many researchers and game designers are trying to achieve this through the use of first person player video games. Our conversation discusses these so-called ‘empathy machines’ and tries to understand their potential for changing the world.

We kick off the episode with a discussion of a game designed by Florent, Bury me, my love. This critically acclaimed game puts the player in an interactive narrative following Nour, a Syrian woman traveling to Europe being helped through WhatsApp by her husband Majd, who’s still in Syria. Florent, a video game designer who wanted to use video games to convey his shock at the situation of Syrian refugees in 2015, emphasizes how unnerving the very idea of designing a video game was to him at first. It is only when he came across an article composed of the messages sent via Whatsapp by a refugee named Dana to her husband in Damascus that he got the idea for a non-linear game based on her experience. After contacting Dana and obtaining her approval – which was crucial to him – he started designing Bury me, my love. The aim was not to physically recreate the journey, but rather to design a game based on the Whatsapp exchanges between the couple.

Interestingly, Florent highlights how his game remains a fiction. While Dana reviewed the game and he interviewed several other refugees to make the game as realistic as possible, the game’s character is not Dana, but Nour – a fictional character. Karen, who has conducted research on empathy games, points to the multiple research steps undertaken by Florent before designing the game. To her, these are indispensable in the design process. Storytelling is a powerful tool to sustain empathy, and these games, if well researched, are ways to tell stories. However, it is hard to measure the impact of these games on empathy, a term that is difficult to pin down in general. Karen defines empathy as “considering other people’s feelings” and compassion as the “next level”, not only recognizing the other’s feelings but also helping them.

“Empathy as a concept has been deliberated. However, is it something we can measure? And if that’s the case, does it even matter?

Karen Schrier

Alice raises the distance created by virtual reality between players and situations. Games have been criticized for collapsing a complex situation into a game. What are the ethical implications of this? Karen agrees, and says this is something researchers and designers should always keep in mind. Careful testing and input from people with a deep personal understanding of the situation are crucial to designing scripts that generate empathy. Design decisions are also key: do you create a first-person game or do you create a game with a more external perspective? Each of these questions must be approached with the objective of reducing harm and maximizing positive impact.

There’s always a challenge with [ethical considerations in designing such games]. You could do more harm than good and it’s really a fine line.

Karen Schrier

Florent explains that when he designed the game, impact was not at the forefront of his mind. He approached making the game more like a journalist, deploying a new method to tell a story he felt was important and that people should learn more about. That does not mean he is neutral – far from it – and his perspective is represented in the game. What Florent takes most pride in is the fact that some people may look at migration differently after playing his game. Empathy, to him, is “acquired over the course of a lifetime”, and if one piece of art, including a video game, cannot make someone empathetic, little by little they may build empathy over the long-term. 

Of course, my point of view appears in the game. Because – as any author – when you do something, what you produce is influenced by who you are.

Florent Maurin

Florent goes on to say that, games are designed as conversations, rather than discourses. The game designer tries to anticipate all the questions a player may ask and provide satisfying answers. Rather than a discourse written by the game designer, then, they are conversations between players and designers. This approach has drawbacks, and can lead players to become more passive, but it can also stimulate activity through interaction.

Karen brings our attention to scholarship on ‘news games,’ those “that give us some kind of perspective on current events, or issues or topics”. She always asks her students what the advantages of a game are, by comparison with traditional means of conveying news such as text articles. She reports that many of her students do not read or watch news, and games are useful ways for them to engage with current affairs in a way they might not otherwise. Karen explains that players do not just play, but “converse through play,” which can draw the younger generation in the public sphere. For her, games need to also be seen as “public spheres” in their own right, where players interact, discuss current events, and event protest.

We don’t consider our youth as part of the public sphere. Youth should be part of the public sphere, they should be part of conversation, they have as much as anybody else reason to decide how our world should be.

Karen Schrier

Indeed, Karen emphasizes how we collectively fail to see games as important forums, especially for the youth. This reflects in part a tendency to exclude youth from society, from associating youth with lack of seriousness. We should instead see games as “productive” and “impactful”, in part through telling stories about current issues. 

Florent highlights how important the game’s realism is to its impact. His game was criticized for being “unrealistic” by the far-right, as his character was a woman; according to detractors, this did not represent the reality of migration. In his case he was unfazed, as Nour is directly based on Dana’s life story. He also points to the game Path Out, an auto-biographical narrative game written by Abdullah Karam, a Syrian refugee. Karen also directs our attention to the dangers of providing different perspectives on an event or situation. For instance, a game that enables players either to play as Mexican migrants trying to cross the border into the US or as border guards trying to prevent them strikes her as highly problematic: such a game seems to claim that the situation involves two equal sides, which is far from the case – there is one marginalized and suffering, and then the privileged border control forces.

Our Panelist:

Alice is a third year Human, Social and Political sciences student at the University of Cambridge and is originally from London. Her studies are focused on the politics of conflict and peace, particularly looking at how new technologies are impacting the refugee crisis, in which she became interested when volunteering for a migrant rights charity.

Our guests:

Karen Schrier is an Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Games and Emerging Media program at Marist college, and also of Play innovation lab. 

Florent Maurin is creator of The Pixel Hunt, a video games studio with a focus on reality inspired games. He is the creator of Bury me, my love, a critically acclaimed game which puts the player in an interactive WhatsApp-like fiction following Nour, a Syrian woman traveling to Europe being helped by her husband Majd, who’s still in Syria.

Further reading

Press coverage

NPR’s Goats and Soda: ‘A Kid In A Refugee Camp Thought Video Games Fell From Heaven. Now He Makes Them.’

Bury me, my love: coverage in the Washington Post; Radical Art Review

Academic reading

Alberghini, D. (2020) Improving empathy: is virtual reality an effective approach to educating about refugees?

Farber, M. & Schrier, K. (2017) The strengths and limitations of using digital games as “empathy machines.” working paper for the UNESCO MGIEP (Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development)

Farber, M. & Schrier, K. (2021) ‘Beyond Winning: A Situational Analysis of Two Digital Autobiographical Games’ in The International Journal of Computer Game Research 21: 4.

Mukund et al. (2022) ‘Effects of a Digital Game-Based Course in Building Adolescents’ Knowledge and Social-Emotional Competencies’ in Games for Health Journal 11: 1.

Johnson, A. (2019) ‘Using Empathy Games in the Social Sciences’