An exciting interdisciplinary symposium took place on 12 February 2018, at the Friends’ House in Euston, London, on ‘The Body and Human Rights’, hosted by Brunel University’s Global Lives Research Centre, the ‘Knowing Our Rights’ (KOR) research project, and the Britain in Europe (BiE) think tank. The symposium, which attracted several international speakers and a large audience, was convened by Meredith Jones, director of the Global Lives Research Centre, and Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, founder and director of KOR and BiE.

The symposium drew together major disciplinary areas in the arts and social sciences. It was kicked off to a great start with two panels convening at the same time. One entailed the ‘Reproductive Rights and Abortion for Women’ and the other related to ‘Criminal Law and Destruction of the Body’.

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Prof David Gallear, Vice-Dean (Research) at Brunel University, highlighting the crucial role of interdisciplinary research collaboration, such as between the Global Lives Research Centre, BiE and the ‘Knowing Our Rights’ research project

The criminal law panel was led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC and Nevanka Tromp, where they discussed in great detail the Destroyed Memories of the Srebrenica mass graves and the destruction by the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia of artefacts belonging to genocide victims. The talk was insightful and allowed the audience to understand the sequence of events that happened after the discovery of thousands of artefacts, with the speakers highlighting that the interests of the victim will often be overlooked and lied about when they clash with the interests of powerful states or international organisations. The next talk was led by Igor Vuletic and concerned criminal liability for ‘Robots’ Mistakes in Medicine’ and the quandary of who or what is to blame. This talk captured the realities of modern medicine, exploring whether ‘the dawn of autonomous systems will have far-reaching consequences for many industry sectors as well as our daily lives’. Michelle Farrell’s paper focused on ‘the tortured body’. Michelle developed a critique of the jurisprudence of the ECtHR that tends to depoliticise and rationalise the act. ‘The Court does not automatically draw the link between suffering and a violation of the right against torture’, she argued, and feels the need to ask: ‘Has this body suffered enough?’

The three talks brought to light the challenging questions of how the human body should be legally understood and defined.

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In the ‘Reproductive Rights and Abortion for Women’ panel, Gerard Conway gave an insight of the forthcoming abortion referendum in Ireland, situating it in the context of conflicts of rights. JoAnna Wall’s analysis on the erosion of reproductive rights in the US provided an illuminating contrast in that respect. Arianne Shahvisi similarly explored the conflict between a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and the interests of the state, by highlighting inconsistencies in dealing with abortion, genital alteration, on the one hand, and fertility treatment, on the other.

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from left to right: Gerard Conway, Arian Shahvisi and JoAnna Wall

The afternoon consisted of thought-provoking discussions ranging from ‘Hospitality and Resistance of Syrian Refugees’ to ‘Gender (Self)-Identification in the UK’.

Lisa Blackman’s keynote caused a stir, with intriguing observations about the human body and the idea that there is nothing fixed or nothing natural about what it means to have and be a body.

“How can we develop a non-human body politics, which recognises the complexity of different scales of matter, some of which have been fundamentally changed, altered and reformed as part of human-technological industrial practices?”, asked Lisa.

She added: “In this context, what counts as a body? Where does this leave “us” and our capacity to apprehend, experience, live and commune with the “alien”? Does this question still assumes a sovereign human subject (white and masterful) encountering a foreign element that exposes how entrenched political and even biological resistance to otherness is? What resists our capacity to truly understand or apprehend fragility, finality, death, dying, torture, extinction and brutality, and our increasing anxieties about the future when the human (as a generic and unmarked) species is displaced from its fantasy of mastery, boundedness and control?

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Lisa Blackman: “We are all Martians”

Up next was Evelyn Callahan’s thorough review of Gender Identification in the UK and how the current system excludes non-binary people and children and teens when registering their ‘new gender’.

Following on from this was Marzieh Kaivanara’s in-depth talk about the use of cosmetic surgeries in Iran, and how they have become a social and cultural problem.

Annabelle Mooney talked about our inability to recognise human suffering even as we are presented with it; she invited the audience to take the othering of economically marginalised bodies as a starting point, before they could perhaps reach the conclusion that depriving these people of benefits is a form of torture.

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Evelyn Callahan on gender identification in the UK

Another perceptive discussion by Maria Kastrinou surrounded the current issues among Syrian Refugees in Greece, namely how the Greek Government views the refugees and the lack of hospitality they provide.

Hazret Cetinkaya examined the issues of ‘women’s subjection in a post-colonial frame’ and how women are viewed in Namus. It was revealed to the audience that Namus is a system that uses Human Rights discourse but their cultural identity still remains.

The last talk was given by Anita Howarth whose discussion primarily dealt with corporeality and force feeding in Guantanamo Bay. Anita articulated how the body is stripped of its political rights and is exposed to unchecked violence throughout the course of their sentence.

The astute discussions throughout the course of the symposium exhibited that the body has indeed become a major area of research and feminist scholars have made important interventions in the ways that bodies are represented.

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Symposium co-convenors, Dr Meredith Jones and Dr Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos

Dr Meredith Jones’ explanation of how the research areas explored in the symposium complement each other offer a useful afterthought: “The body has become a major area of research across many disciplines. Feminist scholars have made important interventions in the ways that bodies are represented, managed, regulated, treated medically, and modified”, she explained.

“Simultaneously, human rights scholars have engaged with challenging questions of how the human body should be legally understood and defined, and what may legitimate the State to become involved with individual choices about what to do with one’s body,” she concluded.

Referring to the work of the French legal philosopher and Sorbonne academic Mireille Delmas-Marty, Dr Giannoulopoulos added that the symposium brought the participants face-to-face with the perennial conflict between ‘the human and the inhuman’, forcing them to see how the recognition of international human rights, and of a right to human dignity, often go hand in hand with resistance by the states to international law and the violation of this universal right in practice.

“Perhaps we can take this as a useful reminder of a certain inevitability of the brutality inherent in state responses to human rights claims”, he concluded, “and continue on the challenging path of searching to ensure that fundamental human rights are effectively applied in practice”.

Britain in Europe Brunel University Open Society Foundation
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