Peace as a Human Right in Somalia

A young woman holds the Somali flag during a demonstration by a local militia, formed to provide security in Marka, Somalia
A young woman holds the Somali flag during a demonstration by a local militia, formed to provide security in Marka, Somalia. Source: AMISOM Public Information, Creative Commons.

The Declaration of the Right of Peoples to Peace, issued by the UN in 1984, “solemnly proclaims that the peoples of our planet have a sacred right to peace.” Issued in the decade of extreme unrest in the nation of Somalia, this human right is particularly vulnerable in the war-torn state. In the past two hundred years, Somalia has been through an extremely complex series of conflicts that has included colonization, dictatorship, civil war, widespread violence, and UN intervention. Only declared to be no longer a failed state within the last year, Somalia is still in its fledging phase as an independent nation. Last week, Somalia elected its second president since the establishment of its current government, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. To understand the issues of today, first we must delve into the rich history of the nation.

Historical Background

The nation of Somalia was never originally a nation by its geographic boundaries today, but an area encompassing individual sovereign clans. In the late 19th century, in a period known as the “Scramble for Africa,” several European powers colonized the area as authorized by the Berlin Conference of 1884. The actors included Britain, colonizing the north-west area formerly known as Puntland, and Italy, colonizing the large area of Somaliland. France also conquered a small corner in the northeast. The colonizers were not interested in populating the area, but rather chose to exploit natural resources and use land for trade routes. The roots of the conflict begin here, as the European powers dismantle clan hierarchy and institute central governance. After World War II, the European powers begin to disengage and decolonize the area. In 1960, both Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland have both established independence from their former colonizers and then united, founding the United Republic of Somalia. This democratic state was successful for nine years, but the country succumbed to a coup by Mohamed Siad Barre.

Barre instituted a dictatorship under the new government, the Somali Democratic Republic. His reign, lasting for twenty years, amassed tremendous human rights abuses including targeted attacks on cultural groups and forced allegiance to the state (Metz 45-51). Caught in the middle of Cold War tensions, the country received funding and arms from both the Soviet Union and from the United States after the Soviet Union cut ties in the late 70’s. Cold War politics, when combined with post-colonial factions and the Ogaden War, proved to be a lethal blow to Barre’s dictatorship. The state collapsed in 1991, causing a power vacuum that provoked massive clan warfare. Within four months in the capital alone, “25,000 people [were killed], 1.5 million people fled the country, and at least 2 million were internally displaced.” Somalis know this period as burbur, or catastrophe (Bradbury and Healy).

United Nations Guard Unit guard of honor soldiers stand at attention infront of the Ugandan, United Nations and Somalia flags during the Inauguration of the United Nations Guard Unit in Somalia
United Nations Guard Unit guard of honor soldiers stand at attention infront of the Ugandan, United Nations and Somalia flags during the Inauguration of the United Nations Guard Unit in Somalia. Source: AMISOM Public Information, Creative Commons.

UN Intervention

As one of the first large-scale humanitarian aid projects that the UN attempted, Somalia took the role of a laboratory of peace making and nation building. UNOSOM (United Nations Operation in Somalia) and their 30,000 troops did assist in stimulating economic and political infrastructure, aid in food security, and drive warring factions out of certain areas. However, the mission did not result in a conclusive peace settlement; it actually strengthened warlords and substantially increased terrorism. UNOSOM left in 1995 as an internationally known example of UN failure (Bradbury and Healy).

Women adorned in Somali flags celebrate Somalia's Independence Day at Konis stadium in Mogadishu on July 1. Today's celebrations mark 53 years since the Southern regions of Somalia gained independence from Italy and joined with the Northern region of Somaliland to create Somalia
Women adorned in Somali flags celebrate Somalia’s Independence Day at Konis stadium in Mogadishu on July 1. Today’s celebrations mark 53 years since the Southern regions of Somalia gained independence from Italy and joined with the Northern region of Somaliland to create Somalia. Source: AMISOM Public Information, Creative Commons.

Movement towards Peace

The years following the departure of UNOSOM were neither peaceful nor war-struck. In fact, the rise of militant terrorist groups causes them to grab attention. A series of peace conferences hosted by neighboring countries attempted to find a solution for peace, but only successful session was the Mbagathi conference in 2004. The conference formed the Transitional Federal Government  (TFG) with the election of elected President Abdullahi Yusuf. The TFG was given a mandate to rule until the country was stable enough for independent governance. The mandate expired in 2012, and the election for the newly established Federal Government of Somalia began, resulting in the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Mohamud lead the country for the past five years, but lost the elections that occurred just last week. The newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a Somali nationalist, is popular among the people and expected to bring an era of prosperity.

After the UN’s infamous failure in Somalia, outlook on global humanitarian aid became more critical. Though global aid operations became less popular, the need for assistance and justice did not die. It is of utmost importance that the global community keep a close watch on human rights abuses anywhere. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Peace is an essential human right, and violation of that right is intolerable. Somalia’s outlook today is much brighter than it was twenty years ago; however, acts of terrorism and high levels of crime still plague the nation. President Mohamed may bring great things to the Somali people, but it is the duty of our global society to uphold the Somalians’ right to peace.

Women’s March: An Evolution in Global Solidarity

picture of Washington, DC Women's March 2017
DC Women’s March. Source: Liz Lemon, Creative Commons.

On January 21, 2017, over five million people marched–on all seven continents–in solidarity for women’s issues. In Washington D.C, one million marchers made their voices heard, nearly three times the size of the crowd at the inauguration, according to crowd scientists. The Birmingham, Alabama march numbered nearly five thousand, to the surprise of organizers who expected closer to several hundred. The official Women’s March website states the platform and approach is committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion. While initially, the Trump administration may have been the fuel for this rise, the movement presently signifies an international protest against the growing threat of a dishonest narrative about women’s rights and unjust treatment of them.

The sheer numbers of attendees at the march inspired and infused hope into the hearts of many deeply opposed to the injustices within the context of women’s rights. Critics of the march seem to misinterpret the intentions of marchers by claiming that the cause was American-centric, thus ignoring the subjugation of women globally. There is some validity to this, in that, the focus of many marchers remained centered in American political issues, and often excluded some key actors from the discussion like transgender people. However, many critics used these potentially valid grounds to deny the existence of oppression in America. Blogger Stephanie Dolce, after listing a series of wrongs against women in other countries, writes, “So when women get together in America and whine they don’t have equal rights and march in their clean clothes, after eating a hearty breakfast, it’s like a vacation away that they have paid for to get there.” This critical narrative reveals the false impression that many Americans have about women’s rights, the nature of protests, and the human right to participate in protest.

picture of girl holding signs at Birmingham Alabama Women's march 2017
Women’s March in Birmingham, AL January 2017. Source: Ajanet Rountree.

Dolce mentioned the issues of rape, limited education access, gender violence, and denial of bodily autonomy through legislation, infanticide, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She then suggests that American women do not experience these acts of violence and oppression. To believe that these issues are absent in America is to remain blinded by privilege. Dolce’s argument, supported and shared many times across social media, is rooted in privilege—a privilege that often undermines the nature of exploitation and oppression of another because distance rather than proximity and a lack of knowledge discredit the acknowledgement of an experience.

Marchers in cities around the world reflected the microcosm of the global civic society. It is highly unlikely that Dolce, who is vocally critical of the march, attended a protest based on her blog writing. Conversely, I have been an advocate for human rights for years and decided to experience the Birmingham march firsthand. I found myself deeply moved by the variety of issues and identities represented; therefore, I can bear witness to a crowd of people marching for a diverse set of causes, each inherently political but not as a political reaction. Protest signs held high regarding immigration, environmental issues, racism, disability rights, and more, dotted the landscape of Kelly Ingram Park. The diversity of the city was visible in the composition of marchers and their causes. The harsh, judgmental “anti-Trump” rhetoric is an insult to social justice, as this march and subsequent protests, are not about him or any one person.

The highly divisive stage in American politics provides a vehicle of change through shock and outrage; fortunately, the movement is not limited to the American arena. This activism is not a backlash to the election or simply a march about women’s issues. This is not, as some may see it, a petty protest against the shift in ideology represented in our new president. This is the beginning of a global movement to protect rights presently impacted by global structural violence targeted towards women specifically, and humanity generally.

picture of Women's March in London 2017
Women’s March London. Source: Garry Knight, Creative Commons

The Women’s March website has listed steps to transform the vigorous energy seen on January 21 into a long-term international movement. Given the millions of marchers who came out, it is hard to imagine that the momentum and awareness for women’s rights will simply fade away. The evolution of the movement is already underway. They currently have two “global action steps” listed and a third still developing. First, communicate concerns for women’s rights by contacting representatives, using postcards or letters with a picture of the march. Second, organize local “next up huddles” which are intended to foster support and community. The goal is that each area brainstorm a “set of actions and strategies our group will pursue in the coming weeks and months”, mobilizing the community through grassroots activism and people power.  The grassroots approach, fueled by people power, is essential because it empowers leadership and change from the bottom-up rather than top-down. People power initiates the quicker and more effective change across nations.

With an enormous base of supporters and power of grassroots change, it is clear that the spirit behind the Women’s March is thriving and quickly evolving into a transnational platform.

 

Non-discrimination is a Fundamental Human Right

Protests at JFK Terminal 4 on January 28, 2017. Photo credit: Julia Symborski.
Protests at JFK Terminal 4 on January 28, 2017. Photo credit: Julia Symborski.

In light of recent actions from the White House banning immigration of Muslims of certain countries, including permanent residents and visa holders of the U.S., it is imperative that we speak about the right to non-discrimination.

Discrimination is one of the most common and most widespread human rights violations. It is multifaceted and present at all levels of public governance and in civil society. It affects all parts of people’s lives, including politics, education, employment, social and medical services, housing, the penitentiary system, law enforcement, and the administration of justice in general. It can be open and clearly visible (e.g., ingrained in a state’s institution or laws), or it can be implicit and form part of structural violence (e.g., discrimination against people living in poverty). While no general definition of discrimination exists in international law, we usually consider discrimination to mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on specific characteristics of an individual and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights or freedoms.

Non-discrimination is thus one of the most fundamental principles of human rights. The very essence of human rights – rights that are inherent to all human beings, inalienable equally applicable to everyone, at all times, everywhere, and in all situations – is embodied in non-discrimination, which gives voice to the equality of all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers non-discrimination in Article 2:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Essentially, non-discrimination is the right to be treated equally before the law and in all aspects of life. It guarantees that equal circumstances are dealt with equally in law and practice. However, not all cases of unequal treatment are automatically discrimination. For example, affirmative action on behalf of marginalized groups to establish equality in fact is permissible. A violation of non-discrimination clauses would arise if similar cases are treated differently, if there is no reasonable or objective justification for different treatment, or if the means used are not proportional to the aim sought.

Today, this fundamental principle is embedded in all major international human rights treaties, some of which specifically focus on non-discrimination (e.g., the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women). There have been efforts to expand non-discrimination beyond the traditionally covered characteristics to include, for example, persons with disabilities or the LBTQ+ community. However, non-discrimination was not always a principle of international law. It was only after WWII, which exhibited the consequences of deliberate, systematic discrimination, persecution, and mass murder of specific groups in the most horrific way, that the principle of non-discrimination fully entered the realm of international politics and law.

Picture of flags and street leading up to the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The United Nations Human Rights Bodies are located in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Source: cometstarmoon, Creative Commons

In the U.S., non-discrimination is included in the 5th Amendment (Due Process Clause) and 14th Amendment, which provides in its Equal Protection clause that states may not “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Nevertheless, we all know that discrimination, racism, and xenophobia have a long history in the U.S. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws continue today in institutionalized racism and segregation along socio-economic lines. Similarly, xenophobia and the barring of immigrants based on their country of origin has been common practice. In 1924, Congress enacted laws that banned Asians from immigrating into the United States and established “national origins quota” that favored Western Europeans and discriminated against Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Africans. This practice was abandoned officially only in 1965 with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that no one can be “discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence.” Note that religion is not mentioned in this list and that this law only applies to immigrants, namely people who intend to stay in the U.S. permanently, not temporary visitors such as refugees, students, tourists, or guest workers. This law was designed not only to protect immigrants, but also American citizens who have the right to sponsor their family members or marry a foreigner without discrimination.

President Trump’s executive order, which suspends the entry of all refugees for 120 days, barres Syrian refugees indefinitely, and temporarily freezes immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, thus most likely not only violates U.S. laws, but also fundamental principles of human rights, esp. the right to non-discrimination. It also stands in opposition of core values of U.S. culture, which includes a history of welcoming immigrants and a philosophy of humanitarianism. While the ruling by a federal judge last night partially blocks the President’s actions, it only prevents the government from deporting those who have already arrived at U.S. airports. It does not allow them to enter the country or discuss the constitutionality of the President’s order.

Victims of war and violence have been victimized yet again.  The heart-wrenching stories and pictures of families torn apart, of students seeing their dreams shattered, and of professionals’ fearing for their livelihoods will probably become a common sight if the implementation of President Tump’s executive order continues. The chaos and outrage worldwide are likely to persist, with grave and long term consequences for the U.S., for its reputation in the world, and the values that it stands for.

It is important in these times that we are well informed about our human rights and those of others. We will update this post as more information becomes available.

The Arc of History Bends towards Justice

Inside of Sixteenth Baptist Church
Inside of Sixteen Street Baptist Church. Source: Nicholas R. Sherwood.

On Sunday, January 15, 2017–the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr–Ajanet Rountree and I filed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a day before the nation officially recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The historic location held a special church service commemorating King and his contemporaries, reinforcing the role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, and honoring the career service of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Arriving a full hour before the service was slated to begin I was met with hundreds of congregants on the church’s steps. There was an air of energized reverence, among the mostly black audience, gathering to hear one of their own speak of her successes. I overheard bellowing laughs, old friends recognizing and greeting each other in the open air of Birmingham, parents importing their children “BE QUIET DURING THE SERVICE”, and the slow but steady knocking of feet slowly climbing the front steps of the church. An unapologetic rainbow of cloth, sequins, and even feathers peacocked in front of me. Here, I recognized, is an old and dignified community in their church best. With red dresses, gold sashes, purple bowties, green bowler hats, pink lapels, Birmingham decided to greet Loretta Lynch et al. with the glorious visage only a Southern, black church can offer. A greeter handed me a church pamphlet as I entered. He seemed annoyed with security constraints but overall pleased with the turn out. Up a tight winding stairwell we climbed, halfway up I had a fleeting thought, “Is this the stairwell where the bomb was detonated?” With our seats aggressively claimed, we settled in for a two-hour event.

Loretta Lynch was born on May 21, 1959 when much of the Southern United States lacked equal rights and protections for persons of color. At that time, black female lawyers were simply nonexistent. In her first appointment, she served under President Clinton as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which led to her first leadership role under President Obama, as US Attorney for the Eastern District for New York. In between her presidential appointments, she was special counsel for the prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal. Her work as a prosecutor with specialties in witness tampering and public official corruption, garnered her successful influence on the national and international level. Working on the case of Rwandan genocide, with her assistance, this was the first case the UNICT successfully tried and delivered a verdict to individuals culpable in genocide.

As Attorney General, Lynch continued her impressive established human rights record. Before her appointment to Attorney General, one of Lynch’s most famous cases involved the prosecution of NYC police officers on behalf of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Louima was violently sodomized by the officers while in custody, and her involvement in this case began a focus of hers on the unfair imprisonment and maltreatment of men of color on behalf of police officers. Another case involved an undercover sting operation neutralizing a terrorist act by a Bangladeshi radical jihadist. The planned act would have detonated a 1000-pound bomb outside of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. She combated racism during her career while defending American freedom and security. During King’s time, these two ideals would have seem incompatible.

The service was–in the spirit of many evangelical black churches–participatory.  “Amen!”, “praise the Lord”, “that’s right!”, and sometimes the affirmative “mhmm” punctured the speaker at hand. The church choir belted. The congregation did our best to keep up. Everyone completely focused on what was happening ‘onstage’. Actors from UAB’s theatre department performed a piece on the struggle for civil rights– weaving testimony, narrative, song, and history–during the service. Ministers preached and politicians charmed as we patiently waited for Loretta to take the stage… our leading lady I’m sure, waited patiently too.

I hope she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance in honor of her, in honor of a black woman leading the Justice Department, and in honor of the resilient and honorable fight for equality for which Birmingham has long contributed. The red carpet was a visceral color in this holy sanctuary; red is the color passion, power, blood, and love. If the room and all its inhabitants on that warm January afternoon had an aura, it was surely red.

Her father was a Baptist minister and, it was apparent to me at least, she has maintained a sacrosanct comfort inside a church’s walls. Early in her remarks, she quoted Exodus: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’, followed by “generations of men and women have found the Lord in 16th Street Baptist Church”. She continued by paying homage to King and his contemporaries. Both King and Lynch, certainly, were and are advocates for human rights.

Justice and human rights are intrinsically linked; one cannot protect rights without the legal mechanisms in place to defend them.

Both the power of the people (Dr. King’s specialty) and the power of the law (Lynch’s) must create a unity. Lynch’s speech reflected this unity. As Lynch’s remarks moved from King and Birmingham, and their involvement in the history of American Civil Rights, her discourse changed. This event was billed as a special service commemorating King while honoring Lynch. The past, and all its demons, was locked away in memory. Today, the congregation found out, the first black, female Attorney General was able to reconcile some of the atrocities that may have sat unchallenged in King’s time.

picture of Loretta Lynch, Former US Attorney General.
Loretta Lynch, Former US Attorney General. Source: Nicholas R. Sherwood

Lynch, in her final speech as Attorney General, swiveled her address from the past to the present. It was at this moment, the crowd hushed. “I know that we are in difficult days now. Many fear that King’s dream – and all that has flowed from it – is at risk like never before.” Her demeanor changed. Speaking of King, a human and civil rights luminary, provided a strength to her words. Indeed, this was prototypical King: a black, Baptist, southern church. How many of his addresses were delivered in such similar circumstances? Lynch seemed to sense the connection. As she spoke of the present, the congregation could sense how concerned she was for the present state of affairs in America. Attention was now assuredly and willfully fixed on Lynch and her words. Her voice, before this point reflecting a pastor’s cadence of lulls and jubilation, now quietened and hardened. She was no longer a guest minister who worked for the federal government. She was now a soon-to-be private citizen giving her critique and naming her personal fears.

As a prosecutor, what would she have feared? Injustice, I would argue. Her reputation as fierce suggests she had few fears in office and in practice. She understands justice and its many forms. She was unrelenting towards oppressors, terrorists, and corruption. However, Lynch was also just, often calling for lenience in cases of nonviolent crimes, especially drug related crimes, opting to provide second chances at a free life rather than jail indeterminately. She spoke for the victims too, with a special interest in police brutality and discrimination cases. The first black woman to serve as Attorney General, and one raised in the American South at that, Lynch understood racial animus. She knows too well how hard one must knock on a cracked glass ceiling before it comes crashing down.

Turning her speech from the past to the present, Lynch acknowledged the present political climate, which terrifies many minority groups in the United States. Her assumed replacement, Jeff Sessions, is from Alabama- another southerner taking over the Justice Department. Sessions has been criticized of blatant racism, as has his boss, now President Donald Trump. The juxtaposition weighed heavily in 16th Street Baptist Church. The first black female Attorney General will likely be succeeded by an accused-racist; the first black President replaced by an accused racist. However, Lynch litigated, the lesson to be gleaned from Dr. King is, and always should be, the persistent utility of hope.

Hope and hard work, she argued, will influence lawmakers and laymen alike.

Again, “amens!” and “yes ma’am!” rang LOUDLY in the congregation. There was fear, yes. However, Lynch bore witness to the fear and offered her testimony to rise from it. The congregation, taking their cue from her, found their voice once more and responded to her lines of power. Her best crafted line, in my opinion, acknowledged darkness and offered an existential purpose for it:

“And if it does come to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember – that is when dreams are best made.”

King’s Dream– she reminded us–arose like a phoenix from the ashes, galvanizing the struggle for civil rights in America.  It is generational dream;  a living one.  “And when our time comes, we shall pass the dream on to those who are already raising their hand and those to come.  So that the arc of the moral universe continues straight and true – continues towards justice.”

Her remarks ending, she thanked us. She returned to her seat and the entire church sang the anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Like President Obama, her final speech was a plea for hard, hard work. She channeled both King and Obama at times; mixing King’s optimism with Obama’s realism. This balance of past and present, of hope and pragmatism, characterized her speech. Her illustrious public career, now ended, could be characterized in similar terms. She understands the power of mercy and granted hope to defendants who she deemed reparable. Lynch also recognized and publicly testified the threats to justice: discrimination, harassment, and corruption.

Now that her tenure has ended, I imagine Lynch feels comfort in being a public citizen who enjoys a church service, like the ones her father ministered while she was growing up. In 1963, at 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair– were murdered by white supremacists. Fifty-four years later, the first black, female US Attorney General gave her farewell address in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. History was reconciled but never forgotten at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Dear Dr. King: An Open Letter

picture of a pen on paper
Source: redspotted, Creative Commons.

Dear Dr. King,

Earlier in the week as a nation, we celebrated your life and legacy. Your mantle—the principled ethic of human and civil rights, has bolstered a new cohort of activists and advocates across the age spectrum to pursue nonviolent resistance as a method of peace. We, your students, stand on the edge of a changing of the guard as the first days of a new presidency are upon us. We stand poised as workers for a harvest that began with you, John Lewis, Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, Ruby Bridges, James Meredith and others, and will last beyond us all. We are woefully cognizant of the stance we must take. However, if I am honest, and speaking solely for myself, I must say that I had not expected to see these times—the swirling undercurrent of denied bias–for I considered them long past.

Sir, we exist within a compartmentalized nation. Not purely divided along racial lines, though there is a discourse and significant evidence of deeply rooted prejudice. We do not carry the burden of the manacles of segregation but partisanship that breeds itself insidiously in the nullification of the facts and the renunciation of commonality. We have misplaced our sense of solidarity. We fail to appreciate the inescapable network of mutuality that ties our destinies together. In many ways, the African American, the Muslim, the Hispanic, the female, the disabled, and many others are exiles in their own land.

The words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence speak of liberty and justice for all. Today in 2017, there is a tangible shift that has made it clear that all who are different–whether identified by race, creed, ability, religion, or sexual orientation–are subjects of a ‘narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. It is an isolating feeling…furtive eyes, callous whispers, and disdain-filled rhetoric question one’s Americanness. You wrote that anyone who lives inside of the United States can never be considered an outsider. Yet, the promise of inalienable civil and human rights seem like vapors in this country at the moment. I find myself interrogating my own Americanness, particularly when majority of the political leaders do not look like me as Langston Hughes’ America ring in my head:

Little dark baby//little Jew baby//little outcast//America seeking the stars, America is seeking tomorrow.//You are America.//I am America//America—the dream//America—the vision.//America—the star-seeking I.//Out of yesterday the chains of slavery; out of yesterday, the ghettos of Europe; out of yesterday, the poverty and pain of the old, old world, the building and struggle of this new one, we come//You and I, seeking the stars. You and I, you of blue eyes and the blond hair,//I of the dark eyes and the crinkly hair.//You and I offering hands being brothers, being one, being America. You and I.

There is a cliché that says, in essence–show me your friends, and I will show you your future. This sentiment, often given to high school students who choose a disputed set of friends, wanes in its application to the position of leadership or even the dinner table. Racial bias is cross-cultural. I am fully aware that naturally we seek those who are like us. Some Americans dismiss the reality of prejudice because they have a black coworker or homosexual boss. Yet, a closer examination of their inner circle, whether board members or in their cell phone directory, would reveal a bias. We often discount a full cultural experience when we dismiss those who live outside our natural boundaries, thus tainting perception, policy, and conversation.

Sir, I am anxious that the values, which make us uniquely American, will become our demise. Not a demise that is irreversible but a demise that will take years to repair. Some have become satisfied with buffoonery and disrespect, innuendo and distraction, rather than positioning ourselves as sons and daughters of Issachar who understand the times, speak with dignity, knowledge, artistry, and respect, and live as citizens of the world. President Barack Obama led this nation without scandal. His devotion to his wife and children will remain an example to millions who possibly thought a Black nuclear family, filled with laughs and love, only existed on television. Although his presidency was not perfect, I do believe, history will record and many will say that America’s first Black president was for ALL Americans.

You dreamed that your children’s character would speak more clearly than their skin color. Yet unlike his predecessors and his successor, President Obama has been subject of highest form of unfounded public ridicule and accusation. Michelle, his wife and our first lady, has been called derogatory terms on social media outlets without cause and without shame. Citizens shout on airplanes and in cafeterias, without provocation, racial mantras manufactured at political rallies. The projection of subjective opinion infects the habitual audience, lulling it into accepting theories without question or conviction. War veterans and civil rights heroes are targets of disrespect while vile and ruthless dictators receive praise. A minority–disproportionally in most cases African-American–experiences a denied opportunity, defined by a poor choice that garners a criminal record, and a lifetime of lack. Death comes at the hands of police or ‘concerned citizens’ who view us as monsters and shoot us like animals. Franz Fanon said that the colonizers consistently refer to the colonized in dehumanizing terms, reducing them to the state of an animal, and dwell in disordered violence.

Sir, I feel we no longer believe in values.

Institutional injustice has sealed the great vaults of opportunity. The unqualified are in positions of significant power, perpetuating the white power structure that may leave minorities, irrespective of skin tone, with few alternatives. Disingenuous politicians, who claim to have the best interest of their constituents at heart, employ similar tactics as seen in your day that seek to ensure disenfranchisement, including gerrymandering. The disturbance of ancient burial grounds reveal capital interest trumps an honored recognition of historical abuse. Many Americans seem unfazed by the ramifications because it does not affect them. Such is the stance regarding climate change. The fierce sense of urgency has fallen on ears deafened by naysayers, refusing to engage in good-faith negotiations as they weaken the implications and forsake the responsibility of America as she relates directly to her citizens and fellow inhabitants of earth.

Sir, I sense we as a country no longer know what we believe. For some, life begins at conception so protection must be priority for the unborn while others believe it begins at birth. Yet, the protection of life does not apply to children or adults (who were once children) fleeing war or violence, and made to dwell in makeshift camps or drown off the coast of countries of refuge. Others seek religious freedom, wholeheartedly believing the founding of our country was based upon on their present religious interest. They say that religion is primarily a personal relationship between a human and God; that God will not force you to believe in him. However, this personal belief has made its way into the public space, inciting hateful exclusion of those who seek to practice their own personal religious relationship. There is a focus on the radicalism of one religion over another, a belief shrouded in the notion that one religion generates more terror than the other–a terror that you witnessed first-hand. Some believe that a quality education should be accessible to all children while others profess that the spread of funding can be unequal. Thus returning the nation to the pernicious ideology of separate but equal. Private schools could receive more government funding, leaving public schools in lack and rejecting an equal opportunity for education. It appears as though there is disregard for the right of public school attendees–regardless of color–to have an education on par with those attending private and/or charter schools.

Sir, we are presently confronted with blasted hope as the shadow of a deep disappointment settles upon us.

In the midst of conflicting emotions, we rise.

This is our decision.

Many of us, like you and the participants in the civil rights movement, find our option is the presentation of our bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the city and nation. Therefore, we rise. By the thousands, sir, we rise under the banner of universal civil and human rights for all human beings.

As a company of women mindful of the impending difficulties, we will rise against the patriarchy and misogyny. We will rise for the protection of women’s right to life and health. We will rise as allies, demanding the fullness of the promises of democracy, understanding that the oppressor never willingly grants freedom. With the knowledge that the greatest measure of a man or woman, is not where they stands in times of comfort and convenience but in times of challenge and controversy, we bear witness to nonviolent resistance as a means of direct action. Nonviolence creates a tension that forces the confrontation of the issue, in hopes that parties will find a seat at the table of negotiation, and walk away brothers as opposed to enemies.

Dr. King, we rise against unjust laws that degrade the human personality by distorting the soul, giving a false sense of superiority and inferiority. We have arrived at this moment in history where humanity, particularly those labelled incorrect according to a perceived bestiality, will rise aware of their humanity, hone their skills, and claim the victory. We rise in pursuit of positive and active peace, not just negative peace in the absence of violence.

There is no better time than now. As we can no longer wait for a more convenient time as our patience has grown thin at the threat to justice that has permeated our society. You wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls on inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself become an all of the forces of social stagnation.” Returning is not an option, sir, for upon us is the need for freedom.

Reverend King, you challenged church leaders to recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church because the level of disappointment with the stance of the church for status quo on issues of social justice, has turned people away from the church. Therefore, you implore the church to become a vocal presence, a powerhouse postured in authenticity rather than irrelevance or personal concern for the secular and sacred… a pursuit of Jesus as the ultimate drum major. Our new president said, because of his presidency, we will never be ignored again. I believe that he is correct in this analysis because his drum major instinct will find redirection, as grassroots movements will allow him to see that the definition of greatness is service, rooted in love.

Martin, now that I have read your words and given voice to my own, I must admit that like you, have no despair about the future. We must meet every challenge and confront lies with facts. We must comprehend the certainty of our linked destinies. We must continue the struggle until the fullness of your dream for civil and human rights becomes reality at the heart of this nation where discourse lays. We shall overcome.

We will overcome.

We can overcome.

Yes, we can!

 

Most sincerely,

Ajanet

THE BRIDGE PERSPECTIVE: HUMAN TRAFFICKING, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND RACE IN AMERICA

by Sunny Slaughter

It took me a minute to get my thoughts together on exactly what I wanted to say in this piece as a guest blogger. I rewrote this more than once, almost to the point of nausea thinking about whether I should not offend the host and its readers, but then I realized that truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, one drop can create a ripple effect, and this truth is my reality. Human Trafficking thrives off many things including silence. Human Rights is not always a matter of what is given, but rather what is demanded. Race and racism has never been about justice, but rather privilege and the privileged can never fully comprehend what they won’t ever fully experience.

picture of Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.
Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.

History does matter. The truth is I don’t personally like the term “modern-day slavery”. In fact, I’ve often wonder whose idea it was to coin this phrase in the first place?  “Slavery” and particularly in the U.S., was the legal victimization and oppression of an entire population of people based solely on race, that continues to have generational repercussions. Black women and girls were raped, beaten, held captive, violated, taken from their families, sold, mutilated and even murdered. They were forced to bare the children of their perpetrators, teach others how to endure, passed between the family and visitors of their owners, and publicly shamed by their own people. Men were stripped of their human dignity as they stood by and watched helplessly as the women and girls in their lives were violated, impregnated, taken and sold.  Even more poignant is the unspoken evil with regard to their own rape and violation. Blacks were forced to endure extreme and hostile conditions of labor in fields and industries without regard to age, gender, physical condition or mental capacity. The laws protected perpetrators, not victims, there were no shelters, services, support, training or promises of restitution. It was called slavery, not modern, just slavery.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the premise behind the term “modern-day slavery” but it is disingenuous at best, to give weight to words in theory, without understanding or recognizing the ramifications of their historical context. I have long said that Human Trafficking is not new, it is slavery revisited, reinvested and renamed, but the only thing modern about it, would be the implication that now it is a problem, because the women and girls largely recognized as victims and survivors have European features. Laws are often changed when those who make them become uncomfortable with the societal ills that begin to impact them personally.

Nelson Mandela, said “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

The perception of modern-day slavery When most people hear the word human trafficking, it is almost always in connection to sex trafficking and tends to immediately invoke a strong emotional reaction of horror and disbelief. The visual perception of women and girls, with European features and as very young, being held captive and forced to engage in acts of sexual depravity and violence is unthinkable. People become even more horrified to learn that this is not just happening in some third world country, but right here in the U.S..

News articles, press conferences and information of coordinated law enforcement agency operations regarding human trafficking, dominate the media about white women and girls reported as runaways or missing, being lured through on-line exploitation and rescued at big sporting events, in hotels and from street-based prostitution. According to Natalie Wilson, co-Founder of The Black and Missing Foundation, 64,000 black women, girls and others are currently missing in the U.S., and yet it fails to make the headlines and sometimes even falls below the radar for law enforcement. Even more disturbing, is the reality that “anti-trafficking groups and policy makers continue to ignore the impact that race and racism play in domestic sex trafficking efforts which do not recognize minority youth as victims.”

Documentaries, movies, conferences, printed material and social media awareness campaigns, continue to keep the focus on shelters and organizations that gather substantial support and funding, while making headlines by incorporating survivors who have become the experts leading the charge for change, but rarely, if ever, do they have a hue to their skin. Not that they don’t exist, because history and truth tells us, WE most certainly do. But once again, another crisis thrives off misdirection, false perception and coded language “evidence based practice”, which is fundamentally derived from data of marginalized minority populations that have been hi-jacked by the mainstream, and successfully hood-winked the masked and disengaged. The scriptures says “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

However, this does not begin to accurately depict the totality of all that is happening. The bias of information reported does not include the stories of men and boys, transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults who are homeless, missing from Child Welfare Services, have aged-out of foster care systems and who are being exploited or sometimes self-exploiting as a means of survival with no third party involved in the transactions. Prostitution, on-line sexual exploitation, child sexual exploitation, pornography and commercial exploitation are fueled by demand; however, they are also fueled and sustained by societal factors that have been managed in silos, with no regard to systems that are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes. There are vast populations of people, (veterans, formerly incarcerated, the elderly and disabled, single mothers, homeless and minorities) who are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes, that don’t typically capture the headlines, and go unrecognized because human trafficking has been pigeon-hold by what sells (sex) what can be sensationalized (sex and girls), and what is driven largely by emotion (white).

Unfortunately, people are less emotional and horrified when they hear the words labor trafficking often relying on the preconceived notion or misinformation, that these people (who are of foreign descent), and in the United States illegally, have willingly contributed to their own circumstances. The interweaving of issues like immigration, dreamers, confinement camps, and the belief that these people are stealing jobs from Americans and should be thrown out of the country, are heavily threaded in conversations of outrage without empathy or facts. The disregard for victims who are exploited in educational institutions through criminal justice systems, commercial business and major league sports, only scratches the surface of what is not always happening in silence, thereby making all the purported efforts to end human trafficking, splintered and unrealistic.

picture of Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram
Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram. Source: HazteOir.org, Creative Commons.

A global crisis Several years ago more than 200 black girls kidnapped in Nigeria sparked the global campaign “Bring Back Our Girls” individuals, groups and organizations across the racial, cultural and social spectrum galvanized and spoke publicly about what was happening. The viral campaign put black faces front and center in every form of media and print for the first time in the U.S., and bridged the nexus of human trafficking and global human rights. Unfortunately, according to photographer Ami Vitale, photos that she took on behalf of the Alexia Foundation were used and misrepresented as some the images of girls who were not actual victims of Boko Haram, nor from Nigeria. As someone who has been professionally engaged with international countries working on human trafficking and human rights issues for several years, I fully support the global response, but one must take everything into account when being responsive and responsible. Americans can quickly become horrified and outraged at what happens abroad and we can interject ourselves and posture about the money we give for the human rights atrocities. We can feel free to boast of our successes in politics and in a democracy which allows “our people” freedom of speech, choice and opportunity. But when the mirror turns inward, and we see our reflection from where we stand, as citizens of the greatest nation on earth, how dare we spin and spew with audacity, when we can neither reconcile our history of the slavery or even our attempts with modern-day slavery.

Paradigm shift  When you peel back the layers of structural inequality and violence, and identify the amount of injustices that contributes to marginalized populations becoming victims, you can recognize the nexus of human trafficking and human rights. Mandela said, “to deny people their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity”.  Systems embedded in structural violence only exacerbate opportunities of exploitation for marginalized populations. Organized and non-organized schemes swell out of the vulnerabilities known by the oppressor (trafficker, pimp, exploiter) and experienced by their victims (men, women, children); economic segregation, lack of access to quality education, health and mental health disparities and inequities, food gaps and disparities, cultural adaptation to concentrated poverty, generational trauma and violence, drugs gangs and groups, criminal behavior, discriminatory practices that alienate people and allow increased opportunities for victimization –bullying and much more.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere…”.

These are not new, nor are they beyond our control. But until we are committed to doing something that will make a substantive difference for all people and not just the select few and privileged, nothing will ever change. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

More than ever before, it is critically important for individuals representing the vast diversity of human beings in this country (African Americans, Latino/Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan Native and others) to lead, not just serve organizations. To establish shelters that provide and develop programs through a culturally competent lens for the delivery of trauma informed services and care, that address the specific needs of marginalized victims. It is imperative that we demand seats in greater numbers at the tables where decisions and policies are made with respect to human trafficking legislation, services, support, and funding.  The time for one or two just won’t do, especially when the data used to garner attention and make the case for funding, comes from the very population that is being ignored. It is vital that existing shelters not be given a pass because it’s the name everyone recognizes, or it’s the only facility that serves human trafficking victims. We must raise the bar, not lower it or we risk contributing to the re-victimization victims, damaging the reputation of worthy organizations and institutions, and opening the door for predators to prey on unsuspecting individuals and businesses within our communities. People often think someone else has done their due diligence by vetting and verifying organizations and shelters are operating ethically and with integrity, but that may not always be the case. Human Trafficking is all about money, it just depends whose on the receiving end. Robert G. Ingersoll asserts, “nothing discloses real character like the use of power…”

Consider This  People are looking for ways to become involved but before one does, I suggest pausing to turn down the background noise of hype and rhetoric that drives funding, volunteerism and emotions. Take the time to become fully knowledge about the issue of human trafficking, “modern-day slavery”, that has had a law for less than 20 years, that even seasoned professionals working in judiciary, law enforcement and victim service providers are still trying to understand how to respond to.

Recognize human trafficking is the new hot topic and cause, and do your own due diligence before you attach your time, talents and finances. Many people may also consider their faith, and although faith based shelters (mostly Christian), are popping up everywhere, you should be clear, that not every victim will be, nor should any person be coerced into religious practice. When a person is coerced to consider faith as a means of freedom and shelter, you have just infringed on their human rights and dignity.

Human trafficking is about the exploitation of the vulnerable and often uninformed. Predators both men and women, don’t have a certain look, and their demeanor is often not what one might expect. The same can be said of some survivors, who claims have been proven to be false or called into question.  You must decide. So, before you dive in and dig deep consider this!

Before you volunteer, ask questions What safety protocols do you have in place for staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? Are background checks conducted on ALL staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? What type of security do you have in place? Fencing, locked gates, guards etc.? Is the location of your facility known to the public? What safety measures do you have in place when and if a person leaves your facility to ensure that others do not find out the location? Have you ever had an incident where someone who was not authorized came to your facility? What is your rate of turn-over in staff, volunteers and victims/survivors?

Before you give, dig deep Board members are responsible for ensuring the organization is following all laws, run ethically and with integrity. So, asking for and reviewing a board’s 1099’s (GuideStar Nonprofit database) to see the names of members and have long they have served is information that you would want to know. Frequent and constant turn over should raise concern. In fact, frequent and constant turn over in staff, volunteers and even location should also raise a concern. It could be an indication of instability, financial integrity, compliance failure and even ethical reliability. How much have board members personally invested in the organization? How many victims/survivors are you currently serving, and how many have they served since the program began? How many licensed, qualified and paid, full-time staff do they have working with victims/survivors? This is an important question as to capacity and especially when it comes to transition shelters that house victims/survivors 24-hours, and drop-in shelters who may provide services and support during specified times and day. A facilities failure to have “paid” staff providing on-going professional services and support should send up a red-flag. And while it may seem like an extra step, provide your questions in writing and ask for an authorized representative to provide the information in writing, giving you time to review the answers and ask any potential additional questions later. Remember, no matter how small you give or how often you give, you have the right to know where and how your money is invested and the right to ask additional questions outside of the standard information they provide. Any organization that cannot provide you with what you require, doesn’t deserve what they are requesting. While these do not begin to exhaust the amount of questions and concerns that one should consider, this is a start.

Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.
Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.

The bridge I started out by talking about my perspective on the bridge between human trafficking, human rights and race in America. By now given the scale and what some might consider diatribe on the complexities and nuances surrounding these three topics, you may have stopped several times, considered clicking off all together, found yourself agreeing with some and disagreeing with other analysis. However, if you’ve made it this far, and I hope that you did, I also hope that you have come to realize that this is not easy, the bridge is broken and damaged in far too many places, it’s has a history of being unsteady and sometimes unreliable, it’s weak and in need of repair, but it’s what we have, until we come together to build a new one. You have now done what many of us who work on issues that impact social consciousness do every day, keep going. When it’s hard, heavy and sometimes unbearable, when the lie takes our breath away and the truth rips at our heart, when darkness gives more to our movements, than light gives to our moments. When we are crippled with fear, and yet continue to crawl, because we are survivors not merely by circumstance, but most assuredly by choice. We are destined to fight for victims, demand human dignity for survivors and seek a measure of justice where injustice reigns most supreme. We cross the spectrum of race, culture and ethnicity, we ask not for favors, but for the opportunity to bring every person’s reality into focus, so that they may become free. This is the bridge and I’m doing my part to help others cross it.

Invest wisely in the matters of change!” (literally and figuratively) – Sunny Slaughter

 

Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter is the CEO/Principal consultant for Sunny Slaughter Consulting, LLC . Slaughter is  subject matter expertise on human trafficking and intersecting crimes for a national and international clientele and serves as a policy strategist, facilitator, law enforcement instructor, expert, TEDx speaker and subject matter expert, across a broad spectrum of human rights, social justice and civil rights issues.

 

Additional resources:

UNODC

US State Department Annual Trafficking In Persons Report

Female Empowerment via the Internet

The Internet is a veritable minefield of content for women. For adolescent girls, as they begin to explore their freedom and independence, this boundless online environment contributes to their ability to educate themselves on women’s rights earlier than ever before. Online articles on topics from personal health to social change grant a generation of young girls access to an increased knowledge base for advocacy and protection. The Internet also empowers adult women through professional education, resources for help in dangerous situations, and access to communities that may be inaccessible in their areas. The United Nations’ Guidelines on Women’s Empowerment states, “‘Advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility … are priority objectives of the international community’.”  Empowerment at any age is vital to women in a time where sexism is still very much alive. In communities that may be lack gender equality, girls can find ways to adapt and thrive.

picture of a girl at a laptop
Source: StartupStockPhotos, Creative Commons.

The internet equips adolescent girls with accurate information about puberty, sexual health, and reproduction in cultures where discussing reproductive health is forbidden. Menstruation, a taboo topic in many cultures, is often punishable by death. In Nepal, a practice called “chaupadi” has resulted in the deaths of many young women. Though outlawed, the practice involves banishing menstruating girls from their homes because they are viewed as “impure and treated as untouchable,” according to the New York Times. Forced to live in tiny, poorly constructed sheds for the duration of their menstrual cycle, girls often die from animal attacks, exposure, or suffocation from lighting a fire without proper ventilation.

In an example more familiar to Americans, Donald Trump recently commented on a female reporter by saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Though he later claimed that he was referring to her nose, the implication that periods contribute to irrationality garnered notice by much of the audience. Periods have long been used as evidence to block women from certain professions and fields. Some may recall a similar quote by Edgar Berman, claiming women were incapable of wielding political power because of “the raging hormonal imbalance of the periodic lunar cycle.” In direct response to Trump’s comment, social media created a campaign called #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult to empower menstruating females and erase the stigma of periods.

The online availability of domestic violence resources as proven crucial in the empowerment of women. The resources help save the lives of women in abusive relationships, including finding an escape from dangerous situations. Women are empowered to use  resources like the “safety exit” feature on many sites, which exits the site with a click of a button if their abuser is nearby, as exhibited on the National Coalition against Domestic Violence’s website. The ability for victims of abuse to find a support network is invaluable. In cases of those escaping situations where abusers left them isolated and degraded, many victims felt helpless and alone until they find an online outlet. At the same time, these websites also offer help to victims of human trafficking. Online tip centers and hotline databases can bring justice to numerous women.

a picture of a girl asking the audience to help prevent domestic violence
Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Online resources have been an avenue in providing an education outside of a traditional classroom. Women, previously hindered and halted in completing a college degree, now have the opportunity to enroll and graduate from online universities. Online education contributes to the empowerment of people with disabilities and social disorders. People with disabilities can find relief from an unaccommodating and inaccessible university through online classes. Women living with anxiety or sleep disorders can obtain educations without worrying about attendance or overwhelming social environments.

Finally, universal access to online communities is perhaps the most significant contribution to empowerment across genders, races, cultures, abilities, and sexualities. In societies that often silences minority voices, the ability to share your voice and connect with like-minded individuals is invaluable for both community and individual well-being. For example, the platform of Twitter has been a vital resource to the black community. According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of young African Americans online are on Twitter — more than 12% higher than the rate reported by young white Internet users. Jenna Worthan of Smithsonian Magazine writes an illuminating article on the relevance of Black twitter, saying in part that “black Twitter—and the Black Lives Matter activists who famously harnessed it—have created a truly grassroots campaign for social change unlike anything in history.” Beyond the activism aspect, a subject I wrote about in an earlier blog post, the beauty of Black Twitter is the visible, dynamic communal dialogue that allows white Americans a insight into the humanity and brilliance of a minority population.

The LGBTQ+ community also offers a vibrant insight into their culture through their online presence, while also extending support to people who are exploring their identities. Media platforms such as Tumblr gave rise to a vigorous culture of support for disabled people, giving hope and survival tips to afflicted individuals. Searching for the terms “disabled,” “chronic illness,” or “spoonie” (referring to spoon theory, which refers to a disability metaphor of how energy is dispensed through the day for chronically ill people) results in a plethora of supportive and potentially life-changing results. Increased visibility for these marginalized communities improves both how society perceives the group overall and each individual members’ well-being.

a picture of four Black women with t-shirts that read respect me, protect me, support me, and hear me.
Source: Flicker, Creative Commons

I am personally familiar with how valuable the Internet can be in advocating for and understanding human rights. Growing up in Alabama, where Southern culture can be particularly toxic to young girls, it was on social media sites that I was exposed to new viewpoints and gained access to social justice-related literature. I followed accounts and blogs run by marginalized members of society that I never had met in my predominantly white, able-bodied, middle-class hometown. I was able to discover my own identity and find how I fit in within these communities. Without access to the online communities where marginalized people freely and comfortably discussed their issues, I might be the same socially ignorant person that I was before I found online educational resources. I am certain that having access to the voices of people of color, LGBTQ individuals, persons with disabilities, and other groups has made me the person I am today: a passionate activist for all marginalized communities, whether I am a part of them or not.

UAB’s New Student Organization: Students for Human Rights

Universal Human Rights. Source: Chris Christian, Creative Commons.

UAB is home to many firsts. From the first women ever to receive a biochemistry degree from a university to the graduation of the first female African American nurse ever in the nation, UAB has been a symbol of strength, empowerment and confidence to me. As a proud Muslim American woman from the south, I strive to embody all three qualities. I have found that wearing my hijab is the best method for outwardly expressing these qualities. I believe that in order to exemplify strength, empowerment, and confidence consistently, I must possess and fundamentally adapt an understanding the integrity of human rights. The subject of human rights is often one that leads to various arguments. Yet for me, human rights have always been simple because by definition, they should be guaranteed rights to and for every human being. They are a birthright.

Last year our nation faced an intensely controversial time during the presidential campaign season. Senator Hillary Clinton and then candidate Donald Trump seemed to represent polar opposites. Supporting one candidate meant being passionately against the other. It’s difficult to identity a time in which our country has appeared more divided in partisanship. Rather than addressing important human rights topics like poverty and racial injustice, the value and right of refugees, climate change, and disability rights as human rights issues, candidates used them as talking points for soundbytes and the presentation of the best supporter garnering appeal. I personally struggled to find balance; so did the country.

“Our hopes for a more just, safe, and peaceful world can only be achieved when there is universal respect for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family.” –  UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

I believe that we can all agree, regardless of political stance, on the fact that any form of injustice–whether be it racism, bigotry or intolerance–is unacceptable. I see as the responsibility of every capable human being to participate in the fight for the inalienable and indivisible rights of humanity. Therefore, we have this opportunity to join one another, irrespective of individual differences including political and religious affiliations, and work together to right injustice beginning here in Birmingham and bring awareness to atrocities around the world. This is our time to make the local, global and the global, local.

This belief is what inspired me to start UAB’s first student organization directly dealing with human rights. Students for Human Rights is a student-led, student run campus organization that, as the student outreach arm of the UAB Institute for Human Rights, will afford students a platform and opportunity to express themselves as a voice for the voiceless by creating a community of inclusive dialogue, where partnership is paramount as we stand against bigotry, racism, or every form of injustice. This is an incredible time to be a part of UAB. Given that we live in the city that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I see Students for Human Rights as an additional avenue for many as they recognize their role in changing the world.

 

 

UAB IHR at UN for Soft-launch of CRPD 10+ App

https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2016/08/IDPD-Logo-rev.4-300.jpg
Source: UN Division of Social Policy and Development Disability.

 

The UAB Institute for Human Rights is co-sponsoring the soft-launch of the “CRPD 10+ App” at this year’s United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The CRPD App is an iOS 10 application commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and serves as a tool for human rights education, advocacy, activism, and empowerment. The app has been developed by the Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP) at American University.

Our Director, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, will speak Dec. 2 at 12:15 pm CST at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on the significance of the “CRPD + 10 App”. The event will be live streamed and available for remote participation via the link here.

 

Refugees Crisis: Who are refugees and who should help them?

I can remember a few years ago, after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the term ‘refugee’ was used to describe victims in New Orleans. Civil rights activists in America were noticeably upset because of the negative connotation and mental image generated with the use of the term. Rev. Al Sharpton, in an NPR interview shortly after hurricane Katrina, commented, “They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.” Could the same thing be said for people fleeing persecution, civil war, and conflict?

When you hear the word refugee what image comes to mind? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. The agency established the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees in 1951 to aid the more than 1 million people who were still displaced from World War II.

Photo taken by Charles Coleman
Zabia and Firas Attar. Photo taken by Charles Coleman

The increase in conflicts and civil wars in Africa and the Mediterranean have created a refugee crisis that is threatening international security. We have to ask ourselves, “who are refugees and who is responsible to care for the millions of people who are fleeing imminent danger”? Today, refugees around the globe number more than 20 million people. According to data compiled by UNHCR, half of these refugees hail from 3 states: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. The number of refugees continues to grow. This crisis has created an atmosphere whereby countless human rights violations occur on a daily basis; however, policymakers and politicians seem to focus on the affects the numbers of people will have on their population, rather than on the wellbeing of those seeking asylum or refugee status. On November 16, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter led a panel discussion that provided faculty and students with an opportunity to hear from experts who have intimate knowledge of this global crisis, including two personal testimonies, in an effort to bring understanding and ensure clear background information on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is communicated.

Zabia and Firas Attar are siblings and Syrian refugees living in Birmingham. They shared their harrowing story of escape from Syria, and their  elation at arriving to safety  in America.  Elation turned to fear  when  calls from Governor Bentley and other state officials who believe that an influx of refugees would threaten Alabama residents. Refugees are not in America to destroy our way of life. They are hard working individuals who want the same things that you and I want— to live in peace and provide for our families.

Panelists. Photo by Charles Coleman.
Photo by Charles Coleman.

Catherine Philips Crowe, director of UAB International Student and Scholar Services, Dr. Serena Simoni, associate professor of political science at Samford University, and Dr. Abidin Yildirim. associate professor, UAB School of Engineering presented insights on how the refugees in the Mediterranean from countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, are impacting the populations of Italy, Germany, Australia and the United States. As an international community, it is understood that the responsibility to protect people of every state from harm when their country is unwilling or unable to do so belongs to all of us. While images of refugees such as Omran Daqneesh litter the Internet, you or me could have been born into a similar situation.