UN Human Rights Council Votes Against Debate Over China’s Xinjiang Policies After Releasing Report Detailing Human Rights Violation of Uyghur Muslims

China’s hardline policies in the Xinjiang region have caused a rift within the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over the detention of more than one million Muslim Uyghurs in reeducation camps. These camps are aimed at dismantling indigenous cultures and religions for those detained. A human rights commission within the United Nations -responsible for promoting the protection of human rights throughout the world and addressing violations of human rights voted on June 10th of 2022 over a Western-backed proposal. This proposal was an opportunity to hold a debate, essentially without any monitoring of the rights situation, and it was the least intrusive measures the council could take. Member states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany proposed holding the debate. However, 19 members of the council voted against the motion, 17 members of the council voted in support, and 11 members abstained from voting. Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International states, “Today’s vote protects the perpetrators of human rights violations rather than the victims – a dismaying result that puts the UN’s main human rights body in the farcical position of ignoring the findings of the UN’s own human rights office.”

 

Women wearing mask in solidarity with Uyghur Muslims
Source Yahoo Images

Council Facing Backlash

Days of diplomatic arm-twisting ensued in the UNHRC, and many national capitals in the weeks leading up to the vote as leading Western countries tried to get momentum behind a report from the former UN chief. The report, released on August 31st by the office of UN Human Rights, detailed serious human rights violations in Xinjiang that may amount to crimes against humanity. It documented a catalog of human rights violations including torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and mistreatment. According to the OHCHR report, the “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … may constitute … crimes against humanity.” Despite their findings, the council still voted against addressing the conditions of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Members of UNHRC gathered for debate
Source Yahoo Images

Background

Under China’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism, Chinese authorities have violated the rights of a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims by arbitrary detention, harassment, and cultural persecution since 2017. Forced sterilization and forced separation of children are some of the harshest elements of the government’s oppression. Extremist, repressive laws are put in place to target these communities for nothing more than the personal choice of practicing Islam. The disproportionate and discriminatory application towards ethnic and religious minorities is concerning. Omer Kanat of the Uyghur Human Rights Project states, “The Chinese government’s singular goal has been to silence even a discussion of the issue — we cannot allow this to happen.”

Protesters carrying signs at a demonstartion
Source Yahoo Images

China’s Response

Beijing, strategically employing its political and economic clout, sent a report from ambassadors in predominantly Muslim regions such as Africa, Middle East, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia positively evaluating the human rights developments to the president of the. As China continues to influence the UNHRC, people will doubt if the council can remain impartial in its proceedings. By reaching this decision, the council has planted seeds of bias and crushed the Uyghurs’ hopes that the council will stand up to China to fight for justice. Many Muslim-majority states in support of the pro-Beijing statement have effectively turned their backs on the country’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Before the vote, Chinese ambassador Chen Xu accused Western countries of seeking to turn a “blind eye” to their own issues on human rights and point a finger at others. No country has a perfect history of human rights; therefore, all countries are subject to scrutiny despite how much power they may wield.

China’s Economic Lure

The more pertinent question to be asked is, how vast is China’s economic pull that other countries factor into their decision-making? The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) consists of 47 countries and is regarded as the UN’s top human rights body. Annually, council members rotate among each other. However, a prominent country like China, with a permanent seat on the council, has never been the subject of a country-specific resolution from the council since it was established in 2006. It is a vicious cycle for other countries, including the largely Muslim-populated countries that voted against the debate, as their human rights record has been attacked frequently abroad; defending China becomes a way of defending themselves. Many Muslim-populated countries sided with Beijing due to their oppression by western imperialism. For example, various military interventions by the United States in these countries under the premise to widen their influence and democratic values has resulted in a distrust of the West. Nevertheless, this decision conveys a dreadful message: China is untouchable. This should not be the case. It is up to the citizens of these UN countries to hold these countries accountable for their actions. Human Rights violations continue to run rampant in the Xinjiang region, and despite the mounting evidence and international attention, China has failed to acknowledge or address these violations. Therefore, the duty falls to us to ensure the Uyghur Muslims are heard and their issues are addressed on a global stage. To help, contact these organizations:

Amnesty International

Human Rights Watch

International Commission of Jurists

International Service for Human Rights

Uyghur Human Rights Project

World Uyghur Congress

Pakistan’s Floods : A Humanitarian and Climate Crisis

Source: Abdul Majeed Goraya / IRIN | www.irinnews.org

One third of Pakistan is underwater following disaster-level floods that have ravaged the country since mid June of 2022. The flooding is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, bringing climate change and environmental justice into the focus of conversations about why the floods are so devastating. The record-breaking monsoon rains have affected 33 million citizens, leaving millions displaced and threatening the economy by washing away the fall harvest and essential farmland. Pakistan’s most vulnerable are struggling to access the scarce aid that is available, including the 19 million children affected by the floods. It is an unprecedented, once in a century crisis event exacerbated by climate change, poor infrastructure, and the damages of the recent economic crisis prior to the flooding.

Source: Oxfam International via Flickr

Direct Impact of the Floods: Hunger, Disease and Displacement.

The monsoon rains have killed over a thousand people, roughly 400 of which are children. However, hunger, thirst, disease, and shortages of essential supplies threaten the lives of even more; millions of Pakistani people have been displaced over the course of the floods since June. The United Nations Refugee Agency has estimated that 6.4 million people are in need of immediate support. 

Any discussion of rebuilding has been shelved in submerged regions as the flood waters may not recede for months, leaving the thousands of kilometers of roads, tens of thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of homes, thousands of essential healthcare facilities destroyed by floodwater, and prior residents stranded or displaced. In addition to the initial death toll from the floods, the Pakistani people are facing immediate dangers of water borne disease, lack of access to food, water and shelter, and risks of violence; especially for women, children, and minority groups.

The country’s health system has faced substantial blows, both from loss of structures and supplies caused by the flood and the overwhelming need of those affected. Dehydration, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and dengue fever are ravaging make-shift camps as the flood waters become stagnant and clean water and sanitary supplies become harder to come by. Sindh Province, the second-most populated province in Pakistan, and one of the hardest-hit by the floods, has seen over 300 deaths from water borne-diseases since July.  Early disease surveillance by the WHO has revealed that tens of thousands of cases of flood water-caused diseases are already present amongst those within reach of relief efforts. Countless villages remain stranded as roads and highways are underwater, so the true number of deaths, displaced persons, diseased, and persons otherwise impacted by these crises are expected to climb as more recovery efforts continue to search the flooded regions. 

Without international aid and intervention, an epidemic of disease caused by the floods will cause a second wave of deaths in Pakistan, of which the elderly, children, and pregnant women will be the largest groups facing losses. International aid, medical and humanitarian organizations have joined the Pakistani government and are regularly dropping medical supplies, malaria nets, food and provisional shelters, but the need continues to grow as more people find their way to temporary camps and the rate of disease climbs. 

Source: Oxfam International Via Flickr

Human Rights & The Most Vulnerable

A nation’s most vulnerable populations are often the ones who suffer the worst effects for the longest time after a natural disaster like these floods. For Pakistan, those vulnerable groups are women, children, the Khwaja Sira (transgender) community, those living in extreme poverty, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. Typically, socially disadvantaged groups are living in regions with lesser infrastructure, facing the initial worst impacts of natural disasters, but marginalized status often leads to upwards battles to access humanitarian aid after the disaster as well. There are estimated to be 650,000 pregnant women displaced in Pakistan right now, in urgent need of maternal health care and safe, sterile facilities to give birth in, with many taking perilous journeys in hopes of reaching a hospital or safe places to give birth.

CARE, an international human rights and social justice organization, spoke on this concern. Pakistan Country Director for CARE, Adil Sheraz said, “With entire villages washed away, families broken up and many people sleeping under the sky, the usual social structures that keep people safe have fallen away, and this can be very dangerous for women and girls.” 

Following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, denial of aid and violence against minorities became a prevalent issue and large protests against law enforcement arose due to their failure to protect vulnerable groups. Preventative measures against recurrence of these issues have been few and far between since 2010, and international human rights communities are on high alert for rising reports of discrimination in relief distribution and crimes against minorities. Reports of sexual violence have already increased following the floods.

In addition to some of the most vulnerable Pakistanis are roughly 800,000 Afghani refugees who have been hosted by Pakistan in Sindh and Balochistan; two provinces faced with the worst of the flooding and submersion. Pakistan has a deep history of offering asylum and refuge for those fleeing across the border from conflict in Afghanistan, and is home to 1.4 million Afghani refugees currently in 2022. Following the August 2021 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate government (also known as the Taliban), Pakistan became an even more essential haven for the influx of refugees fleeing a violent authoritarian regime. In the wake of this natural disaster, the loss of $30 billion dollars worth of infrastructure, homes and supplies, and facing an economic crisis, Afghani people with hopes of finding refuge in Pakistan must now find new routes to safety. 

Source: Ali Hyder Junejo

Environmental Justice & Climate Change

Though Pakistan faces annual flooding of the Indus river from heavy rains in monsoon season, record breaking rains preceded by an extended heatwave contributed to an unrivaled degree of flooding this summer. Heatwaves brought temperatures around 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) to India and Pakistan between March and May of this year. Monsoon rains followed the spring heatwaves, and in the regions of Sindh and Balochistan rainfall reached 500% above average. The 2022 floods will leave a significant economic, infrastructural, and humanitarian impact on the country of roughly 220 million people. The reason for the dramatic influx in severity is complex, but simple at its core: climate change.

Pakistan is facing an unfair share of the consequences of climate change; while it was responsible for only .3% of global CO2 emissions in 2020, it is likely that this year’s heatwaves and floods will be on the less severe end of what is to come. The United Nations has deemed Pakistan a “climate change hotspot”, stating that people in South Asia are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. As the global temperature rises and geohazards become more extreme, disaster-prone regions like Pakistan will face more and more devastation. The best prognosis for the region comes with prevention efforts like strengthening anti-disaster infrastructures. As the global north is responsible for 92% of excess emissions contributing to global warming and climate change, Pakistan, the United Nations, and other international agencies are calling for countries like the United States to make increased contributions to relief funds and infrastructure development overseas.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while visiting Pakistan in September 2022, said, “…the fact is that we are already living in a world where climate change is acting in such a devastating way. So, there must be massive support to what usually is called adaptation, which means to build resilient infrastructure and to support resilient communities and to create conditions for those that are in the hotspots of climate change. Pakistan is one of the hotspots of climate change. For those countries to be able to prepare for the next disaster and to be able to resist the next disaster, this needs a huge investment and this investment needs to be provided.”

Relief & Aid

Pakistan has faced an overwhelming series of calamities since the start of this year, and the impacts from these disasters are greatly exacerbated by food shortages and an economic crisis prior to the start of the disasters in March. There are millions of people in need of aid, and every bit of support helps. If you are unable to financially contribute, please consider sharing this or other articles about this crisis to increase international attention on those who need our help.

For donations of money, time, or other resources, we have compiled some reputable aid agencies below:

  • Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society is providing clean drinking water, medical treatments, temporary housing, and other essential aid across flood-hit regions. Donate or get involved with their flood response efforts here.
  • The United Nations Refugee Agency has provided millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, and you can contribute here to support their continued relief efforts.
  • The International Medical Corps are on the ground in Pakistan, providing medical care and responses to both the floods and gender-based violence across the country. Find out more & how you can donate here.
  • Muslim Aid has reached over 29,000 people in three affected districts of Pakistan, providing hygiene kits, shelter, and essentials to those in need. Contribute to their fund here.

The Economic Status of Transgender People in India

Hijra communities in India form their own chosen families. Source: Yahoo! images

Imagine discovering that your internal identity does not align with the way that your body looks or the way that you are perceived by society. Because you recognize this internal dichotomy, the society you know and love treats you as an outcast. You are regarded as less than human. Your family abuses you for pursuing a physical body and social presentation that aligns with your internal identity. Society at large is structured in a way that makes it relatively impossible to get a formal job or make money in a safe way. Transgender people in India experience this every day.

A. Revathi is an activist for the rights of transgender people and other gender and sexual minorities in India. In her book, A Life in Trans Activism, she details many struggles she faced while navigating the economic system of India. Most transgender people in India work in the informal spheres of sex work and street begging, but a lucky few find low-salary jobs at LGBTQ+ Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or service places.

A picture of an Indian woman named Revathi wearing a maroon saree with gold jewelry. She has a gold stud in her nostril piercing and a red bindi between her eyebrows. White text reads, “A Life in Trans Activism, A. Revathi as told to Nandini Murali”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Rēvati, and Nandini Murali. A Life in Trans Activism. Zubaan, 2016.

Because of the prejudices and stereotypes held by many employers within India, transgender people are often discriminated against in the formal sphere. If a man comes in for an interview, and his documentation still has an F sex marker, the employer will know that he is transgender and all prejudices and stereotypes that they hold will then apply to the man searching for a job. The process of changing one’s sex marker on official documents is a complicated and grueling process for transgender people, which makes it almost impossible to go stealth* in one’s workplace. It was this lack of economic mobility that lead Revathi, and many others like her to the streets for sex work.

*Stealth (adj.) – describing a transgender person who presents themself as a cisgender member of the gender they identify as, often to avoid discrimination. For example, a male-to-female (MTF) transwoman presents as a cisgender woman and keeps her trans identity a secret to avoid violence.

In India, self-employed sex work is legal, but many police officers will find other reasons to accuse sex workers of crimes like loitering or stealing, whether the accusations are true or not. The general public tends to accuse them of stealing in order to demonize them or try to get them off the streets, which often leads to violent confrontations with community members and the police. During sex work, Revathi, like many transgender women, was often put into dangerous situations with the public as a result of the deeply rooted stigma surrounding transgender people. She experienced sexual assault, public abuse, and was sometimes not paid for her services. Most transgender sex workers must be very careful to keep their identities as transgender silent because many face violence if they are outed.** On the other hand, when outed, some people receive dehumanization in the form of fetishization which results in more violence and less pay.

**To out someone (v.) – to reveal someone’s sexuality or gender identity without their permission or control, often leading to dangerous situations for them.

Economic Consequences

The few that find jobs, often at LGBTQ+ organizations, are often paid less and treated with disrespect by their colleagues and employers. While reading A Life in Trans Activism, a pattern stuck out to me. I would like to call this something like “The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality.”

  1. The formal work of a certain group of people is undervalued and/or ridiculed by society.
  2. The marginalized group then internalizes this as a reflection of their character and feels as though they have “something to prove” while working in the formal sphere.
  3. They then work harder and accept lower pay than their colleagues.
  4. Co-workers and employers take advantage of their willingness to work hard for lower salaries and disrespect their work-life boundaries.
  5. The disrespect becomes a foundational aspect of their workspace, and transgender people feel and live subserviently to society. The cycle repeats.

The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality can apply to any group of people whose work is undervalued. We see this in the American workforce with Black employees. There is a widely-held stereotype in America that Black people are “lazy workers” because of their lack of sufficient economic mobility. Employers internalize this and hold Black workers to a higher standard in which they must “prove themselves” as hard workers. It is often the case that Black employees work twice as hard as their White counterparts and are still undervalued by their employers and colleagues. They internalize this as a reflection of themselves and work harder and harder for less and less. This phenomenon is not only manifested in the salary gap between races, but also in the levels of worker burnout and unemployment rates.

A bar chart showing “Unemployment Rates by Race and Age, 2016”. On the y axis is 0-30% representing unemployment rates, and on the x axis is age groups from 16 to 70+. For each age range, there are two different bars representing Black and White workers. The highest unemployment rate is 16-19 year olds with Black youth at around 27% and White youth around 14%. Both statistics slowly fall before plateauing at around the 40-44 age range, with Black workers at around 6.5% and White workers at around 3.5%. These statistics stay pretty consistent for the rest of the chart, if not a slight dip around the age ranges 50-60.
Statistics show much higher unemployment rates for Black individuals in every age range. Source: Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics

A. Revathi experienced the Vicious Cycle herself while working as an openly transgender woman at an LGBTQ+ NGO in India called Sangama. Even while she was head director of multiple subsections of the NGO, she experienced disrespect from the staff she was directing. Here, Revathi reflects on her experience:

“[Sangama staff] were well behaved with [past directors] and respected boundaries. However, with me, they were very different. They would storm into my cabin and argue endlessly with me, often in very rude or offensive language. They demanded prompt promotions, increases in salaries, and crowded my working hours with endless demands and trivial things, which they could have handled themselves.” (Rēvati, 110) 

Revathi charitably credits this to her open-door policy and her show of belief that hierarchies in workplaces were solely for accounting purposes, and should not reflect upon the social interactions of the staff. I suspect that the main reason that she has these policies and beliefs is that her work has been consistently undervalued and she has internalized that she will never be seen as “above” anyone else in her workplace. By setting and enforcing certain boundaries with her staff, she would have to acknowledge that she is above them in the workplace. This would break the social contract that says that she is always on the base of the metaphorical pyramid because of her transgender identity.

Government Progress (or lack thereof)

A large group of mostly women in colorful saris, jewelry, and makeup gather together with black signs with white text. One reads, "Protect the Rights of Transgender Community".
Transgender Indian protesters gather to fight for the implementation of policies that protect their rights. Source: Yahoo! images

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 to create a third gender category called “hijra” which would be inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender individuals. People in this category were legally categorized as an “other backward class” or OBC. Job reservations were made for people of OBCs in an attempt to improve the economic status of transgender people. Read more about this ruling here. 

In addition to this ruling, in 2019 the “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill” was passed, which served as an anti-discrimination bill meant to improve the status of transgender people in education and the workforce. It was faced with backlash from the trans community because it required a person to submit proof of gender reassignment surgery to the government before being able to change their gender marker legally. This type of policy is called trans-medicalism*** and is exclusive and harshly binary. Read more about this bill here.

***Trans-medicalism (n.) – the idea that one must medically transition, in other words: go through gender reassignment surgery, in order to be a valid member of the transgender community. 

Although these actions were well-intended, neither the 2014 ruling nor the 2019 bill has been well enforced. They have been inefficient in changing the economic and educational statuses of transgender people. Employers still have room to discriminate against workers. Sex workers are still treated horrifically and inhumanely in the streets. Transgender employees are still disrespected in their workplaces and have low opportunities for economic mobility. One of the problems with these actions is that they are both “top-down” approaches, which start with government implementation and slowly trickle down into cultural changes and real-life improvements for transgender people. Many recommend a “bottom-up” approach, which begins with radical cultural shifts and builds its way up to government implementation. While both are valuable, the “bottom-up” approach is more efficient in creating quicker social change for people genuinely affected by the social issues at hand. 

A Bright Future – Recent Human Rights Victories

Source: Yahoo Images, Unknown Artist

In the midst of a pandemic and international unrest, it is vital to stay encouraged and optimistic as we continue our efforts to uphold and protect human rights internationally. That is why we at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB will be using this article to break up the negative news cycle and put a spotlight on a few of the amazing victories and progress the international community has made during the pandemic that you might not have heard about. Though positive human rights news may not always make headlines, it is important to recognize each success, just as it is vital we address each issue. 

Source: Quentin Meulepas via Flickr

The UN Declares Access to a Clean Environment is a Universal Human Right – July 2022

Of the 193 states in the United Nations general assembly, 161 voted in favor of a climate resolution that declares that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right; one that was not included in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While the resolution is not legally binding, it is expected that it will hugely impact international human rights law in the future and strengthen international efforts to protect our environment. Climate justice is now synonymous with upholding human rights for the citizens of member-states, and the United Nations goal is that this decision will encourage nations to prioritize environmental programs moving forwards.

Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea Abolish the Death Penalty- January 2022

Kazakhstan became the 109th country to remove the death penalty for all crimes, a major progress coming less than 20 years after life imprisonment was introduced within the country as an alternative punishment in 2004. In addition to the national abolition,  President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has signed the parliamentary ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the ICCPR declares that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life”, but the Second Optional Protocol takes additional steps to hold countries accountable by banning the death penalty within their nation. Though the ICCPR has been ratified or acceded by 173 states, only 90 have elected to be internationally bound to the Second Optional Protocol (the total abolition of the death penalty), and Kazakhstan is the most recent nation to join the international movement to abolish the death penalty globally. 

Papua New Guinea also abolished their capital punishment, attributing the abolishment to the Christian beliefs of their nation and inability to perform executions in a humane way. The 40 people on death row at the time of the abolishment have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Papua New Guinea is yet to sign or ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, but by eliminating the death penalty nationwide the country has still taken a significant step towards preserving their citizens right to life. 

Source: Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia

India Repeals Harmful Farm Plan – November 2021

Many of you will remember seeing international headlines of the violent protests following India’s decision to pass three harmful farming laws in 2020. The legislation, passed in the height of the pandemic, left small farmers extremely vulnerable and threatened the entire food chain of India. Among many other protections subject to elimination under the farm laws was the nations Minimum Support Price (MSP), which allowed farmers to sell their crops to government affiliated organizations for what policymakers determined to be the necessary minimum for them to support themselves from the harvest. Without the MSP, a choice few corporations would be able to place purchasing value of these crops at an unreasonably low price that would ruin the already meager profits small farmers glean from the staple crops, and families too far away from wholesalers would be unable to sell their crops at all. 

Any threats to small farms in India are a major issue because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India”. In addition, the FAO reported 70% of rural households depend on agriculture and 82% of farms in India are considered small; making these laws impact a significant amount of the nation’s population.  A year of protests from farmers unions followed that resulted in 600 deaths and international outcries to protect farmers pushed the Indian government to meet with unions and discuss their demands. An enormous human rights victory followed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November of 2021 that they would rollback the laws, and on November 30 the Indian Parliament passed a bill to cancel the reforms. As the end of 2021 approached, farmers left the capital and returned home for the first time in months, having succeeded at protecting their families and their livelihoods.

Source: Sebastian Baryli via Flickr

Sudan Criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation – May 2020

Making history, Sudan became one of 28 African nations to criminalize female genital mutilation / Circumcision (FGM/C), an extremely dangerous practice that an estimated 200 million woman alive today have undergone. It is a multicultural practice that can be attributed to religion, sexual purity, social acceptance and misinformation about female hygiene that causes an onslaught of complications depending on the type of FGM/C performed and the conditions the operation is performed in. Among the consequences are infections, hemorrhage, chronic and severe pain, complications with childbirth, and immense psychological distress. It also causes many deaths from bleeding out during the operation or severe complications later in life. We have published a detailed article about female genital mutilations, gender inequality and the culture around FGM before, which you can find here

FGM/C is a prevalent women’s rights issue in Africa, and in Sudan 87% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have experienced some form of “the cut”. While some Sudanese states have previously passed FGM/C bans, they were ignored by the general population without enforcement from a unified, national legislature. This new ban will target those performing the operations with a punishment of up to three years in jail in the hopes of protecting young women from the health and social risks that come from a cultural norm of genital mutilation and circumcision.

Where do we go from here?

While we have many incredible victories to celebrate today, local and international human rights groups will continue to expose injustices and fight for a safer and more equal future for all people. Our goal at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB is to educate; to inform readers about injustices and how they can get involved, and to celebrate with our incredible community when we have good news to share! While the past year has been marked with incredible hardships, it is always exciting when we have heart-warming international progress to share!

You can find more information about us, including free speaker events and our Social Justice Cafes on our Instagram page @uab_ihr! Share which of these positive stories you found most interesting in our comments, and feel free to DM us with human rights news you would like us to cover!

India’s UAPA: A Crackdown on Indian Activists

In a move that enraged the international community, the Indian government arrested a Kashmiri human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in late November 2021. Parvez, a native of the disputed Jammu Kashmir region that borders India and Pakistan, worked extensively on covering suspicious disappearances and investigating the stories behind unmarked graves in Kashmir. His family reports that authorities ransacked his belongings and confiscated all electronics while threatening their lives, an example of India’s growing role in squeezing the soul out of human rights advocacy using the UAPA.  

#Human rights banner from a protest
“Human Rights for Future” Banner from Amnesty International Source: Unsplash

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is an anti-terrorism law that was originally enacted in 1967 to expand Indian authorities’ powers to address individuals that were or were suspected to be a threat to national or economic security. Despite its supposed justified intent, the controversial law has given the federal Indian government unprecedented power over the criminal justice system. In 2019, a new tenet permitting the categorization of individuals rather than organizations as terrorists was added to the law. People could be jailed without clear evidence or bail for months and even decades. A trial is not guaranteed, and if one trial is granted, but the case fails, there is no provision that allows the incarcerated person to be released. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), since 2015, arrests made under this provision have increased by 72% in 2019.  

The most widely covered injustice of the UAPA occurred in Bhima Koregaon, a town a few hours south of Mumbai, India. Annually, on January 1st, Dalits in Bhima Koregaon celebrate the victory of their ancestors over an upper-caste ruler as part of the British Army. In 2018, they clashed with Hindu residents during the celebration which resulted in 16 activists jailed under the UAPA for inciting violence at the deadly event. 3 years later, no official charges have been brought up against the 16. All the 16 activists were advocates for historically marginalized groups such as Dalits to protect their rights and elevate their status in society. One of the accused was released in early December 2021 on bail, and another was only released under a temporary medical release after concerns arose about his deteriorating health in July.  

Rv. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and activist from the state of Tamil Nādu was another one of the 16 jailed in connection with the riots that occurred in Bhima-Koregaon, despite never having visited the town. He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, was infected with Covid-19, and experienced multiple falls and injuries while detained. His requests for accommodations considering the spasms and locked muscles caused by Parkinson’s were also denied by the NIA. No requests for bail were granted even when his health began declining in the spring. Swamy died in jail on July 5th, 2021, because of what the Jamshedpur Jesuit Province calls inadequate health facilities and a lack of regard for human life in dire prison conditions. 

Similar caste violence prefaced the 2020 Delhi Riots in which Hindus and Muslims fought over a new unconstitutional citizenship law. Three student activists were implicated in the violence and were arrested under the UAPA, despite fervently denying the allegations. The three were released after one year on bail, although a fourth student activist is still behind bars for other charges under the UAPA.   

The same pattern repeats in every arrest made under this law: circumstantial detainment then extended detention with no promise for bail or trial. In fact, less than 3% of those brought in by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) are convicted while many others have died waiting for trial. The right to due process with a fair and speedy trial is a key part of democracy, neither of which is given to those arrested under the UAPA, further suffocating human rights advocacy and discouraging potential activists. Human rights organizations including Frontline Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Watch fear for the health of free speech in India.  

Gavel
Gavel on a court surface representing law and justice Source: Unsplash

Lawmakers in the congressional houses of India’s federal administration control all of the UAPA provisions, but the judiciary of India, including the Supreme Court, has expressed its frustration and opposition to the anti-terrorism law. Not only is it unconstitutional, but the UAPA also infringes on broadly accepted ethical boundaries and totalitarian behavior. Academic experts, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and activists of all ages step into their shoes every day preparing to face the UAPA when they give voice to marginalized communities.  

This should not be brushed under the rug as a rare occurrence, because the UAPA is another dangerous tactic utilized by the ruling party in India to limit dissent. Akin to determined vultures, over the last couple of years, the government has circled closer to limiting basic freedoms including privacy, speech, assembly, and press. The law was initially aimed to combat terrorism but is now used as a legal tool to silence opposition, tightening the fist around minority populations. As the walls continue to close in, there is a very real possibility for the UAPA to become a harbinger of stifling, authoritative power in India, drastically shifting the definition of terrorism to encompass nonviolent political activity, otherwise known as activism. 

"Human Rights Violated by Modi Government in India" Protest Banner
“Human Rights Violated by Modi Government in India” Protest Banner Source: Unsplash

The UAPA is only a small part of a growing tsunami of problems seen around the globe. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), India has fallen to 53rd place in the Democracy Index – evident of a growing trend of backsliding democracy. The EIU has attributed India’s shortcomings to the increasing focus of religious sentiment in what is supposed to be a secular state, reinforcing harmful traditional stereotypes about wealth, race, and caste, while preventing social mobility for the less fortunate. Last year, India unveiled a new citizenship plan that hinders persecuted Muslims from becoming naturalized Indian citizens, a proposal that inflamed religious tensions already encouraged by India’s national Prime Minister.  

Human rights advocates and activists are the light in the dark for millions of people around the world, not only in India. Similarly, more than a few countries are seeking ways to funnel away basic rights that they see as disruptive to their goals of obtaining more control over their people and thus an iota of more power in the global discourse. If India succeeds with this violation of human rights and human rights defenders, it will set an irreversible precedent that countries similar to India in their ideological associations will follow. The international community must call for action and consequences for India’s actions. More support and funding from the international community should flow into the judicial system to question the legislation passed by Congress as well as organizations defending human rights activists to ensure the marginalized in India stand a fighting chance.   

The Hijab Row: The Latest on India’s Nationalist Actions

Societal destabilization is a normal part of any dystopian novel. The government cannot come to a consensus, politicians treat countries as puppets, and somehow, an awkward yet powerful adolescent is thrust into the spotlight to save the world. It is slowly dawning on the world that this outlandish twist of fate is now a reality.  

In January 2022, Karnataka, a state on India’s southwestern coastal border, banned hijabs in educational institutions. The epicenter of this issue is at the Government Pre-College University for Girls in the Udipi district of Karnataka, where Muslim students say that when they returned to school this past September, they were threatened to either remove the hijab or be marked absent. The girls were not allowed to attend classes or write their exams in their hijabs. This situation is not only a paramount issue and manifestation of India’s growing nationalist agenda, but also signals a threat to a fundamental right guaranteed in the Indian Constitution: religious freedom. 

Muslim woman wearing a head covering
Muslim woman wearing a head covering Source: Unsplash

Politics 

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling political party of India, is infamous for its right-wing actions against minorities. The pride of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a devout Hindu and believes that a superior India will only be restored to glory by becoming homogenous, a passion increasingly echoed across India. In recent years, minority alienation in terms of religion, caste, and gender has accelerated. Hindu activist groups in Karnataka believe the hijab ban is essential for social equality and for providing an unbiased classroom for every student to learn. Hindu student activists view the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim girls and wish to remove them for the sake of religious equality in education. They also compare the hijab to a saffron shawl Hindus often wear in religious ceremonies. It was implied that if hijabs are allowed, then every Hindu should be allowed to wear the saffron shawl to class as well.  

History 

Despite the social equity of this ban, the defense of upholding it is rather weak. This ban forces Muslim girls to choose between their religion, their bodily autonomy, or their education. Who can learn properly when they don’t feel comfortable in their own body? When the hijab is a part of your identity, not wearing it can be a source of ceaseless discomfort and alienation from your body and your perception of yourself.  

17-year-old Aliya Assadi, a karate champion in the city of Udupi, summarized the necessity of the hijab in one statement. Much like other Muslim girls, Assadi derives confidence and is assured by wearing her hijab. Removing it is not an option for her because it is a lifestyle that she pays her respects to. Assadi does not feel oppressed in her hijab but being forced to remove it is embarrassing and humiliating.  

Rows of seats in a university lecture hall
Rows of seats in a university lecture hall Source: Unsplash

The National Congress Party, BJP’s competition, vehemently opposes the hijab ban and stated that it is a violation of religious freedom. The BJP’s response asserted that the hijab is not an essential manifestation or practice of Islam, and therefore, the ban is not a violation of the Constitution. The Quran, the primary religious text in Islam, states that “It is not that if the practice of wearing hijab is not adhered to, those not wearing hijab become the sinners, Islam loses its glory, and it ceases to be a religion.” Based on this one quote, the Karnataka High Court deemed the hijab not essential for religious practice, ruled that the ban was constitutional, and dismissed all petitions made by Muslim girls barred from attending class. However, the hijab has more meaning than a literal interpretation of the Koran. Each of the groups that practice Islam in India and across the world have different cultural values and exhibits diversity in their traditions. Similarly, the hijab has underlying traditional value for each person or group, and in some parts of the world, the hijab is a symbol of resistance.  

Religious freedom, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Banning hijabs imposes on equal access to education and women’s rights because, without comfort and peace of mind in oneself, students cannot learn to their optimal ability. Yet, this problem does not extend to male students. This is the reason for their apparent alienation from the education system, which should be teaching them how to be successful and advocate for their beliefs. The right to education without discrimination on religion or gender is a universal human right—a human right that is being violated.  

Future Implications 

As religious divides deepen between Muslims and Hindus in India, human rights defenders worry that other states will consider enacting a similar ban on hijabs now that the precedent has been set. This is a potential slippery slope that may alienate the Muslim population with additional restrictions and obligations narrowing their sense of self. Already, far-right Hindu groups have claimed that Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, is in the process of creating a hijab ban and Uttar Pradesh is next. The majority of both states’ politicians identify as members of the BJP, as well.  

The Muslim girls, however, are not close to surrendering in this fight. They plan to appeal to India’s Supreme Court for a final, unbiased verdict on the case. The young people of India, now the majority age group in the country, are attempting to take India’s future into their own hands. The ramifications of this case, if the Supreme Court were to hear it, will be momentous.  

For years, a Hindu nationalist agenda has decreased the rights and autonomy of minorities of all classes. Often, these moves were underhanded and created through loopholes or loose interpretations of the law—just as the hijab ban was. Once the ban’s constitutionality reaches the Supreme Court, the whole country, including the federal administration, will be put on trial for their actions in the past and the future by India’s minority and majority populations.  

Women in hijabs at a protest with signage "Hijab our Right"
Women in hijabs at a protest with signage “Hijab our Right” Source: Flickr

International Consequences 

Unfortunately, islamophobia and minority discrimination are ideologies that have centuries of history behind them, and it will be challenging to fight this growing movement. When we think of history makers and game changers, it is often about one person with enough strength and bravery to face the world. However, lasting progress is sustained by consistent change and accountability. Anyone can fight and advocate against Islamophobia, and, eventually, a little effort from millions can be amassed into a movement capable of changing society from within.  

Countless organizations, lawyers, and legislators are facing the brunt of standing their ground against harsher political movements, but the public perspective must change first. In India, is important to communicate the despicable nature of Islamophobia online. Residents can report to the police commissioner or the District Magistrate in-person, or they can tag national authorities on social media such as the Ministry of Home, international human rights groups, and UN agencies. Openly support your neighbors or community members and help them file FIRs against Islamophobia acts and follow directives from local anti-Islamophobic organizations. In America at least, people can support anti-Islamophobic legislation and communicate with their government representatives about their discontent and rage over the treatment of their Muslim counterparts. People can also support American Indivisible and Shoulder to Shoulder, organizations that work to dismantle structural islamophobia. Regardless of your location, demonstrating solidarity and opening honest conversations is an imperative initial step to combating Islamophobia. 

2022 Olympics Shine a Spotlight on China’s Record with Human Rights

The Olympics serve a global spotlight for the world’s best athletes. The tradition was born out of Ancient Greece over 3,000 years ago. After not being held for over a millennium, The Modern Olympics began once more in Athens, Greece in 1896, and have been held in alternating cities every four years since. The Winter Olympics began being held as a separate set of games in between each occurrence of the Summer Olympics in 1994.

The Olympics were famed not only for bringing the world’s most power athletes together for weeks of competition, but also for the prosperity they would bring to the host city. The Olympics bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists, and provide cities incentives to build state-of-the-art stadiums, creating new jobs locally. Despite this, the Olympics have also come under scrutiny in the last few years because they also bring major disadvantages to the host cities and nations.

To make way for new Olympic facilities, impoverished neighborhoods within cities are often demolished. This occurred in Beijing just fourteen years ago when they hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and this mass eviction of the urban poor became an extremely hot topic during the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games, when the city had to use Police Pacification Units to clear out the city’s favelas in a highly militarized way.

used to show one of china's new construction projects
The Olympics brings temporary economic prosperity to the host nation via the need for elaborate new construction projects, such as depicted in this image. SOURCE : Google Images

These acts of forced removal have been called out by human rights activists as dangerous violations of human rights, but this is not the only way human rights affects the Olympic games and their respective host cities. The worldwide attention the Olympics receive every two years highlights not only the host city, but the host nation. The 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted once again by Beijing, have put China into hot water as international press have scrutinized China’s alleged human rights violations. So what has been going on in China?

China’s Crackdown on Dissent

News outlets across the globe were fascinated by China’s COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which began in early February. Using a massive amount of manpower and resources, China constructed an Olympic “bubble”, or quarantine zone which will house over 11,000 athletes from all over the world. The bubble consists of a “closed loop” of stadiums, conference centers, and over seventy hotels, and all athletes inside this bubble will have no contact with the wider Chinese population. The Chinese central government is taking precautions to absolute extremes, even warning citizens not to intervene if an Olympic vehicle is involved in a car crash while transporting athletes between facilities.

But China’s Olympic “bubble” serves a dual purpose – it also keeps Chinese human rights activists away from the games. Prominent human rights activist Hu Jia was placed under house arrest in order to keep him out of the public eye for the duration of the Winter games. In an interview with CNN, he wrote that “In China, people like me are called ‘domestic hostile forces’… that’s why they have to cut me off from the outside world”. Jia has been under house arrest since January 15.

Human rights activists, who have monitoring China for decades, report that crackdowns on activists and speech — which can range from shutting down social media accounts to house arrests, detentions or enforced disappearances — are typical in the lead up to high-profile events in China, where the Communist Party keeps a tight lid on dissent. But the situation continues to deteriorate in China as controls on dissent tighten year-round, and the protocols for “sensitive” and “normal” periods have begun to blur.

China’s Record with Human Rights 

The Human Rights Watch continues to watch China and their increased authoritarianism in the past few decades. Their 2021 report overviews several alarming trends in the Communist nation.

After the COVID-19 pandemic originated in the nation in the late fall of 2019, it was reported that “The Chinese government’s authoritarianism was on full display in 2020“. Authorities in China were criticized globally for initially trying to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan province. China has all refused to comply with international requests for an independent investigation into the government’s initial handling of the pandemic. It has also been alleged that Chinese authorities placed families of COVID victims under harsh surveillance.

But China’s recent rise in authoritarian behavior even predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Hong Kong experienced six months of intense antigovernmental protests, leading to the adoption of a new “National Security Law” on June 30 that was labelled by Human Rights Watch as “draconian”. Activists were deeply alarmed by the broad and sweeping language of the new legislation, which penalizes “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Under the National Security Law, even the use of common political phrases such as “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” have been outright banned, stifling free speech throughout China.

Perhaps most alarmingly, China has also come under international scrutiny for allegations of genocide and other crimes against humanity enacted against the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority ethnic group who mostly reside in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Activists have reported the presence of “re-education camps” which have allegedly been used to detain over one million Uyghurs in recent years, with hundreds of thousands more being sentenced to prison. Evidence has also been brought forth showing the Chinese government’s use of Uyghur people for forced labor, and some women have been forced to undergo sterilization. The re-education camps have also been reportedly rife with sexual violence against Uyghur women, as reported by survivors. Cultural genocide has also been reported, as several Uyghur religious practices have been banned in the region, and China has demolished Uyghur mosques and tombs.

shows a re-education camp
An image captured of a Uyghur “re-education” camp in the Xinjiang region. It is alleged that over one million Uyghurs have been placed into these camps.

As China continues to project power on the global stage through their economic successes, military prowess, and spotlight events such as the Olympics, it is important to remember that authoritarianism does not protect human rights. China, from a surface-level perspective, may be viewed as one of the biggest success stories of our modern age. Their economy is the second-largest in the world, and many in China are enjoying an amount of prosperity not seen in the regions in centuries. Their citizens, especially those who want a better future for China, are paying the price for this alleged “success”, as their rights to freedom and privacy are infringed daily by the robust Chinese surveillance state. Modern states should be based on robust human rights, and China will need to enact several heavy reforms to move away from their current authoritarianism. China can become one of the world’s leading powers in the 21st century, but they can only do so if they uphold the rights of their citizens.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Disability Rights Successes in South Asia

The image shows a man with a prosthetic leg sitting on the ground. In his hand is a volleyball, on which he is writing something with a marker.
“Disabled men play volleyball” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 3rd marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – a day to raise awareness of disability rights, the benefits of inclusion, and the challenges society poses for individuals with disabilities. The theme for this year is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.” In honor of this occasion, we wanted to highlight a few of the many instances in recent times where strides have been made in inclusion and accessibility. This post will focus on the progress made in south Asia, while the post by Danah Dib will speak to the achievements that have been made in the Middle East. There have been numerous successes in the efforts to push disability rights forward in south Asia, particularly in the spheres of politics, health, and education.

Political Rights

Efforts to secure the political and civil rights of individuals with disabilities in south Asia passed a milestone in 2015. The “South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation” convened for the first time in October of 2015, bringing together over 80 representatives from disabled people’s organizations and election management bodies across south Asia. The conference aimed to advocate for increased access to elections for people with disabilities by providing recommendations to the Forum for South Asian Election Management Bodies (FEMBoSA) during its annual conference. After three days of deliberation and advocacy work, the participants in the South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation produced a nine-point charter on disability inclusion in elections and managed to get the Columbo Resolution modified to include language that was inclusive of people with disability. The Columbo Resolution was the culminating document of the conference, setting forth the Forum’s priorities and commitments for the future. In the same document, FEMBoSA also resolved to develop appropriate standards to ensure that people with disabilities are included in elections.

Numerous changes occurred in the wake of this resolution, in part due to continued advocacy by disabled people’s organizations in implementing the recommendations. Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance India, described the work of the organization in the implementation process in the state of Tamil Nadu, India: “Persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities were enrolled in electoral rolls after the Colombo Declaration”. Numerous additional steps were taken, starting with the appointment of officers specifically responsible for disability inclusion. Electors with disabilities were mapped, and reasonable accommodations were identified. Inclusive voter educational material was developed, and election officers and volunteers were trained on inclusive practices. In 2016, the Election Commission of Sri Lanka included a unit regarding disability in its strategic, four-year plan, with the intent to research barriers to inclusion and increase the participation of people with disabilities. These changes are key steps in ensuring that individuals with disabilities are afforded their civic liberties and can take part in shaping their community.

The image shows a stethoscope placed on a surface covered by cloth. The length of the stethoscope is coiled.
India has made progress in improving clinical care for individuals with disabilities by reforming medical education. Source: Unsplash

Rights to Health and Healthcare

A second important development for disability rights takes us from the polling booths to hospital clinics. The impacts of healthcare providers holding negative attitudes towards disability, and a lack of knowledge on appropriate communication, is well documented. It not only impacts the doctor-patient relationship and decreases quality of care, but also results in individuals with disability utilizing healthcare services less frequently. It goes without saying that this contributes to worsened health outcomes for those who are disabled. In recent times, the Medical Council of India has taken steps to bridge this deficiency in clinical care. Starting from August 2019, medical schools in India are required to conduct a month-long training on disability rights that covers culturally appropriate communication and optimum clinical care for people with disabilities. This change came after numerous disability rights advocates, and doctors with disabilities, raised their voice regarding the lack of disability related competencies in the new medical curriculum designed by the Medical Council of India in 2018. Spearheading these efforts was Dr.Satendra Singh of the University College of Medical Science in Delhi University.

Collaborating closely with people with disabilities and educators across the country, Dr.Singh and his colleagues developed 27 disability competencies based on the human rights approach to disability, as enshrined in the UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities. While more can be done to make education on disability rights increasingly comprehensive and immersive, such as inclusion of experiential learning where medical students spend time with individuals with disabilities outside of the hospital, these actions are undoubtedly a much-needed step in the right direction. India, like many other countries, also faces challenges in increasing medical student diversity in terms of disability – significant, structural barriers still exist for competent medical school applicants with disabilities. Disability rights advocates like Dr.Singh continue to challenge inaccurate and negative stereotypes regarding the abilities of individuals with disabilities, hoping to further improve medical care and education for people with disabilities.

The image displays gold medals stacked in pairs. Engraved on the medals is writing and a logo signifying the Special Olympics.
The Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society of Lahore, Pakistan, has trained numerous athletes with developmental disabilities who went on to win international competitions like the Special Olympics. “SPECIAL OLYMPICS EUROPEAN SUMMER GAMES 2014” by Special Olympics Oesterreich is licensed under CC0 1.0.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Another area of development is the not-for-profit sector, organizations that are working at the grassroot level to offer support to individuals with disabilities and to help implement and further systemic policy changes. An example of such an organization is the Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society in Lahore, Pakistan, which aims to encourage the independence of individuals with disabilities through education and training. One noteworthy aspect of the organization is their training in sports. Sports training is offered as a way to develop capabilities and life skills of individuals with disabilities and to allow them to compete at the highest level in international competitions like the Special Olympics. Over the years, athletes from the organization have won 91 medals in numerous events across the world.  The organization also provides vocational training in cooking through their “Special Chef” program – individuals who participated in the program went on to not only work for the Education and Welfare Society, but also join other organizations as chefs and start their own business ventures. Lastly, another crucial role the organization plays is in raising awareness amongst parents regarding the support services available to their children with disabilities. These efforts attempt to combat the stigma surrounding disability and promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities as equal members of society.

Future Directions

Despite these accomplishments, there is a lot more work that needs to be done. A study by Paul Chaney of Cardiff University revealed that ableism is still pervasive in Indian society. Educational programs for individuals with disabilities are not funded adequately, and private schools often ignore the minimum supports for students with disabilities as required by the law. Individuals with disabilities in rural areas are particularly disadvantaged in terms of educational opportunities, leading to much higher likelihood of unemployment and poverty. Concerns continue regarding the accessibility of the healthcare system for people with disabilities. Still, efforts are being made to combat forced institutionalization and forced sterilization of individuals with disabilities, issues which compound at the intersection of gender discrimination.

The successes discussed in here are just a few examples of the change created by the disability rights movement across the world and the driving force behind it: namely, the advocates who work tirelessly to push society forward in its inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Although more progress is yet to be made, these testimonies give us hope that transformational change can occur, however gradually it may come about. This is our letter of gratitude to those who continue to work to ensure the equitable and rightful treatment of individuals with disabilities and our call to action to all others.

Bhutan: Persecution in Paradise

Bhutanese Landscape
Bhutanese Landscape. Source: Pxfuel

 Real Life Shangri-La

Bhutan is often referred to as an idyllic Himalayan nation, a land of peace and prosperity, happiness, and beauty. After visiting Bhutan in 2017, I was even more fascinated, and truly began to understand why the small, neutral country has been dubbed a “real-life Shangri-La”. It is the only nation in the world to measure annual success by Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. It is also the only country to have a carbon-negative footprint, with extraordinary levels of hydropower and renewable energy production and a zero-tolerance policy for industrial development. Bhutan is rapidly decreasing poverty rates and increasing the middle-class population. Government programs have made education and trade school accessible to most citizens who desire it. Bhutan has managed to remain neutral for hundreds of years with a minimal military presence despite being nestled between two conflicting superpowers, India and China. Citizens of Bhutan enjoy the state’s extensive social welfare programs and are enamored with the royal family that abdicated power to allow a peaceful transition to a democratic system.

In short, the nation seems like a true paradise, where culture and tradition are preserved with love and care, where nature is respected and upheld, and where one can pursue life to the fullest in a land of prosperity and opportunity. When I had the opportunity to travel through Bhutan, I was stunned by the gorgeous landscape, nation, and culture. I was welcomed with clearer air than I thought possible, a colorful landscape filled with trees and prayer flags, and adorable buildings constructed in traditional Bhutanese fashion. The people were so happy, and talked passionately about their country, royal family, and culture. There is a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and from everything Bhutan boasts, it seemed to be entirely deserved. Our guide taught us about local customs, Bhutanese Buddhism, traditional dress and building style, and masterfully escorted us through the most beautiful aspects of Bhutan and its culture. 

It was only after leaving that I learned of human rights abuses Bhutan so carefully hides from tourists. Our state-sanctioned tour guide was an instrument in how this flawless reputation has been skillfully crafted, and the execution was so perfect that nothing felt staged while I was there. I enjoyed the country within an intricate veil of ignorance, unaware of the atrocities that no one is allowed to see.

Bhutanese children in traditional attire, leaning over a balcony
Bhutanese children. Source: World Bank Photo Collection

Violations Exposed

Bhutan may appear to be a nation without error, but the country has perpetrated major human rights violations since the 1980s. For four decades, the United Nations, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have consistently criticized and exposed Bhutan’s human rights violations. The nation is limited by strict libel laws and a culture that is unwilling to speak negatively on the king or his policies. While free speech is protected under Bhutan’s constitution, it is rarely practiced and this self-censorship is coupled with a flawed judicial system that harshly punishes those found to be committing the dangerously broad charge of libel. In 2016, a Bhutanese reporter faced libel fines of up to 10 years salary for critiquing a prominent businessman on Facebook. With penalties like this, it is no wonder that citizens of Bhutan do not dare criticize the crown, even though free speech is allegedly protected. Bhutan has been on a Human Rights Watch list since the 80s due to prolific persecution of ethnic minorities. While Bhutan has received credit for its positive changes since transitioning into a democracy in 2008, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered a free nation.

Bhutanese refugees sitting outside
Bhutanese refugees. Source: Creative Commons

Ethnic Cleansing Pre-Democracy

The horrific treatment of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan is the most atrocious human rights violation known to be committed by the Bhutanese government. The Lhotshampa people are Bhutanese residents with Nepali ethnic backgrounds, who have lived in Bhutan for generations but still speak a separate dialect and have a differing culture from the majority in Bhutan. In order to understand the current plight of Nepali migrants in Bhutan, we must understand a little bit of the once-neighboring nation, Sikkim. Sikkim was once an established monarchical state with most of its population being of Mongolian/Tibetan descent as Sikkimese, just like the ethnic Bhutanese. However, Sikkim faced a mass migration of ethnic Nepalis (of Hindu and Indo-Aryan descent) that caused the people of Sikkim to become a minority in their own nation. Sikkim fell as an independent state and was annexed by India in the 1950s, and the leaders of Bhutan have used the fall of Sikkim as a fear-inspiring example ever since. It is this nationalism and fear of losing sovereignty to one of the superpower neighbor states that has created such a widely supported systemic oppression of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan.

Bhutan faced its greatest human rights violations in the 1990s, as strong nationalism and resentment towards the Lhotshampa people came to a boiling point. The refugees crossed the border with tales of an ethnic cleansing occurring in Bhutan, stating they were given mere days to sell their homes and were marched from rural villages to Nepali refugee camps. The government’s forces accompanied the refugees across the border with loaded guns and photographers, and according to a Lhotshampa teen interviewed by the Human Rights Watch, “[They] told me to smile…He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave”.  It is estimated that the total number of refugees produced in the 1990s was just above 100,000, which is absolutely astounding when we look at Bhutan’s current national population of 780,000. While Bhutan is often portrayed as a modern “Shangri-La”, the seemingly idyllic Himalayan country created more refugees per capita  than any other nation in the world in our recent history. Of those 100,000 refugees, 85% have now been rehoused in the United States.

 Bhutanese man with child
Bhutanese man with child. Source: Creative Commons

Democratic Safeguards Fail

Despite the nation peacefully transitioning towards a democratic state in 2008, the new government has continued the systematic harassment of the minority group, even increasing certain anti-Lhotshampa policies. While the Lhotshampa are no longer persecuted as openly as they were in the early 1990s, they still face significant discrimination within the nation their families have called home for generations. Out of countless treaties currently in existence to protect and defend human rights, Bhutan has only signed two. Bhutan signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, and many within the international community argue that Bhutan has violated the convention due to the large population of children within the persecuted Lhotshampa refugees.

Perhaps the most recent evidence proving such discrimination came with Bhutan’s new constitution in 2008, when Lhotshampa people discovered their citizenship was up for debate, and access to passports and documentation became determined by financial, marriage, or literacy status, which is very reminiscent of the second-class citizenship African Americans faced in the United States. Some of the limitations imposed upon Lhotshampas with these targeted passport systems are the inability to travel internationally, which is a blatant violation of both the right to Freedom from Discrimination and the Right to Movement established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the brilliantly cruel aspect of the passport stipulations is that while Lhotshampa people may freely leave the country, it is extremely unlikely that they will be allowed to return. For many, a trip to visit neighboring India or Nepal is the termination of calling Bhutan their home. Essentially, the Bhutanese government made it abundantly clear that Lhotshampas are not welcome in Bhutan. 

In addition, while there is no clear law preventing Lhotshampas from purchasing property or moving freely within Bhutan itself, it is extremely unlikely in practice that Lhotshampas will be able to secure property or livelihoods outside of specific regions that have become socially designated for them. Bordering nations like Nepal continue to host new refugees fleeing a land many consider to be peaceful, sacred, and free of worldly troubles. Lhotshampas have continued to cross the Nepali border to refugee camps since 2008 purely out of desperation from lack of work or freedoms in Bhutan. Websites like these provide some much needed insight into the current plight of the Lhotshampas, as well as what life is like for those still awaiting rehousing inside of their temporary refugee camps. 

Refugees outside of a small hut
Refugees outside of a hut. Source: United Nations

How to Help

In order for change to be made, Bhutan needs continual pushes from the outside world. By spreading the true story of the Lhotshampa people and looking for ways to get involved, you are directly contributing to decades old efforts to ease the horrors they face. Creating action on any level is an excellent way to assist the Lhotshampa people and refugees like them. If you would like to donate or volunteer to assist Lhotshampa refugees, there are countless local and international efforts that will put anything you can give to great use. Reputable non-profits like Sewa USA use funds to provide necessities, transportation and employment help for Bhutanese refugees in the United States, and the World Food Programme uses donations to provide food and resources to Lhotshampas still displaced in refugee camps. Ultimately, resource-based aid is an excellent way to assist those who have been cruelly displaced and discriminated against, but only international pressure for domestic changes within Bhutan will be able to stop the persecution and prevent any more Lhotshampas from becoming refugees.

Violent Persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras of Pakistan

Who are the Hazara Muslims?

The Hazara Muslims are a predominately Shi’a Muslim group that originate from Afghanistan. Hazaras are famous for their music, poetry, and proverbs from which their poetry stems, which have been passed down orally through generations. They speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi – Persian dialect) called Hazaragi.

The conflict of Sunni Muslims versus Shi’a Muslims derives from a varying interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the distinct lineage both sects choose to recognize. Consequently, extremist groups in Pakistan have resorted to violence carried out by Pakistani governmental organizations who have feared Shi’a Islam becoming a major sect since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

These targeted killings had continually existed, but they reached unprecedented levels in 2013 with approximately 700 Shi’a murdered, many of which were Hazaras in Baluchistan. Bombings in 2013 also claimed innumerous Hazara lives, and such violence eventually led to protests by the Hazaras, including refusing to bury the deceased bodies until the Pakistani government took some action.

hazaras
Women protest the loss of innocent lives of Hazara Muslims. Source: Yahoo Images

What has been happening with the Hazaras recently?

Believing in a different interpretation of Islam and allowing more freedom to their women are two red flags to extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). The IS massacred. eleven Shi’a Hazara coal miners in Machh, Baluchistan, on January 2, 2021. The families of the deceased refused to bury the bodies and demanded a visit from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with immediate action against the perpetrators who claimed responsibility for the killing. On January 6, 2021, the Baluchistan Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, visited a protest camp and urged them to let go of their demand. He tried to reassure the protestors that his government is doing all they can to eradicate terrorism, but with little success. Considering the mass murder that has been occurring since 2013, the Hazara people have no reason to believe the Chief Minister of their state.

overcome grief
A father overcome with grief as he is told about his son’s death. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

For starters, the Pakistani government can acknowledge the persecution that Shi’a Hazara Muslims have been encountering for generations, and find a way to actually eradicate such acts of terrorism that are being justified by extremist groups with the overarching term, jihad.

To ensure progress is being made, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and the leader of the prominent Afghan Hezb-e Wahdat-e-Islami political party, Karim Khalili, met in Islamabad on January 12, 2021. They exchanged views on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and progress in the Afghan peace process. The political figures also briefly recalled the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in November 2020 to Kabul to hold talks with Afghani President Ashraf Ghani. During those talks, Afghanistan promised Pakistan it would do “everything, whatever is possible” to aid the peace process. But Pakistani officials like Qureshi believe that there are “spoilers” within and outside of Afghanistan who do not wish to see the return of peace in Afghanistan and other affected regions.

It is time for the international system to fulfil its role in protecting the global population. Years and years of persecution of a people who have done nothing to deserve such brutality needs to come to an end.