On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, the UAB Institute for Human Rights facilitated a discussion on the issues of juvenile justice and children’s rights. This conversation was led by Dr. Stacy Moak, a member of the UAB Political Science and Public Administration department, who also has a decade of previous experience as a member of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas Little Rock.
The focal point of this discussion concerned the recent incident of gun violence in Newport News, VA, where a local first grader, just six years old, shot his teacher at Richneck Elementary School. After outlining the basic information on the situation, Dr. Moak brought up two broader questions that would become the basis for most of the discussion: how did this happen, and who can be blamed for this incident?
The conversation initially turned towards the issue of how a gun could have ended up in a six-year-old’s hands in the first place. Several participants questioned how a child this young was allowed out of their family home, into their car seat, and stepped into a classroom with a gun in their backpack. In response, Dr. Moak answered that current gun regulation, or the lack thereof, has played a large role. The conversation referenced how the United States has more guns than any other nation in the world, which has been a result of their being ingrained in the American cultural identity. Dr. Moak outlined for the group how the United States lacks major federal safe handling requirements and simple purchase restrictions surrounding firearms, and how those missing safeguards too often mean guns in the hands of minors.
Source: Yahoo Images
Later, when asked by a participant how we need to specifically change or reconsider gun policies in order to prevent these types of events in the future, Dr. Moak referenced a group called Moms Demand Action, a “grassroots movement fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence.” Circling back to the tragedy at Richneck Elementary, Dr. Moak discussed the existence of several security measures, like backpack checks, at the time of the shooting, and how the district’s current policies failed to prevent the violence. Even when the school was on alert that a gun might have been in the child’s possession, a gun search was conducted, and nothing was found. One participant mentioned how policies and processes designed to stop these tragedies aren’t working effectively, as seen in the Virginia incident, where the safety inspection of a backpack proved ineffective when it failed to catch a hidden weapon. Another discussion contributor argued that the government’s efforts thus far to protect our children haven’t been enough. Referencing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a policy centered around the protection of children around the globe, as an example, they pointed out that the U.S. is the only country that hasn’t ratified the convention, even now, 33 years since its introduction.
At the end of the day, what does justice look like in this situation?
In first examining the legal culpability of the child, Dr. Moak reasoned that “if we don’t expect rational decisions from them in other aspects of life, we can’t put the weight of their decisions on them when it comes to the justice system.” Although at 6, the defendant in question is not old enough to face detention in Virginia, Dr. Moak reminded the group that numerous other children would fall victim to this system. Depending on the state, children as young as 8 can not only be sent to juvenile prison but be detained in an adult prison or even sentenced as adults themselves. The fact that a child is 11 instead of 6, she argued, shouldn’t make such a drastic difference. In fact, the brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid to late 20s, so trying to judge the character and motive of a human being who is still learning to tie their shoes is questionable. Though, when it comes to minors in general, the question of intent and the capacity to comprehend the severity and the consequences of their actions in a trial setting remains difficult to judge. Unfortunately, Dr. Moak revealed that the current juvenile justice system does little to acknowledge this. Despite her point that “the main right that children are entitled to is our protection,” constitutionally, the only protection they’ve received is an exemption from the death penalty and life without parole. Dr. Moak brought up that Alabama, for example, has only granted parole to a minuscule number of potential parolees, so most life sentences, at least locally, will remain permanent. In fact, the Alabama Parole Review Board has this year, as of February 14th, only granted parole to less than 3% of total parole applicants. Such policy and behavior are by no means unique, and this favoritism of punishment over rehabilitation, especially for children, Dr. Moak worried, will lead to troubling consequences.
Source: Yahoo Images
However, in this case, the only potential avenues of intervention Dr. Moak outlined were Social Services and the child welfare system, as in situations like these, “we’re not treating the six-year-old, we are treating the entire family.” This prompted a discussion of the accountability of parents, with several contributors asking about their potential consequences. One participant asked whether the parents could be obligated to attend some sort of parental or gun safety training as a result of the shooting. On the subject of legal parental responsibility, though, Dr. Moak said there was little to be done, as “juvenile court has no jurisdiction over parents or other adults” as a body designed to strictly deal with youth justice. To mandate any parental action, an adult court would need to be involved.
Finally, Dr. Moak mentioned that a child’s moral compass and rationalization for their actions stem from what they observe around them, whether that be from their parents or their society. One contributor added that American cultural traditions of violence and outright brutality in the face of disagreement seem to have fostered children who aren’t well-versed in conflict resolution. Hollywood was used as an example of this cultural upbringing, producing action movie after action movie that places force as the primary solution behind the dispute, showing them a world where revered heroes act first and talk later. Another participant captured this idea of normalized societal brutality by reminding the group that “we control the storytelling,” and the messages of the stories that will influence the future.
What can we do to remedy some of the issues brought up in this discussion?
Gun regulation and juvenile justice reforms are notoriously difficult to implement, but some steps can be taken to address some of the more specific issues. For one, we can enact and enforce a moderate national gun regulation policy with a targeted focus on the safe storage and possession of firearms. As a member of society, you can contact your local representatives and elected officials to convey your support for such regulation or donate to causes, like Moms Demand Action, to support their missions. In the realm of youth rights, we can urge our lawmakers to ratify the long overdue UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, while more broadly changing the standard medium of conflict resolution from violence to peace.
Thank you to Dr. Stacy Moak and to everyone who joined or participated in this important and thoughtful discussion! To see more upcoming events like this hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.
Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UAB or the Institute for Human Rights.
On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that allowed women access to abortion. The majority opinion, supported by the Court’s 6 conservative justices, reads (p. 79 of the Opinion of the Court):
“The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.”
Obviously, what’s happening is directly related to human rights. Interestingly, both the “pro-life” movement, arguing in favor of restricting abortion access, and the “pro-choice” position, contending it’s a woman’s right to choose what’s happening to her body, use human rights language to justify their positions.
The question about abortion is, fundamentally, a question about the “right to life.” But whose right to life are we talking about? If you listen to anti-abortion activists, it’s about the life and rights of the unborn. If you follow the women’s rights argument, it’s about the life and rights of women and girls. What rights do women have according to human rights and what rights belong to unborn children, fetuses, embryos, and fertilized eggs? For the sake of this article, I will use “the unborn” to refer to the different statuses of gestation, recognizing that different gestation stages might have different legal implications regarding the termination of pregnancy. I also use the terms “women” or “woman” to refer to pregnant people, acknowledging that not all people who become pregnant identify as women. I chose to do so in line with language used in court decisions (domestic and international), legal and policy documents, and literature, which mostly use the term “women” when discussing abortion and reproductive rights. I also aim to disconnect my argument from the moral opinions of abortion and focus solely on what human rights law and policy have to say on the issue.
Let’s take a closer look.
Women’s rights and abortion
According to the UN, women’s rights include the rights to “equality, to dignity, autonomy, information and bodily integrity and respect for private life and the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination; as well as the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” This means that a girl or woman has the right to make her own decisions over her body, including in matters relating to her reproductive health, which lies at the very core of a woman’s right to equality, privacy, and physical and psychological integrity. Women’s rights have been well established internationally through a variety of documents and treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Sustainable Development Goals, and some of the basic human rights documents acknowledging the equality of men and women (e.g., Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the U.S. is a state party). Domestically, women’s rights are enshrined, among others, in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote, Title IX protections, and in court cases such as Roe v. Wade.
According to the WHO, unsafe abortion is the third leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity. Unsafe abortion is defined as a procedure for terminating an unwanted pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking minimal medical standards or both. Every year, about 25 million or 45% of all abortions worldwide are performed in a hazardous environment and lead to close to 50,000 deaths and temporary or permanent disability of 5 million additional women. There is a high discrepancy in unsafe abortion rates depending on the legal environment guiding termination of pregnancy: in countries where abortion is completely banned or only allowed to save a woman’s life, over 75% of abortions were unsafe as opposed to 10% of unsafe abortions in countries where abortion is legal.
The figure below shows the impact of abortion bans on unsafe abortions:
The recent Supreme Court decision will have severe consequences on a woman’s right to life, physical and mental integrity, health, privacy, and inhuman and degrading treatment in states like Alabama that restrict access to abortion or outlaw it in any case. As the three dissenting Justices point out (p. 2 of the Dissent):
“[The Court] says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of.”
Based on above evidence it is likely that the rate of unsafe abortions and deaths of women in the U.S. will increase.
Rights of the unborn
With the unborn, the question is not so much about life, but about personhood. There is no agreed definition of when personhood begins. Across history and different cultures and religions, it has been argued that fetuses acquire personhood at conception, at various stages of pregnancy, at birth, or even after birth following the completion of traditional rituals. Philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and legal scholars tend to disagree widely on this subject, as does the general public. Particularly influential was Pope Pius IX’s declaration in 1869 that ensoulment occurs at conception as opposed to at “quickening”(when the mother detects the child moving for the first time), which was the Catholic teaching before that point. This laid the groundwork for restrictive legislation on abortion and contraception that still exists in some countries today.
The question of when personhood begins also found its way into major human rights documents. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely recognized human rights document, states in Article 1:
“[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (emphasis by author)
making it seemingly clear that human rights, including the right to life, begin at birth. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the legally binding human rights treaty based on the UDHR, however, states in Article 6 that
“[e]very human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
Similar wording is used in the European Convention on Human Rights (“[e]very person has the right to life” (Article 2)) and in the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (“every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life” (Article 4). The word “born” is no longer mentioned in these cases.
Somewhat ambiguous is the Convention on the Rights of the Child: It states in its Preamble that “the child… needs… appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth.” However, this is later qualified by Article 24 (health), Article 6 (life), and Article 3 (best interest of the child), which puts the rights of a pregnant girl over that of its fetus. For explanation, preambles can only be used for contextual interpretation of a treaty and do not develop legal effect like articles do.
The only general international human rights instrument that explicitly extends the right to life to the unborn is the American Convention on Human Rights. It states in Article 4: “Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
This first look makes it, therefore, seem unclear what international human rights law actually has to say about the right of the unborn. Discussions over the wording of Article 6 (right to life) of the ICCPR in 1957 shed some light on the most common arguments both in favor and against a right to life for the unborn: to protect human life at maximum capacity, the right to life starts at conception, which is what Belgium, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, and Morocco argued for during the negotiation of the article. The majority of states, however, rejected this interpretation on the grounds that it would be scientifically impossible to determine the exact moment of most conceptions. In addition, some states argued that such an interpretation of the right to life at conception would impede on fundamental women’s rights, especially a woman’s right to life, health, and physical and psychological integrity. Most developed countries liberalized abortion laws between 1950 and 1985, citing women’s rights, equality, health, and safety, thereby embracing the idea that personhood is not established until birth.
How do we solve this apparent tension between women’s rights and rights of the unborn?
To answer this question, we need to dig a little bit deeper and look at the interpretations of the right to life by international lawyers, case law, and reports issued by international human rights bodies. A clearer picture emerges when doing so: the right to life of born persons and fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination requires that rights of pregnant women supersede interests of protecting the life in formation.
Although States parties may adopt measures designed to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, such measures must not result in violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant. Thus, restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy. States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable. In addition, States parties may not regulate pregnancy or abortion in all other cases in a manner that runs contrary to their duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, and they should revise their abortion laws accordingly. For example, they should not take measures such as criminalizing pregnancies by unmarried women or apply criminal sanctions against women and girls undergoing abortion or against medical service providers assisting them in doing so, since taking such measures compel women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion. States parties should not introduce new barriers and should remove existing barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion, including barriers caused as a result of the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers. States parties should also effectively protect the lives of women and girls against the mental and physical health risks associated with unsafe abortions. In particular, they should ensure access for women and men, and, especially, girls and boys, to quality and evidence-based information and education about sexual and reproductive health and to a wide range of affordable contraceptive methods, and prevent the stigmatization of women and girls seeking abortion. States parties should ensure the availability of, and effective access to, quality prenatal and post-abortion health care for women and girls, in all circumstances, and on a confidential basis. (footnotes omitted)
To make it a little easier on you, let me summarize: overall, this is a strong affirmation of abortion as essential in ensuring the life of women and girls because of the above-mentioned impact on maternal mortality and morbidity. Unambiguously, the Human Rights Committee confirmed that:
Safe, legal, and effective access to abortion is a human right protected under the ICCPR.
Preventable deaths of women and girls constitute a violation of the right to life.
Restriction on access to abortion can amount to torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, discrimination, and violation of women’s privacy.
The right to life under the ICCPR begins at birth.
In addition, the Committee imposed strong obligations on states to protect women’s and girls’ right to life, including:
To ensure effective access to safe, legal abortion in cases in which the life or health (mental or physical) of the woman or girl is in danger, the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or the pregnancy is not viable.
To remove barriers that deny effective access to safe abortions and to protect the lives of women and girls against the physical and mental threats of unsafe abortion.
To discontinue the criminalization of pregnancies by unmarried women or of women undergoing an abortion or medical service providers assisting them in doing so.
To offer access to sexual and reproductive health education, contraception, and healthcare for women during pregnancy and post-abortion.
To revise their abortion laws to take above points into account.
It seems that in the current political discourse, we assume a symmetrical balance between the right to life of two entities: the woman and the unborn. From the above considerations, it is pretty clear that in human rights law, this is not the case. In fact, the protection of the unborn in international human rights law is very thin, to say the least. By contrast, the right to life, health, physical and mental integrity, non-discrimination, and equality of women is well-established and comparatively clear cut. Interventions on behalf of future persons may not violate the rights of the born person, namely the pregnant woman in whose womb the gestation occurs. The rights of a born person trump the rights of the unborn person.
See, among others, additional Human Rights Committee decisions (e.g., Whelan v. Ireland, Mellet v. Ireland, and VDA v. Argentina), CEDAW decisions (e.g,L.C. v. Peruand K.L. v. Peru), CEDAW General Comment 35 (gender-based violence), General Comment 22 (calling on states to decriminalize abortion and guarantee women equal rights, non-discrimination, and autonomy), reports by the Committee on Torture linking deaths of girls and women from unsafe abortion to right to life, or the 2016 and 2017 reports by the Special Rapporteur Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
International Rescue Committee: Refugee aid, including food, hygiene and medical supplies, and other emergency resources for refugees, and there isn’t a way to earmark funds specifically for Ukraine on its website
World Central Kitchen: delivers warm meals to refugees and displaced people at various Ukraine border crossings
Global Empowerment Mission: emergency aid and travel assistance, operates a temporary travel and aid center in Medyka, Poland on the Ukrainian border.
Vostock SOS: Ukrainian-based humanitarian aid organization partnering with a German-Swiss nonprofit Libereco to help evacuate Ukrainian refugees out of the country
Children and other vulnerable groups
Voices of Children: Ukrainian organization providing psychological and psychosocial support to children
Save the Children: provides education, food etc. to children since 2014, provides protective services for unaccompanied minors who flee the country or are internally displaced
UNICEF: health, nutrition, HIV prevention, education, safe drinking water, sanitation and protection for children and families. You can earmark your donation specifically to its efforts in Ukraine on the donation page.
CARE: supports women and children in the fight against global poverty, Ukraine Crisis Fund
MAKE SURE TO SPECIFY THAT YOUR GIFT GO TOWARD RELIEF IN UKRAINE. Otherwise, money might go towards general causes, including operational budget. DON’T donate to the first crowd funding initiative you see, always vet the organizations carefully.
Please email us at email@example.com if you have additional vetted resources that could be added to this list or if you notice a broken link. We will update it over the coming days and weeks. Thank you!
After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.
While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.
From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.
This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.
The Human Rights Perspective
From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.
Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.
It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.
Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.
What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?
Franz-Stephan Gady (International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS, in London–short analyses of the evolving military situation)
Steeven Seegel (Historian of Russia and Ukraine, UT Austin, actively bringing the community together)
Learn more about the conflict, context, and potential implications. We will post the recording of our Panel The Ukraine Crisis: Implications for Geopolitics and Human Rights that took place on Thursday, March 3, at 4:00 pm CST soon.
How long ago this seems now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The impetus of this blog post is Nelson and Maggie’s desperate appeal to help support their people who have been hit extremely hard by this crisis, and to show how COVID-19 affects people in the developing world.
COVID-19 in developing countries
While we have raised awareness of what this crisis means for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our own society, having to deal with a pandemic in developing countries is a whole different endeavor. The virus itself and the sickness it causes are only half of the danger. Major societal issues such as widespread poverty, economic deprivation, and lack of access to water, food, sanitation, and healthcare present huge challenges for people in the Global South. The COVID-19 crisis threatens already fragile economies and has the potential to negatively impact human rights, education, basic resource allocation, and food security. Under-resourced healthcare systems and hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, creating a probability for higher death rates. A majority of people in developing countries also lack access to water and soap, increasing the likelihood of infections and facilitating the spread of the disease. In addition, there are no social safety nets or government bailouts for workers and businesses, exacerbating scarcity, political struggles, violence, and poverty.
In other words, it is not just the virus that threatens people’s lives in developing countries, but the whole context – poverty, underdevelopment, structural violence, lack of government resources to respond to the pandemic – that puts lives in peril and threatens the existence and survival of whole communities. People in developing countries are doubly at risk. This crisis will leave deep scars, not only with regards to lives lost, but also with regards to international development gains made in the last decades in development, human rights, and human dignity. These are the issues Nelson and Maggie are afraid of. They are not only worried about the immediate impact of this crisis on their people, but also about the setback this crisis will cause to the wildlife, economic, and cultural advances that have sustained and elevated their community for the last years and made Nashulai indispensable for their society. Their people, their project, and their way of life are in peril of survival.
What COVID-19 means for Nashulai Conservancy
Nashulai is a community-led conservancy in the Maasai Mara in the southwestern part of Kenya, close to the border to Tanzania. The Maasai are an indigenous community of strong and brave warriors, but poverty and lack of development have negatively affected their quality of life. Most Maasai exist on less than $1 a day, depending mostly on their livestock for food and income. More recently, due to Nashulai’s efforts, the community has been able to garner revenue through tourism by offering safaris and running guest houses and camps. About 2,000 people live on Nashulai’s 6,000 acre conservancy, and an additional 3,000 people live in the surrounding communities. Most of them reside in traditional Maasai villages, in which small dwellings arranged in a large circle for community living. Women, men, and children live together in small spaces and share food, resources, and chores with one another. Men mostly look after cows, sheep, and goats or work in local tourist camps and lodges, while women prepare food, raise children, and make jewelry and art work to sell to tourists. Livestock is sold on twice-weekly open markets in exchange for grains, oil, salt, and other basic necessities.
COVID-19 has put all of this in danger. The markets are closed due to government safety measures, leaving people without food and without income. Tourist streams have run dry, which means no money and no jobs (90% of employed Maasai rely on the tourist industry). The communal way of Maasai life is in direct opposition to the guidelines of social distancing and self-isolation. There is no running water in Maasai homes, making constant handwashing not an option. Healthcare in the rural areas of Kenya is difficult access in the best case, and Sekenani health clinic in the conservancy is not equipped to deal with COVID-19 cases. It is unclear what should happen to people who become infected. There is a lack of information and education about the crisis, and an absence of guidance of what the WHO guidelines of handwashing, social distancing, and self-isolation and quarantine mean for people in places like Nashulai. There is no electricity beyond solar power, and while some people have phones or radios, spreading news and information is extremely difficult.
The situation is dire. People are starving.
Nelson and Maggie have developed an emergency plan to provide each household with basic food items, to repurpose part of Nashulai’s tourist camp to isolate sick people, and find ways to educate the community about safety measures and health. They have established a strategy on how they can become self-sustaining in terms of food production and continue their important conservancy work over the next months. However, because their stream of revenue has been cut, they rely on us, their friends, to support them, the Maasai people in their community, and the long-term survival of their project.
As countries around the world continue to fight the outbreak of the coronavirus and deal with the disease is causes (COVID-19), the question arises how this public health crisis affects human rights. It is essential that we not ignore human rights during this crisis, even if our primary focus is fighting the outbreak and finding a cure for the disease. The epidemic and the response to it have a major effect on people’s lives, and thus are guided and impacted by human rights. Human rights cannot be an afterthought, but need to be worked into both public and private responses.
To follow up on my colleague Dr. Peter Verbeek’s earlier blog post, I will focus my considerations on two issues: 1) how public policies and legislation in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19 affect human rights; and 2) the broader human rights consequences of the proposed and implemented public health measures.
May public health policy limit human rights?
Most countries have statutes that allow for limitations to human rights in times of national emergencies or major public health threats. According to international law (and in most democratic states constitutional law), these limitations have to be necessary, proportionate, and related to clear and lawful public aims. They also have to be implemented in accordance with existing laws and the greatest measure of transparency.
In response to the coronavirus, emergency legislation in many countries (see for example in the U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia) allows health departments and public health officials to impose a number of measures that affect people’s lives and their human rights. These measures include detaining people to be screened, collecting their health information, and putting them in isolation. People who do not comply with orders by public health officials or obstruct their work, refuse detention, leave a place of isolation, or supply misleading information can face criminal charges. For example, when a woman was evacuated from Wuhan and quarantined at Travis Air Force Base in California asked to leave the facility, California authorities issued an order forcing her to stay against her will.
While these types of measures might be necessary during such emergencies, it is worth noting that they do interfere with basic human rights, especially the right to liberty (UDHR Article 3), protection from arbitrary detention (UDHR Article 9), right to privacy (UDHR Article 12), and freedom of movement (UDHR Article 13). Considering the significance of these rights and freedoms and the grave consequences that can come from violating them, it is vital that government policies impede individual freedoms and human rights as little as possible. Further, any interference on human rights has to be based on strongest scientific evidence available (as opposed to, for example, racist or xenophobic justifications).
There are a number of important ways to achieve this.
To ensure the protection of privacy and other rights, only data directly relevant to combatting the coronavirus outbreak should be gathered from individuals. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has wide-ranging powers in case of emergencies, including obtaining clinical specimens and data from persons affected by an outbreak, obtaining data from healthcare facilities, enforcing control measures including quarantine, and seizure or destruction of private property. While some of these measures might be needed to stop the spread of a virus, it is important that the principles of necessity and proportionality are at the front and center of response policies to guarantee the respect for human rights.
Public health organizations, as well as the government, need to establish official communication channels that remain open for detained and quarantined people. Moreover, those subjected to restrictions such as detention and quarantine should have the ability to appeal their situation and voice their concerns regarding their treatment.
Officials, as well as the public, have to recognize that those in quarantine or detention are in an extremely difficult situation. In addition to their medical state, they are often socially and economically vulnerable. The stigma that often accompanies quarantine and/or detention can lead to exclusion, emotional difficulties, and mental health issues. Similarly, loss of income or jobs can lead to short-term and long-term problems for affected people. For their part, governments should act to mitigate the negative consequences of public health policies and be aware of underlying socioeconomic conditions, potential human rights violations, and structural violence.
The duration and severity of necessary limitations on human rights should be clearly communicated. It is not just the extent of human rights limitations that matter, but also how long they are set in place. The so-called “war on terror”, for example, was originally launched as a response to the terror attacks of 9/11, but it has persisted for decades, with legal authorities extending well beyond their original goals.
The human rights consequences of fighting the coronavirus
This brings me to the second part of my post, which focuses on the broader human rights and societal consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak. As Mary Bassett and Natalia Linos of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights write in the Washington Post, “[e]pidemics emerge along the fissures of our society, reflecting not only the biology of the infectious agent, but patterns of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination.” Beyond the more immediately obvious issues of how quickly the virus spreads, how many people will die, and how our healthcare system is affected, we need to ask ourselves about the societal effects of public health threats.
The most significant question is: who is the public? Who are public health responses designed for? Race, gender, caste, class, migration status, disability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, living conditions (urban v. rural), and other attributes determine the level of inclusion or exclusion of a person or group in society and their vulnerability in case of crisis. Even when measures seem neutral on the surface, public health responses to infectious diseases tend to follow a “utilitarian logic”, which can lead to unintended consequences and discrimination. For example, results are often gendered: Women tend to be caretakers of children and older people, making them the first to have to skip work when children are out of school or elderly parents fall ill. They are also often front-line healthcare providers, and any family-related responsibilities for these women can lead to shortages of available health personnel. Other advice, such as “social distancing”, cannot be upheld in prisons, public transportation, or migrant camps, and are therefore only useful for the privileged who live in their own flats or houses and can use their cars for transportation. In some cases, public health responses emphasize xenophobic or racist tendencies and reinforce societal divisions. There are already a number of stories and occurrences people of Asian descent shared about sneezing or coughing in public and experiencing responses ranging from angry looks to outright racist comments. Also, not all people have access to information if it is not prepared in minority languages, accessible formats, and spread through different means (e.g., illiterate people will need audio or visual announcements).
This situation is particularly problematic in the U.S. healthcare system, as it excludes people based on employment and/or immigration status and on the availability of financial resources. The large number of people without access to health insurance will not have the same level of information, testing, or treatment available to them as those with health insurance, and they face additional worries about financial burdens associated with seeking care. Further, private companies can decide how much to charge for treatments of the virus or vaccines without concern about affordability.
In my mind, a purely market-based allocation of healthcare resources in times of COVID-19 is not only unethical, but a human rights violation. Article 25 UDHR calls for everyone to have “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” How far we are from this ideal! Viruses and pandemics don’t care about a person’s legal, economic, or social status, but because of lack of human rights-based public health responses, crises will have differing impact on rich, privileged people as opposed to poor, disenfranchised populations. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated, “people who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus.” The search for an inclusive public health response and a more equitable and accessible healthcare system is even more urgent and important in times of the coronavirus and COVID-19.
Where does this leave us?
What happens next and the way our political leaders handle this crisis is therefore crucial. If authorities take a heavy hand, twist the truth, and/or compromise hard fought for fundamental freedoms and human rights, the public might be less willing to cooperate in a future crisis situation. Successful interventions in public health crises do not only depend on the level of control issued and the sophistication of medical responses, but also, and most importantly, on whether or not the people trust the government to handle the crisis, to communicate transparently, and to be accountable to its citizens. It also depends on solidarity and community building – whether people cover their coughs and sneezes, self-isolate when they think they got infected, and not hoard scarce supplies to the detriment of others. Public participation and agency of all people is therefore a key component of managing the disease successfully.
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and my colleague Peter Verbeek pointed out, it is vital to structure any response to the coronavirus outbreak holistically, and that includes respect for and protection of human rights. It means to develop a transparent public response based on principles of equity and accountability for all actors involved, including the private sector. It also requires taking care of those most vulnerable in a crisis and protecting the most marginalized in a society, both medically and economically. Human rights cannot be an afterthought in epidemics. How governments handle the coronavirus and their response to COVID-19 might as well set a precedent for human rights in the future. Let’s hope that this crisis will be an opportunity to see the value of human rights, public participation/democracy, and multilateralism.
**Due to the continuing tragedies of gun violence, especially in schools, and stalled legislation, our series on guns and gun control (from two months ago) will repost over this week.
The gun rights vs. gun control debate is again at the forefront of our national discourse after 17 people lost their lives in a school shooting in Florida last month. School shootings hit close to home for all of us, and especially those of us engaged in education or with school-aged children. As an educator and mother, this is very personal. We need this public discussion on what our children’s lives are worth to us, on guns, and laws and policies that will help protect us in cases of gun violence.
I have noticed that both sides invoke human rights when they advocate for either gun rights or gun control. The human rights case for gun control is pretty clear and straightforward. Gun control advocates base their claims on the most fundamental human right: the right to life and security of the person (Articles 6 and 9, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Article 6 ICCPR very clearly states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life” and that states have an obligation to ensure the security of all persons. School shootings fall within the realm of arbitrary taking of life, and therefore need to be addressed by the government. The government has a duty to protect people from these types of events. When the government fails to do so, we speak of a human rights crisis, which is what the Amnesty International has called gun violence in the United States.
According to the preamble to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), human rights “derive from the inherent dignity of the human person’ and are aimed at achieving ‘freedom from fear and want.” Human rights are moral rights with legal implications. They are about the value of each human life, and about people’s most basic needs. Access to food, water, housing, for example, or equal treatment before and under the law and not to endure discrimination on grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, sex or gender, national or social origin, and disability status. These rights are codified in international human rights treaties or part of customary international law.
The right to own a gun is not mentioned in any human rights document.
It is not part of customary international law or a general principle of law as recognized by the international community. It is not general state practice, which is what you would think following the debates in our own country. In fact, the United States is one of three countries in the world that has included the right to bear arms to their constitution, so it is quite an outlier.Therefore, the fact that the right to own guns is a constitutional right (although there is some debate over how to interpret the Second Amendment) does not mean it is a human right.
The reason the gun lobby is proposing a human right to gun ownership is easy to see. First, human rights are “sexy”, they are “in”. Their proposition reflects an overall trend to construct more and more issues in the language of human rights. Second, calling gun ownership a human right also strengthens their argument – who would not want their position to be supported by an inalienable right? But again, this is not what human rights are. You cannot simply take any individual right and call it a human right. As discussed above, human rights carry greater moral weight than individual rights by themselves. This might be splitting hairs to some, but it is an important distinction. It makes all the difference. Third, gun rights advocates often argue that not only is gun ownership is a human right, but also that the government cannot legally limit this right. That is not how rights work, regardless of whether we are talking about a human right or any other right.
No rights are absolute – they are limited by the rights of others. Governments can certainly limit rights, for national security reasons, for example, or to uphold public order, or to confront a health threat. Take freedom of speech as an example: You cannot say anything you want. You cannot incite murder, leak government secrets, or distribute child pornography. The idea that there is a human right to own guns and that this right is unlimited is incorrect.
But what about self-defense? Isn’t there a human right to individual self-defense from which the right to own guns would follow? This is where things get a bit more complicated. The academic literature contests whether self-defense is a human right. No international human rights treaties or resolutions mention the right to individual self-defense, which leads me to conclude that individual self-defense is not recognized by international law (unlike collective self-defense, which is the right of the state under Article 51 of the UN Charter). The right to life and physical security might imply that states must recognize an individual right to self-defense since states will never be able to defend all individuals from being harmed at all times. However,
the entitlements that flow from a human right are not the same as the human right itself.
For example, the right to work does not include a specific right to conclude a contract for employment. Or the right to freedom of movement does not liberate you from rush-hour traffic.
In short, the assertion that there is a human right to individual self-defense has dubious legal and moral foundations, and scant empirical support. The conclusion that this means there is a right to gun ownership for private citizens is clearly false. A conclusion like this would imply that guns are only be used in self-defense. However, studies have shown that guns are not used in self-defense as often as people claim. A recent study by the FBI showed that in 2012, only 259 homicides were justifiable (in self-defense), but 8,342 criminal gun homicides. In other words, for every one (1) justifiable homicide in the U.S. involving a gun, 32 criminal homicides occurred. This ratio does not take into account gun-induced suicides or fatal accidents involving guns. In other words, the assessment of gun rights cannot depend solely on their positive or negative impact on the right to self-defense, since no gun is inherently limited to defensive use.
Studies have clearly demonstrated that more guns mean more homicides (see here, here, and here). Individuals who have a gun are almost 5 times as likely to be shot in assaults than those who don’t have a gun. Other studies show that living in a home with guns is less safe than living in a home without guns (see here and here). Gun proliferation has a negative impact on the right to life and physical security and can lead to human rights violations. It is, therefore, important for the government to take action and regulate and hinder the proliferation of guns as part of its obligation to protect the right to life, as I explained above.
Human rights and guns do not go together. Using human rights to justify gun rights is not only wrong but it is dangerous. Human rights are about the lives of human beings, about freedom, liberty, and the betterment of these lives. Guns or “gun rights” have no place in human rights discourse; countering gun violence, engaging in public discussion, and instituting gun control do, however.
This is the mission of the March for Our Lives, which is scheduled for this Saturday, March 24, to raise awareness of the gun violence in schools. The March’s mission statement reads: “Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of a firing assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our schools are unsafe. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives.”
** The succession of package bombings presently terrorizing the citizens of Texas has prompted a repost of this blog.
After the events in Charlottesville and the incredible outpouring of hate and violence, many of us are wondering – what can I do to confront hate, white supremacy, and racism? I know that many of us feel disheartened, furious, or even helpless in the face of evil. What can we do to take action?
Here is a practical guide based on my experience in human rights and peace advocacy.
1. Know your human rights.
This is an important step that often gets forgotten. Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give you the tools and language to confront hate. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination, and human dignity. Each human life is of equal value, and the human rights of all are worth fighting for.
Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted. There are many different ways to do that: by reporting human rights violations to the authorities or other entities (e.g., you can report civil rights violations to the ACLU; if you are at UAB, you can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), by documenting them, or by learning about them and educating others. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the website of the United Nations Human Rights and by reading our blog, in which we cover international human rights issues.
2. Speak up in the face of injustice.
Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, I encourage you to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Document, record, and monitor what’s going on around you. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life, and if you see injustice, say something. Notice if someone speaks over your colleague of color or always disrespects the points made by the women on your team. Think about diversity when creating a job ad. Call your friend out on that racist or sexist joke. Talk to your relatives about your views (I know, that is a hard one). If you feel uncomfortable confronting the perpetrator, team up with others who agree with your view that racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. are unacceptable. Again, document and report what happened and find a way to inform authorities, your diversity officer, or your equal opportunity department. Look for ways to empower the victim by expressing your support, talking to him/her, and educating them about their human rights.
The goal is to make “every day” suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred in Charlottesville. It’s these “normal”, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.
3. Be aware of your own biases.
The last months, and especially the events last weekend in Charlottesville, have shown that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and any other systematic suppression of specific groups has become socially acceptable in certain circles. Racism is now fully in the open; white supremacists feel emboldened to show their faces while expressing their hateful views. This has an impact of how we view ourselves and our position in society. It is on all of us – and especially on white people – to confront hate. As a former neo-Nazi said to the Huffington Post, “White people need to solve the problem of white supremacy. It’s white people’s problem, we created it, and it’s a problem we need to fix.”
It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases (and we all have them). Realize if you cross the street when a black man walks towards you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color, or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others.
One of the ways to overcome some of these biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research reveals that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice, a theory usually referred to as “contact hypothesis”. I encourage you to reach out and make new friends outside of your race, religion, and gender.
4. Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests.
Obviously, being aware is not enough. Join a movement and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. Here in Birmingham, you can become part of the StandAsOne Coalition . If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights student club or come talk to us at the Institute for Human Rights.
It is important to find a cause that fits your interests, your passion, and your skills. I know I said this before – not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers. We cannot all become Martin Luther Kings, Nelson Mandelas, or Leymah Gbowees. But we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Maybe you have great writing or social media skills. Maybe you like to organize or have great experience on how to implement ideas. Maybe you know about technology. Maybe you love public speaking. Think about what you are good at and how your skill and talent can be used to move the cause forward.
5. Call your representatives.
One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change in this country is to call your representatives. It is a very easy and quick thing to do. FYI – calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message, or letter. The message can be brief and go something like this:
My name is ____________________.
I live in Representative/Senator ______________________ ‘s district. (Since you can vote for/against the legislator, your opinion is more important.)
(At some point the staff will probably ask you for your zip code. This helps them verify that you do live in their district.)
I would like Representative/Senator _________________ to denounce the violence and hate in Charlottesville (or support any other cause relating to human rights, civil rights, etc.) (This is a general request.)
I would like Rep/Senator _________________ to vote in favor of House Bill XYZ/Senate Bill XYZ (This is a specific request.)
You can also include a personal story of how your human rights have been violated or about injustices you observed. Keep it brief and to the point.
Thank you, __________________ for your time.
Please be polite to the staff (which is who you will most likely get on the line). The staff does not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call. They do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.
Educating others about the dangers of evil is key to confronting hate. The movement will grow momentum by gaining new members. Education does not necessarily have to be formal (as in “let me sit you down and tell you about human rights”, although this is important too), it can be informal, by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you’re having. It can happen person to person, on social media, or any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems, and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find formal education doesn’t resonate with them.
Personally, I think it is such a privilege to be an educator. It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. You can do that too: Teach your children (or your nieces, nephews, cousins…) about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism, and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others. You have learned about human rights, and sharing this knowledge with others will be useful not only to them, but also to you. It will help you specify your ideas and clarify what you deem most important.
One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights. We at the Institute would certainly appreciate your donation because raising awareness for human rights is our daily business – thank you for thinking about it – and here are some other organizations to consider as well:
Finally, and most importantly, self-care is incredibly important for all of us who work in advocacy. Confronting hatred, violence, and suppression is a big task, and honestly, it is exhausting, depressing, and hard to deal with mentally and physically. It is easy to get discouraged and to give up. It is therefore important to know what you can do (and what you cannot do), what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are. You cannot do everything, but if everyone does their part, we will eventually get there, step by step. Focus on the local level, your own community as a start. That is how we change the world – person by person.
Also, make sure you do not get overloaded with terrible news. Take care of your needs and shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news, etc. when you start to feel overwhelmed. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself and realize that real progress takes patience.
Remember, we are in this together. We can do it, one step at a time.
When we talk about our understanding of justice, many of us will most likely have to look to our upbringing for clues. For me, this is certainly true – the trajectory my life took to where I am today, standing before you as the Director of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, begins with my childhood in Switzerland. I’d like to share two defining moments from my life that have influenced who I have become. Growing up in Switzerland in the 1980s, my family was fairly traditional. My dad worked outside the house as the main provider, my mom was for the most part a stay at home mom. When I was a teenager, my mom decided that she would like to run for public office. She ended up the first female mayor of the town I grew up in, and I admire her greatly. She has been a true role model in my life, showing that women can achieve whatever they want. I must say a word though about my dad. When my mom ran for public office, my dad, who had a very successful career at one of Switzerland’s major banks, supported this endeavor. At the time, he had a job that required a lot of travel, but he decided to switch internally to a position that would enable him to be home more, realizing that my mom’s commitments would often happen at night and that we, his kids, would need him (even though as teenagers we might not have communicated that very clearly). I would say my dad is a true feminist, even though he would probably cringe to hear me say that. He never gave me the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do anything I wanted because I am a girl and he supported my sister and myself (and my brother, too) in any endeavor we were looking to engage in. My parents – through their achievements and by supporting one another – instilled in us a true sense of equality and I will always be very grateful for that early lesson. I am lucky to have found a husband who agrees with this model – I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today here in Birmingham without his support and encouragement. I think this is why Maya Angelou’s poem really resonated with me, even though it was obviously written in a completely different context. Equality, for ourselves and in the way we treat others is the basis for social justice and the basis for one of the most important principles for human rights, which is non-discrimination.
The second defining moment came when my mom was elected to the social affairs council of our town. This was in the early nineties and the wars in the Balkans had just started. Switzerland was overrun by refugees, mostly from Kosovo and Bosnia. It used to be the case that refugees were processed and housed in the large urban centers in Switzerland, but because of the sheer numbers of new arrivals, mid-size and smaller towns had to start taking refugees as well. My mom found herself in a position that all of a sudden, she was responsible for finding ways to accommodate asylum seekers in our town that was completely unprepared. I will always remember waiting at the train station for the first family to arrive. We went in person (again, there wasn’t anything in place) to pick them up and bring them to temporary housing that was put up on an empty lot. I remember them when they arrived, mother, father, and two boys, thin, with haunted eyes, and nothing but their clothes on their backs. I remember sharing our toys and other personal things with them because they had nothing.
Ever since, I have been interested in the why and how does it happen that people fight and kill each other and commit the worst imaginable atrocities. I realized relatively quickly though that what interested me was not only the why, but also what to do about it. This is how I came to the topic of human rights and peace. I’m interested in what we can do to combat human rights violations, empower those who are suppressed, and frankly, how we can make the world a better place. You might have guessed it – I’m an idealist at heart.
This is how I approached the establishment of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB. The Institute was approved in 2014, but didn’t officially start until my arrival in February of last year. I started off as a one woman show, but now have a diverse team of researchers who work with me. The Institute has three areas of focus: education, research, and outreach. Our educational mission focuses mainly on UAB students, but also includes community training. We’re in the process of developing a minor in human rights and are an integral part of the new MA degree in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. We offer internships for undergraduate students to learn about human rights, advocacy, and to perfect their writing skills. A big part of our educational mission that goes beyond UAB is our blog and I encourage you to take a look. We cover as diverse topics as the chemical attack in Syria, LGBTQ rights in the United States, the intersection of HIV and human rights, and the issue of child marriage around the world. As an institute at an academic institution, research is a core part of what we do. My own interests focus on empowering marginalized voices in global governance. I’m interested in the patterns of marginalization and suppression and what people have done to be heard and break out of their suppressive situation. I’ve focused on ethnic conflict resolution, international law, and human rights approaches to some of the world’s most deeply rooted conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflicts in the Balkans, and the tensions in Northern Ireland. In addition, I am an expert and advocate for rights of persons with disabilities and a lot of the work we do today focuses on empowering persons with disabilities and talking about rights of persons with disabilities on a global scale. The last part of our mission is outreach. We do community training on human rights, are in the process of developing a curriculum for elementary students, and engage in solidarity efforts. You might have heard about our public speaker program, which is an important part of our work. We bring speakers to town to discuss global human rights topics and organize panel discussions on the world’s most pressing topics. Past speakers included Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and Ambassadors from Kosovo and Syria, Tibetan monks, and professors from other universities. I often speak about human rights and human rights violations myself, too, especially as it concerns refugees, persons with disabilities, and human rights education.
The question I get asked the most is “what can I do?” and this is what I want to talk to you about briefly. You need to ask yourselves is two questions: first, what is my passion? And two, what am I good at? When Leymah Gbowee was in town last September, she gave a lecture to our students at UAB. In her talk, she spoke about how she became the leader of the women’s movement that ended the Liberian civil war and enabled the election of the first female head of state in Africa. She said that for us to become active in the field of human rights, social justice, and peace, we have to “find our fire”. This is what I encourage you to do. Look for the defining moments in your life, just as I had mine. You might find that what really captures you is ending the wage gap, focusing on ending economic inequality, battling institutional racism, advocacy on behalf of refugees, which I know is a passion for some of you in this congregation, or advocacy on behalf of children. This is a very individual process and I encourage you to think deeply and reflect. Only if you find your own passion and your “true fire”, you will be able to be an agent of change and social justice.
Obviously, not all of us will be Martin Luther Kings, Leymah Gbowees, Ghandis, or Mother Theresas. What we have to realize though is that none of these social justice leaders would have been able to achieve what they achieved without the support of others. Just like my mom wouldn’t have been able to become mayor without the support of my dad or I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of you if it weren’t for the support of my husband. We might not remember their names, but let me tell you, their support is just as important as the one of the leaders. This brings me to the second question – what are you good at? Even if you think you have nothing you can contribute, let me tell you this is not true. Everyone of us has something we are good at. Maybe your strength is to build relationships – why don’t you reach out and connect people who have similar interests? Maybe you like to knit or sew – you can contact a shelter and see what kind of needs there are. You can sew clothes for little babies who were born too early. Knit sweaters for the homeless. Maybe you have great writing skills – why not volunteer your time for an underfunded public school to write grant applications? You see where I am going with this.
When we want to inspire social change, we need to first start with ourselves and then with our communities. Unless we become UN Secretary General, US President, or any other highly visible position, we won’t be to tackle the big problems of the world. I know it is easy to give up when looking at the many issues we face today. Famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria. Dying children in Syria. Refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies. Decaying neighborhoods. Members of the LGBTQ community beaten and put in concentration camps in Russia. How can you not resign, throw up your hands and say, what can I do in the face of all this suffering? Let me tell you, there is so much you can do. Social change starts small – in our neighborhood, in our group of friends, in our community. Just because you can’t personally solve the Syrian crisis doesn’t mean that you can’t be part of social justice. So – ask yourself: what am I good at? And how can I use this power or skill to change my community? Personally, I realized pretty quickly that my calling is not to be a community organizer, but that my strength is to be an educator. This is why I am professor and the director of the Institute for Human Rights today, because my “fire” is to educate others, to give them the tools that they need to change their own communities.
Let me end with a word of caution. Some of you know that I am the mothers of two little boys. When I see what they watch on TV, I can distinguish two narratives. One is that the world can be divided into good guys and bad guys, and the other is that we have to help and rescue people. I’m not going to say much about the first assertion besides that human nature is not absolute but relative, and so much depends on the context. The world is a complex place with lots of shades of grey. It is the second point though that I find important in the context of human rights and social justice. This idea that we have to rescue others seems deeply ingrained in the American culture and – please forgive my bluntness – related to white privilege. It’s good to care for others, but personally, I think the approach of rescue is wrong. What unites marginalized communities is that they lack agency to make themselves heard. This doesn’t mean that they are vulnerable. Many members of marginalized communities are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. We need to focus our social justice efforts on empowering those who don’t have voice, to give them the tools they need to build agency. They don’t need us to speak for them. We need to listen carefully to what they are saying and not to come in with our preconceived notions of what they need. This, I think, should be the premise of social justice work and it is a principle that I apply in my own work advocating on behalf of others. The goal is to build a world in which everyone can reach their full potential. I am excited for you to join me in this endeavor. As Maya Angelou said, let’s keep on marching forward. Thank you.
One of the worst chemical attacks turned a rebel-held area in the north of Syria into a death zone. Bombs were dropped from war planes in the early morning of April 4, 2017 and the spread of poisonous gas started shortly thereafter. Close to 70 people died, with pictures of dying children and grieving relatives going around the world. The Syrian military accused insurgents, but it seems clear that only the Syrian government has the ability to carry these types of bombings. Shock and condemnation was the reaction of governments and the public around the world. Two days later, President Trump ordered airstrikes, his first military action while in office.
Why this outcry and action now? People have been dying in Syria for months and years – think Aleppo – and the response has been, for the most part, fairly limited. We have seen dying children and assaulted women, airstrikes on civilian areas, and death and suffering everywhere. I would argue there are three reasons for this strong response, both in the public and in the political realm.
The footage of the attacks themselves.
The violation of most important rules of international law.
A new administration in the White House.
Let me explain.
First and most obviously, it is the footage of children and older adults struggling to breathe, frothing at their mouths, and lying motionless in the mud as aid workers desperately try to help. It is the incredible grief by a father, who lost 22 members of his family in the attack, and who can be seen clutching the bodies of his 9-month-old twins. It is the level of individual suffering that most of us can relate to as human beings with families of our own, and the gruesomeness of the attack shakes us to the very core.
However, there is a second reason why this attack is cause for special consideration. The use of chemical weapons rises to the most serious violation of fundamental principles of international law: (1) the deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime against humanity, the “worst of worst crimes” and on par with genocide, and (2) the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in warfare is one of the most widely acknowledged and respected rules of the international law of war.
Crimes against humanity are deliberate, systematic attacks against civilians or a significant part of the civilian population. Crimes against humanity were first described and prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII and have since entered international criminal law as one of the major crimes for prosecution of individuals. While there is no international treaty specifically dealing with crimes against humanity, the Statute of the International Criminal Court lists mass murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, recruiting of child soldiers, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, mass rape, and political or racial repression (e.g., apartheid) as crimes that reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.
The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons has its origins in the late 19th century. Shortly after the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864 – the institution that oversees international humanitarian law, also known as the “law of war” – states decided to regulate and ban weapons that inflict excessive and unnecessary harm to the people affected by war (e.g., the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899). The horrific injuries sustained by soldiers from poisonous gas in WWI and experiences of both combatants and civilians in later conflicts (e.g., in Vietnam) accelerated these efforts, which resulted first in the Geneva Gas Protocol (1925) and then in the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of chemical weapons in all circumstances, which means in both international (meaning between states) and non-international war (any other type of conflict, including civil wars). Only 13 states have not signed either the Geneva Gas Protocol or the Chemical Weapons Convention (Syria is not one of them). The prohibition of chemical weapons is a universal norm, which means that it binds all parties to armed conflicts, whether state or non-state actors, as a rule of international customary law.
This ban of chemical weapons is strengthened by the fact that it is illegal under international humanitarian law to use weapons that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. So-called indiscriminate weapons are those that cannot be directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be limited. Similar to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, this rule is not only international custom, but has also been affirmed in various international treaties, including the statute of the International Criminal Court and the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. The UN General Assembly and other UN organs have supported this principle in multiple resolutions and the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world, reaffirmed the principle of distinguishing between civilian and military targets in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (ICJ, Nuclear Weapons case, Advisory Opinion). While there is no definite list of indiscriminate weapons, the ICRC generally cites chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, anti-personnel landmines, mines, poison, explosives discharged from balloons, cluster bombs, booby-traps, certain types of rockets and missiles, and environmental modification techniques.
In other words, the chemical attacks by the Syrian regime on its own population broke two fundamental rules of international law.
Third, we have a new administration in the White House whose policy towards Syria and the Middle East is most likely to be very different than the one of its predecessor (it is too early to tell for sure). President Trump expressed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way in which he views the Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. The decision to use airstrikes against Syria was made shortly thereafter. President Trump’s words, and in some way, his actions, remind us of President Obama’s reaction to the use of chemical gas against civilians in Syria in 2013. President Obama, who used the word “red line” in connection with the 2013 attack, also contemplated air strikes. However, in an unexpected turn around, Obama decided to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria. The proposed bill never received a floor vote because the Syrian government accepted a U.S.-Russian deal to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile and sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Conventions.
What does this mean? Were the airstrikes legal? What are the political consequences? From a legal point of view, the situation is complicated, but more easily explained. Under international law, the use of force against another state is illegal, unless it is in self-defense, authorized by the UN Security Council, or on the invitation of the state affected. Security Council authorization is unlikely to happen considering that Russia is a veto-power holding member of the Security Council and has made it clear that it does not see the need for a condemnation of the attack. The U.S. has not given any indication that the airstrikes were in self-defense. Syria has certainly not invited the U.S. to strike its airbase. So, in most interpretations of international law, the airstrikes are illegal. President Trump said in a press conference in the evening of April 6 that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” which could hint at a future justification of the airstrikes within framework of self-defense. There is some discussion over whether the unilateral use of force on behalf of civilians, also known as humanitarian intervention, should be seen as legitimate, if not legal. However, considering the situation in Syria and the U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State, Russia’s engagement, and the geopolitical situation, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to argue for a purely humanitarian justification of U.S. action. While the airstrikes authorized by President Trump were very limited – hitting a somewhat remote airbase – and no formal declaration of war has been made, Syria could very well see the airstrikes as an informal act of war.
Under U.S. law, the President may authorize military action for defense, but not for offensive wars. Offensive wars require congressional approval. Congressional approval was given for military action after the 9/11 attacks, which gives the President far reaching authority to combat terrorism. The Obama administration has interpreted this rule to include and authorize the fight against the Islamic State, and so far, the Trump administration seems to go along with this interpretation. Regardless, a war against Syria, a state, not a non-state actor, is a completely different beast. A war against Syria would most certainly need congressional approval, and members of Congress have already called for the administration to bring any future military action before Congress.
In terms of political consequences, it’s too early to tell if this was a one time engagement and what the Trump administration will do next. Russia’s involvement in Syria complicates matters as not only U.S.-Syrian relations, but also U.S.-Russian relations are at stake. Russia has reacted strongly and called the airstrikes a “significant blow to Russian-U.S. relations.” Either way, an in depth discussion of strategy will be important, especially considering that interventions tend to be much more complex and complicated endeavors than they first appear. America, as many countries before her, has learned this the hard way. And if we really want to help the “beautiful babies” in Syria, as President Trump claims, we need to open our borders to allow Syrian refugees to find safety.
However, while these discussions over legality and Russia-U.S. relations are certainly important, they are not sufficient. What we need to focus on is the question over what the consequences of military action will be. We cannot be distracted from what has to be the end goal: a political settlement of the conflict. Only a termination of violence and war will end the tremendous suffering of Syrian children, women, and men. Any military action has to be judged on whether it advances or hinders an end to the conflict.
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