Conference about ‘changing hearts and minds’ in Rotterdam

February 1, 2020

The 31st of January 2020, I attended a conference entitled ‘Positive state obligations concerning fundamental right and changing the ‘hearts and minds.’ This conference took place at Woudestein Campus of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

About the conference

The conference theme was very close to my academic work on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Therefore, I was very excited to participate. In addition, my friend Charlotte Proudman was invited to give a presentation, which was another good reason to go to Rotterdam. The conference explored how far state obligations go to ensure effective protection against human rights violations: Can states try to change the hearts and minds of people? What relevant parameters have international human rights institutions identified so far? How far do states have to go to counter ingrained prejudice and stereotypical thinking? We looked at these questions from a multidisciplinary perspective. Eleven international speakers were invited to present their thoughts in four different panels in light of the special issue of Erasmus Law Review. The programme can be found here.

Morning Session

The conference started with a warm word of welcome of prof. Kristin Henrard of the Erasmus School of Law, after which prof. Anton Kok of Pretoria University gave a lecture about the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000, also known as the “Equality Act.” This Act prohibits unfair discrimination by the State and by persons. Anton Kok explained that the Act has two chapters on how that should be effected: one of enforcement (setting up equality courts) and one on promotion of equality. Unfortunately, the chapter on promotion is not yet operational and Anton Kok referred to it as a “dead law”. He explained why this law is not enforced, including the capacity constraints and also made suggestions on how the promotional parts of the Act could be resuscitated and how some contribution to “hearts and minds” transformation could be made, for example through schools and the education system.

The next speaker was Yogi Hale Hendlin of Erasmus University. His presentation focused on the Rights for Women and Rights for Nature. He started with the right to vote for women, and elaborated on when this right was being adopted in European countries, the United States and India. He explained that in the same period, societies have granted various rights to nature, wilderness, and nonhuman beings. Although this might be a coincident, Yogi Hale Hendlin explained that ecofeminist historians and theorists suggest that state obligations towards nature and women are in fact intertwined.

After a short coffee break, Lilla Farkas of the European University Institute gave a presentation focusing on the Roma’s. The title of her presentation was: Integration’s potential to turn the tide on Romaphobic attitudes and support the development of ‘’Roma Pride’. She focused on the evolution of the positive obligations doctrine emerging in the field of Roma rights, for example in relation to education and housing. She focused on Roma-relevant cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee for Social Rights, the UN Human Tights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. An answer to the question “To what extent can positive state obligations be seen to contribute to/set out to change the hearts and minds of peoples in Europe – and more particularly in Central and Eastern European countries where the overwhelming majority of the Roma live?” was formulated.

Afterwards, prof. Kristin Henrad gave a presentation about positive state obligations in relation to Islamophobia. She explained that there are rising levels of Islamophobia in the West and an intolerant attitude against Muslims. She qualified this as intersectional discrimination, combination of grounds (religion, race and gender) and explained how Islamophobia results in a disproportionate limitation of other fundamental human rights. Prof. Henrad analyzed the jurisprudence of three international human rights courts in relation to Islamophobia, namely the Human Rights Committee (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. She passionately concluded that the ECHR does not guide states towards tolerance, but “rather confirms intolerant, islamophobic policies” and finished her presentation with some overarching recommendations. She argued that we need to be more critical about hidden direct discrimination and that Islamaphobia awareness needs to be mainstreamed.

After the lunch break, Charlotte Proudman gave a presentation entitled ‘Female Genital Mutilation: Punishing and Prosecuting Mothers’. She started by explaining that an estimated 65,000 girls are at imminent risk of FGM/C in the United Kingdom. She explained that there have been so far 4 FGM trials in the UK, of which only 1 resulted in a conviction.