UAB is home to many firsts. From the first women ever to receive a biochemistry degree from a university to the graduation of the first female African American nurse ever in the nation, UAB has been a symbol of strength, empowerment and confidence to me. As a proud Muslim American woman from the south, I strive to embody all three qualities. I have found that wearing my hijab is the best method for outwardly expressing these qualities. I believe that in order to exemplify strength, empowerment, and confidence consistently, I must possess and fundamentally adapt an understanding the integrity of human rights. The subject of human rights is often one that leads to various arguments. Yet for me, human rights have always been simple because by definition, they should be guaranteed rights to and for every human being. They are a birthright.
Last year our nation faced an intensely controversial time during the presidential campaign season. Senator Hillary Clinton and then candidate Donald Trump seemed to represent polar opposites. Supporting one candidate meant being passionately against the other. It’s difficult to identity a time in which our country has appeared more divided in partisanship. Rather than addressing important human rights topics like poverty and racial injustice, the value and right of refugees, climate change, and disability rights as human rights issues, candidates used them as talking points for soundbytes and the presentation of the best supporter garnering appeal. I personally struggled to find balance; so did the country.
“Our hopes for a more just, safe, and peaceful world can only be achieved when there is universal respect for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family.” – UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
I believe that we can all agree, regardless of political stance, on the fact that any form of injustice–whether be it racism, bigotry or intolerance–is unacceptable. I see as the responsibility of every capable human being to participate in the fight for the inalienable and indivisible rights of humanity. Therefore, we have this opportunity to join one another, irrespective of individual differences including political and religious affiliations, and work together to right injustice beginning here in Birmingham and bring awareness to atrocities around the world. This is our time to make the local, global and the global, local.
This belief is what inspired me to start UAB’s first student organization directly dealing with human rights. Students for Human Rights is a student-led, student run campus organization that, as the student outreach arm of the UAB Institute for Human Rights, will afford students a platform and opportunity to express themselves as a voice for the voiceless by creating a community of inclusive dialogue, where partnership is paramount as we stand against bigotry, racism, or every form of injustice. This is an incredible time to be a part of UAB. Given that we live in the city that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I see Students for Human Rights as an additional avenue for many as they recognize their role in changing the world.
Responses to the shocking election have been varied. The backlash has been deeply emotional and carried out in both online and public arenas. All over the country and world, people have responded to the results of the election with intense fear and shock. Some, of course, were elated by their own party’s win, but most have some concerns about the controversial figure’s rise to power. As the first President-Elect with no military or political experience, the world has hung in suspense to see if his actions will change due to his new position. The post-election period has been filled with stress and grief; those who found online activism to be no longer useful, have taken to public outlets: protests, works of art, and wearing certain items in public to send a message.
The safety pin trend is one of the most widespread and also widely criticized. In case you’ve seen people wearing safety pins on their lapels and not understood, here’s the premise: You attached a safety pin to your shirt to show that you are a “safe” person to talk to; you are an ally to marginalized peoples and are showing your support of their rights in the wake of the present uncertainty. However well-intentioned this may be, these same marginalized populations that this movement was intended to support are critical of it. Critics of the safety pin movement say that showing allyship should not be limited to safety pins. Valeriya Safronovaofthe New York Times says, “Some Twitter users voiced criticisms of the safety-pin trend, calling it “slacktivism,” a word that blends “slacker” and “activism.” They expressed concern that wearing something doesn’t equate to action.” It still is a valid effort and perhaps gives hope that there are still people who are passionately pro-human rights when the country seems to have voted in opposition of those values.
Matthew Chavez’s art installation in New York City subway tunnels has been well-received. Chavez started writing Post-It notes with reactions to the election, and was soon joined by thousands of others. The notes range from angry to hopeful, but all give some sense of relief to those who feel too overwhelmed to engage in other forms of political conversation. The project is called “Subway Installation” and is mindful of the station’s workers, removing all notes from the walls before the day is over. Such a visible reminder of emotional sentiment gives some relief to those who felt disregarded by the election’s results.
Protests have been the most controversial of these outlets. According to Washington Post, more than 225 people have been arrested nationally during these protests, most of which have taken place on college campuses. Riot gear and tactics have been deployed nationwide, including tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. Conservatives have criticized these riots ceaselessly and call for their end. The nation will likely experience various forms of protests over the next four years, as this election was a particularly nasty and hard-hitting one. Unlike most elections in our nation’s history, the divide on the issues is so that many minorities believe their rights, liberties, and wellbeing is at stake. As the President-Elect has continually dialed back on his previously controversial opinions (such as his declaration to jail Hillary Clinton), the nation may find more relief than expected.
The discussion of establishing an international criminal court was not on the agenda of the international community for many years. It finally resurfaced in 1989 Trinidad and Tobago were battling massive drug trafficking. The UN GA once again called upon the International Law Commission to continue the drafting efforts that were abandoned in the early 1950s. The 1990s brought horrendous genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes from all over the world- particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda. Due to the international climate at the time, the United Nations decided that it could not wait for an international criminal court to develop fully in order to take control of these crimes. Instead, the UN Security Council put in two ad hoc courts in order for individuals to be held accountable for these crimes – the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
The quest for a permanent international criminal court continued when representatives met in Rome, Italy, from June 15th to July 17th of 1998. A total of 160 countries participated in this conference with the goal of negotiating an international treaty that would serve as the basis for an international criminal court. With 120 votes in favor of such a court, the Rome Statute was adopted, officially creating what we know as the International Criminal Court. The ICC was established in The Hague in the Netherlands, on July 1, 2002 when the Rome Statute entered into force. However, the reach of the court was diminished by the fact that the following countries either did not sign or did not ratify the statute: Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, the United States, and Yemen. The absence of three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the U.S., China, and Russia – has been a particular challenge for the new court.
How does the International Criminal Court function?
There are four components that make up the ICC: The presidency, Office of the Prosecutor, chambers, and registry.
The presidency is the head of the court that consists of three judges who are elected by an absolute majority by the 18 judges that makeup the Court. One judge is the president and the other two are vice presidents who all serve two three-year terms. The presidency takes on a significant administrative role by representing the Court as a whole to the world and safeguarding the enforcement of sentences levied by the Court itself. It also helps organize the work of the judges.
The chambers’ responsibility is to guarantee and carry-out a fair trial. Similar to the office of the prosecutor, there are three divisions within the chambers: the pre-trial chambers, trial chambers, and appeals chambers. The eighteen judges plus the three judges in the presidency (for a total of 21 judges) are assigned to one of these three chambers. The pre-trial chamber is composed of seven judges with one to three judges presiding over each sub-chamber. Their job is to make sure that the investigation and prosecutorial proceedings are fair in order to protect the rights of suspects, witnesses, and victims. After these proceedings are completed, the pre-trial chambers decide whether or not warrants of arrest should be issued, as well as summons to the office of the prosecutor at their request. They also are responsible for confirming or not confirming the charges the suspect has been given. Current cases in the pre-trial stage are the Barasa case of Kenya, the Hussein case of Darfur, Sudan, the Al-Bashir case of Darfur, Sudan, and the Harun and Kushayb case of Darfur, Sudan.
The appeals chamber steps in if the guilty plaintiff would like to appeal his or her trial or proceedings that the pre-trials chambers or trials chamber conducted. This chamber is made up of the President of the Court along with four other judges. Just like the appellate courts we have here in the states, the appeals chamber can amend, reverse, or uphold the prior chambers’ decision. In some cases, they may order a new trial with a different trials chamber. Currently, there is one appeals case- the Bemba case of the Central African Republic.
In summary, the ICC is much more complex than one might think, and rightfully so. This Court gets the worst of the worst cases in terms of cruelty. They try individuals who have been accused of participating in genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc. In order to maintain a fair and impartial trial, there are many administrative roles within each division and chamber that work to achieve the goal of accountability. The ICC was a concept that had been thought of long before it was actually established and it is the only permanent international criminal court that tries individual perpetrators. Some may think that the ICC doesn’t really matter or holds no significant importance when it comes to trying and punishing individuals, but actually, the ICC has a very compelling role in such matters.
Leymah Gbowee is one of my human rights heroines. I first heard of her work in my peace studies class. We watched the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, whichchronicles the cessation of the second Liberian Civil War and the power of nonviolent protests in pursuit of peace. Gbowee and the women of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace organized peace talks between African leaders and rebel warlords in order to see peace come to a nation upended by more than 14 years of violent war. After hearing her speak on campus a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to educate myself on how Liberia has decidedly made steps towards the creation and maintenance of peace—how the citizens and the government acknowledge and confront a destructive history while establishing a constructive present, building for an improved future.
When thinking of peace, one may think of marijuana smoking hippies and flower children in the middle of a New York field, or a society without war. The latter is a fair but incomplete description of peace. Anthropologist Margaret Mead concluded that “warfare is just an invention…The ordeal [warfare] did not just go out because people thought it unjust or wrong; it went out because a method more congruent with the institutions and feelings of the period was invented… We can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention” (Barash 23). Peace is the better invention.
Peace is an alternative to war but it is complex.
There are factors that have to be considered in addition to the curbing of physical violence. Dr. Douglas Fry asserts that although violence makes headlines, it is actually a minute part of social life. It is the focus on aggression which allows it to become the central narrative. “Human potential for peace is underappreciated, whereas violence and warfare are emphasized, and thus naturalized. Naturalizing war and violence can help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if war is seen as natural, then there is little point in trying to prevent, reduce, or abolish it. Consequently, the acceptance of war as a social institution facilitates its continuance.” He proposes that there is a potential for human beings—and as a direct result, societies–to live at peace and in peace.
What does war and peace have to do with the current state of Liberia? Everything. From 1989-2003, the country had been overrun by warlords, child soldiers, and internally displaced people (IDP). War and civil unrest had leveled communities built upon “togetherness and sharing”. Yet, this nation, located on the southwestern coast of Africa, that is home to 4.5 million people has been in a state of peace for the past 13 years. The government of Liberia is underwriting a Liberian rebirth under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The historic 2005 election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was the first of its kind on the continent of Africa. Gwendolyn Mikell writes that from a Liberian perspective, the vote in favor of Johnson Sirleaf was rooted in the fact that she was not a man. “Societies have needed women to help transition them from socialism to democracy or from conflict to peace. African publics claim that women are more responsive to people’s needs, and that women make better politicians.” Liberians believed that male presidents brought war and violence; therefore, a woman would be needed to make things right. In and out of politics for more than 30 years, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was imprisoned for criticizing President Samuel Doe’s administration, found political asylum in the US during the years of the Liberian civil war, and worked as director of the Africa Bureau of the UN Development Program.
What has a Liberian renaissance looked like over the past 13 years? It has been a slow process of reconciling two Liberias, according to Ruthie Ackerman. “The answer may lie in demonstrating that the government’s top priorities are justice and accountability.” The lifestyle of a life without war provides a peace that is not fully resolved, a term called ‘negative peace’, because the roots of the issues causing the conflict have not been addressed. The antithesis of negative peace is positive peace. In pursuing positive peace, the desire for a lack of violence is the starting point. Positive peace confronts the hidden symptoms of societal structural violence. Johan Galtung coined the term ‘structural violence’ as a description of violence where social institutions (church, government, employment, schools, etc) fail to meet the needs of its citizens, perpetuating social injustice based upon race, age, gender, class, nationalism, etc. David Barash states that
“when human beings suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves freely, to organize peacefully, or to participate in their own governance, a kind of violence is occurring, even if bullets or clubs are not being used. Structural violence is another way [kind] of identifying oppression, and positive peace would be a situation in which structural violence and oppression are minimized.”
In Liberia, the identification of the oppression and process of rectifying and removing it has been the foundation of Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency. She correlates the decline and abrupt end of growth of her country with decades of war, the corrupted power of a few, and a closed political system, resulting in Liberia becoming one of the poorest countries in the world. “The entire nation had been virtually deprived of basic services and infrastructure such as roads, clean water, electric power, and solid waste disposal.” Poverty, though improving, continues to plague the nation, particularly Monrovia, the capital. The Guardian reports that Monrovia is the poorest city in the world. Basic necessities like water, electricity, healthcare and transport are still not up to par. Ebola devastated the country last year, and the diamond industry remains a cause of interstate and international disparity. Despite challenges and setbacks, the efforts of the Johnson-Sirleaf government to initiate reform have been recognized globally.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that human beings have equal and inalienable rights to
Life, liberty and security of person in Article 3
A standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services in Article 25
Education… elementary education shall be compulsory in Article 26
Work with just and favorable condition and without discrimination in Article 23
In 2007, President Johnson-Sirleaf introduced three issues of policy that her government would correct: national peace and security, investment in education and healthcare, and revitalization of the economy and infrastructure by creating jobs in agriculture and trade.
The government of Liberia created a model for peace and was able to implement it.
“Our policies must respond to the deep wounds of our civil war, and enhance national governance while quickly introducing measures of structural reform and reconstruction”, said President Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006. According to the Global Peace Index, which measures the peacefulness of countries based upon 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators, Liberia ranks 72/163 countries; whereas, the United States is ranked 103/163. In fact, since 2008 (which is how far the index reviews) Liberia has been viewed as more peaceful than the US. Fry points out that societal shifts from violence to peacefulness takes years and generations, and though a society was once violent, the past does not discount their ability to become and remain peaceful in the future.
The government of Liberia is working to improve and administer healthcare for more of its citizens. Kerry A. Dolan summarizes that within the next four years, the government is working to deliver healthcare to citizens living the rural areas as they put into service community health assistants. “The CHAs will be paid $60 a month… will be supervised by nurses and physician assistants. The primary goals of the programs are to reduce maternal and child mortality and build a resilient health care system.” Additionally, the program will create thousands of jobs; tremendous progress for a country that once had 50 doctors for 4 million people. Dr. Raj Panjabi of Last Mile Health trusts that the effort will prevent local outbreaks from becoming global epidemics.
The government of Liberia is conducting a reconstruction of its educational system. In 2013, all 25,000 high school graduates failed to pass the state university entrance exam. Aagon Tingba deems that proceeding with a controversial partnership between the private sector and public education is the best option for the children of Liberia. “Critics say the government should be responsible for our own schools, but in Liberia we simply don’t have the resources to do it ourselves. That is the reality. Liberian children deserve more. Doing nothing was not an option.” The decision is needed specifically for primary school students and teachers. The Liberian government is piloting this education program that will provide training, support, accountability, and resources to a system in need of improvement. “In some [secondary] schools, children [are] being taught basic fractions by teachers who are barely literate”, says Sheldon Yett of UNICEF.
The government of Liberia is empowering women and girls by placing them in the foreground. Leymah Gbowee calls attention to the lack of expression given to the female experience, particularly as a survivor of war, in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers. She discloses that women are always in the background as though our lives are an appendix to the main narrative. “If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted as pathetic…victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and that image sells. During the war, almost no one reported the other reality of women’s lives. And how we created strength in sisterhood.” Mikell confirms that President Johnson-Sirleaf has placed female leadership over the rehabilitation of female victims and child soldiers, and the citizens have elected women to parliament and other political office.
So what does supplying healthcare and education, eradicating poverty, and giving voice to the female experience have to do with the uncovering of structural violence in order to create and maintain positive peace while living without war? Everything. Graham Kemp characterizes a peaceful society as one that has diagnosticated and cultivated ideas, mores, value systems and cultural institutions which stimulate cultural interactions and developments towards the minimization of violence and the promotion of peace. Human rights violations are symptomatic of a failed shared value system. A peaceful culture and society is not a utopian existence. It is, however, a recognition of a personal and communal decision to enhance the wellbeing of another. President Johnson Sirleaf’s belief that poverty and corruption are parasitic lead to the establishment of a transparent government. The overhaul of the educational system prepare the process of removing poverty as an obstacle in the road to achievement, making leadership and employment opportunities possible, thus eliminating a potential creation of a vacuum where violence and war might build.
On September 22, 2016 in her address to the UN General Assembly, President Johnson-Sirleaf declared that after 13 years of institution and consolidation of peacebuilding, security, and governance strategies, the Liberian government had taken full responsibility for the agency of the future advancement of the country. The hand-off took place on June 30, 2016. The Liberian Congress on September 29, 2016, with the backing of UN Women and other agencies, voted and passed the Equal Representation and Participation Act, a significant bill of inclusion. The bill is praised by government officials as “guaranteeing the participation of women and other marginalized members of the population in shaping the country’s progress.” The ‘special constituencies’–lower than originally proposed due to budget constraints–authorizes five seats for women, one seat for a youth representative, and one for a person with disabilities within the legislative body.
Liberia is an example that by openly addressing past mistakes, pinpointing and communicating a new narrative on cultural core values, the capacity for the formulation and execution of solutions that will empower the future begins to occur.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dalia Mogahed, Research Director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). She delivered a powerful speech at UAB’s Hill University Center about an issue that has plagued American society for many years, Islamophobia.
Islamophobia, as Dalia Mogahed defines it, is “anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination based on an irrational hatred and fear of Islam”. According to a new report generated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, over $200 million dollars is spent annually to perpetuate this fear, which is evidenced by the tone and volume of reporting about Muslims. Nearly 80% of the media coverage about Islam is negative portraying Muslims as more dangerous than countries armed with nuclear weapons, drug addiction, or diseases such as cancer. As Americans, it is important that we seek out facts and form our own opinions rather than bending to the bias of others. Prejudice of any kind is a problem that affects all Americans by threatening our safety and way of life.
According to an ISPU report, Islamophobia is a gateway to other types of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, human rights violations, and anti-rights legislation. For example, Mogahed mentions the recently released Community Brief “Manufacturing Bigotry”. In that study, researchers find that legislators who promote Islamophobic agendas are 80% more likely to support anti-foreign legislation, voter identification mandates, and limitations on immigration and oppose women’s rights, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage – all laws empowering groups marginalized in the political process. She points out that
“fear erodes freedom, which is the foundation of our democracy”
and makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudices.
Each of these limiting ideas makes all Americans less safe. In fact, according to a recent report generated by Freedom house, the perpetuation of Islamaphobia aids the rise of terrorist rhetoric and opens the door for extremist ideology. One example Mogahed provided is a recruitment tape released by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. In this clip, terrorists use an audio excerpt from one of presidential nominee Donald Trumps rants to push their Islamist views and label American society as racist.
What can we as Americans do about this and how can we protect our freedom and ideals? Mogahed states that we need to educate ourselves and replace our fears with facts. According to Martin Scott, author of the journal “Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan”, nearly a century ago this same scenario presented itself, but it was Catholicism that was the recipient of discrimination and prejudice perpetuated by groups like the True Americans and Ku Klux Klan.
Today, we need to understand who American Muslims are and how they help shape the diversity of our nation. American Muslims are not only Arab. In fact most are African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. According to Mogahed, Muslims are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians, and contrary to popular belief those that attend the masjid or “mosque” are the most likely to be engaged in community and civic activities, not radical Islam.
American Muslims, on the whole, retain strong simultaneous American and Muslim identities and want to work to protect the American way of life.
Therefore, it is our duty to help Muslims protect their identity by not associating every Muslim with ISIS or other radical Islamist factions. If we learn about Islam and get to know the Muslims in our community we will see that they are normal people who are more disgusted with radical Islamic ideology than anyone else because they are the group that is most affected by the actions of radical Islamist groups. I have traveled across the globe and met many Muslims along the journey. They would all agree that there is nothing worse than the killing of innocent people and any individual who condones these acts of violence does not represent normative Islam and its values. To protect our American way of life we have to move past the unfair framing of all Muslims as terrorists. Mogahed advises that we need to create strong diverse coalitions that protect human rights, and religious freedoms to build a stronger more pluralistic America. We have to challenge bigotry by calling out prejudices when we see them. At the same time, we need to not be afraid to call out anti-Muslim bias in media coverage, not shy away from having difficult conversations challenging prejudice, preach outside the choir and vote for government representatives who will uphold American values as opposed to letting fear dictate policy.
I thought long and hard about how to position the IHR not only within Birmingham and UAB, but also within the wider academic community. It seems there are three types of institutes for human rights:
the one at the law school, focusing on the law making process, adjudication, and domestic or international implementation of human rights law;
the policy-oriented institute, advocating and lobbying for human rights in government institutions; and
the interdisciplinary center that either examines specific rights (e.g., social and economic rights) or a specific areas of human rights (e.g., human trafficking, transitional justice, or women’s rights).
The first two options didn’t seem to be a good fit for UAB, which left the last option. I concluded I needed to learn more about UAB and Birmingham to make an informed decision on how to position the IHR.
Over the course of the past several months, I’ve met with close to 100 organizations and units at UAB, in the Birmingham area, and beyond that engage in human rights work. I reached out to institutions focusing on alleviating poverty, addressing women’s issues, educating on human rights or human rights related issues, dealing with victims of violence and human trafficking, and focusing on social justice issues and civil rights. It was an interesting experience that taught me a lot about the community that I’ve come to live in. I realized that by connecting with the work that’s already being done in this city and around this state, the IHR could serve as a solid link between the university and its surroundings, providing a framework for human and civil rights.
I’m a social scientist by trade – I have a joint appointment in the Department of Government and Department of Anthropology at UAB. I’ve always been interested in studying the way vulnerable or underrepresented populations – minorities, refugees, women, children, or persons with disabilities – advocate for and claim their human rights and how they deal with and monitor human rights violations in their own communities. The pattern of their struggles often remains the same – marginalization, poverty, violence, and a whole myriad of human rights violations.
The IHR will specifically focus on these struggles worldwide. It serves as a platform for interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration to study the bottom up approach to human rights and highlight the way in which marginalized and vulnerable groups assert their human rights. The focus on the social movement associated with human rights is embodied in the Institute’s icon, which represents the movement taking over the world.
The IHR’s goal is
to bring Birmingham to the world and the world to Birmingham
focusing specifically on human rights in an international perspective. It engages in three specific areas:
education, mainly focused on UAB students, but also beyond;
research, at the IHR but also in collaborating with other research institutions, government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs; and
practical action and outreach, namely engagement with the local community, practitioners, and by integrating applied approaches.
This blog is thus a crucial part of fulfilling the IHR’s mission. It will serve as a way to educate a wider audience on international human rights issues, as a forum for reflection and discussion, and as a way to promote our events. The IHR research and events team will post weekly updates.
I hope you will check back often and engage with us on the blog, social media, and in person. We can’t wait to open up a whole new world of human rights and show you how you can get involved, learn from your ideas, and collaborate and interact.
For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and stop by our office on the 5th floor of Heritage Hall (room 551, to be exact).
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.