The Silenced Women of the Rwandan Genocide and their Fight to be Heard

Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.  

The Uncondemned Movie Poster

On Thursday, September 21, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights and UAB’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program hosted the screening of the documentary: The Uncondemned. The film explores the challenges and triumphs of a group of fledgling lawyers, investigators, and Rwandan women during a trial after the Rwandan Genocide. From their juridical victory, the legal definition of genocide was expanded to include acts of rape.

Background

Over the course of four months in the summer of 1994, roughly 800,000 Rwandan citizens were massacred in the east-central area of the country. The ethnic majority of Rwanda, the Hutu, murdered most of the Tutsi minority in an attempt of “ethnic cleansing” as a result of ethnic and religious tensions between the two groups. This decimation of the ethnic Tutsis became known as the Rwandan Genocide.

Skulls of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide lined up
Death – Rwandan Genocide

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu leader, was shot down by an unknown assailant. All the passengers on the plane crashed to their deaths, including the Burundian president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Rumors place blame on the extremist Hutus for the murder as part of a revolt against the power-share agreement Habyarimana agreed to sign in accordance with the Tutsis. Another argument blames the Tutsis in the crash, using the act of terrorism as an attempt to regain power in Rwanda. Almost immediately after the plane crash, the murder of the Tutsi people began. Extremist Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus by setting up roadblocks and raiding homes. Radio stations ran by the extremists were encouraging civilians to attack and kill their neighbors.

The church played a significant role in the division among the Hutu and Tutsi. Hutu pastors preached on how “the war should be brought to the Tutsi, because they will come to wipe us away.” The church taught to kill their Tutsi neighbors as they claimed the Bible designated the Tutsi as their mortal enemies. During the genocide, not even the churches were safe. Hutu militiamen raided them and murdered anyone seeking refuge there. Pastors often trapped those hiding in the churches and alerted the Hutus.

The genocide was as horrifying as it was dehumanizing. Not all Hutu fighters had access to guns or even machetes, and much of the genocide was conducted using simple weapons such as sharpened sticks, large rocks, and common household items such as forks and knives – making death slow and painful. According to the film, bodies could be found in every village and on every hill. Its simplicity and scope earned it the title as the “most efficient genocide in modern history.” The first reconnaissance mission conducted by the United Nations (UN) reported one thousand Tutsi were killed in twenty minutes when the investigators first arrived.

Tragically, women endured gender based violence during the genocide. The total number of rape survivors will never be known, however countless women testified to being raped during the genocide. Stories of rape, whether gang-raped or with objects, are consistently mentioned. If they were not killed after being raped, the women were sold into sex slavery or forced into marriage. Additionally, they were traded among groups of men for them to sexually abuse them. Once the men were “done” with them, their reproductive organs were gruesomely mutilated with machetes, knives, bare sticks, or even acid. After pleading with her rapists to kill her, one woman testified they responded: she was to be kept alive so she would “die of sadness.”

The film shows the use of rape as a psychological weapon to strip the humanity from more than just the individual Rwandan woman. The rapists wanted to both degrade larger groups of women the rape survivors were a part of and as a means to assert their superiority and population control. Throughout the history of armed conflict, women often become the targets of sexual violence– this is a common weapon used in larger crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Whether it comes in the form of physical abuse, rape, mutilation, or sex slavery, being a woman becomes a risk factor – no matter the age, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or any other characteristic outside of biology. Niarchos concludes rape is used to inflict terror and force cooperation, both on the female survivor and others in her close community. In Rwanda’s case, rape was used to humiliate Tutsi women and terrify the community as a whole; making the suffering of Tutsi women a violent means to the Hutus’ political end.

The UN declared rape as a war crime in 1919, however in cases prior to the Rwandan Genocide, rape was never prosecuted in this manner. In Resolution 1820 that was adopted by the Security Council at its 5916th meeting, of the UN Security Council noted “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) was the first time rape was pursued as a war crime and was the first tribunal enacted since World War II. The film, The Uncondemned, tells of the efforts taken by the UN to connect rape to genocide. The documentary focuses on the case the mayor of Taba, Jean Paul Akayesu, who was the first to face charges of inditement over genocide – including rape.

The team of lawyers sent by the UN was ambitious but inexperienced. Most were in their 30s, recently graduated from law school, and were taken to task by gathering intelligence to prosecute this case that was like none before it. More importantly, they deduced they must prosecute it in a way that laid the groundwork for future cases – setting legal precedence.

Woman praying in front of others.
Woman Praying – Rwanda by Brice Crozier

Doctor Odette Nyiramilimo of Le Bon Samaritain Clinic in Kigali was one of many doctors who said almost every woman and adolescent girl who survived the Rwandan Genocide was raped. As she examined victims immediately after the genocide, she asserted that at least two cases of rape were coming in each day to her clinic. As mentioned before, the exact number cannot be known, which is due to a number of factors such as the stigmatism that surrounds rape. Across the globe, rape survivors are shamed and seen as guilty for the violent crimes committed against them. Eisler asserts this is especially prominent in societies that value men over women. Fear of reprisal compromises the reporting of rape, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwandan survivors. Bernadette Muhimakazi, a Rwandan women’s rights activist in an interview with Human Rights Watch, states many of the women were afraid to say anything because they know who their perpetrators are. These women know exactly who killed their families and who violated them. In many cases, these women live in the same community as their perpetrators.

“Women here are scared to talk because it was their neighbors who raped them.”

– Bernadette Muhimakzai

Prior to the visibility the tribunal brought, rape was viewed as a negligible outcome of war. The testimonies of the Rwandan women changed this perception, and rape was legally billed as a true war crime. The team the UN pulled together to prosecute this case proved to be successful in their endeavors, and justice prevailed; Akayesu was convicted of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The film concludes with rape survivors coming forth to name their rapists. While their sense of inner peace may never be fully restored, the tribunal gave the women a sense of justice and vindication.

Why Peace? Because Dignity.

DAY OF PEACE. Source: jtimm, Creative Commons

The Institute for Human Rights, like many global NGO’s, aims to promote and protect human rights within our local, national, and international communities. Specific human rights issues have been explored on this blog, ranging from child marriage to the genocide in Myanmar. This is one approach to understanding human rights: picking apart the issues, analyzing human rights documents (such as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights), and working towards a world where human rights are universal and protected. Another way of conceptualizing human rights is through the lens of peace promotion. Whereas human rights are, typically, legal and political by nature, peace promotion calls upon a person’s moral and ethical faculties. While these concepts are similar in many ways (after all, laws are supposed to reflect the ethics of its society), ‘never the twain shall meet’ is more often the case. In preparation for the International Day of Peace – September 21st – this blog explores a central concept in both peace and human rights: human dignity. Human dignity, I argue, is why peace promotion is necessary for humanity and why its active promotion is ethically justified.

Dignity, Human Rights, and Peace

What is dignity? Many of us have a vague idea of what dignity means: self-worth, inherent value, spiritual or religious connotations, and the like. The operational definition of dignity in human rights and peace literature can be hazy as well; in fact, I have struggled to find a cohesive and comprehensive definition. Dignity seems to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept, used with substantially different connotations, in many academic and applied fields.

The origins of dignity, in the formerly legitimate social systems of aristocracy, utterly juxtapose today’s definition (Kleinig & Evans, 2013). The medieval concept of dignity came from a ranked / hierarchical social system; ‘dignitaries’, a person who possessed dignity, held higher socioeconomic status than those who did not possess ‘dignity’.  With dignity-from-rank came benefits: physical (in the form of land ownership) or metaphysical (with an endowment of gravitas). This conceptual framework of dignity shaped how the term was used in philosophy and other social sciences for many years, until the ideas of Immanuel Kant changed the relationship between dignity and ethical behavior. Sometimes, with the right idea and platform, words completely change their meaning within a society.

Moving away from the ‘ranked’ definition of dignity, Kant proposed a new form of dignity.  First and foremost, dignity is shared by all humankind (this universality is also a feature of the current definition of dignity in the world of human rights and peace; Kleinig & Evans, 2013). Although Kant wasn’t the first to universalize dignity (many historical antecedents are found in Stoic and Renaissance theology), the popularity of Kant’s philosophy broadcasted the idea into the public sphere in such a way that the idea was intractable (Kleinig & Evans, 2013). In short, Kant emphasized the role of ethical choice and moral behavior in dignity. Dignity, in Kant’s view, is not a nebulous status enjoyed by the upper echelon of society. It is instead the byproduct of both a person’s God-given (in Kant’s words) ability to create an ethical code of behavior and a person’s choice to live by the code he or she created.  Dignity is found in all persons because dignity reflects a skilled shared by us: our capacity to both make moral judgements and adhere to the rules we make. Through this example, we see how the concept of dignity experienced quite a stark transformation by going from an attribute only a select few possessed to an inherent potential all persons possess.

The story doesn’t end here, however. The definition of dignity is contested to this very day.  While the role and influence of human dignity in human rights documents is uncontested (‘dignity’ is mentioned in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example), some thinkers propose the usefulness of dignity has been lost (Schroeder, 2012; United Nations, 1948).  The vagueness of ‘human dignity’ increases the number of its applications, but Schroeder (2012) and other scholars claim the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality threatens the concept from within. They argue the dignity-based rights approach is fallible because the justification for rights comes not from human beings themselves, but from a philosophical virtue assigned to their experience. While the merits of this argument are important (one such example is the push for greater specificity in defining ‘dignity), the ubiquity of dignity in human rights literature makes the divorce of human rights and human dignity a herculean task. Dignity, with all its complications, is at the heart of human rights.

International Day of Peace

Moving away from the conceptual aspect of peace, let’s focus on a practical application. How can we identify normative values held by a society and whether these values are peaceful or not?  One way is to look at cultural events and how these events are celebrated. Let us look at  Independence Day as an example. On July 4th, many Americans attend cookouts, don red/white/blue attire, and a general attitude of patriotism is (hopefully) experienced by all Americans. By comparing the American independence celebration to other less extravagant independence day celebrations, we can make the assertion that America is an especially patriotic nation. Yet, what celebrations do we have for the concept of peace? We do not have a “Day of Kantian-Defined Human Dignity”, but we do have the International Day of Peace.

International Day of Peace is  a celebration of the international values of dignity, human rights, and peace. First established in 1981, the United Nations unanimously voted to make September 21st the International Day of Peace. The UN stated the reason behind Peace Day: “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples”. This is a day to reaffirm each person’s and each nation’s commitment to a peaceful way of life and to celebrate the strides made towards peace across the globe. The theme for 2017 International Day of Peace is “Together for Peace: Respect, Safety, and Dignity for All”. The UN created a short video for 2017 International Day of Peace which can be found here.

The IHR is celebrating the International Day of Peace with INTO UAB today from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Stern Library.  INTO UAB is hosting an International Day of Peace Food & Culture Festival. INTO UAB provides English-learning opportunities and education assistance for non-US students with aspirations to study at a UAB undergraduate or graduate program.

References

Kleinig, J. & Evans, N. G. (2013).  Human flourishing, human dignity, and human rights. Law and Philosophy, 32(5), 539-564.

Schroeder, D. (2012). Human rights and human dignity: An appeal to separate the conjoined twins. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 15(3), 323-335.

United Nations. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration: Recap

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”

A woman at a protest in London holds a sign saying, "I stand with migrants."
“I stand with migrants. Anti-Trump protester in London’s Parliament Square,” by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.

There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.

The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.

A ripped banner that says, "Legalizacion Ahora!" and then "Legalization Now!"
“International Workers Day march in Minneapolis” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.

The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.

A young girl with her hands in the air and tongue stuck out in a silly expression sits beside a sign reading, "No human being is illegal!'
“Rally for immigrant rights,” by Alan Kotok on Flickr.

There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.

Two signs are held high against a background of trees. The signs say "Immigrants right are women's rights" and "We are all immigrants."
“”Immigration Rights Are Women’s Rights” & “We Are All Immigrants” Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally (Washington, DC)” by takomabiblot on Flickr.

The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.

This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.

 

Bullets, Band-Aids, or Both: Ambassador Robert Ford Visits UAB

 

Former Ambassador Robert Ford lectures at UAB
Former Ambassador Robert Ford lectures at UAB. Photo by Nicholas Sherwood.

Former Ambassador Robert Ford, on Wednesday, March 22, made a stop to the UAB Alumni House to speak on the United States’ foreign policy on the Middle East and North Africa.  As a career diplomat serving the US State Department and Peace Corps for 30 years, his tenure was categorized by his reputation as a brilliant Arabist. He first served in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Morocco and as US Ambassador to Algeria (2006-2008) and as the last US Ambassador to Syria (2011-2014).  Additionally, he served on posts for the US State Department in Bahrain and Iraq.  Ambassador Ford’s career was lauded by the US government, and upon his retirement, the US State Department conferred upon him the Secretary’s Service Award, the highest award honored by the State Department.

The opening slide, entitled “Not Our Business: The American Approach to Human Rights in the Middle East in the Age of American First”, foreshadowed Ford’s disdain for the current administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.  This disdain, he continuously qualified through his presentation, stems not from tangible behavior the Trump administration has enacted in the two months since President Trump’s ascendency, but from the utter lack of preparation to mindfully and successfully engage in the drama of foreign policy.  The Trump Administration has thousands of positions to fill at the national level, including the Department of State; this vacuum signals to politicos a few potential assumptions about the Trump Administration. First, Trump and his cohorts do not have the necessary means (i.e. time, energy) to fill these positions. Second, individuals who may have served in other administrations have refused service in Trump’s government.  Lastly, the Trump Administrations simply have not realized the pressing need of filling these vacancies. The likely explanation is a mix of all three. Ford explained “America First” is not inherently a bad or unproductive philosophy.  Governments must have self-interest.  The very nature of government is to protect its citizens (says the realists) and to actively contribute to a prosocial world order (says certain liberals).  America First is not the problem.  The problem is the infancy of the Trump Administration in its experience and insight in governing. President Trump, prior to his election, never served public office at the national level. Critics of Obama’s immaturity in governing at the national level (as he was a first-term senator when he was elected president) should be losing their minds at the thought of a complete political neophyte taking the reins of the highest elected office in the American political system. The fact, Ford argues, is the Trump Administration is in the middle of a razor-sharp learning curve on the basics of governing America. They know not what they do.

Vacancies go unfilled. This directly affects foreign policy as it would affect any office without employees. The second challenge to effective foreign policy, the Middle East notwithstanding, is the president’s desire to eviscerate the State Department’s funding. Trump reiterates a ‘no nation-building’ philosophy during his campaign; again, this is not necessarily a lack of judgement. According to Ford, former President George W. Bush’s overreach into the Middle East (among other expeditions) certainly landed America in hot water. America has retreated away from wholeheartedly committing to nation- and democracy-building interests.  Some argue the pendulum has swung too far into situational interventionism. Obama’s failure in Syria to oust Assad (or effectively empower others to achieve this end) has certainly contributed to jihadism in the Middle East.  The foreign policy game Obama played in Syria, one example of many,  was structured around a ‘red line’ (in the case of Syria, this was the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians). This hardline stance can undercut flexibility; Obama couldn’t act in the case of Syria unless definitive proof implicated Assad.  Meanwhile, Syrians died, jihadists recruited, and Russia peered into the situation with increasing curiosity-turned-investment. This tricky game of knowing when and where to intervene vexes every player of foreign policy, including President Trump.

a picture of Umayyad Mosque Courtyard, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque Courtyard, Damascus. Source: american_rugbier, Creative Commons.

 

The American foreign policy in the Middle East has been, and continues to be, marred with interests in diametrically opposed parties. America’s investment in Israel compels American State and UN players to willfully and knowingly ignore the stark human rights violations being committed against the people of Palestine. The American naval base in Bahrain, as in the case with Israel, incentivizes American foreign policy writers and players to ignore the repressive tendencies of the Bahraini state.  Iran and the Nuclear Deal, another linchpin in American investments in the Middle East, angers Israel. The Syrian government, with the help of Russia, is still murdering Syrian citizens en masse. These are the headlines read by individuals with a keen eye for Middle Eastern politics, however this is not the full picture, Ambassador Ford argues.

The culture in the Middle East adds another layer of complexity that is frequently ignored by self-proclaimed arabists. America has poorly interpreted and acted in accordance with the social values and cultural mores of the Middle Eastern peoples. Ford explained, drawing on his experience as ambassador, the people of the Middle East want employment, less corruption, and the relationship with their government characterized by dignity and respect. He argued collectivism, the impact of the faith of Islam, and the shadow of colonialism all shape the psyche of the Middle East. Group affiliation is a substantial psychological need in the world region; the need to belong, coupled with rising anti-American sentiments, may explain the success of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Culture and politics are intrinsically linked, though some myopic policy analysts and writers take the stance that ‘never the twain shall meet’. Integration, whether between opposing US interests or in the American conception of social forces in the Middle East, is a herculean task.

Keeping these two complexities in mind, the Trump Administration’s glacial pace of governing and the convolution of Middle East politics and culture, what should the American public look forward to in the new administration?  First, proposed Ambassador Ford, expect the budget cuts to soft humanitarian aid to alter the composite of human rights interests in the State Department. Institutions like USAID will be on the chopping block. Human rights, rarely discussed by the Trump Administration, will likely not serve as America’s guiding maxim in policy development. Militarization, according to Ambassador Ford, seems far more likely instead. Trump and his team advocate for substantially greater investment in the American military complex, to the tune of ~$54 billion.  Although the argument could be soundly made that human right-based interests and intervention in the Middle East typically co-occurs with other American interests (i.e. oil), the Trump Administration has wholly ignored the human rights approach in US foreign policy.  This philosophical and political shift may elucidate how Team Trump plans to handle crisis situations in the Middle East.  Increased defense spending probably equates to increased free-floating militia to be utilized at the whim of the President and his advisors. In short, this probably leads to shift towards favoring a hard power solution in potential situations of conflict. Another alternative explanation  is that Trump’s team simply has not yet created the necessary opinion required for human rights-based foreign policy. Ford argued, due to the egregiously early developmental phase of the Trump administration (coupled with lack of adequate staffing at State and other agencies), the human rights approach to the Middle East simply hasn’t been codified. For human rights advocates (and those who favor soft power approaches), this is the better scenario of the two.

Dr. Reuter, the Director of the IHR, with Ambassador Ford
Dr. Reuter, the Director of the IHR, with Ambassador Ford. Photo by Nicholas Sherwood.

Several factors will indeed influence the future relationship between America in the Middle East. Trump’s administration is new; making judgement calls on their policy and behavior is akin to putting the cart before the horse. In addition to being a new administration, the Trump administration itself is completely inexperienced to political leadership. This inexperience, when compared to past administrations, means foreign policy researchers will have to wait longer than usual for fodder to present itself for dissection. Prior engagements in the Middle East (Bush with his democracy-building and Obama with a situational intervention policy) have not only exacerbated the Middle East as a whole but have set a dangerous precedent for interventionism. Bush’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illuminate the dangers of clinging to your guns too quickly.  Obama, though he favored humanitarian response over military intervention, taught policy-makers that armed intervention is necessary on occasion; look at the ‘too little too late’ case in Syria. Cultural values in the Middle East, such as the importance of family and religious identification, dictate how Middle Easterners will respond to the imposition of foreign powers, whether imposing by force or aid.  Beyond these culturally relative qualities, individuals in the Middle East share common values with the rest of the world: to have a job, to raise a family, and to be treated with dignity and respect. Culture, and of course this includes the influence of Islam, determines how US forces will be received in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East wish to self-determine, according to Ambassador Ford.  Self-determination may be difficult for a group of people whose lives and livelihoods have caught the eye of warmongers and bleeding hearts alike. The pressing question for President Trump and the rest of his Administration is what will help the Middle East self-determine the most: bullets, band-aids, or both?

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.

Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham – a Recap

a picture of the panelists
StandAsOne Panelists. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

On February 16th, Stand As One Alabama partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Institute for Human Rights, and several other organizations to put on an event titled: Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham. The event was held on UAB’s campus, and was live-streamed throughout the world. You can see the event in its entirety here.

“This is to fight hate, tyranny, and fear mongering principles….this is the way forward,”

– speaker Ashfaq Taufique proudly announced as he opened the event.

The event featured nine panelists from marginalized communities: Jillisa Milton, representing the Birmingham Chapter of Black Lives Matter; Angel Aldana, representing the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice; Halah Zein-Sabatto, representing the Birmingham Islamic Society; Dan Kessler, representing Disability Rights and Resources; Isabel Rubio, representing the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama; Lauren Jacobs, the Youth Outreach Chair of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a center devoted to the LGBTQ+ youth of Birmingham; Tai Hicks, president of the National Organization of Women; Rabbi Barry Left, from Temple Beth-El; Reverend Angie Right, of Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The discussion began with the premiere of a film produced by McKenzie Greer, a UAB film student and intern for the Institute for Human Rights, showcasing the struggles of fellow UAB students who are a part of marginalized communities. The emotional video gave a small bit of insight into the pain that those featured in the film have felt and still feel today. Watch the video by Greer here:

[vimeo 204448381 w=640 h=360]
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/204448381″>Stand As One Alabama by Kenzie Greer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mediastudies”>UAB Media Studies</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

“I feel hurt and angry. Hurt by a country that I consider my home, that I now have to prove my loyalty to. Angry that I have to constantly prove my normalcy to other people to prove I am not dangerous.”

“I was scared to get off the bus each morning, and thankful to get back on in the afternoon.”

“Being a part of a marginalized community is a full-time job.”

“She’s pregnant? That’s what she gets for having sex. She must’ve been stupid about it.”

“You have to be the best at whatever you decide to do, because people will automatically think of you as incompetent and unqualified, simply because you’re black.”

“She felt blatantly racially profiled, and that he thought she was a maid.”

“Just because someone is slower at learning and retaining does not mean they are stupid.”

Emotions filled the room as the production came to a close. Prior to the event, the panelists were asked to answer three questions as part of the discussion:

What are the challenges that you and your organization face?

What have you done to adjust those challenges?

How do you see the future if we do stand as one?

“It would be impossible to talk about the challenges we face in four minutes,” Milton said. She further discussed how “We have to challenge our allies all the time,” meaning members of the Black Lives Matter movement must go through greater lengths to rally their allies who do not identify as Black, as it does not affect them. She mentioned how it was difficult to obtain a sense of unity with their allies for this reason. “We are skeptical about other people’s support of our movement as a whole (we don’t typically see the same passion as shown with other movements), but continue to challenge others to address the barriers and to step outside of their comfort zones.”

As Aldana spoke, he described that the Hispanics almost seemed invisible. “With the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice, we would like to work with our allies, so that we can identify ourselves as allies…as an Immigrant, and as a Mexican citizen of Birmingham, we want to protect and defend our identity just as you do.”

Zein-Sabatto proclaimed, “it comes down to systematic hate…Islamophobia is actually a billion-dollar industry…there are people who are assimilating xenophobia.” She explained how she told her family overseas how much she enjoyed America, and how that it is no longer the “rainbows and roses” that she once thought. “We must reclaim our narrative,” she said, reflecting on how one member of the Muslim community is asked by society to represent the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, losing their individuality. “You will find us with our headscarves and beards in the grocery store, on the streets, as your neighbors, doctors, colleagues, students, and teachers.” Moving forward, she explained that she has hope. “History repeats itself, and it is just repeating itself with another group.”

“If we look over the past hundred years, we see oppression and segregation against people with disabilities,” Kessler began, “while we have seen gains since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we still have a long way to go…we still hear such language as ‘cripple’, ‘special’, ‘wheelchair bound’, and ‘handicapped’.” He gave us insight on the challenges the community faces in the workplace: “Unemployment of anyone with disabilities is the highest of any marginalized group in the nation.” Kessler then brought to light the issue of segregation in the education system against those with disabilities, and how there are bills in motion trying to limit their education rights. He also spoke of how the turmoil of the disabled community does not end after their schooling in grade school, he told of the institutional bias in the long-term care services. “Have you ever tried to use Uber?” he asked, as he then put perspective into what is like to be disabled and unable to receive the same services as those who are not, “try being disabled and having an Uber driver have to turn you away because they are ill-equipped.”

Rubio began her answer with a powerful statement: “Discrimination is legalized toward immigrants.” She spoke of the laws against immigrants at the state and federal levels. “Immigration laws are currently weighted to favor immigrants from northern Europe, therefore tacitly enforcing an ideology of white supremacy in the US.” Speaking more on the bias against immigrants, she told us how there are places in Alabama where immigrants cannot get water services. The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama helped to register 1,000 voters this past year, and for that reason among others, Rubio says, “The future is hopeful. There is something going on and we have to do something about it…we can’t stand for where we are now.”

Jacobs, whose organization works specifically with the LGBTQ+ youth at the Magic City Acceptance Center, enlightened us on how the LGBTQ+ youth faces challenges such as being unable to find friendly and competent educators and healthcare providers, and lacking family support. She also educated us on the statistics surrounding the community: “Three in four trans students are not allowed to use the bathroom in Alabama; four in five are not identified properly…The average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years…Trans students are targeted by peers, family, and teachers.” She implored that we must be the ones who say something if we see something, and that “Standing as one would be a commitment to staying in struggle with each other.”

“Whenever you do anything in your life, your gender is a factor.” Hicks said, as she explained the issues that women face in today’s society. She and her organization, Greater Birmingham National Organization for Women, have been working to achieve social justice for women and other minority groups as well in Birmingham. She spoke on how people think that women in the US have it good compared to other countries, and that they should all just “shut up.” Reflecting back on the marches that happened earlier this year, and earlier in the century, “They have no idea how long we have been fighting,” she said. “You should have the right to raise a child, and feel safe that a government official is not going to gun them down.”

Left began saying , “Speaking on a panel like this to a group of people like this was not something I thought I would be doing in Birmingham.” To relate to the different ethnicities, identities and religions in the room, he said, “The same people who hate Blacks, Mexicans, and Muslims, often hate Jews.” He spoke of how a family recently withdrew their child from his religious school at the Temple Beth-El, in fear of being attacked. “People don’t feel safe anymore.” He gave his history on how he was once evacuated from Iran 38 years ago, saying he felt a connection to refugees. “Many communities feel under attack; anyone who isn’t a straight, white, heterosexual, Christian male, and even they feel threatened by losing their dominance.” He ended on a note to rally the communities in the room: “We are much stronger as one community instead of several separate communities.”

a picture of two people touching hands in unity
Unity. Source: Phillip Taylor, Creative Commons.

After the panelists gave their written answers, the audience was given the opportunity to ask them their own questions.

  • What are the next steps for someone who wants to stand with you?
    • Think before you post. There is a lot of fake information out there.
    • Build a personal relationship with someone in another marginalized community. Your efforts will go farther when you have a connection.
    • If you see something, say something.
    • Contact your elected officials.
    • Plan for accessibility at each event (contact Disability Rights and Resources to figure out how to accommodate).
    • Support immigrant businesses.
    • Fund the resistance.
    • Educate yourself on human rights. Find out where to go when your rights are violated.

Here are some ways to get involved with the organizations represented at this event:

  • If you identify as Black, connect with the Black Lives Matter Chapter of Birmingham on Facebook, or email birminghamblm@gmail.com. If you would like to get involved with Black Lives Matter, but do not identify as Black, SURJE (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meets every month at Beloved Community Church, and you can also connect with them on Facebook.
  • The Birmingham Islamic Society is having an open house on February 26th from 2 – 5 at the Hoover Islamic Center. All religions are welcome. You can also email them by going to the “Contact us” page on their website: bisweb.org
  • You can contact the ACIJ by going to their website: acij.net, or connect with them on Facebook.
  • You can contact the Disabilities Rights and Resources by going to their website: drradvocates.org
  • The Magic City Acceptance Center holds Drop-In Hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30pm to 7pm. You can also visit their website: magiccityacceptancecenter.org
  • You can connect with the National Organization for Women on their website: org/chapter/greater-birmingham-now/ or on their Facebook.
  • The Temple Beth-El’s website is: templebeth-el.net/
  • To join the Stand As One text alert for when any Human Rights Issue is threatened at your local or national level, text “STANDASONE” to 313131

UAB IHR at UN for Soft-launch of CRPD 10+ App

https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2016/08/IDPD-Logo-rev.4-300.jpg
Source: UN Division of Social Policy and Development Disability.

 

The UAB Institute for Human Rights is co-sponsoring the soft-launch of the “CRPD 10+ App” at this year’s United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The CRPD App is an iOS 10 application commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and serves as a tool for human rights education, advocacy, activism, and empowerment. The app has been developed by the Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP) at American University.

Our Director, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, will speak Dec. 2 at 12:15 pm CST at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on the significance of the “CRPD + 10 App”. The event will be live streamed and available for remote participation via the link here.

 

Refugees Crisis: Who are refugees and who should help them?

I can remember a few years ago, after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the term ‘refugee’ was used to describe victims in New Orleans. Civil rights activists in America were noticeably upset because of the negative connotation and mental image generated with the use of the term. Rev. Al Sharpton, in an NPR interview shortly after hurricane Katrina, commented, “They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.” Could the same thing be said for people fleeing persecution, civil war, and conflict?

When you hear the word refugee what image comes to mind? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. The agency established the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees in 1951 to aid the more than 1 million people who were still displaced from World War II.

Photo taken by Charles Coleman
Zabia and Firas Attar. Photo taken by Charles Coleman

The increase in conflicts and civil wars in Africa and the Mediterranean have created a refugee crisis that is threatening international security. We have to ask ourselves, “who are refugees and who is responsible to care for the millions of people who are fleeing imminent danger”? Today, refugees around the globe number more than 20 million people. According to data compiled by UNHCR, half of these refugees hail from 3 states: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. The number of refugees continues to grow. This crisis has created an atmosphere whereby countless human rights violations occur on a daily basis; however, policymakers and politicians seem to focus on the affects the numbers of people will have on their population, rather than on the wellbeing of those seeking asylum or refugee status. On November 16, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter led a panel discussion that provided faculty and students with an opportunity to hear from experts who have intimate knowledge of this global crisis, including two personal testimonies, in an effort to bring understanding and ensure clear background information on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is communicated.

Zabia and Firas Attar are siblings and Syrian refugees living in Birmingham. They shared their harrowing story of escape from Syria, and their  elation at arriving to safety  in America.  Elation turned to fear  when  calls from Governor Bentley and other state officials who believe that an influx of refugees would threaten Alabama residents. Refugees are not in America to destroy our way of life. They are hard working individuals who want the same things that you and I want— to live in peace and provide for our families.

Panelists. Photo by Charles Coleman.
Photo by Charles Coleman.

Catherine Philips Crowe, director of UAB International Student and Scholar Services, Dr. Serena Simoni, associate professor of political science at Samford University, and Dr. Abidin Yildirim. associate professor, UAB School of Engineering presented insights on how the refugees in the Mediterranean from countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, are impacting the populations of Italy, Germany, Australia and the United States. As an international community, it is understood that the responsibility to protect people of every state from harm when their country is unwilling or unable to do so belongs to all of us. While images of refugees such as Omran Daqneesh litter the Internet, you or me could have been born into a similar situation.

 

 

The Liberian Renaissance: The Rebirth of a Nation

Leymah Gbowee (photo credit: Michael Angelo)
Leymah Gbowee. Photo credit: Michael Angelo

 

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, which chronicles 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 President of Liberia, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Source: Chatham House, Creative Commons
The President of Liberia, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Source: Chatham House, Creative Commons

 

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.

Children in Monrovia. Source: Giorgio Minguzzi, Creative Commons
Children in Monrovia. Source: Giorgio Minguzzi, Creative Commons

 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that human beings have equal and inalienable rights to

  1. Life, liberty and security of person in Article 3
  2. 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
  3. Education… elementary education shall be compulsory in Article 26
  4. 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.

Children pictured at a UNCHR food distribution point in Liberia in 2011. Source: DFID, Creative Commons
Children pictured at a UNCHR food distribution point in Liberia in 2011. Source: DFID, Creative Commons

 

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.

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greets an Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers. Source: DVIDSHUB, Creative Commons
Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greets an Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers. Source: DVIDSHUB, Creative Commons

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.  

 

 

 

Islamophobia: A Threat to All

Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons
Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons

 

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.

Islamophobia lecture.
Islamophobia lecture. Photo credit: Charles Coleman.

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.

Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons
Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons

 

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.

IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.
IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.