Researcher: Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer
Torture, like so many of the more gruesome of human rights violations, is imbued with the dark mystery of horror and violence without retribution. For many, torture is understood as something that happens behind the closed doors of such notorious prisons as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, something almost too awful to contemplate and a problem so deeply entrenched in conflict that it seems unsolvable. But a new research project led by Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer, director of the Master of Human Rights and Democratisation, is looking to the social sciences for the solution.
Last year Associate Professor Celermajer was awarded a 1.5 million eruos grant by the European Commission to conduct a three-year project researching the practice of torture within the police and military in a few countries in Asia-Pacific region. Working with local research teams, this project is set to create a new interregional and interdisciplinary space for rethinking one of the world’s most significant human rights problems.
What makes this project unique is its emphasis on finding new ideas and new solutions, without the international humanitarian law rulebook in hand. Instead, the aim of the project is to steer away from traditional teaching models of right versus wrong in favour of learning about torture as a professional practice and about the realities of those who perpetrate it.
While it may seem strange for a human rights–based project to be working with 'the enemy', as Associate Professor Celermajer told The Sun Herald earlier this year, the very essence of this project is to tackle the problem at its source: "Human rights advocates usually ask us to imagine the worlds of the victims, but in this case it’s the other way around – we’re attempting to understand … the perpetrators."
So how can one research project decipher the puzzle of why a member of the police or military might commit acts of torture, and what can be done to stop this? The only way to do this, according to Associate Professor Celermajer, is to make the police and military the protagonists in this story – and that’s where the interdisciplinary research component comes in.
In the first year of the project the core research team will investigate how torture becomes a normalised practice within the police and military around the world, what is currently being done about it and why this is or isn’t working. These research findings will then be presented to some of the world’s leading experts on torture from the fields of criminology, education, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, military training and political science. The brief of this expert team will be to delve into the grey area between right and wrong and rethink the many reasons why police and military personnel practise torture, and to draw on the successful approaches of various disciplines to devise an effective and innovative strategy that focuses on police and military personnel themselves.
In the second year of the project, a 12-member group of representatives from partner institutions will work closely with the Sydney research team to translate the research findings into innovative training modules that make a genuine difference. The support and participation of the police and military are central to the success of this project, and participating personnel will become the leaders of change against the use of torture among their peers and within their institutions.
In its final year, the project will present its research findings and training module to an international conference of representatives from government, non-government, military and police organisations from across the Asia–Pacific region. The aim is for this new multidisciplinary approach to be accepted and incorporated into the torture prevention training used by police and military in other countries in the region and across the globe.
While the horror and violence of torture may never abate entirely, this project is paving the way for the social sciences to take the lead in understanding the problem and finding an effective solution.
MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY IN A DECADENT AGE
Researcher: Professor John Keane
We live in a revolutionary age of communicative abundance in which many media innovations – from satellite broadcasting to iPhones, electronic books, Freegate and cloud computing – spawn great fascination mixed with excitement. In the field of politics, hopeful talk of digital democracy, web 2.0, cybercitizens and e-government is flourishing. This project acknowledges the many thrilling ways that communicative abundance is fundamentally altering the landscape of our lives, and our politics, often for the better. New patterns of public monitoring of power are especially striking, even in cross-border settings. But a basic premise of the project is that too little attention has been paid to the troubling counter-trends, the decadent media developments that encourage concentrations of cunning power without limit, so weakening the spirit and substance of democracy. Clever new methods of government censorship – the Chinese arts of using the Internet to control the Internet are among the most sophisticated – and the use by governments and corporations of spin tactics and back-channel public relations are the most obvious examples. Echo chambers, rumour storms, Berlusconi-style mass media populism, flat earth news, big political lies, cyber-attacks, online gated communities, publicity bombs and organised media silence in the face of unaccountable power are trends that also bode ill for democracy. This project aims to understand and account for these trends, and how best to deal with them. It explains why media decadence is harmful for the democratic body politic and tackles some tough but fateful questions: which forces are chiefly responsible for media decadence? Should we be cheered by the rise of the blog scene, or worried by the collapse of newspaper business models and the lingering culture of red-blooded journalism, which often stands accused of such bad habits as hunting in packs, its eyes on bad news, egged on by newsroom rules that include titillation, sensationalism and the excessive concentration on personalities? What (if anything) can be done about the new media decadence? Is improved legal regulation our best hope? How effective are media literacy campaigns, or efforts to redefine public service media for the twenty-first century? And, finally, the really discomposing questions: when judged in terms of the principle of free and open communication, does the age of communicative abundance on balance proffer more risk than promise? Are there developing parallels with the early twentieth century, when print journalism and radio and film broadcasting hastened the widespread collapse of parliamentary democracy? Are the media failures of our age the harbingers of profoundly authoritarian trends that might ultimately result in the birth of ‘post-democracy’ – polities in which governments claim to represent majorities that are artefacts of media, money, organisation and force of arms? If that happened, what, if anything, would be lost? In plain words: why should anybody care about media decadence?
Read Professor John Keane’s prologue to Ramón A. Feenstra’s recently published book entitled “Democracia Monitorizada En La Era De La Nueva Galaxia Mediática: Based En La Propuesta De John Keane”
RETHINKING THE HUMAN AND THE NON-HUMAN IN THE AGE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
Researcher: Professor Nikolas Kompridis
We are in the midst of a massive sea change in our understanding of what it means to be a human being. Propelled by dramatic developments in the sciences that promise to give human beings control over their own biological destiny, and by virulent anti-humanist and posthumanist challenges to the “human” and “humanism” in the social sciences and humanities, it is a change that has implications for the future of “humanity” that most of us can barely imagine, let alone comprehend. It is the aim of this research project:
1) to make sense of the complex factors driving this change through a critical examination of the underlying but insufficiently interrogated assumptions about what “human” means in the discourses about the human in the sciences and in the anti-humanist and posthumanist critiques of the “human” and “humanism”;
2) to determine its implications for the future of humanity by testing whether the application of anti-humanist and posthumanist concepts of the human can actually function in the context of our understanding of human rights practices;
3) to reflect anew on the question of what it means to be human, by rethinking and reformulating concepts of the human that are constitutive of what it means to be human – concepts such as freedom, agency, the person, and human – that respond to but are not bound by the narrow assumptions of the various “posthuman” challenges to the human and to “humanism”;
4) to articulate, thereby, a constructive ontology of the human and non-human that is human-related but not human-centred.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, RIGHTS, AND POLITICS
Researcher: Professor David Schlosberg
While the focus on human and non-human is crucial for exploring the changing relations and practices in the relationship between people and the rest of the natural world, the goal of this research programme is to investigate the specific territories and discourses of rights, justice, and democracy in the political management of human immersion in the environment that sustains us. Increasingly, the classic political language of rights is being extended into environmental rights – the right to live in an environment that can support life, and the right to particular aspects of the natural world such as water, air, and food that provide for sustenance and functioning. In addition, environmental and climate justice are increasingly being used to explore the ethical implications of the distribution of environmental goods and bads, the invisibility of peoples and communities exposed to risk and vulnerability, and the absence of democratic control over the spaces of everyday life. And a large focus in rethinking our governance of environment is in more inclusive and discursive forms of environmental democracy. Given growing evidence that an increasingly climate-changed environment has the potential to undermine basic citizens’ rights to life, health, subsistence, autonomy, development and culture, growing numbers of political theorists and environmental ethicists are making this connection, insisting that people have the human right not to suffer from the disadvantages generated by global changes within the biosphere. These concerns are, in turn, being used to argue for new normative bases of environmental and climate policies – in particular policies based on democratic participation. But these concerns are not simply academic attempts to make connections between environmental conditions and political concepts – they are driven by the discourses and demands of grassroots movements. From urban food deserts in the US, to uranium exposed indigenous peoples in Australia, to the climate vulnerable along many coasts and island states, movements are making these same connections. This research programme will explore the relationship between these theoretical ideas of justice and rights, along with their links to potential public policies and the discourses, demands, and alternative practices of movements. From this perspective, environment, democracy and human rights are inextricably linked – not only in theory, but also between theory and policy, and between both and environmental and social movements. Initially, this work will focus on an ARC-funded project on climate justice and community responses to climate adaptation in Australia, but numerous projects at the interface of rights, justice, democracy, and the environment will be explored.
Researcher: Associate Professor Allison Weir
Resistance movements around the world engage in struggles against domination, and in struggles for freedom – but are we all struggling for the same kinds of freedom? This project explores diverse conceptions and practices of freedom, in relation to ideals and practices of human rights, democracy, social justice, equality, and well-being. In particular, we ask how we can rethink struggles of diversely situated (gendered, raced, classed, encultured) agents in terms of intersecting conceptions of and struggles for freedom.
The dominant conception of freedom in the western world is the ideal of noninterference with individual liberty – but the exclusive focus on this conception of freedom in fact contributes to global injustice, and erodes collective practices of solidarity and belonging. In addition to reconsidering various western philosophies of freedom, this project takes the perspective of nonideal theory to draw on feminist, antiracist, queer, and postcolonial critique, on diverse resistance struggles, and on diverse practices and conceptions of freedom, to consider ways of understanding and practicing freedom that are more compatible with social justice, and with sustainable relations among humans and between humans and earth others.
Areas of exploration include Buddhist and yogic conceptions and practices of freedom, in particular as they support resistance struggles in Tibet and elsewhere, struggles for self-determination and philosophies of connection to land among Indigenous communities in Australia and Canada, the love and justice tradition of Black America and in Africana philosophy, ritual and religious practices as practices of freedom, in particular practices of pious Muslim women in relation to Muslim feminist movements, conceptions of freedom in Foucault and in queer theory, theories of development as freedom, Marxist conceptions of nonalienation, theories and practices of collective participation, feminist theories of change, conceptions of relational autonomy in relation to practices of parenting, conceptions of freedom that inform movements for women’s and LGBT human rights.