Monthly Archives February 2019

Creative Development | Rap Against Dictatorship: Thai lessons in history, politics, and belonging by Roy Huijsmans

Creative Development | Rap Against Dictatorship: Thai lessons in history, politics, and belonging by Roy Huijsmans

On December 30th, 2018, when the end-of-year music charts were nearing their annual climax, music history was made in Thailand: the music video of Thai collective Rap Against Dictatorship called ...

Between resilience and vulnerability: the dilemma of refugee resettlement by Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad

Between resilience and vulnerability: the dilemma of refugee resettlement by Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad

Many of the 25.4 million refugees worldwide are living a life in limbo, forced to face a grave dilemma due to the uncertainty of resettlement: while living a life in ...

Development Dialogue 2018 | Social acceptance of oil activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon: a long way to go by Alberto Diantini

Oil companies are coming to realise that they need a ‘Social Licence to Operate’—the acceptance of locals—to reduce social risk associated with their activities. But how do they achieve this community acceptance, especially in areas of the Amazon forest inhabited by indigenous peoples?

Extractive companies are usually unpopular and mistrusted. For them, it is increasingly evident that a legal, formal licence of operation from governments is not enough. To avoid costly protests, they need a Social Licence to Operate (SLO), generally defined as the acceptance of local communities of their activities. It is a kind of social, unwritten contract that ensures an enterprise’s social risk is reduced as long as priorities and expectations of the local communities are satisfied: the higher the SLO, the lower the risk (Prno & Slocombe, 2012).

Although the SLO concept was developed in Western contexts, it has been increasingly adopted in developing regions as well. In Latin America, for example, in the case of projects affecting indigenous peoples, the main common issues are power imbalances, conflicting worldviews, and informed consent, but these SLO key elements are largely overlooked (Ehrnström-Fuentes & Kröger, 2017).

As a contribution to filling this gap, my research aims to critically analyse the usability of the SLO concept as indicator of community acceptability in Latin America. In particular, I am focusing on the oil context of Block 10, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, managed by the Italian company Eni-Agip. The area is inhabited by indigenous groups, which are mostly Kichwa. Eni-Agip’s good reputation at the national level, its community investments (medical assistance and education programmes), and the apparent low level of conflicts in the block could suggest that the company has obtained an SLO from the locals. But is this the case?

To answer this question, I went to Ecuador and got in touch with researchers from the local university, the Estatal Amazónica of Puyo. Together, we planned a household survey in the villages of the affected area, examining people’s perceptions of positive and negative effects related to Eni-Agip’s operations. We also investigated whether locals perceive that the ‘Free, Prior, Informed Consent’ (FPIC) principle has been applied in this context. FPIC establishes that indigenous communities have the right to participate in the decision-making process pertaining to the activities that affect their territories. Before beginning oil operations, communities should have a full understanding of project’s risks and benefits and freely give informed consent (Hanna & Vanclay, 2013).

In order to facilitate interactions with the community members who don’t speak Spanish at all, a group of Kichwa students attending the university was included in our research team. This enabled me to be more easily accepted inside the communities: since I am Italian, people initially saw me as a potential spy of the Italian government or of the enterprise.

A total number of 346 questionnaires were completed and all villages of the influence area were surveyed. Preliminary results show that most respondents think the presence of the company is compromising the environment and irreversibly changing their culture. On the other hand, people rely on the social programmes previously offered by the oil company which Eni-Agip now claims are the duty of the State.

In effect, the most recent national oil contract stipulates that the government shall now provide these social services, but the State has been unable to meet this responsibility, in part due to the remoteness of these communities.

Almost 87% of the population doesn’t know what FPIC is. In addition, some of the interviewees reported cases in which they have been forced to accept the decisions of the company, with attempts of coercion.

It is noteworthy that during the survey, many people told us they fear that if they criticise Eni-Agip in any way, the company would cut social programs altogether.

In conclusion, despite the low level of conflicts and the good reputation of the company, interviewees reported the same impacts found in many other oil contexts of Ecuador and Latin America, such as cultural changes, dependence on the company, and lack of respect of FPIC procedures. Overall, the evidence of Eni-Agip’s high control of community consent, the absence of the State, and the vulnerability of indigenous communities are elements that seem to limit the genuine achievement of balanced power relationships, the core elements of a social licence. Therefore, caution is necessary prior to claim that a company has achieved an SLO in such a complex and conflicted territory. Much has to be done by the State to meet its responsibilities and by the company for a full respect of indigenous populations’ rights.

Ehrnström-Fuentes, M., & Kröger, M. (2017). In the shadows of social licence to operate: untold investment grievances in latin America. Journal of Cleaner Production, 141, 346–358.
Hanna, P., & Vanclay, F. (2013). Human rights, Indigenous peoples and the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 31(2), 146–157.
Prno, J., & Slocombe, D. (2012). Exploring the origins of “social license to operate” in the mining sector: Perspectives from governance and sustainability theories. Resources Policy, 37(3), 346–357.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here , here, here here, and here.

About the author:


Alberto Diantini is a PhD researcher in Geographical Studies at the University of Padua, Italy, supervised by prof. Massimo De Marchi, coordinator of the “Territories of ecological and cultural diversity” research group. The main objective of Diantini’s research is investigating the usability of the concept of Social Licence to Operate in the oil contexts of the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Cherry Blossom Season

Cherry Blossom Season

By Posted on

Beauty has so many forms, and I think the most beautiful thing is confidence and loving yourself. As you may be aware from the proliferation of headlines that end in “…and ...

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

The localisation agenda, which aims to localise funds and responsibilities to local actors in humanitarian responses, retains an ambiguous concept of ‘the local’. The inclusion of power relations at multiple ...

Are we ready for the robotic revolution? by Oane Visser and Pieter Medendorp

Japan has a hotel where guests are served by robots, and in Australia self-driving tractors autonomously harvest crops, day and night. Robots help with care for residents in some Dutch nursing homes; once in your house, they can order you a taxi, order your food, or mow your lawn. Robots of all shapes and sizes are beginning to penetrate our lives. Do they generate smarter, happier lives? What are the implications of a robotic revolution for our freedom and autonomy? 

For long, views on future robotisation in films, novels and public debate have been divided between utopian and dystopian visions. In 1921, robots appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek; the word is derived from the Czech word ‘robota’, which translates to ‘toiling and servitude’. In ‘I, Robot’—Isamov’s classic 1969 science fiction novel—robots start off as a helpful comrades, but end up controlling humans.

Discussing the positive effects of robotisation, next to convenience—such as robots taking over household chores—medical applications come to mind. Robot radiologists could be analysing your X-rays possibly much better than your doctor. Robotic surgery is already common practice, easing a surgeon’s work. Rehabilitation robotics makes good progress and helps the paralysed to walk. New research shows paralysed patients who steer robotic arms and legs with their thoughts, based on the decoding of the neural signals that are converted into robotic guidance. Concurrently, advances in robotisation cause concerns about the expansion of surveillance and the erosion of (mental) privacy and identity.

When discussing societal impacts of robotisation, two starting points could be helpful. First, we should look beyond visible incarnations of automation-like robots. The algorithms within robots are increasingly central in everything we do online, as well as within the internet of things, from machines, cars, refrigerators to smart cities—everything gets connected and exchanges data. Second, a distinction between a person’s role either as consumer, employee, or citizen facilitates the categorisation of the manifold effects of such automation.

Algorithmic society

As (online) consumers, we tend to be winners. An ever-increasing range of products is just a mouse click away due to the rapid sophistication in online ordering algorithms and the massive investments in the ‘last mile’ of consumer product logistics. ‘The client is king’ already seems outdated; the consumer is turned into an ‘emperor’. The flipside of this apparent consumer Valhalla with almost real-time delivery constitutes the worsening labour conditions of workers in the value chains enabling it. In the distribution centres of companies like Amazon, underpaid workers often operate under a regime of unrealistic work targets, rigid digital surveillance, and a work pace that is set by robots. Even farms are affected—in India, the rise of e-agriculture has been found to contribute to agrarian distress (Stone 2011).

As citizens, our agency and physical and mental privacy seems to be increasingly under threat as both Big Tech and governments try to target or nudge citizens with algorithms which are unregulated and lack transparency. Think about the targeted advertisements in your web browser for weeks after visiting once an online shoe store. It is increasingly difficult to escape individual media bubbles or corporate surveillance, let alone the mass surveillance of those living under authoritarian regimes. In such an algorithm-led society, will people end up as emperors without clothes?

2018: a watershed year

Looking back, 2018 seemed a watershed in the public debate. It shifted from Tech companies as drivers of technological innovation (for consumers) and subsequently freedom (benefiting us as citizens), to these companies’ troublesome record in preventing fake news, let alone respecting privacy and democracy. With a recurring pattern of irresponsible conduct regarding privacy and fake news, Facebook has come to symbolise the downsides of an algorithm-led society.

Regarding the impact on us as employees, international agencies like the OECD recently issued unsettling reports on the effects of automatisation for labour, which are likely to exacerbate inequalities both within countries as well as between the Global South and North. Finally, policy action has been stepped up in the past year, with the EU taking the lead for instance with the GDPR regulations on privacy and law proposals to curb the excessive power of Big Tech.

Robotisation has arrived and will continue to change the way we consume, work, and live. As with all technologies, it can be used for good and for bad. Robotisation can be used to augment us, help us innovate, and can help address many of society’s grand challenges, yet it can also put us in undesirable competitions, eroding privacy, dignity, and identity. To make robotisation, algorithms, and data science beneficial and inclusive, it is time that governments, tech companies, civic organisations, hospitals, ethicists, and (social) scientists start having a serious dialogue on how to make this digital revolution ‘the best rather than the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity’.[1]

[1] We loosely paraphrase Stephen Hawking [hyperlink:

Image credit: Franck V. on Unsplash

About the authors:

Photo_PieterMedendorp_sept2018Prof. dr. Pieter Medendorp is a professor of Sensorimotor Neuroscience, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Director Centre for Cognition, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Dr. Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of -and responses to- big data and automatization in agriculture.

Religion within development, or development within religion? by Fernande Pool

Religion within development, or development within religion? by Fernande Pool

Religion should not be considered one among many wellbeing dimensions that development enables people to engage in, but one among many ontological sources that enables people to engage in development, ...

Symbiosis in Russia’s and Ukraine’s agricutural sectors by Natalia Mamonova

Symbiosis in Russia’s and Ukraine’s agricutural sectors by Natalia Mamonova

One of the main characteristics of agriculture in the post-socialist countries is its dualistic structure—large- and small-scale farms coexist in countries such as Russia or Ukraine. ISS alumna Natalia Mamonova in ...

Learning from the crisis in international criminal justice by Jeff Handmaker

A new book on the pedagogy of crises was launched in January 2019 at the ISS, edited by Karim Knio and Bob Jessop. In one of its chapters that focuses on the legitimacy crisis in the system of international criminal justice, Jeff Handmaker argues that the politics of international law must be taken seriously in order to address not only the legal legitimacy problems attached to the functioning of international criminal tribunals, but also the external political challenges it faces. 

Law is impartial, neutral, objective, certain, and predictable … most political scientists would shake their heads in dismay at such a statement. However, it accurately reflects values that are strongly held by international lawyers. This includes legal professionals who are involved in referring, investigating, prosecuting, adjudicating, and defending international crimes.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) came into being in 2002. It was not an easy journey, beginning hundreds of years ago when states started exercising jurisdiction over piracy in the high seas, defining it as a violation of the Law of Nations. Following the gruesome aftermath of the Second World War onwards, the Nuremburg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals were established as ad hoc international institutions, creating a solid institutional precedent and jurisprudence.

The ICC exists alongside other ad hoc international and ‘hybrid’ institutions, such as the Special Court of Sierra Leone, the Cambodia Tribunal, the Lebanon Tribunal, and the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals that preceded them. While nations have long had jurisdiction over crimes committed in their own territories, the ability to prosecute international crimes, irrespective of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victims or where the crimes took place, with the exception of piracy, is still a relatively recent phenomenon.

Since its creation, the ICC has been plagued with technical and resource capacity issues as well as significant management problems, including challenges in hiring qualified staff members. The ICC has also faced political challenges to its legitimacy. The USA, primarily through the bombastic statements of John Bolton, who has served in diplomatic functions for both the Bush and Trump administrations, has actively sought to delegitimise the ICC. Meanwhile, following a string of indictments, particularly against leaders of both the Sudanese and Kenyan governments, the Africa Group of Assembly of State Parties to ICC have accused the ICC prosecutor of Africa bias.

But these are surface-level problems, what Jessop refers to as ‘accidental’ crises that can be somewhat predictably resolved. Indeed, giving either of these surface-level problems credence glosses over a deeper crisis of legitimacy faced by the ICC, which I discuss in my own contribution to the book by Jessop and Knio, namely:

the crude and culturally essentialist way in which the ICC prosecutor, and the NGOs that support the Court, regard themselves, the perpetrators, and the victims/survivors of international crimes … fail(ure) to consider the complex social, cultural and political contexts in which these crimes took place.

This crisis of legitimacy is born largely out of the dominant, liberal underpinnings of international law, which tend to fetishise supposedly Western values. Accordingly, the values of individual elites have held sway over general societal values, and individuals whose human rights have been violated have been expected to make claims themselves against the source of those violations, rather than expect the state to provide a remedy. As a result, there is an innate tendency to regard violators of international crimes as coming from the global South rather than the global North, and committed by individuals rather than by corporations.

The ICC, with its broad and independent mandate and direct jurisdiction over individual violators of international crimes, represents a significant, potential challenge to these values and to chart a new path in securing global justice. This requires the court to not only withstand, but actively confront the external pressures it faces.

Like any institution, the ICC is managed and staffed by individuals who more than often  possess a liberal understanding of international law. This is clearly reflected in the practice of the ICC. Drawing on his conceptualisation of the so-called SVS Metaphor, Kenyan legal scholar Makau Mutua has observed that key actors in international justice efforts have been subject to an intense reductionism. Hence, their approach to complex human rights problems is characterised by simplistic and racialised categories of saviours (from the Global North) pitted against savages (culturally speaking, from the Global South) in order to protect interests of ‘helpless’ victims (also from the Global South).

This untenable situation should trigger some serious and critical reflection by the many legal professionals engaged in the work of international criminal justice. First and foremost, decisions by international prosecutors over who, when and how to prosecute international crimes always have a context that is rarely appreciated, let alone openly acknowledged and engaged with. Second, while the complementarity principle of the ICC Rome Statute ought to compel a much greater commitment to build capacity for prosecuting international crimes at the national level, to date this has not been adequately prioritised by the ICC and its member states. Rather than seeking to preserve elusive legal values, a critically reflexive approach to international criminal justice would likely avoid what Martti Koskenniemmi has termed techno-managerial solutions to complex social and political problems and enable a more transparent engagement with the volatile political environment in which the ICC operates.

 These reflections are also reflected in another, recent volume that I have co-edited with ISS colleague Karin Arts on Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’ (Cambridge 2018), notably regarding the system of international criminal justice.

In short, the politics of international law must be taken seriously in order to address the political, and not just the legal legitimacy problems attached to international criminal justice. It is also essential to cultivate a contextualised understanding among legal experts of how international criminal justice functions, entailing a socio-legal approach to both legal practice and analysis. Finally, it is crucial to develop a strategic approach to international criminal justice that transparently engages with these matters and sidesteps simplistic and often self-serving critiques that dominate discussions on international criminal justice generally and the ICC in particular.

Image Credit: Mark L. Taylor/

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here. 



Let’s think twice about orphanages and volunteering by Manasi Nikam

Let’s think twice about orphanages and volunteering by Manasi Nikam

Volunteers jump at the chance of going to developing countries to help orphans, believing that they will make a difference in the lives of these children. But there is a ...

The effect of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric on Brazil’s indigenous peoples by Dorothea Hilhorst

The effect of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric on Brazil’s indigenous peoples by Dorothea Hilhorst

Newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has immediately started making work of his animosity towards indigenous peoples by transferring the mandate to deal with indigenous land issues to the Ministry ...