Ambassador Ahmet Shala, former Minster of Economy and Finance in the government of Kosovo, recently visited the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights to speak with faculty and students about minority rights in the Balkan Peninsula, current economic development in Kosovo, as well as efforts to modernize the country.
The Republic of Kosovo is located in South Eastern Europe nestled among a group of nations, which were part of former Yugoslavia. In 1990, economic disparities in Yugoslavia led to increased tensions in the ethnically diverse territory. As the economy declined, Croats, Bosniaks, Slovenes, Albanians, Montenegrins and Macedonians began to promote ideas of ethnic nationalism. Croatia and Slovenia were the first to seek a split from the union, followed closely by a brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later Kosovo. This series of wars for independence spanned nearly a decade and as Human Rights Watch reports many human rights violations were committed, in addition to the ethnic cleansing of several groups, which left thousands of civilians dead.
After years of Serbian crackdowns in Kosovo, NATO intervention led to the small territory’s liberation and recognition as a United Nations protectorate from 1999-2008. Finally in 2008, Kosovo declared independence and today is recognized by 110 countries as a sovereign state. The road to independence was littered with atrocities and war crimes based on ethnicity. According to Ambassador Shala, “the different groups in Yugoslavia did not feel as if they were citizens. Slavic people are different from Albanians, which was the key feeling for minorities.” Ambassador Shala added that the resulting Yugoslav wars became “Apartheid on the heart of Europe.” From the onset of the conflict, many ethnic Albanians were fired from their jobs, not allowed to attend school or university, and thousands were either killed or imprisoned.
Although, the situation improved under the UN protectorate, according to Ambassador Shala, the UN administration was incompatible with the needs of the Kosovars. Ambassador Shala commented, “There were UN soldiers on the ground from other countries that had no idea about the needs of the people” and “there was no sustainable vision for the future and no real goals, which led to increased anxiety and frustration.”
After independence, the leaders of the Republic of Kosovo have made tremendous strides in determining the future of the country. From its inception, the idea has been that Kosovo would be a true democratic society, which embraces its multicultural identity and provides equal rights to all citizens. Today, the country seeks to create partnerships with its neighbors, fully integrate into the international community and become a member of NATO, the European Union, as well as the United Nations. The country is well on its way to succeeding at its stated goals. In 2013, the country had an estimated population of 1.86 million and according to economists as of 2015, Kosovo had a GDP (ppp) of 9140.10 billion USD. There are still some hurdles to cross, namely, not all NATO countries have recognized Kosovo as a nation; this has not stopped the ambitions of the young nation. In a recent interview with EURACTIV, the Brussels based EU policy driven news outlet, Kosovar Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj explains how important it is for Kosovo to become a member of both the EU and NATO. Hoxhaj states, “being an EU member is the best way to modernise [sic] politics, the economy and society. For us, it is a modernising [sic] agenda that will allow us to compete with others in the region and to grow.”
Ilhan Omar is a Minnesota state representative. She is the first American lawmaker of Somali descent. She is a former refugee. Omar and her family fled Somalia during the civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years before emigrating to the United States in 1995. Wearing a white hijab, Omar who is Muslim, declared in her victory speech that “this was a victory for every person that’s been told they have limits on their dreams.Our campaign has been about more than just uniting a district, more than winning back the House, more than making history. Our campaign has been about shifting narratives, restoring hope and re-establishing access in our democracy.” Her victory reminded me to ignore political and xenophobic rhetoric, and search to better understand the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in order to place them in a position of honor for what they have endured and overcome in pursuing a new life for themselves and their families.
Asylum seekers and refugees are often on the receiving end of a disqualifying international narrative, rooted in half-truths and innuendos. In her address at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Samantha Power remarked that “people do not become refugees by choice, obviously; they flee because their lives are at risk – just as we would do if we found ourselves in such a situation. And most want to go home.” The current discourse of asylum and refugee status has brought about some confusion, given the misconception that the terms are interchangeable. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” An asylum seeker or ‘prima facie’ refugee is a person who seeks safety from persecution or serious harm in another country and awaits a decision on the application for refugee status under relevant international and national instruments. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that there is a system which determines who qualifies for international protection; an interview is a key part of the process that is often negated given the swells of people crossing a border. For many who seek asylum, the first step in the process is generally a placement in detention.
Michael Welch insists that detention is the harshest act of punishment a state can inflict on people, and that seriousness increases if persons are escaping persecution rather than being held for criminal or immigration offenses. Chico Harlan reports that immigration detention is a billion-dollar industry in America. President Obama closed a detention facility in Taylor, Texas in 2008 because children were imprisoned and limited to play. Yet, in response to the “porous state of the nation’s border”, the administration implemented a tougher stance that changed the policies and empowered the Corrections Corporation of America to build the country’s largest immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas. The 2400 bed facility is home to thousands of asylum seekers as they work their way through the immigration process.
Asylum seekers are individuals or families in crisis, yet they are often treated as criminals. The women and children at the Dilley detention facility arrived at the border in search of the American value of welcoming those fleeing violence. Their hope is for hospitality and refuge; instead they describe their detention experience as worse than the abuse and violence they fled. Human rights violations and the fleeing from persecution go hand in hand as Gil Loescher explains. He writes that some find the protection they need while others find themselves victims in exile; many at the hands of the governments from whom they are longing to gain compassion.
City residents who live outside the walls of the detention center in Dilley, Texas assume that those dwelling in the center have a nice existence. However, those who have been released revealed their treatment included sleep deprivation, sleeping on cold floors, feelings of prolonged imprisonment, and not receiving an opportunity to appeal to a judge. Children should only be held in detention for up to 20 days. On average, according to the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), “asylum seekers are mandatorily detained pending a DHS [Department of Homeland Security] determination of their ‘credible fear’ of persecution upon return. This detention lasts an average of 27 days, including the time it takes to ascertain whether they have a “credible fear,” and to decide whether those found to have a credible fear should be “paroled” (released) while they pursue political asylum.” In Berks County, Pennsylvania, at least three families have been detained for nearly one year, forcing the women to initiate a hunger strike in protest for their release. Additionally, Nauru and Manus Island off the coast of Australia, asylum seekers spend an average of 450 days in detention. The detention of asylum seekers as an anti-terrorist or immigration strategy is a blatant disregard for international law. Human Rights Watch reported that on July 24, 2015, US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the Obama administration was committed to making considerable changes to the family immigration detention process.
The Australian government in late October 2016 announced new legislation banning asylum seekers–who arrived by boat since July 2013–entrance to the country, in any capacity. Government officials believe the “law change was necessary to support key government border protection policies, including temporary protection visas, regional processing and boat turnbacks.” Australia’s new policy shines light on the underworld of asylum seeking: human trafficking and smuggling. The UNHCR reports that nearly 34,000 people (or the population of Vestavia Hills, Alabama in 2014) are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. Desperate and vulnerable, those who are unable to find refuge in neighboring countries seek out other means–smuggling and trafficking—to get across borders, thus circumventing border patrols and the proper immigration process. Human trafficking and smuggling presents additional problems if a victim is caught. Loescher believes that international laws have to be adjusted, if not created, because the flows of those seeking refuge have been unprecedented. “This is not because there were no refugees; numerous acts of persecution and expulsion accompanied the rise of the modern state of Europe and elsewhere. Only in the twentieth century when refugee flows exploded and came to be regarded as a threat, were legal and institutional responses developed…” The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as
“…[a person] owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term “the country of his nationality” shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national.”
Forced migration is a political, economic, and security concern; more than that, it is a human rights issue that should be treated as a humanitarian crisis. Refugees International provides recommendations and solutions which identify needs for basic services such as food, water, and protection from harm. Presently of the 21.3 million refugees in the world, 39% are being hosted in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Turkey has received 2.5 million. As a means of housing the multitudes, many governments have set up encampment sites. Dadaab in Kenya–home to nearly 300,000–is the world’s largest refugee camp. Unfortunately, as Loescher points out, the exile violates the numerous statues in the 1951 Refugee Convention, namely freedom from movement and wage-earning employment. The limitations cripple the family from creating a dignified life in a new country. Additionally, because refugee camps are established by the government, they can be closed and destroyed like Moria in Lesbos, Greece and ‘The Jungle’, in Calais, France. Both camps have been destroyed by fire, forcing thousands of refugees to flee once again.
Refugees have no state rights. Their country rights were forfeited when they fled their home country. Fortunately, the 1951 Refugee Convention stipulates that first and foremost, a refugee should not be returned to a country where there are threats to their life or freedom. This is the principle of non-refoulement. It also states that refugees must have access to courts, employment and education, and other social and civil rights afforded to the host country’s citizens. This year, the United States has admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees and 38,901 Muslim refugees.Earlier this month, it was announced that approximately 1,200 asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island will make their home in America during 2017. Many have been vocal about the perceived threat and the uncertainty about the adaptability of these newcomers to American life. However, the two year screening and resettlement process and the success story of Ilhan Omar, Madeleine Albright, Marlene Dietrich, and Albert Einstein should prove to contradict naysayers, giving voice to the tremendous contribution asylum seekers and refugees have brought and continue to bring to the United States when provided an opportunity to become a part of the fabric of our society rather than a stain on it.
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.
Cruel and unusual punishment is a human rights issue we don’t hear enough about. It is illegal according to our US Constitution and the Eighth Amendment and a grave human rights violation according to international treaties and documents. For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The Convention on the Protection of against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Treatment or Punishment describes what actions constitute to be labeled as torture, the government and law enforcement’s responsibility to prohibit the use of torture or inhuman treatment through training and a concern for law and order, and the rights a person has if they were to be tortured by the state.
Imagine that you are being detained and questioned because it is believed that you may be involved in illegal drug activity. Your questioning consists of electro-shock, beatings, rape, and other forms of sexual assault. Would you consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Most would think so. Sadly, it is not unusual in many countries around the world. Mexico is only one case study.
Amnesty International reports that the government of Mexico is currently committing torturous acts on women who have been accused of participating in illegal drug activity or organized crime. There are at least one hundred women who have come forward and spoken about their experienced abuse by law enforcement at every level: local, state, and federal- including the Army and Navy. Each of these women have reported experiencing some kind of torture whether that be psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or both (usually both). It was reported that seventy-two women were “sexually abused during or hours after their arrest.” Thirty-three of those women stated that they were raped.
In 2013, Mónica was 26 when she was “gang raped by six municipal police officers, received electro-shock to her genitals, was suffocated with a plastic bag, was dragged across the floor by her hair, and had her head plunged into a bucket of water in the city of Torreón, where she also witnessed the torturous death of her husband.” She watched as her husband was being tortured by “beatings with metal studded whips and the skin on his legs being peeled off with a knife…” When the couple and Mónica’s brother were being transported to the Attorney General’s office, she watched her husband take his last breath of life. She was later flown to Mexico City and taken to the Deputy Attorney General on Organized Crime. Mónica told Amnesty International that she was forced to “sign a confession stating that she was a part of a drug cartel,” notwithstanding the fact that it is a non-admissible confession in court if torture was involved according to Mexican law.
Torture and harsh interrogation tactics are common practice in Mexico’s investigations of drug-related organized crime.
Why did she receive such despicable treatment? I think the police of Mexico are trying to send the message that they are actively pursuing the drug trafficking problem the country faces. They are using women like Mónica who are of lower socioeconomic status because they are perceived as the “weakest link in the trafficking chain and are seen as ‘easy targets’ to arrest.” These women also are more susceptible to not being able to pay for even a halfway decent defense attorney. This means that not only are they vulnerable to arrest, but also vulnerable to police brutality. This isn’t the first time Mexico has been “caught in the act” of committing illegal arrests and mistreating those who are arrested. In fact, Amnesty International reported that since 1991 there have been thousands of complaints associated with the ill-treatment and torture of those who have been arrested, yet only fifteen of these cases resulted in federal criminal convictions, including the case of General Manuel de Jesus Moreno Aviña.
Back in 2008, the Mexican Army took on an immense responsibility to put a stop to organized crime and drug cartel activity. General Aviña was accused of torturing and murdering José Heriberto Rojas Lemus. Lemus “was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.” The court sentence read that it’s possible Lemus died from multiple cardiac arrests due to the shocks, yet the military doctor was ordered to write on the death certificate that Lemus overdosed. Another case involves a video that has surfaced of a woman being tortured by a female federal officer and two army soldiers through suffocation. The Department of Defense has stated that “these events occurred on February 4, 2015 in Ajuchitan, a small mountain town in southern Guerrero state.” The Mexican army has announced that the two soldiers involved are currently in a military prison awaiting trial, but there has been no word on whether the federal officer will face charges or not. What is different about these cases is that since they involved military personnel, the military justice system took control. As Raul Benitez, a security specialist and political science professor, explains it, “the military justice system tends to be very strict in such cases, because (the soldiers in the video) are casting the institution in a bad light.” Civilian prosecutors aren’t so swift in taking these cases on.
So, if cases of torture like these were investigated, why are a significant majority of them not? The torture case that occurred in Ajuchitan in 2015 is considered “special” because it was easy to investigate due to the fact that all the evidence needed is in a video rather than just simply accusations of torture coming from prisoners. Torture and harsh interrogations are prevalent in Mexico’s investigations. Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and supported other human rights documents dealing with torture and arbitrary arrest and is thus in violation of these international human rights treaties. The reports are out from Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, but reports are the only way thus far that Mexico can be held accountable globally. So my question is: what do we do now?
Mexico is breaking its obligations under international law by illegally detaining and torturing people.
Mexico wants to give the appearance that they are in compliance with international law as they pursue and prosecute organized crime/ drug cartel activity that has plagued the country for years. However, when reports and videos surface that show exactly who they are harassing, arresting, detaining, and torturing Mexico was hard pressed to justify its actions. In my opinion, they don’t want to go after the real gangs and drug lords because money talks. Corruption is widespread – in fact, drug cartels paid around $100 million A MONTH to police officers nationwide to turn their heads they other way. Part of the problem is the very low pay of police officers (just over 20 percent earns less than 1,000 pesos ($79) a month, while 60.9 percent earns no more than 4,000 pesos ($317) monthly. To fulfill its obligations towards the U.S. and expectations by the international community, Mexican authorities often target women and men of lower economic status who don’t have the funds to pay bribes to law enforcement officials or the network to be kept out of jail. This begins the cycle of violence described above, which will be very hard to break as long as corruption within Mexico’s federal, state, and local governments continues. Fundamental reform of Mexico’s militarized police force, law enforcement, and the judicial system as well changes on socio-economic policy are needed to end unrest and diminish the power of organized crime and drug cartels.
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.