The Most Disrespected: What does no Justice for Breonna Taylor say about the Treatment of Black Women in America?

Used to show Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a worldwide movement in the late spring of 2020. Here is an image captured of a protest in Amsterdam. (SOURCE: Creative Commons)

On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.

        The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.

              The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).

Black Women Deserve Dignity

As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.

All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.

Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.

 

Women at a protest -shows POC women activists
Women of color have led and organized many of the thousands of protests that have taken place world wide. Shown here are a group of women protesting for Black Lives Matter. (SOURCE : Creative Commons)

Where Do We Go from Here?

For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.

For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.

Rest in power, Breonna.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rising Trend of Nationalism and Its Implications on Human Rights

american flag
American Flag. Ken Jones. Source: Creative Commons.

During the 2016 election, I was 17 years old, meaning that I was too young to vote and just old enough to be very frustrated by this barrier. Now, for the 2020 election, I am excited to cast my vote in my first presidential election and have thrown myself into learning as much as I can about domestic and international politics. Through this process, I have begun to recognize political trends and waves. Idealism has shifted and flowed along the political spectrum throughout history. Recently, many countries across the world have taken a conservative shift in their political maneuvers and with their elected officials. What makes this shift slightly different is the large rise of nationalism across many countries.

What is Nationalism?

For a definition, people with nationalist leanings dislike the rise of globalization in social structures and political institutions. There is a rather large emphasis on putting national interests and needs before global ones, hence the name “nationalism.” Nationalism is understood to be focused on the ‘cultural unit of the nation.’ However, for a significant portion of history, one’s political leanings were not reliant on national boundaries. This changed in Europe after the Protestant Reformation. The state became more reliant on the people who resided within the nation instead of outside forces like the Catholic Church. Soon, nationalism and self-determination became integral parts of the view of democracy.

 

love china
Love China. Christopher Cherry. Source: Creative Commons.

Nationalism is the strong support of a country, akin to patriotism. Self-determining nationalism refers to a desire for a state rooted in a self-identity. This is the basis of white nationalism, the desire for a white state. Some people may believe that nationalism is rooted in the American story and that without it the Constitution might not even exist. However, realistically, racism and racists in general feel represented and validated by Donald Trump’s form of nationalism. The campaign of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are set in a very distinctively nationalist direction. The primary issue with this stance is that Donald Trump’s definition of “American” excludes quite a few groups of people who live in the United States. This is called ethnonationalism. A few examples of the ethnonationalist tactics employed by Donald Trump and his party include the creation and fascination with the border wall between the United States and Mexico, the Muslim ban, and the active separation of families along the Mexican border, among many others. Similarly, a rise in white nationalism has occurred, encouraged by the Donald Trump base.

Nationalism Throughout History

During the Industrial Revolution, it became apparent that aspects of a shared identity, such as shared literacy in a single language, would be important to a nation’s success. Thus, the assimilation of groups outside of the collective norm of the country became perceived as a top priority. This assimilation happened through civic institutions but also through ethnic cleansing, war, and other violent methods in order to completely wipe out any cultures or traditions considered to be “different” from the nation’s own. In the 1900s, there was a separation created between the ideas of ‘liberal capitalism’ and ‘nationalist democracy.’ This history lesson is to depict the ebbs and flows of nationalism throughout history. It is not uncommon to witness a resurgence of nationalism; however it is important to understand the negative consequences in order to navigate the resurgence in the most effective way for all groups.

Benefits and Dangers of Nationalism

Nationalism can be utilized for development. Throughout history, nationalism can be attributed to a rise in the buying and selling of domestic products, recruitment in the military, and general patriotism. The idea of a shared identity connected to a country is a motivator among citizens. In Korea and Taiwan officials were able to implement the Japanese inspired top-down nationalist model that greatly encouraged growth. However, nationalism can also encourage exclusion and competition. In Europe, imperialism and colonization were often justified by nationalism. These were two techniques employed by western countries to overtake and completely control countries in Africa and in the Asia, the extremely negative consequences of which are still being seen today. During World War II, Adolf Hitler employed nationalist techniques in order to secure his base and rationalize his tactics as in the best interest for Germany. Nationalist sentiment, seen as establishing one group to be the rightful citizens of a country, is dangerous in an increasingly globalized world.

vox sign
Pro Vox sign. Vox España. Source: Creative Commons.

Nationalism Across the Globe 

After 2016, there was a large rise in nationalist sentiment across the world. Perhaps the most popular stage for this phenomenon was the United States with the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a nationalist platform with the slogan, “America First.” In Germany, the nationalist AfD party has become a major opposition party, and in Spain right-wing Vox has become prominent within the Spanish Parliament. Similarly, nationalist leaders have ascended onto the political stage in China, the Philippines, and Turkey. Nations are no longer made up of a single ethnic, religious, or language group. This increase in exclusionary nationalism that we are seeing could prove to be potentially very dangerous for the groups considered to be “outsiders.” It is important to understand the many different facets of nationalism in order to protect against the negative consequences it brings as these political leaders rise in popularity.

Persecution of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria

A peaceful procession of the IMN for the release of Zakzaky. Source: Yahoo Images.
A peaceful procession of the IMN for the release of Zakzaky. Source: Yahoo Images.

In Nigeria, the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has been the victim of brutal police force at its ongoing peaceful protests that started in 2015. Recently, the religious group has been categorized as a terrorist group by the Nigerian government, which is an explicit violation of the Muslims’ human rights. On December 12, 2015, Sheikh Ibrahim el Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat, were arrested by the Nigerian Army and handed over to the Department of State services following a bloody clash between the soldiers lead by Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai and members of the IMN. The clash occurred in Zaria, Kaduna State, and since the arrest of the leader of the IMN, the followers of the movement have been protesting for the release of their leader. In light of the multiple protests, the Nigerian government issued a ban on the IMN on July 28, 2019, after a protest in the capital, Abuja. The ban was ordered by a Nigerian court which ruled the activities of the Shia IMN as “acts of terrorism and illegality.”

What is the Islamic Movement of Nigeria?

Introduced by Sheikh Zakzaky in the 1980s, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a Shia minority sect with close ties to Iran. The sheikh visited Iran and was inspired by its revolutionary movement where the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty was replaced with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Zakzaky created his own sect in Nigeria known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and has approximately four million followers located in northern Nigeria. They are separate from Boko Haram, an group of Islamic Nigerians who use violent means to spread their influence, something that Zakzaky and IMN members profusely denounce. The Shia IMN, like Boko Haram, sees the secular state as evil and wants an Islamic state based on sharia, or Islamic law.  Their movement calls for the rejection of the Nigerian Constitution and encourages a revolution that focuses on enlightenment.

IMN members at the Abuja protest. Source: Yahoo Images.
IMN members at the Abuja protest. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Abuja Protest

On July 22, 2019, the Human Rights Watch reported that the Nigerian police fired unlawfully at a peaceful protest led by the IMN in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. At around 12:30 p.m., thousands of protestors marched toward the Federal Government Secretariat to register their grievances, particularly regarding the ailing health of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim el Zakzaky and his wife. Mohammad Ibrahim Gamawa, a member of the Resource Forum of the IMN group, reported that as the protestors approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nigerian Police Force opened fire and threw teargas at them. Eleven protestors, Channels Television journalist, Precious Owolabi, and Deputy Commander of Police, Usman Umar died. The government of Nigeria claimed the IMN was responsible for the deaths of the journalist and police officer, hence the ban being issued six days later by a Nigerian court.

This protest was not the first one that resulted in deaths though. Nigerian authorities have used excessive force against the minority group since 2015. On December 12, 2015, the police used brutal force on the IMN’s street procession in Kaduna to allegedly clear the way for the army chief’s convoy, resulting in 347 members dead and several arrested, including the leader and his wife. Rather than holding the police accountable, the Kaduna State prosecutors brought charges against 177 IMN members for the death of Corporal Yakuku Dankaduna – the only military casualty at Kaduna. Several more examples like this exist, but the Shia Muslims have not ceased their nonviolent protests for the release of their leader.

The Ban

Justice Nkeonye Maha issued the ban order on July 26, 2019, declaring the activities of the Shia IMN as “acts of terrorism and illegality.” The order was declared after an ex parte hearing, the application for which was filed barely 72 hours after the Abuja protest by the Attorney General. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria was the sole respondent to the application, but it was not represented by a lawyer since this type of hearing is issued without the responding party being made aware of it. In her ruling, Justice Maha ordered the Attorney General of the Federation to publish the order in the official gazette and two national dailies.

How is this a human rights violation?

Anietie Ewang, the Nigerian researcher at the Humans Right Watch, says that the court ruling “threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians,” and the government should “reverse the ban, which prohibits the religious group’s members from exercising their right to meet and carry out peaceful protest.” Both the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law prescribe the rights to freedom, association, and expression, which the proscription violates. Under international law, no restrictions can be placed on these rights unless it is provided by law, serves a legitimate government purpose within a democratic society, and is necessary for attaining that purpose. Allegations of criminality do not present legitimate grounds to proscribe the activities of a religious group, according to Ewang. She also suggests that the ban may foreshadow a worse security force crackdown on the IMN, having dire human rights implications throughout Nigeria.

Not just men, but women also protesting the illegal detention of the leader. Source: Yahoo Images.
Not just men, but women also protesting the illegal detention of the leader. Source: Yahoo Images.

Why has the IMN been protesting since 2015?

The obvious reason is the arrest of Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat. Upon their arrest, the couple was handed to the Department of State Services (DSS), and they remained in DSS custody for over two years without charge. In April 2018, the Kaduna State Government filed eight counts against the leader and his wife. The charges include killing Corporal Yakuku Dankanuda who died during the December 2015 bloody clash at Zaria. The protestors have not only been vocal about the allegations but also the health of the sheikh and his wife since they also sustained injuries in the Zaria clash.

What has happened since with the case?

As of September 29, 2020, the Kaduna State High Court dismissed a no case submission application submitted by Zakzaky and his spouse. Justice Gideon Kurada said it was premature to rule on the application to quash the charges against the defendants. The case has been adjourned till November 18 and 19, 2020, where the prosecuting counsel will present evidence and continue the trial. The charges are eight counts including culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace.

The frustration of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria is understandable. They are simply asking to practice their religion in a peaceful manner. The clash between Shia and Sunni Muslims is prevalent in other parts of the world as well, but Islam preaches brotherhood and unity. All Muslims are considered a part of the global Ummah, or community. The unjust bloodshed of these people will not resolve any problems, nor will it bring peace to the ongoing conflict in Nigeria. It is time for the human rights of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria be restored and their leader be acquitted.

International Day of Rural Women: Honoring Their Sacrifices during COVID-19

UN Logo.
UN Logo for Rural Women’s Day, 2020. Source: Yahoo Images

The United Nations has designated October 15th as the International Day of Rural Women. This year, the theme is “Building rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19.” The reason behind this theme is because of the health and human rights risks that are deemed risks for rural women in light of this pandemic. Rural women hold a crucial role in the fields of agriculture, food security, and nutrition, while simultaneously battling struggles in their daily lives, such as restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes. Since the coronavirus has emerged, women are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines, and vaccines. Despite all these difficulties, rural women like 45-year-old Yan Shenglian of China’s Qinghai Province have been at the front lines, responding to the pandemic while their domestic work increased dramatically due to lockdowns.

Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.
Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.

Yan Shenglian’s Story

Yan Shenglian is one of 28,000 women who have served as medical workers in the province deemed as hardest-hit by the pandemic – Hubei Province. These women have been dubbed “roses in the battlefield.” Shenglian joined her village COVID-19 management team where she ensured that anyone entering or exiting the village got their body temperature checked and had their vehicle information recorded. A few years ago, perhaps Shenglian would not have been able to serve in the capacity she does currently due to a belief that participating in public affairs was a man’s job. But after attending a workshop brought by the United Nations Women, she and several women in her village learned a lifelong skill of raising pigs organically, ensuring food security in the village, even during the pandemic.

Shenglian’s story is just one village among millions in rural communities around the world. Rural women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, yet they face a great deal of discrimination in regards to land and livestock ownership, equal pay, and access to credit and financial services. These women are responsible for entire households and perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work, while reaping minimal, if any, benefits. In rural areas, the gender pay gap is as high as 40%, leaving women with little to no pay and giving financial authority to men. If rural women had equal access to agricultural assets, education, and markets, agricultural production could increase to the extent that the number of hungry people could be reduced by 100-150 million.

Rural Women Stuck with the Worst of COVID-19

Due to these inequalities, rural women bear the brunt of the impacts of COVID-19. The mandated border closures and lockdowns are disrupting agricultural value chains and food systems. Although this generally affects rural men, women face disadvantages that make it harder for them to recover, including a lack of agricultural assets. Additionally, rural women do not have access to digital platforms to disseminate information about the pandemic or available support. In South Africa and Asia, the majority of 393 million women who lack access to mobile phones and internet connections consist of poor rural women; they rely on person-to-person networks for information.

Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.
Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

Women’s access to technology and digital financial services being limited is not only detrimental to them but to society. Without this access, rural women are not able to be informed on targeted solutions to problems presented by COVID-19, nor are they able to connect with the world in general. Educating women in technology and in services that they need to know, such as how to save money, take a loan, generate income, and manage their livelihoods in general, is essential in progressing rural women’s roles in society. Shenglian was able to gain skills training and received advice from professionals, allowing her to have an established livelihood. There needs to be more Shenglians among the international community of rural women, which consists of a quarter of the global population. These initiatives will be brought about only through policy. And true reform will only benefit the economy and livelihoods of these women and the villages in which they reside.

Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction

People living in the Appalachian region of the United States have been victims of a number of failures to protect their basic human rights since at least the nineteenth century. As a result, in nearly every measurable socioeconomic category, the Appalachian region lags behind the rest of the United States in development, or even shows signs of decline. This, in combination with their remoteness and social isolation, has led to a remarkably divided society evidenced over the last hundred or so years. Outdated and incorrect perceptions of the Appalachian people have led to antagonism and a struggle to implement democratic institutions that protect some of America’s most vulnerable populations.

The Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States extend across thirteen states and are home to over twenty-five million people. Appalachia struggles with problems typical of rural poverty: social stratification, unemployment, lack of social services, poor education, and poorly developed infrastructure. The Appalachian region, and its perceived separateness from the rest of the Eastern and Southern United States, is especially relevant in contemporary times of remarkable social division. Healthcare disparities, income inequality, and extensive exploitation of Appalachian communities by outside corporations have all contributed to distrust and frustration among their inhabitants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of Appalachians sold their rights to land and minerals, leading to a massive disparity in ownership and control of the land. Ninety-nine percent of the residents of Appalachia control less than half of the land — despite the area’s vast natural resources, inhabitants remain poor (Hurst).

The Appalachian region has had a higher poverty rate and a higher percentage of working poor than the rest of the nation since at least the 1960s, in addition to low wages, low employment rates, and low-quality education. To address this, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was established in 1965, as a joint effort of ten governors of Appalachian states seeking federal government assistance. Still, by 1999, nearly twenty-five percent of the four-hundred twenty counties in the region qualified as “distressed”, the ARC’s lowest status ranking. Fifty-seven percent of adults in central Appalachia did not graduate high school, compared to less than twenty-percent for the rest of the United States. According to ARC, thirty-three percent of Appalachians suffer from poverty and their income was twenty-three percent lower on average than the level of American per capita income. There has been some improvement, however, with levels of economic distress reaching lows not seen since before the recession in 2007 (ARC.gov).

graph of distressed counties in appalachia
Number of distressed counties in Appalachia by year

In addition to economic inequalities, political inequalities are present in Appalachia. Racial divisions have often been stoked to divide workers and pit races against each other. During Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War in which Southern states were radically reformed, coal corporations discouraged education and civic action, forcing workers to become indebted to company stores, live in company housing, and generally become vulnerable to their employers. Community members regularly experienced punishment as a reprisal for speaking out against their employers. In his study of culture and poverty in Appalachia, Dwight Billings suggests that this has resulted in a fatalistic attitude in the Appalachian people, based on a history of political corruption and disenfranchisement, leading to a sense of powerlessness.

The plight of the Appalachian people is deeply ingrained in me and will remain always of academic and personal interest. My own paternal kin originally settled in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina after arriving in America. As far as we can tell, my ancestors passed through the Cumberland Gap in the mid-eighteen-hundreds or earlier, finally homesteading in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on Sand Mountain, in northeast Alabama. On the other side of my family, my maternal ancestors shared many of the same challenges living as sharecroppers and later as miners in north-central Alabama. Eventually, both sides of my family came to work in blue-collar industrial jobs in mining and steel-work, industries that would become encumbered by the same failures, oppression, and corruption that were endemic in their Appalachian cousins.  My great-grandfathers and my paternal grandfather were heavily involved in the labor movement in the American South and leaders of rights-protecting unions, such as the United Mine Workers of America and United Steelworkers, even as those same unions fell into disorder and ineffectiveness.

My research has indicated that one of the best ways we could better protect workers and their human rights would be to focus on the renewal of unions in the Southern and Appalachian Regions of the United States. Unions have been shown to raise wages, reduce wage inequality, and protect rights for workers. Higher rates of unionization and collective action generally tends to be an indicator for greater respect of human rights in industry. After declining membership from its peak in 1954, a once-thriving union movement had shrunk to nearly a third of its size by the turn of the 21st century.

graph of union membership
Union membership in the US, 1930-2010.

Corresponding with this drop in membership, middle class incomes shrank accordingly. The Labor Department did report the first increase in union memberships in twenty-five years in 2007, which was also the largest increase since 1979, but it appears that this was a short-term gain in the larger scheme of things. Taking a broader look shows that from 1983, union membership has been on a steady decline.

chart of union membership
Union membership by category, 1983-2018

One silver lining is that there seems to be a slight turning of the tide among women and Black people, whose membership in unions is stabilizing at least, if not increasing slightly. If unions are meant to preserve and protect the rights of workers, it should inspire some optimism that some of the most vulnerable workers, BIPOC and women, are seemingly joining unions at higher rates than other demographics.

In a series of blog posts for the Institute for Human Rights, I will explore some of these challenges with which the Appalachian region are faced — workers’ rights challenges and the possibility of renewal for unions, socioeconomic disparity and the ensuing human rights failures in the region, and the political inequalities that are especially present in the region. In my next post, I will tell the story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and describe the ways corporations have exploited workers and prevented unionization in the past. We will analyze how these barriers affect workers’ rights in some of the most vulnerable populations in America.

References:

  1. Hurst, Charles. (1992). Inequality in Appalachia. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition. Pearson Education. pp 62-63.
  2. Speer, Jean Haskell (January 1, 2010). “Appalachian Regional Commission”. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society and University of Tennessee Press.
  3. Denham, Sharon. Mande, Man. Meyer, Michael. Toborg, Mary. (2004). Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations. Holistic Nursing Practices 2{X)4:I8(6):293-3O1.
  4. “ARC History”. Arc.gov. Appalachian Regional Commission. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  5. Duncan, Cynthia Mildred. (1999). Civic Life in Gray Mountain. Connection: New England’s Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, Vol. 14, Issue 2, Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  6. Billings, Dwight. (1974). Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis. Social Forces vol. 53:2. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  7. Madland, Walter, and Bunker, “As Union Membership Rates Decrease, Middle Class Incomes Shrink.”, AFL-CIO, May 24, 2013.
  8. Freeman, Sholnn (January 26, 2008). “Union membership up slightly in 2007; Growth was biggest in Western states; Midwest rolls shrank with job losses”. The Washington Post. p. D2

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Introduction

My sister is in middle school.

She is in VIRTUAL middle school, spending almost all her time in her room physically and mentally connected to her computer for more than five hours a day, Monday to Friday.

Two weeks ago, our family received a voucher in the mail giving us the chance to receive internet service for free until December 30th, 2020. The vouchers come from a program known as the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students. The goal for this program is to provide “Broadband for Every K-12 Student.” ABC uses money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act directed to Alabama ($100 million) in order to cover the costs of “installation, equipment, and monthly service” to all students “who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.” Families who earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level ($48,470) are those considered eligible for the vouchers, including 450,000 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog post: Internet Access, and why it is so important given this day and age.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “Yes, the coronavirus is still a major issue among governments today, and since people cannot really gather outside in large groups, the internet is the next best option. That’s why it is so important to have access to it.” Great, at least you understood that part, but what if I told you that there are governments around the world shutting down the internet, from India to Russia and even countries like Indonesia, in the attempt to resolve their problems?

Shocking right? I would personally think so.

But before we talk about Internet Access as a potential human right, let us talk about some of the things that we take for granted when we have internet access.

An image of a world map in blue showing lines representing connectivity across countries.
2015 Global Connectivity Index. Source: geobrava.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

How do we benefit from being online?

Instant Communication

    • We often tend to talk to others by text, rather than face-to-face. Texting allows people to communicate in speeds never thought possible in the past, which leads to an eventual disconnect in establishing a fully personal connection that people would have if they interacted in person.

Homework

    • Especially during these times, we need the internet in order to complete our homework, and not having that access most definitely leads to an inability to do work as efficiently as if we had access to the World Wide Web.

Yes, even the Weather

    • How many people check the weather before leaving their homes? Checking the weather resides among the most popular search terms, which makes sense, as people need it to avoid downpours and be prepared to any eventual changes in plans.

Opinions against Internet Access being a Human Rights

Reflecting on the above benefits really does help broaden one’s vision in understanding how connecting to google.com or other web sites is essential to the daily happenings of our lives. It makes sense to simply call access to the internet a human right because of the way most of us use the internet to live our lives more efficiently.

Well, before we explore the arguments why Internet Access should be a human right, let us look at two perspectives to the contrary, an NYT op-ed by Vinton Cerf, an “Internet pioneer and [who] is recognized as one of ‘the fathers of the Internet,'” and a statement by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Cerf, for something to be considered a human right, it “must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives,” In that end, he argues that access to the Internet should be an enabler of rights, but not a right itself.

“It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category (of human rights), since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.” — Vinton Cerf

He then attempts to clarify the lines at which human rights and civil rights should be drawn, concluding his op-ed with an understanding that access is simply a means “to improve the human condition.” Granting and ensuring human rights should utilize the internet, not make access the human right itself.

While Cerf seems to believe that the internet is a necessity for people but not a human right, O’Rielly believes otherwise, making it neither a necessity nor a human right.

In a speech before the Internet Innovation Alliance in 2015, Michael O’Rielly introduces his guiding principles with a personal anecdote about his life, emphasizing the impact that technology has given him, even going so far as to claim it as “one of the greatest loves of [his] life, besides [his] wife.” Despite this personal love for technology, one of his governing principles is to clarify what he believes the term ‘necessity’ truly means. He claims that it is unreasonable to even consider access to the internet as a human right or a necessity, as people can live and function without the presence of technology.

“Instead, the term ‘necessity’ should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water.” — Michael O’Rielly

O’Rielly attempts to make the distinction between the true sense of the word ‘necessity’ and ‘human rights,’ trying to defend against “rhetorical traps” created by movements towards making Internet Access a human right. These definitions are the basis of his governing principles and how he attempts to create Internet policies with the government and ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Opinions for Internet Access being a Human Right

One of the interesting things to note above is the distinction made between one’s need for Internet Access and its categorization into a human right. Today, many if not all businesses require the usage of the Internet, going so far as to purely rely on its presence for regular business transactions and practices to occur. This understanding of the importance of the internet is prevalent now more than ever. The onset of COVID-19 has forced businesses to shut their physical door, allowed for increased traffic of online e-commerce sites like Amazon, and pushed kids towards utilizing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet as substitutes for attending school. As such, these next few paragraphs will discuss why Internet Access is, in fact, a human right.

Violations to internet access are prevalent around the world, ranging from countries like India and Sri Lanka to others like Iran and Russia, aiming to either curb resistance or reduce potential sparks of violence. In India, for example, the government had shut down access to the Internet for Indian-administered Kashmir, an action that brought the condemnation of UN special rapporteurs, where the regions of Jammu and Kashmir experienced a “near total communications blackout, with internet access, mobile phone networks, and cable cut off.” In Sri Lanka, only specific applications are blocked by the authorities, while Iran works to slow “internet speeds to a crawl.” The internet system in Russia allows for it to seem like it functions while no data is sent to servers. These systems aim to restrict journalists from spreading news about violations of human rights while also limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves.

The Wi-Fi symbol, with a cross through it.
Offline Logo. Source: Wikmedia Commons. Creative Commons.

This attempt to curb the spread of information also violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which India and Iran voted in favor, the Soviet Union abstained, and Sri Lanka was nonexistent during its passage (accepted by the General Assembly in 1948).

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Conclusion

There seems to be a fundamental agreement from many experts ranging from the United Nations to organizations like Internet.org that aim to connect people with others around the world, that Internet Access should become, or already is, a basic human right. Although arguments are made that the internet allows for freedom of speech and enable other rights to exist, accessibility to that medium of communication and connection should be guaranteed as food or water. Although the internet is not needed for physical survival, the internet is a requirement for advancement and productivity in life.

Which brings me back to the first point made. I am thankful to have a family and live in a home where I can access information and write blog posts about human rights all around the world. What about those living within my city, my state, the United States, or even Planet Earth who do not have that access to the Internet? What about people that cannot connect with people miles away from them, or people who cannot receive an education due to the environmental factors that affect us now.

Access to the internet is a critically important task that governments, local, state, and federal, all need to act upon in order for a successful and growing economy, not just for current businesses and enterprises, but for the future leaders of our country. It is during these trying times that disparities and inequities are revealed, and those in power must be held accountable for a connected and thriving population to exist.

An image of a man in a blue suit holding a tablet with a hologram of the world map shining above.
Source: PickPik. Creative Commons.

If you would like to learn more about Internet Equality and the case for Net Neutrality, I encourage you to read my previous blog post “Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?”

Diversity in COVID-19 Trials

Man using micropipette to perform COVID-19 test
State Public Health Laboratory in Exton Tests for COVID-19. Source: Governor Tom Wolf, Creative Commons.

Since COVID-19 became a pandemic, researchers have been rushing to develop an effective vaccine. There has been a lot of progress made in a short amount of time, but one barrier that every trial in the United States is facing is a lack of diversity within the trials. This is not uncommon for modern research trials, as the majority of participants are typically white and males. However, for a trial to demonstrate effectiveness and appropriate dose for the population, the study population needs to be representative of the whole population at risk.

When studies don’t have a diverse study population, there are adverse outcomes and side effects that are not accounted for. For example, about one in five medications has a different recommended dose across different racial and ethnic populations. This means that without diverse trials, doctors won’t know how safe the medicines that they prescribe their patients actually are.

For the COVID-19 vaccine trials, the issue of diversity is particularly important because people of color, specifically the Latinx and Black communities, are not only three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white Americans, but they’re also twice as likely to die. Despite this health inequity, people of color only make up 29% of participants in the vaccine trial with the most diversity. This is an improvement from most studies, but still not representative of the affected population: 49.9% of the United States population is not white, and people of color experience severe cases of COVID-19 at a higher rate.

But why is it so hard to achieve representative diversity in trials? The main reason is that the United States has a history of taking advantage of people of color when performing medical studies. One of the most glaring examples of this is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” in which almost 400 Black men were diagnosed with syphilis and left untreated. They were promised free food and physicals but were never informed of their diagnosis. Despite the discovery of penicillin, which is an effective treatment for syphilis, while the trial was still ongoing, none of the men involved in the study were ever treated. Because of this, many of them died, and many of their wives and children also contracted syphilis. The study ended after 40 years when a public health service investigator informed the press of what was going on.

The Tuskegee Study was devastating for the men who unknowingly participated and their families, but the effects did not stop with them. Because of the dishonesty within this study, Black American patients are less likely to trust their doctors and the medical system as a whole. A study done by Marcella Alsan and Marianne Wanamaker showed that immediately following the news of the Tuskegee Study, health outcomes, trust of medical professionals, and life expectancy all decreased, which shows not only a social effect but a physical one.

Mural of Henrietta Lacks with description "Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer, died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Her tumor cells were taken without her knowledge, and became the first human culture cells because they were found to divide indefinitely. Her cells have saved countless lives. Jannai B"
Henrietta Lacks. Source: yooperann, Creative Commons.

Another case that plants seeds of distrust towards the medical community is the case of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was an Black American woman being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s. During treatment, and without her knowledge, doctors took samples of her cervical cells to see if they would replicate in culture, which they did. HeLa cells, as they are now called, were a huge breakthrough for medical research, but it was done without Lacks’ knowledge and consent. Additionally, her family received no compensation and has only recently gotten a say and acknowledgement in research that uses HeLa cells. Because of these two injustices, many Black Americans have little trust in the medical systems.

Black Americans are less likely to seek medical treatment and participate in trials, which leads to worse health outcomes immediately and for future generations. Because they are less likely to seek medical treatment, conditions will worsen before seeing a doctor, and treatment in later stages is more costly—financially and personally. Additionally, because of the lack of participation in trials, as discussed earlier, we don’t know about the presentation of diseases and the side effects that people of color experience. The small percentage of Black Americans that do participate in trials are often reminded by their friends and family of the injustices of the past, urging them not to participate.

How do we fix this problem? This issue is deeper than implementing policies to require more diversity, protect research participants, and ensure they have the full knowledge of the trial before going into it; all of that has already been done, and these policies have done little to increase diversity in trials. What is really needed now is to build back trust. To do this completely will take decades, but for now there are some short term plans.

To increase diversity in COVID-19 vaccine trials, pharmaceutical companies are enlisting historically Black medical schools, such as Meharry Medical College and Morehouse School of Medicine, to carry out trials. Studies have found that patients that have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds to their physicians trust their doctors more. By using this information, these predominantly black medical schools, which predominantly serve Black patients, are able to reassure their patients that the study that they are enrolling in will not repeat history.

While the effort of diversifying trials is important for COVID-19 trials, it must not end there. Many people are trying to publicize the safeguards that all studies have today, which prevent any injustices like what happened in the Tuskegee Study and in the collection of cells from Henrietta Lacks. However, this information must come from people that the patients trust. The medical community must work to rebuild trust in communities of color so that we can decrease the health inequities experienced and understand the safety of medications and vaccines for the whole population instead of just for white males.

Mesothelioma Cancer: The Ongoing Saga Of Asbestos Usage In The United States


 

A flyer with a blue ribbon that says Mesolethoma Awareness Day Sept. 26, 2020
Source: The author

Between the 1920s to 1980s, the use of asbestos was at an all-time high in the United States. From construction to the military, asbestos was utilized in a variety of different industries. Unfortunately, this abundant usage has led to the discovery of some serious health complications. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen and people who closely worked with this naturally occurring mineral are facing the consequences. One of the most common diseases associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma cancer, and it continues to be diagnosed to this day. With the United States not fully banning usage of asbestos, there seems to be no end in sight of its damaging effects.

What Is Asbestos?

As previously mentioned, asbestos is a mineral that is found in abundance across the United States. It’s known for its tensile strength, sound absorption and heat resistance, making it an unmatched additive at the height of its usage. Products such as flooring tiles, roofing tiles and insulation incorporated asbestos, because in the event of a fire, it could slow the burning process. This was also true when it came to usage in the military. The Navy incorporated asbestos in different areas of ships such as the boiler room and sleeping barracks. Asbestos was also great because it doesn’t degrade easily in water, making it a no brainer for use in ships. With that being said, when asbestos does degrade is when it can cause the most harm to the health of humans.

Asbestos Exposure And Health Complications

Asbestos that is degrading or damaged can release fibers into the air. These needle-like microscopic fibers can be inhaled or ingested by humans, causing damage to our internal organs. They get embedded in the linings of our lungs, heart and abdomen where they cause inflammation and scarring to occur. Over the course of 10 to 50 years, tumors may develop and this can lead to the diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. Symptoms of this disease are minimal, and often mimic those of less severe illnesses. Coughing, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, chest pain and fever are all symptoms of mesothelioma, but unfortunately, when symptoms do appear, the disease has usually progressed into a later stage. Another disease that asbestos exposure can lead to is asbestosis, a chronic lung condition that heightens the risk of developing mesothelioma.

An image of asbestos fibers
Source: The author

Who Does This Disease Affect?

The two largest populations that are diagnosed with mesothelioma are military veterans and construction industry professionals. The reason for this is that servicemen and women who worked on Navy ships and military bases were directly in contact with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) on a daily basis, as is true of the majority of construction professionals. Working with ACMs without the proper protective equipment is typically how someone will end up being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers can cling to clothing and stay airborne for several hours, so for those working with these materials everyday, exposure is extremely prevalent. While rules and regulations have gotten better surrounding asbestos exposure, these two groups are still disproportionately affected, many of whom still are unaware of the dangers of asbestos despite there being more research.

A fence with yellow caution tape that says Asbestos Dust Hazard
Source: The author

Why Is Asbestos Not Fully Banned?

While asbestos usage in the United States has become more regulated, it is still not fully banned. Asbestos is allowed in up to 1% of certain products and plays a key role in the chlor-alkali (chlorine) industry. As of April 2019, a “final rule” regarding asbestos usage had been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailing more regulations to limit exposure. These regulations were as followed:

  • The public is protected from uses of asbestos that are no longer on the market and are not covered under any other laws. 
  • The EPA is not allowing new uses of asbestos
  • Uses of asbestos covered under the 1989 partial ban will stay banned.

Researchers, experts and the public have been upset with this new ruling, as it still does not take into consideration the legacy usages of asbestos as well as all of the preexisting ACMs that are across the country to this day. There are currently 67 countries with full asbestos bans and it is unfortunate that the United States continues to let the public be harmed from such a dangerous carcinogen.

Help Spread Awareness

September 26th marks the 17th anniversary of Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD). Help spread awareness by sharing information about asbestos exposure with your loved ones and educating them about the serious health dangers it poses.

High School Student Perspectives on the Duel Pandemics Facing Our Country

A picture of Breakthrough students and instructors making silly faces
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to talk to Breakthrough Birmingham students about human rights. Breakthrough Birmingham is an affiliate of the Breakthrough Collaborative, an educational program in which college students from across the U.S. teach high school students in traditionally underrepresented communities in an effort to reverse educational inequity and help students achieve post-secondary success. This summer, Breakthrough went fully virtual, and although this had its challenges, I was amazed at how successfully the leadership pivoted and stayed committed to providing quality education for the students. During our time together, the students and I talked about what human rights are and different examples of human rights violations, particularly those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Black police brutality and injustice. As part of our class, I invited students to write for the IHR blog, to reflect on how the duel pandemics of Covid and racial injustice are impacting their lives and what they hope to see happen in the future. While the conversation rages over how to resolve these crises, the voices of our nation’s young people are often lost in the noise. But they are certainly an important part of this conversation, as they will inherit the world that we leave them and be left with either a huge mess to clean up or a legacy of progress to carry forward. I wanted to share two essays from Breakthrough students Jeremy and Charles. 

Jeremy*

One day I was in school learning like normal, then bam! The world suddenly changed. I am going to be talking about Covid-19, aka coronavirus. It is very important to talk about this because people are dying daily and more and more families are suffering from the recovery of their losses. It is impacting how stores handle things and how we make money. Personally, I am uncomfortable with this situation going on, and I do not like it at all. It is really bad for me and everyone else on this planet. It is boring having to stay inside my home for an extended amount of time. When Covid first arrived I was actually excited that I was able to stay home. After a while though it started getting really boring, now I want to go back to school to see my friends.

I have mixed emotions about this. Like I said earlier staying home was great! I was all happy and joyful that I was able to stay home and sleep in as much as I wanted. Now I am just waiting until I can escape and go to school like normal!

In the world today, there are a lot of changes I want to happen. First of all, there is a lot going on while in quarantine. All the violence, Kanye West running for president, the “Karens,” aka the people who refuse to wear masks because of their president’s orders, and the other stuff that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. I think there are a lot of ways we can make this change. For example, the Black Lives Matter protests are attempting to make positive change.

The schools are already helping us students make that change, by sending quizzes on if we should go back to school, rotate days, or just do virtual learning. I think I could have my family go out more to make the experience more normal.

After all this mess going on I would like to just say this, don’t worry! I know a lot is going on right now, and it is just messy all around, but we will get through this! It will definitely be over soon, but it will still feel like it is lasting forever. If you know what I mean. Staying positive during this pandemic is key. I always like to stay as positive as possible. Just like any other person, I have experienced things that shouldn’t be happening on a daily basis! On the bright side, this whole situation does make me feel thankful and alive because I am able to spend more quality time with my family.

The pandemic has made me feel like I can handle that anything comes my way. This is not always the case though. Everyone in the world may feel strong, prepared, ready, but who can tell us what’s coming? This really tells us how anything can happen with just a snap of the finger! From sunny skies to dark clouds and thunder. From daily life to Covid-19.

A photo of Jeremy, the author, holding a peace sign above his head
“Jeremy” Source: the author

*Jeremy will be attending Ramsey High School, and his favorite subject is science. His hobbies include walking his dog, riding his bike, building houses online, and conducting science experiments. He aspires to be an architect, and when asked what inspires him, he notes, “New construction inspires me.”

Charles**

Many people are affected by anti-Black police brutality. Many people are killed due to this, particularly, George Floyd’s death, which was recently in the spotlight. Anti-Black police brutality does not just stop there. Celebrities, such as Jay Pharaoh, have faced police brutality because of the color of their skin. This topic is important because this is an ongoing problem that needs to be stopped. I understand what it is like to have friends and family who are police officers, but we still need to hold them accountable.

I feel distraught every time that I think about police brutality. I have to face the thought of being a victim of police brutality. It makes it harder now because everywhere I go I’m scared that I might be beaten by the police. It does not get any easier. Now the thought of driving is becoming a reality, and that idea fills me with fear. My mom for instance constantly talks about how to approach an officer if I were ever stopped. This is a thing that most African American parents talk about or should talk about with their kids.This is important to me because I cannot predict if I will or will not be one of those victims of police brutality.

My experience with this topic is hearing about people being beaten by the cops.  Also, I have recently seen these things in the media. I’ve had experiences in which I, personally, was scared to call the police because I thought I would be the next victim of police brutality. I never had an encounter in which I was beaten by the police, but seeing events like this occur on the news and social media platforms impacts how I see the police force in the United States.

I know that no matter how many protests we assemble, the act of police brutality will never end. As human beings, sometimes we have to make compromises. I think we can solve this problem by making sure police officers swear to not brutalize innocent people based on race. This should be a part of the oath they swear by, and there should be punishments for not complying with this oath. According to a New York Times article, in 2019, 59% of Police-reported uses of force in Minneapolis were used on African Americans. This statistic shows that African Americans are most likely to face police brutality. A DoSomething.org article shows that in New York City in 2018, 88% of police stops involved Black and Latinx people. The article also states that 70% of those who were stopped were completely innocent. I do think that police officers should be held culpable for their actions. These statistics are examples of African Americans being more likely to face police brutality or harassment.

I think that instead of being more accepting of different races and cultures white Americans are being more hateful towards minorities, especially Black people.  The ongoing anti-Black police brutality has made me grow more furious each and every day. Systemic racism and politicians lead white people to misinterpret the reality of life as Black people in America. White Americans should use their privilege to educate themselves and use their voices to advocate with Black people instead of using their voices for ignorance. Rather than learning new Tik Tok dances or trying to go viral, people should utilize their voice and the endless resources available to educate themselves and their followers on the history and present state of our nation.

A head shot of Charles, the author
“Charles” Source: the author

** Charles will be attending Ramsey High School, and he likes all of his classes, especially science. His hobbies include reading and poetry. He aspires to be an entrepreneur, and when asked what inspires him, he mentions his parents and “knowing he can put his all and mind into anything he wants to achieve.”

Beirut Port Explosion: How Government Neglect and Corruption Have Caused Human Rights Abuses in Lebanon

The recent explosion of the port in Beirut, Lebanon has garnered widespread international attention. While it is still unknown what caused this explosion, two things are known: explosive material had been stored there for years, and the Lebanese government was aware of this fact. For many years now, both government corruption and negligence have been causing human rights abuses felt across all Lebanon, so the explosion in Beirut, while one of the deadliest manifestations of this corruption and negligence, is no anomaly.

An image showing the aftermath of the explosion at the port in Beirut, Lebanon
The Aftermath of the Port Explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

The Lebanese Government

To understand the culture and politics of Lebanon, it is important to understand the way the Lebanese government is set up. When Lebanon first gained independence, the government was divided up so that the several religions in the country would be represented in the government. To do this, it was decided that the President would be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament would be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim. In principle, this was a good way of ensuring political representation for each group. However, many problems have occurred because of this. Today, each religious group defends their own government representatives without holding them accountable for their corruption and negligence, and instead blame other groups’ politicians and representatives when problems arise in Lebanon. This has not only allowed for corruption to go unchecked, but it has also caused the divisiveness and sectarian conflict that has become characteristic of Lebanese society.

Government Corruption

While the extent of government corruption has been mostly speculative, an accusation leveled against one of the top politicians in Lebanon last fall seemed to confirm many Lebanese citizens’ suspicions about Lebanese politicians’ corruption. The politician in question is Najib Mikati, previous Prime Minister of Lebanon. Mikati is Lebanon’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion. Many people have alleged that this accumulation of wealth could only have been the product of illegal activity, and this allegation seemed to be confirmed in October 2019, when a prosecutor pressed charges against Mikati, accusing him and his family of stealing millions of dollars that were meant to be used as housing loans for low and middle-income Lebanese citizens. Despite the fact that Mikati denied this accusation and it has yet to be shown to be true, the accusation was enough to gain traction among the citizens of Lebanon, who used this as conclusive proof of widespread government corruption. While this is only one instance, most of the politicians in Lebanon are millionaires, which leads many to believe that all are involved in some form of corruption.

Economic Decline and Revolution of 2019

While government corruption is in and of itself a problem, this corruption has also had negative ramifications on the economy; it has been argued that it is the primary cause of the steep decline in Lebanon’s economy. In 2018, economic growth for Lebanon was just 0.2 percent, with a 30 percent unemployment rate for youth, and due to these conditions, citizens of Lebanon were becoming increasingly critical of the quality of life in Lebanon, with many explicitly blaming politicians. In an attempt to improve the economy, Lebanese politicians began imposing taxes on many different commodities. While this angered many people, the revolution of 2019 did not begin until the government imposed a tax on WhatsApp, a free messaging service popular in the Middle East. It must be understood that the revolution was not just about the WhatsApp tax, as this was merely one of many contributing factors. In reality, much of the anger that spurred the revolution was due to both the dire conditions in Lebanon and the Lebanese government’s decision to place the burden of fixing the economy on the citizens, despite the fact that the politicians’ own corruption is what has led Lebanon to the brink of collapse.

An image showing protesters in Beirut, Lebanon
The 2019 Lebanese Revolution. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Coronavirus Impact

While government corruption is to blame for the bleak conditions in Lebanon, the coronavirus has only further exacerbated these issues. Since the first outbreak in Lebanon, there have been several lockdowns, all of which have negatively impacted the economy. The most damaging impact has been the devaluing of the Lebanese Pound, which was already losing much of its value before the pandemic, but has now lost over 75 percent of its value. The devaluing of the currency not only bears negative consequences on the health of the Lebanese economy as a whole, but it has also made it impossible for many in Lebanon to afford basic necessities. As a result of the devaluing of the currency, prices of medicine, food, and rent have all increased exponentially, nearly 40 percent of the population has been pushed below the poverty line, and almost one million people have insufficient access to food.

Explosion of the Port of Beirut

On August 4, 2,750 tonnes of explosive material improperly stored at the port of Beirut exploded, completely destroying the port and surrounding areas. Until today, it is unknown what caused the explosion, but it has since been revealed that the government was warned about this material almost six years ago and were even warned by security officials to remove the material a few weeks before the explosion. The fact that the government initially stored 2,750 tonnes of explosive material near a residential area and for years ignored warnings to confiscate this material attests to the level of negligence that the government has towards its citizens and its country. To say that the government’s negligence has devastated Beirut would be an understatement; at least 171 people have died, thousands are injured, and over 300,000 are now homeless. Since the explosion, the Prime Minster has resigned, protesters have returned to the streets, and Lebanese citizens are now determined to see the fall of the government. There are many uncertainties in the aftermath of this explosion, but one thing is certain for most, if not all, Lebanese people: the Lebanese government is solely to blame for this tragedy.

Due to government corruption and negligence, Lebanon has been slowly moving towards total collapse. As the country reels further into political, social, and economic unrest, the people of Lebanon have become more and more convinced that the government is not concerned with either their protection or livelihood. However, this is not the first time the Lebanese people have suffered at the hands of their government, and for this reason, voices of resilience and hope are ringing through the streets of Lebanon; just as the people of Lebanon have overcome other hardships before, they have a conviction that they too will overcome this. As a testament to this, many Lebanese people have been calling Beirut a phoenix, for despite the destruction caused by the explosion, the citizens of Lebanon believe that Beirut will rise from the ashes.