Moving Beyond ‘Victim’

The normative value of universal human rights is constantly scrutinized both within the academy and in the field alike, as has been previously featured on the Institute for Human Rights Blog. Universal human rights, codified in international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, are writ large by a group of representatives operating at the international level and are ideally enjoyed by everyday citizens on the societal level. Human rights are both universally created and culturally applied. Problems arise when specific, codified human rights directly contradict cultural norms of a particular society. Examples of this contradiction include female genital cutting, the right to return of refugees, and international tourism.  The underlying tension is this: how can the local / global communities reconcile cultural beliefs with universal norms? Can human rights activists and scholars find a third way- marrying the universal with the particular? To evolve the conversation surrounding these issues, this blog uses the incidence of human trafficking in Benin to illustrate the discursive dimension of human rights advocacy and to counter the notion that universal human rights are incompatible with culturally particularistic beliefs.

Picture of a harbor in Cotonou, Benin
Shubert Ciencia, Creative Commons

Benin & the US: Bound by Cotton

Benin, formerly known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, is located in western Africa between Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo. Benin’s capital is Porto-Novo, official language is French, and has a population of almost 10 million individuals. And finally, according to the United States’ annually published Trafficking in Persons Report (US TIP Report), Benin is grappling with a human trafficking crisis. According to the 2017 TIP-Report, vast numbers of Beninese girls and boys are:

“… subjected to domestic servitude or sex trafficking in Cotonou and across Benin’s southern corridor. Some families send children to wealthier families for educational or vocational opportunities, a practice called vidomegon; some of these children are subjected to domestic servitude.”

(Emphasis in original document)

However, before we may contextualize human trafficking trafficking in Benin, the political motivations of the TIP-Report must be unpacked.

Every year, the US compiles all available data on the incidence, prevalence, and efforts to combat human trafficking worldwide. This information is provided from policy analysts, field researchers, first-hand testimony, and a vast array of informants working with or for the US State Department (among other national agencies). Once this information is analyzed, the US labels each country a 1, 2, 2-Watchlist, or 3 Tier ranking. The lower a country’s rank, the more successful efforts a country is undertaking to prevent trafficking in general, protect trafficked persons, and prosecute traffickers. Once a country reaches the Tier 2-Watchlist (in some cases) or Tier 3 designation, the US has precedent to curtail or eliminate monetary aid and other diplomatic exchanges with the state. Danger occurs when political instrumentalism and lack of awareness of cultural beliefs thrust themselves into this ideally ‘objective’ designation process.

As an example of political gaming,  China receives low rankings, despite a sprawling human trafficking plight, to maintain polite integrity of US-China relations. In the case of Benin, ignorance of cultural mores and beliefs fundamentally redefine what trafficking is and looks like on the ground; this fact is not internalized by the US State Department. Hence, Benin’s designation of Tier 2-Watchlist.

This designation means the US believes Benin is making active strides to combat trafficking, but these efforts do not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking within the country as a whole. Massive structural issues complicate Benin’s anti-trafficking process, including: sweeping inequality, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, and a national economy unable to withstand price gauging from foreign actors. The last issue is particularly germane to the incidence of trafficking in Benin, as Howard (2012) explains:

“In Benin, cotton is the major cash crop. It accounts for around 5 per cent of the GDP and almost 40 per cent of the country’s export receipts… [I]t is a household industry and provides income for thousands of families… When prices are high, people benefit… [C]otton prices have been at record lows for over a decade, in large part due to illegal US subsidies.”

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

According to Oxfam, the US raised cotton subsidies, which decimated many economies in Western African dependent on cotton production from local farmers. Benin’s economy in particular is crippled; many rural and agrarian workers are unable to sell their cotton products at a fair cost. Therefore, they must turn to alternate means of income – in some cases, trafficking. This oft-unexplored antecedent of trafficking cases is the pressing economic demands of both the trafficked person and others (such as the trafficker, buyer of services, etc.) involved in the process (Bales, 2012). Here is the paradox: the US classifies Benin a Tier 2-Watchlist country on the TIP-Report (a supposed human rights-promoting mechanism) when US economic policy vampirically saps Beninese resources, thereby increasing the occurrence of trafficking in the Beninese state. The US indirectly causes trafficking in Benin and simultaneously uses diplomatic pressure to punish Benin for its trafficking “problem”. So what does this disingenuous relationship look like to human rights activists in Benin and the populations they wish to serve?

Politics in Trafficking Discourse

In his ethnographic portrayal of the lives of working Beninese adolescents, Howard (2012) explores the motivations and incentives of young Beninese persons attempting to make a livelihood for both themselves and their families. He interviews young men who often work in gravel pits in western Nigeria and young women who opt to work for families in major coastal cities within Benin itself. According to Howard’s interviews with anti-trafficking NGO workers, two concerning issues surround the designation of these young men and women as ‘trafficked persons’:

  1. The young men and women seeking employment are underage. International law decrees childhood ends and legal consent begins (for most individuals) at age 18. In Benin, societal tradition prepares adolescents for work before age 18, and many adolescents (highly aware of their dire economic need) opt to work to support themselves their families. Due to these definitional inconsistencies, one persons trafficking survivor is another’s entrepreneur.
  2. Many of these young men and women do not consider themselves as trafficked persons, despite using 3rd-party cooperation to cross borders to find work. Here is a conversation that exemplifies this issue:

 

(Howard): Have some of you ever been away to do holiday work?

(Young Man): Yes, every single one of us! This is what allows us to continue at school! You can go to Nigeria or Savé and earn 30,000 or 40,000 FCFA in a summer!

(Howard): Do NGOs, white people or the government come here and say that’s bad?

(Young Man): Yes, loads.

(Howard): Why?

(Young Man): Because they can see that it can be hard, but they offer us no alternative.

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

The young man in this exchange, in addition to others interviews by Howard (2012), expresses frustration the Beninese government cannot aid employable citizens to find livable wages and jobs in their home communities. These individuals now must make long and arduous journeys to find work to sustain themselves and their families. This complicates the ‘victim-mentality’ all too common of anti-trafficking efforts; in many cases, anti-trafficking NGO’s see trafficked persons in need of ‘rescue’. However, via testimony from these so-called ‘trafficked persons’, these Beninese adolescents are exercising agency and ingenuity to pursue economic stability. They are not ‘victims’ of trafficking; they are victims of structural violence, in part propagated by the US government. In one fell swoop, the US government not only crippled the Beninese economy but also victimizes many Beninese workers through human rights discourse. What does the discursive process mean for human rights research and advocacy?

Notes on top of the written text of Michel Foucault
James Shelley, Creative Commons

Discourse, in a Foucault-ian sense, describes the process of transferring one’s worldview to another via communication (Howard, 2012). When we engage in dialogue, we construct a momentary reality for the person with whom we are engaged. They do the same. These conversations are laden with our worldview, power (a)symmetries, and culture; each of us brings these elements to the table. Therefore, the way in which we speak about a subject not only tells us about the subject itself, but it also of speaker(s). To speak of someone as a victim in need of rescue is to deny them agency and autonomy. This tactic may additionally heighten the moral authority of the speaker. This power asymmetry is epitomized by the dyad of the Beninese worker & US government.

Returning to the young man’s quotations above, we may infer he is an individual seeking agency and economic independence within a state that is unable to provide these opportunities. The state, Benin, is laden with political and financial woes; in part from price gauging by the United States. The US, also according to Howard’s ethnographic research, finances and sends NGO humanitarian aid workers to Benin to aid in anti-trafficking efforts. These aid workers, when pressed about why their Beninese ‘trafficking survivors’ were unable to find work within their homeland, often had no idea about the cotton subsidies or other reasons why the Beninese economy is suffering (Howard, 2012). Without a nuanced understanding of the structural barriers compelling Beninese adolescents to seek work in foreign lands, US aid workers revictimized Beninese citizens through discursive patronage and an inability to shoulder the burden of the US’s involvement in crippling the Beninese economy.

A Beninese woman balances a gourd above her head
AdamRogers2030, Creative Commons

A Challenge for Human Rights

Human rights are universal. The notion that all persons, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other identifying characteristic, deserve their dignity and personhood honored and protected is a key mainstay of modernity. The protection of human rights should be implemented by transnational actors such as the United Nations. Human rights should also be protected by states, such as the United States of America and Benin. Finally, human rights have to be guarded be ordinary people living in societies all over the world.

Conversations about human rights inform us about the speaker and how they conceive of rights. In the case of US aid workers in Benin, they considered Beninese adolescents in need of saving and as involuntary trafficking survivors falling prey to a malicious trafficker. And indeed, this is the case for many Beninese. From the other perspective, through the eyes of impoverished Beninese young women and men, earning a livable wage to support their family is paramount. They do not see themselves as victims; they see the aid-workers as misinformed. This begs the question: how do human rights activists and the communities they wish to serve negotiate power-sharing in discourse and social / economic / cultural equality within the doctrine of human rights?

A fundamental challenge within the realm of human rights is the negotiation between two groups of people who have (sometimes radically) different interpretations of what human rights mean. Eastern vs. Western, secular vs. religious, North vs. South, these are illusory differences propagated by individuals who directly benefit from antagonistic discourse between these (and many other) groups of people. Sometimes, is it not the conversation itself that is the important part; it is what each speaker is bringing to the conversation.

We see a conflict of interest between aid-workers in Benin and Beninese adolescents looking for jobs. Neither is wrong in their pursuit; both are merely taking radically different approaches to protecting the rights and fortunes of themselves and of those they care about. These differences of opinion on the interpretation of rights do not, as my colleague has written, weaken the foundational argument for the existence of universal human rights. These differences throw down the gauntlet for human rights activists and researchers to expand the table large enough for all vested parties to have an equal opportunity to negotiate a culturally-practical implementation of universal norms. It is a challenge to dismantle structural barriers to human rights (such as the US’s involvement in Benin’s cotton industry). It is a challenge to marry non-Western and Western conceptions of justice and peace. Human rights as a normative prescription of beliefs and behaviors is still in its infancy. These ideals still need an anthropologically-informed ethic, a moral system steeped in cultural pluralism through a globalized mechanism of implementation, in order to realize the full potential of universal human rights and a shared global identity of what it means to be human.

 

References

Bales, K. (2012). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Press Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Howard, N. (2012). Accountable to whom? Accountable for what? Understanding anti-trafficking discourse and policy in southern Benin. The Anti-Trafficking Review, 1, 43-59.

Libya, Slavery Revisited

a statue, entitled Emancipation, of Lincoln standing over a kneeling freed slave
Emancipation statue at Lincoln Park. Source: David, Creative Commons.

A video of a slave trade in Libya presently circulates the international circuit, eliciting pleas from the international community to the UN, and the UN Security Council to Libyan government to do something to end the “heinous abuses of human rights.” Questions of the video’s validity arose when Libyan officials, based on President Trump’s go-to slogan, discredited the report as “fake news” because it is a product of a CNN investigation. However, in April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) exposed the slave markets after staff based in Niger and Libya gathered testimonies of these markets. The trafficked individuals are migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Gambia seeking passage through Libya to Europe. “Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border. There they become commodities to be bought, sold, and discarded when they have no more value.” In other words, the video confirms what the humanity already knows: human beings are trafficked and disposed of by other human beings. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons is an all-encompassing term for the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of another for the purposes of commercial sex exploitation, labor trafficking, and organ trafficking. This blog focuses on labor trafficking, which includes domestic/manual forced migrant labor, and speaks to three issues surrounding this labor trafficking case: the international attention, the commonplaceness, and the international complicity.

The rawness of the video, in many ways, conjures images of American colonial and antebellum days gone by—when Africans were sold in markets and public squares to the highest bidder, thereby becoming property and labor on soil that was not their own. Given the fact slavery in the United States occurred nearly 400 years ago, why is this scene garnering international attention and creating a stir? First, the video provides undeniable evidence of the dehumanizing condition of slavery and the audacity of traffickers and traders. Second, it is a stack reminder that slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation in the US, never ended in many other regions of the world, including Libya. Lastly, it is challenges the notion of who is valuable and worth saving, and who civil society may continue to turn its back on.

It is essential to distinguish between indentured servitude and slavery. An indentured servant enters into an agreement with full acknowledgment of unpaid labor for a fixed and agreed-upon timeframe. William Mathews voluntarily made himself the servant of Thomas Windover in 1718 for the period of seven years. For his part, Windover agreed to teach, feed, clothe, and provide lodging to Mathews, who upon his release would receive “a sufficient new suit of apparel, four shirts, and two necklets [scarves].” Slavery, on the other hand, was and is about exploitation and “every sort of injustice…and debasement.” The written account of Olaudah Equiano and his family describes the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment of being “torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain… Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty”. The essential difference here is the presence or absence of choice.

Choice is the thin line separating the inferior from superior, poverty and enough, and animals and human beings. Choice, whether from individual, societal, or government level–influences how we perceive. Bales, in his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, offers two views of slavery: old and new. Both possess a dehumanizing element. However, old slavery prided itself on ownership and maintenance of “property”; new slavery focuses on bodies for profits. Ownership takes a backseat to the profit margin. This new slavery relies on the disposability of human beings. This reliance enables Bales to assert slavery never ended; it simply evolved. Slavery, at its core, is the theft of life. The theft of one life indirectly affects another.

Traffickers sell sex slaves on the black market, underground, and on the dark web. Bonded labor is often intergenerational in places like Pakistan and India, thus, children oftentimes are born into slavery. Migrant workers build soccer stadiums in Qatar and Brazil for FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, respectively, after fleeing poverty in their home countries. Unpaid or slightly paid workers, specifically children, sew garments for major fashion brands, grind coffee beans for industry leaders, and pick cocoa beans for chocolate bars sold in America. The major issue with labor trafficking lies in the complexity of the supply and demand chain, and the complicity of local and national government officials.

book00 slavery project. Immokalee — Jose Solano shows the record book he is keeping that marks the hours he goes to work and the hours that he actually gets paid for in Immokalee. He, like many other migrant workers, said that they go to work early in the morning but then wait for hours before they can pick tomatoes yet they are only paid for the hours they pick. Source: Moody College of Communications, Creative Commons.

Per Free the Slaves website, of the estimated 40 million enslaved persons worldwide, 50% are forced laborers. ABC used last spring’s television show, American Crime, to bring some aspects of labor trafficking to light. The mini-series revealed the interconnectedness of an American tomato farming family and the illegal migrants they employed. In a poignant scene, a fire conflagrates the property, killing several enslaved workers trapped inside. A real-life similar incident occurred in July 2017, whereby nine migrants died in a semi-trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. Many quickly jump to the assertion that ‘they should have done it the legal way’ and ‘they are taking away American jobs’ or ‘should not seek refuge in the EU’, yet what often happens is we fail to examine the backstory and interconnections.

Libyan Arab Spring occurred in February 2011. The death of leader Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi in October 2011 by NATO forces left a vacuum for the rise of the Islamic State. Several failed attempts for parliamentary elections, crumbling infrastructure, thousands of internally displaced citizens (IDPs), and limited resources coalesce to create the perfect storm for the rise and perpetuation of trafficking in persons. Additionally, continental intrastate conflicts and civil unrest result in large migrations of IDPs and refugees desperate for a semblance of normalcy and peace. The proclivity of new slavery, unlike old slavery, is not race or religion but on “weakness, gullibility, and deprivation”. Put another way, the subjection of the trafficked is the misapplication of trust in an uncontrolled situation. Nikki Haley, in the 2017 TIPS Report, concludes that the impact of trafficking in persons is cross-cultural, leaving no country “immune from this crisis.” The slave markets of Libya are not the first occurrence and they will not be the last; however, the video makes them known.

After a month of awareness and contained outrage, where do we sit on the elimination of slave markets in Libya, specifically? The UN released a statement condemning the markets while noting Libyans have launched an investigation, and encouraging inter-regional cooperation. Amnesty International (AI) named and shamed EU governments–particularly Italy—for their collusion and complicity in creating and maintaining a system of abuse. AI discloses the three-pronged policy of containment consists of provision of assistance to run detention centers, coordination with Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return fleeing refugees, and cooperation with leaders on the ground to halt the smuggling of seekers by increasing border controls. The Italian government, a state party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, pays to refuse refugees and asylum seekers and knowingly returns them to a foreign land for detention and torture. Libya is not a state party; therefore, signing the Convention and implementing asylum law as suggested by Dalhuisen will constitute a step in the right direction, when Libya establishes a functioning government.

The fight to end human trafficking is a global civil society (GCS) responsibility. Glasius believes GCS is a voluntary, social contract based association with others who desire to reach and include humanity to think and participate in the world as global citizens, not simply national citizens. How can one participate in GCS? First, employing social media platforms as advocacy tools. Second, reading the TIPS report and following international entities like the UN and AI will keep you informed of changes in international government strategies and shortcomings for prosecution, protection, and prevention of human trafficking. Third, shop and buy products that are fair trade by understanding the relationship between the supply and demand. Fourth, dig deep and ask questions. Lastly, look up, become aware and watch your surroundings because you, like Shelia Fedrick, could rescue a trafficked person.

The Right to Menstrual Hygiene

a picture of three girls smiling
Jordanian School Girls. Source: David Stanley, Creative Commons

It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them.  We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.  For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.

What Is the Problem?

The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.

Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.

a picture of a traditional pit latrine, which looks like a very small building with a tin roof and two tin doors
Traditional Pit Latrine. Source: SuSanA Secretariat, Creative Commons

Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.

It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.

Why Does It Matter?

According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.

What Can We Do?

Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.

Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.

If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.

 

The Silenced Women of the Rwandan Genocide and their Fight to be Heard

Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.  

The Uncondemned Movie Poster

On Thursday, September 21, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights and UAB’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program hosted the screening of the documentary: The Uncondemned. The film explores the challenges and triumphs of a group of fledgling lawyers, investigators, and Rwandan women during a trial after the Rwandan Genocide. From their juridical victory, the legal definition of genocide was expanded to include acts of rape.

Background

Over the course of four months in the summer of 1994, roughly 800,000 Rwandan citizens were massacred in the east-central area of the country. The ethnic majority of Rwanda, the Hutu, murdered most of the Tutsi minority in an attempt of “ethnic cleansing” as a result of ethnic and religious tensions between the two groups. This decimation of the ethnic Tutsis became known as the Rwandan Genocide.

Skulls of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide lined up
Death – Rwandan Genocide

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu leader, was shot down by an unknown assailant. All the passengers on the plane crashed to their deaths, including the Burundian president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Rumors place blame on the extremist Hutus for the murder as part of a revolt against the power-share agreement Habyarimana agreed to sign in accordance with the Tutsis. Another argument blames the Tutsis in the crash, using the act of terrorism as an attempt to regain power in Rwanda. Almost immediately after the plane crash, the murder of the Tutsi people began. Extremist Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus by setting up roadblocks and raiding homes. Radio stations ran by the extremists were encouraging civilians to attack and kill their neighbors.

The church played a significant role in the division among the Hutu and Tutsi. Hutu pastors preached on how “the war should be brought to the Tutsi, because they will come to wipe us away.” The church taught to kill their Tutsi neighbors as they claimed the Bible designated the Tutsi as their mortal enemies. During the genocide, not even the churches were safe. Hutu militiamen raided them and murdered anyone seeking refuge there. Pastors often trapped those hiding in the churches and alerted the Hutus.

The genocide was as horrifying as it was dehumanizing. Not all Hutu fighters had access to guns or even machetes, and much of the genocide was conducted using simple weapons such as sharpened sticks, large rocks, and common household items such as forks and knives – making death slow and painful. According to the film, bodies could be found in every village and on every hill. Its simplicity and scope earned it the title as the “most efficient genocide in modern history.” The first reconnaissance mission conducted by the United Nations (UN) reported one thousand Tutsi were killed in twenty minutes when the investigators first arrived.

Tragically, women endured gender based violence during the genocide. The total number of rape survivors will never be known, however countless women testified to being raped during the genocide. Stories of rape, whether gang-raped or with objects, are consistently mentioned. If they were not killed after being raped, the women were sold into sex slavery or forced into marriage. Additionally, they were traded among groups of men for them to sexually abuse them. Once the men were “done” with them, their reproductive organs were gruesomely mutilated with machetes, knives, bare sticks, or even acid. After pleading with her rapists to kill her, one woman testified they responded: she was to be kept alive so she would “die of sadness.”

The film shows the use of rape as a psychological weapon to strip the humanity from more than just the individual Rwandan woman. The rapists wanted to both degrade larger groups of women the rape survivors were a part of and as a means to assert their superiority and population control. Throughout the history of armed conflict, women often become the targets of sexual violence– this is a common weapon used in larger crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Whether it comes in the form of physical abuse, rape, mutilation, or sex slavery, being a woman becomes a risk factor – no matter the age, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or any other characteristic outside of biology. Niarchos concludes rape is used to inflict terror and force cooperation, both on the female survivor and others in her close community. In Rwanda’s case, rape was used to humiliate Tutsi women and terrify the community as a whole; making the suffering of Tutsi women a violent means to the Hutus’ political end.

The UN declared rape as a war crime in 1919, however in cases prior to the Rwandan Genocide, rape was never prosecuted in this manner. In Resolution 1820 that was adopted by the Security Council at its 5916th meeting, of the UN Security Council noted “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) was the first time rape was pursued as a war crime and was the first tribunal enacted since World War II. The film, The Uncondemned, tells of the efforts taken by the UN to connect rape to genocide. The documentary focuses on the case the mayor of Taba, Jean Paul Akayesu, who was the first to face charges of inditement over genocide – including rape.

The team of lawyers sent by the UN was ambitious but inexperienced. Most were in their 30s, recently graduated from law school, and were taken to task by gathering intelligence to prosecute this case that was like none before it. More importantly, they deduced they must prosecute it in a way that laid the groundwork for future cases – setting legal precedence.

Woman praying in front of others.
Woman Praying – Rwanda by Brice Crozier

Doctor Odette Nyiramilimo of Le Bon Samaritain Clinic in Kigali was one of many doctors who said almost every woman and adolescent girl who survived the Rwandan Genocide was raped. As she examined victims immediately after the genocide, she asserted that at least two cases of rape were coming in each day to her clinic. As mentioned before, the exact number cannot be known, which is due to a number of factors such as the stigmatism that surrounds rape. Across the globe, rape survivors are shamed and seen as guilty for the violent crimes committed against them. Eisler asserts this is especially prominent in societies that value men over women. Fear of reprisal compromises the reporting of rape, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwandan survivors. Bernadette Muhimakazi, a Rwandan women’s rights activist in an interview with Human Rights Watch, states many of the women were afraid to say anything because they know who their perpetrators are. These women know exactly who killed their families and who violated them. In many cases, these women live in the same community as their perpetrators.

“Women here are scared to talk because it was their neighbors who raped them.”

– Bernadette Muhimakzai

Prior to the visibility the tribunal brought, rape was viewed as a negligible outcome of war. The testimonies of the Rwandan women changed this perception, and rape was legally billed as a true war crime. The team the UN pulled together to prosecute this case proved to be successful in their endeavors, and justice prevailed; Akayesu was convicted of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The film concludes with rape survivors coming forth to name their rapists. While their sense of inner peace may never be fully restored, the tribunal gave the women a sense of justice and vindication.

It’s Not Just Irma and Harvey: Deadly Floods Affect Millions Around the World

map_of_southeast_asia. Source: ANHCANEM88, creative commons.

These past few weeks have been a very vulnerable time for our global community. Media has been predominately focusing on the countries and victims affected by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Jose, however nature’s violent outcry stormed communities all over the world- not just the hurricanes in the West. Powerful monsoons struck South Asia, affecting more than 41 million people throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. In Karachi, Pakistan, devastating monsoon floods abruptly invaded communities preparing to celebrate an Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha. Lastly, Typhoon Hato swept into the cities of Macau and Hong Kong, causing thousands of people to flee their homes.

After all of these natural disasters transpired, one concept became very clear: Mother Nature does not discriminate. Natural disasters affect the rich and poor, high income countries and low income countries, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities. Regions struck by these disasters are left with substantial amounts of infrastructural, property, and environmental damage. As a result, victims of these disaster experience traumatic consequences, such as internal displacement and food insecurity. Growing up, I believe I was too young and just overall uninformed to really comprehend what natural disasters entail, and why they are so devastating. However, now being an adult, it’s obvious to me that the reason why natural disasters are so devastating is because post-disaster damage completely compromise the dignity of human rights detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Disasters interfere with a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights emphasized through 17, Article 22-27 of the UDHR. Articles 22-27 of the UDHR focus on establishing social security through people’s right to education, employment, adequate living conditions, cultural life, and leisure. Likewise, Article 17 of the UDHR establishes that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Unfortunately, after a natural disaster, these rights are undeniably negatively affected.

Hurricane Katrina LA7. Source: News Muse, Creative Commons.

Right to Work

The right to work and employment is severely hindered after natural disasters due unimaginable infrastructural damage. In 2005, the US experienced public health tragedy when Hurricane Katrina devastated millions along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released numerous reports on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on employment and unemployment. These statistics state: “approximately 38 percent of business establishments in Louisiana and Mississippi were within a 100-mile corridor of the path of Hurricane Katrina’s center.” From August 2005 until June 2006, Louisiana unemployment rates soared from 5.8% pre-hurricane to 12.1% post-Hurricane Katrina. In Mississippi, unemployment rates climbed from 6.8% in 2004 before the hurricane to 10.4% after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone has the right to work to “ensur[e] for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”; this is ultimately difficult to achieve when opportunities for employment have literally been washed away. In the Caribbean regions, hit hardest by hurricane Irma, tourism one of the largest revenue-builders and an important source of income for many families. Specifically in Anguilla, a territory hit by Hurricane Irma, tourism contributed to 57% of the island’s GDP in 2016. Generally, travel and tourism alone contributed to about 15% of the Caribbean region’s total GDP. For the Caribbean victims of Irma, the disruption of the tourism industry is a disruption to a family’s livelihood. Natural disaster victims living in rural regions such as India, Nepal, and Bangladesh face continuous threat to work when their agriculture and crop land get destroyed and the becomes unprofitable.

Right to Adequate Living

The most noticeable human right that natural disasters discernibly jeopardize is 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…” For many survivors after natural disasters, ‘adequate living’ is no longer a reality. What happens when a family’s home is demolished in the wake of disasters such as these? Tragically, millions of people become internally displaced within their countries. The United Nations reports that about 851,000 people are displaced in India, 352,738 Nepalese are displaced from their homes, and lastly 696,169 people have been displaced in Bangladesh since the monsoons. Food insecurity also becomes an urgent need to address throughout regions affected by these disasters. Within two days after the floods, Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NEKSAP), issued a first assessment of the damage. Results exposed that 70% of flood-affected areas are moderately food insecure or worse. Of that 70%, 42% of those regions are highly and severely food insecure.

Right to Education

Natural disasters also impede on one’s right to an education due to the damage sustained by schools and educational infrastructure. Human loss to education systems, comprising the loss of school administration personal, teachers, and education policy makers, affects the institution’s ability to deliver a quality education. UN reports affirm that in Bangladesh, 2,292 primary and community schools suffered substantial water damage. In Nepal, 1,958 schools have been ruined, thereby impacting the education of 253,605 children. In India, nearly one million students’ education have been disrupted when floods damaged 15,455 schools. Damage to schools not only undercut education in the short term, but threaten long-term educational goals as well. USAID explains “the normal processes of educational planning break down during an emergency, weakening the overall system and creating future problems in the development of an inclusive educational system.”

“Famine”. Source: Jennifer Boyer, Creative Commons

What’s next?

These events have got a lot of people asking why these disasters even occurred in the first place. Well, science indicates that climate change has become a major catalyst to such drastic weather related disasters witnessed throughout the past couple of weeks. As NASA explains “changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.” With rising temperatures and a predicted increase in weather-related disasters, maybe the United Nations and our government should start to consider changing the definition of an internally displaced person (IDP) or a refugee to include people fleeing from natural disasters. The UN definition of a refugee is a person who , “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” Just like people running away from armed conflict, victims of weather-related disasters are also trying to escape harsh realities, including inadequate living conditions, food insecurity, no economic opportunities, and violence. A modern day example of weather-related disasters is the famine spreading across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya caused by intensified droughts.

“We have moved four times in the last four months. We were trying to follow the rain – moving according to where the rains were supposed to come. But they haven’t. If the rains don’t come, none of us will survive”

– Farhia Mohamad Geedi, Oxfam

Just like Farhia and her family, 10.7 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and are facing sever hunger. If their governments are not able to provide them with a feasible and effective solution, they have no other choice but to leave, or die. With a predicted increase in weather-related disasters such as drought and floods, more people will be living in extremely life-threatening  environments that will force them to leave their home. The destruction of the consecutive water disaster have been very tragic, but there is hope for the future. Countries have begun to recognize that “their shared burden of climate-related disasters can only be lifted by universal action to address the causes of climate change.” 175 countries from all over the world have signed onto the Paris Agreement, which will focus on keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius. We as a global community have already made such positive impact by acknowledging we have a problem, now it’s time to hold ourselves accountable for progress.

 

Additional resource: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

 

Famine: The Political Overlook of the Right to Food

a picture of Halima Bare and one of her children
Halima Bare (40) and one of her children in Elado village, Wajir District. Source: Oxfam East Africa, Creative Commons.

South Sudan, Somalia, Northeast Nigeria, and Yemen are currently experiencing what is being recognized as an international famine crisis. The lack of food in these countries has resulted in twenty million individuals suffering from extreme hunger, caused by agricultural and civil misfortunes. Starvation is expanding at an overwhelming speed; within the last three months, three million citizens from these regions are experiencing extreme food shortages. Famine has officially been declared in South Sudan, while the United Nations (UN) warns that the food shortages in Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia are only a few months away from reaching similar extremities. At this rate, these regions could face societal and economic challenges for an extraneous period. The UN has requested a total of $4.4 billion, in attempt to reverse famine in the affected countries. The purpose of this blog is to bring awareness to the global issue of starvation and famine, with regards to the collapse of civil structures and ecological factors that have severely influenced the rise of famine.

Famine refers to a wide-ranging and life-threatening food insufficiency in a specific region of the world. The issue can be created by drought, epidemics, population imbalances, inflation, and government instability. The UN determines an official famine crisis through evaluation of the food shortage margins. The official United Nations website mandates, “A famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are: at least 20 per cent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.” Natural and man-made catastrophes have worked hand-in-hand for the reasons behind the current famine issue. As political conflict and resource deprivation create an overpowering effect on a region’s agriculture and cost of food, individuals are stripped of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This declaration was created by fifty-six international representatives in 1948 as a universal agreement to essential human rights. The document was put into action only three years after the 1945 Vietnamese famine, which killed roughly two million citizens within six months. Article 25 of the UDHR 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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

a picture of a Yemini boy on a donkey with gerry cans for water
Yemen: Access to water. Source: European Commission DG ECHO, Creative Commons.

YEMEN What was already the poorest Arab country is now considered to be experiencing one of the world’s worst hunger crises. Two-thirds of the Yemenis population are suffering with food insufficiency. Eighteen million individuals are facing severe food and water shortages in Yemen, and seven million of these deprived citizens are classified as starving. Conflict is to blame for Yemen’s nearing famine crisis. Yemen’s former president’s, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, failed attempts to provide adequate fuel subsidies to the Yemenis people resulted in the Houthis driving him out of the city of Aden. The clash between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and President Hadi’s soldiers has resulted in a violent civil war, and citizens’ food accessibility and resources have become targets. OXFAM, an international union for poverty assistance, has stated, “Ports, roads and bridges, along with warehouses, farms and markets have been regularly destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition, draining the country’s food stocks. The Houthi led de-facto authority on the other hand, is delaying the delivery of life-saving relief, and sometimes detaining aid workers. This, coupled with a flattened economy, has created an abyss of hunger and a serious threat of famine.”

SOMALIA Drought plays a prominent role in Somalia’s excessive hunger issue. Minimal rain fall has disrupted Somalia’s society three times in nearly twenty-five years. Nearly three million Somalian citizens are suffering from starvation, while 6.2 million citizens are experiencing food and water shortages. This drought has created a spiral of decline for the population’s malnourishment, physical health, and educational standing. An Islamic militant group,  Al-Shabaab, has restricted Somalia’s access to resources after gaining political control of the country in 1991. The previous Somalian government, ruled by Mohammed Barre, was instructed to flee the capital, Mogadishu, after being overthrown by the terror group. During the conflict, the United States cut off their contributions to Somalia, due to the objection of Al-Shabaab. No official government has been established since Barre’s departure. For many years, the militants have blocked access to food and water resources and have required external contributors to pay ten thousand dollars, before allowing them to assist the citizens. The charge was lifted during Somalia’s 2011 food and drought crisis, but the general regulations of Al-Shabaab continue to affect Somalians’ resource abundance. This lack of food and water has caused severe consequences to the victimized citizens, resulting in cholera, measles, malaria, and other fatal diseases. Office for the Coordination of Human Rights recognizes the malnutrition of the Somalian children by stating that 185,000 children are in fatal condition and need of immediate aid. The rebellious leaders have displayed little to no concern with the victim’s current situation, presenting a correlation between Somalia’s political power and failed assistance.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been made irrelevant to the countries’ current leaders, but Anthony Lake, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund’s Executive Director, asserts, “We are making a difference in the areas we can reach. With the World Food Programme and other partners, we are treating acutely malnourished children. We are vaccinating children against measles and polio. We are providing safe water and sanitation services. But this is nowhere close to enough. Without adequate resources and without safe access, we and our partners will be unable to reach children whose lives are at imminent risk.What is already a crisis can become a catastrophe.”

NIGERIA Northeast Nigeria’s 2.5 million food deprived individuals are experiencing food and water disadvantages, stemming from both extreme drought and political injustice. 100,000 Nigerian citizens are facing fatal consequences of undernourishment and are expected to die from starvation this year. Boko Haram, and Islamic insurgent group from the northeastern region, have spent seven years destroying agricultural resources in Northeast Nigeria and restricting access and assistance to the state of Borno. The radical group not only rid citizens of their right to food and well-being, but also committed violent crimes of kidnapping, suicide bombings, and militant attacks. Although access has improved since the Nigerian army cleared numerous villages in Borno of the militant group, many human rights established by the UDHR continue to be violated today. UNICEF released a statement that claims, “Fews Net, the famine early warning system that monitors food insecurity, said late last year that famine likely occurred in some previously inaccessible areas of Borno states, and that it is likely ongoing, and will continue, in other areas which remain beyond humanitarian reach.” Anthony Lake believes that the lack of food assistance is expected to impact the health of 400,00 children in Nigeria, leading to the possibility of fatality for one in every five kids. This translates to an incomprehensible 246 fatalities in children each day in only one of the famine-potential countries. The United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recognizes the detracted human rights of the Boko Haram victims by stating, “In newly accessible areas vulnerable host populations are in critical need of humanitarian interventions including food, water, sanitation, protection, education, shelter and health services.”

SOUTH SUDAN As of February 20, 2017, the world’s newest country has officially declared famine in several locations. The crisis encompasses 4.9 million citizens in need of food and water assistance, including one million individual’s reaching famine. South Sudan’s famine is man-made and could have potentially been avoided. Political opposition between South Sudan’s President Salva Kirr Mayardit and Former Vice President Riek Machar led to an eruption of violence between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 2003. The hostility spread past the political supporters to groups and communities throughout South Sudan. Agriculture has been disrupted by this civil war and by severe drought, leaving the majority of South Sudanese citizens with a life-threatening shortage  food and water. The Sudanese government has not only created the chaos that has led to a famine catastrophe, but has failed to consider and abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With consideration of South Sudan’s short six-year span of independence, the country’s political and agricultural downfall has brought awareness of the current crisis across the globe. The United Nation’s Secretary, General Antonio Guterres claims, “Despite the alarm sounded by the United Nations and the international community over this crisis, the Government has yet to express any meaningful concern or take any tangible steps to address the plight of its people. On the contrary, what we hear most often are denials – a refusal by the leadership to even acknowledge the crisis or to fulfil its responsibilities to end it.”

Collecting Clean Drinking Water. DFID, Creative Commons

United State’s Evolving Contributions The current amount of support going towards the United Nations request of $4.4 billion could take longer than originally anticipated. President Donald Trump has obstinately planned to minimize The United States government’s contributions to the sufferers of these countries, cutting the amount of foreign aid from the United Nation by nearly twenty-nine percent. He calls this “America First.”

The United States is expected to decrease the budgets for all international developments by approximately thirty-seven percent. These revised budget plans constructs a message that greatly contradicts the United States previous assistance, created to specifically minimize the issues of starvation and famine across the globe. Trump’s attempt to decrease funding costs is anticipated to target the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, originally created by the former senators Bob Dole and George McGovern in 2003. The program has gained a positive reputation for its provided assistance to multiple countries each year. This assistance is focused on agricultural needs, financial donations, and technical advancements. The priority of the McGovern-Dole is to distribute food aid to the countries most effected by hunger and food shortages. Trump’s proposition for eliminating funds for the McGovern-Dole Food has been established through the “America First” budget blueprint, stating that the program“lacks evidence that it is being effectively implemented to reduce food insecurity.” If this elimination is successful, $200 million dollars in food contributions will no longer be an option for the countries currently experiencing famine.

In comparison to the Trump administration, the Obama Administration assisted in United Nations starvation crisis by providing thirty-five million dollars worth of food to Sudan in May of 2016. Similarly, the US provided the United Nation’s World Food Programme  (WFP) with $125 million for food in the countries of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. The WFP “is the leading humanitarian organization fighting hunger worldwide, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience.” The United States contributed over three times more than any other country to the WFP in the year of 2015. The WFP raised a total $10,979,000,000, within the years of 2015 and 2016, from donors and funding sources in response to global hunger. The US set the bar high with the generous contributions of approximately $2,015,000,000 each year. Following behind are the United Kingdom, European Commission, and Germany, who’s individual contributions amounted to less than half of the United State’s total. While this amount continues to lead the donations across the world, the proposed cuts will undeniably affect today’s starving victims. Denying contributions and assistance to individuals and countries in need challenges the support to the UDHR.

Famines are preventable UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien has spoken of the extremity of the famine catastrophe currently impacting the globe. O’ Brien estimated the food shortages can be overturned by raising $4.4 billion by July in his statement to the United Nations Security Counsel. One thing O’Brien expresses passionately- preventibility.

“It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes.”

 

Stephen O’Brien Meets Displaced People in Uganda. DFID, Creative Commons.

O’Brien’s travels and experiences among the victims of starvation bring about an alertness that is impossible to overlook. O’ Brien states, “For all three crises and North-Eastern Nigeria, an immediate injection of funds plus safe and unimpeded access are required to enable partners to avert a catastrophe; otherwise, many people will predictably die from hunger, livelihoods will be lost, and political gains that have been hard- won over the last few years will be reversed.” His plea for awareness and support based off of both his experiences and current data has been globally recognized by the world, but has lead to unexpected predicaments. Watch UN’s humanitarian chief communicate the issues being faced by the citizens of Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Northeast Nigeria.

Every Contribution Makes a Difference Inevitably, the internet has provided motivated individuals with an outlet for creating contributions for the United Nation’s multi-billion dollar request. Social media has provided increased awareness to the starvation crisis affecting the Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan. Celebrities including Ben Stiller, Colin Kaepernick, Casey Neistat, Juanpa Zarita, and Chakabars have raised over two million dollars to hep the cause occurring in victimized food shortage countries, specifically Somalia. This contribution began when Jerome Jarre, a French social media celebrity, identified Turkish Airlines as the only accessible commercial airline that flies to Somalia. Jarre utilized Twitter to promote his idea of filling a plane with food and water, and sending the supplies to the Somalians in need. His videos immediately caught the attention of Stiller, and within hours the topic was on Twitter’s Trending Topics. The campaign group’s original goal of one million dollars was reached in less than twenty-four hours of their social media. Turkish Airlines has expressed positive reactions to the campaign, as well. The airline company has announced their willingness to send 60 tons of humanitarian aid, and are expected to send out their first transfer of food on March 27. They have also announced their plan to continue the food transfer through as many commercial flights as needed. Read more information and get involved with the “Love Army For Somalia” GoFundMe page.

The celebrities’ motivation to provide assistance has been viewed as an inspiration around the globe. Our world is in an eye-opening and critical period of humanitarian need. Article 25 of the UDHR may have been overlooked by the government officials of South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Northeast Nigeria, but during times of crisis, our established human rights must be aided by each other.

“We will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy development without security, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.” –United Nations Secretary, General Kofi Annan

 

 

The Reality of Climate Change and its Effects on Human Rights and the Refugee Crisis

Photo of Earth
Earth: A simple model of Earth using Autodesk Maya. Source: Kevin Gill, Creative Commons

What is climate change? To understand climate change, we must first know what climate is and how it is different from the weather. Weather is what we see change on a day to day basis. We can see and feel the changes in weather: sunny one day, rainy the next, and back to sunny again. Weather also is the change in temperatures: sometimes it is hot, and sometimes it is cold, depending on the time of year or the place that you are in. Climate,  on the other hand, is the usual temperature of a place. For example, a regional climate may be wet and cold in the winter, but warm and dry in the summer. There have been anomalies–extremes where it has snowed year round. Not all climates are the same. The global temperature has been rising each year; however, climate change is much more than just that. In addition to the climates of individual places, there is also Earth’s climate, which is the result of combining all of the climates around the world together. Climate change is often referred to as global warming. Climate change is defined as changes in the usual weather found in a place. This could be a wide range of changes like how much rain a city gets in a year, snowing in places it does not usually snow, or most commonly, changes in a place’s usual temperature. Earth’s climate is also subject to climate change. The planet can experience rising temperatures, or it is possible for rain and snow patterns to shift, causing it to do so in places it would not usually.

Simply put, weather changes in a matter of hours or less, whereas climate takes hundreds of years to change.

In the past 100 years, Earth’s temperature has increased about one degree Fahrenheit. This may not seem detrimental on the surface, but minute changes in Earth’s climate has had massive effects. While Earth’s temperature rises independently, humanity plays a contributing role in speeding up the process of rising temperatures that influence the stasis of the Earth’s atmosphere, at an alarming rate. The Earth’s atmosphere consists layers, made of nitrogen , oxygen, argon, neon, helium, carbon dioxide, and methane. Key components in climate change like greenhouse gases contribute to the dismantling of the atmosphere, a term coined “the greenhouse effect” because of the absorption and transmittance of infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases impact the ozone layer. When it comes to climate change, the ozone layer is a layer in the Earth’s stratosphere that contains high amounts of ozone. Ozone absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation emitted from the sun, and prevents it from reaching Earth. Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a 40% increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest contributing factor of the emissions of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels by factories and industries, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Doing so pollutes the air, and releases these harmful gases into the atmosphere, counteracting the Earth’s natural greenhouse process. As it stands, the Earth’s surface temperature could reach record-breaking temperatures by 2047, which would cause ecosystems to fall apart and the livelihoods of people worldwide would be effected. If humanity continues to emit the amount of greenhouse gases into the air as we currently are, there could be dangerous consequences.

Factory emitting pollution into the air
Factory. Source: タロイモ, Creative Commons.

Man-Made Causes

Natural Causes

Consequences of Climate Change

Emissions of greenhouse gases

Variations in the Earth’s orbital characteristics Higher temperatures

Deforestation

Volcanic eruptions

Droughts

Sulfate aerosols

Variations in solar output

Changing rain and snow patterns

Soot particles – otherwise known as black carbon

Natural aerosols

Wilder weather

Less snowpack

Melting glaciers

Shrinking sea ice

Thawing permafrost

Increases in ocean acidity

Warmer oceans

Rising sea levels

Acid rain

Figure 1

Based on Figure 1 (above), it is easy to see that the causes of climate change are far outweighed by the consequences. There are very few man-made causes, but they each have many effects on Earth’s climate.


The Clean Air Act
is known as the most successful act in place to protect the environment. Passed in 1970 with the purpose of reducing the air pollution in the country  by limiting  the amount of pollution put into the air by industries, like chemical plants and steel mills. Under the Obama Administration, the Clean Air Act was used to help reduce the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to take into consideration the environment when making important decisions, such as building a highway or deforestation. It requires agencies to prepare an Environment Impact Statement to report how the actions may affect the environment. This act also assembled the Council on Environmental Quality to advise the President on environmental issues. While these laws have been effective in reducing the damages on the Earth’s ozone layer put out by the United States, the integrity of the ozone layer is still at stake. Recent studies have found that the ozone layer shows signs of healing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its relation to Climate Change

Under Article 22 of the UDHR, everyone has the right to security and economic welfare. The effects of climate change infringe upon this right because it jeopardizes environmental integrity. Climate change effects us all, and is supported by scientific evidence around the globe. It transcends political parties, race, and social class.

Everyone on Earth shares the same climate.

In the wave of executive orders issued out by President Trump, he re-initiated the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a controversial project that was halted by the Obama Administration. The DAPL was originally routed through Bismarck, North Dakota, but after the mostly-white residents refused to allow construction on the grounds of “polluting their water supply”, it was rerouted through Standing Rock. The pipeline’s construction threatens to destroy the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s historic, religious, and cultural sites. It also contributes to climate change and may cause untold damage to the environment, such as water pollution–presently acknowledged by the Bismarck community–and explosions. The DAPL effects the health and security of the Sioux Tribe.

Protesters standing up against the DAP
Protesters oppose Dakota Access Pipeline in Music City. by Lee Roberts

Another prime example of climate change infringing upon the health of people is the smog currently plaguing China, which is a result of burning massive amounts of coal. The emissions coming from China’s most industrialized areas were five times the national average in 2016 compared to 2015. Citizens of China are having to wear face masks to combat “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” While measures have been taken to reduce the pollution, such as wind-mill farms, the smog still continues to get worse because of the amount of coal being burned. Schools have been shut down, flights are being cancelled, and people are afraid to leave their homes because of the smog.

There have been many observable effects of climate change on the environment. Endangered species, both animal and plant, across the globe are dwindling in numbers due to the fluctuating temperatures in their habitats. Lakes and rivers are drying up or reaching low levels. The glaciers are melting, ocean levels and temperatures are rising. Here in Alabama, we suffered a drought this past summer and an oil leak this fall. The effects that scientists had predicted would happen due to climate change have started to occur.

Climate Change Effecting the Refugee Crisis

According to the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC), climate change has been noted as the “greatest security threat of the 21st Century”. The council has also said that climate change will cause a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale”, as the effects of climate change have already pushed many refugees into Europe. There are claims that a lack of natural resources due to climate change may have been a contributing factor in the Syrian War, namely oil. Despite the abundance of oil in the Middle East, the over-excavation of oil brought about a ecosystem collapse, resulting in the dispersion of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The land began losing its integrity which affected the economic output as Syrians were unable to produce goods due to the ill-suited climate.

If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise causing the glaciers to melt, causing a rise in sea levels, 20% of Bangladesh will flood, creating additional climate refugees. The potential is over 30 million people forced to evacuate and relocate their lives and families as a result of climate change. In light of this potential threat, Bangladesh is asking wealthier countries to be ready to accept millions of displaced families.

“Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.” – Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project

The United States’ impact on the Earth’s climate is profound. As an industrial country, we have a notable carbon footprint. In other words, what we do largely impacts those around the globe as it effects Earth’s climate, just as what China does impacts us and others even if they are across the globe. It is important to be aware of the growing concerns stemming from climate change, whether it is down the street or thousands of miles away. As I mentioned, we all share the Earth’s climate, so we are all effected by the changes in some form or another. Lives and families are being torn apart across the world due to changes in the climate. We as humans are responsible for destroying families’ homes, land, and countries. We must prevent the refugee crisis from growing at all costs. Climate change is not a “hoax”, it is a reality, and it is effecting us all. It is killing people directly and indirectly. It is killing our planet. This is why it is very important for us to all take part in slowing the effects of climate change. When the US began to reduce its waste, other countries followed suit.

Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. It is a security issue. It is a racial issue.

Chalkboard reading: "Dare the World to Save the Planet"
“Dare the World to Save the Planet” chalkboard located in Starbucks, photo taken by Tyler Goodwin

There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprints and slow the climate change process; I will focus on four. First, reduce fossil fuel use. this may be something more for factories, it is important to know the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment, and the small things we can do to help reduce it. It can be reduced on the domestic level by using less electricity, and using more energy-efficient appliances. Converting from gas-powered appliances to electric can also have a large impact. Second, plant trees. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas. Planting trees or any kinds of plants can aide in the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. By planting trees, we are combating the effects of deforestation. Third, reduce your waste by recycling. The decomposition of garbage in landfills produces harmful gases like methane, which absorbs the sun’s heat, and increases the Earth’s temperature. Reducing your consumption habits and reusing or recycling items when possible largely decreases your carbon footprint, as it reduces the need for new items to be made, and prevents items from being placed into landfills. Recycling metals, plastic, glass, and paper helps decrease the greenhouse gasses from being emitted into the air, as it takes less energy to make an item from recycled materials than it does as opposed to making materials from scratch. In Birmingham, you can order a recycling bin by phoning 205-254-6314. Additionally, in Birmingham, the recycling center is located at 4330 1st Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35222. Lastly, conserve water. The conservation of water is essential to the reduction of climate change. Water purification requires a lot of energy to complete, which in turn increases the mission of greenhouse gasses. By saving water, less energy is used. Turn off water at home when you are not using it, and pay close attention to pipes that may leak to ensure that unnecessary amounts of water are not used.

For more tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint, please visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website at: https://www.epa.gov/

 

Additional resources: 

Naomi Klein

Before the Flood documentary

Wangari Maathai

 

NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED

Preventing the practice of FGM/C in primary schools. Source: DFID – UK Department for International Development Follow, Creative Commons.

These three words “NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED” by Mitch McConnell, meant as a means of expressing his authority over Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor last month, have been co-opted by women around the world as a rallying cry and a reminder that women’s rights are human rights. The phrase uttered to news outlets, regarding Warren’s defiance as she read a letter from Coretta Scott King about the US Attorney General appointment of Jeff Sessions. As Warren read, she was interrupted, forced to stand down and remain silent for the duration of the session. Unshaken, Warren utilized another room and modern technology to continue the statement. The male Democrat Senators proceeded to read the entire letter on the Senate floor, without interruption. This scene symbolizes, in various ways around the world, the blatant and subtle, dismissive and disrespectful interaction of some men towards women.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day (IWD). IWD originated as a nod to the women in the 1909 New York City factory workers strike. A 1910 international meeting in Copenhagen established the annual recognition of female advancement in human rights, including voting rights, though there was no date for the observance; in 1975, the United Nations settled on March 8. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres explains that the protection of women and girls comes to fruition through empowerment, reducing the gender inequality that leads to discrimination, and bolstering socially and economically weak communities and societies. “Women’s legal rights, which have never been equal to men’s on any continent, are being eroded further.” Gender equality, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is an essential component in the plan “agreed by leaders of all countries” as they work in partnership to ensure the inclusion of all.

Women have been fighting against an imbalanced relationship between the sexes for centuries. Sherry Ortner believes “the universality of female subordination, the fact that it exists within every type of social and economic arrangement and in societies of every degree of complexity…something we cannot rout out simply by rearranging a few tasks and roles in the social system…The underlying logic of cultural thinking assumes the inferiority of women.”  According to historian Gail Collins, the single women of the colonies were either “tobacco brides”, indentured servants who were raped and often forced into marriage, or labeled witches and spinsters. Married colonial women achieved the highest status and authority when contributing to the progress of the nation by working in the fields, growing crops, and harvesting food; black couples were indentured servants who once they gained their freedom, owned businesses and shops. At the time, black women did not have the same constraints as white women. She contends, “Virtually all the colonial women wanted to marry, but when they did, they were automatically stripped of their legal rights. A wife’s possessions became her husband’s, and she was unable to do any business on her own, sue, borrow money, or sign contracts. A married women was virtually powerless…His character determined how far she could rise in life.” Collins is describing colonial America; however, presently, in 2017, women—whether single or married– many countries around the world remain powerless, consigned to relying on the males in their family to determine who and what she becomes.

By the 1800s, white women and homemakers were creating reform movements and petitioning for equality; black women were now domestic and sexual property of slave owners. In 1848, abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave her Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention she organized. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony pronounced, “Woman has been the great unpaid laborer of the world, and although within the last two decades a vast number of new employments have been opened to her, statistics prove that in the great majority of these, she is not paid according to the value of the work done, but according to sex.” The late 19th century brings the right to vote to the women of New Zealand; however, for the public sphere to hear the voice of women, it will first arrive in the form of protest from around the world.

a picture of a women's protest from 1930s
Feminism. Source: kcochran06, Creative Commons.

The 20th century generates the fight for suffrage via women like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in Britain. Margaret Sanger battles Comstock Laws, making birth control available for women desperate to end the circular nature of “barefoot and pregnant”. The rise of labor needs introduces women to factory work. Yet with wars end, women lost their jobs by being “expressly fired”, replaced by men, and reduced to the ranks to domesticity. In 1963, the Civil Right Act passed, the Commission on the Status of Women is established and the Equal Pay Act, which bars unequal pay for the same or similar work completed by men or women, within the same organization, becomes federal law. Betty Friedan in her book, The Feminine Mystique, exposes the American ideal as a myth, stating

“Over and over women heard voice of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training… They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”

Enter the second wave of feminism. Ortner argues that ‘female is to nature as male is to culture’ is a code of practice derived to perpetuate inequality. Most distressing is that global humanity bought into this lie and label anyone willing to stand against it, deviant. Herein lies the disdain for the term “feminist”.

The characterization of feminists as an ambitious, aggressive, bossy, b*%$#y, bra-burning woman who hates all men reveals the failed understanding of a women who stand up for themselves and the rights of other women as a means of gender equality. The fight for feminists is political because the political is personal, and the personal, political as Leymah Gbowee believes. Though progress has been made, there are significant strides yet to be made on behalf of women, politically, socially, and economically; until the fullness of women’s rights are human rights is fully accepted, implemented, and recognized.

First, women need positions of governmental leadership. The public sphere has made room for female representation by respecting the human right to participate in country elections–Saudi Arabia was last in 2015—but the issues facing women are not accurately addressed. Of the 192 nations on earth, women represented 59 in the past 50 years. The feminine voice has representation on some local levels of government within the US; however, on the national level, women possess less than 20% of the seats. Conversely, Rwandan women account for 64% of parliamentary seats as of 2013. Rwanda, known for the 1994 genocide, “has the most women’s participation globally.” Additionally, www.heforshe.org ranks Rwanda as the highest commitment leader, based upon population, for gender equality.

Second, “boys will be boys” is not an acceptable stance to take regarding misogyny and sexism. The cliché permits the turn of a blind eye where gender-based violence (GBV)–sexual harassment, bullying, stalking, assault, etc.–are concerned. Whether UN peacekeepers or college students, the combination of these actions, and a lackadaisical response from citizens and law enforcement, creates a culture where violence against women is not considered taboo. Brock Turner caught in the act and convicted of sexual assault, and released within three months of his six-month sentence. Survivors of sexual assault, regardless of gender, endure treatment as guilty of contributing to their assault: ‘what were you wearing’ or ‘why did you walk alone’, more often than the perpetrator is innocent of committing assault; therefore, most go unreported. Jill Flipovic presents rape and sexual assault as “both a crime and tool for social control.” She believes sexual assault is the result of a systemic problem of misogynistic behavior, rooted in the debasement of women by men and accepted by the by-standing status quo.

Rape and sexual assault will continue as a weapon and means of control until perceptions about sexism and misogyny change, and the creation and implementation of laws protect the survivors rather than the attacker. In Malawi, the government plans to increase the number of reported GBV by “setting up a mechanism… [that] will strengthen the 300-community based victim support units and build their capacity to handle cases in coordination with law enforcers and judiciary.”  Male heads of state, university presidents, and business leadership possess a unique opportunity of deconstructing structural violence and reconstructing institutional, gender equal framework by employing IMPACT 10x10x10 top-down engagement strategy.

The first seven female pilot officers of the Colombian Air Force against a T-34
The first seven female pilot officers of the Colombian Air Force against a T-34. Source: Aviatrix Aviatrix, Creative Commons.

Third, look for the glass ceiling to be broken through the removal of economic and labor barriers. Tennis leads the way in pay equality due to the persistent advocacy of Billie Jean King and Venus Williams. American Bessie Coleman was the first black female pilot; two weeks ago, First Officer Dawn Cook and Captain Stephanie Johnson made history as the first black pilots to command the cockpit at the same time. In addition, Soudaphone and Phinanong of Laos, made aviation history as the first female pilots.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery writes, “one in 4,000” of the world’s largest companies have a seat for women on their boards. Prime Minister of Iceland Bjani Benediktsson stated, “When it is no longer news to have women in leading position, then—and only then—will we have gender parity.” According to the glass-ceiling index, Iceland is the best nation in the world to work, leading the way in gender equality. Over the course of five years, Scandinavian countries have positioned in the top five, whereas the United States ranked 20th, seven below the average. On Tuesday, the fearless girl representing gender inequality and pay disparity became an addition to the bull on Wall Street.

For more nearly 400 years, the persistence of women has pushed back the bounds of patriarchy, which interrupted our growth, forced us to take a backseat on policy and agenda issues regarding our personhood, seeking our demure silence and acceptance. Today, in 2017, given the persistent history, current global political climate, and subsequent rise of global solidarity, the collective SHE has heard the warnings, ignored the explanations, and raised a resistance.

A Maasai Experience: Come to Kenya

a group of Maasai schoolchildren
Maasai schoolchildren. Source: Stacy Moak.

Traveling to Africa as a volunteer in orphanages and schools is a highlight of my life experiences so far. Witnessing people who possess so little compared to American standards, yet who are so happy and full of hope, is a life changing experience which calls into question all of our values and priorities. Many children in America often walk away from their opportunity for an education, while African children strive to be able to afford an education. Young women have additional struggles that may contribute to a lack of school, whether forced marriages and other family responsibilities, dating back in time so far that we cannot conceive of the cultural history driving them. Seeing stagnate water being used as the water source for families and communities and to see that in the 21st century, entire families dwell in primitive housing is something I will not soon forget.

We have much to learn from other cultures, just as we have much to share. While we can share a more modern understanding of women’s rights and women’s role in an educated society, and as we promote social justice and equality for all people, we can also learn from the generosity and spirit of hope evident in the smiles of these children. The one act of generosity that will stay with me forever is from a young Maasai girl named Liemon. My oldest daughter met this child on the trip last January (2016) and sent a letter with me to give to the child. I finally found her, or rather she found me. She came up to me from a crowd of children and took my hand. I asked her name and she told me she was Liemon. I was so excited to meet her and deliver the letter from my daughter. In return for the letter and pictures, this sweet child took off the necklace that you see her wearing in this picture, put it around my neck, and fastened it. She gave it to me as a gift. I have so much and she has so little, but this gesture of generosity will forever remind me of the gentleness of humanity that exists in all of us that connects us to each other no matter how different our cultures or our lives. This simple gift from a pure spirit, imprinted on my heart forever.

Liemon and Stacy’s daughter. Source: Stacy Moak.

Kenya is home to numerous tribal populations, including the Maasai people. The tribe has a long preserved culture in the way that they live and dress which makes them a sign of Kenyan culture. Easily identified by their traditional style of dress, the Maasai usually red or green plaid clothing tied across their bodies. Maasai live in both Kenya and Tanzania. Maasai lands include the great game reserves that overlaps with the Serengeti plains, an area famous for the great wildebeest migration that takes place every year. Although Maasai game reserves bring considerable amounts of money to the Kenyan government, Maasai people still live on as little as $1 per day. Entrepreneurs from the Maasai people are working to change that into a more equitable arrangement and volunteers can help support those efforts. One such project is that foreign owned hotels located on Maasai land now buy their soap products from Maasai women who make the soap. This provides sustainable income to the women and allows the community to benefit from tourism.

Swahili is the native language of Kenya but the national language is English. Most Kenyan students study English in schools, whereas Maasai children speak the Maa language–a Nilotic ethnic language from their origin. Language barriers can prevent Maasai people from full participation in events outside of their tribal community; therefore, Maasai children need to understand three languages to participate in the greater Kenyan society. Maasai children now have access to education. Education remains expensive for those who continue to live a traditional lifestyle. Kenya requires that children wear a uniform before they can attend school. The combination of school fees and uniform costs make education difficult for many Kenyan families, including Maasai families.

Women are truly the fabric of the community in the tribal culture of the Maasai. They build the traditional circular houses using mud, grass, wood, and cow-dung. Women also cook for the family, create jewelry to sell to provide for their families, and handle all child-rearing responsibilities. Despite their role in the community, girls as young as eight are at risk of their families trading them for livestock, and forcing them into marriages with much older men. When this happens, girls no longer attend school, are subject to and endure female genital mutilation, and forced into a life of a wife and mother. Many times, they are the second wives who have less standing in the community, less rights, and experiences of extreme levels of abuses.

The government of Kenya has passed laws against these types of human rights violation, but the practices go largely unregulated in tribal cultures. The Maasai people are leading the way to stop these practices by producing dramas for elementary and secondary schools. Further, they are building libraries, schools, and rescue centers to encourage young women to assert their legal rights and stay in school. Times are changing, and I remain thrilled to be a part of the change. Volunteering to provide education, clean water, green houses, and other sustainable solutions has truly been an amazing experience. Collaborating with Kenyans, specifically the Maasai people, and making a difference in their communities provides a life changing opportunity.

With My Own Two Hands, a nonprofit organization located in Laguna Beach, California, organized my trip to Kenya. Owner and Director, Lindsey Plumier raises funds to support local efforts of sustainable solutions that work to provide education, shelter, food, and fresh water to children in Kenya. With My Own Two Hands organizes volunteer trips to Kenya at least once a year, usually in January. More about the organization, ongoing projects, and opportunities to serve can be found at http://www.withmyown2hands.org.  My goal is to take students from UAB to Kenya over spring break of 2018 for them to participate in some of these projects. Their educational experience will be enhanced and their worldview forever changed by these experiences.

 **Dr. Stacy Moak will host an information session regarding this opportunity on Tuesday 7 March, 1230-130pm in the Institute for Human Rights

 

A Right to Fair and Objective Press

a picture of an old associated press news machine
Associated Press. Source: rochelle hartman, Creative Commons.

Freedom of the Press has always been a hallmark of our American democracy.  In fact, our Founders thought it to be so important they made it the first amendment to our Constitution, guaranteeing all citizens the right to free speech.  Our Founders recognized the right to free speech is required for a healthy and free society. No society can claim to be free without the right of its citizens to speak their minds without fear of impunity. The public also has a right to the facts concerning transparency in their government and other public institutions, like the media. However, not everyone enjoys this liberty. The relationship between the press and the society it serves varies from one society to another. The purpose of this blog is to explore the impact media has on a society and its relationship to the public as an increasingly private institution in the United States.

When our Founders were framing the Constitution of the United States of America, and preparing for independence, the British authorities attempted to quell the uprising by regulating the media. This allowed only information that the British authority approved to circulate among the public.  For example, in the early 1700s an English loyalist governor in New York, William Cosby sued John Peter Zenger for sedition when Zenger published editorials about Cosby’s oppressive and tyrannical style of governance in the New York Weekly Journal.  These editorials made the public aware of Cosby’s attempt to rig elections, use public funds for his own private interests and the appropriation of Indian lands. Cosby had Zenger arrested and tried to close the Journal for business.  Andrew Hamilton, a popular lawyer, took the case and defended Zenger by arguing that Zenger could only be libel if what he printed was falsely seditious. Zenger acquittal and Hamilton’s argument still stands today: a publisher is libel only when falsehoods are committed. This case set the precedent for freedom of speech and the press, later adopted by our Founders as the First Amendment of the Constitution (Kammen, 1975).

In this modern era, we face new challenges concerning mass media and freedom of the press in the United States. Increasingly, we have gotten away from the objective journalism of the 1950s and 1960s where both sides of an issue were represented with facts and allowed the informed citizen to come to their own conclusion. Today, news organizations have become more varied and focused on one perspective or another, be it liberal, conservative or some other view beyond the mainstream.  We have witnessed the shift from objective journalism to indoctrination in most of our mass media over the past few decades. This is mainly due to competition over network viewership and ratings. It seems as though we have been lulled into a trap, like a child in a candy store that immediately fills their pockets with their favorite candy and ignores the rest. As free citizens, we have a responsibility to seek out the facts and think for ourselves. We have a responsibility to explore perspectives different than our own and attempt to see the world from another’s vantage point. The alternative is state news with certain views and opinions silenced, if not conforming to an authoritarian agenda. With freedom comes responsibility; a responsibility left to us by those who have sacrificed and died for every freedom we enjoy today.  We cannot allow their sacrifice to be forgotten, nor the lessons of the past unlearned.  For surely if we fail in our duties as free citizens, our children and grandchildren will be the ones to pay the price for that negligence and the struggles of our forefathers will define their lives and new heroes and sacrifices will have to be made in order to regain these freedoms.

a picture of a stack of newspapers
Newspapers. Source: Dave Crosby, Creative Commons.

Freedom of the Press has historically been a public service, providing real contributions to our society. When television started dominating American culture in the 1950’s and 1960s, Walter Cronkite, a journalist with CBS, known as the “most trusted man in America”.  News organizations were unequivocally trusted by the American public. Increasingly, private news organizations have come to the forefront since the implementation of cable television. C-SPAN, arrived first in the late 1970s, followed by CNN in the early 1980s, followed by Fox News Channel and MSNBC during the mid-1990s. These media heavyweights enjoy mass popularity and most Americans receive their TV news from one of these sources. The issue that has recently arisen with these news organizations is the conflict of interest between providing accurate, objective journalism for the public and creating their presentation flashy and provocative in order to attract viewers. Additionally, they have tailored their news to attract a specific audience by making it less objective and more like doctrine. For example, many conservatives are likely to watch Fox News while many liberals are likely to watch MSNBC. The reason for this is these news outlets have designed their programming to attract viewers based on their political philosophy.  This presents a corruptibility within our news media because it is impossible for objective journalism, a public service, and propaganda designed for a specific audience, to raise private corporate profits, to coexist. These are mutually exclusive concepts because any “slant” on the facts automatically removes objectivity from the equation. Journalism causes one to think and concluded based on facts.  Propaganda disengages the brain because it offers a solitary perspective and plays on an individual’s beliefs, generally to perpetuate a specific worldview.

Sweden ranks among the top of the world for its version of Freedom of the Press, while the United States is currently ranked 28th out of 197. It might come as a surprise to many Americans that Sweden, in 1766, was the first country in the world to guarantee freedom of speech and the press. At the same time, Sweden ended all censorship within the country. In addition, all Swedish government documents are accessible to the public, unlike in the United States where some government information is classified and illegal for the public to access. A key factor in this ranking are constraints placed on our press freedom due to national security.

Mass media can play other roles in society aside from just serving as a watchdog for public institutions. In her book, Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, Maria Armoudian explains the power of the media to influence for bad as well as good. She points to Senegal as an example of the power of community to ensure the media reported the true nature of the happenings in the villages. In Senegal, female genital cutting or mutilation (FGC/FGM) had been a long-standing rite of passage for most of the young teenage girls over the past five thousand years. This is not akin to male circumcision in our own culture, though there are a few parallels. For the Senegalese females, this procedure removes the clitoris and labia, often without modern medical aids such as anesthesia. In many cases, the girls are held down while the procedure is done with unsterilized crude tools, told the process will make them a “real woman”, and taught that the suffering is a “moral duty”. This practice originated as a village celebration for girls entering marriage and motherhood. Many of the young girls that have experienced FGC have health problems later in their life, mainly with infections, hemorrhaging, ulceration, cysts, scarring or problems arising during childbirth. In 1997, a movement began in rural villages to discontinue this harmful practice.  By 2008, thousands of communities had joined the movement away from FGC tradition. This attributed to education facilitated by Tostan, a nonprofit organization originally founded to teach children to read, and mass media that introduced new ideas to many villagers and depicted the Senegalese women as brave and intelligent in their struggle for health and human rights (Armoudian, 2011). Mass media can be a useful tool in combatting cultural stagnation, by bringing issues to light. The combined efforts of Tostan and the mass media garnered national attention and sparked dialogue, which brought about cultural change, through education, for the women of Senegal.

In conclusion, Freedom of the Press is undoubtedly important for any society to claim freedom and democracy as its core ideals. The public institution of mass media is a powerful force in our modern social world for change, evident in the example of FGC in Senegal. However, this powerful force is not automatic nor invincible, and any freedom gained by a society may be lost, if not given the proper attention and respect. As a society, we cannot allow the dismantling of our public institutions by private interests, seeking a profit with no concern for public welfare and security. This is how freedoms are lost.  Democracies possess an engaged public sector that relishes diversity of thinking, including political ideology. We, as free citizens, must learn to actively explore views different from our own, and not become dogmatic and intolerant through specialized media. This is how societies progress and prosper.  This is how we learn and grow as human beings. If we fail in this endeavor, it might not be long before one perspective is all one knows and has access to and it could be the end of the free society we all treasure for ourselves and the generations to come.

References:

Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975

Armoudian, Maria. Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, Prometheus Books, 2011.