AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 175

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Session 175: Academia and Activism in East and Southeast Asia: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Human Rights

Organizer: Vera C. Mackie, University of Wollongong, Australia

Chair: Carolyn S. Stevens, Monash University, Australia

Discussant: Vera C. Mackie, University of Wollongong, Australia

Contributors to this panel are all scholars engaged in research on issues related to human rights in the Asian region. In this panel we will reflect on the different disciplinary approaches we bring to the study of human rights in the region. Each panelist has been invited to reflect on the following questions: What is the relationship between academic research and human rights advocacy? What can each of our academic disciplines (history, memory studies, anthropology/ethnography, cultural studies, sexuality studies, linguistics/translation studies) offer to human rights advocates and what can we learn from them? What are the issues involved in 'translating' between academic, bureaucratic, media and activist modes of talking/writing about human rights? What are the specific issues involved in working across languages and cultures in Asia? Kate McGregor brings a memory studies perspective to the analysis of narratives of violence in Indonesia. Ikuko Nakane reflects on the importance of an academically informed approach to the act of translation in ensuring access to justice in criminal trials in contemporary Japan. Baden Offord brings a cultural studies perspective to activism on sexual citizenship in contemporary Southeast Asia. Erik Ropers considers the importance of historical narrative in campaigns for the redress of human rights violations. Carolyn Stevens is engaged in ethnographic research on the rights of persons with disabilities in contemporary Japan. Discussant Vera Mackie is currently engaged in research on human rights advocacy in the Asia-Pacific region, and brings a feminist and postcolonial studies perspective to the relationship between academia and activism.

What can Memory Studies Offer to our Understanding of Human Rights: A Case study from Indonesia
Katharine McGregor, University of Melbourne, Australia

The field of memory studies focuses primarily on attempts to recall or address abuses of human rights. Because of its emphasis on temporality and the politics of the past, memory studies encourages us to question how, when and why individuals and collectives turn towards the past to engage in expressions of regret or social repair in response to historical injustice. In the case of survivors of violence there are obvious reasons to appeal to the discourse of human rights, but in cases of communities that have played a role in past violence (such as the broader German public) there can be complex explanations for the politics of regret. Through a case study of young activists in Indonesia who are dedicated to researching the 1965 anti-communist killings, this paper will explore what memory studies can offer to our understanding of human rights activism. The young activists on which I focus are all connected with the largest religious organization in Indonesia, the Nahdlatul Ulama which played a key role in the 1965 killings. Many of them are the children of people who participated in the violence, yet for the last ten years they have taken up the cause of those who were targeted in this violence, particularly former political prisoners. Focusing on their personal stories this paper will explore what motivated these individuals from what Tessa Morris-Suzuki has called an ‘implicated’ community to risk all and engage in a quest for social justice for long marginalised members of society.

Translation Studies and the Language rights of non-Japanese defendants in Japanese criminal courts
Ikuko Nakane, University of Melbourne, Australia

Since the 1980s, Japan has seen a sharp increase in the number of non-Japanese speaking background defendants in criminal trials. This has posed a major challenge for the Japanese justice system in ensuring non-Japanese defendants’ right to receive a fair trial – in a language which they are able understand and use fluently and accurately. While access to interpreters has improved substantially in recent years, there are issues that raise concerns for the language rights of these defendants. Drawing on some examples from Japanese criminal courts, this paper presents a sociolinguistic analysis of intercultural courtroom interaction and court interpreting. I discuss problems associated with decisions (when non-Japanese defendants have some command of Japanese) not to use interpreter mediation in some parts of criminal court proceedings. I also discuss cross-cultural and cross-linguistic issues in court interpreting that may have impact on the language rights of non-Japanese defendants. Urgently needed are training of legal interpreters and the introduction of official ‘user’ guidelines for legal professionals in order to ensure fair trials for non-Japanese speaking background defendants. Sociolinguists and interpreting studies scholars can work together with legal professionals as well as legal studies academics in order to raise awareness and bring about necessary changes. The paper concludes by giving examples of such collaboration between academics and professionals recently taking place in Japan.

Human Rights, Cultural Studies and Activist Scholarship in Focus: LGBT Activism in Singapore and Indonesia
Robert Baden Offord, Southern Cross University, Australia

The concept of human rights elicits a range of theoretical positions and problems in relation to advocacy across Asia; it raises questions about its universal nature, the problem of cultural imperialism and the dynamic of the local and the global. This paper focuses on LGBT activism in Singapore and Indonesia to explore the difficult challenges activists and scholars face in translating human rights principles, values and actions across and between modes of activist communication. The paper explores how the discipline of cultural studies and its attention to power relations, identity and socio-cultural context offers a scholarship that is specifically attuned to the problematics of human rights activism and its application in these South East Asian contexts.

Human Rights Awareness and the Role of Historical Narratives: Examining Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking
Erik Ropers, Towson University, USA

In this paper I argue for the usefulness of historical narrative as an essential part of international human rights movements. Unlike more formal modes of writing and language found in international human rights reporting, legal tribunals, or activist writings, historical modes of narration connect disparate accounts, causes, and consequences of human rights violations. Historiographical works have and continue to play an important role in uncovering and publicizing past human rights violations. By avoiding the drawing of bright lines with narratives that imply finality and closure, historical modes of writing are able to experiment with a number of plausible interpretations of history from multiple viewpoints. In this way, these writings can help victims and a wider public better understand the events that happened to them in ways that legalistic mechanisms like war crimes tribunals or truth and reconciliation commissions (although holding utility for lawyers, historians, and victims) cannot. In making this case, this paper examines author and journalist Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, first noting the ways in which Chang constructed her narrative to pursue a version of historical truth. I then proceed to examine submissions to the Iris Chang Memorial Fund’s 2006 and 2007 essay contests, showing how her work has stimulated popular and public interest and recognition in past human rights violations worldwide.

Academic and Activist Approaches to Human Rights and Prenatal Screening in Japan
Carolyn S. Stevens, Monash University, Australia

In this paper I compare and contrast academic and activist approaches to a particular human rights debate: prenatal screening for and diagnosis of congenital disability. This active debate in particular engages disability rights advocates and feminist activists and scholars, who have argued about how advances in the medical technology frame the expressions of dignity of the disabled versus the rights of the individual. It has been argued that proper education and support to families is the only way the two positions can be compromised. In this paper, I outline the positions taken by disability activists and feminists in the wider Anglophone literature, and then apply these arguments to the specific situation in contemporary Japan, where conflict and compromise have occurred within a problematic legislative history of maternal health law. This presentation asks if Japanese disability activists, feminists, doctors and legislators have been able to balance the need to respect the rights of all stake holders. It also serves as a striking example of how activists and scholars interact with each other in an emotive human rights debate.