Aleppo, Just War and Responsibility to Protect: Why we have failed humanity!

Aleppo A view of Aleppo, Syria from above. It's a real concrete jungle.
Aleppo. A view of Aleppo, Syria from above. It’s a real concrete jungle. Source: Michael Goodine, Creative Commons.

By RUSS HUNTER

I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Dr. John Pace who served in the United Nations for thirty-three years. He distinguished himself as a champion of human rights. He was Secretary to the Commission on Human Rights (1978 to 1994) and Coordinator of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights (1991 to 1993) with many other posts and special envoys on human rights. I asked Dr. Pace specifically about Aleppo–whether the armed humanitarian intervention (AHI), right to protect (R2P) or the International Criminal Court (ICC) will ever address the glaring human rights abuses by many actors internal and external to Syria. His reply gave me pause. First, he related that AHI as a term is useless. It needs to be debated and defined. AHI is like saying: (paraphrasing) Here is a poisonous sandwich that will nourish you. Second, Syria and in particular Aleppo, will in time be reviewed and the ICC or some other UN commission will tackle the issue. In the meantime, not much will change. I was not surprised by his assessment.

Aleppo, we hear much about the death and destruction, lives forever lost, families forever marred by the violence. Communities wiped out. Horrors that we can barely grasp or fathom as we sit idly by as hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The following will not comfort you, but I do hope it makes you think, make you reflect, make you pause, even if just for a moment about our world politics, and  question the reasons why we have allowed something so heinous occur. We have often heard our politicians say things such as ‘never again’, ‘we must not let the human suffering of this magnitude occur’, and ‘don’t cross the red line or we will act’. The reality is, that is all bluster and posturing from politicians. We have just war theory and responsibility to protect as accepted doctrines that can be used to stop an Aleppo from happening. This blog will challenge your thinking in a way that will force you to engage in finding a way to prevent future Aleppo.

We have seen the politics of the UN and in particular the UN Security Council many times before. The failure of the UN has prompted regional coalitions to band together to tackle issues. The UN Security Council is supposed to be the framework for the use of military forces against all forms of aggression. This is particularly the case when forces are piercing the territorial and political sovereignty of a nation. If regional alliances decide to invade on humanitarian reasons but are not sanctioned by the UN, does this destabilize world order? If the politics of the UN fails to protect human rights do regional alliances have a right to intervene? The politics of the UN leads me to my concern: What are the barriers to human rights? What is more likely to succeed in the protection of human rights in a conflict zone?

I will lay out my argument that just war theory (JWT) is justified for humanitarian intervention. The role of the United Nations (UN) Security Council cannot be overstated in this process. My argument lays out how the UN in its political machinations refuses to address the shortcomings of humanitarian intervention (HI). By refusing to address the shortcomings, the UN is a body politic who is complicit in the loss of life and displacement of refugees. Before we go into Aleppo and why it has not ‘triggered’ HI let us first look at intervention, R2P, AHI and HI, and see if we can discern them and come to an understanding of how we can understand them.

R2P is a doctrine that has evolved and used much like JWT to justify military action. It has most of the same elements as JWT: just cause, right authority and right intention, used as a last resort, proportional means, and a reasonable chance at success. The significant difference from JWT is that R2P is for humanitarian reasons or protection of civilians. In other words, JWT seeks political justification for using military force while R2P is not about the political justification but the humanitarian justification. This justification is a fundamental change in the notion of sovereignty. R2P attempts to move from the Westphalian notion of the state being supreme to the R2P claim that an individual’s sovereignty is supreme.

R2P has three distinct responsibilities: responsibility to prevent, responsibility to react and responsibility to rebuild. AHI, HI, and intervention can all be represented in R2P, in essence, R2P evolved from AHI, HI, and intervention. R2P has become part of the UN framework in dealing with a humanitarian crisis. The inclusion is seen by the UN appointing a Special Adviser to focus on the R2P in 2008 and 2009, the release of a report entitled ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.’ R2P is not internationally accepted nor is the basis of intervention (whichever terminology used AHI, HI, or R2P) without controversy. For this commentary, R2P will be synonymous with intervention, HI, and AHI.  Is R2P legal? If so, why is it not used more often to secure human rights? If not, how do we legally protect human rights in places like Aleppo?

a picture of old Aleppo from the Citadel
Aleppo – from the Citadel. Source: Beshr Abdulhadi, Creative Commons.

War, armed conflict, police actions, intervention, right to protect (R2P), and armed humanitarian intervention (AHI), all have common threads that run through them that connect them to just war theory (JWT). The 1648 Peace of Westphalia gave rise to the current idea of the nation state and the sacredness of its territory. This concept of sanctity has led the world to accept that international order works best when there is respect for non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. The atrocities of the Nazi regime in World War II has challenged that Westphalian notion of the nation-state but has not resulted in an accepted form of humanitarian intervention. We are left wondering: Is humanitarian intervention (HI) a right to use force based on JWT or human rights? Walzer, in his legalist paradigm, tells us that the international community has established that the rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty is above all else. He also says that the political reality must give exceptions, one of which is humanitarian intervention. JWT recognizes that there are extreme cases where HI is needed. We leave this thought for a moment as we look at R2P.

Simon Chesterman, in his book Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law, argues that there is no ‘right’ to use humanitarian intervention in the UN Charter nor customary international law. If this is correct why and how do we use R2P or apply it in future cases, or more importantly apply it to Aleppo? He claims that humanitarian intervention has no legal basis, and yet we have many examples where interventions have taken place. In his analysis, he argues that it is dangerous to have a checklist of additional justifications to engage in humanitarian intervention. By having a list, states are more likely to engage in bad faith interventions (US Iraqi invasion 2003). How do we reconcile the notion of a world based on law if R2P is illegal? He suggests we should view an intervention based on humanitarian reasons as illegal but that the international community may well tolerate it. Let us apply this to Aleppo. If as he says R2P is illegal, but the UN has embraced it, WHY is Aleppo happening?  For me, it is political. The UN and specifically the UN Security Council is playing politics. The politics are shaped by the doctrine of R2P and the Westphalian use of JWT. R2P and JWT both agree that HI may be necessary, but there is no agreement on which one may take precedence over the other.

The JWT and R2P conundrum leaves us with what is happening in Aleppo. R2P to date has not been invoked by UN Security Council due to the veto power of Russia and China (and I am unsure if the US, Britain, and France would vote in favor due to strategic interests). The sheer amount of deaths, suffering, and destruction clearly shows HI should have occurred sooner. Why not R2P? Only the UN Security Council can answer that one. From an outsider’s perspective, it is due to political maneuvering and unlike Libya, Syria is not a major oil producer and supplier of oil to the EU like Libya is.

a picture of Syrian children
Children. Source: Giulio Bernardi, Creative Commons.

The argument gets sticky here, and some may cringe at what I am about to say. JWT for HI has been invoked – by Assad. Follow me on this. Back to Walzer, his legalist paradigm says the territory and political sovereignty is above all else with exceptions. Within that framework of exception is that the sovereign nation can ask for help with insurrection or anything that threatens to overthrow or pierce their sovereignty. By Assad ‘asking’ Russia for help, they invoked JWT. In doing this, they cut off R2P from occurring. Why? A sovereign nation (Syria) has asked for help (Russia) to defeat an insurgency. Legal and ‘just’ according to JWT. If another country (countries) declared R2P, they do not have a legal basis to intervene, especially without a UN Security Council resolution. If R2P were invoked, it would be declaring war against Syria and Russia. The moment for R2P has fallen to the wastelands of missed opportunities. Why did this happen? R2P has been used recently in Libya, and the aftermath that has ensued in Libya has made everyone pause. For this writer, Libya may have ended R2P from fully realizing its potential. However, why has it failed?

We need to look at the structure of the UN and in particular the sovereignty of the nation-state. We have established under Walzer that the territorial and political sovereignty is above all else. The UN also guarantees this under UN Charter Article 2 (7). As with Walzer the UN Article 2 (7) gives exceptions. This non-intervention can be revoked if the state fails to protect their citizens from repression and internal armed conflicts. Back to my discussion with Dr. Pace. I asked when has the UN ever kicked out a member or declared them minimally unjust? His response “never.” I checked the UN website and could not find any nation expelled or declared minimally unjust. That is where the UN, JWT, and R2P have an issue. If the sanctioning body (UN) and the body that authorizes intervention (UN Security Council) fail to call out leaders of nations who are not minimally just and are not protecting their citizens, how can human rights be upheld? In my opinion, this is the core issue. The UN and the international society have given the state more rights than the individual. R2P tried to change the sovereignty from the state to the individual but as Chesterman points out the law is not on the individual’s side when the nation-state is involved.

Where does this leave us? Is it safe to say that humanitarian intervention is in competing doctrines? Which doctrine is correct? JWT based on national territorial boundaries and political sovereignty or R2P which has no basis in law? If we listen to David Rodin (2002) in War and Self-Defense, he proposes that we should resurrect Kant’s two-tier moral strategy. First, by seeking to mitigate and moderate the evils of war. Second, create a program for achieving a just international system based on an official international rule of law. What Rodin wants is the realization of the ‘cosmopolitan view’ as he pushes for a radical reworking of JWT and international relations.

The basic lesson we should take from the present argument is that our traditional  conceptions of international law and international ethics need to be fundamentally rethought. There is a great scope for real and substantial progress to be made in this area. We need a framework of international ethics which gives greater recognition and protection to the rights of individuals as against states, which can address the problems of     civil war and internal oppression, and which is able to more effectively restrain international aggression. (Rodin 2002, 199)

Perhaps Rodin has it right. We need to listen and take a lesson from Aleppo. We do need a framework of international ethics, and we have no international body to provide it. The UN is continuing to fail us. The world is suffering. Our human history has never been strong about individual rights. We have had Kings, Queens, Arch-Dukes, Czars, Khans, and Emperors who have ruled empires. We have had conquests to rule the world with no thought of the individual. Human rights are new in the timeline. The Enlightenment ushered in a new awareness of the unalienable rights of the individual, but that has not triumphed over the rights of the state.

History is full of examples of the state trampling on human rights even after the Enlightenment. Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and many others have killed millions, and yet an individual’s right to life is second to the sovereignty of the nation.

a picture of a man in a boat on the Eufates River
2008-XIII-A Eufrates. Source: Mr. Theklan, Creative Commons.

We must face that Aleppo suffers because it is the wrong class, race, and religion of people being harmed.  A current list of emergency alerts, published by Genocide Watch, reveals there are no alerts  from a global North, or any countries part of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations; listed are Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Central African Republic, Myanmar (Rakhine and Kachin), Burundi, and Boko Haram – Borno State. We have had some regional responses to some of these areas; however, I wager that if this were happening in the global North, we would have seen intervention a long, long time ago.

What will it take to shape the future of human rights? I wager a global North event, an event that rivals that of which we do not like to compare to, I hate to say it but, on the level of the Holocaust. Why? It is because of the failure of the UN to evolve past political manipulation. The League of Nations and the subsequent United Nations was born from the horrific event of the Holocaust. For the UN to evolve once more, I fear it will take something so drastic as to shake the foundations and cause the international society to evaluate itself and what it is doing for humanity.

How can human rights best be protected in a conflict zone? By the UN enacting strong, swift, and a just response to any nation that violates and commits atrocities against humanity. The UN has to act. The UN has to become apolitical when it comes to crimes against humanity. As long as there is a failure of the state to protect the right to life, we must understand that human rights are being pushed backward and not forward. Until the UN becomes able to deal with internal politics, we will continue to have Aleppo’s in our future. So far, the nation-state’s sovereignty reigns supreme, and that does not bode well for the future of humanity.

 

Russ Hunter Expertise: Civil/Military Operations, Intelligence, WMD Operations
Russ is currently in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Otago. He holds a Master Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, a Post Grad Certificate from the University of Stirling, Scotland and is a graduate of the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy. He retired from the U.S. Army as a Sergeant Major in 2009 with over 24 years of distinguished military service in both Operations and Intelligence. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Richmond. The titles of Russ’ past lectures have been Drone Strikes: A Case for a Moral Response, Evolution of Unmanned Air Systems (Drones in the Sky), and Counterterrorism/Antiterrorism Strategy. He co-taught a Drone law course for law, paralegal and Masters students. Russ has multiple awards and citations both professional and academic.

Works Cited:

Chesterman, S. 2001. Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law. New York: Oxford University Press.

Genocide Watch. 2016. http://www.genocidewatch.com/countries-at-risk

Rodin, D. 2002. War and Self-Defense. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walzer, M. 1977. Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.

NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Regime Change to the Hermit Kingdom North Korea: A Recap

Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song.
Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song. Photo by Marlee Townsend.

Jung Gwang Il sits in front of a room of twenty people with his translator and colleague, Henry Song. He begins to tell his tale, beginning with his birth in China.

Persecuted for their beliefs in China, Jung’s family fled to North Korea in the 1960’s when he was only seven years old. As an adult, Jung was in the North Korean military for ten years, and then found work with a trade company. The 1990s, when Jung was working as a businessman, was a particularly hard time for North Koreans. Following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, the country experienced four years of famine and despair. Jung recalls seeing “twenty fresh bodies killed by starvation every day,” during this period, known by North Koreans as the Arduous March. Seeking extra revenue in such a difficult time, many traders looked for money in any avenue they could find. These business wanderings ultimately lead to Jung’s arrest and imprisonment, as unapproved foreign dealings were taboo. In 1999, Jung was reported by a colleague for meeting with South Korean businessmen and was subsequently arrested for suspected espionage.

Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jung, following his arrest, underwent a ten-month period of water, electric, and pigeon torture. He went from 170 pounds to 80 pounds during these months and was unable to walk without clutching a wall. After ten months of enduring constant torture, Jung finally falsely confessed to espionage simply so that the torture would stop. He was then sent to an infamous prison camp known as No. 15, or Yodok concentration camp. Jung says that there were around seven-hundred other political prisoners, some imprisoned for offenses as contacting Christianity or criticizing the regime. He recalled one inmate whose offense was accidentally ripping a newspaper with Kim Jong-Il’s face on it—which was reported by his wife to the authorities.

Life at the camps were not very different than the initial months of torture, according to Jung. Inmates were forced to work sixteen hour days with only one daily meal of 600 grams of ground corn (equivalent to around 2.5 cups). This small portion of food was only awarded if an inmate finished their work quota; many did not, and consequently died of starvation. Jung believes he buried as many as three hundred prisoners himself during his three years at Yodok. This comes with a heavy emotional toll— every time Jung speaks of the horrors at Yodok, he says he can never sleep the following night because of the nightmares.

Poster for "Yoduk Story," a musical about North Korean human rights abuses by futureatlas.com
Poster for “Yoduk Story,” a musical about North Korean human rights abuses. Source: futureatlas.com, Creative Commons.

On April 12, 2003, Jung was released. Although he only spent three years in the camp (a relatively light sentence in American prison) Jung says it was “hell on Earth that felt like an eternity.” Twelve days after his release, Jung fled to a series of countries. After swimming to China through the Tumen River, Jung traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and finally settled in South Korea. It was in South Korea that Jung realized he could never forget the faces of the inmates in Yodok, and vowed to become an activist in their names. He wrote a comprehensive list of everyone and everything he could remember, which was later used as evidence in United Nations resolutions against North Korean human rights violations. His activism did not stop there; he wanted to deliver news and information to the North Koreans to inspire social change and revolt. To achieve this, Jung formed a non-governmental organization entitled No Chain, inspired by the idea of breaking the chain that binds the North Korean people. No Chain specializes in sending information-packed CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and micro SD cards to the North Koreans via drones. Predominantly using micro SDs, they are disguised with brand-new packaging but are filled with movies, documentaries, South Korean dramas, k-pop, and other forms of media. No Chain initially used a human network, but now uses drones after Kim Jung-Un ordered guards to shoot civilians crossing the river on sight in 2014. North Korea is trying to cover up their efforts by labeling Jung as a “terrorist” and “human scum,” claiming he uses his helicopter drones to destroy statues of present and past leaders.

statue of kim il sung
Statue of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Source: Stephan, Creative Commons.

Today, the goals of No Chain are to gain help in their efforts to disseminate information to the North Korean people. Jung and Song have been traveling to universities and festivals across the world to share Jung’s story along with No Chain’s platform. Jung urges students to send in personal video messages and any other media they possibly can to send to North Korean youth. In regards to the real threat of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jung advises “not to fear,” because information dissemination is what the regime is most afraid of. If their mission is successful, Jung hopes the North Koreans will be able to wake up and subdue the dictatorial regime and end the nuclear threat. Jung ends the speech with a rallying cry: “UAB, help us!”

To get in contact with No Chain, you can follow their Facebook page or contact their director, Henry Song, at (202) 341-6767 or henry@nknochain.org.

The Death Penalty: Violation of the Right to Life

picture of death penalty protest
Source: Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life as recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The denial of the right to life, through the practice of capital punishment, is internationally condemned with nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide banning the death penalty in law or in practice. The United States is a notable outlier as the only member of the G8, one of three members of the G20, and the only Western country to still practice capital punishment. This is deeply problematic for several reasons: the practice does not deter or reduce crime, disproportionately targets poor and disabled minorities, and results in the sentencing of innocent people approximately 4.1% of the time.

The local rate of death penalty cases is alarming. According to Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project, 16 counties of the total 3,142 in the nation were listed as outliers, including Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama. The study states that Jefferson County “sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.” As one of thirty-one states to still have the death penalty, Alabama is the only one that allows sentencing to capital punishment with a non-unanimous vote. Additionally, Alabama is the only state allowing judges to override a jury’s conclusion to recommend life without parole. Kent Faulk reports defendants in all five Jefferson County death penalty cases are black, received non-unanimous verdicts—two of which were overturned by a judge, and one third of the defendants had “intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.”

No Justice without Life
Source: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Creative Commons.

Racial discrimination is a continuing problem in America’s criminal justice system, and results in the state-sponsored deaths of minorities. Recent studies have found that courts are more likely to sentence a defendant to death if they murder a white person over any other race. A study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of obtaining the death sentence increased by nearly four times if the victim was white. In Louisiana, the odds of being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim is 97% higher than for the murder of a black victim. Additionally, a Connecticut study found that minorities who kill whites are given the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. Some of this discrimination may be a consequence of the racial empathy gap—the finding that people automatically assume that African-Americans feel less pain than whites.

Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to Alabama’s death row, recently found innocent, and freed from after nearly thirty years. Hinton, released in 2015, gave his testimony of deep racial injustice of Alabama’s criminal justice system: “[The lieutenant] said, ‘I don’t care whether you did it or you don’t… but you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why? … You got a white man. They say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely. All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.’” When new evidence found Hinton innocent, he was released without any compensation, assistance program, or even a bus ticket. This, perhaps, is a more egregious wrong than the decades-long imprisonment itself. Exonerated prisoners find themselves in a changed world with no shelter, no job, and often no family. Former prisoners require mental, physical, and emotional help to successfully adjust to the world outside prison, but never receive it. In a country that declares itself to be a global leader of human rights, violations like these are unacceptable.

a picture of sad jailed prisoners
Jailed prisoners. Source: Ancho, Creative Commons.

American values list freedom, individualism, and equality– yet we simultaneously deny the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security of person to hundreds of criminal defendants per year. International human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) remain unsigned by the United States, despite claims of upholding and honoring them. The US is the only member state of the United Nations other than Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC, and one of only seven who have not ratified CEDAW. So far, only eighteen US states and the District of Colombia have abolished the death penalty; that number can only increase with action and engagement by citizens. Amnesty International states, “The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”

This week, the Alabama House of Representative will vote on a bill to prohibit judicial override of jury recommendations against the death sentence. This power of judicial override, prohibited in all capital murder cases except in Alabama, has occurred 112 times– 101 of which gave a death sentence. If you feel strongly about this bill, contact your representatives using this link.

 

Additional Resources:

Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy and Equal Justice Initiative

Michelle Alexander

Ava DuVernay

Angela Davis

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Southern Poverty Law Center

The Controversy of Healthcare Rights

a picture of a sign that reads A Women's Place is in the Resistance
Women’s March. Source: Alan Sandercock, Creative Commons.

The promotion and focus on public health is in some sense evolutionary. As our world continues to globalize, a byproduct is the development and discovery of new technology and information that aid in the improvement of a nation’s health care system. Public health development relies on the accessibility of an efficient and feasible health care system that provides a range from prevention services, like vaccinations and screenings, and treatment services. Therefore, a lack of access to healthcare services and facilities could result in increased illness, disability, and death. Many people do not have access to reliable healthcare, for a variety of reasons, including poverty and high cost of insurance, raising the question of whether or not healthcare can remain simply public health concern, or if it is both a public health and human rights issue. The answer ultimately depends upon the implementation and exercise of a nation’s law.

The international community, through various declarations, recognizes the right to healthcare as a fundamental and universal right for every human being. Article 25 of the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right to medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, and old age.” The social, cultural, and economic rights enshrined in the 1952 UDHR coalesced into legally binding responsibilities with the adoption of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966. Article 12 of the ICESCR directly addresses health care stating, “the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The full realization of this right shall include: The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases; and the creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.”  Both of documents thoroughly defend our rights to healthcare. In this blog, I will argue that all individuals have a right to healthcare without discrimination based on desired services.

According to the UDHR and ICESCR, every individual has a right to health care. Unfortunately, the access to healthcare, for women, is often discriminatory and limited. Males and females are biologically different and require dissimilar healthcare services, particularly different preventative screenings and reproductive health necessities, throughout different stages of life. That being said, one statement that really caught my eye during 2017’s presidency election is the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood (PP) is a non-government organization that provides crucial reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young individuals globally. 2.5 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood, and an estimated one in five women in the U.S. has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life. Annually, this organization provides 270,000 Pap tests, more than 360,000 breast exams, more than 4.2 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, and lastly provides educational programs to 1.5 million young adults annually. Consequently, the reason why PP gets funded by the government is because PP provides free services such as pap tests, breast cancer screenings without any co-pay, thus the government is basically reimbursing the organization. From a public health perspective, PP is essential in maintaining and promoting population health due to preventative screening measures, controlling sexually transmitted infections (STI), and educating the community on positive and healthy behavior change.

a pic of a sticker that reads I Stand With Planned Parenthood
I Stand With Planned Parenthood. Source: Women’s News, Creative Commons.

The most controversial service offered by PP is pregnancy contraceptives and abortions. Overall, 80% of PP patients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancy, yet only 3% of PP healthcare services are abortion services. Abortions are controversial, yet regardless of what your personal views on abortion, PP helps millions of people and the general public stay healthy. In fact, in 2015 PP detected breast cancer in 71, 717 women and treated 171, 882 for STI’s, and without these prevention services, rates of cancer, and the spread of STI’s will increase.

Given that women make up more than half of the US population, is it truly just of the government to defund Planned Parenthood just because it provides abortions? The answer is technically no. The laws governing Medicaid prevent states from excluding certain providers solely because of other medical services they provide, like abortions. Specifically, the Freedom of Choice Act which states it is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman. The act also prohibits the interference of “discriminate against the exercise of the rights set forth in paragraph (1) in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information.” Defunding Planned Parenthood because the organization provide abortion services is technically illegal and defies the act. Another document that supports women rights to family planning health care services in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). According to Article 12 in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, State Parties will ensure women have equal access to health care services, including those related to family planning. In modern times, family planning includes services such as contraceptives like birth control and abortions, and according to CEDAW, access to these services are women rights.

As of right now, there is no alternative health care system or health care facilities in place to provide care for people covered by Planned Parenthood. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if Planned Parenthood were to be defunded, there would be increased direct spending for Medicaid by $20 million in 2016, by $130 million in 2017, and by $650 million over the 2016-2025 period. Also, as little as 5% or as much as 25% of the projected 2.5 million patients aided by Planned Parenthood would face reduced access to care. Ultimately, the Constitution of the United States establishes the government’s responsibility to promote general welfare. The potential lack of access to health care due to defunding Planned Parenthood means a failure to provide basic human rights for women, but also a failure to promote general welfare.

Americans need a health care system that works for all patients and providers. This is a turning point for the women in our nation. Many women are worried we are going back in time. The Women’s March on Washington showed the passion, respect, and trust American women have for their rights, their need for government support, and the gravity of the issue around the world. The Women’s March started in Washington, but inspired women all over the world to march for women rights in their own country, and demand their governments recognize women rights are human rights. Just like the thousands of men and women who marched in Washington and all over the world, don’t forget that the US government works for the people, and we need to start learning how to engage in our democracy to ensure our voices our heard. The Unites States of America is the only developed country who doesn’t offer health care to all citizens, and it is time for a change.

The Claims of Our Common Cause

a portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671911/.

Today is the last day of Black History Month… and what a month it has been. This blog is a nod to Frederick Douglass, who received a mention during a meeting earlier this month.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1848, ten years after his escape to freedom, he penned a letter to his white owner, Thomas Auld, who historians believe to be his father, regarding the reality that the determination to run away arose in him at six years old. In the letter, he vividly describes the moment in which he “attempted to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?”

“… I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slave. The whole mystery was solved at one… From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend on me, or mine to depend upon yours… In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living…”

Historian Eric Foner writes that although Douglass was a slave, Lucretia Auld–wife of Thomas–taught him to read and write until he forbade her, in accordance with Maryland law at the time. Douglass secretly continued his education with the help of some white children. In the South, the peculiar institution of slavery received elaborate justification from Christians willing to employ and misrepresent the scriptures in order to continue the dehumanizing treatment of African and American blacks, created by God, under the guise of inferiority and barbarianism. De Bow’s Review, published in 1850, states “…a very large part in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as out guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them and have held and used them from childhood. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testament speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it… It cannot, then, be wrong.”

Wolfgang Mieder points out that when his education was taken from him as a child, Douglass “very consciously chose” to study and memorize material that would become useful as an adult. As a statesman, his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of the scriptures became a method of rebuke, persuasion, and a declaration of reversal of fortune. For Douglass, the biblical references provided an added authority and wisdom as morality and religion were one in the same. Mieder summarizes Douglass’ speeches and writings as an identifiable narrative, fought against slavery and injustice through the raising of a powerful voice that argued for the “strength of morality, equality, and democracy.”

Frederick Douglass observed a disconnection between the words of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the treatment of blacks as a byproduct of slavery. He believed that from a political and personal standpoint, under natural law, every person possesses the same rights as another, and owed the honoring of those rights by another under God. Nicholas Buccola concludes that Douglass’ personal experience as a slave in the South then a free man in the North, shaped his worldview and belief that the promise of liberty has to belong to all or it belongs to none. He states that individualism negates the feeling of and the need for empathy, making it difficult to persuade another about the plight of someone who is not and never considered a neighbor. In other words, the sense of brotherhood is made obsolete because of individualism.

According to Leslie Friedman Goldsmith, Douglass “put his hopes in the press and pulpit for the moral education of America” while believing social reform would take place in politics as those in government became more concerned with the establishment of justice and the advancement of common good, rather than “the greedy quest for the material fruits of public office.” Douglass’ advocacy, as a member of a minority group, grew from a place of mutual understanding that the lack of moral responsibility finds correction in the adaption of moral obligation. Therefore, he focused on the role of the individual as a perpetuator of injustice or protector of human rights. By appealing to the empathic core—the soul–of an individual, Douglass hoped for a synergistic catalyst towards the eradication of slavery, and the humanization of blacks, whether free of enslaved, in America. As a result, under President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude of the 13th amendment brought about a possible future for blacks in America.

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott,
Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641714/

Civil equality was a fundamental platform for Frederick Douglass as he championed for the women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and the right to vote. Despite the victories of 1863, the true freedom of blacks remained his primary mission. Douglass demanded the extinction of racial prejudice and the false belief that the African lineage of black Americans disqualified them from the same rights as white Americans. Daniel Kilbride states that Douglass’ stance on Africa during his lifetime is similar to Countee Cullen’s questioning poem, Heritage during the Harlem Renaissance. He concludes that Frederick Douglass “treasured the values and institutions of the USA and insisted that the free enjoyment of them was a birthright of Americans of African descent.” It is imperative to understand that Douglass did not deny his ancestry; he accepted the discourse as irrelevant given the fact he was born in America.

During the late 1840s, the women’s movement was on the rise due to persistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, among others. When Stanton formulated and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Frederick Douglass was on the platform as a main speaker. More specifically, he was the only male and person of color in support of women rights to equality, including the right to vote. Douglass summarized the convention in an 1848 North Star editorial article: “Many who have at least made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. While it is impossible for us to go into this subject… Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex’”. Benjamin Quarles narrates the delicate interplay of Douglass’ personal friendship and political partnership with the women’s movement. Quarles notes the Reconstruction Era as the turning point in Douglass’ partnership with the women’s movement, as the question of what group deserved the right to vote first: blacks or women. “To women the vote is desirable; to the black, it is vital”, he pronounced. For Douglass, blacks as a people before women as a gender. He lamented in 1883, “for no where, outside of the United states, is a man denied civil rights on account of his color.” The recognition of blacks though the casting of votes was an “urgent necessity” post-Emancipation Proclamation.

Relevance for 2017

Frederick Douglass died in1895, yet his life, words, and legacy are still relevant for today. Earlier this month, Donald Trump mentioned Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Interestingly enough: if Douglass were alive, the recognition could come in both positive and negative forms as he questioned and challenged slavery, prison reform, women’s rights, and all lives matter. The employment of the Scriptures as a justification for the present value and identity crisis taking place in America, given the values forfeiture of liberty and justice for all, in exchange for individualism, isolation, and rhetoric would undergird his critique.

First, human trafficking, in the form of sex and labor, is a new form of an old method. Kevin Bales suggests slavery failed to disappear in the 1860s because trade of people, through means of exploitation, has increased with modernization and globalization. He elucidates the subject of disposable people by informing that human trafficking is not a long-term cost investment due to high supply and high demands. The benefits of “ownership” have waned while the profits from slave trade dramatically increases because whether it is sex in Thailand or Brazil, tomatoes in Florida or chocolate from Ivory Coast, or the FIFA World Cup stadium in Qatar, slave laborers will be exploited in order to ensure the needs of consumer are met. Second, America has the highest incarceration population in the world. According to Bryan Stevenson, there is something missing from the judicial system, specifically in our treatment of the condemned, incarcerated, and those judged unfairly. The American prison system, as means to dehumanize human beings, particularly black Americans in 13th by Ava DuVernay and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, systemically removes human rights and destroys families. Former President Barack Obama implemented some justice reform, resulting in the commutation of thousands of non-violent offenders. Third, Frederick Douglass would be an advocate for HeForShe. As a feminist, Douglass would question why men have consumed the decision making power about women, from pay to maternity leave and healthcare rights, without consulting them, or at the very least, having them present when signing laws about their personhood. Finally, America’s treatment of her citizens—the marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and ability—the blatant denial of human rights while championing all lives matter and pro-life. The plight of marginalized Americans remains trapped under the thumb of the majority, whereas the words of Douglass’ The Claims of Our Common Cause apply:

“…A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white country-men do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. It will not be surprising that we are so misunderstood and misused when the motives for misrepresenting us and for degrading us are duly considered.”

In 1853, our common cause stood as a pronouncement, emphasizing the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the marginalized, specifically blacks. Today, our common cause stands as a banner to those in power and opposed to change because of prejudice. The banner signifies the past while embracing the fullness offered in those presently dismissed–doctors, farmers, merchants, teachers, ministers, lawyers, editors, etc.–American citizens who, through unity and belief in the foundational values of this country, fought and fight against every perpetuation of injustice “with pride and hope”.

 

 

Additional resources:

Louise Shelly

Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter

Rhonda Callaway & Julie Harrleson-Stephens

Bryan Stevenson

Jeff Guo

The Right to Food: A Government Responsibility

a picture of a fresh fruit stand
Fruit. Source: Glenn Dettwiler, Creative Commons.

Good nutrition plays a vital role in a person’s health, ranging from growth and development to mental health. The consumption of healthier foods significantly reduces the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, the immune system improves and delays the aging process. In the United States, good nutrition is expensive nutrition; a luxury many low-income families abandon. Essential expenses– rent, utilities, clothing, and health are priority for many families with limited disposable, therefore, forgoing the nutritious food option.

Income disparities contribute to poor nutrition. Higher income families can select healthier foods because their higher income provides access to places that provide healthy options, whereas, lower income families due to city planning and a lack of urban development, receive pre-packaged, canned, and fast food. Healthy foods can be pricey and the additional sales tax is regressive towards lower income families. The local and state government has a duty to their inhabitants to provide access to nutritious food and proper education regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle while economically conscious about the impacts of high sales tax on foods.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) describes the right to an adequate standard of living. A key tenet, accounted for, is the right to food. This is accomplished when every person “has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement” according to the Icelandic Human Rights Center. The right to food is an essential birthright; a denial means a violation of other rights.

Dr. Mariana Chilton and Dr. Donald Rose assert the right to food–adequate, nutritional food–adheres to three intrinsic policies: the need to respect, protect, and the fulfillment of human rights. To respect human rights, food must be accessible. In some regions in the United States for example, nutritional food is out of reach yet available are fast food restaurants providing cheap, less sustainable food. The protection human rights means others cannot impede the accessibility of food. According to the UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, there is enough food produced in the world to feed its entire population. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the access to food, whether it be poverty or famine, discrimination, or lack of transportation. In order to ensure human rights as related to adequate standard of living, the creation of an enabling environment that provides for and allows for the procurement adequate food becomes the mandate of government officials.

a map of Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation
Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation

Adequate food refers to healthy, nutritious food that our body needs to survive. Consuming nutritious food leads to numerous health benefits including, but not limited to, maintaining a healthy weight, allowing organ systems to function optimally, and promoting sleep. For the most part, the good quality foods are on the high-priced side, which leads people to avoid it. A documentary, Food, Inc., highlights the America’s corporate controlled food industry. A segment in the documentary shows a family of four, low-income, and their struggle in deciding between a burger from a fast food restaurant or broccoli from the supermarket. “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, ‘okay, we can get two hamburgers over here for the same amount of price’”. This ultimatum is difficult for families. They do not have a substantial amount of money to spend; however, the purchase the unhealthy foods means the purchase unsaturated fats and cholesterol that can increase the risk of diseases. The growing children are not receiving proper nourishment needed to supply their brain and body with energy or their bones with calcium, which is violation of a basic human right. The United States government can help low-income families receive nutritious food by adjusting the tax policies. Some states, Pennsylvania for example, have high sales tax of 6% and it caps the localities ability to impose local sales tax up to 2%. This, however, offsets the high sales tax by exempting uncooked nutritious groceries, clothes, and prescription drugs. A state like Alabama is at the opposite end as it has a low sales tax of 4% and allows localities to tax up to 7% more thus driving up to sales tax to one of the highest in the United States. In addition, Alabama does not exempt clothes, groceries, and prescription which leads the lower income family to spend a majority of their income of purchasing food.

The United States, internationally, opposed the notion of food as a human right. In 1996, the World Food Summit, sponsored by the United Nations, affirmed the “right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food.” While other sovereign nations signed agreeing with that statement, the United States refused to, insisting that hunger could lead to “international obligation or domestic legal entitlement”. In 2002, during another World Food Summit, the United States, again, opposed that food is a human right. According to Pol and Schuftan, the United States understands the right to access to food to connote the prospect to secure food, not a “guaranteed entitlement” and the “adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively”. Furthermore, the United States, Canada, and other European countries “have consistently and openly not been sympathetic” to the right to food as a provision of the state.

a picture entitled The Colour before the storm... Nyhavn, copenhagen
The Colour before the storm… Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Source: Joe Hunt, Creative Commons.

In contrast, Denmark agreed that there is a right to food. The Danish government recognized that if an individual or a community had deficient access to nutritious food and health that they are “kept in poverty and exclusion”. The country also understands that the usage of technology and scientific knowledge can increase the knowledge of nutrition and how it can benefit it citizens. Meik Wiking reports that although Denmark taxes heavily, almost 45% of the average citizen’s income, citizens believe there is an overall investment in their quality of life. The taxes collected from Danes provide several welfare programs. For example, student’s tuition and health care are free, a reduction of stress of lower income families in Denmark significantly. In the United States, a low-income family fret over school, health care, and housing so much so that they neglect to take care of the nutritional food aspect. Not surprising in some states in America, food is not tax exempt. Denmark’s citizens contentedly pay for taxes because they are safe financially.

Overall, lower income families often struggle because of limited financial means. With the added burden of the sales tax on groceries, eating right becomes difficult. The lack of nutrition leads to poorer performance in daily activities which puts a hindrance on growth and development. States like Alabama and Mississippi have allowed for higher income families to be comfortable regarding property taxes but allowed for the lower income families to be susceptible to paying more for nutritional food than they can afford. The state has a duty to their people, all people, for a sustainable, healthy, living standard.

 

 

 

 

A Tie that Binds and Shapes Us

a picture of 16th Street Baptist Church from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The 16th Street Baptist Church across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Source: Beth Bryan, Creative Commons.

Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement.  We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant.  The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.

The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress

What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to  define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally.  As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.

This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture

There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.

The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community

The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”

A Right to Fair and Objective Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Peace as a Human Right in Somalia

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

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

Historical Background

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

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

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

UN Intervention

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

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

Movement towards Peace

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

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