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AHRC Urgent Appeals: Theory and Practice

*This text can be found on the AHRC Urgent Appeals homepage. It was written for civil society, across Asia.

The AHRC’s Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power, or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, Urgent Appeals swiftly and effectively broadcast and deal with the incident. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.

A need for dialogue on human rights

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while others are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many still, are frustrated with the absence of rights to protect and promote gender equality, the environment, and fair, safe labour practices. Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere, among friends and family, within their social circles. Although the media may cover the issues in a broad manner, they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive, or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent can be discouraged as unfashionable and unpatriotic.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those who are less fortunate.

In this way, causes for complaint are not addressed, discussed or resolved, and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society: bringing human rights issues into the open

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and could be controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off, and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

How does the UA system work? 

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative, and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and former director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right.”

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region


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Defamation of religions at the UN: The current consensus

Taken from ‘Defamation of Religions: International Developments and Challenges on the Ground‘ for the SOAS International Human Rights Clinic Project and the Cairo Institute on Human Rights Studies (2011)

As now established, international support for the OIC-sponsored resolutions has been waning since a high point in 2006, despite the minor concessionary changes in language.[1] This section aims to establish the present consensus on the concept at the UN, both in the reception of the resolutions in the past year and through the expressions of official opinion via various other UN fora.

The 2010 resolution at the HRC in March 2010 saw its lowest margin yet, placing it just four votes from defeat: 20 states in favour and 17 against.[2] Argentina and Zambia voted against the resolution for the first time, and according to the UN monitoring group, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Chile, Argentina and Mexico made strong statements during the vote that voiced their commitment to upholding the freedom of expression while combating all forms of intolerance.[3] In November 2010 at the UN‘s Third Committee the draft resolution was also passed by a 12-vote margin (81 to 55 with 43 abstentions), which was much lower than the previous year’s 26 (76 to 64 with 42 abstentions), and was upheld in December’s GA.[4] Although a small number of states moved to abstain after holding positions against the resolution, no new states chose to support it.

Both 2010 resolutions express ‘deep concern that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism’ and directly reference the ‘special duties and responsibilities’ and thus the possible legal limits of free expression as contained in Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR. Yet as noted earlier, they do not call for the criminalisation of defamation, as requested by the OIC at the second session of the Ad Hoc Committee in 2009. According to the bulletin released by the Department of Public Information in November 2010, the issues raised in the Third Committee tracked similar fault lines from previous debates through the decade: there were requests from several delegations that there be less focus on Islam in particular.[5] Albania and India expressed disapproval that the text continued to promote research into the link between defamation and racism; and various states expressed concerns for the harm the resolution could do to free expression. Focus was again brought to the ICCPR and also, by Finland, to the ICESCR in its appeal to states to ratify the treaties and consider their optional protocols. In turn, OIC states, represented by Syria, continued to stress the increase in ‘demonic’ portrayals of Islam and Muslims and anti-Muslim legislation, such as the restrictions being imposed on the construction of places of worship, and to lobby for stronger legal and administrative measures in response. They bolstered this appeal with references to the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and other international law provisions, including the joint statement by the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and the OIC, and the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union in Doha, on 7 February 2006, in which they underscored the need for sensitivity to the issue. [6]

Nevertheless the outlook for the resolution was largely unfavourable for the OIC and its supporting states, as reported widely by media and independent UN monitoring agencies such as the ISHR, which noted:

Diminishing support for the draft resolution ironically followed more open and transparent negotiations this year. Though many states praised the Moroccan-led negotiations, the US deemed the outcome worse in terms of substance from previous years. And despite the EU and US urging states to find common ground through other means than the divisive resolution, the OIC  said it would pursue the issue ‘relentlessly’, including bringing the resolution to the Assembly again next year.[7]

2.3.1 UN Special Procedures on defamation of religions

As noted briefly above, the work of independent experts within the UN has been building an influential body of opinion on the subject of defamation of religions since the concept was first proposed in 1999. The issue has featured prominently in the reports and studies of three Special Rapporteurs in particular: on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; on freedom of religion or belief; and on the promotion and protection of the right of freedom of opinion and expression. Although each has explored the issue in relation to his or her mandate, their findings and opinions have tended to align and overlap in main areas.

i) On the relationship between defamation of religions and the freedom of expression

In 2006, for example, when the defamations resolution was at the height of its support, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief reported on the potential threat to free expression, warning that ‘any attempt to lower the threshold of Article 20… would not only shrink the frontiers of free expression, but also limit freedom of religion or belief itself. Such an attempt could be counterproductive and may promote an atmosphere of religious intolerance’,[8] while in 2008 the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression reiterated that protections within this article relate ‘not only to comfortable, inoffensive or politically correct opinions, but also to ideas that offend, shock and disturb’. He also noted that laws under Article 20(2) should be clearly and narrowly defined, should not intrude on freedom of expression, and should be applied by an independent judiciary.[9] By using Article 20 to draw the parameters of the provisions, the experts who have held three rapporteur positions during the past decade have consistently recommended that they be interpreted in light of Articles 18 and 19 of the ICCPR, as laid out in General Comment 10 from the HRC.[10] Each Special Rapporteur has also expressed concerns – which have been echoed and reinforced by many NGOs – that the terminology and implications of the resolutions on defamation in relation to religion are unclear. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression in particular, has cited concerns that Article 20 is meant to protect individuals, not belief systems.

In 2008 the Special Rapporteur on racism, Githu Mugai, delivered a report by his predecessor Doudou Diene that called on member states to replace ‘defamation’ with the legal concept of ‘incitement to national, racial or religious hatred’, a concept which is already grounded in international legal instruments.[11] Muigai maintained focus on the theme during his tenure, as seen during the Durban Review Conference in which he: ‘reiterate[d] the recommendation of his predecessor to encourage a shift away from the sociological concept of the defamation of religions towards the legal norm of non-incitement to national, racial or religious hatred’.[12] In a second report on the same platform Muigai stressed the need for states to strike a balance between the right to freedom of expression and their moves to counter extremist political parties, movements and groups.[13]

The continuity of this opinion was recently confirmed by the new Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt. In his first interactive dialogue with the GA’s Third Committee in October 2010 he referred to the ‘chilling effect’ that new legal provisions, as urged by OIC representatives, could have on the freedom of expression. The phrase is one used frequently by UN Rapporteurs to express particularly strong concern.

It is important that any limitations on freedom of expression deemed necessary to prohibit incitement to religious hatred be defined with the utmost diligence, precision and precaution. The threshold for any limitations must be very high in order not to have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression or other human rights. Such precaution is also in the interest of freedom of religion or belief, because a societal atmosphere of openness enhances the chances of dispelling stereotypes and prejudices. At the same time, freedom of religion or belief does not include the right for one’s religion or belief to be free from criticism or all adverse comment.[14]

ii) On religious discourse

Experts serving under those three UN mandates have also shared concerns for the negative impact that the defamation concept may have on religion. Their reports have often concluded with recommendations for states to promote unrestricted dialogue within and among religions.  This is a cause most strongly advocated by the Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion, such as the often-made observation by previous mandate-holder Asma Jahangir, that ‘the  recognition, respect and practice of religious pluralism  . . . encompasses criticism, discussion and questioning  of each other’s values’,[15] and that the concept of defamation of religions is dangerous because it can be used to legitimize blasphemy laws that ‘punish members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-theists or atheists.’[16]

This position was reflected in the terms of the mandate itself, which was heavily debated before it was renewed at the Human Rights Council in 2010; the changes made upon its renewal have since been referred to by states in various bids to restrict and redirect the mandate holder.[17] Although the terms of the mandate now include the condemnation of incidents of incitement to religious hatred, discrimination, intolerance and violence, as requested by Pakistan, consensus was not found on the calls for the Special Rapporteur to examine incidents of religious intolerance and to ensure respect for places of worship.[18] This is not the only time the debate has been taken into the terms of a Special Rapporteur’s mandate. As noted by a 2008 report from the Quaker United Nations Office:

[A] contentious thematic mandate was the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. This was linked to the question of religion since the controversy revolved around the limits to freedom of expression in relation to religion (ie, the ‘cartoons’ issue).  The mandate was amended by vote (27-13-3) to include reporting ‘abuse of the right to freedom of expression that constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination, taking into account Articles 19(3) and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and General Comment No. 15 of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination… This amendment led to many of the original co-sponsors withdrawing their co-sponsorship: the resolution as amended was adopted by vote (7/36; 32-0-15).[19]

The importance of dialogue among religions has featured in the work of the other Special Rapporteurs. In a report on religious defamation, shortly after the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, Special Rapporteur on racism Doudou Diene urged states to promote dialogue between cultures, civilizations, and religions, and to ensure that any efforts to combat discrimination addressed religions equally.[20] In a joint statement issued a few years later at the Durban Review Conference, Jahangir, Maigui and La Rue warned that to legalise the concepts of defamation and blasphemy would make them more open to abuse.

Whereas some have argued that defamation of religions could be equated to racism, we would like to caution against confusion between a racist statement and an act of ‘defamation of religion’… There are numerous examples of persecution of religious minorities or dissenters, but also of atheists and non-theists, as a result of legislation on religious offences… The right to freedom of expression constitutes an essential aspect of the right to freedom of religion and belief … essential to creating an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. [21]

They later elaborated, at the same session:

Several religions are characterised by truth claims – or even by superiority claims – which have been traditionally accepted as part of their theological grounds. Consequently, the elements that constitute a racist statement may not be the same as those that constitute a statement ‘defaming a religion’ as such. To this extent, the legal measures, and in particular the criminal measures, adopted by national legal systems to fight racism may not necessarily be applicable to defamation of religions.[22]

iii) On religious intolerance

Despite their reluctance to fully support proposals from the OIC member states on defamation of religions, independent experts at the UN have prominently recognised the rise of certain types of negative religious stereotyping in their work, and the need to urgently address this via state policy. For example, in the concluding recommendation of Special Rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diène’s report at the Durban Review Conference Report to the GA on defamation of religions and the implications of Islamophobia, he stresses:

[…] the need to pay particular attention and vigilance to maintain a careful balance between secularism and the respect of freedom of religion. A growing anti-religious culture and rhetoric is a central source of defamation of all religions and discrimination against their believers and practitioners. In this context governments should pay a particular attention to guaranteeing and protecting the places of worship and culture of all religions.[23]

Asma Jahangir has similarly emphasised that although intolerant behaviour does not necessarily constitute a human rights violation it still tends to polarize religious groups and affect social cohesion, and that the judiciary should play a role in assessing whether incidents amount to violations.[24] In her final report as Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion in 2010, she reiterated her opinion that the advocacy of religious hatred should be prohibited by law,[25] and although she consistently defined the parameters of legal action according to the provisions in existing international treaties (noting that she sees them as a positive alternative to blasphemy laws), the Rapporteur recommended that their interpretation be revisited, notably via the HRC’s General Comment No. 11 (1983) on Article 20 of the ICCPR.[26]

However, expressed in this way, the Special Rapporteurs’ support for explorations into defamation as a legal concept has been modest in comparison to the proposals made by OIC member states and their supporters. The past two Special Rapporteurs on racism have promoted further examinations on Article 20 in their reports, stressing that the concept of incitement to religious hatred could be identified within an effective legal framework; they have also, perhaps more robustly, backed the discussions on the development of complementary standards through the CERD.[27] The Special Rapporteur on expression has restricted his recommendations to improving the implementation of existing provisions of the ICCPR and the ICERD.

Like many of the NGOs involved in this debate, the three UN-based experts have united in their call for states to take a holistic approach to the discouragement of hate speech and discrimination, and to draw on education, community and inter-faith dialogue, and initiatives within the media, rather than legislation. In the two latest reports from Githu Maigui, released mid-2010 – one specifically concerned with the implications of Islamophobia – the Special Rapporteur on racism concluded that the most effective way to combat religious intolerance is to implement policy measures that deal with the ‘root causes’ of intolerance, which reflects his predecessor’s opinion in 2007 on ‘the need to complement legal strategies with an intellectual and ethical strategy relating to the processes, mechanisms and representations which constitute those manifestations over time’ due to their ‘historical and cultural depth’.[28] As mentioned, religious intolerance has been an established issue of concern at the UN since a declaration was first drafted on the issue in 1981, and this is regularly renewed;[29] it also frames much of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Religion.[30]

2.3.2. The High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Secretary General

Supporting the work of these three mandates has been that of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (HCHR) and the UN Secretary General (SG) who have initiated various surveys and expert consultations on religious defamation in the latter half of the past decade. A significant contribution by the HCHRs (firstly by Louise Arbour, and from September 2008, Navanethem Pillay) were special studies of laws and practices on defamation as requested by the Human Rights Committee, which in 2006 led to Arbour calling for a unified understanding of incitement norms in the ICCPR and ICERD, due to the lack of clarity on key elements such as the definitions of ‘incitement’, ‘hostility’, and ‘hatred’.[31]  Reporting to the HRC in 2007, the HCHR stressed the need for enhanced cooperation and stronger political will by member states in combating defamation of religions’, and this led to further consultations and reports. A 2008 survey among states led the HCHR to confirm that their understandings of the term ‘defamation’ addressed ‘somewhat different phenomena and appl[ied] various terms such as contempt, ridicule, outrage and disrespect to connote defamation’.[32] The Commissioner’s work has highlighted the grey areas that remain between the criticism of religion, the persecution of religious persons and the concept of religious defamation.

The call for holistic measures has been recently amplified meanwhile, by the SG, who rather than recommending legal responses to defamation, has chosen to root the debate in the wider theme of religious intolerance, and to back recommendations by UN Independent Experts.[33] In a July 2009 report to the GA the SG noted that ‘[i]n order to tackle the root causes of intolerance, a much broader set of policy measures needs to be addressed covering the areas of intercultural dialogue as well as education for tolerance and diversity’. This call for holistic measures has boosted the UN’s attempt to address the issue of religious intolerance via a global programme of seminars and workshops such as one held in June 2009 entitled ‘Unlearning Intolerance’ which addressed the dangers of ‘cyberhate’ and ‘digital demonisation’.[34] The SG’s report on defamation listed the interaction of the HCHR with the issue in various fora during the past few years, such as a press release expressing regret at Switzerland’s ban on minarets, and an address expressing concern at the discriminatory nature of profiling at the Counter Terrorism Committee of the Security Council.  He and the HCHR have also noted that jurisprudence has also been building in the Human Rights Committee regarding the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR and ICERD, and the latest report of the HCHR features various cases taken by claimants alleging incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Although most claims have failed, there have been dissenting opinions.[35]

2.3.3 The Durban Review Conference and the Ad Hoc Group

As well as being reflected in the language of UN resolutions, this body of opinion has been influential in the drafting of other reports, such as the Outcome Document of the April 2009 Durban Review Conference and the Draft Resolution on the right to freedom of expression, co-sponsored by the USA and Egypt and passed later that same year.[36]  Both saw the marked softening of language relating to incitements and defamation proposed by the OIC, instead invoking terms such as ‘negative stereotyping’, drawn from the ICCPR. UN experts, among them the Special Rapporteur on racism and the HCHR, have opined that the consensus reached in the Outcome Document was a satisfying balance, reaffirming both the importance of freedom of expression and the need to curb hate speech. The HCHR has recommended that the language of the document be used by policymakers to define domestic measures.[37] Nevertheless the Outcome Document was recognised as having given particular weight to the issue in the eight references it made to incitement, and in the Intergovernmental Working Group that was established at the close of the conference to look into the content and scope of a possible Optional Protocol to the ICERD, and which gave rise to the Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards. Although its meeting in late 2009 was reported as being more constructive than its first session, progress was minor, and EU states continue to oppose OIC states on the need for complementary standards. A third meeting planned for the end of 2010 has been postponed until early 2011.

2.3.4. General Comment 34 on Article 19

This debate continues among the drafting committee members of the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 34 on Article 19 of the ICCPR (hereafter General Comment 34), to further safeguard the right to freedom of opinion and expression.[38] The first draft, completed in October 2010, discusses the acceptable limitations on the right to expression, stressing that to criminalise the holding of an opinion violates human rights norms. In general terms, draft General Comment 34 notes that any limitations must be justified and with proof of a clear threat, that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for any form of defamation and that all such criminal laws should be repealed unless they are applicable under Article 20. It also draws attention to anti-discrimination content in the Committee’s General Comment No. 22, urging states to base their action ‘on principles not deriving exclusively from a single tradition’ when citing actions taken in the protection of morals.[39] The committee is brief in its reference to blasphemy, listing the international legal limitations on its criminalisation without further interpretation, and stressing that any criminal law provisions that do not comply with Article 20 should be repealed. It does note that blasphemy laws should apply to adherents of all religions equally, and should not be used to prevent commentary on religious doctrine.

General Comments are a way for the UN committees to assist and promote the article of the covenant, ease conflicts of interpretation and highlight de facto insufficiencies that may have come to light in reports to the body, and are cited by organisations and in judicial decisions.[40] As it stands, General Comment 34 reflects agreement with the recommendations made by UN independent experts and a lack of support for moves to prohibit forms of defamation relating to religion. However this language will likely be challenged, and may see some change when the draft is put to state parties in 2011.

[1]    The Becket Fund, ‘UN efforts to pass a Binding International Blasphemy Law, 2010’,Spring 2010,

[2]    HRC, Res. 13/16, 15 April 2010, A/HRC/RES/13/16, in favour: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and South Africa (20). Against: Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay and Zambia (17). Abstaining: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cameroon, Ghana, India, Japan, Madagascar and Mauritius (8). Angola and Gabon were absent at the vote.

[3]    ISHR ‘Human Rights Council: changing dynamics on ‘defamation of religions’, April 14, 2010,

[4]    GA, 23 November 2010, GA/SHC/4001.

[5]    Ibid.

[6]    GA, Res. 61/49, 12 February 2006, A/RES/61/49.

[7]    ISHR, ‘Support for ‘defamation of religion’ continues to decline; draft resolution passes by only 12 votes’, 25 November 2010,

[8]    HRC, 20 September 2006, A/HRC/2/3, para 50.

[9]    HRC, 28 February 2008, A/HRC/7/14, para 66.

[10]  ICCPR General Comment No. 10: Freedom of expression (Art. 19), 29 June 1983.

[11]  HRC, 1 July 2009, A/HRC/12/38.

[12]  Ibid, para 7.

[13]  HRC, 16 April 2010, A/HRC/14/45.

[14]  A statement by Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief,  65th session of the General Assembly, Third Committee,  21 October 2010.

[15]  HRC, 20 September 2006, A/HRC/2/3, para 65.

[16]  GA, 20 August 2007, A/62/280.

[17]  HRC Res. 14/11, 23 June 2010, A/HRC/RES/14/11.

[18]  These terms were brought up in the 2010 interactive dialogues with the special procedures on racism and on freedom of religion and belief at the Third Committee, in which Ms. Jahangir’s understanding of the defamations concept was critcised and her successor reminded of the new terms of his mandate by Pakistan.

[19]  Quaker United Nations Office: Digging Foundations or Trenches? UN Human Rights Council: Year 2, August  2008.

[20]  GA, 21 August 2007, A/HRC/6/6.

[21]  Read by the Rapporteurs at a UN-organised side-event at the Durban Review Conference, 22 April 2009.

[22]  Joint statement by the three Special Rapporteurs in summarising the conclusions of the 2008 OHCHR ‘Expert Seminar on the Links between Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR’, convened by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 22 April 2009.

[23]  HRC, 21 August 2007, A/HRC/6/6, para 78.

[24]  In the Rapporteur’s report to the HRC at its tenth session in 2009.

[25]  GA, 29 July 2010, A/65//207.

[26]  GA, 20 August 2007, A/62/280; HRC, 7 February 2008, A/HRC/7/10/Add.3.

[27]  ,HRC, 2 September 2009, A/HRC/9/12.

[28]  GA, 21 August 2007, A/HRC/6/6 , para 78

[29]  Such as Resolution 64/164 adopted in the Human Rights Council on 17 March 2010.

[30]  The mandate title was originally UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, and was changed to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief by the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN General Assembly in 2000.

[31]  HRC, 20 September 2006, A/HRC/2/6.

[32]  HRC,12 September 2008, A/HRC/9/7, para 67; see also HRC, 5 September 2008, A/HRC/9/25.

[33]  GA, 31 July 2009, A/64/209.

[34]  These and others are listed in the report of the UN HCHR on ‘The implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 10/22 entitled ‘Combating defamation of religions’, HRC, 11 January 2010 A/HRC/13/57.

[35]  Ibid. The report refers to cases such as Vassilariat al  V. Greece, Communication No. 1570/2007, CCPR/C/95/D/1570/2007 (2009);  and Kasem Said Ahmad and Asmaa Abdol-Hamid v. Denmark, Communication No. 1487/2006, which both invoked Article 20 of the ICCPR.

[36]  See Sections 1 and 2.2

[37]  HRC, 1 July 2009, A/HRC/12/38.

[38]  HRC, 25 November 2010, CCPR/C/GC/34/CRP.5.

[39]  UN CCPR General Comment No. 22, ‘ The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 18)’, adopted   on 30 June 1993, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4.

[40]  Boyle, ‘Soft Law in International Law-making’ in Evans (ed) International law, Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York: 2006

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Advocacy for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at […]

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.

 Reports and submissions:

ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, 23 February 2010.

PAKISTAN: Judicial obedience and a weak rule of law continue under the new government, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, 10 October 2009.

The State of Human Rights in Pakistan 2008: co-written with Baseer Naweed: authored chapters on the Right to Life; Religious Freedom and Minorities, The Rights of Women; Honour Killings and the Jirga (PDF).

Articles and statements:

PAKISTAN: The judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances, 20 November 2009.

Thankless tasks: Human rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan, Article 2, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2009 [PDF].

‘The Price of Fighting the State in Sri Lanka’Article 2, Vol. 08 – No. 01, Special Edition: Use of Police Powers for Profit, March 2009.

PAKISTAN: Judge humiliates teenage rape victim in open court, 28 March 2009.

PAKISTAN: As the government has protesting lawyers and activists arrested, hope fades for an independent judiciary and a democratic future in Pakistan, 13 March 2009.

PAKISTAN: The government must crack down hard on Jirga courts and the extra-judicial murders they commit, 3 November 2008.


Urgent Appeals: theory and practice.

SRI LANKA: Stop the torture of detainees at Rajangana Police Station, 8 July 2010.

SRI LANKA: Balagolla police mislead a magistrate and prepare charges against the wrong person, 9 February 2010 & SRI LANKA: Progress is made in a case of judicial and police corruption, 17 June 2010

INDIA: Encounter killings are exposed as murder in Assam, yet police refuse to investigate, 27 November 2009.

PAKISTAN: Newspaper advertisements call for the murder of a human rights lawyer in Punjab; police silently spectate, 9 September 2009.


Women Speak Out: Contribution to a collection of 43 cross-regional interviews with women on torture, ill treatment and domestic violence from Sri Lanka, including interview 20 and 24. Available as a collection in Ethics in Action online.



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Winning Ways

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network ( ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built.

This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for civic use. “They’re built with tax payers’ money – really well built – and just end up sitting there,” says executive director Cameron Sinclair. “These buildings can withstand natural disasters, and last a long, long time.” Finding such buildings could prove the first hurdle since, due to national security efforts, they are rarely plotted publicly; the second problem could be securing permission. Yet Sinclair and his team tend to enjoy a good challenge themselves, even the politically-flavoured ones; in Gaza, for example, where Palestinian dwellings are often demolished by Israeli forces, they once agreed to write a manual on how to rebuild one’s house, should ‘something’ happen to it. “We’re not a faith based or politically led organisation; we can work with anyone who invites us,“ says Sinclair. “We just have to keep our focus on the architecture. But I’m interested to see if anyone picks Guantanamo. The government are aware of this project, so we’ll see…”

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Manor in the works

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011 Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture [See PDF: Alain de Botton ] For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian […]

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011

Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture [See PDF: Alain de Botton ]

For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration.

“Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.”

As a writer, long based in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding of vital themes. His books have addressed love, travel and, most recently, work, and he cofounded a small “cultural apothecary” in London, The School of Life, which sells books and holds philosophy workshops and secular Sunday “sermons” on selfdevelopment.

His successful 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness, ran in a similarly edifying vein and won him kudos from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Yet when it came to architecture, he felt compelled towards a more dynamic form of activism. The feeling grew as he explored forward-thinking home design across the world for the television series, The Perfect Home. “You find very good modernism in Asia. There are some beautiful examples of private houses, blocks of flats and civic building across China and Hong Kong; think of the Great Wall project, which has been iconic,” he says, referring to the Commune by the Great Wall project–12 strikingly modern villa projects designed by 12 Asian architects. He notes that China’s flirtation with Western historical cliché seems to be fading finally as its top earners appreciate the way that homegrown architects can mix elements of Chinese geography and geology with new international ideas.

In Japan, de Botton finds that many middle-class families are comfortable using modern architects, producing neighbourhoods that are adventurous but have a shared aesthetic. It’s a spirit that he identifies from his upbringing in Switzerland, but which he finds hard to locate among England’s suburban mock-Tudor housing estates. “The point is, when you’ve got an opportunity to build a house or stay somewhere, do you go for the ‘neowhatever’ mansion?” he asks. “Or do you accept that the architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history, but they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch?”

De Botton’s brainchild, Living Architecture, is an apt response to this question. The new, not-forprofit venture will see provocative modern holiday cottages sprouting bravely among Britain’s mostly rural beauty spots. Three projects are complete and at least three more are on the way, each by a different architect, and each defined by the customary tenets of good modern architecture such as light, functionality and a strong connection with the surroundings.

The scheme is part vacation, part education, and through it de Botton hopes to ease what he sees as the public’s suspicion of modernist design, and drum up the kind of popular support enjoyed by other fields of design innovation in Britain, such as product design or fashion.

Yet this is not a project for Britons only. “It’s a national mission in the sense that the idea is to raise standards here, but we’re aware that the way to raise the standards is to bring foreign architects here, at least in part,” he says, noting that as developers in Britain court the British fondness for home-grown “comfort” architecture, they leave little room for studios with strong modernist architectural traditions, such as those in Germany, the Netherlands and further north in Europe.

De Botton also sees the cottages helping to refresh Britain’s image overseas, by letting holidaymakers immerse themselves in the countryside without necessarily taking a trip back in time or compromising on quality. “People are used to London being hip, cool and modern, but once you go outside of the M25 [London’s orbital motorway] you’re slightly in the wilderness,” he says. “We hope these houses will be clear and welcoming in a way that international audiences can appreciate.”

Yet despite these cosmopolitan sensibilities, most of the projects rework the unique architectural style of their area. The Shingle House, by Scotland’s Nord Architecture, is a stark reinvention of fishermen’s huts along the stony Kent coast, while the Dune House in Suffolk by the Norwegian Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects makes reference to local seaside buildings with a geometrical roof in tinted orange steel alloy. Projecting into the air above a Suffolk nature reserve, the Balancing Barn is a neat yet gravity-defying affair clad in reflective tiles, but features a local hammerbeam roof, and coming to Devon next year, Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat will attempt to use concrete and glass to spiritual effect, creating the vibe of a monastery or abbey.

But how have the British responded? Although the national media have retained their usual blend of hype and high-handed sting, local press coverage has been generally supportive. It’s a result, de Botton thinks, of striking the right balance between exciting and accessible design. “We haven’t had any fights with any locals,” he says, with a smile. “The house in Thorpeness [the Dune House] is very prominent and has really galvanised the area. People are coming forward and wanting to build their own houses. It’s become a complete talking point, which is exactly what we wanted.” It is also booked almost solid for the next six months.

Living Architecture has taken a brief hiatus from the countryside with its latest, equally radical project, though it is perhaps more publicity friendly than educational. Its Room for London will perch atop the city’s Southbank Centre for the whole of next year as part of the London 2012 Festival, which is a 12- week cultural event to celebrate the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Bookable from September for one night only per couple, the collaboration between competition winners David Kohn Architects and artist Fiona Banner will resemble a timber boat and offer sweeping views of the London landscape. And this is a view to which de Botton’s allegiance remains strong, despite his wider mission. “I think where Asia has learned the wrong lesson is not so much in architecture, but urban planning. They’re essentially working with a model about 40 years out of date,” he says. “Large arterial motorways connect districts, big shed shopping, high rises and parks all zoned separately as opposed to low rise, intermixed work and residential, which are ecological but also where people feel most comfortable.” Of course, this notion of comfort, as many will point out, is at the crux of the equation, and the heart of de Botton’s self-set challenge with Living Architecture. For many, true comfort, and thus true happiness, lies in echoes of the home they grew up in, or perhaps the house they idolised as a child, whether modernist or Gothic, airy or dim.

De Botton, who was raised in a “charming” but “brutalist” modernist block of apartments, recognises the paradox. “I think we picked a good moment. I think attitudes are changing, and will continue to change as more people have childhoods in modern houses,” he
says. “You’ve just got to get the babies in!”

BOX: How Life Inspires Architecture and Vice Versa

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is no coffee-table tome. Compact and with its pictures in black and white, it feels as though it was meant to be read. De Botton’s sixth book is a conversational journey through humankind’s sculpting of space, from its cathedrals to its living rooms; from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Inspired by French writer Henri Stendhal’s declaration that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, as well as his own emotional ties to certain building types, de Botton explores the ways that life inspires architecture, and vice versa. He unfurls the meaning in symbols and silhouettes, and venerates architects for the way they harness universal themes. Yet he also humanises a few heroes with the forgotten tales of their failures, including the self-indulgent tragedy that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was for the family who had to live in it (the Swiss architect barely escaped a lawsuit). The book delves into the sociology of trends and the psychology of taste; why it was that 17th-century French aristocrats loved gilded ceilings, yet 21stcentury urbanites like theirs rough and unplastered. But he is also keen to convince us of architecture’s main line to the soul, to illustrate how the beauty of a building can reduce us to tears, and to explain why, if it hasn’t yet, it should do.

This exploration into architecture is no coffee-table tome. Small in size and with its pictures in black and white, one gets the sense that it was meant to be read. ** De Botton’s sixth book is a conversational journey through humankind’s sculpting of space, from its cathedrals to its living rooms; from Ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Inspired by French writer Henri B. Stendhal’s declaration that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, as well as his own emotional ties to certain building types, de Botton explores the ways that life inspires architecture, and vice versa. He unfurls the meaning in symbols and silhouettes, and venerates architects for the way they harness universal themes. Yet he also humanises a few heroes with the forgotten tales of their failures, including the self-indulgent tragedy that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was for the family who had to live in it (the architect barely escaped a lawsuit). The book delves into the sociology of trends and the psychology of taste; why it was that seventeenth-century French aristocrats loved gilded ceilings, yet twenty-first century urbanites like theirs rough and unplastered. But he is also keen to convince us of architecture’s mainline to the very soul, to illustrate how the beauty of a building can reduce us to tears, and to explain why, if it hasn’t yet, it should do. His peers seem to think that he did a fair job of it. Due to the book de Botton was made an honouray fellow by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2010 for his services to the profession.

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Human rights, law and development


The Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong:
The Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:
The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network at the at The Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Australia:
DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Copenhagen:
Human Rights Monitor Quarterly for the International Service for Human Rights, Geneva:
Groundviews, Sri Lanka:
The Guardian, London:
Open Democracy, London:
Oxford Human Rights Hub, Oxford:
Penal Reform International, London:
The Social Science Research Network:
Say-NO-UNiTE (UN Portal):
University of Essex Human Rights Centre Blog,
UN Women:

Books, Journals, Reports and Newspapers

Article 2, Hong Kong
Criminal Law Reform and Transitional Justice: Human Rights Perspectives for Sudan, (as sub-editor), Ed. Lutz Oette of the Redress Trust, UK
DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, Publication Series on Torture and Organised Violence (Report),
Ethics in Action, Hong Kong
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The International Crisis Group (Reports), Brussels
The Inter Press Service, Rome
The International Service for Human Rights (Report), Geneva
The Law and Society Trust Review (Legal study), Sri Lanka
Oxford University Press, Global Perspectives on Human Rights (2nd ed, OxHRH 2015)
The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong


Design, culture, travel


Architecture Week:
Smart Travel Asia:
Time Magazine:

Books and Guides

Fodor’s Guide to Hong Kong 2011; Shopping chapter, USA
BC Restaurant Guide 2006 (Contributor), Hong Kong
BC Restaurant Guide 2006 (Contributor), Hong Kong
Bradmans Asia Guide; Hong Kong, 2005, UK
Oasis: Artists’ Studios in Hong Kong Vol 2 (Sub-editor), Hong Kong

Magazines and Newspapers

Abenteuer und Reisen, Germany
Discovery Magazine, Hong Kong
Finance Asia, Hong Kong
First Magazine, Hong Kong
Hospitality Design, USA
Hospitality Architecture + Design, Hong Kong/USA
Home Journal, Hong Kong
Hinge Magazine, Hong Kong
Gafencu Men, Hong Kong
Marie Claire, USA
Nirvana Magazine, USA
Perspective Magazine, Hong Kong
Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong
ProDesign, New Zealand
Sands Style, Hong Kong
Tatler Magazine, Hong Kong
Tatler Magazine, Macau
Tri-valley Magazine, USA
TIME Magazine,
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
Silkroad Magazine, Hong Kong





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Between the lines

South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009 Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of […]

South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009

Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati

With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.

With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.

As the brainchild of an Australian local business owner and her Indonesian husband, the festival was born to regenerate tourism after the bombings, and six years on is doing so, while becoming a who’s who of Asian (and Pacific) literati: this year saw Pakistani journalists and novelists Mohammed Hanif and Fatima Bhutto, India’s Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q&A (better known by its screen title, Slumdog Millionaire), and Singapore’s Shamini Flint, author of the irreverent Inspector Singh Investigates series, among nearly 100 other poets, journalists and literary critics from across the continent and beyond. It also bagged itself a Nobel Laureate; Nigerian novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka.

To a backdrop of free events – a couple of play readings, a poetry slam night and book launches – day pass holders were offered a tight schedule of writer’s panels, many of them lightly academic and vaguely instructional. In a seminar called ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, un-comically early on a Sunday morning, British-Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru [pictured below second right] observed that good humour writing follows the pace of a good joke; it’s all about a well drawn out punch line. Black Canadian writer Dany Laferriere [pictured below, far right], author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and whose twelfth novel gave rise to the 2005 movie, Heading South), explained the pitfalls of choosing a scandalous book title: very few talk about your content. Yet he is unrepentant and his latest book will be called I am a Japanese Writer, despite the best efforts of the Japanese consulate to make him change his mind (due to concerns, he says, that he’ll obliterate real Japanese writers on Google).

With writers like Bhutto and Soyinka in town, the content was also often political. Though most of the festival-goers were from Australia the panel perspectives were gratifyingly Asian, and African. US President Barack Obama received a drubbing in a panel called Writing in the New World; Obama and Dissent, with Bhutto (niece of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) reminding writers of their responsibility to stay critical. She was joined by Antony Loewenstein, an Australian writer whose book My Israel Question robustly tells fellows Jews that ‘it’s time to stop living like its 1948’. Loewenstein also appeared on a panel on blogging, alongside Singaporean gay activist and writer Ng Yi-Sheng ( and Aceh-based writer Doel CP Allisah (

Soyinka, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement for his activism and first wrote his poems there on toilet paper, spoke at length on the concept of forgiveness. As strident and satirical as his works tend to be, he noted that writing is about understanding the choices people make to survive, and that how, although atrocities are and will always be ‘part and parcel of our very existence’, literature can play a part in reconciliation.

Many of the writers present have explored critical Asian themes in their novels; Mohammed Hanif (pictured above, third right), a BBC reporter and one-time Pakistani air force recruit, has written the mostly comic A Case of Exploding Mangos about the life and times of Zia–ul-Haq, a dictator who put Pakistan on a massive ‘Islamisation’ drive that it struggles with today. Former lawyer Shamini Flint has had her Inspector Singh investigating a case of marital injustice in Malaysia, caught between its Shariah law and the penal code, and says that Singh will next be sent to Cambodia to uncover a mystery with a Khmer Rouge undertow. Vikas Swarup, who reportedly wrote Q&A in two months while his family were away for the summer (to many a fellow panelist’s annoyance) has followed it up with murder-mystery Six Suspects, another look at Indian caste and corruption.

However possibly the greatest value held by the festival was its introduction to visiting readers of good under-exposed Indonesian writing, and its political backdrop. A number of the panels were bi-lingual and the festival organizers worked closely with Indonesian critics and journalists to join emerging local writers with old hands, like firebrand Seno Gumira Ajidarma, known for his work on East Timor, and Cok Sawitri, an outspoken lesbian poet, novelist and playwright.

Many of them lamented the reluctance of Indonesians still, to look into the brutality of General Suharto’s three-decade New Order regime, in which books were burned, activists were ‘disappeared’ and secret agents mingled in the hallways of universities. They also complained about the lack of accurate records of the time. “It makes it very hard to get the feelings and experiences of ordinary people back then” said critic Nurhady Sirimorok (below right, with Professor Melani Budianta). “We writers have to really use our imagination to tell history from the bottom up.”

Most Indonesians at the festival said that they feel a little undernourished, but free to write. But others, who still vividly recall the brutality of ’98 and before, spoke of self censorship and of covert intimidation by state agents. As one academic pointed out, Bali newspapers were full that week of the murder of local journalist A.A. Narendra Prabangsa, who was abducted and killed this year while reporting on corruption connected to a regent.

Yet the festival prompted some liberal outpourings. Well-heeled literary lunchers at the Alila Ubud saw the rousing performance in Bahasa by Cok Sawitri of her short story Womb, which is about women sterilizing themselves as an act of political protest. At another such event author Laksmi Pamuntjak read from her upcoming novel The Blue Widow, which translates characters from Hindu myth into the New Order years – her warrior becomes a dissident medical student – and puts them on Buru island, a notorious tropical gulag for political prisoners.

This gulag is where one of Indonesia’s most celebrated dissident writers, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer (who many believe was Asia’s best contender for a Nobel), wrote his epic ‘Buru quartet’ about the oppressive cocktail of Javanese feudalism, Dutch colonialism, militarism and communism that makes up Indonesia’s history. At a lunch Sirimok described the covert operation it once took just to get a ‘Pram’ novel, and of the bittersweet feeling he gets now seeing the books, on the shelves but passed over by young Indonesians who prefer modern tales of horror and romance.

As such, despite some glitches and the feeling of it having sprawled a little large for its organisers, Ubud’s lit fest injected as much vital discussion into the town as it did tourist dollars. “Indonesia is not used to a society full of critics,” Sirimok commented, “and when you don’t read critics what can you learn from? We need a culture of polyphonic voices.” This much has been ensured.

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A Great Dame

  September 2010, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Veteran British actress Jane Seymour shares about life beyond Bond, her run-ins with Cantonese cuss words, and her recent renown as a Hollywood ‘cougar’ Guys and dolls I started out with a speech impediment and flat feet – I had to practice my Rs and […]


September 2010, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Veteran British actress Jane Seymour shares about life beyond Bond, her run-ins with Cantonese cuss words, and her recent renown as a Hollywood ‘cougar’

Guys and dolls

I started out with a speech impediment and flat feet – I had to practice my Rs and take dance lessons. I ended up dancing with the Kirov Ballet at Covent Garden, hurt myself and became an actress by default. I started with a James Bond movie at 20 and I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. I finished that and went into theatre and shocked the newspapers, who kept saying I’d failed miserably because I was now being paid 12 pounds a week playing Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House instead of being a movie star… I just felt that I had a lot to learn, and I didn’t really want to run three paces behind a man with a gun, wearing short skirts. It wasn’t really what I had in mind.

Sense and scandal
I’ve been fortunate to have had a really varied career: East of Eden, obviously; Wedding Crashers is huge right now, so I’ve got a whole new younger generation who know me as ‘Kitty Kat’; and then there’s those who know me as a Bond Girl. That was a million years ago. I’ve played Maria Callas, Marie Antoinette – a lot of period work. I even made a move about the boat people in Hong Kong, shot in Penang. It’s called the Keys to Freedom.  I actually had to learn Cantonese overnight. They got this young Cantonese Hong Kong actor and he said, they want you to curse in the most horrible way possible at the woman who runs the whorehouse (in the scene). I said well, can you translate it for me into English? And he said, no, there are words in Cantonese that the English haven’t even discovered – but trust me, this will have an impact! So I learned this thing and then the next day all the people there on set went Oooh! And then I tried a bit of it in a Chinese restaurant about a year later in England and they went Oooh!

Long runs

Nineteen years ago I started [the TV series Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman] and it ran for seven years; it’s in 98 countries and still plays every day in America and France. Apparently it plays in China too. Somewhere in Time is huge everywhere. It’s the longest running movie in the history of Hong Kong cinema – a year and a half! In fact it was so crazy that when it came out and it ran for over a year  I came out it here at the invitation of Sir Run Run Shaw who sat me next to him just because he had to check me out and ask, why this movie?! People watched it fifteen, twenty times. Chris Reeve was my closest friend in the world after making that movie. I’m very involved with the Christopher Reeve Foundation and people with disabilities, in fact we’ve ramped our whole house. Thanks to Chris we met some extraordinary people with disabilities.

Art and advocacy
To help organizations that don’t have a voice is an extraordinary thing, and that only comes from having had some success in my artistic ventures. It has been a huge privilege, being able to pass a message or advocate for global water rights, or work for the American Red Cross in Africa. I’ve been supporting this programme, My Day for RA, because one of my best friends and the woman who told me how to paint developed rheumatoid arthritis and we didn’t know what it was at the time. She’s a health nut, but all of sudden she was with me one day and her feet blew up like balloons, and her hands too. She was in so much pain, she couldn’t pick anything up, she couldn’t dress herself.  They didn’t test her for RA until she came to them having looked on the Internet, and they got her on Enbrel, and she now can paint, has a life. But I’ve met a lot of RA patients now who didn’t get treatment in time.

Cougar du Jour
The good news is that for some reason [film producers] don’t think I look my age. I’m 60 in February. The bad news is that I can’t really play 40 because there’s plenty of 40-years-old who like to play 40. So they meet me and say, well she can’t really play the grandmother…  But I am playing inappropriate older women. Cougar du Jour!  My husband had to request that we lighten up on the cougar work, however I think it’s wonderful. I have girlfriends who are cougars, and I just play one, which is a lot safer. I can be happily married, have six children and just embarrass myself.  Sometimes I think I’m the only one who hasn’t had all the plastic surgery done – well I haven’t had the facelift anyway – and I keep thinking, do I, don’t I, do I, don’t I?  Maybe I should – like the British actresses, Judie Dench and Maggie Smith – just nab all those roles with my natural wrinkles.

I also have girlfriends with big duck lips. Why, when you’re health conscious, would you inject botulism in your face?  And as an actress, why would you paralyze the only part of your body that can show emotion? We made a movie once about Fanny Kemble –an English actress in the 1800s who married an American slave owner. We have a scene where I was with a Canadian actress, and these slaves are hanging from a tree, on fire – they were real stuntmen.  I’m like, tears pouring down my face, and this woman’s there, and she’s a great actress, but… nothing moved! And while we’ve still got these poor guys in flames, my husband (the director) yells ‘Cut! Please show me some emotion!’ And I said,’ James she can’t! She’s injected herself with something!’ So you know, they put out the guys…

Heart to hearth
I have dual citizenship. We live in Malibu; we don’t have a home in England any more. We had a beautiful home in Bath, over a thousand years old. We had it for 26 years and it’s the love of my life, but the expense of keeping a manor house… it came to the point where I had to say goodbye. I love going back to England and a huge part of me will always be British, but there’s something really exciting about living in America. It really is the melting pot of the world.

I have six kids and my children were raised there. It’s quite funny, parents often contribute to helping in the classroom. They got me to mark some papers – which wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’m quite a determined ‘A type’ personality, and when I discovered that every single one of them had made the same mistake I realized that I had cracked a curious problem in the American system.  I was putting red circles around ‘flavour’, ‘favourite’ – all the ‘ours’. Then they very kindly said, you may go now! Please go and be an actress and leave us with the education.

One of the kids has suddenly become a rock musician. He’s been discovered by the head of Warner Brothers – he’s fourteen. We’re incredibly excited. I’ve come up with a new word : I’m a ‘Modie’, a mother and a roadie.

Cash and credit
My husband is a director and we produce movies. I just finished a film I really love called Love Wedding Marriage, with Mandy Moore, shot in New Orleans. We did Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash one. He was on Dr. Quinn back when nobody cared about Johnny Cash, and my husband James Keach directed him, and we became very good friends, June, John and I. Johnny said, one day someone’s going to make a story of my life and I don’t trust anyone in the world, but I trust you; what do you think story should be? So James went on tour with him, as did I, and came back to Johnny and said, it’s about redemption – about coming back from hell in a belief in a higher power and the love of a good woman. We named my twin sons after their godfathers, one Johnny and one Kris, for Christopher Reeve.

We have another [film] coming out later this year called Waiting for Forever that stars Rachel Bilson. I love finding the scripts, working on them to make them better, getting great writers to come in and do rewrites. The casting and the editing is all done at the house too so I can see how you can turn really good movie into a great movie just by moving scenes around. It’s fascinating as an actress to be on the other side. It gives you a huge advantage when you’re acting because you know what they need.

Seeing the light
I’ve had three near death experience. One time, I was in Madrid making a movie playing Maria Callas and I got bronchitis.  They sent in a hotel doctor, but the nurse who injected me hit an artery and I got anaphylactic shock. They resuscitated me, but I’d left my body and saw what was going on, and realized at that point I wanted to live. I saw the white light and tunnel and everything, and I said please, put me back in my body; I want to raise my children, not waste any time in my life and help other people. People say why do you do some much and I say well, when you’ve actually almost not been here anymore you have a completely different perspective on everything.

Dutch courage
My mother (pictured below) was from Holland; she lived in Indonesia from the time she was 20 in a tea plantation, and was incarcerated for three and a half years in World War II, in three camps. I took her back there about 20 years ago and she was able to tell her story. That’s what the whole Open Heart [project] is.  She said, darling when life’s tough and you think some things are insurmountable, go out and help someone else. And when she was in the camps and they had no food, medicines, nothing, she said ‘I nursed until the end of the war. I nursed all these people who were dying, and all these men they brought in with dysentery, and I laid them out and tried to talk to them and caress them and help them, and that’s the only reason I was able to stay sane’.  She said when times are tough, help someone else – it’ll help you. And that’s always been my mantra. And then I came up with this little squiggle which became the Open Heart [symbol], which has almost become a whole philosophy in America. After 911 my prayer was that somehow as the world becomes smaller we can open our hearts to our humanity, and be in the present moment, and be open and receptive to other people’s ideas and culture. I had one necklace made for myself, from my painting, and when I did Dancing with the Stars I was wearing it, and met the people from Kay Jewelers and they loved the symbolism. I said well as long as we can have a foundation and help people with it.

Quiet creations
I paint for a living and I raise a lot of money with my art. I love to be creative; it really doesn’t matter if it’s walking around the garden picking vegetables and coming up with some great meal, or picking flowers and painting them and making a flower arrangement, or creating a role, or being on the other side of the camera helping create a film. Now I also design home furnishings and we actually make them right there in Mainland China; they do amazing work.
I don’t do anything that the press tend get terribly excited about. It’s like: she’s happily married and has six children and they seem to be well behaved, end of story – next! She’s wearing that outfit this week, oh, that’s of interest! And her hair’s still the same – how boring, she hasn’t even coloured it differently!  But Dancing with the Stars was fun. As far as America’s concerned right now, that is my claim to fame. Forget that I’ve won awards for acting or whatever, or the OBE. No – Dancing with the Stars!

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A Brit Above

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 25 June 2010
British designer Tom Dixon brings his glam rock style to Hong Kong

It isn’t often a designer has to rein in his vision for Hong Kong’s high-end club scene. Yet as Tom Dixon surveys his latest landscape, he has a few lingering regrets. Tazmania Ballroom in SoHo, the latest nightclub from the creators of Dragon-i, already boasts geometric wall buttresses, clustered globular chandeliers and brass pool tables, with imitation book shelves in white plaster that give it an ironic scholarly tone. Yet, “I was thinking water dripping down granite, and moss on the walls”, Dixon laments. “And there was going to be a small fish and chip shop. But there wasn’t enough room.” It’s a unique notion of high style – and one that may well have had Hong Kong hipsters faltering a little in their skinny jeans.

But that’s kind of the idea. Dixon has been cheerfully pushing the boundaries of British style since he was first discovered in the 1980s, as legend has it, as an untrained art-school dropout in London, welding bits of scrap metal into furniture. Despite a string of commercial successes, he has managed to keep his work fresh, blending a feel for solid craft with a curiosity about technology and the unexpected ways it can be used.

His knack for showmanship hasn’t hurt either, and whether giving away chairs for free in Trafalgar Square, or custom making them from molten plastic on stage, Dixon has always been able to command a good headline, at home and abroad. His aesthetic services to the empire haven’t gone unrecognised: along with various product design awards, Dixon received an OBE in 2000.

Yet Dixon has found it hard to relax completely into his successes. While most top names in product design hold contracts with a handful of different firms and collect the royalties, he has found the model uncomfortably limiting. Since leaving the helm of British homeware store Habitat, the designer has been striving to build a platform for his work on his terms. Now, under the umbrella of his Design Research Group, Dixon has his main furniture and lighting label, Tom Dixon, and part owns small interiors arm, the Design Research Studio and modernist Finnish furniture manufacturer Artek.

Although he lists about 400 regular clients in 52 countries, none has a direct say in what he designs or how his work is produced or distributed. “It’s more like a fashion brand in that way – and a unique model in the design industry,” he says. “Very few people are doing what I’m doing, weirdly.”

But the creative responsibility weighs heavier this way. The pace of change is faster and the competition is growing rapidly. Thanks to digital technology, products can be made more cheaply, in smaller quantities, and closer to home. So just as aspiring writers can self-publish their books online, young designers can now make a sketch on their computer, convert it into a digital file and find a local factory to send it for production. It’s a concept that Dixon explored in his latest furniture and lighting line, Industry.

“This is from a factory that makes filters and the mesh on speakers in cars,” the designer says, gesturing to a suspended geometric lampshade in sheet metal, punctured with delicate patterns; it can be flat packed to the size of a paperback book. “It’s from a digitally controlled printing process, so if I wanted to make a hundred of them in a floral pattern, or with a different geometry I could do it easily; you just send off the file and you know what you’re going to get back. Product design now is about finding places that do techniques that haven’t been used before in domestic goods. Made-to-measure products are becoming a lot more possible and it’s fascinating in terms of industry.”

This has led him to wonder why design innovation hasn’t yet exploded on the mainland, where turning a blueprint into product is cheap and relatively easy. Dixon travels often to the mainland to have things made and to visit vendors such as Design Republic in Shanghai, and he still marvels at the speed and ease of production.

Tazmania Ballroom, for instance, features fittings that he could never have had affordably made in Britain, he says, like the heavy brass pool tables that can be winched into the ceiling to create dance space. “You’d imagine that Chinese designers would have developed a clear aesthetic and their own consumer brands by now that are recognised over the world, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. But I’m sure it will. All of the tools are at their disposal right here.”

As his own boss Dixon has allowed himself to take on a range of low-yield passion projects. He works with artisans in developing countries, helping find ways for them to preserve their skills and compete with cheap industry. One project with the British Council in Jaipur, India, inspired Beat, his popular series of hand-beaten brass lamp shades.

His Finnish connection has prompted a different kind of deliberation. Artek is apparently considered a national treasure by the Finns, who are protective of its reputation and its designs. Some of its furniture mainstays haven’t changed since the company was founded by architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s and it has had Dixon thinking hard about notions of legacy and longevity. His latest preoccupation is creating items he can sell with a 1,000-year guarantee.

In the meantime his interior projects are allowing him a little more room to play, while pushing his British design agenda even further. The Design Research Studio fashionably reworked the language of stuffy members’ clubs for London’s Shoreditch House a few years ago, sending design ripples globally, and the Tazmania Ballroom is likely to inspire tributes to its mischievous mix of study, pool hall and James Bond-style bling. Trendy young Hongkongers may not find moss on their walls this summer, but they may still be served chips on the side of their whiskey sodas. It seems Dixon’s services to Britain’s global street cred remain secure.

Young at art

For a man who assembled “the Kitchen Chair” in his early years from random, welded metal objects, Tom Dixon’s body of work has grown in sophistication, although it can’t perhaps be called completely grown-up. Below are some of his landmark designs, most of which put a hefty dose of fun back into function.

1988: Dixon’s slender, avant-garde S-chair is put into production by Cappellini, bringing good posture to the masses.
1989: With its iron wire frame, in orange or white, the Pylon chair takes an architectural approach to sitting.
1991: The Bird chair presents an unusual combination of rocking chair and chaise longue.
1994: The multifunctional light/seat Jack Light proves that British manufacturing is still affordable.
1997: Jack comes stacked under Dixon ‘s former company, Eurolounge, before making a comeback, solo once more, earlier this year under the Tom Dixon label.
2001: First produced on demand and on stage at furniture shows, the Fresh Fat chair (below) brings a new glamour to extruded plastic.
2004: Launched during an “anti-design kick”, the best-selling Mirror Ball is a failed attempt to create something that has no identity of its own.
2007: Beat vessels become Dixon’s tribute to tradition, with each hand made by craftsmen in northern India.
2010: Easily flat-packed and made from discarded wood, Offcut is an exercise in eco-consciousness.
2010: Void lamp is designed in patriotic reference to Olympic medals.

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