Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Human rights and the UN: censorship and other forms of control

In 2015 a reviewer (who I will not name) from the Chinese government censored the following paragraph, which I had drafted for a UNEP document.

My draft read: “There are many social determinants of health that operate in Asia-Pacific, such as the distribution of wealth, income and power, prejudice and discrimination, racism and ethnic and religious hatred. Numerous examples range from the Rohinghya in Myanmar, Jummas in Bangladesh and Tibetans in China. Dalits in India experience disproportionate discrimination, while many asylum seekers languish for years in offshore prison camps. “

The reviewer wrote “This paragraph should be deleted as it is not relevant to the context of the assessment.”

My paragraph was added because a previous reviewer had complained that my chapter had insufficient material on social determinants of health.

The same Chinese reviewer also wrote: “The whole document used a number of videos from Youtube and similar web based media which is not officially reviewed and academically proven sources.  Thus it is not appropriate to use such sources of information in the UN document.” 

She/he succeeded in this censorship, which, I am sorry to report, is the tip of the iceberg.

When I was involved with the Millennium Assessment scenarios group (where I was co-ordinating lead author for the chapter on future human well being) a co-chair completely shut down discussion on population and tried to do the same (but with less success) on the fortress world and the possibilities of civilization collapse. Paul Raskin (lead author of the Great Transition) was unimpressed; he left. This was in 2002. I was too early in my career to follow suit and had to endure this co-chair's control for many meetings. 

However, the primary form of censorship in these documents is more subtle: self-censorship and appointment bias.

Note: I resigned from my unpaid role with the UNEP in October 2017, in part because the new chief scientist for the UNEP is Chinese.

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