On Thursday, January 23rd, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Sparkman Center for Global Health to present Nelson Ole Reiya (CEO/Founder) and Maggy Reiya (Education and Gender Coordinator) of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. During their lecture and discussion with the audience, they addressed their remarkable mission to protect wildlife, preserve culture, and reverse poverty within their community in Maasai Mara, Kenya.
Nelson began with the admission that, amid farming and development efforts in the region, a group of Maasai elders convened under a tree and decided to start a conservancy. In response, Nashulai began in 2015 after a meeting with landowners resulted in the leasing of their land for conservation.
Most Maasai face severe poverty by living on less than one dollar a day, while girls and women are particularly vulnerable. More specifically, many girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is to prepare them for marriage. Additionally, young women who menstruate without pads are prevented from attending school. In addition to these social issues, because 68% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of parks and reserves, the country has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife over the past thirty years. These social and ecological issues demonstrate the need for a ground-up approach that advocates for the Maasai’s people, wildlife, and environment, hence Nashulai.
Nashulai means, “a place that unites all of use people, wildlife, and livestock in common hope for a better world, today and in the future”. Nashulai offers an array of social projects that benefit the Maasai community. Among those projects are: 1.) Nashulai Academy – subsidized education for adolescent girls and a safe house for girls avoiding FGM and early marriage, 2.) Community Water Project – clean water retrieval system from the spring which reduces the distance to fetch water and incidences of waterborne diseases, 3.) Tourism for Social Change – two safari camps where many proceeds support community projects, 4.) Sekenani River Restoration Project – rejuvenation of the main river that support the Maasai community, 5.) Nashulai Cultural Training Centre – knowledge center to preserve indigenous practices of the Maasai, and 6.) Cattle Breeding Project – ecologically sustainable project to support the Boran and Zebu herds of the region, and 7.) Stories Café – upcoming facility where Maasai elders can manage and pass on local culture to the youth.
The Second Arab Spring has risen, but this time it is much more peaceful, democratic, and youth-centered than the first. Why is this important?
2011 was quite the year for everyone except me. I still attended elementary school, could not ride a bike or swim, and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Although nothing great happened to me, the world had changed drastically for those in the Middle East, especially the youth. That event, which changed the way many Arabs and Middle Easterners viewed their governments, was called the Arab Spring. Fast forward to 2019, I’m a freshman at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Middle Easterners are fighting for equality and a democratic style of government. Then and now, human rights violations such as inequality and representation serve as focal points for protest and revolution, allowing for them to stand up for what they believe in and fundamentally change their government.
So, what exactly was the Arab Spring?
Basically, the Arab Spring consisted of many pro-democracy protests that took place in many majority-Muslim countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. Like many other social movements, the Arab Spring started with a “single act of defiance.”
In December of 2010, a street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, from Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the seizing of his vegetable stand by the police due to him not getting a permit. Bouazizi’s sacrifice set aflame the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, where the many protestors fighting for more social freedoms caused Tunisia’s authoritarian president for 20+ years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to renounce his position and flee the country. This revolution in Tunisia had caused the country to become more socially democratic and involve the people in its political process due to Tunisia’s first elections occurring in 2011.
Such a great change in government by a country in the Middle East had caused others in the region to also protest, with protests occurring in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, although many succeeded and others failed.
Although Bouazizi’s death served as a catalyst for the spreading of pro-democracy fervor, the death of Egypt’s Khaled Said by police officers became another martyr in the fight for democracy. Through his death, an Egyptian Google Executive from Dubai by the name of Wael Ghoneim became a prominent activist, creating a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” bringing in thousands of members.
Egypt’s Arab Spring, springing from Said’s death, called for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt. After resigning, he was “charged with ordering the deaths of protesters,” of which “more than 800 people were killed.” Once Mubarak stepped down, a former political prisoner by the name of Mohamed Morsy came into power democratically. Although he was chosen by the people, Morsy made it so that no court could overturn his decisions, solidifying him as an autocrat. After many protests and conflicts with the Egyptian military, Morsy “was ousted in a military coup,” leading to the establishment of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s former military chief, as President through 96% of the vote.
Was the Arab Spring ultimately successful across the Middle East?
Although there were some democratic successes in both Tunisia and Egypt through electing leaders democratically, other countries in the Middle East, such as Libya and Yemen resulted in continued conflict and war many years after the Arab Spring.
Libya, though ousting Muammar Gaddafi from his reign, remains in conflict. Libya has essentially been divided through the many militias and political factions that exist today, fighting endlessly to grab power. The situation has been so rampant that many “migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are forced” to dangerously travel to Europe through the Mediterranean, all in an effort to flee human trafficking and violence.
At first, Yemen successfully removed its President of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, instead of a democratic response, an “armed uprising and foreign military intervention” caused Yemen to undergo a brutal civil war. It is through this war that Yemen experienced the worst cholera outbreak, large-scale famines across the country, and the killing of many civilians through bombs and landmines. These issues continue to be present, with no end in sight as to when it will end.
So, the Arab Spring, although deadly, resulted in some Middle Eastern countries to move towards democracy and others toward chaos and autocracy. It’s not like there’s going to be any other event like this soon, right?
The protesters do not trust any political leader. They believe that current leaders have not kept to their economic promises and reforms. And as such, many want to start over and introduce new politicians and parties.
The protests are peaceful. Unlike protests from before, many current protests lean pacifist, even through brutal responses from the military. It is through these protests that widespread support is achieved and that countries are willing to listen.
The protesters are rejecting sectarian divisions. In Lebanon, for example, religion and ethnic identity form a crucial part of how the government is formed and how people are treated. These protesters have essentially decided to do away with these divisive tactics and move towards equalizing all in government.
These characteristics directly coincide with many Algerian protests that began on February of 2019. During a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Doha Center in partnership with Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Haoues Taguia, a researcher for the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, described how Algerians are distancing themselves from being a parallel to the Arab Spring. He noted that these protests are relatively peaceful, combined with the fact that a large portion of the population from “all walks of life” came to participate, legitimizing the movement. Due to a lack of leadership within the movement, these protests will be initially successful, but chaos would ensue in the years to come without a solid and stable leadership structure. During the same event, Shafeeq Garba, a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, also advised that other civilians of MENA countries should follow Algeria’s example in order to create dialogue for change. He noted that “in the violent alternatives to this, civil wars, everyone loses, and that if these revolutions don’t succeed, they will ultimately lead to failed states.”
Lebanon is another interesting case where protests are fundamentally changing the way that a legitimate government should operate. These protests came to fruition on October 17 due to new taxes on WhatsApp calls, which caused protesters to light “fires on main roads and [block] highways, while banks, schools, and universities closed.” This new tax became the tipping point for those agitated with the Lebanese government and how their politicians are manipulating the wealth and resources that Lebanon contains. Protesters have gone so far as to create a human chain across the country as a form of protest while also involving more and more students into the fray. According to Fatima al-Sheikh, a freshman student protester, many students thought that the sectarian leaders “looked out for [their] interests, even though [the students] knew they were corrupt and oppressive. But now [the students] feel that with our hearts, and we can’t go back from that.” These protests have raged on for more than a month. With elections soon, only time will tell whether or not these protests will ultimately succeed or rather be only one of many protests in the MENA region that result in chaos and a fractured country.
Arab Spring 2.0 may only seem like a relatively new phenomenon for the MENA region now, due to the rippling effects the first Arab Spring had and still has to this day in countries like Yemen and Libya. However, rising protests against a corrupt and unfair government have spawned all over the world, from Latin America (my recent post concerning Chile’s protests) to the Middle East. Since many of these protests have been led by students it just really comes to show how concerned many college-aged people are about whether or not their respective government will be able to fairly implement policies that benefit the entire nation rather than just the ruling class. In terms of Lebanon and Algeria, both countries are fighting to revamp their respective governments. By fighting to create fair elections that emphasize the importance of the people and not just the ruling elitist class, protesters in the MENA region symbolize the importance of human rights values such as equality in a government through democratic and fair elections.
On Tuesday, November 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative to present Herman Cohen (former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) and Dr. Fontem Neba (Secretary General of Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium). During their panel discussion, Cohen and Neba discussed the history of Cameroon, ongoing Anglophone discrimination, and potential resolutions to end the conflict.
As one of the most prominent voices advocating for Anglophone rights, Dr. Neba spoke directly about the atrocities taking place in Cameroon because he was recently detained for nine months after being charged with terrorism. Followed by its establishment as a federation in 1961 and an illegal referendum in 1972 that unified the Francophone majority (~80%) in the north and Anglophone minority (~20%) in the south, Cameroon has endured significant conflict. With political power most harbored in the north, Anglophone Cameroonians have experienced pressure to assimilate and prevention to secede, which led to a civil war in 2016 that has been riddled with human rights violations. More specifically, the Cameroonian military has permeated the south with their influence by committing heinous acts such as destroying Anglophone schools, burning crops, and murdering separatists. As a result, these acts have led to famine, homelessness, and institutional instability throughout the south. Additionally, thousands have been jailed for speaking out against the Franchophone government, while approximately a half-million are internally displaced and another 40,000 have sought refuge in Nigeria.
Cohen then spoke about the crisis in Cameroon by drawing parallels with Eritrea which Ethiopia turned a province before it eventually became an independent country. Although, the international community has been passive about the events unfolding in Cameroon. One exception is none other than the Trump Administration, which signed an executive order last month that effectively removed Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a result, this action prevents Cameroon from profiting off duty free sales to the U.S. Additionally, south Cameroonians have found an Anglophone ally in Nigeria, making the prior impervious to defeat, while north Cameroonians have been increasingly critical of their government because they are not benefiting from the country’s strong economy. Thus, Cohen argues the U.S. is in the unique position to mediate a resolution. However, the Trump Administration has adopted an isolationist position, which currently places the U.S. distant from potential negotiations. Following, he suggested that the Cameroonian diaspora in U.S. should write letters to their local representatives and urge a cease-fire agreement.
After their presentations, Cohen and Neba took questions from an appalled audience. Addressing a question about the realistic options in our current political environment, Cohen insisted the United Nations Security Council must initiate negotiations and that it must be settled between warring factions; his personal suggestion is that they return to a federation relationship. Additionally, Cohen responded to a question that mentioned the role of former colonial powers, where he mentioned that Great Britain is currently distracted by Brexit, while France, despite reluctance from southern Cameroonians, is taking initiative to mediate the conflict. When asked how geopolitics, namely natural resources, influence this conflict, Neba claimed south Cameroon is rich in cocoa and timber as well as a fevered, educated populace. Although, he argued the region cannot become economically independent because their oil supply, which is on the border, is property of the government. In response, a passionate audience member, and Cameroon native, insisted south Cameroon, much like other small countries, can be independent without an oil industry.
Cohen argued this crisis has potential to become a “Rwanda situation”, but, thankfully, a potential resolution doesn’t require money or soldiers. However, the current trajectory of this crisis primarily lays in the hands of Cameroon (who is persistent on military intimidation), Nigeria (who has enabled separatists in the south), and the U.S. (who has implemented economic sanctions). Thus, these conflicting narratives put human rights advocates in the position to highlight this pressing issue whether it be mentioning it on social media, writing to your local representative, or donating to humanitarian relief.
On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.
Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.
They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth. As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.
In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:
83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.
Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:
Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay
Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.
Chile is a Spanish-speaking country located to the west of Argentina in South America. Its ribbon-like shape allows it to be a part of many different climates, from the Atacama Desert to the North to the snowy Alpine climate to the South. According to the BBC Country Profile, Chile’s population amounts to about 17.9 million people, with 6.7 million people living in Santiago, its capital city.
Chile is a free country. The Freedom in the World 2019 Profile rates Chile as Free with a score of 94 out of 100. According to the report, Chile’s Freedom Rating, Political Rights, and Civil Liberties are rated as most free due to its growing civil rights efforts that emerged after its transition to a democracy in 1990. So, why are there high-scale protests currently spanning the country? High costs and economic inequality are largely to blame.
Inequality, especially in terms of income and wealth, has significant influence on human rights. Without access to money or a stable income, many are restricted in access to healthcare, education, food, and other commodities and services that every person should be able to access. The lack of access to these goods violates the 25th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Due to the ubiquity of poverty worldwide, this demonstrates that much of the world still has a long way to go until universal human rights are achieved. Inequality also distances the poor from proper services, such as some form of education, proper shelter, and access to water, which creates conflict between disadvantaged and affluent communities. By denying these universal human rights, countries are willing to perpetuate (extreme) inequality, which restricts access to fundamental needs that ensure equitable and sustainable living conditions.
According to an article posted by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, focus on economic inequality remains silent despite its major ramifications on the lives of people across the world. The article questions why the human rights community is relatively silent on an issue that challenges what human rights stands for in the first place and how the community can advance policies such as fiscal reforms, wage protections and social protection floors. While it is true these reforms and actions may help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, some of the larger scale benefits these programs can fund are financial literacy and incentives for self-governance.
According to Vox, Chile’s president’s approval rating had dipped below 14 percent, a historic number when looking at the amount of people who are livid and fighting peacefully for change. Such disapproval comes as Chile plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November, where President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping will be visiting to negotiate a trade deal, and the UN Climate Change Conference occurring in December. A solution proposed by Shivani Ekkanath in an opinion piece of the Borgen Magazine lays along the lines of cracking down on bureaucracy, fixing the misallocation of funds, ending corruption, etc. in order to lift the economic burden of poverty and other kinks in the economic system.
Based on what has occurred in Chile thus far, it appears the rise in metro prices by 30 pesos was simply the tip of the iceberg. Growing economic inequality combined with more business-friendly practices has caused more workers and everyday Chileans to suffer and be unable to work toward a promising future for themselves and their families. And, as seen when with economic inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor simply brings into light how it is both a cause and a consequence of violations of human rights such as access to care, education, and housing. Current protests like these help us understand that even countries regarded as stable are not always what they seem unless one looks at the lives of everyday people. Thus, we must focus on social and economic stability by employing a human rights perspective through the view of the common Chilean rather than a perspective at a state-wide level. Chile is an excellent example of people fighting for fairness in society peacefully, where progressive fiscal reforms should be utilized and promoted, rather than solely looking to appeal businesses.
In April 1989, following the sexual assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, five young Black and Hispanic youth were convicted for this heinous crime despite inconsistencies in DNA evidence. In the process of weathering the media storm and pressure from local authorities, Salaam claims he had a “spiritual awakening” that was being shaped by the hands of God. About six months into his bid, Salaam was debating if he was doing time or if time was doing him, when an officer approached him and asked, “Who are you?”. After giving the officer his full name, the officer replied, “I know that. You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?”. This moment changed his entire trajectory because Salaam realized he was born with a purpose. As a result, Salaam earned a college degree while in prison and suggested this accomplishment means he could do anything. He argues that many in the public eye were looking at him with hatred because they saw his future self, an educated Black man fighting for racial and criminal justice.
After serving nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit, a confession and DNA match from Matias Reyes in 2002 allowed the release and exoneration of Salaam as well as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Aside from Salaam and Wise’s acquaintanceship, the Exonerated Five did not know each other. Due to police profiling, they were rounded up by NYPD, interrogated, and pressured to confess to false narratives about one another, thus having to fight individually for themselves as well as their families. The Exonerated Five never discussed these events among each other because they assumed everyone had the same experience. However, upon a pre-release screening of When They See Us, which Salaam claimed was a “traumatic experience”, the Exonerated Five had the opportunity to process the series of events that would bind them together forever.
Although, the story does not end here. As fate would have it, then future U.S. President Donald Trump actively participated in promoting the execution of the Exonerated Five through an ad in local newspapers. Furthermore, Salaam’s claim that President Trump is responsible for “cosigning folks in Charlottesville” suggests our current cultural, social, and political environment encourages racial and criminal injustice. In response, echoing Carter G. Woodson’s treatise “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Salaam exclaimed that history is trained and taught into a people. As a result, people of color, namely Black Americans, can become so destroyed by a system that they don’t want to participate. Although, Salaam said such a position suggests, “Non-participation is participation.” Thus, we, ourselves, are the answer.
This brings us to how we, particularly white folks who have orchestrated institutions to disadvantage people of color, can be the change we want to see. As Salaam suggests, “The system is working the way it was designed.” Thus, systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color, such as police profiling, generational poverty, underfunded schools, and weakened voting rights, must immediately be addressed and reformed. Eradicating these injustices will unlikely be in in our lifetime, although current efforts by Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project, and Woke Vote, among many others, shine a light on what we have, and can, accomplish.
“We have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” – Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy
Money can’t buy happiness, but does it buy justice? Or, more accurately, does it help people avoid justice? Does money provide unfair advantages?
Athlete and actor O. J. Simpson famously assembled a team of some of the most prominent lawyers in the United States to defend him after he was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend. Dubbed a legal dream team, these defenders helped Simpsonwin acquittal on criminal charges in 1995, although he was convicted of civil charges in 1997.
Wealthy financier Jeffrey Epsteincould have been convicted of federal sex crimes involving teenagers in 2008 but pleaded guilty to lesser charges in a Florida state court. During his sentence, he was allowed to leave prison for up to twelve hours every day for six days a week. Epstein also had private security and his own psychologist while staying in a private wing of a Miami prison.
After serving thirteen months, Epstein traveled frequently to New York and the Virgin Islands while he was on probation. Epstein committed suicide in prison in August 2019while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. The trafficking trial continued after his death.
Did Simpson and Epstein’s money, power, and connections help them avoid justice? If so, what does that mean for the average person and can we do anything to change it?
Understanding poverty and imprisonment
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy … the assistance of counsel for his defense.” –Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution
“If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you.” – Description ofMiranda warnings issued to suspects
According to the U.S. Constitution and the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Miranda v. Arizona, people accused of crimes have the right to obtain an attorney for their defense. Wealthier people have the financial resources and social connections that allow them to hire experienced private attorneys. If people cannot afford such legal assistance, they may defend themselves or receive the help of court-appointed attorneys.
Although court-appointed attorneys are sorely needed, the system that employs them has experienced major problems. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “[p]oor people in most jurisdictionsdo not get adequate legal representation. Only 24 states have public defender systems, and even the best of those are hampered by lack of funding and crippling case loads.”
Even if they secure representation at trials, poor people often cannot afford attorneys to represent them at appeals and other legal system procedures. Well-heeled suspects, meanwhile, can often better afford experienced representation throughout the judicial process and other benefits of such representation.
“People in prison and jail aredisproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population,” noted the Prison Policy Initiative. “Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome, as a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates debt, and decimates job opportunities.” Even after poor people leave prison, their punishment continues. Poor people who are convicted of crimes often find it difficult to find jobs, housing, and other opportunities after they serve their sentences.
Much of this prosecution and imprisonment relates to drugs. “Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year on adrug law violation,” reported the Drug Policy Alliance.
While some people turn to selling drugs when they feel they have few other economic opportunities, that is not the case for many people arrested for drug violations. People may face severe penalties just for possessing drugs for their own personal use. If they’re poor, they’re less likely to have access toeffective addiction treatment, so they have a greater chance of staying addicted. There is a greater likelihood that the police will catch them with drugs in their possession.
Once arrested, poor people face medical and psychological problems relating to their addiction. They face criminal and financial problems due to their arrest, incarceration, defense, and trial.Such problems often make poor people even poorer.
Making the legal system fairer
Some areas are looking for ways to make justice fair for all, not just the more financially secure. Writing for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio, Emily Hamer and Sheila Cohen stated that “[t]he Wisconsin Constitution states cash bail can be usedonly as a means of making sure the accused appears for the next court hearing — meaning judges are not supposed to consider public safety when making decisions about bail.”
Similarly, in 2018, former California governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10, a measure that would have abolished cash bail in the state. The state’s bail bonds industry struck back. Itcollected enough signatures to make this measure a 2020 ballot referendum so voters could determine its validity. Between the 2018 bill signing and the 2020 referendum, some California courts and reformers worked to promote changes to California bail practices and courts.
Representation may be becoming fairer as well. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigated legal representation in the state of Michigan and found it wanting. In response, the state created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission in 2013. The commission pays for staff members and training for cases andcreates standards for court-appointed attorneys.
Michigan’s commission also includes auseful FAQ section on its website to help people understand and navigate the court-appointed attorney process. It describes how court-appointed attorneys must visit clients who have been jailed within three days, for example, and explains other rights of the accused.
Investigating laws and how they impact people
U.S. states are also investigating laws to determine if they’re fair to all of their residents. Many states have mandatory minimums, which are mandatory minimum sentences that people must serve if they’ve been convicted of certain crimes. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, during the 2016 fiscal year, African American and Hispanic people were more likely to beconvicted of offenses that garner mandatory minimums.
The conviction rates of these groups don’t match their overall representation in the U.S. population. While Hispanic or Latino people accounted for 40.4 percent of the people convicted of mandatory minimum crimes in 2016,U.S. Census estimates from 2018 placed the Hispanic or Latino population of the United States at 18.3 percent. The U.S. census estimated the African American or black population as 13.4 percent in 2018, but people in this group accounted for 29.7 percent of mandatory minimum crime convictions.
Black and Latinx people traditionally have made less money than white people and continue to do so. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2017, themedian average income for households who identified as white and not Hispanic was $68,145. For Hispanic households, the median income was $50,486, while the median income for black households was $40,258.
Lower incomes have traditionally meant that people were less likely to afford adequate legal assistance. They were forced to turn to overworked, underfunded legal defense programs for assistance, assistance that may have not had the time or financial resources to investigate and defend their cases. If their legal representation faced better financed opposition, accused people may have been more likely to lose their cases, serve lengthy prison sentences, and endure unbreakable cycles of poverty after their releases.
Changes such as bail reforms in Wisconsin and California and the creation of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission hope to end such unfair outcomes. They strive to make legal representation accessible to all. They aim to make justice truly just.
About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about various topics, including human rights,health and wellness, gender, and business.
Twenty-four words that may mean so much. The above words are the text of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Long discussed, the U.S. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972 but it has stalled since then. Not enough states have ratified this proposal to make it an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a basis of comparison, on the international level, the United Nations (UN) sponsors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The UN body adopted this convention five years after it was written. Do these differing timelines indicate different perspectives on women’s rights?
What’s the history of the ERA?
The ERA’s journey has indeed been long. Suffragist and feminist Alice Paul, who was instrumental in adding the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave American women the vote, proposed a version of the ERA as early as 1923:
Feminists proposed this amendment to the U.S. Congress several times, although it did not pass. In 1943, Paul and her supporters revised the language of this proposal and pitched it to the U.S. Congress several times. Spurred by gains in the civil rights movement and the work of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other second-wave feminists, the proposal began to garner more support. Such support was from U.S. first ladies, presidents, various politicians, and other prominent people as well as much of the American public. The proposal also generated equally prominent criticism that contributed to its undoing. Conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly decried the ERA as unfeminine and threatening to the social order.
After passing the U.S. Congress, thirty-eight states needed to ratify the proposal by 1979 to make it a constitutional amendment. Legislators extended the deadline to 1982, but it didn’t help since only thirty-five states ratified the ERA by that date. Nevada and Illinois ratified the amendment in the 2000s, but Congress would have to pass legislation that extends the deadline to recognize the latest two ratifications. If this deadline is approved and if one more U.S. state approves the deadline, thirty-eight states will have ratified the amendment, although some states have rescinded their previous approval of the ERA. These rescissions make a complicated matter even more complicated.
What could the ERA do?
If the ERA becomes an amendment on the U.S. Constitution, it could mean so much. On a very basic level, the amendment would be a formal, written statement of rights. While the U.S. Declaration of Independence states that all people are created equal and the Constitution makes it illegal to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” various authorities have not followed these directives. They capitalized on the vague nature of the language in those documents to create circumventing loopholes or ignored the language entirely.
By addressing the rights of women directly, the ERA is more specific. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts could judge individual cases based on this amendment. Legislative bodies could make laws using this amendment as a guide. The ERA could create precedents to follow or to dispute, precedents that would not be subject to the whims of the political considerations of presidential administrations or legislative bodies such as the U.S. Congress or U.S. Senate. Adding the ERA to the Constitution codifies rights for women, especially for women who work in government. It could help define their rights and assist them if they have grievances. It could help them secure better pay to close the wage gap, promote fairer conditions in the workplace, and help women find equality and attain opportunity in general. As a precedent, the ERA could serve as a model for other federal, state, and local laws to grant and protect women’s rights.
What’s the history of the CEDAW and what does it do?
Women’s rights are also a primary interest of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). According to its text, governments that adhere to this convention must “commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including
to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
to ensure the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.”
Compared to the long, arduous journey of the ERA, the passage of the CEDAW was considerably quicker and less complicated. Working groups of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) created the text for the CEDAW in 1976. The General Assembly adopted it by a vote of 130 to zero in 1979. After the ratification of twenty member states, it became a convention in 1981. According to the UN, this passage occurred “faster than any previous human rights convention.” One notable country that hasn’t ratified the CEDAW is the United States. U.S. critics of the commission say that such international agreements threaten the sovereignty of the United States. Given the stalled progress of other pro-women initiatives such as the ERA in the country, this failure is disheartening but perhaps not that surprising.
Why isn’t the ERA the law?
While international organizations and governments CEDAW were able to draft, approve, and agree to the conditions of CEDAW (although they haven’t always abided by such conditions), the passage of the ERA continues to stall and generate debate. Why? Some people say that women don’t need the ERA. According to this perspective, U.S. women already have the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and other laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, to protect their civil rights. Others vehemently disagreed that the Fourteenth Amendment covers women’s rights, notably late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Current laws are inadequate to provide equal rights, say some scholars. Legal scholar and professor Catharine A. MacKinnon observed, “If we’re sexually assaulted if it isn’t within the scope of Title VII as it understands an employment relationship or Title IX in education, we don’t have any equality rights.” The ERA may help provide such rights. Given the current political climate, it is not surprising that the ERA has not passed. In fact, it seems amazing that Nevada and Illinois have ratified the ERA at all. Ideological impasses have prevented other types of political action in recent years. For instance, in 2016, members of the Republican Party refused to host hearings on whether Merrick Garland was suited to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court because Garland was a nominee of President Barack Obama, a member of the Democratic Party. Since the results of 2018 elections meant that the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate remained in the hands of Republicans, will political deadlocks continue and possibly become even worse? Some people fear that the ERA would expand abortion and create other conditions less favorable to conservative values, so they may be loath to ratify the ERA on a state level or vote in favor of laws that extend the deadline for the ERA on a federal level. They should consider ratifying the ERA and extending its deadline. Measures such as the ERA provide legal protection.
With this legal protection, women would have the security of knowing that they have legal recourse to address any conflicts that arise. Even better, this protection may prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place. No document is perfect. But adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides rights, opportunities for growth and advancement, and peace of mind. Not bad for a mere twenty-four words.
Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.
Most people dream of choosing their life partner. Their marriage would be one of independent and happy life. This is not the reality for many young girls who become child brides. Early and/or forced marriage is most practiced in Sab-Saharan Africa; it is also common in the Maasai community. The Maasai, despite their poverty, have proudly maintained their traditional lifestyle and cultural identity without giving to the pressures of the modern world. The community is under a patriarchal leadership which denies young girls an opportunity to go to school. Education is withheld from girls because it is believed that educating a girl child is not a wise investment because the girl will marry into another family. Therefore, the father of the girl will opt to educate a boy.
Maasai girls are circumcised between 11 and 13. In time, she will marry a man chosen by her father in exchange for cattle and money. A Maasai woman will never be allowed to marry again. As a young girl, she will have her personal autonomy denied. If her husband is an old man who dies when she is still in her teens, she will become the property of one of her husbands’ brothers. She will be one of the multiple wives and will have many children, regardless of her health or ability to provide for them. She will rise early every day to complete her tasks including milking the cows, walking miles to water holes to wash clothes and get water, and gathering heavy loads of firewood to carry back home. If she is lucky, she will have a donkey to share her burden. She will live a life of few comforts, dependent on a husband and a family she did not choose. In between her burdensome chores of the day, the Maasai girl is also a beader – such intangible high skills built into her cultural knowledge and practices. Most of her struggles are shaped by circumstances and the challenges of her time including deep-seated patriarchal attitude.
There are several reasons for forced marriage among the Maasai. First, a desire to ‘eliminate’ the familial poverty. For impoverished families giving a daughter in marriage is a way to reduce expenses particularly if a son’s education and expenses are prioritized. Second, early pregnancies drive toward early marriage as it is seen as a safeguard against immoral behavior. Parents in the Maasai community marry off pregnant girls to protect their family status and name and to receive both dowry and ‘penalty’ payment from the man responsible for the pregnancy. Third, many early marriages occur out of desperation as a young girl seeks ‘refuge’ from neglect or orphanhood. Some girls are taken advantaged by older men who give them false promises of a better life. Girls face a lot of problems and challenges if/when she does not meet the expectations, thus creating a journey towards poverty and gender-based violence begins.
The struggle to end the practice of early marriage in Kenya, particularly among the Maasai, has slowly progressed. There are NGOs that have come seeking to eradicate early child marriages. They work together with the government to help the young girls get out of the retrogressive cultural practices by empowering the girls and enlightening the parents on matters about the education of their girls. The NGOs try to educate the girl child on her rights.
By understanding her personal rights, the goal is self-confidence and independence, and a willingness to advocate and fight for herself and for others. She will be able to choose whom to marry and when to marry. She will have fewer children. They will be healthier and better educated than the previous generation. She will not circumcise her daughters. She will have economic security. Education will enable the girl to help and support her parents, and she will never forget where she came from. Education is the key to success; it is the key to freedom.
From a human rights perspective, one key factor behind recent trends in American media might best be framed in terms of labor rights. Beneath the turmoil and headlines, a collective organizing and unionization effort at leading magazines and papers has emerged in recent years, including at Vox, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and others. Especially in media, focus has turned to the rising tide of labor unions – organizations which are formed by workers in the same sector (e.g., among journalists and related professions) to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining allows unionized workers to negotiate with a stronger hand; the more workers are included, the more their non-participation or, in extremis, walkouts, and strikes will affect their employer(s). Bargaining leads to a union contract which binds all employees and their employer (if approved by a pre-set threshold required) to baseline pay rates and other working conditions. In modern contexts, union contract conditions include working hours, overtime policies, paid leave and holidays, sick pay and health insurance, promotion qualifications and timelines, as well as equity and inclusion-oriented provisions, such as minority recruitment programs and diverse hiring initiatives.
Journalist organizing movements follow in the footsteps of Depression-era unionizing efforts significantly set off by a call to action in the New York World-Telegram written by Heywood Broun, a famed columnist of the 1930s. The American Newspaper Guild subsequently exploded, and just “10 months after Broun’s first column, the Guild had 7,000 members, with 125 delegates from 70 papers” onboard. At the same time, as Steven Greenhouse explained in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, “many publishers [of the time] aggressively resisted unionization.” Famously, the Associated Press “fired a reporter, Morris Watson, for his pro-union activity,” leading to a lawsuit which reached the Supreme Court, Associated Press v. NLRB (1937). In that case, the Supreme Court “rejected the publishers’ arguments that their freedom of the press was being violated by federal laws” protecting unionization and collective bargaining, affirming the reach of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA).
The NLRA remains a significant part of America’s federal law on employment and labor rights, and since its inception it has sought two broad aims: first, “to restore the equality of bargaining power” among workers and employers and, second, to “resolve the problem of depressed wages,” a ubiquitous concern in 1930s America (see Southern California Edison Co. v. Public Utilities Commission, 140 Cal. App. 4th 1085, 1100 (2006)). More than 80 years after its founding, however, the underlying goals of the NLRA remain widely unfulfilled, with nationwide union membership dropping year-over-year since at least 1983, and America’s journalists, in particular, have faced daunting challenges. To put it bluntly, journalists’ ongoing efforts to organize have met an organized, systemic response.
Last May, Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, held “a conference in its Manhattan office focused on labor and employment law in the news media industry,” an “invitation-only affair, bringing together Jones Day attorneys and media executives, in-house lawyers, and senior human resources personnel—in other words, anyone who might find themselves on the other side of a bargaining table from journalists trying to unionize.” Among the attendees were individuals from “The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Univision, and Atlantic Media, among others,” and one of the “moderators leading the conference was Patricia Dunn, a longtime [Jones Day partner based in Washington, D.C.], and a former in-house counsel for the Post.” As CJR again summarized, Jones Day,
“with Dunn often at the helm, has in recent years become a go-to for media executives facing union drives. At a time when uncertain market forces have driven more and more newsrooms to organize, Jones Day has become notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone. Jones Day’s portfolio of media outlets includes, among many others, Slate, whose union members voted [in December 2018] to authorize a strike amid pushback from management on their demands.”
These outlets hardly cover the range of past and ongoing union-busting efforts: New York magazine, Vox, the Boston Globe all have been accused of assertive anti-union tactics in the past few years. (Among these cases, however, Vox’s unionizing efforts recently succeeded in the dramatic form: on Friday, June 7, Vox Media staffers secured an industry-defining union contract after a 29-hour marathon negotiation. The contract set minimum salaries at $56,000, included generous leave policies for parents regardless of gender and included initiatives designed to improve diversity in management, among other provisions.)
Even where writers and editors have had organizing success, their gains have proved temporary. As The New Yorkerreported in November 2017, just one “week before [their] sites were shuttered, the staffs of DNAinfo and Gothamist had unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East,” one of two leading industry unions in America along with NewsGuild. DNAinfo and Gothamist comprised a network of locally oriented outlets in major cities, owned by billionaire Joe Ricketts, the founder of trillion-dollar “brokerage giant” TD Ameritrade and “a major right-wing donor who … has given millions of dollars to anti-labor politicians” across the United States. Former employees, speaking to The New Yorker, reported “that, in both coded and explicit ways, management had warned [staff] repeatedly in the months before they unionized that doing so would mean that the sites would cease to exist” – a seemingly clear instance of “threatening [unionizing] employees with closure,” in violation of federal law.
Subverting workers’ collective organizing or their free association more broadly both constitute problematic strategies under international law, as well. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for instance, has spoken unequivocally on the fundamental right of workers to coordinate collective action, including rights to “freedom of association” and “the right to collective bargaining,” per the following excerpts:
“Whereas, in seeking to maintain the link between social progress and economic growth, the guarantee of fundamental principles and rights at work is of particular significance in that it enables the persons concerned, to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity, their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, and to achieve fully their human potential…”
ILO Fundamental Principles, operative clause (2) (emphasis added):
“Declares that all Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely: (a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; (b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; (c) the effective abolition of child labour; and (d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation…”
The UN Human Rights Council in 2008 also weighed in on corporations’ responsibilities vis-à-vis human rights, to include fundamental principles of labor rights. Although currently non-binding, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights framework describes “business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions,” but which also are “required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights” (emphasis added). The Guiding Principles emerged in response to concerns about the nexus of human rights and transnational businesses specifically, yet are framed in generalized terms. Thus, the ongoing anti-organizing efforts of managers and owners in American media may constitute violations of not just domestic labor laws, but also an emerging corpus of international legal standards that might become binding rules in coming years.
The foregoing issues merely scratch the surface. Strong-arm labor tactics often combine with the toxicity of online media culture generally and the lawsuit-begging misconduct of particular outlets. For example, a 2018 New Yorkarticle on the culture at Vice Media cites a “senior manager [who] once joked that the company’s hiring strategy had a ’22 Rule’: ‘Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.’” Vice, then, might provide a serviceable avatar for American media problems – a culture of toxicity, outright abuse, and constant uncertainty about reporters’ job security combined with increasingly “widely lauded” output, such as Vice’s work with HBO and a documentary which “offered one of the first looks inside the Islamic State,” from 2014. Vice, notably, has been embroiled in back-and-forth union negotiations since January 2018, prompting over “75 current and former writers for HBO” to sign a petition requesting Vice Media “sign a strong union contract.”
With the enduring stalemate over unionizing efforts at BuzzFeed News and another round of layoffs in recent weeks—including the total elimination of Ebony’s online team, allegedly without pay for work already done, earlier in June—a complex push and pull continues. Media organizing successes and setbacks like that above highlight the urgency of needed protections.
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.