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Helen Kearney - April 2012 journal letter

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

After a short and brutally cold winter here in Geneva, the days are now getting longer, crocuses are popping up around Quaker House and the impressive icicles around the lake are melting. Work here in the Human Rights and Refugees programme has certainly kept me busy. While the first three months were more externally focussed, my time since December has been more desk-based and I have been working on several publications.

Over the course of September's UN Committee for the Rights of the Child Day of General Discussion on the children of the incarcerated (at QUNO's proposal), it became apparent that several issues within this neglected field required further consideration. One such issue was the differentiated impact of different crimes and sentences. Amnesty International prepared a short written submission to raise awareness of the impacts of a parent's death sentence on children. It focussed on situations that occur in violation of existing standards on the use of capital punishment, namely secrecy surrounding detention on death row and execution. However, whether or not a parent's death sentence has been lawfully applied, their children are affected. We were astonished by the extent to which this issue seems to have been almost entirely overlooked. I have written a paper, published in February, which begins to explore the diverse and multi-faceted impacts of the death sentence on the children of the accused. It was presented at a side event to the Human Rights Council on 9 March. Primarily, the aim is to encourage and enable States to consider and take responsibility for the full impacts of their criminal justice systems, including the unintentional harm that they may inflict on children of parents sentenced to death.

I have also been working on another publication, Children of (Alleged) Offenders: Revised Draft Framework for Decision-Making (co-authored with former QUNO programme assistant, Holly Mason-White). It will be published this week and also presented alongside the Human Rights Council in March. Based on Holly's solid first draft, the 2012 re-write draws on new legal developments from around the world, as well as all that we learned from the September DGD. The full text is a comprehensive exploration of the relevant child rights issues throughout the criminal justice process, from a parent's arrest or detention to release following imprisonment. It will be available online in a user-friendly colour format, and in black and white version for print. Suited to a diverse readership, it is possible to select only those stages of the process that may be immediately relevant (e.g. 'arrest' for police officers, or 'imprisonment' for prison staff). We very much welcome input from interested parties on the content, format and structure of the Revised Draft Framework. Please contact me on

In November, Rachel Brett published 'International Standards on Conscientious Objection to Military Service'. I was happy to put my language skills to good use by translating it into French, and Spanish.

As an Attender at Geneva Meeting, I have been enjoying my role as member of the Social Concerns Committee. It was perhaps the novelty of the position that initially attracted me – it is the first time that I have been on the decision-making side of a group giving charitable donations, rather than requesting funding. Considering applications from local, grass-roots NGOs has also enabled me to feel more connected to the city of Geneva. Working around the UN and the international organisations can sometimes feel like a rather narrow and separated world, and it should not be assumed that 'multinational' naturally and inevitably means 'multicultural'.

One of the aspects of our work at QUNO that I most appreciate is the fact that we are a small team, working on a wide range of issues (Global Economic Issues, Peace and Disarmament and Human Rights & Refugees). This means that it is relatively easy to keep up with our colleagues' perspectives and research interests. Human rights enjoy political hegemony, and HR&R works for peace and social justice from within the extremely useful human rights paradigm. However, as a wider perspective reminds us, to focus our attention exclusively on liberal human rights, without addressing social and economic systems that perpetuate and aggravate inequality, might be at best inadequate and at worst a distraction. I am reminded of Jeremy Bentham's scathing dismissal of the French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as 'a mere effusion of imbecility' and 'simple nonsense […] rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts'. Writing in 1796, he criticised the declaration of natural rights which can then be defeated through legislation as amounting to 'nothing' [...] 'of these rights, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatsoever, abrogate the smallest particle'. Conversely, one could argue that loudly declaring rights clearly amounts to 'something' and has a precise ideological function, although this may be far from their ostensible purpose. Bentham was concerned that the declaration of unattainable universal rights would 'excite insurrection' and lead to anarchy. Alternatively, it could be suggested that an unexamined belief in human rights functions in quite the opposite way: as a grand narrative, an unquestionable truth-claim. It is dangerous because it effectively silences politics. Getting the rights on paper can create the illusion that it is a 'done deal', thus obscuring the need for action. What effect does it have, for example, to announce that everyone has unalienable private property rights, when it could be suggested that the whole material, social and economic structure of society is set up in such a way as to prevent some groups from acquiring property?

These are ongoing reflections, and I very much welcome comments and responses from interested readers.

In Friendship
Helen Kearney
April 2012