Brazil Decides in Landmark Court Case to Grant Land Rights to Indigenous

by Delisha Valacheril

Image 1. Indigenous Representatives Speaking with Local Leaders in Brazil. Source Flickr.
 Image 1. Indigenous Representatives Speaking with Local Leaders in Brazil. Source Flickr.

A jubilant celebration of color erupted as several indigenous leaders and activists gathered outside the courthouse adorned in tribal wear and brilliant headdresses to rejoice in the top court’s decision to rule in favor of their land rights. Dubbed the “trial of the century,” Brazil’s Supreme Court decided against a so-called cutoff date restricting Indigenous people’s claims to their traditional lands. Demarcation of ancestral lands is essential in preserving Indigenous human rights. By protecting these lands, indigenous communities can aid in conservation and preserve their cultural integrity. It is reported that 29% of the territory around indigenous lands in Brazil has been deforested, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam). Now that the native people can access their roots, they can help preserve what is left. This decision also provides legal ramifications against land poaching or exploitation, which applies to several indigenous areas throughout the Amazon. Addressing historical injustices is a crucial step to ensuring that these communities can enjoy a more equitable and sustainable future.

Image 2. Tribal Chief at Land Protest. Source Flicker.

Context

On September 21st, the Federal Supreme Court had to decide whether or not the native people’s right to their territories predated the Constitution of Brazil formulated in 1988. The Justices followed the precedent set up by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which states that the right continues as long as their “material, cultural, or spiritual connection” with the land persists. This case has been brewing in the nation for quite some time. The dispute stems from Santa Catarina’s legal battle against the Ibirama-La Klãnõ Indigenous Land. The Xokleng tribe sought to regain their ancestral land from the state of Santa Catarina. The state used the “Marco Temporal” legal argument, which prohibited Indigenous Peoples who were not living on the land when Brazil’s current constitution was enacted in 1988 to apply for land demarcation. This is gravely prejudicial, given a significant part of the indigenous population was expelled and displaced during Brazil’s two decades of military dictatorship. Numerous tribal communities were killed and displaced due to that repressive system, which included the invasion of land, forced labor, displacement, and other human rights violations.

With this in mind, hundreds of activists have flocked to the capital, demanding respect for the rights that were stolen from them. These activists advocate for land traditionally occupied by indigenous people to be reserved for their perpetual possession. They are the natural owners of the land, so it should belong to them. They also argue that the natives can conserve the land much better than the local government. Traditional habits and customs of the indigenous are the most significant deterrent to deforestation. However, there are some critical opponents to this viewpoint. Individuals involved in the agribusiness sector and those on the far right are stronger than ever in National Congress, upholding the time limit principle. This decision opposes their farming interests because they want that land to grow their business. Currently, Indigenous reservations cover 11.6% of Brazil’s territory, notably in the Amazon. This area is rich in biodiversity, making it ideal for agricultural commodities. However, ruling against business interests could exacerbate violence against Indigenous peoples and escalate conflicts in the rainforest.

Image 3. Indigenous People Protesting Brazil Government. Source Flickr.
Image 3. Indigenous People Protesting Brazil Government. Source Flickr.

Historical Significance

The Xokleng, the tribe responsible for taking this case to the highest court in the country, was nearly wiped out by Italian settlers who were granted “uninhabited” land in the State of Santa Catarina by the Brazilian government during the 20th century. They were pursued by “bugreiros,” or hired hunters, who were sent into the forest to hunt down and exterminate the Amazon’s native inhabitants. After that mass extermination, how can the government uphold such a discriminatory precedent? The Xokleng are the rightful owners of the land because the Brazilian government forcibly removed them. Marco Temporal is a complete infringement on human rights. The tribe was almost decimated in the 1900s, and the law stated indigenous people living on the land past 1988 had a right to the land. Examining this from a historical viewpoint further illuminates the egregiousness of the situation. The Supreme Court of Brazil found this law inherently unfair because the same government that invaded indigenous lands could not decide on the legality of their land rights.

Conclusion

While this is a historic milestone for indigenous communities, the work is not over. Though land demarcation is critical in the pursuit to secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not, by itself, sufficiently protect ancestral land. We must hold the government accountable to implement an active, systemic policy that enshrines Indigenous rights from violence, especially violence committed by anyone who illegally trespasses into their territory. Additionally, they must have unhindered access to their territories. From a human rights standpoint, defending indigenous rights is critical because it resolves past wrongs, assures access to necessities, fights discrimination, and upholds justice, equality, and respect for the dignity of all people and communities.

The State of Gun Violence in the United States

by Caitlin Cerillo

An image that depicts a person holding a gun. Three angles of the world are shown next to it with a red circle over the United States. This depicts gun violence as a serious issue in the United States.
An image that depicts a person holding a gun. Three angles of the world are shown next to it with a red circle over the United States. This depicts gun violence as a serious issue in the United States. Source: Yahoo Images

Gun violence has always posed a serious threat in the United States. Gun violence can come in many forms, such as homicides, suicides, accidental shootings, mass shootings, and more. It is important to notice that this blog will be about gun violence in the context of the United States. Recent decades have seen a significant spike in acts of gun violence, particularly mass shootings. Although a universally agreed-upon definition of what exactly constitutes a mass shooting does not exist, it generally entails around a minimum of four individuals being shot and/or killed. This does not have to include the perpetrator.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, well over 600 mass shootings occurred in 2023 alone. These shootings result in the lives of innocent individuals being taken, as they can occur in a wide range of places. These include places of worship (like synagogues and churches), concerts, movie theaters, grocery stores, educational institutions, parades, sports events, and more. Just six years ago, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history occurred at a country music festival in Las Vegas. This resulted in the death of 60 people and over 400 injured.

While I have not been directly affected by a mass shooting, I vividly remember hearing about mass shootings in schools since I was in elementary school. The first one was the shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. A few days after the shooting, I remember my fourth-grade teacher speaking to us about the precautions our class would have to take in the event we were to encounter an active shooter in our school. In 2018, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred when I was in 10th grade. I remember being afraid to go to school the next day. Since then, mass shootings have continued to happen each day, where innocent lives have been taken. People should not have to fear going to school, practicing in places of worship, seeing a movie in a theater, attending their favorite artists’ shows, or going to the grocery store. They should not have to plan places to hide in the event of an active shooter. This poses a number of important questions: Why is gun violence, specifically mass shootings, such a huge problem in the United States? What does this mean for United States citizens’ safety? What can be done and has been done to prevent these acts of terror?

The U.S. in Relation to Other Developed Countries

The context of mass shootings in relation to other countries is important to take into consideration when understanding the significance of this issue. In comparison to other developed countries, which are defined as states with a high Human Development Index (HDI), the United States surpasses all of them regarding the occurrence of mass shootings. According to data retrieved by Jason R. Silva from William Paterson University, “the US is the only developed country where mass shootings have happened every single year for the past 20 years.” Silva is an assistant professor in Sociology and Criminal Justice with a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice. He specializes in the area of mass shootings, media and its relation to crime, and violence in educational institutions. To find his data, Silva uses the same general definition of mass shootings mentioned earlier in this article: a minimum of four individuals either shot or injured, not including the shooter.

One of the leading causes of the United States’ high rates of mass shootings compared to other countries could be the relaxed gun laws and policies—or lack thereof. Gun control has become a heated topic of discussion among United States citizens, and the debate regarding its effectiveness has gained traction due to the heightened occurrences of mass shootings. Gun control can come in many forms, like the outright ban of specific gun models like the AR-15 and other assault-style weapons, the implementation of universal background checks, safe storage laws, or stronger requirements for those who want to purchase guns. Gun control does not necessarily mean that all guns will be eradicated from the country, which is a popular assumption among opponents of gun control.

Opponents of gun control and regulation also argue that it would violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the “right to bear arms.” The Second Amendment possesses some relevant historical context, as it was originally intended to grant United States citizens the Constitutional right to form “a well-regulated militia” to protect their communities during the Revolutionary War. However, the context of society has changed. These state militias—while still existing in some states—do not serve the same purpose they did centuries ago. Proponents, on the other hand, assert that the protection of the Second Amendment comes at the cost of protecting people from senseless acts of gun violence.

A group of demonstrators at a March for Our Lives rally advocating for gun reform in June 2022.
A group of demonstrators at a March for Our Lives rally advocating for gun reform in June 2022. Source: Yahoo Images

The Role of Gun Culture

United States gun culture can also be a contributing factor to the nation’s ever-growing rise in mass shootings and gun violence. “Gun culture” refers to the specific attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings that society (or any social group) possesses regarding firearms. The term was first coined by Richard Hofstadter in 1970, who published an article titled “America (United States) as a Gun Culture,” which critiqued the country’s normalization and glorification of guns. This article was far ahead of its time, and I recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the United States’ gun culture.

In the article, Hofstadter talks about the historical context of the United States’ fascination with guns. It began as early as the Revolutionary War when the Pennsylvania rifle was used by British troops. Since then, guns have become integrated into everyday life, from hunting for food to entertainment and sport. Even in modern popular culture, the depiction of guns is typically associated with famous characters like James Bond, John Wick, and “Maverick” from Top Gun. Toy guns are constantly advertised to young children—particularly young boys—as a way to establish their “masculinity.” Additionally, video games glamorizing gun violence have amassed popularity among young people. While these examples are not the sole reason gun violence has taken a toll on the country, it’s important to note their contribution to the overall gun culture in the United States.

Last semester, I took a course on Human Rights taught by Dr. Greenstein, an assistant professor in UAB’s department of Political Science and Public Administration. We had the option to create a project pertaining to any topic regarding human rights. As the issue of gun violence is a direct violation of human rights in a multitude of ways, I chose to create a photo collage depicting the sensationalizing of firearms. I intentionally used one method of finding photos for the collage to further drive the point that gun sensationalism is extremely prevalent. To no surprise, all I had to do was walk into Walmart, where I found a whole section of firearm magazines. Each of the magazines portrayed the firearms in ways that one may find appealing, with eye-catching text, edited graphics, depictions of guns with the United States flag, and more. This shows that the sale of firearms is a lucrative business, willing to draw anyone into purchasing them.

This image depicts a photo collage made from magazine clippings. "GUNS" in big, yellow letters appear along with numerous photos of firearms.
The collage I created for a Human Rights course I took last semester shows the heavy marketing perpetuated by the gun industry. This contributes to the spread of gun culture. Source: Caitlin Cerillo

Through these examples, it can be seen why guns are normalized in our country and how they can influence the number of devastating acts caused by firearms. For this reason, steps should be taken to diminish its weight. An article by the National Library of Medicine that echoes this same sentiment urges pushing a narrative that “frames gun violence as a public health issue that has consequences on the health of the general population.” The article also mentions the importance of public advocacy through movements such as March for Our Lives, which was founded in the wake of the 2018 school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. March for Our Lives has advocated for the end of gun violence through protests, marches, public demonstrations, and more.

Progress in Tackling Gun Violence 

While gun violence and the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States continue to be a huge problem, positive strides have been made to reduce it. September 2023 saw the country’s first Office of Gun Violence Prevention, established by the Biden administration. In October 2021, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was proposed, and by June 2022, it was signed into law by President Biden. The act aims to prevent gun violence by:

1) Offering mental health resources and guidance to state governments and schools so that mental health services are available in educational settings.

2) Implementing new gun control laws like extended background checks, implementing stricter punishments for the traffic of illegal firearms, etc.

3) Preventing funds from being used improperly and towards the provision of firearms and dangerous weapons.

President Joe Biden announced the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2023, alongside Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris.
President Joe Biden announcing the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2023, alongside Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Yahoo Images

Through the establishment of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, the Biden administration hopes to expand upon the progress made towards preventing gun violence, like the passing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. As of January 25, 2024, the Biden administration has announced new initiatives to promote the safe storage of firearms. Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona have worked together to spread awareness about how important safe storage is, especially because most firearms—approximately 76%—used in school shootings are acquired from the shooter’s home.

The Politicization of Immigration and the Notion of Invasion: Human Rights Violations on the US-Mexico Border

 

by Lexie Woolums

Trigger Warning: This post discusses immigration, including physical barriers for migrants. The article includes a discussion of some drownings and other instances of death.

 

Broadly speaking, migration is not a new concept. The United States was built by people who were not from here, including people who were forced to come here through enslavement and others who were violently moved against their will through the relocation of indigenous peoples on the Trail of Tears. There have been different waves of immigration, where different crises from around the world prompted people to come to the United States seeking better opportunities.

For example, from 1845 to 1855, around 1.5 million Irish people settled in the United States due to potato blight combined with Britain’s colonial control that forced available crops to be exported out of Ireland. More recently, the US has admitted nearly 300,000 Ukrainians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. There are many more examples of this, from Italian immigrants moving to the US in search of economic opportunities around the turn of the twentieth century to the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants after World War II due to economic depression in Puerto Rico, cheaper air travel, and job opportunities in the US.

A black and white photo of men wearing clothing from the early 1900s. The men are carrying suit cases and standing in a line at Ellis Island after arriving in the US.
Figure 1: Immigrants at Ellis Island c. 1900, Source: Yahoo Images

It’s no secret that not all migrants are treated the same—a concept that Danah Dibb previously wrote about on the blog. Additionally, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote an article that discusses two specific scenarios that effectively demonstrate how politicized immigration has become in the US—one with Governor Greg Abbott of Texas sending busloads of migrants to Vice President Harris’s neighborhood and one with Governor Ron Desantis of Florida sending planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts—scenarios that in any other context would be considered human trafficking.

 

Politicization of Immigration in the US

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, the percentage of people who want immigration to decrease peaked in the mid-nineties with 65 percent of Americans against immigration. In a near all-time low, this number was 31 percent in 2018. Today, that percentage lies around 41 percent—an increase from 2018 but much lower than it was at its peak and still a minority of the polled population.

For much of the 1990s, both major political parties shared similar views on immigration (though they may have disagreed on the way to do things), but that started to change around 2006 and has become much wider today. Today a Democrat is twice as likely to share the view that immigrants strengthen the economy compared to a Republican.

Various presidencies have highlighted different aspects of immigration in the United States, but it has become a topic that is far more divisive in the wake of the Trump Administration. Former President Trump’s stance on immigration was well-known and relatively simple—build a wall to prevent illegal immigration. He favored a policy of “busing and dumping” immigrants to states that had pro-immigration policies; additionally, he also made comments about securing the border from “rapists and criminals” despite the fact that first-generation immigrants are predisposed to lower crime rates than native-born Americans. Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump became known to make off-the-cuff remarks—especially about immigration—that were frequently called out for being racist and xenophobic.

As the President of a free country that is as powerful as the United States, having views like this stirred uneasiness across the United States, especially among minority populations. This rhetoric of invasion is not new, but it does fuel extremism and racism.

 

Operation Lone Star

Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, shortly after President Biden took office. Governor Abbot has sent state troopers and members of the National Guard to the US-Mexico border as a part of the operation. Additionally, the Rio Grande River has been lined with various obstacles, from shipping containers to concertina wire. This is all under what is known as Operation Lone Star, which is a multibillion-dollar operation to mitigate illegal immigration and smuggling at the US-Mexico border. According to the Operation Lone Star website, the agency fills in the Biden Administration’s “dangerous gaps [due to its] refusal to secure the border.” It also regularly buses migrants to sanctuary cities.

Governor Abbott has coined the situation at the US-Mexico Border an “invasion,” which he claims allows him to invoke the invasion clauses in the Texas and US Constitutions. Through this rationale, he has the authority to defend the border through his own policies, even though immigration policy has been under the jurisdiction of the federal government since the 2012 landmark case of United States v Arizona. Human rights advocates have warned of the danger of referring to the border as an invasion since most migrants are seeking to claim refugee legal status and are not attacking the United States in any sense. University of Texas law professor Barabara Hines called this notion of invasion “unprecedented and extreme.” Additionally, Operation Lone Star is under investigation by the Department of Justice to determine if it violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More specifically, the department is investigating if the state agency is subjecting individuals to “differential and unlawful conditions of confinement based on their perceived or actual race or national origin.”

Four men in military uniforms stand with another man wearing a maroon button down.
Figure 2: Members of the Texas Military Forces pose for a picture with representatives of the Remote Area Medical Foundation, Source: Yahoo Images

The Rio Grande River serves as a natural boundary between the United States and Mexico. Over the summer, national attention was brought to Texas when Governor Abbott announced that the agency would be implementing a 1,000-foot-long string of buoys with serrated blades in between them, with a mesh net that would connect them to below the surface. More specifically, the Texan government stated that they were installing the “new floating marine barriers along the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass” in an effort to “help deter illegal immigrants attempting to make the dangerous river crossing into Texas.”

 

Human Rights Concerns

According to the Texas Department of Security, there has been at least one body found caught on the Southern side of the buoys, but they claimed that this body was initially upstream of the floating device and floated into it. Later, the body of a 20-year-old Honduran man was recovered, but it was reportedly upstream of the floating device.

Human rights groups have criticized the floatation device with concerns about humanitarian hazards such as migrants becoming caught in the device or drowning due to its placement. Even without the floatation buoy, crossing the border is extremely dangerous. Even before this barrier was implemented, migrant deaths on the US-Mexico border have hit an all-time high. In the 2022 fiscal year alone, over 800 migrants died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, largely from drownings. This stretch of the border is so dangerous that the United Nations migration agency declared the US-Mexico border as the deadliest land border in the world.

Beyond the buoys, numerous reported human rights concerns with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exist. According to a 2023 report by WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, migrants are frequently treated poorly by CBP, which is the largest law enforcement agency in the US. One of the cases in the report is about an 8-year-old Panamanian girl named Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who died in custody of CBP because she was denied a critical heart medication. Specifically, the report notes that this death was preventable.

Engraved sign on a concrete building that reads " U.S. Customs and Border Protection."
Figure 3: US Customs and Border Patrol Building in Washington, DC, Source: Yahoo Images

Another issue is that accountability for CBP officers is extremely rare. The same report states, “Most of the cases … would have gone completely unknown without reporting from victims and those, outside of government, who accompany them. That such abuses are happening so frequently at CBP and Border Patrol indicates that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) accountability system has done little to dissuade or disincentivize them.” A 2023 study found that 95 percent of complaints from 2010-2022 did not have a proper investigation.

In addition to the numerous reported concerns of CBP abuses, CBP followed a Congressional policy change in September 2021, which means that the agency only reports the deaths of people who died while in CBP custody. Though this change may not necessarily be bad, it is concerning when there are reports of CBP officers lying to migrants about where to go since this puts them at a higher risk of sickness or death that would not be counted in the CBP reports under the new policy (if the person is no longer in CBP custody when they die).

The US CBP came out with a policy known as “prevention through deterrence” in 1994. This policy sought to block popular crossing spots and push migrants into the dangerous areas of the sea and river crossings.  In theory, this would show migrants how dangerous the crossing is so that if they are caught and sent back (which often happens when migrants cross illegally), they would not attempt to cross again. However, it is no secret that this strategy is not effective in reducing the number of crossings. According to an article by the London School of Economics, this approach has not been effective in limiting the number of migrants seeking to enter the US but has increased the number of fatalities.

A view of a bluish green river stretching through the desert. Mountains are present in the background. The shore of the river is mostly sand, with some short green shrubbery present.
Figure 4: A Portion of The Rio Grande River in Texas. Source: Yahoo Images

Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned Operation Lone Star’s instructions for Texas officials to push young children and nursing mothers back into the Rio Grande. According to the article, Texas uses harmful techniques like razor wire, even after children have been injured and one woman miscarried while stuck in the wire.

Sarah Mehta, ACLU senior border policy counsel, stated, “Texas must immediately stop intentionally endangering the lives of migrants seeking protection at the border. The federal government must also act by investigating these damning allegations and by the Department of Homeland Security decisively ending its own collusion with Operation Lone Star, which has facilitated and encouraged Texas’s expansion of a proven human and civil rights disaster.”

 

Federal Response

The Biden Administration has criticized this, citing the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, which prevents the “creation of any obstruction not affirmatively authorized by Congress, to the navigable capacity of any of the waters of the United States.” This act gives the Army Corps of Engineers authority to regulate all navigable waters through permitting. The federal lawsuit against Texas also alleges they did not get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before placing the barrier on the river.

The federal government initially asked Texas officials to remove the barriers. Governor Abbott replied in a letter that stated, “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” implying that Texas would not remove the buoys without legal action. Subsequently, the Department of Justice sued Texas and asked a judge to make Texas remove the buoys.

US-Mexico border coordinator Hillary Quam expressed concern in an affidavit that accompanied the request to a federal judge to have the barriers removed: “If the barrier is not removed expeditiously, its presence will have an adverse impact on U.S. foreign policy, including our relationship with the government of Mexico.”

The request of the federal government was granted by Federal District Judge David A. Ezra, who ruled that Texas must remove the floating barriers. Legally speaking, he issued a preliminary injunction, which preserves the status quo until final judgment (the final ruling of the court). In essence, this meant that the buoys would need to be removed until the case reached its final court decision. Ezra stated the following in the discussion: “Governor Abbott announced that he was not ‘asking for permission’ for Operation Lone Star, the anti-immigration program under which Texas constructed the floating barrier. Unfortunately for Texas, permission is exactly what federal law requires before installing obstructions in the nation’s navigable waters.”

Governor Abbott’s office appealed this ruling, stating that Texas “is prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court.” The federal appeals court granted the request to halt the temporary injunction, but a hearing date has not been set, so the floating barrier remains in the Rio Grande until a further decision is made.

 

Mexican Response

The Mexican government has criticized the placement of these buoys, claiming that the placement is a violation of their sovereignty. More specifically, they have referenced that the presence of these buoys violates the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944.

Regarding the bodies, the Mexican government issued the following statement: “We express our concern about the impact on the human rights and personal safety of migrants that these state policies will have, which run counter to the close collaboration between our country and the federal government of the United States.”

A spokesperson for Governor Abbott claimed that the Mexican government was “flat-out wrong,” stating that neither body was attempting to cross the floating barriers.

 

Conclusion

It has been over 40 years since Congress reformed the US immigration system. According to the Center for American Progress, putting undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship would increase the US GDP by $1.7 trillion over the next decade. According to the Pew Research Center, immigrant families are expected to comprise 88 percent of the US population growth through 2065. To say that reform is necessary is an understatement.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, migration is not a new concept. Unfortunately, it has been used as a political pawn in many ways. From the rhetoric of dangerous crime to the mentality that immigrants “take all the jobs,” misunderstanding has been weaponized against groups of people for a long time, and that likely will not change until we learn to be more compassionate and think of better solutions for our broken immigration system.

A group of protesters standing with a large red sign. The sign reads "New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform." Underneath, it says "Citizenship Now! Keep Families Together! Protect Workers! Safeguard Civil Rights!"
Figure 5: Protesters in New York City. Source: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, it is important to be critical of political officials who weaponize differences and prey on misunderstanding to further their own political agenda. To label such a diverse group as one negative thing that threatens the authority and safety of the United States is not only racist and xenophobic, but it undermines the value of the diverse groups of people who built this country (including the people who were forced to migrate to and build this country, whose impact often goes unrecognized even today). This portrayal minimizes the value of people with diverse experiences and limits the discussion of how crucial immigrants have been and continue to be in the US.

It is also imperative to recognize how slavery, forced assimilation, and genocide have both formed the social hierarchy we have today and continue to perpetuate racism, especially in the context of immigration. If you have not heard of the concept of “passport privilege” (including simply having a passport) or the connotative distinction between the words immigrant and expatriate or expat (not just their dictionary definitions), I highly recommend learning these concepts. It is important to examine where you fit within them, and which preconceived (perhaps racist) notions you might carry about a person based on job, skin color, accent, religion, or anything else.

Society will not change unless individual people change, so even if there is limited direct political action to take as of right now, there is still a lot of room to grow your understanding of these concepts so that racist institutions can be better understood and effectively dismantled.

Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

Humanitarian Concerns About Methods of Execution

Two hands are using a syringe and needle to pull medication from a small glass vial.
The lethal injection may not be as ethical as it is made out to be. In this image, two hands are using a syringe and needle to pull medication from a small glass vial. Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Content Warning: semi-graphic descriptions of death.

In my most recent article, I approached the issue of capital punishment by taking a broader, more philosophical stance on the ethics of taking the life of a person who has committed a crime. In this article, I will dive into the human rights issues we face when we take a closer look at the methods used to execute convicted criminals. 

While researching for my last article, I fell into a rabbit hole of the methods that States use to execute people. Many states still have firing squads, gas chambers, and hangings as alternatives to lethal injection. Many states have single-drug injections where the person being killed feels their lungs fill with liquid and experiences the paralysis of their respiratory muscles, effectively choking and drowning them in their own bodies. Even during multi-drug lethal injection, it is probable that inmates are still able to feel their death even after anesthesia is given. Many inmates have twitched or moved after the injection, a clear sign that they are not fully anesthetized, including one case where a person fully sat up after being given the lethal injection, proving that his body was not anesthetized and he was experiencing the effects of the lethal drug. Click here to read a description of each of the five most common methods of execution.  

Despite many different execution methods being an option for some prisoners, lethal injection is the standard practice today, as it is seemingly the most ethical. Unfortunately, there is a growing mound of research suggesting that that may not be true. One article in particular, titled Gasping For Air: Autopsies Reveal Troubling Effects Of Lethal Injection has been haunting me since I read it a few months ago and led me to choose this topic to write about this month. It is very informative and I recommend reading it if you would like to continue your research into this topic. 

 

A barbed wire fence in front of a dusky sky
Click here to read an article by my coworker Kala Bhattar recounting the prison crisis in Alabama. It brings to light just how unforgiving and punitive Alabama tends to be in dealing with people who break the law. In this image, a barbed wire fence in front of a dusky sky. Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Alabama’s recent track record with lethal injections does not help the argument for the ethicality of the method. While researching, I came across too many horror stories of Alabama completely mishandling executions to recount them all. There will be a list of links at the end of this article to the stories that I could find. In November 2022, Governor Kay Ivey called to halt executions across the state because of a series of three botched executions in a row. All three, including Alan Miller, Kenneth Smith, and Joe Nathan James involved the inability of Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) workers to set an IV line for the drugs to be administered intravenously.

Unfortunately, this is a common theme in executions by lethal injection. As outlined in the Hippocratic Oath, doctors are not allowed to assist in setting the IV line for execution and most nurses refuse because of similar pledges to “do no harm.” This leaves the entire medical procedure of lethal injection in the hands of Department of Corrections (DOC) workers who are not trained in administering intravenous drugs. They often have a hard time obtaining medical training for this procedure because of the ethical restraints of the medical field and the lack of resources put towards obtaining training. DOC workers often puncture or “blow out” the veins of the arms and hands, rendering them unusable for intravenous injections. They then move on to veins in other areas, including the feet, inner thighs, stomach, collarbones, and forehead, blowing those out as well until they get lucky enough to place one without destroying it.

 

A hand with an IV line and a heart rate monitor on the thumb. The person’s arm is covered in a blue medical gown.
Setting an IV line is a standard procedure, but it requires extensive training and medical practice to perfect. The lack of training of DOC workers subjects inmates to excessively being poked by needles all over their bodies for hours on end. In this image, a hand with an IV line and a heart rate monitor on the thumb. The person’s arm is covered in a blue medical gown.Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Alan Miller had his execution called off after the workers attempting to set an IV line took so long that his execution warrant expired. Kenneth Smith’s execution warrant expired while waiting for his case to be heard by the Supreme Court, leaving him strapped to the execution gurney for almost four hours, at least two of which were devoted to placing an IV.

In July 2022, Mr. Joe Nathan James became the victim of the longest-recorded execution in United States history. Faith Hall was murdered in 1994 by her ex-boyfriend Mr. James, who was sentenced to death row in 1996, where he sat until 2022. During this time, the family of Faith Hall petitioned the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections multiple times to express their disapproval of Mr. James’ death sentence and to ask Governor Ivey to pardon him. ADOC took over three hours, allegedly attempting to set the IV line, although it is unsure what was actually going on in that room during this time. His execution was scheduled for 6:00 PM, but observers were not let into the room until 8:57. After repeatedly puncturing, blowing out, and destroying Mr. James’ veins, they finally set the IV correctly and preemptively delivered the anesthetic before the curtain was even opened, violating his right to hear his death warrant read aloud and taking away his chance to speak his last words. To add insult to injury, the family of Faith Hall wished to attend Mr. James’ execution long enough to show him that they forgave him and to hear his last words, then leave before the execution began. They did not get to fulfill these wishes after ADOC told them that leaving before the execution wasn’t an option, saying, “Once you’re in, you’re in.” 

On the day of the execution, in an embarrassing set of events, award-winning reporter for AL.com, Ivana Hrynkiw, was told by ADOC workers that she could not attend the execution because her skirt was too short and her open-toed shoes were “too revealing.” She had worn that same skirt to at least three executions before this one. A cameraman from a different media outlet offered her a pair of fishing waders with suspenders that he had in his car, and she attended the execution wearing those. Kim Chandler, another female reporter from the Associated Press, was subject to a clothing inspection before being allowed to enter the facility. It is thought that this was ADOC’s excuse to stall the entrance of media and guests into the observation room and to justify the three and a half hours that are unaccounted for. This entire execution was a nightmare for everyone involved. Following this was the failed executions of Alan Miller and Kenneth Smith, which led to Governor Ivey halting all executions. 

 

A row of open prison cells alongside a wall. They are made of gray bars and have sliding doors.
From the moment these people are put on death row, all of their human rights are violated. They are stripped of all of their liberty, all of their property, all of their dignity, and all of their humanity while patiently awaiting being stripped of their life. In this image, a row of open prison cells alongside a wall. They are made of gray bars and have sliding doors. Source: Yahoo! Image

 

Many people, including many church leaders, have petitioned Governor Ivey to do away with capital punishment altogether. Many people in all areas of the political spectrum have called out Governor Ivey’s hypocrisy in her intense opposition to abortion rights, citing the sacredness of life while also denying clemency to every death penalty case that has ever crossed her desk. In 2019, she denied clemency to Micheal Samra, a man with borderline intellectual functioning who was only 19 at the time of his crime, the day after passing a state-wide abortion ban. 

“Every life is precious and every life is a sacred gift from God…”

– Governor Kay Ivey, the day before the execution of a teenage offender.

Instead of listening to the cries of its citizens, Alabama has authorized an execution protocol for the use of an untested execution process, nitrogen hypoxia. This entails replacing all of the oxygen in a person’s lungs with nitrogen until they suffocate and essentially drown in gas. Veterinarians consider nitrogen hypoxia an ethically unacceptable practice for the euthanasia of animals. To make matters worse, Alabama wants to test this new method on Kenneth Smith just a few months after subjecting him to his first failed execution horror story. This new method, on top of being a terrible and excruciating death for the person subjected to it, may entail dangers for the executioners and spiritual advisors in the room. In Ramirez v. Collier (2022), the Supreme Court ruled that inmates being executed have a right to be touched by a spiritual advisor during and throughout their executions, but nitrogen hypoxia may infringe on this right, making it unsafe for a person to be within close proximity to them. 

A man asleep on a hospital bed with an oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth.
Caryl Chessman was executed in 1960 by hypoxia and told reporters that he would nod if it hurt. Witnesses watched him nod for multiple minutes straight before falling unconscious. Source: Yahoo! Images

I can understand arguments for capital punishment in theory. I can understand the societal benefit of executing extremely violent repeat offenders who pose an ongoing threat to others. Death may even be more humane than life-long solitary confinement in cases where those are the only two options to prevent someone from causing more harm to others. If we lived in a world where we could guarantee that an execution would be painless, quick, and respectful and that the dignity of the person being executed could be maintained, we might have grounds for capital punishment in extreme cases. But right now, the research is unsure about the experience of people receiving a lethal injection, DOC workers are not qualified to perform the medical procedure of euthanasia, and the vast majority of people receiving the death penalty are one-time offenders who are remorseful for their crimes. I cannot fathom justifying capital punishment under these conditions, especially as it is practiced in the state I call home, Alabama. 

We cannot sit back and watch our Department of Corrections ask an unconscious man for his last words before executing him in silence as if his final thoughts were not worth hearing. We cannot stay silent in a state whose government will soon begin putting people in gas chambers to suffocate and drown in their own lungs, calling it justice. We cannot call ourselves humane if we support forcing other humans to experience the sensation of fire in their lungs from pulmonary edema after not being anesthetized properly, the pressure in their skulls growing until their eyes bulge from their sockets, or the terror of being strapped to your death bed for four hours straight while untrained executioners continuously prick your entire body. We must stand up for the human rights of the humans on death row.

Alabama mishandled executions: 

April 22, 1983 – John Evans

July 14, 1989 – Horace Dunkins, Jr.

December 8, 2016 – Ronald “Bert” Smith

October 17, 2017 – Torrey McNabb

February 22, 2018 – Doyle Hamm

July 28, 2022 – Joe James

September 22, 2022 – Alan Miller

November 17, 2022 – Kenneth Smith

July 21, 2023 – James Barber 

Most of my research for this case was from the Death Penalty Information Center. This is an incredibly holistic and in-depth database regarding the death penalty in the United States.

Shackling and Psychosocial Disabilities

by Blue Teague

An empty room with three windows, all with long, sheer curtains. The two ceiling lights are off. Nothing but light can be seen outside the windows.
An empty room with three windows, all with long, sheer curtains. The two ceiling lights are off. Nothing but light can be seen outside the windows. Photo by Hans Eiskonen on Unsplash.

Mental Health, Autonomy, and Psychosocial Disability

In 1887, Elizabeth Seaman—better known as Nellie Bly—published Ten Days in a Mad-House, a collection of articles she had previously written for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Along with cementing her status as a World journalist, her raw, unfiltered reporting offered thousands of readers a rare glimpse into a mysterious frontier: American mental asylums.

A Pennsylvania native, Bly’s anonymous newspaper pieces championing women’s rights soon evolved into a career based on investigative journalism. However, complaints from her subjects resulted in newspaper executives assigning her to less controversial topics. After years of rejection and gender discrimination, Bly made a last-ditch attempt to save her career by approaching Pulitzer directly and weaseling her way into a novel undercover assignment. Critics had called her insane her entire life for her risky stories, and now she had to play the part.

Bly’s articles quickly garnered attention for numerous reasons. For one, the story itself was sensational. After successfully feigning insanity with odd mannerisms and facial expressions, Bly found herself in New York City’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum after a medical professional declared her clinically insane. There she remained for ten days despite immediately dropping the act. During this period, staff allegedly attributed her every move, including normal behavior, to her supposed mental illness. This would have perpetually prevented her release had outside contacts not stepped into vouch for her sanity. By this time, Bly had risen to minor celebrity as New York questioned where this “pretty crazy girl” had even come from.

However, it was Bly’s description of the institution’s conditions that quickly spread through the masses. Her multi-page articles detailed the physical abuse, gross negligence, and psychological harm patients endured.

Sanitation was poor. Disease was rampant. Food and potable water were scarce, and the staff frequently resorted to physical and verbal beatings when dealing with those under their care. Upon her exit, Bly stated that she believed many women there were as sane as herself. If anything, the asylum’s treatment of already vulnerable women caused insanity.

Eventually, a grand jury launched its own investigation into Blackwell Island’s institution, the parent of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Despite immense budget increases, the institution shut down a few years later in 1894.

 

A dilapidated wooden shed with some white paint on the door and bottom boards. It has two windows with broken glass and rusty frames. Behind it its dense woods.
A dilapidated wooden shed with some white paint on the door and bottom boards. It has two windows with broken glass and rusty frames. Behind it its dense woods. Photo by Lilartsy on Unsplash.

Life in Mental and Physical Shackles

Despite Bly’s work sparking outrage over a century ago, inhumane treatment of those with mental health disorders—or psychosocial disabilities—continues today. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 8 people live with mental health issues. Without adequate support and resources, these conditions can quickly become disabling. Psychosocial disabilities share strong correlations with higher poverty rates, increased medical discrimination, occupational inequity, and other factors contributing to a generally lower quality of life.

In 2020, Human Rights Watch released 56-page document reporting rights violations of the mentally ill. “Shackling,” a recurring theme, was found in 60 countries across six continents.

Shackling is an involuntary type of hyper-restrictive housing. Although it does not include shackles specifically, restraints such as ropes, chains, and wires are commonplace methods in keeping the victim in extremely close quarters. These areas can be sheds, closets, or even caves. Similar to the asylums in Bly’s era, sanitation is a luxury. The detained person often eats, drinks, and defecates in the same space with little ability to prevent contamination.

The motives and background around shackling is a complex cultural issue. Some offenders tend to be family members who, despite loving the person, lack the resources and/or education to deal with mental health crises. Keeping the person confined can appear to be the safest option when confronted with the possibility of them hurting themselves or others.

Additionally, social stigma can create even more danger for the family as a whole as well as the mentally ill individual. Instead of risking exile or ostracization from the community, families may seek alternative healing methods at home, such as herbal remedies, that lack significant medical backing. This, in turn, can intensify psychosocial disability, leaving the family overwhelmed and confused with few options.

A photograph of a medical IV stand holding and empty IV bag on a dark background.
A photograph of a medical IV stand holding and empty IV bag on a dark background. Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash.

Abuse at the Systemic Level

However, abuse does not just occur at the familial level. Mistreatment and abuse flourish in large institutions. The institutions go by many names: asylums, mental hospitals, psychiatric healing centers, etc. These are establishments, often state-funded, purposefully keeping those with psychosocial disabilities away from the general population. Although the institutions usually operate under the pretext of healing and protecting the mentally ill, many criticize the asylum system for blatant human rights offenses.

The abuse is systemic when many perpetrators organize and hide the mistreatment of victims. One such man, “Paul,” shared his experience with reporter Kriti Sharma from HRW’s Disability Rights Division. Paul had lived for five years in a religious healing center in Kenya. He said, “It makes me sad…It’s not how a human being is supposed to be. A human being should be free.”

Paul and his companions walked in chains—literal shackles—and were not allowed clothing. His restroom was a bucket.

In the USA, a wave of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s shuttered many mental asylums, and psychiatric facilities still operating do so with varying levels of success. New York City’s mayor Eric Adams recently announced an expansion of a law allowing months-long involuntary commitment to hospitals for those who, due to mental illness, failed to acquire “basic needs” such as shelter and food. Hospitalization would, in theory, provide the psychosocially disabled with the time and education to recover and start anew.

Opponents quickly pointed out flaws in this process.

As with shackling, involuntary hospitalization represents a loss of autonomy. In a 2022 article in The Guardian, Ruth Sangree reflects on the USA’s changing legislation by connecting it to her own experiences. She describes the monotonous isolation, undercurrent of fear, confusion resulting by the sudden loss of control over her own life. As a nineteen-year-old with no idea of when she would be “set free,” Sangree focused on appearing normal in fear of indefinite hospitalization, regardless of the effectiveness of treatments.

There stands the argument of many critics of institutions: the system is ineffective at best and traumatic at worst. Still, rebuttals exist. In one Times piece, retired employees from a California asylum vouch for the happiness of their patients, stating they “blossomed” when provided with regimen and shelter. This view forms the defense for New York’s law revision, which frames involuntary hospitalization as a compassionate action for the patient’s own well-being.

Objectively, both sides claim to want the same thing: a better quality of life for those with psychosocial disabilities. It has always been the how that stirs debate.

Eight people of varying skin and sleeve colors standing in a circle with one hand each stacked on top of each other's.
Eight people of varying skin and sleeve colors standing in a circle with one hand each stacked on top of each other’s. Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.

The Future of Mental Health Care

One factor in the corruption of institutional systems lies in language. Terms like “healing center” and “asylum” have historically protected potential perpetrators from legal action. Nellie Bly’s work helped lift the veil around mental health and disability, peeling away the euphemisms to reveal the abuse of a vulnerable population.

Today, watch groups exist for this reason. Organizations such as the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP) examine the care of people with disabilities in facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, where caregivers can easily take advantage of those under their care. If rights violations are found, they can work with the facility to improve conditions or take legal action. These organizations exist on a state and national level in the USA.

Individuals can make a difference by simply learning about mental health and advocating for equal treatment of those with mental health conditions. #BreakTheChains is a movement led by Human Rights Watch with goals of educating communities to prevent the chaining of men, women, and children with psychosocial disabilities.

Additionally, awareness is key—October is recognized as mental health awareness month, and invisible disabilities week is in late October. Psychosocial disability month specifically takes place in July.

Rethinking Museum Exhibitions in America

by Caitlin Cerillo

As an avid lover of visiting museums, it is important to hold them accountable when their exhibitions can have damaging implications. History and science museums can be among the most fascinating places to visit, as the world has such a rich scientific history. However, there is a fine line between preserving a specific piece of history and exploiting groups of people in the name of science. In recent years, several museums have come under fire for capitalizing on the exploitation of ethnic groups and glorifying the world’s hurtful history of colonialism, imperialism, and the oppression of marginalized peoples.

In recent years, attention has been paid to the sources of acquisition that many popular museums in the United States use. One of the most recent is the American Museum of Natural History, located in Manhattan, New York, and its exhibitions contain the remains of indigenous people.

What is Colonialism?

Colonialism is a practice in which domination over a specific area is carried out by another foreign state. Colonialism has been and is used as a way to consolidate political or economic gain and always leads to the complete subjugation, or conquest, of the people in the colonized area. The foundation of America was built on colonialism, dating back to before the nation was even established. While there are records of British colonies existing prior to the 1600s, the 17th century marked the beginning of the first permanent colonies. 

 

An illustration of what colonialism in the New World may have looked like. Depicts a docked ship on land with settlers.
An illustration of colonialism in the New World. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Jamestown Colony was created in Virginia in 1607. Long before the establishment of any colonies in the New World, or present-day America, Native Americans were the first to live on American soil. The region in which the Jamestown colony arrived was the same region as the Powhatan people, an Indian tribe. On many occasions, there would be violent encounters between the tribe and colonists. When establishing colonies in the New World, colonists would bring diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox. While they had immunity to these microbes, they would be fatal for the local Native American population.

As the 17th century progressed, the relationship between colonists and Native Americans would significantly weaken. For instance, King Philip’s War occurred in 1675 after the execution of three members of the Wampanoag people by the government of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. This war is known as one of the deadliest conflicts in American history, with the amount of casualties reaching extreme heights throughout the 14-month period of the war.

Even after America was established as a country, harmful practices against Indigenous Americans continued to be considered legal. Hundreds of thousands of Indians—particularly Indian youth—were forced to assimilate. Cultural assimilation is extremely damaging for multiple reasons. It normalizes public stigmatization of the affected groups and erases their cultural identity.

The American Museum of Natural History

 

Photo of the front of the American Museum of Natural History building.
The American Museum of Natural History, which has been criticized for its use of the remains of indigenous and enslaved people in exhibitions. Source: Yahoo Images

 

Upon facing public scrutiny, New York’s American Museum of Natural History has created a policy calling for the removal of all exhibits containing human bones. The museum has promised the use of anthropologists to carry out comprehensive analytical processes to determine these remains’ origins and source of acquisition.

Not only has the American Museum of Natural History come under fire for exhibiting the remains of thousands of Native Americans, but also for acquiring the bones of five Black adults who were buried in a cemetery for enslaved people. This brings an important conversation of eugenics, where bodies were exploited and used as “scientific property” against their will. The presence of eugenics and other scientific thoughts entrenched in racism and white supremacy have allowed for other forms of oppression against marginalized groups—specifically Black Americans—like medical racism and healthcare bias. These connections make the museum’s acquisition of these remains even more problematic.

The Smithsonian

 

Photo of some of the Benin sculptures acquired by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Some of the Benin sculptures that originated from the Kingdom of Benin in current-day Nigeria and have been acquired by the Smithsonian. Source: Yahoo Images

 

Another museum that has come under fire for its exhibitions is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C. While this exhibition does not involve human remains, the exploitation of a group of marginalized people under colonialism remains present. The museum held 29 bronze sculptures that originally belonged to the Kingdom of Benin. The Kingdom of Benin was established during the pre-colonial period of what is now southern Nigeria. The sculptures were seized by British military and colonial forces during a raid in 1897. This raid also resulted in the burning of the city and the deaths of the people who inhabited it

Real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman collected the Benin sculptures and sold them to the Walt Disney Company in 1984. In 2007, they were donated to the Smithsonian. Without thinking about the implications the sources of acquisition of their exhibition pieces have, the Smithsonian turned a blind eye to their hurtful histories. Fortunately, the Smithsonian recognized this problem and removed the sculptures from public display in late 2021. Museum director Ngaire Blankenberg also enlisted the help of curators to find the places of origin for all pieces that had potential ties to the Kingdom of Benin raid.

Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Warren Anatomical Museum

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Warren Anatomical Museum, both owned by Harvard University, recently repatriated the remains of over 300 Indigenous people back to the Wampanoag communities. The university completed the repatriation process in January of this year. Harvard has since aimed to create efforts to better understand and rethink the implications of sources of acquisition. For instance, the Peabody Museum created a virtual exhibit titled “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.” The exhibit includes oral histories given by various members of the Wampanoag community.

 

Photo of the seven people in the Wampanoag exhibit created by Harvard's Peabody Museum.
These are some of the faces of the Peabody Museum’s “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.” The exhibit includes oral histories from Jonathan James-Perry, Elizabeth James-Perry, Phillip Wynne, Zoë Harris, Linda Jeffers, and Alyssa Harris. Source: Yahoo Images

Why are Sources of Acquisition Important?

The term ‘acquisition‘ refers to an object purchased or given to an institution, such as a museum or library. ‘Sources of acquisition’ deals with the background of these objects, like their historical context and location of origin. If not taken into careful consideration, ignoring sources of acquisition can be harmful to the affected communities. It normalizes the idea that the oppression of people is something that can be glossed over in the name of science or a glorified museum exhibit. In the case of many museums collecting the remains of marginalized communities, it pushes the notion that the subjugation and exploitation of people are acceptable. As reflected earlier in this post, America was built on the institution of white supremacy and colonialism, which makes the sources of acquisition of exhibition pieces even more important to note

So, what can be done to right the wrongs of these museums? Taking the initiative to go through the repatriation process should always be considered. While this process entails a number of legal procedures that may not be completed within a specific timeframe, it is always worth the exhibition pieces being returned to the rightful institutions and people. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) was instated in 1990 and is a US federal law that facilitates the repatriation process. As of 2022, there have been many changes made to the NAGPRA. These changes include defining how objects are defined to better accommodate the cultural traditions and customs of the rightful descendants.

Similarly, hiring curators and anthropologists to analyze the origins of exhibitions can be helpful. Next, understanding shortcomings within the pieces a museum inherits through efforts like opening conversations about America’s history of colonialism, racism, and oppression of marginalized people. Giving a voice to those who have been affected by these harmful practices, like the Peabody Museum’s Wampanoag exhibit, is another way of allowing them to reclaim the hurt that has been done.

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

November 10 is the International Day of Science and Peace (IDSP), also known as the World Science Day for Peace and Development. The United Nations host this international event.

History of IDSP

Established in 1986, this historical day was initially developed to commemorate the birth of Marie Curie, a notable physicist and humanitarian. Curie was known for her innovative work within radioactivity, contributing to the discovery of radium and polonium. By 1999, its purpose changed to reflect the global needs of the scientific and humanitarian community, utilizing the day to affirm the global commitment to attaining the goals of the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The day and annual summit unite governmental, intervention mental, and non-governmental organizations meaningfully to promote international solidarity for shared sciences between countries and renew the global commitment to use science to benefit communities that need it most. 

The overall goal of IDSP is to help achieve the UN 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, creating a plan for prosperity for people and the planet. 

 

ISDP 2023

The 2023 theme for IDSP will be “Bridging the Gap: Science, Peace, and Human Rights.” This emphasizes the interconnectedness between science and peace, having a role in advancing human rights. Science is a valuable tool for making technological advancements, but it is also helpful in helping address social issues, reducing conflicts, and sustainably promoting human rights.

 

Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Source: Flickr

Science and Human Rights

Science is frequently associated with helping improve medical interventions, solving coding bugs, and completing mathematical equations. However, contrary to popular belief, science is essential to human rights. Firstly, science has a valuable role in promoting sustainable development. Utilizing scientific methods, data can be collected to quantify the progress toward fulfilling the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ranging from climate change to poverty to infant mortality, scientific data collection and analysis methods are needed to efficiently and effectively respond to global issues. Research and innovation also contribute to the mobilization of resources to historically underserved communities, allowing them to gain access to necessities. 

Within innovation, shared desires and interests help unite countries with singular goals. Scientific diplomacy is valuable in bringing countries to the table of collaboration. This deepens connections between countries as it relates to trade and commercial interests and helps foster peaceful relationships, prioritizing human rights.

With the appropriate distribution of resources, scientific advancements help improve the quality of life for communities internationally. Applying what is traditionally “scientific” to communities gives them a chance to live a better quality of life in a cleaner environment.

It is available to educate the public about the vital role of science and encourage innovation to solve global challenges.

How Countries Can Get Involved

Beyond participating in IDSP, countries can have a role in unifying science and human rights through many different avenues. One route is to protect and invest in scientific diplomacy. By allocating funding to scientific innovation and multilateral collaborations, governments can ensure that they can focus on shared goals with their international counterparts, working collaboratively to promote peace and cooperation. Another route is developing policies that protect innovation while developing guardrails for its usage, ensuring it is mobilized to those who need it most. States have a responsibility to be an advocate and protectors of their citizens, and by working to ensure that scientific diplomacy is used for the betterment of people abroad, they can elicit change in a meaningful way.

 

INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog
INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog

How Citizens Can Get Involved

Citizens have a responsibility to promote peace with science, as well. The role of a community member is to primarily use one’s voice to advocate for innovation and peace; by doing so and mobilizing one’s own story, organizations are held accountable for their actions. From governmental entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements, stakeholders are supported by the citizenry. It is also important to have open conversations  to explore further the nuanced introspection of science, peace, and human rights, continuing to promote awareness and understanding.

 

Hopeless Efforts at Release on Parole from Alabama Prisons

by Eva Pechtl 

“They see me trying to do right, but my past is my problem,” said Terry Townshend, an inmate resembling countless others denied release on parole from Alabama’s prisons at astounding rates.

Two inmates sleep and one stands wearing prison uniforms. Some inmates will spend most of their time simply waiting, as not all prisons provide adequate opportunities for engagement in normal day-to-day activities.
An image of inmates waiting for the time to pass. Source: ProPublica via Yahoo Images

 

Before we begin, I encourage you to read Kala Bhattar’s posts on the extensive history and severity of the Alabama prison crisis concerning human rights. She offers valuable insights into the unique nature of the legal system in Alabama, and how its background connects to ever-present challenges in prisons today.

This post is going to explore the overwhelming decrease in parole rates being granted to prisoners by the Alabama Parole Board. The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) considers inmates eligible for parole after serving most of their sentence, allowing them to be released early from prison to reenter the community and complete service outside of prison walls. The declining rates of parole being granted are a barrier to the multifaceted issue of prison overcrowding pressed by understaffed facilities and increased prison violence. There are widely differing perspectives on the best strategies to calm the swelling chaos of prison overcrowding. To Alabama’s parole board, parole is not one of them.

It’s important to understand that parole is a privilege, not a right. Even if approved, inmates are released on strict conditions that may include reporting to a supervising officer, maintaining steady employment, not buying alcohol, or attending counseling to name a few. At any point, individuals can have their parole revoked and be reimprisoned. 

Parole hearings are conducted based on guidelines set forth by the ABPP. They are meant to consider whether an incarcerated person is likely to reoffend. The board considers the severity of an offender’s criminal history, risk assessments, reports of institutional behavior, participation in programs or treatment, and plans for navigating problems the offender is likely to face again during reentry. These guidelines have recently been criticized as flat-out ignored by the Parole Board, likely sparked following the consistently declining rate of parole actually being granted. According to the ABPP’s Monthly Statistical Reports, Alabama has gone from a grant rate of 54% in 2017 to 10% in 2022, and it reached as low as 2% in January of this year. 

A significant event sparking this change was Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, an inmate who was paroled in 2018 and, upon release, murdered three people. This tragic case led to tremendous pressure to keep inmates in prison and aligned with the sudden drop in grant rates beginning that year. When releasing convicted felons became understandably more controversial after Spencer’s release, the parole board’s actions were put under a microscope. The primary concern of the parole board seemed to shift to avoiding negative headlines.

 

Guidelines Being Overrun by Discretion

To be clear, the parole board ultimately has complete discretion over a decision, and the guidelines are meant to serve solely as an aid. Consequently, in May of 2023, the recommended 78% grant rate indicated by the guidelines was actually 18%. This raises questions about the disparities between parole guidelines and parole decisions. For one, why are the guidelines in place if they are consistently overlooked? This breach is represented by the conformance rate, which indicates the number of cases that matched the guidelines’ recommendation for grants or denials. It amounted to 23% in May, 14% in June, and 5% in July of 2023. This adds to years of disparities between recommended grant rates and actual grant rates present in Alabama. So, what is going on at parole hearings?

The precise reasons remain unclear. The parole board does not always articulate its reasons for approving or denying parole, even though they are required to by Alabama Code 15-22-26. Decisions were also commonly made based solely on the severity of an offense. Alabama determines the criteria for parole eligibility of certain offenses outlined in Section 15-22-27, but decisions are still weighed based on that information which the system has already approved. The point of having an additional hearing is to judge an inmate on who they are now.

Furthermore, race was an illuminated factor toward reentry this May, where 30% of decisions for White individuals conformed to the parole guidelines while 17% of decisions for Black applicants conformed to the same guidelines. However, I cannot comprehensively address the topic of race on reentry in this single blog.

 

The Power of Decision Makers

The drop in grant rates came promptly with Governor Kay Ivey’s appointment of Leigh Gwathney as the current board chair in 2019. Years later, Gwathney granted 2.4% parole of cases in the summer of 2023. Board members of the ABPP have tremendous discretion by law and have by no doubt used it to impact grant rates. Parole Watch documented a lack of attention toward the cases by the board and expanded on concerns about the three-chair system. A main takeaway from many perspectives on the hearing system is the influence the third seat can have on a hearing’s outcome. With two seats, the majority rule turns to a unanimous vote. When the board shrank to Gwathney’s seat, plus one, so did the grant rate from 13.2% in June to 4.1% in July. 

If parole is denied, the board determines an inmates’ set off date, or how long they will wait before being reconsidered for parole. Gwathney voted for the maximum set off date in 73.4% of denied cases in the summer of 2023, more than any other seat. What makes overcrowding a progressively hopeless matter is the fact that Alabama’s Department of Corrections has an opportunity to clear crowded and understaffed prisons of inmates that are eligible by the guidelines and obvious recommendation to leave. With an 80% decrease in parole grants from September 2019 to June 2020, the population in custody increased, even as custody admissions decreased. The impact of denying parole to so many is daringly increasing the pressure of prisons that are already way above full occupancy.

Parole hearings are open to the public, but unlike other states, Alabama does not allow offenders to represent themselves. Also, no rebuttal is allowed by supporters after opponents give the final word. Often, victims or advocates will misrepresent the facts leaving supporters of parole with no opportunity to correct them. According to Parole Watch’s observations, some representatives claimed to advocate for the victim but still opposed parole even if it supported the victim’s wishes. Opponents of parole like Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) and the Attorney General’s Office, proved to have a tremendous influence on the decisions of the parole board. Of the 78.3% of hearings this summer where VOCAL was present, 96.6% were denied. 

Inmates Are People Just Like Us

Aging inmates are pushed in wheelchairs outside by prison staff. The population of elderly inmates has risen dramatically in the past fifty years.
An image of aging inmates being pushed in wheelchairs outside by prison staff. Source: Yahoo Images via Unprison

 

71 year old Leola Harris, who has end-stage kidney failure, diabetes, and cannot walk or use the bathroom on her own, will likely die before her next hearing in 5 years. Having certification by the Department of Corrections for medical parole, testimonies by nursing home staff for a confirmed living plan, a successful lie detector test denying that she murdered the victim, and two decades of good behavior was not enough to get her out of prison for her remaining years.

This is reflected by many inmates who have numerous accomplishments to advocate for their improvement but are swiftly rejected. Terry Townshend has faced a life of drug addiction and resulting imprisonment, demonstrating fighting efforts to stay away from pills and crime. His release on parole failed when he got back into drugs after being given take-home narcotics after cancer surgery. Terry did everything he could to build personal responsibility from completing substance abuse treatment programs to earning a degree in trade school, and this in turn helped him understand his addiction and how to handle it without crime. However, like many, he was held down by his failures and rejected.

Timothy Bille, a now free man who was denied parole 4 times in 18 years, expressed that “They tell you to do all these prison programs to increase your chances for parole, but when they deny guys like Terry, it feels like a lie.” 

Finally, Frederick Bishop was denied parole at his hearing scheduled 10 days after he died in prison. Justice is not denying release to a corpse. His case demonstrates a lack of attention by the entire justice system toward informing relevant parties of an inmate’s status and judging them accordingly. 

The reality is that Alabama prisons have become more unsafe than the free world. Overcrowding in prisons is not as much due to new crime but to repeated declines of release for experienced inmates. Advocates for less violence and victimization in prison populations would agree that prisoners of minimal risk to their community, especially under careful supervision, should be granted freedom, and therefore safety. 

Jimmy O’Neal Spencer has been convicted, denied parole, and sentenced to death. It is time that thousands of others who are stuck in Alabama’s combusting, debilitating conditions deserve real chances at parole.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani Conflict: Attacks in the Nagorno-Karabakh Region

by Caitlin Cerillo

A Long History of Conflict

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan have held political, economic, and territorial tensions. Prior to this, both countries were considered part of the Soviet Union after its formation in 1922. Nestled between the two countries is a region called Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been at the center of these strong tensions.

 

This image depicts a destroyed city in Nagorno-Karabakh from the first Armenia and Azerbaijani conflict.
Agdam, a deserted and destroyed city following the first Nagorno-Karabakh war fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1994. Source: Yahoo Images

 

With the region having an Armenian ethnic majority, it established a secessionist movement in 1988 with the goal of becoming part of the Armenian Republic. This movement was challenged on the basis of the Nagorno-Karabakh region geographically belonging to Azerbaijan and control of the area granted by the Soviets to the Azerbaijani government. Pushback against the region’s secessionist movement would lead to the first violent war fought between the two countries. This would result in a ceasefire, with Armenia maintaining territorial control in 1994.

 

This image depicts a map of the involved countries/regions. Armenia on the left-most side, Azerbaijan on the right-most side, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the middle, highlighted in bright red.
Map of the involved countries/regions. Source: Yahoo Images

Tensions Rise Again

Three years ago, the conflict was provoked again, leading to the second Armenian and Azerbaijani War. Once again, these tensions broke out regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Although the first war ended in Armenia’s favor, Azerbaijan claimed victory with the help of its Turkish allies. Similar to the result of the first war, a ceasefire was facilitated by Russia and the two countries. Azerbaijan was promised territorial control of the areas of the Nagorno-Karabakh region it captured in the war, with Armenia agreeing to release control of some areas it previously occupied.

Present-day Attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh

Even today, the conflict has continued to wage on. On December 12, 2022, the Azerbaijani government released troops in the Nagorno-Karabakh region due to a self-proclaimed “anti-terrorist military offensive.” Azerbaijan began by blockading the Lachin corridor, which is the only way Nagorno-Karabakh is connected to Armenia. This blockade weakened the import of food and other resources to the hundreds of thousands living in the region.

 

Photo of the Lachin Corridor which connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
The Lachin Corridor, which was blockaded in December 2022 by the Azerbaijani government. The Lachin Corridor is the only connecting source between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Source: Yahoo Images

 

With the fear of attacks on loved ones and the reality of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Azerbaijani government, tens of thousands of Armenians have fled to their home country as of September 2023. As defined by the United Nations, ethnic cleansing is the forced removal of an ethnically homogenous group through intimidation tactics and/or coercive practices. These practices can include—but are not limited to—murder, arrest, displacement or deportation, destruction of property, and severe physical injury to civilians.

Just one example of the devastating attacks of the Nagorno-Karabakh region occurred on September 19 in a village called Sarnaghbuyr. Citizens of the region have undergone extremely poor living conditions and food shortages for nine months due to the Lachin corridor blockage. Zarine Ghazaryan, a mother of four, witnessed explosions from Azerbaijan when searching for baby formula for her youngest child, Karen. Zarine was then told that one of her sons, Seyran, was wounded from the attack, and two, Nver and Mikayel, were killed. Nver and Mikayel were only ten and eight, respectively.

Along with the casualties of innocent civilians, many were witnesses to the murder of others. Arman, a fifteen-year-old, was around other children in the village when the attack occurred. He suffered wounds himself along with having to see the horrific sight of other children being killed and wounded. While the Azerbaijani government has asserted that the attacks were strictly for “neutralizing legitimate military targets,” it has left survivors and human rights experts calling the attack indiscriminate or carried out at random with a carelessness towards the safety of others.

The brutal attacks in the Nagorno-Karabakh region have violated several articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights of the lives of innocent civilians of the involved countries, especially those living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region have not been protected. Families who have chosen to flee to Armenia have undergone extreme hardship, with the Armenian border being backed up causing the postponing of the safe arrival of refugees. Human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, have called on the Azerbaijani government for the guarantee of those who have fled Nagorno-Karabakh’s return if they choose to do so. Human Rights Watch has also asserted that the Armenian language, culture, and education must be preserved and protected, without discrimination. Those who choose against returning to the region, should receive monetary reparations and the safe retrieval of any goods or property left after fleeing should be carried out as soon as possible.

Helping Nagorno-Karabakh

There have been several measures taken to help those affected. This includes humanitarian aid in the form of financial assistance, response plans, and more. In 2021, the United Nations created the Armenia Inter-Agency Response Plan. The purpose of this plan was to bring together humanitarian partners who were dedicated to helping the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The plan outlined the highest priorities of aid and the ways in which the resources could be allocated the most efficiently. Through the Armenia Inter-Agency Response Plan, over 34,000 non-food resources were delivered to the region by UN agencies and over 11,000 school-age children were assisted in their education, among other things. In September 2023, the European Union funded 5 million euro to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, with an additional 4.5 million euro to help the displaced population and those who are still living in the region and vulnerable to violence and hostility.