Racism in Refugee Crisis

by Laura Nell Walker

Drawing of Black woman sitting on steps with her head in her lap
Source: Yahoo Images

Since Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, much has changed. The ruble plummeted in value, the historically neutral Switzerland joined other nations in sanctioning Putin, and airspace around the world is now banned to Russian flights.  However, as the refugee crisis reaches 2 million people fleeing war torn Ukraine, one pre-invasion precedent remains the same: racial inequality. Multiple allegations of racist incidents occurring at Ukraine’s border were reported with more surfacing in news outlets everyday.   

Ukraine is home to around 76,000 foreign students according to the BBC, the majority traveling from India and multiple countries in Africa.  This is the result of attractive educational policies and an anti-imperialist stance cultivated since the soviet era.  Characteristics like affordable living (relative to other European countries), high quality education, and easy visa access have established Ukraine as a gateway to high paying jobs in Europe.  In the lead up to Putin’s invasion, many students petitioned their universities to move online.  Not only were their pleas dismissed, but they were told fines would incur if they missed class.

Now, as students evacuate, they are met with obstacles at the border, harassment, and little help from their home countries.  After making the harrowing trip from their universities to the miles long traffic jam at the border, international students are told that Ukrainian citizens have priority.  Some reports state that for every 200 to 300 Ukrainians, only 5 to 10 people of other nationalities are let through. Yetunde Asika, a Nigeria-based international human rights attorney, told CNN “…the story of a [Nigerian] medical student who had walked about 11 hours overnight to the border and was then told she couldn’t cross until the Ukrainians had been evacuated first.”  Similarly, Jessica Orakpo, another Nigerian student, describes in a video how she was forced to walk nearly  20 hours within the span of two days in her desperate attempt to reach Poland.   Other reports include segregated lines, Black women and children blocked from trains, and a group of black students forced to make yet another journey to the border of Hungary after giving up hope on admission to Poland.

In some cases, representatives from the student’s home nation wait in neighboring countries to assist, but many international refugees assert that the more immediate need is advocates on the Ukrainian side of the border.  Nigerians interviewed by a CNN reporter blamed the Nigerian government more than the Ukrainians, saying “It [government support] would have been so helpful in Ukraine, we were looking for someone to speak on our behalf there.”  Some African students took matters into their own hands, creating a network of support and funding for other Africans and people of color trying to flee the country.  Korrine Sky, Tokunbo Koiki and Patricia Daley created an organization called Black Women for Black Lives.  Daley told NBC that “There was a gap in the access Black people and brown people were getting. There was no one offering their homes to Black people, no one offering to pick up the Black individuals”.  As a result, the three started a group chat to share information and facilitate mutual support among other Black and brown refugees.  They also created an online document outlining paths of least resistance out of the country, including warnings to avoid checkpoints where racial harassment took place, accommodations friendly to people of color, and drivers available to assist with transport.  The three women estimate they’ve helped around 500 people cross the border and that number increases everyday.  They’re bravery points to an unfortunate reality that people of color, especially Black women, are left to fill the gap in support as a result of governmental failings. 

Photo of protest that reads Indians and Africans Face Racism in Ukraine
Source: Yahoo Images

While Black and Brown refugees still lack immediate assistance from officials on the ground, global support and outrage is increasing.  Multiple African government officials have condemned the treatment of their citizens and an International Coalition appealed the U.N. on March 2.  The coalition of activists and human rights attorneys petitioned for the international community to hold Ukrainian and Polish officials accountable for what they see as actions on par with war crimes.  Their two primary demands are an end to racially motivated harassment at the border and equal admission into neighboring countries for non-Ukrainians.  During a press conference associated with the coalition, attorney Jasmine Rand said, “They face one war waged by Russia, and they face a second war waged by racism because of the color of their skin. We are here today because Black Lives Matter in times of war, and in times of peace,”  

 Simultaneously, global outrage responding to racist comments by multiple news reporters sparked a discussion of the assumptions and stereotypes associated with the word “refugee.”  One of the most provocative and widely shared was stated by CBS correspondent, Charlie D’Agata:  “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.  This is a relatively civilized, relatively European…city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”   A refugee crisis deserves immediate action whether it takes place in the Middle East or Europe.  Popular comedian Trevor Noah spoke out on Instagram in response to the controversy saying, “I think rather than this being a moment to turn on each other, the Ukraine refugee crisis should be a reminder that ‘refugee’ is not a synonym for ‘Brown person.’  Anyone could be a refugee.  It’s a thing that happened to you.  It’s not who you are.”  As the world unites to confront this tragedy, it highlights the hypocrisy historically implemented in humanitarian crises, serving as a prompt that all refugees deserve the same level of support and concern from the international community.      

How to Help

Support Black People Fleeing Ukraine!

Photo of refugee camp. Reads Our Humanity is Not Transactional.
Source: GoFundMe

 

Worldwide consequences of the Russian occupation of Ukraine

I wanted to include this image to portray some of the realities of what Ukrainians are facing.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine being attacked

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has devastated both nations, with the people of Ukraine struggling to defend their homes against the more advanced Russian military, the people of Russia struggling financially in the face of global sanctions, and has spread anxiety to many nations of the possibilities of another world war, or even worse, the escalation into nuclear warfare. While there is a lot of coverage regarding the many attempts at diplomacy, the bombings and other military attacks on Ukraine, and the reactions of both Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, as well as Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, there are many consequences of this crisis that need to be brought to attention. It is important to focus on the impact of this crisis on the civilian populations of both nations and equally important for people to recognize that this crisis, along with similar crises around the world, is further fueling the climate crisis, even without the threats of nuclear warfare dangerously being dangled as an option. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces of resistance are essentially complex; on one side, ordinary Ukrainian citizens should be honored for their bravery and resistance at defending their nation from foreign invasion, but on the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that the Ukrainian military also includes the Azov Battalion, the neo-Nazi Special Operations unit in the Ukrainian National Guard. These are some delicate times, and transparency can help increase the trust among nations. Just the same, in the wake of this crisis, the world should not ignore the other brutalities taking place globally, many of which have participated in egregious violations of human rights. Finally, it is pertinent that people be aware of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia and hold them accountable.

The Human Impact

I included this image to show how the same location from the previous image looked prior to being bombed.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine’s nightlife to capture its beauty before Russia’s invasion

While this crisis is a result of drastic measures taken by Putin and as a response to Putin’s aggressions, Zelensky, the civilian populations are the ones that are most impacted by it. On the one side of the conflict, Russian civilians are facing tremendous economic struggles, as sanctions are being placed on Russia from countries throughout the world. Among those who placed sanctions against Russia were the European Union, Australia, Japan, and even the famously neutral Switzerland. The European Union promised to cause “maximum impact” on Russia’s economy, some states like Japan and Australia chose to sanction the oligarchs and their luxury goods, and the United States sanctions included a freeze on Putin’s assets. With that being said, it is important to analyze how these sanctions can harm everyday Russian citizens. Civilians are lining up at ATMs and banks to withdraw their cash as stocks are plunging and the Russian currency, the Ruble, lost its value by 25%. Many Russian-made products are being boycotted around the world, and even Russian participation in events like the Paralympics is being banned. Russian citizens are unable to access their money through Google Pay and Apple Pay, as both have been suspended in Russia. For fear of Russian propaganda, the United States has even banned Russian media outlets from having access to the American people. Furthermore, even amidst these sanctions and economic uncertainties, Russian civilians have risked their lives to protest against their leader and the Ukrainian invasion in large numbers. When the invasion first began, 2,000 Russian protesters against the war got arrested by the Russian police. Almost two weeks into this invasion, as the protests continue to take place, as many as 4,300protesters have been arrested. Shockingly, many of the Russian soldiers sent to invade Ukraine have been reported abandoning their posts, fleeing or voluntarily surrendering to the Ukrainian forces, admitting that they were not even aware they were being sent into combat. These Russian soldiers, many of whom are inexperienced, young adults, are being forced to fight or be assassinated by their officers for abandoning their military posts during active wartime.

Nevertheless, as a result of Putin’s aggression, on the other side of this conflict, Ukrainians are being forced to deal with the devastations of war, and the people of Ukraine are fully invested in the defense of their nation. Ordinary citizens are being taught how to make Molotov cocktails, civilians are coming together to help each other meet their basic needs and anyone capable of fighting is being recruited to join the Ukrainian defense forces. Unfortunately, Ukraine has banned 18 to 60-year-old men from leaving the nation and forcing them to join the fight. This wartime crisis has also led to a massive refugee crisis as women and children and people of other nations are trying to escape the conflict zones. This refugee crisis has its own issues, with reported instances of discrimination against refugees from the Global South fleeing Ukraine. These reports focus on the mistreatment, harassment, and restriction of the refugees from leaving Ukraine to seek safety. Additionally, while the global solidarity to support Ukrainian refugees is admirable and should be commended, many critics have argued that Ukrainian refugees have been better received from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in general, while refugees from the Middle East or other Global South nations have not been treated with the same courtesy. These are some valid points to consider, and the refugee crisis is only going to be amplified as a result of the many consequences of climate change.

Warfare and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to insist on how important climate change really is.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the world in black, engulfed in a fiery background. The world is on fire and steps need to be taken to combat climate change.

Climate change continues to impact the world during this crisis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates just how fragile our current climate crisis seems to be, exclaiming that anthropogenic (caused by humans) climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters, and warming up the globe around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The planet is already experiencing irreversible changes, the IPCC warns, and if actions are not taken to limit emissions and combat the climate crisis, the future of humanity is at risk. Additionally, another finding was reported about the Amazon Rainforest, (popularly dubbed the “Lungs of our Planet”), being unable to recuperate as quickly as it should due to heavy logging and massive fires it has experienced just over a couple of decades. These shocking revelations should be taken seriously, as this development will lead to more conflicts over land and resources. As people around the world are beginning to experience the calamities of climate change, nuclear warfare would maximize its destructions. With Russia being a nuclear state, tensions are surmounting globally, as nations continue to condemn Putin’s aggressions, and call for a ceasefire. Putting aside the possibilities of nuclear warfare, regular warfare amplifies the climate crisis in many ways.

First and foremost, warfare and military operations have a direct correlation to climate change in that they use massive amounts of fossil fuels to operate their machines and weapons, and militaries are among the largest producers of carbon across the world. This means that not only do militaries and their operations consume massive amounts of fossil fuels, but they are also among the biggest polluters in the world. Militaries worldwide need to decrease their carbon footprints and engage in more diplomatic strategies instead of engaging in warfare. We need to focus on international efforts to combat climate change and transform our economies and infrastructures into sustainable ones that rely on renewable resources. With this in mind, Germany addressed the energy crisis in Europe by suggesting that there needs to be a shift to a more sustainable economy, away from the influences of Russia, with the intentions of also fighting against climate change while becoming economically independent from Russian resources.

Furthermore, Russia, on the first day of its invasion against Ukraine, captured the site of the nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. While many argue that this was a strategic move to provide Russian troops a shortcut into Kyiv through Belarus, (Russia’s allies), others argue that the capturing of Chernobyl was meant to send a message to the West to not interfere. Still, others believe that the capture of Chernobyl held historic relevance, as many believe that the incident at Chernobyl led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever may be the case, it is unclear what Putin’s plans for Chernobyl are, and as an area that is filled with radioactive, nuclear waste, people’s concerns with Putin’s possession of Chernobyl seem valid. If not contained and treated with caution, the nuclear waste being stored at Chernobyl can cause irreversible damages to both the environment and nearby populations for decades. Recently, there have been reports of Russian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia Ukrainian nuclear power plant which caught on fire, increasing the risks of a disaster ten times as bad as Chernobyl was. While we are still unclear as to the details of this report, we do know that Russia has captured it, and at the very least, wants to hinder Ukraine’s source of energy. Ukraine depends on nuclear energy for its electricity, and this plant produced 20% of the nation’s energy. At best, this was a strategic move on Russia’s part, yet some have even suggested that if Putin is so irresponsible with his attacks on a nuclear power plant, how much restraint might he show with regards to using nuclear weapons if he feels pushed into a corner.

Finally, as was explored during the Cold War, nuclear weapons themselves have dramatic consequences on the planet as a whole and have the power of ending humanity. This was one of the major epiphanies that led to the de-escalation of the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that to use nuclear weapons against each other would be “mutually assured destruction.” While many argue that Putin’s instructions to ready Russia’s nuclear weapons is a form of intimidation targeted on the West, these threats can carry out unimaginable consequences if acted upon. With increasing pressures from all sides, including the global sanctions, and the massive resistance from Ukraine, Putin’s incentives are becoming unclear as this conflict continues to unfold.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how complex nuclear plants are and why this plant needs to be approached with extreme caution and an understanding of nuclear power.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl.

The Complexities of the Ukrainian Crisis

There has been a backlash by some that the world was not this enraged when similar invasions and occupations occurred in Palestine, Syria, or during several of the Middle Eastern conflicts that have devastated the people of that region. Still, others have dismissed this argument, stating that what makes this crisis especially relevant globally is its threats of nuclear warfare. Others, however, argue that the global support of Ukraine is in part due to their being a population of white Christians. To support this argument, they point to many instances in Western media coverage of the Ukrainian invasion that has suggested this exact idea. A CBS reporter cried on a news segment, “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is relatively civilized, relatively European….” Even a Ukrainian prosecutor was caught saying “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” This is important to note because Ukraine’s military has a Special Operations Unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is made up of far-right neo-Nazis, sporting Nazi regalia and symbols of White Supremacy. Putin’s many excuses for invading Ukraine included the need to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, referring to Ukraine’s empowering of the Azov Battalion’s rise to military and political prominence in the country. The Azov Battalion came under fire in 2016 for committing human rights violations and war crimes, detailing reports of abuse and terrorism against the civilians of the Donbas region in separatist Ukraine. With that being said, Putin’s excuse of wanting to terrorize an entire nation for the sake of his opposition to one particular group of Ukrainians is not justified, and people argue that his motivations are much more insidious than that. With the Ukrainian crisis being such a complex and nuanced issue, much of the world is focused on the conflict, a reality that many nations are taking advantage of to benefit their own national interests.

Other Aggressions still taking place around the world

I wanted to include this image to showcase that other brutalities continue to take place around the world, and deserve just as much global attention as the conflict in Ukraine
Source: Yahoo Images; A woman holding a Palestinian flag, as Israeli forces continue to occupy Palestinian land.

While the world’s attention is captured by the Ukraine-Russian crisis, some countries are taking advantage of a distracted world to commit their own atrocities. For one, Palestine continues to be colonized by Israel, a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years now. While Israelis are showing solidarity for Ukrainians from occupied Palestinian lands, they are oblivious to the hypocrisy of their actions and refuse to recognize their role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Just a few days ago, Israeli forces attacked and killed Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, and they continue to terrorize the Palestinians in an attempt to force them out of their homes.

In another part of the world, the United States, while calling for peace in Ukraine, proceeded to bomb Somalia in the past week. A conflict that the United States has been a part of for fifteen years now, American forces claim that their intended targets are the militant groups in Somalia. Yet, according to Amnesty International, the US African Command admitted to having killed civilian populations with one of its many airstrikes conducted over Galgaduud in 2018. In fact, they claim that the only reason the US even admitted to the civilian casualties in Somalia was due to extensive research on the part of Amnesty International.

The Ukrainian conflict also has Taiwan on the edge of its seats, as many are focusing on the US response to the Ukrainian invasion to measure the reactions that the US might have if China were to invade Taiwan. Many Taiwanese officials are contemplating Russia and China’s close relationship and are worried about what a successive Russian invasion of Ukraine might mean for their own development with China. The Chinese government is already engaging in misinformation/disinformation campaigns against Taiwan, and many Taiwanese claims that China has also been conducting cyberattacks in Taiwan and military drills around the island.

Resistance and Accountability

I wanted to use this image to showcase Ukrainian resistance agains the Russian invasion
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a man in the motion of throwing a Molotov cocktail

Ukrainians, much to Putin’s dismay, have been successfully defending their nation and holding off Russian forces for over a week now. In response to its successful resistance, Ukraine’s forces claim that the Russian bombings have been targeting civilian buildings and taking the lives of innocent civilians, among them at least fourteen children. As videos of the Ukrainian invasion surface on social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Twitter, many experts are suggesting that the Russians are engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun an investigation into these possibilities. The ICC is focusing not only on recent attacks against Ukraine but seem to also include past Russian aggression against Ukraine in their investigation. These crimes include the violation of the Geneva Convention, the bombing of civilian infrastructures, and even Russia’s use of vacuum bombs, (otherwise known as thermobaric bombs), which are bombs intended to suck the oxygen out of the air in its surroundings and convert it into a pressurized explosion. Although the vacuum bombs have been used in various places since the 1970s, (by Russia against Chechnya in 1990, by the Syrian government in 2016, and even by the United States in 2017 against Afghanistan), experts warn that these weapons can be extremely lethal and destructive in densely populated areas. Along with the above-mentioned violations against human rights, Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian nuclear power plant is added to the list of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia, and it continues to grow as the invasion persists.

Even with these threats and unprovoked aggression from Russia, Ukrainians have been more resistant than Putin had planned. Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to defend their nation, and their enormous bravery is inspiring to witness. This sense of solidarity among the Ukrainian people is, many believe, a direct result of President Zelensky’s own courage and his choice to fight alongside his people instead of fleeing to safety. This action alone has emboldened the Ukrainian morale, and everyone is attempting to do their part in this conflict. People are helping each other out with humanitarian needs like securing food and shelter, and civilians are constructing Molotov cocktails to throw at the incoming Russian forces to stall their advances. Zelensky even released Ukraine’s prisoners and armed them, urging them to fight and defend the nation.  These instances of Ukrainian resistance and unity among other nations of the world give us hope that they have a chance at winning global support against this crisis and bringing about peace and stability in the Ukrainian regions under attack. Considering the real threat of another world war unfolding before our very own eyes, it is important now more than ever, that we approach this conflict as objectively as possible. In order to do so, we have to employ different approaches that we have never before attempted and think outside of the box. With their efforts at resisting the invasion, Ukrainians have inspired me to believe that we as humans might be able to come together globally and perhaps tackle the climate crisis as well and protect our planet in the same manner the Ukrainians are defending their own homes before it’s too late.

How to Help Refugees and Displaced People in Ukraine

Ukrainian refugee girl
Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression. Photo taken in Przemyśl, Poland 27/02/2022 Source: Mirek Pruchnicki, Creative Commons

As a follow up to our panel discussion (recording will be posted shortly), we want to make the list of organizations available that support people fleeing from the violence in Ukraine. Beyond donating to the organizations listed below, you can also contact your representatives in Congress and share accurate information. Please see the resources at the end of my earlier blog postinformation and organizations put together by Ukrainian journalists, and this resource guide put together by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for people traveling in the conflict zone.

Here is the list of humanitarian organizations:

For Medical Support

General humanitarian help

  • Mercy Corps: humanitarian assistance
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross  or the Ukrainian Red Cross Society:  support food-producing initiatives and infrastructure repair (including water-pumping stations), as well as rebuilding damaged homes, and providing aid to hospitals, schools, mental health facilities and community centers
  • International Rescue Committee: Refugee aid, including food, hygiene and medical supplies, and other emergency resources for refugees, and there isn’t a way to earmark funds specifically for Ukraine on its website
  • World Central Kitchen: delivers warm meals to refugees and displaced people at various Ukraine border crossings
  • Global Empowerment Mission: emergency aid and travel assistance, operates a temporary travel and aid center in Medyka, Poland on the Ukrainian border.
  • Vostock SOS: Ukrainian-based humanitarian aid organization partnering with a German-Swiss nonprofit Libereco to help evacuate Ukrainian refugees out of the country

Children and other vulnerable groups

  • Voices of Children: Ukrainian organization providing psychological and psychosocial support to children
  • Save the Children: provides education, food etc. to children since 2014, provides protective services for unaccompanied minors who flee the country or are internally displaced
  • UNICEF: health, nutrition, HIV prevention, education, safe drinking water, sanitation and protection for children and families. You can earmark your donation specifically to its efforts in Ukraine on the donation page.
  • CARE: supports women and children in the fight against global poverty, Ukraine Crisis Fund

MAKE SURE TO SPECIFY THAT YOUR GIFT GO TOWARD RELIEF IN UKRAINE. Otherwise, money might go towards general causes, including operational budget. DON’T donate to the first crowd funding initiative you see, always vet the organizations carefully.

Please email us at ihr@uab.edu if you have additional vetted resources that could be added to this list or if you notice a broken link. We will update it over the coming days and weeks.  Thank you!

 

A Wonderful World Withering Away: A Global Fashion Emergency

I wanted to include this image to portray what we have to loose if we don't fight to stop climate change.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a beautiful sunrise over the mountains and trees

A note about Environmental Justice

Pretty blue skies, fluffy white clouds, majestic mountains breaking through the clouds, birds chirping in the morning fog, the wind blowing your hair gently as you breathe in the fresh, clean air, looking out at the rising sun with its golden rays illuminating the landscape. This is the Earth you and I are used to, and at times, we, as human beings, take it for granted. Yet, we seldom think about the realities and consequences behind our lifestyles, and we seem to think that this planet with all its vast resources will be around forever. Recent studies have projected that this is not going to be the case; in 2019, the UN urged that we only had “11 years left to prevent irreversible damage,” at a general assembly meeting on climate and sustainable development.

I have now been researching and learning about the current climate crisis we live in for at least a couple of years, and I feel that environmental racism and the right to environmental justice are topics more people should be aware of. The uniqueness of this planet and all of its species should be preserved and protected for our future generations. For all the human rights issues we are trying to tackle both domestically and globally, without a clean planet and a sustainable future to live in, things are only going to get drastically worse. Issues that we deal with today like conflicts over borders and resources will be amplified due to the climate crisis. The environment impacts every part of our lives, no matter where we live, and if we don’t act now, the future of humanity is at risk.

About a month ago, UAB hosted a panel discussion with fashionista, author, and activist Aja Barber, where she talked about how fast fashion and our consumer culture have impacted our environment and how the fashion industry exploits the most vulnerable people around the world. She recently wrote a book deliberating the intersectionality between the concepts of fast fashion, climate change, and colonialism, and after having a profoundly insightful discussion with her, I decided that I should do more to bring attention to the many ways our planet is being exploited by industries of all kinds.

So, in an attempt to bring more attention to the ongoing environmental crisis, I will be writing a series on topics related to environmental justice for the next few blogs, where I will be focusing on practices of environmental racism and the fight for environmental justice throughout the world. While this blog, focusing on fast fashion and climate change, will be the first in the series, I will also be writing about other industries (such as the oil industry and Big Tech), that have exploited both the planet’s resources and its people.

Fashion Through the Ages

I wanted to include this image to showcase that these horrid conditions existed in the US, along with child labor, until regulations were passed, outlawing child labor and improving working conditions.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a young girl working in a textile factory. Pictures like this taken by Lewis Hine helped make the case for child labor laws.

Before we dig deep into the realities of fast fashion today, we must understand the historical context behind fashion as a whole. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, clothes were produced by hand, and with painstaking details that showcased the skillsets of the talented local seamstresses. These clothes were produced inside the home by the women (or the female servants) and in some cases, at small local workshops. Many of the rich fabrics like silk and satin were very expensive, and as a result, these fabrics could only be afforded by wealthy families. The access to fashion that we see today is largely indebted to the Industrial Revolution, which brought about new inventions that mechanized the process of making garments, which led to the rise in industries of fashion, like the textile industry. Although clothing manufacturing became easier and cheaper for mass consumption, the modern consumer culture was not introduced until the 1920s, when the American economy shifted to produce goods based on the demands of the market and it wasn’t until the 1960s, when the American middle-class was growing and demands for affordable goods increased, that the trends of fast fashion developed into the behemoth we know today. At this time, Americans were fighting for better working conditions, better wages, and to end child labor, and the exploitive nature of the massive industries was exposed by muckrakers and other activists. Corporations and industries, including the textile industry, were competing with a growing demand for cheap goods and wanted to continue to make their profits while refusing to compromise on their labor practices. So instead, they began the process of moving their manufacturing industries overseas, to nations in the Global South, to continue to sell their products at a low price while exploiting their workers abroad. Many of these textile factories exist in places like India, Bangladesh, China, and nations in Africa. As recently as 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia is being sought as the new frontier for textile manufacturing. As the fashion industry encourages more fluctuations in the trends and styles of today, we as consumers continue to indirectly help perpetuate the industry’s exploitative behaviors with our purchasing habits. Before we examine the colossal impacts of fast fashion on the environment, we must take a closer look at some of the working conditions in these textile factories. Understanding the process of handling these fabrics and chemicals can help us comprehend the consequences to the workers’ health and the environmental consequences as a whole.

Textile Industries and Human Rights Violations Abroad

I wanted to include this image to showcase the low wages that textile workers receive for their work, while the products they produce sell for prices almost 100 times more than their wages. These profits end up in the pockets of the company leaders.
Source: Yahoo Images; Two young women wearing similar outfits holding signs, one with a sign that says, “I made this for $0.60”, and the other holding a sign that reads, “I bought this for $50.”

The industries of America that moved their businesses to other “developing” nations did so with clear intentions. While America had established labor laws that regulated worker safety in these factories and had passed a federal minimum wage, corporations decided to set up shop in countries that were struggling economically and had no real power to speak out against their practices. Textile companies, like other corporations, are forever looking for cheap labor, in order to sell their products for cheaper, competitive prices, and as a result, take advantage of the most vulnerable populations of the world. Knowing that they will work any job, no matter how taxing, no matter how dangerous it is, corporations that have factories in other nations will impose their expectations on the people, and if they get any opposition or are presented with unwanted regulations by the host nation, they just close up shop and move to another equally vulnerable country. This gives the corporations an immense amount of power over their workers, and as a result, puts the employees at the mercy of their employers.

I wanted to showcase some of the working conditions of garment workers.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting garment workers at sewing machines.

The garment workers working in these textile industries are forced to work long hours (14-16 hours a day), in a toxic environment (both physically and psychologically), and get paid wages that are so low, that it is impossible to survive with these incomes. They seldom get any days off, and if the workers miss a day, they are easily replaced with another desperate worker in places with high unemployment rates. Garment workers also have to breathe in toxic chemicals they use to treat and dye the clothing, with poorly built buildings with little to no ventilation. Additionally, they are under the constant anxiety of being injured, either on the equipment or from accidental fires. Furthermore, the employees are seldom given timed lunch breaks, and many are forced to work without water or bathroom breaks. Even heartbreaking is the fact that in many of these host countries, child labor has not been outlawed. Many children end up working in these textile manufacturing factories, especially young girls. Unions are either unheard of or inaccessible to these workers, who are either threatened with their jobs or even face violence at the hands of their employers. Such working conditions not only lead to immense physical and psychological stress but can also cause a variety of health concerns, including respiratory issues and musculoskeletal disorders. These working conditions violate some of the most basic rights of the workers, as industries continue to exploit their employees for their own profit. However, their actions impact more than just their employees; they also contribute to the ongoing climate crisis.

Environmental Consequences

I wanted to use this image to showcase the various types of pollution that results as a consequence of the textile industry.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image demonstrating some of the environmental impacts of industry.

As abysmal as the working conditions at many of these textile factories can be, they have equally atrocious environmental practices as well. The textile industry uses immense amounts of water in the process of producing clothing. This accounts for the growing process of cotton and other fabrics, as well as the water required in the actual production of the clothing. One person can basically have enough water to drink for over two years for the amount of water that goes into making one t-shirt. Many fabrics have microfibers in them, and over the years, washing these clothes can deliver microplastics into the oceans. Additionally, the toxic chemicals used to treat and dye the clothing is carelessly disposed of into rivers and streams, many of which are used by locals as drinking and cooking water, further adding to the health risks to the locals. This also has economic impacts, as locals are unable to use the polluted water for agricultural purposes, and the fishing industry is also severely impacted. People are also unable to use the polluted waters for recreational use, as swimming in polluted water can cause skin irritation and illness. Furthermore, the clothing industry is responsible for emitting 10% of the global carbon emissions each year.

Regretfully, these gross exploitations of humans and resources alike are even more wasteful than many are aware of. Devastatingly, around 85% of garments produced end up in landfills or destroyed. Many of these items are products that were never sold. Even more heartbreaking, the fabrics used to make over half of these clothes are nonrecyclable and end up adding to our growing plastic waste. Recently, when preparing for my interview with Aja Barber, I was made aware of the massive piles of clothes laid out in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where clothing both old and new, litter the landscape.

What Can Be Done About This?

I wanted to include this image to show that young people are taking climate change seriously, and are attempting to bring more attention to the crisis as a whole.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of some protesters against environmental pollution

On an international level, there needs to be an additional convention at the United Nations that is created to oversee the working conditions as well as the environmental impacts of multinational companies and industries that have businesses in more than one nation. This convention should be in charge of regulation and an avenue for workers to report any violations and seek help while working for these multi-national companies. It should also protect the environmental rights of the impacted locals. Unfortunately, this is out of reach for ordinary citizens, as this solution requires coordination and cooperation from multiple players on the global stage. On a more national level, we can pressure our politicians and government officials to denounce these exploitative practices and regulate overseas businesses through permits and contracts. We can also educate our peers and community members about the impact that their fashion choices are having on both the people who make their clothes as well as the environment as a whole.

There are also a few things that we as consumers have the power to do on a personal level. We can shop for functionality and use rather than shopping for each occasion. One simple rule you can use is the Thirty Wears Challenge. Ask yourself, “am I going to wear this piece of clothing at least thirty times?” If the answer is yes, buy it; if it’s no, put it back on the rack. Another thing you can do is go shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. These are clothes that you are recycling, from one person’s closet to yours, instead of buying new clothes every time you shop. If enough people do this, you can also participate in boycotting fast fashion trends, and instead incentivize the fashion industry to produce clothing that lasts, instead of making clothing that is cheap and easily damaged. Another thing you can do at home is if you have any clothes that are torn a little, but if sown back together, can be work, you should try to learn to make simple stitches. Learning to mend your own clothes can prevent you from having to purchase more clothes, saving you money, and you might even end up doing it as a hobby! Finally, you can purchase clothing from local designers instead of supporting massive fast-fashion corporations. Incorporating some of these sustainable practices into your shopping routines can influence the fashion industry to incorporate more ethical labor and environmental practices.

How to End the War in Ukraine and Build Lasting Peace

by Dr. Peter Verbeek

World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable. All other methods have failed. Thus, we must begin anew. Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built.                  – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1964

On May 14, 1940, the Nazis aerial-bombed Rotterdam to smithereens. Utrecht, the city where I was born, was next up for annihilation if the Dutch were to continue to resist the Nazi invasion. Following the destruction of Rotterdam, the Dutch army gave up its resistance, and for the next five years the Netherlands suffered under Nazi occupation. Many thousands of Dutch Jewish citizens were transported to Nazi extermination camps where they died horrible deaths. I was born after the war and learned about the horrors of the Nazi occupation from my parents and other close family members, bit by excruciating bit. Many of the most terrifying facts I had to learn through sources other than my family members as my family either spared me or just could not bring themselves to relive them by recounting them to me.

My family’s story is but one that is relevant to the current invasion of Ukraine. Today, February 26, 2022, while writing this piece, I noted this entry on Twitter by @Val_Voschchevska that tells another poignant story:

My aunt: it is impossible to imagine that my mother, who lost her parents and became orphaned at 7, fought against Hitler with the Russian people, had to hide in a haystack from Nazi German soldiers, today, at the age of 85, is hiding in the basement in Kyviv from Russian soldiers.”

My family owe their survival and freedom to the blessed souls, American, British, and Canadian, who stormed the beaches of Normandy while their fellows were gunned down all around them by Nazi soldiers and who continued to fight their way on the Western Front through France and Belgium to liberate the Low Lands from Hitler’s henchmen. From the East, it was the Russian soldiers who died and fought to rid the world of Hitler’s fascist scourge. Now, early 2022, Russia and the United States of America, formerly aligned against fascism, and now each harboring contemporary fascist elements at home, are at war. Yes, let’s call a spade a spade; the country of which I became a citizen out of conviction, and not by birth, is, de facto, at war with Russia. Levying harsh sanctions on Russia is an act of economic and social violence in response to Russia’s deadly violence in Ukraine. Violence begot violence. No amount of semantic wrangling about the meaning of “war” is going to challenge this fact.

Map of Ukraine with arrows showing path of Russia's attack
Source: Yahoo Images

I will leave it to geopolitical analysts to disentangle fact from fiction regarding how it could have come to this, and what the predicted chances of escalation are in this violent confrontation between two nuclear powers that each have a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying most of life as we know it on this planet, effectively and thoroughly. And I will just clearly state that I call on all people of good will to stand with and speak up for all who are victimized by the violence instigated by Putin and his henchmen, and to join UNICEF’s call for a cessation of all violence, for the sake of all of humanity, and, in particular, for the sake of children, the world’s next generations. (Currently, Russia is arresting children for leaving flowers and messages of peace and hope outside of Ukraine’s embassy.) We need our children. The world needs them to grow up healthy and strong, to flourish, and, when they grow up, to clear the messes that we are leaving them. To do better than we did. Much better. To live in peace and to experience happiness. To respect and propagate Life.

Here I offer a peace perspective on the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine. It is a perspective based on the nascent behavioral science of peace that arose from traditional Peace and Conflict Studies, which, in turn, trace its origins to the end of World War II (1). It is a perspective rooted in the conviction that diplomacy, dialogue, negotiation and collaboration. In sum, nonviolence coupled with reason and perspective taking, is the only way to end or prevent war and other forms of collective physical violence (negative peace). It is also based on the conviction that the cessation of physical violence needs to be followed by an end to structural violence, including an end to social injustice, discrimination, prejudice, social or moral exclusion, and poverty linked to these conditions, so as to pave the way for a sustained positive peace of reciprocally beneficial and harmonious interactions between people and nature, and among human communities and nations (1).

The peace perspective that I offer here is a comparative perspective. It takes into account our evolutionary history as a species which cannot be seen apart from that of the rest of nature nor from our species-specific cultural histories (1). As an example of this, humans are susceptible to ideological indoctrination. Our early evolutionary history most likely predisposed us for this trait, and it can be culturally modified and enhanced. Ideology is the seed from which ‘us versus them’ thinking can take root and flourish. Such collective exclusionary thinking comes in handy when dictators and potentates want to mobilize citizens and soldiers to support and fight their wars (2).

As a species, we also have an ability to discipline our thought processes into critical evaluation and reflection, and this faculty can also be modified and enhanced by culture. It most likely is part of a more recent set of evolved faculties that provided us with the adaptive advantages that allowed us to be the only complex animal of which the population spread to the four corners of the world. Critical thinking requires the specific allocation of mental energy, but, with effort, we are quite capable of acquiring this cognitive ability, especially when we are privileged by an education that nurtures and scaffolds it (3). War thrives on indoctrination, while peace thrives on critical thought. However, beware, our species ability for critical thinking can also be a factor in war when criminal dictators put it to use for plotting and conducting non-provoked warfare and violent oppression. It is not difficult to identify criminal dictators in our past and present who used critical thinking for their evil ways, nor is it hard to think of people who used this faculty for peace and to benefit our world.

Last, and by no means, least, note that the peace perspective presented here derives from the increasing scientific evidence across species and cultures of behavioral processes that preserve harmony in social relations, for example through the active pursuit, establishment, or deepening of mutual or reciprocal interests, tolerance, helping and sharing, the active avoidance of aggressive confrontations, and the restoration of valuable relationships in the aftermath of aggressive conflict. The peace perspective recognizes the empirical distinction between aggression and violence, where violence, such as war, is escalated aggression that is out of inhibitory control. In nature, as well as in human affairs, aggression and peace are not antithetical but, rather, linked in recurring relationships. Aggression, while as seemingly widespread as peaceful behavior, is commonly kept in check through natural behavioral mechanisms such as ritualization, dominance hierarchies, and avoidance, and the damage to relationships is often repaired post-aggression through processes of consolation and reconciliation (1). However, importantly, and with few exceptions, uninhibited aggression, such as the violence of war, is unique to the human species (1,2). Violence is our uniquely human problem. We need to deal with it courageously and definitively.

How can we bring this peace perspective to bear on the invasion of Ukraine? To start, it brings into the light that diplomacy and negotiation have utterly failed to prevent this war. People in the opposing camps need to hold their leaders accountable for this abject failure. In our own country, the United States, people in government from both major political parties need to stop tittering about partisan issues and beating the drums of war and get on with the pursuit of a negotiated settlement that stops the killing and holds off the prospect of unfathomable global catastrophe. Our leaders need to use whatever nonviolent means it takes to reach this immediate goal as there is no alternative. The majority of the people in Russia, Ukraine, the US, the UK, the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world do not want war. This sentiment against war comes natural to people. It is part of our evolutionary inheritance from which cultures unfold and thrive. Political and national leaders represent the people – they need to act on what the people want and need. If that means, for example, that the President of the United States should fly on Airforce One to Moscow to conduct the negotiations there, then so be it, get on with it. It would be an excellent use of taxpayer’s money.

Photo of protestors holding sign that says "Putin hands off Ukraine"
Source: Yahoo Images

All parties need to freeze sanctions to set the stage for negotiations for peace. The sanctions of the US and its European allies are being described as a form of punishment for Vladimir Putin for ordering his troops to invade Ukraine, but an extensive literature in behavioral science shows unequivocally that punishment does not change behavior while incentives do. The most likely consequence of the US sanctions will be that Russia reciprocates in kind. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, already proposed today (February 26) that the sanctions offer the Kremlin a pretext to completely review its ties with the West, and he suggested that Russia could opt out of the New START nuclear arms control treaty that limits the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. If Russia opts out of the agreement now, it will remove any checks on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and raise new threats to global security. Medvedev also raised the prospect of cutting diplomatic ties with Western countries, charging that “there is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations” and adding that “we may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.” 

A peace perspective further emphasizes that the world needs to focus its attention and resources on threats that require us to unite as opposed to divide, including the global existential threats of climate change and biodiversity loss that interact to challenge and exceed the planetary boundaries that make human life and much of the other forms of life that we share this planet with possible. These existential threats are not going away while we are preoccupied with war, but rather, they will be amplified by the ravages of war. We also need to finish what we started in fighting the spread of SARS-CoV2. With much of the world still unvaccinated it can be expected to be only a matter of time until new variants evolve with a potential to add significant more COVID-19 deaths to the current tally of close to 6 million deaths worldwide and close to 1 million in the US. We must urgently trade in our missiles for syringes.

We must care about peace now. We must pursue peace now. The reasons for it are clear. There are no alternatives and no excuses. Peace is attainable. Nature has equipped us with behavioral and cognitive means to pursue and sustain it. Our human cultures have nurtured and built on these natural means in a great variety of effective ways. We must respect and use these culturally varied means and advance peace – now.

I end, in all humility, as I started this essay, with a quote by a champion of peace whose eternal words we should all heed when we pursue peace, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” Strength to Love  

References:

(1) Verbeek, P., & Peters, B.A. (2018). Peace ethology. Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers.

(2) Verbeek, P. (2013). An ethological perspective on war and peace. In D.P. Fry (Ed.), War, peace, and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views. New York: Oxford University Press.

(3) Cole, J.R. (2021). Academic freedom under fire. Science, 374 (6573), 1300.

Russia’s Attack on the Ukraine: Why You Should Care

After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.

Map of Ukraine with Russian attacks on 2/24/22.
Source: New York Times, 02/24/2022.

 

While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.

Impact on Geopolitics and the International Order

Most importantly, this is the first time since World War II that we are seeing what will likely shape up to be a full-blown international war in Europe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine puts the international order generated at the end of World War II at risk and shakes the very foundations of international relations. The invasion violates international law and denies principles and tenets established by the United Nations Charter, namely the concept of collective security, the maintenance of international peace through multilateralism and institutions, and the outlawing of the use of force in international relations. The war also threatens to destabilize Europe and undermines the order established after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. This has the potential for severe and long-term consequences for Eastern European countries that were formerly under Soviet influence.

From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.

Soldiers in Ukraine
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.

The Human Rights Perspective

From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.

Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.

Meeting of the UN Security Council.
Meeting of the Security Council. Source: Nagpur Today.

It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation  – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.

Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.

What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?

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.

Pegasus: A Frightening Era of Digital Surveillance

Imagine a secret company tapping every word you say and email you read, all because someone decided you are a threat. It may seem draconian and futuristic, but this is the reality of human rights activists around the world under a mysterious spyware called Pegasus. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Pegasus is an international symbol of decreasing privacy, invasion of privacy restrictions, and increasing digital surveillance of citizens by their governments.  

Pegasus, named after the Trojan horse, is a malware created by an Israeli cybersecurity company known as the NSO group. The spyware was initially intended as a global weapon against terrorism and crime. Normally, most malware infects a device through an email or link containing the software, but Pegasus requires no action on the receiver’s device to become embedded in the device’s systems. Through the “iMessage zero click” exploit, Pegasus is automatically downloaded onto the target’s iPhone. Only a digital security lab has the resources to detect Pegasus on a device, because the program itself does not cause any disruptions to a device’s function.  

Pegasus spyware can access GPS location, calls, texts, contacts, emails, and more dangerously, encrypted and private data such as passwords. Attackers can gain access to a device’s microphone and camera, as well, which opens the door to unauthorized agencies recording audio or video without the owner’s knowledge. The first use of Pegasus was traced to 2013 and has since impacted over 45 countries, but international investigations only began a few years ago. Earlier in 2021, an international collaboration of news media including Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International launched The Pegasus Project to investigate, country by country, the impact of Pegasus use. Evidence has shown that governments use Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and public officials although every country accused has denied the allegation or insisted that it was necessary.  

Painted image of a CCTV camera on a white background
Black CCTV camera stamped on white paint on a concrete wall; Source: Upsplash

India 

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is accused of using Pegasus to illegally spy on people they classify as “Anti-India” or having an anti-government agenda.  

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project found over 300 Indian phone numbers including those of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers being tracked by the surveillance software. Four years earlier, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is protected under the Constitution. Despite the legal provision, the Indian government has used excuses of national security and protection when confronted with allegation of using the notorious spyware. This year, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to investigate the data produced by the Pegasus Project and determine whether the government did use Pegasus to spy on citizens and thus, violated the law.  

The Indian government has expanded the umbrella of legal surveillance since the passing of the 1885 Telegraph Act and 2000 Information Technology Act, rendering any word of restricting unauthorized surveillance from them laughable. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for enforcing the 2021 Information Technology Rules, but the legislation has increased the hunt for human rights activists and news outlets that criticize the government’s actions. Initially passed to prevent social media misuse, the rules act as an access card to control streaming sites, social media services, and online news sources that are crucial for citizens to become aware of accurate, although incriminating, investigative reports. 

Journalists sitting down and taking notes at a press conference
Journalists in search of the truth are targeted by governments. Source: Upsplash

Middle East 

Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, and Turkey show similar patterns of digital repression over the last couple of decades. The UAE is already known for having the most surveillance over its people in the world. By claiming the invasive surveillance efforts for national security, the Emirati government tracked conversations of its residents, Qatari officials, members of the Saudi Royal Family, and other opponents. In 2016, a human rights activist from the UAE, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted with Pegasus in 2016 before his arrest in 2017 and subsequent 10-year jail sentence. Fellow activists and scholars have sufficient evidence to suggest that governmental surveillance caused his illegal arrest. 

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a progressive journalist from Saudi Arabia, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel and went into hiding in 2017 after the government threatened him. From Turkey, he wrote articles chastising his home government. After his death, Pegasus was allegedly used to keep tabs on his son, fiancé, and other affiliations without their consent.  

Palestine 

Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization, found Pegasus on the phones of 6 Palestinian activists that began in July 2020. The activists belonged to human rights and civil society organizations such as Defense for Children’s International – Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Work Committees in Israel of which 6 have been declared terrorist organizations despite lacking credible evidence supporting the designation.  

Most Israeli surveillance laws do not apply to security companies and give them free reign to use the NSO’s spyware. In 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for invading the popular international messaging platform WhatsApp on 1400 devices. And on November 23rd, Apple sued the NSO Group in California Court for violating a federal anti-hacking law by providing dangerous software to spy on their Apple customers. Despite the obvious unethical nature of spyware, the Israeli government fully licenses Pegasus and is a client of NSO Group. Experts speculate whether the Israel had a role in the hackings around the world, which may be considered an international crime if proven.  

Zoom of a computer screen with green and white lines of code
Source: Upsplash

El Salvador 

The Pegasus Project also uncovered illegal surveillance of investigative journalists in El Salvador, a region in Central America torn apart by frequent gang wars and corruption. Citizen Lab and Access Now forensically analyzed phones from reporters at El Faro and GatoEncerrado, media outlets that have been facing the brunt of President Nayib Bukele’s wrath in the race to retain his position. Evidence gathered by journalists and human rights organizations suggest that Bukele negotiated deals with El Salvador’s deadliest gangs in return for political advantage. Some individual’s phones were hacked over an extended period while others were infected intermittently when the media houses were investigating corruption in Bukele’s administration.  

In 2021, the Biden Administration officially blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser known surveillance company, Candiru, as well. This severs each company’s access to hardware necessary for maintaining servers and outsourcing the software. 

Access to accurate information, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and privacy is crucial to maintaining autonomy and a fundamental human right. Backsliding democracies and military states are re-instituting citizen surveillance digitally – endangering the lives of millions that are fighting for the future of their people. To contribute to cybersecurity labs and human rights organizations working to increase legislation against digital surveillance, please donate to the Citizen Lab (https://engage.utoronto.ca/site/SPageServer?pagename=donate#/department/91) and Frontline Defenders (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/donors). 

Additional Information related to recent digital surveillance and human rights violations: 

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/unsafe-anywhere_-women-human-rights-defenders-speak-out-about-pegasus-attacks_en.pdf 

If you would like to learn more about the people the Pegasus Project, follow the link below https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/#/  

 

Policing for Profit: An Ongoing Alabama Investigation

police
Source: Yahoo Images

Brookside, Alabama – a poor town, 70% white, 21% black with a small but growing Hispanic population and a median income “well below the state average” has made national news because of the Brookside Police Department (BPD). The BPD has managed to double the impoverished town’s total income from 2018 to 2020 as a result of its 640% increase in fines and forfeitures. How can a town with no traffic lights collect $487 in fines and forfeitures in 2020 for every man, woman, and child while the Brookside Police Chief Mike Jones claims, “It’s not about making a dollar?”

Brookside Changed in 2018

From 2011 to 2018, the town of 1,253 people reported a total of 55 serious crimes to the state of Alabama across the span of eight years. In 2018, with the appointment of Mike Jones as Police Chief of the BPD, this changed significantly: police stops soared between 2018 and 2020; fines and forfeitures – including the seizure of cars during traffic stops – doubled from 2018 to 2019; and eight additional officers were hired.

Nine full-time officers for a town that stretches six miles, has no traffic lights, and has a population of 1,253 people is “far larger than average.” According to the 2018 FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR), the average size of a police force in the southern United States was three officers per 1,000 residents. As of last year, Brookside had one police officer per 144 residents. As of January 2021, the department announced via Facebook that it had hired six more officers, in order to “expand our dedication and commitment to provide superior community service & protection.” The Facebook page is no longer available to the public.

The lack of transparency does not stop there. While Chief Jones and Mayor Mike Bryan claimed that “neither the town nor the police department relies on the revenue” police officers bring in, audits by Philip Morgan & Co. showed that the town was indeed dependent on the ticket money. From 2018 to 2020, spending on police alone increased 560%, from $79,000 to $524,000. The correlation is reason for causation, for total arrests (custodial, misdemeanor, and felony) rose 1,109% from 2018 to 2020. Additionally, the BPD issued more than 3,000 citations in 2020 – a 692% increase from 2018. The revenue that was brought in increased overall town spending 112% from 2018 to 2020.

trucks
Brookside Police Department purchased unmarked cars and a fully loaded truck with taxpayers’ money. Source: Yahoo Images

Where is this money going? Towards purchasing unmarked, tinted vehicles for the BPD to severely patrol the six miles the town covers, in hopes of collecting even more revenue. The Brookside police officers, according to Jones’s testimony, wear gray uniforms with no Brookside insignias. They also do not list their names in tickets.
In one case, a young man, Thomas Hall, was stopped for speeding and was found with a small amount of marijuana. He was charged with a misdemeanor possession and five counts of possession of drug paraphernalia: rolling papers, the bag the held the marijuana, cigar wrappers, a small jar “that once may have held marijuana,” and a small tray that “might have” been used to roll a joint. On the ticket, the arresting officer was listed as “Agent JS” and assisting officer as “Agent AR.” Hall is not the only one with unnecessary charges tacked onto his citation.

February Town Hall

On February 2, 2022, more than 200 people gathered where 31 people spoke of the victimization they had endured from a “rogue police department that bullied, tormented, and in some cases ruined their lives.” Residents of all demographics – black and white, old and young – demanded that tickets given by the Brookside force be voided and their money be returned. Common themes emerged during the emotional conversation, including how the police was targeting residents and drivers in an aggressive manner, adding on as many charges as possible to the citations, and frequently ticketing outside of its jurisdiction.

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People line up outside of Town Hall to pay their citations. This cuts into their personal work time, furthering their lack of income. Source: Yahoo Images

Brookside PD Leadership Resignations

After CNN and AL.com launched investigations into the recent events and actions of Brookside PD on January 19, 2022, Mike Jones resigned on January 25, 2022. He could not be reached for any comments. Leah Nelson of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice stated Jones’s departure is good news but that he is “just a symptom of the problem. We need policy reform.” Nelson’s statement is one that is supported on both sides of the aisle; what is happening in Brookside is not a partisan issue, and it is gaining national attention.

Brookside is a Continuation of History

A 2019 Governing Magazine report found that fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of general fund revenues for nearly 600 jurisdictions across the United States. This trend first was noticed after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where the town issued 32,975 arrest warrants in 2013 for nonviolent offenses. It has been happening across the United States – California, Georgia, even Washington, D.C., for years on end, eroding the already-thin layer of trust between the community and law enforcement.

Another force adding to this erosion is the practice of sentencing people to jail when they are unable to pay their debt – an illegal practice as decided by the United States Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia (1983) and again in Timbs v Indiana (2019).

In Bearden, the court held that in “revocation proceedings for failure to pay a fine or restitution, a sentencing court must inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay. If the probationer could not pay despite sufficient bona fide [sincere] efforts, the court must consider alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment.” Imprisoning someone who may not possess $850 to pay within four months deserves the opportunity to defend why s/he/they could not do so, instead of being locked up.

In Timbs, the Eighth Amendment was contested – specifically, the application of “excessive fines imposed” to state and local governments. In an unanimous decision, all of the Supreme Court justices agreed that Mr. Timbs’s vehicle, valued at $42,000, should not have been seized by the state for a ticket that was worth $10,000. When delivering the majority opinion, the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke on behalf of the justices, administering the opinion that cities charging citizens high fines and fees and seizing property worth far more than their debt were “a threat to American freedom.”

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This cartoon is how the BPD has been depicted. The need for reform is greater than ever. Source: Yahoo Images.

What’s next?

While policy reform is the main goal and various Alabama departments continue their investigations of the BPD, I would advocate for our readers to not forget the issue of police reform. This human rights abuse seriously affects more Americans than you know, and it is harmful to the quality of innocent people’s lives. People that are already struggling to make ends meet are being charged absurd ticket fees, and the taxes they are paying are not even benefitting them.

Reform is mandatory, and if our representatives on both sides of the aisle can come to this common conclusion, we should no longer question it. Rather, we should invest in searching and strongly advocating for alternatives to limit the police’s power. The universally-understood purpose of a police force is to protect a people, but how can said people trust the protectors if they are the ones exploiting them?

As we have seen in Brookside, the police’s abuse of power has resulted in the accumulation of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, which is only being reallocated to fund the police – the abusers of authority. Taxes are meant to assist the welfare of the state, but all the evidence indicates otherwise. Hosting a town hall meeting is simply the first step, and while it provided the residents of Brookside with an outlet to vent their ongoing troubles, the Alabama legislature and local and state governments must collaborate to ensure that Brookside PD’s actions are never repeated.

Visual Representations for Brookside

Brookside Revenue Sources Over Time

Brookside’s 2020 Revenue Streams

Right to Education for Teenage Pregnant Girls

by Grace Ndanu

When the head teachers and principals find out that a girl is pregnant in the Kenyan schools, they tell her that she has to leave the school immediately. They go ahead and tell her that a pregnant girl is not allowed to be in school because she will be mocked by other students and be a bad influence. Kenya is one of the countries that is associated with high numbers of teenage pregnancies. Every year, thousands of girls become pregnant at the time when they should be studying mathematics, history, science and geography. These girls who have early and unwanted pregnancies face many social and financial barriers to continuing with formal education, as they are often forced to drop out of school and to get married.

Photo of pregnant girl
Source: Upsplash

In 2013, all the countries that make up the African Union including Kenya, adopted Agenda 2063, a continent-wide economic and social development strategy. African governments agreed to commit themselves to build Africa’s human capital, which it terms its most precious resource, through sustained investments in education, including the elimination of gender disparities at all levels of education. Two years after the adoption of Agenda 2063, African governments joined other countries in adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a development agenda whose focus is to ensure that no one is left behind, including a promise to ensure inclusive and quality education for all.

African governments have also adopted ambitious goals to end child marriage, introduce comprehensive sexuality and reproductive health education, and address the very high rates of teenage pregnancy across the continent that negatively affect girls’ education.

These member states have failed to do their duty for a long time. They continued to exclude thousands of teen girls from school because they are pregnant. There are arguments that revolve around morality; for example, they believe that, pregnancy outside wedlock is morally wrong, emanating from personal opinions and experiences, and wide-ranging interpretations of religious teachings about sex outside of marriage. The effect of this discourse is that pregnant girls – and to a smaller extent, school boys who impregnate girls – have faced all kinds of punishments, including discriminatory practices that deny girls the enjoyment of their right to education. Education is regarded as a privilege that can be withdrawn as a punishment. In the Masai community of Kenya, when a girl becomes pregnant before marriage she is regarded as a disgrace to the family, and therefore some of them are sent away from the family while others are sold out for marriage to men who can be the age of their grandfathers.

Photo of girl sitting in class
A Happy young South African girl (from the Xhosa tribe) works on her studies and jokes with her friends at at an old worn desk in a class room in the Transkei region of rural South Africa. Source: Upsplash

Kenya’s Parliament started debating the Care and Protection of children and parents, which is being pushed as a legal framework to help expectant girls stay in school to full term and follow their dreams once they graduate. With around 18% of Kenyan girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen having given birth to at least one child, the proposed bill says that a student should not be denied her right to education simply because she is expectant or has a baby. The bill further advocates that the girl get adequate support – from her school, her family and the government, even after the baby is born.

Although the bill is being opposed because, it apparently bars parents or guardians from knowing the outcomes of their children’s pregnancy tests, if ever carried out in schools. Also, school principals are continually engaged in a hard balancing act. They have to balance policies and laws against the expectations and perceptions of the people they serve. The two are often in conflict because people are never sensitized properly. So, it is possible that the bill would place many school principals and head teachers at risk of imprisonment.

Poverty is still a major constraint for many girls. Although the government is able to meet the aim of ensuring that more girls returned to school, keeping them in school in the long term is another dilemma. A girl might return to school for one term or session but drop out again the following term for financial reasons. Therefore, the bill should consider the financial status of Kenyans.

The bill certainly comes from the right place. Nonetheless, if there is one thing I know, it is that policies and laws do not implement themselves. A well-crafted law has to be implemented by prepared people. People need to be properly engaged and brought on board. They need to be given a chance to become familiar with the content of a new policy, bill or law. They need a chance to air their concerns and they need to feel like they have been heard. They need to understand that the government is there for them and that their needs and concerns are taken seriously.

Many other factors contribute to thousands of adolescent pregnant girls and adolescent mothers not continuing formal education. High among them is the lack of awareness about re-entry policies among communities, girls, teachers, and school officials that girls can still study when they are ready to give birth and should go back to school after giving birth. People should be told that the laws and policies set don’t encourage teen pregnancies, instead it supports pregnant girls. Also parents should be sensitized on the importance of having open conversations with their children so that their children can can be able to fully trust them. Schools should include counselors’ budget so that girls and boys can receive counseling services when they need it.