Human rights views

Are universal human rights infringing on specific national, religious or cultural traditions? Or are they instead a condition for these traditions to be able to thrive, to express themselves and to evolve?

This is a question the University of Louvain/Leuven asks during its introductory course on human rights.

I think that universal human rights are an ideal. Their implementation is another matter, but I also believe that the interpretation of these rights continues to evolve and I hope that their increased awareness (through education and the media) is starting to open people’s eyes and minds all over the world.

I do believe that some human rights – not the rights themselves, but their interpretation and use – infringe on specific national, religious or cultural traditions of some nations without the same principles being applied to other cultures in other nations. It takes considerably more courage and honesty or vision, and perhaps humility, to address human rights violations in one’s own country and culture, and it is much harder.

womenA relatively clear example may be the condemnation of “female genital mutilation” (originating) in non-western countries, but seeing no problem with female genital mutilation carried out within the realm of western cosmetic surgery.

The NHS follows the World Health Organization in describing female genital mutilation as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” and the concerns surrounding non-western mutilation are said to be based on human rights.

The description, however, equally applies to western-type female genital mutilation (but not to surgeries for medical reasons such as tumour removal). These particular human rights concerns themselves can therefore be said to be a violation of human rights, as they are discriminatory in nature when they are only being applied to non-western practices.

The main difference is that the medical risks are generally lower in western-type mutilation, though it depends on who carries out the procedure. The backgrounds – the reasons for these procedures – are surprisingly similar.

Western women often do horrible things to themselves, but see nothing wrong with it because it’s been that way for so long that everyone is used to it. I think a Frenchman – his name escapes me at the moment – wrote a book about that ten years ago.

What about male circumcision?

Piercings? Stiletto heels?

The fact that many western women’s shoes don’t contain enough space for a woman’s toes?

Foot binding? Surgeries that extend the legs of asian women after they changed their eyelids, all so that they look more like western women?

While the focus of the world is shifting toward Asia, will many western women follow, have their legs surgically shortened, their breasts made smaller and their eyelids changed to resemble asian women more?

So where do we draw the line when we declare something illegal globally? At the intersection between western viewpoints and non-western viewpoints? (Will that line in the future be found at the intersection between asian viewpoints and non-asian viewpoints? What could that imply for common western habits?)

If you make certain practices illegal if they are carried out with a non-western point of view, they should be equally illegal when done from a western point of view.

Otherwise, you are discriminating.

We humans have a lot more in common than things that distinguish us from each other, but the latter always stand out, by definition. If you look at them in detail, they often turn out to be merely different expressions of the same ideas.

Messed up

Norderney reinforcementsSometimes I mess up, but it cannot always easily be avoided.

At some point in the past, I organized a field trip to the German island of Norderney for graduate students at the University of Twente. I was also involved in some of the teaching surrounding this trip. It had to do with wave action, coastal erosion and coastal defences.

So I arranged a bus which was to depart from the university campus early in the morning and booked a hotel room for myself close to the university campus, which is at a drive of several hours from Amsterdam. It was late fall or winter. The evening before the trip, I was on the phone until the middle of the night with a party in the States. That was not part of my plan! After that call, I still had to traverse the country, but that went relatively well.

Because of roadworks, however, the campus temporarily was not signposted. I didn’t know that, and I was not familiar enough with the local roads as I usually took the train to travel to this campus. So I drove past it the following morning, ending up in the next town before I knew it. That meant that we missed the intended early ferry crossing to the island. It sucked!

Once upon a time in Amsterdam

In the past, mail servers probably used to break down more often than they do these days and one there was that time when one of my clients’ university’s mail server broke down. It took one or more days to get it up and running again.

My client in the States was about to submit a grant to NSF and wanted a final editing round, but was unable to send me the materials because of that server breakdown. The grant submission deadline was on Monday at noon, in the US. The material finally arrived on Saturday afternoon.

I buckled down. On Sunday, I worked till about 6 in the morning Dutch time, sent the last bits to the US, and took a shower. Then I headed to the airport because I happened to have a day trip to Spain booked for that day.

(The client received a partial grant. NSF found the plan too ambitious to award it full funding. Kudos to that particular client, who went on to accomplish amazing feats.)

Once upon a time in the east

Prepare to chuckle!

For the University of Twente, I once cooked up a 2D modeling exercise for some of their graduate students, together with UTwente’s René Buijsrogge. It concerned a fictitious tidal river in which engineering works were about to take place. I wanted to tweak the parameters in such a way that the students got to see the influence those parameters have. It can make the difference as to whether a house gets flooded or not.

Now, keep in mind that none of this was part of my own more chemically oriented university training, but with a good mind and a good enough background, you can tackle other areas as well. That is what I often do, and enjoy.

Anyway, here is the thing. I couldn’t get the numbers to work out! Oh, how frustrating! I am sure I felt incredibly stupid at the time. I am sure that is also what I looked like to one or two of the folks at the University of Twente for a little while, with their physics and civil engineering backgrounds.

What was the problem? My calculator’s batteries were running low, and instead of alerting me to that, it was producing bogus results. With new batteries, everything suddenly added up again. Phew!

It all worked out perfectly well. I enjoyed teaching the practicals, and after one of the practicals, in the elevator, one of the students told me how much she liked the practicals and how well they matched the theoretical material, taught before, and partly written by me.

This project was the result of having chatted with a friend of a friend at a birthday party.

Once upon a time in the Netherlands

Through my business SmarterScience, I offered presentation skills training before the idea that university scientists might want this became popular. This was after I joined Toastmasters of The Hague (TMOTH) to brush up on my own presentation skills. Discovering Toastmasters was the result of a conversation with Lencola Sullivan at a Dutch-American Friendship celebration of the Amsterdam American Business Club.

One of TMOTH’s members was an Australian guy who used to train Shell staff. I’d noticed Shell staff’s impressive skills at a recent event of women geoscientists’ organization Gaia. So I approached him, as communication is a crucial part of science. Together, we designed a series of workshops targeted at scientists.

No university ever benefited from the high-level training SmarterScience offered in the area of communication skills, but on the day when I had just decided to discontinue those workshops, NATO C3 called.

NATO also employs scientists and they wanted their people to radiate more enthusiasm. I called Pinkney Froneberger of ICTB and asked him to provide those workshops because my Australian associate was in Turkey at the time and Pinkney does a fantastic job. I knew Pinkney from a Berenschot workshop on dealing with cultural differences and then we discovered that were also both members of the Amsterdam American Business Club.

That’s the kind of networking that I love!

Interviewing people about their life and work

That’s one of the coolest things I did in my first self-employment!

Article about detecting biological agentsAs one of the associate editors of the newsletter of the US-based Geochemical Society, I interviewed several scientists. I later continued to do that on my own, and I also spoke and e-mailed with many scientists and engineers from China to Brazil for an international engineering company so that I could write about their work projects.

People in science and engineering, certainly if they’re in fields to do with the earth and the oceans, often have in common that they move around a lot, all over the world. That alone often yields a lot of interesting stuff to talk about.

Keith Onions - Copyright Angelina SourenThe first scientist I had the privilege to interview was Keith O’Nions, in Oxford. He had just been made a Knight and was about to become Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. I remember that I was kinda dopey because of sinusitis when I spoke with him, but I’d felt much worse one or two days earlier, so I was actually lucky.

I almost got to interview Werner Stumm in Stockholm when he was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, but unfortunately, he suddenly passed away.

In Amsterdam, I spoke with Jacques Touret and Igor Nikogosian about fluid inclusions in igneous and metamorphic rocks. I saw Philippe Van Cappellen and some of his people at Utrecht University to discuss a wide range of geochemical topics, geochemist Claude Allègre just after he’d ceased being a Minister in France’s Jospin cabinet, and I talked with Chris German in Southampton right before he moved to the US again to work in Woods Hole.

In 2010, I reinterviewed Chris German after five years in Woods Hole, using Skype. I also interviewed Briton Edd Hind in Ireland right before he got his PhD, Plymouth-based plankton analyst Astrid Fischer who is a Dutchwoman, geochemist Robyn Hannigan who was chair of Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences at Boston University at the time, and geologist Frans van Hoeflaken while he was working for the EU on a two-year project in Papua New Guinea.