Episode 3


Interview with Dr Maria Armoudian, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations


PAULINE: Hello and welcome to Pandemics Reflected, the podcast about how research and the lives of scholars have changed over the course of the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic. I’m Dr Pauline Herbst, a medical anthropologist based in the Pandemics Past, Present, Future Research Hub at the University of Auckland. And today, I’ll be in conversation with colleague Dr Maria Armoudian. She is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations, the author of not one, not two, but three books on law, media and human rights. She’s also the host and producer of the radio programme The Scholars Circle, but I’ll be doing the interviewing today. And she’s an all-round wonderful human. Maria, it is so great to have you on the show.

MARIA: And it is so great to be with you, Pauline.

PAULINE: OK, so we’ll kick straight into the questions. What does it mean to be a senior lecturer in politics and international relations? Could you talk us through what this means and what you’re working on when COVID appeared in 2019?

MARIA: Yeah. Well, so first of all, you know, politics encompasses, I think, international relations but to me, and part of what I teach is that everything is politics, that everything is touched by politics, so it can actually be almost anything, right?  So much of what is  today is a result of some kind of politics.  I study three different fields, really. Mostly one  is related to communication. So it would be political communication, science communication, environmental communication, policy communication…  And this involves, of course, the media and you know, what are the consequences of how we communicate in the way things are framed and the way agendas are set and  are there consequences?

MARIA:  And the second field that I look at is more related to  the intersection of law, and it kind of emerged from the first one. And then the third field is  American politics , especially where these things  connect. So how much would you like me to go into these?


PAULINE: I think that’s fine. That gives us a little bit of a brief explanation. So within these three fields, what were you actually working on? I can see how this is all incredibly relevant for what’s been happening over the past few years. So what specific research were you working on when – You know, we saw COVID in the States and that’s the US, one of your areas and there were, you know, we were kind of waiting for it to hit here – So what were you working on at that point?

MARIA: Yeah. So I mean, I had several projects going, which is what I tend to do, and they’re disparate and not related, which is also something I tend to do. I was doing one that was pandemics related: a chapter related to the political construction of New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, and  that was for an edited volume. But I had just finished up the big project, which was a book called Lawyers Beyond Borders. That  took years to get out and it came out during a lockdown [laughs], which made it really hard to actually do any kind of a book launch or a book party or anything like that. Ideally, I would have, you know, been able to go and have an event with all the lawyers who were part of it, who mostly were in the United States.

MARIA: But that book looks at  this area of law that, how should I say this, an area of human rights in law that is, I think, quite neglected and that is redressing survivors of egregious human rights abuses: survivors of genocide, survivors of torture, survivors of extrajudicial killings or disappearances or any of those things… slavery. And slavery probably has more of a remedy than some of these others. But the issues are a lot of times it’s the own, it’s the survivors’ own country that is violating. And so given how law works and politics work, you know, it’s pretty hard to take up a case against your own country if they are the oppressor.

MARIA: Then there’s the additional complication, which is that now multinational corporations are so gargantuan they’re bigger than most countries,  their GDPs, and they span several multiple countries, and they partner with a lot of these repressive regimes, especially for extractive activities. And those extractive activities often happen in areas where indigenous people live or could be considered marginalised in some way or another. And so the violations are supported in a way by these multinational corporations. Sometimes they’re paying for the security forces or whatever that is. And these survivors often don’t have ways to remedy the extreme suffering that they go through.

MARIA:  So I became interested in this when I learnt about these lawyers who were in the United States at the time (it’s where I first learnt about it), who had found ways to get jurisdiction for these survivors who might have been anywhere abroad, to sue their violators in U.S. courts.


MARIA: And I was fascinated by that. That was my reaction. Wow. And some of them were winning big judgements like indigenous people in Burma who had sued the oil company in California and when actually they settled the $30 million dollars or indigenous Ogoni people in Nigeria sued Chevron. And no, that was oil. That’s petroleum. There you go. The Chevron case, they actually lost that and those were the Adjani people. But the Ogoni people settled for about 15 million. And so these were kind of interesting to me because they were finally remedying in situations where there was no remedy.

MARIA: So I was interested in the creativity of these lawyers and how they came up with this crazy idea.  And I followed from the beginning, from the very first case, and I interviewed that lawyer and followed the trajectory of that field all the way until the U.S. courts finally said, “We’re not doing this anymore. Get out of our courts”. And then it moved over to Europe, really. And so Germany has taken a lead except they’re doing more criminal prosecutions.  So there were two big cases against Syrian  violators, intelligence members who had tortured people, and they have gotten convictions on them in German courts rather than in like, say, an international criminal court. So this was fascinating to me, and that’s what I had. That was kind of the big book that just came out during one of our lockdowns. I was working on a follow up. That was what my sabbatical, my research leave was supposed to be about.


PAULINE: OK, and that reminded me you were supposed to be going to Melbourne?

MARIA: Well, well, originally I was going to go to the United States and Europe. But then, of course, the pandemic shut that off. So then I was like, well, you know, I know there are all these mining issues around Australia, and there’s this human rights network in Australia and it’s connected to the environment and the indigenous people there. And so I  started doing some research and I got not one, not two, but three visiting scholar positions.


MARIA: One in Sydney, one in  Darwin and one in Queensland. And so I was like, perfect. But then Sydney closed down because they had a big wave of COVID, right? Yes. And then next thing you knew we were in lockdown again. Actually we weren’t even quite in lockdown yet, but I had to let go of those because we weren’t allowed to travel. And I thought, well, at least I can maybe do a writing retreat. So why don’t I book myself a trip since I haven’t left New Zealand in two years and just spend some time in a warm climate, the only place we can go, Rarotonga, and write. And then that got shut down.


PAULINE: Oh, so did you make it? Did you make it?

MARIA: So, months of work and strategizing and figuring out the travel and getting hotels in each place and reading about… all of it just turned to dust. All of it turned to dust. Three months of probably research, just like poof, gone. So, so that was one way that the pandemic affected scholarship.

PAULINE: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think a lot of that is the behind the scenes invisible labour that academics and researchers and scholars put in.  And that impacts on our research. If you can’t do your research, they can’t be those answers. So whatever expert voices and research is getting out there is because somehow it was made to happen. But there were all these behind the scenes things that change and segue and open and close and…

MARIA: I like it better when they open. Yeah, rather than when they close.

PAULINE: Yeah, closed can be painful, especially if it hits you in the face your way through.


PAULINE:   So you do a lot of work as well  on the Scholars Circle and the Big Q and as a host and a producer. Do you want to talk us through that? Yes. And how that sort of happened over that period.

MARIA: So I found, first of all, I founded the Scholars Circle a long time ago when I was in graduate school. And what had happened was I had been involved in politics  myself and I was unhappy about, you know, I could have been one of those people who was so angry that I would have wanted to throw out all the politicians. You know, I was really upset about how powerless… but when I went to graduate school, I started to understand things in a completely different way. And I thought, you know, if more people could understand things in this kind of depth and breadth in the way that academia really does enable you to see things, we could probably start solving some problems. And so I created the Scholars Circle to tackle some of these big problems and trying to have like two or three different disciplines represented on a panel of  usually three people in the circle and then the moderator.

MARIA: And so that has continued partly because my producer Ankine Aghassian continued doing it even the days I couldn’t do it. And my good friend and former colleague at University of Southern California, Doug Becker, has taken up a lot of the hosting duties, so I don’t have to do as much of it. So he does many more than I do now.  In the meantime, of course, you mentioned the Big Q. That was a project that was meant to sort of take that and then expand it onto the web into something more readable and to incorporate additional thoughtful pieces,  mostly by scholars, but also by students on these issues that we’re all trying to understand  and that’s still going on, but it’s not as active at the moment because we’re trying to now develop it even further. And so we’re in the process in the second level of a grant process to see if we can get it expanded into a more inter-university project.

PAULINE: That sounds fantastic. I’ll certainly  keep an eye out on that.

MARIA: And you were going to be the editor.

PAULINE: Oh, yes, someone may have mentioned that at our retreat or something [laughs].

PAULINE: So I’m quite interested in that project for media, in the public interest, because it’s quite unique or unusual that an academic and a scholar like yourself that’s really research active and teaching  is also able to work on media outreach and sort of public work as part of their job.  We’ve spoken to various people and will be speaking to various people about how they have needed to speak to the media over this time. A lot of that hasn’t been, say, recognised  as KPIs. If we talk sort of business sense…

MARIA: Please don’t.

PAULINE: No, or they’ve come under intense public scrutiny,  some of it quite frightening so there’s there’s a lot of space there where academics  have to do that in their own time.


PAULINE: So I’m really interested in that. You’ve made this an important part of your research trajectory that these outward facing communications are as important as as sort of the philosophical thinking…

MARIA: That is partly, I mean, the whole idea of being part of a humanity in part, particularly part of the democracy, is that it really does help if people understand things with a little bit more depth or a little bit more breadth  if you really want to make democracy work, right? And so the very things I was studying in media, particularly  around when we talk about structural issues around media like there’s  the kind of common model for most news media is a is an economic model in which they have to make a profit.

MARIA: Well, any time you have to make a profit, something has to die, you know, and a lot of times what that was, was the depth or the breadth because you couldn’t afford to really get into and investigate and hire people who could investigate the materials. And so in my first book, which was called Kill the Messenger (which was about killing the old models of media that weren’t working), I went through in the last chapter. What are some other models that could possibly work?

MARIA: You know, there’s a non-profit model and that could work, but you still have to figure out where you raise your money. There’s a cooperative model in which it’s non-profit, but the journalists actually kind of collectively run the thing. And that’s kind of a cool thing that has worked, but not for long periods of time. There’s the trust model, which is what  the Guardian is, and that has seemed to work. But they I think they have quite an endowment and they’re always asking for money. And then I thought, well, the one that hasn’t really been tried and tried well is one that’s connected to institutions and connects institutions. And so that was my idea. And so I connected it to this institution here at the University of Auckland, but I haven’t yet been able to connect it to… have it be the glue between multiple institutions, which is just a huge task. And I just don’t know without like a major grant, if I could, if I would be the person to be able to do that. I’m a little bit too much of an introvert.


PAULINE: All right, I’m not sure about the introvert side, but you know, yourself best. The next thing I wanted to talk about was one of your research streams is US policy and the US and politics there. And with COVID and the pandemic, we saw a lot of things in the US with Trump particularly and that seemed to influence some US thinking, some New Zealand thinking. So I wanted you to sort of give us some information or comments on what you observed happening between the New Zealand and US relations and how information was flowing back and forth and what sort of impact the Trump thing had.

MARIA: So I’d like to take it back a little bit for some historical context. Look, in the United States, in the nineteen eighties (I believe it was, I have to double check, but I’m pretty sure it was), there were two changes in law, media law that are really important, and that is what enabled all of this kind of what I would call hate messages coming out of media, starting to build. One of those laws was called the Fairness Doctrine, and what it demanded, what it  required of media that use public airwaves was that they had to present things in a way without just a one sided ness. And they had to be providing some kind of a public service to be able to use the public airwaves. That was repealed. And so then that made way for what we have now: this free-for-all shock jocks, increasingly angry, hateful rhetoric.

MARIA: And the second piece was the Telecommunications Act that enabled  a corporation to essentially own tons and tons and tons and tons and tons of media. And so you ended up with one shock jock on a thousand plus radio stations, and it was profitable. Again, the profit model. And so when that started it, a little bit was I, I almost want to say hoodwinked regular Americans initially because they weren’t accustomed to this, and they thought it was just the news. And I say that in part because I got into a car with one that was a very thoughtful person (happened to be my father), who was listening to one of these really loud, really hateful shock jocks at a loud decibel. And I requested it be turned down, and he said, “Well, I want to hear the news”. Oh. And I realised it was because for years, you know, news media really was, this, you know, public service in a way, even if it was flawed. But now you’re getting this, you know, awful kind of message. And it got to a point where  until years later, it was very difficult to have a conversation because just immersed in that kind of hate. Well, that has continued to spread. And then, of course, the Fox News’s and the, you know, Infowars channels and all of those kinds of things. So that’s a little bit of a backdrop.

MARIA: Then the other thing that I think is super important to know is that there’s also other countries feeding into that. In particular there’s some research around Russia and  trolls, bots, hate messages, fake groups, fake websites, anything to create more chaos between groups of people and to destabilise the country. And so you’ve got this combination going on without people understanding that that’s what’s happening. And it so it hardens these, you know, “us” versus “them”. And then all of those kind of social psychological forces come up, which, you know, the groupthink and the conformity to your groups and the sort of dissolution of what might have been a good fabric of society. And then simultaneously, as you probably know, each of these emotions have sort of  behavioural tendencies connected to them.

MARIA: You know, in a lot of the ones that are being peddled out by the far right are attack emotions. And, you know, anger and hate and rage and outrage. Those are all considered the really negative attack emotions as fear can be. I’m not saying that, you know, the far left wasn’t doing some of that as well. I don’t think it was quite as blatant. But then of course, with the interconnectedness of the world now, of course, that’s going to make its way down here, but I don’t know that it’s a purely American leakage. And I don’t know how much is, you know, an actual attempt to destabilise another democracy by something like a Russian government. It’s one of these things that we just don’t quite understand yet. And scholars need to be examining where these messages are coming from, really? Who is funding these types of media on the web further and who’s benefiting from them?


PAULINE: That’s really important research that does need to be done. There’s a lot of polarisation, as you say, that is happening. So taking us back to when the pandemic first, this particular pandemic (we’ll be talking about lots of pandemics on this show) with  particularly how it was handled or how the the coronavirus virus pandemic was handled both in the US and then here in NZ. Because there’s been a lot of comparisons, New Zealand suddenly became, you know, this amazing exemplar.  I’m not sure if in your work on politics, if you can comment on kind of (the UK is another model and then another one that kept coming up was Sweden because we’re kind of watching things unfold or all of us, as well as the researchers with) some perhaps insights or models or lenses that we could apply to try and understand this in different ways.

MARIA: I wrote this book chapter a while back, so I can’t remember the entire thesis of it. But a big part of what I saw in New Zealand was more of what we might call a political geography. Mm-Hmm. And you alluded to that when you said, you know, we’re watching what’s going on because of the political location of New Zealand in the world. It actually gave the country the capacity to see what the different responses were producing and to make decisions based on what they saw was happening in the rest of the world. And that was something that not everybody had. Right?

MARIA: The second thing, also speaking of political geography, has to do with the density of communities because New Zealand tends to be kind of spread out. It makes that social distancing much easier than it would be in somewhere like even Singapore. You know, places that you know, New York City, where you saw this wave of COVID, just killing people, knocking people down and flooding the hospitals. So I think the benefits that New Zealand had in terms of its geography really did enable it to think, to study and to make decisions.  And I mean, I frankly felt quite safe despite being quite unhappy with being isolated  all by myself on the tip of a peninsula for as long as I was right and not able to see my family and for years. It managed to be sure that there were very few lives lost at that time. Now, of course, as we know, there are more people dying because everything’s just wide open.

PAULINE: Yeah. Which is sobering indeed.  As Maria and I are speaking, we are talking to each other in a studio with a big perspex  wall in between us so we can weigh through the plastic that we are looking after each other. Maria, I wanted to just touch base briefly before we end the show. Another of your research streams this the intersection of law and that was your recent book, and I’m sure the publication was delayed and then finally came out. And I do hope you have a book launch for us to celebrate that at some points, and I’ll put all of this in the show notes – links to all of these things that you can check out.


PAULINE: So the intersection of law is one of your focuses. How has that played into looking at the law and policy and COVID and pandemics? What sort of threads or streams have you seen come out of that?

MARIA: Well, I think one of the issues related to law, especially, but I tend to think about is, you know, the kind of han rights issues that are all related to illness and access to medical care. And if you look globally, this is one of the issues is some people have access to medical care and some people don’t. And so there’s sort of this perpetual, I don’t like the word underclass, but that’s the only way I can think right now at the moment to think about who will suffer and who will die because they will not have been cared for in the way that they, that others will.

MARIA: And you think about somebody like even like the American president got, you know, he got the best care possible in the world  because of his position and other people don’t have that. And so there’s you know, we can say as much as we want about political equality and,  you know, everybody’s equal, but you know, it’s just not true. And I think we saw that with the pandemic and the legal structures and the political structures that really have created the conditions for who lives and who dies. And I think that that’s really something that needs to be considered as we continue with what they are now saying is not really a pandemic, but it’s still killing people.

PAULINE: Absolutely. And as you say, many of those structural fault lines were already very clearly in existence. But it’s almost they’ve become more visible. This sort of invisible structures have have now been rendered visible by  the temporality of this thing: the speed, the limbo in between. It’s sort of it’s very confusing for people and for life in general. So what are the next steps? How has this changed your research lens? What are you working on at the moment?

MARIA: And I am I’m still working on the one I was supposed to do for the RSL, for the research leave, which deals with barriers to justice. So it’s all these things that we’re talking about, but still mainly looking at , particularly for those most egregious violations. Like I said, like torture and genocide and extrajudicial killings.  That’s going to get, of course, worse with Ukraine crisis.  But, you know, two years ago in this little enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh (I happen to be Armenian), that was attacked by Azerbaijan with the help of Turkey. And all of the indigenous Armenians that live there have been ethnically cleansed out and some of the P.O.W.s have been tortured and civilians killed, et cetera. And so one of the things that I am doing in two weeks is I’m flying to Armenia to go participate in a conference that deals with  justice issues for these indigenous people, especially the ones who were tortured, and to talk about some of these remedies that have been explored in other countries like the United States and like in certain European countries, using the concept of universal jurisdiction, which needs enabling statutes. But so I’m not sure how far it can go for the people of Artsakh in Nagorno-Karabakh, but  at least I’m going to see if I can be of some assistance somehow. That’s one of many, many projects I’m working on. We’re doing some really cool environmental things too, but I, you know, there’s only so much we can fit into one podcast.


PAULINE: Absolutely.  And I think as well just it speaks to how the knowledge that you have and the learning that you have is being used in other places and how  things like being locked down, restricted mobility, migration, who gets to leave, who gets to stay – in terms of Armenia and the injustices and atrocities that you’ve mentioned –  people don’t have those options. And of course, you know, you have to protect yourself as well from things like COVID and variants and physical security and things like that. So academia isn’t all just  sitting in libraries scanning through…

MARIA: But I do like that stuff. Yeah.

PAULINE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

MARIA: Thank you so much Pauline.

PAULINE: It’s been wonderful to talk to you.

MARIA: It’s great talking with you. Thanks.

PAULINE: Thank you for listening to Pandemics Reflected, a show about the people researching pandemics and how this is changing the culture of knowledge. In the next episode biological anthropologist Dr Heather Battles joins us in the studio to talk about how historic infectious diseases, such as polio, can give us clues on how to manage the current pandemic.