Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Finland's population registry drops racially homogeneous website header

Diversity or lack of it can be manifested in many ways, including on websites. Finland's Population Register Centre (in Finnish: Väestörekisterikeskus) changed the look of its website which was previously adorned with a header that lacked racial and ethnic diversity but showed diversity on other grounds. The site is now without a header.

Photographs displayed on the now-dropped header of the home page of the population registry showed diversity on grounds such as age, sex and gender but lacked ethnic and racial diversity.

I observed and pointed out in a blog post, which I sent as feedback to the population registry in October 2013, that the registry's website excludes visible minorities. The website, in my view, portrayed Finland as a racially homogeneous country -- despite the fact that Finland has its share of visible minorities. I stated in the blog post that according to Statistics Finland, nearly 12 percent of people with foreign origin living permanently in Finland in 2012 were of African descent and about one quarter were of Asian origin. And that in my opinion, the header of the website of the population registry suggested that non-whites were not part of Finland's population structure. I recommended that the header should be updated to include racial and ethnic diversity that is representative of Finland's population structure.

About two months after I sent feedback to the Population Register Centre through the feedback section of its website the header in question was taken off altogether (see screenshot below).

It is unclear whether or not the change was made as a result of my feedback, since I got no response from the centre.

Regardless, I welcome the decision to update the layout of the website -- although I would have loved to see the header updated to show ethnic and racial diversity, not taken off completely.

The population structure of Finland has changed over the past couple of years. It is important that websites of organizations in the public and private sector which use images that appear to have been carefully chosen to show diversity reflect diversity on all grounds, including racial and ethnic diversity. In this age of information technology, websites send loud messages. National institutions and agencies should  pay more attention to the images they display on their websites. A racially homogeneous header on the website of a public agency like the population registry screams exclusion to observant viewers.

It is worthy to mention that other websites of government agencies such as that of Kela, Finland's social insurance institute still blatantly exclude images of non-whites -- the last time I checked. And Kela has numerous images on its website. Such exclusion, in my perspective, is reflective of the level of acceptance of people from different racial, ethnic and cultural groups in broader Finnish society. Acceptance of diversity is critical on moral and economic grounds.

See the header that was taken off, here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Syria: a lost opportunity for the ICC?

The situation in Syria and the lack of concerted international effort at the level of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to bring perpetrators to justice - more than two years on - supports claims that the international justice mechanism targets African heads of state.

The UN's human rights chief, Navi Pillay, directly implicated Bashar al-Assad for serious crimes of international concern in Syria. She said a commission of inquiry has produced evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity authorized in Syria at "the highest level".

It is not the first time a top UN official links president Assad to atrocities in Syria. In September 2013 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon openly accused Assad of committing crimes against humanity.

The ICC was established as a permanent institution with power to exercise its jurisdiction over persons for "the most serious crimes of international concern" - as stated in article 1 of the Rome Statute. The court has been accused of "hunting Africans" while ignoring crimes of international concern elsewhere.

According to a timeline of the unrest in Syria, the conflict started in March 2011 when Syrian protesters demanded the release of political prisoners.

More than two years later, the conflict rages on with no sign of justice for numerous victims of heinous crimes, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Thousands of people have lost their lives.

According to information published by Reuters, the conflict has claimed at least 125,835 lives, more than a third of whom are civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) points out that the real figure is probably higher. The UN reported in July 2013 that more than 100,000 have been killed in the conflict and 1.7 million Syrians forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries. A more recent report shows that 2.2 million Syrians have fled the country and children have been most affected.

In my assessment, if president Bashar al-Assad of Syria were head of state of an African country, the international community's response to the conflict would have been different. The tone of the UNSC would have been more robust and the situation would have long been referred to the ICC. It is therefore my opinion that the conflict in Syria is so far a lost opportunity for the international community to show that the ICC is not designed to hunt African leaders who are "disloyal" to the West and somehow stand in the way of western interests.

Sudan and Libya were not parties to the Rome Statute when the UN Security Council referred situations in the two African countries to the ICC in 2005 and 2011 respectively. Acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council can refer Syria to the ICC irrespective of whether or not the country is a Party to the Statute. Failure to bring Assad to international justice will, in my opinion, undermine the credibility of the international justice mechanism.

Although I share the view that the ICC has so far focused on cases in Africa, I support the work of the court in the fight against impunity in the region. I would however like to see the court investigate and prosecute crimes of international concern in other part of the world. Selective justice is no justice.

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