China’s Zero-COVID Policy

A man wearing a mask
(source: yahoo images)

Since the pandemic began, you might have seen multiple different snippets of Chinese citizens in their homes under complete lockdown. You might have even seen drones patrolling the streets and citizens shouting lamentations out of their window.

What you may not have known is that all of these scenarios mentioned above are a direct result of China’s COVID protocols. Currently, China is imposing a “zero-COVID” policy on all of its citizens. However, as President Xi Jinping was just re-elected for a third five-year term, we can assume that the policy will not be going anywhere anytime soon. 

The “zero-COVID” Policy: Prevention

landmark in china
(source: yahoo images)

Let us now evaluate what this so-called “zero-COVID” policy is and what it entails. Supposedly, China “recognizes domestic outbreaks are inevitable, and its policies are not geared towards having zero cases at all times but instead, are about “dynamically” taking actions when cases surface.” 

China’s policy can be split into two distinct features: prevention and containment. In the case of prevention, China ensures PCR tests (which are fast and highly accurate ways to diagnose COVID) are readily available for anyone at any given time. The normality and presence of tests has in turn caused certain businesses and buildings to require individuals to show proof of being COVID negative to enter these public spaces. However inconvenient this might be to those who are not tested, this notion has definitely kept cases low—after all, if functioning in life requires having a negative test, why would one risk getting sick? One surely would not want to risk getting sick since it would mean they would be practically unable to enter any public places. Hence, prevention of COVID prevails in China. 

The “zero-COVID” Policy: Containment

Chinese mountain
(source: yahoo images)

Prevention of COVID seems to be rather successful in China. However, the other part of China’s zero-COVID policy seems to be the one that sparks controversy and frequently makes its way into mainstream media: containment. 

Allegedly, China’s “[control tactics] aimed at swiftly cutting off transmission chains to forestall outbreaks, involve quarantining cases at government-supervised facilities and locking down buildings, communities or even entire cities.” 

Picture this: you wake up, get dressed, and are having your typical morning routine. Perhaps you might be feasting on some waffles or eggs as you prepare for your day. In any case, you eat your breakfast, and then head out to work. You get to your office around 10 minutes early, anticipating it will be a good day. 

About halfway through your work day, you receive word that you will not be heading home to your family that night. Someone in that building (a coworker of yours), tested positive for COVID, and the city decided to place your entire office building on lockdown.

Swiftly, within hours, government officials are shoving mattress and bed materials through the window. Additionally, food supplies are en route to the office. The basic necessities of human survival are all now being prepared to be delivered to your office, which, for the next couple of days, will be your home. 

This scenario is one that many people living in China have experienced. Starting your day normally to simply head to work and be told that you would not be allowed to go back home for a couple of days is a harsh reality in China. 

This ability for the government to impose this upon its citizens is all, as one would expect, due to China’s commitment to its zero-COVID policy. 

However, in addition to putting entire office buildings under lockdown for days, China is also able to put entire cities on lockdown. The population of the cities which fall victim to China’s harsh quarantine policies matters not—Shanghai, China’s largest city, was even placed on lockdown. Other cities that have been placed on lockdown include Xian, Chengdu, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Jilin.

When a city is placed on lockdown, its citizens typically get little notice. The lockdowns, unsurprisingly, are complete lockdowns—there are no exceptions. Everything closes. Everyone is required to stay inside, no matter what. China ensures complete and total lockdown.

The government guards and watches over the streets 24/7 and ensures that no one roams the streets without permission. On top of that, drones often fly about, blaring messages out loud to remind everyone of the lockdown procedures.

When China decides to place a city under lockdown, eeriness overflows the streets. The scene is reminiscent of ghost towns and movies of towns left abandoned due to some unforeseeable incident. 

The Impacts and Implications

Chinese flag
(source: yahoo images)

These efforts on China’s end, despite how draconian they might appear, have definitely accomplished China’s goals. Globally, China is practically one of the least impacted nations by COVID—despite the fact the virus allegedly originated from China in the first place. 

According to OurWorldInData, China’s all-time COVID case count is about 1 million. The United States’s total is about 97 million. Additionally, in China, only about 5,000 have died from complications with COVID, while over a million people have died in the United States. 

Naturally, this presents an ethical dilemma—how should a government go about protecting the lives of its citizens from an illness? Should the government take China’s route of practically removing one’s agency over their own life in order to keep cases and deaths down, or should a government take the route of the USA where COVID mandates are less harsh or non-existent?

The low incidence of COVID outbreaks might make it seem as if China is doing the correct thing—governments should step in and enforce lockdowns onto people. However, while this surely will indeed keep cases at a low count, it will also imply other things—most importantly, the implication that the government ultimately knows what is best for its people and has the final say in how people live their lives. If a government can step in randomly and deny its citizens the free will to leave an office building, what else can it do in other situations? This notion of a government exuding agency over its people in times when it deems best surely is not a notion that is only demonstrated in situations of COVID—it is a notion that is bound to resurface in other parts of one’s life.

What the correct and best thing for a government to do, as it relates to infection control, is not as clear cut as one might think. It is certainly problematic for a government to have total authority over its people (which thereby would give it the power to strictly enforce COVID policies). At the same time, this has been an effective strategy in keeping cases low. On the other hand, the United States has been uncertain as to how to implement COVID policies. The USA is not used to enforcing policies in situations that have never occurred before, such as the COVID pandemic. Hopefully, if there is one positive thing we could gain from the entire pandemic, it is that if a pandemic were to ever break out again, due to COVID, we are better equipped to deal with it. 

The Forgotten Tragedy of the Yemen Crisis

With the increase in world crises, others become forgotten. Seven years and the Yemen Crisis is still one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Unnoticed, unseen, and unheard, the cry for help from the suffering in Yemen has been largely forgotten. Yemen has always been the most vulnerable country in the Middle East, even prior to the 2015 Civil War. With the worst rates of malnutrition, more than half of the Yemeni population has been living in poverty with limited to no access to resources need to live. With such an important, detrimentally impactful crisis, why has there been silence surrounding solutions?

Protestors holding guns chanting something in Yemen
Source: Yahoo Images

Why is there a Crisis?

The Yemen Crisis began with a civil war between the government forces and the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah. In the past seven years, the residue of the civil war in Yemen continues to worsen tremendously. The conflict has been between the internationally recognized government, backed by the Saudi government, and the Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The war was caused by many factors. Given that Yemen was already one of the poorest Arab countries, any change would cause a political division. These factors include fuel price increasing, the Houthi rebels taking over and causing a military division, and the involvement of Saudi Arabia. Many countries have gotten involved – not to solve the crisis, but to pick the side supporting its agendas and send military equipment and personnel in support of these goals. This has left civilians in grave danger.

Protest during the Yemen War
Source: Yahoo Images

Conditions of the Crisis

The country’s humanitarian crisis is said to be among the worst in the world, due to widespread hunger, disease, and attacks on civilians. There have been around 6 million individuals displaced from their homes since the beginning of the catastrophe. There are 4.3 million civilians internally displaced.  As of 2021, Yemen had one of the largest numbers of internally displaced people (IDP) in the world. Many IDPs have been living in a constant state of fear and suffering. Being in a state of exile, having insufficient environmental and living conditions, they have no access to the resources needed to survive day to day. In addition, food insecurity, lack of clean water, healthcare, and sanitation services have caused tremendous issues for countless of civilians still living in Yemen.

Women and Children

In the heart of the crisis, the most affected have been found to be women and children. With the state of the country, inflation, along with scarcity of economic opportunities, many families can no longer afford basic meals, leading to high cases of starvation. Further, many cases of gender-based violence, exploitation, and early marriage are on the rise.  Malnutrition rates for women and children in Yemen are the highest in the world. About 1.3  million breastfeeding and pregnant mothers are in need of treatment for malnutrition. There have also been found problems with children being forced to fight in the war. In 2019, there were 1,940 children fighting as soldiers.

A mother and her Children during the civil war
Source: Yahoo Images

Mental Health

Mental health in Yemen has deteriorated over the causes and outcomes of the conflict. Individuals have dealt with losing family members and friends, their homes, suffering from displacement, violence due to war, food insecurity, unemployment, diseases, torture…the list can go on and on. With all these factors causing grief then leading to long term depression, individuals in Yemen are not able to seek the proper resources needed. There are about 30 million people living in Yemen in 2020 but only 59 psychiatrists. Meaning, for every half a million, there was only one psychiatrist. With the mental health stigmas already a huge concern in the Middle East, many individuals either do not know they need mental health services or are not allowed to seek them. For instance, women have to ask for permission from their families, particularly their husbands, in order to seek mental health services.

What is the World doing?

The United Nations (UN) has backed and presented peace negotiations, but it has only seen limited progression. The UN found that regional actors involved in the conflict have played a strong role in slowing down the peace process. Observers of the crisis see that the involvement of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, have prolonged the war and worsened its conditions. The response of the world needs to strengthen when dealing with the Yemen crisis. As we have seen support from the world given to the Ukrainian crisis and the crisis in Afghanistan, as a whole, a change is possible. The most important thing we can do is talk about the crisis. This has gone unheard, but with a collective voice we can urge and find a solution.

Children during the Yemen conflict
Source: Yahoo Images

What can you do?

The best thing you can do regarding the Yemen crisis is to educate yourself, engage in conversations, and make others aware of what is happening. Below are a list of books and sources to keep you updated in ways you can help.

The World Food Programmee has created a website with ways you can help

Books to Read:

  1. Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes – Victoria Clark

2.     Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict – Marieke Brandt

3.     A History of Modern Yemen – Paul Dresch

4.     Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia – Noel Brehony

International Attempts at Transitional Justice

Note from the author: This blog was written to accompany the social justice cafe on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00 pm on zoom. To join, sign up here. Alongside this event, this post focuses on an international scale while the recent post by Maya Crocker focuses on transitional justice in the United States. 

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end, it is worthwhile, because, in the end, only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

A headshot of a Black man smiling wearing purple clerical attire and collar.
Figure 1: Source: Flickr, John Mathew Smith; Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Washington, D.C., 1999.

What is transitional justice?

Transitional justice (TJ) refers to a set of judicial and non-judicial processes addressing previous injustices of authoritarian regimes (or multiple perpetrator groups) and establishing rule of law. Transitional justice has several aims and synthesizes aspects of punitive and restorative justice. 

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), these aims include: 

  • Providing recognition to victims 
  • Building trust between citizens and state institutions
  • Reinforcing the rule of law 
  • Committing to human rights and building solidarity with victims
  • Reconciliation between victims, perpetrators, and bystanders
  • Preventing new violations

But only characterizing transitional justice through its aims would not highlight the transformative effect this approach attempts in states where massive or systematic violations have occurred. While providing redress to victims and undertaking prosecutorial avenues as practical solutions, this approach also takes a strategic initiative to change the political systems, conflicts, and conditions that contributed to violations occurring in the first place. 

This field first emerged in the 1980s and early 90s in response to the drastic political changes in Latin America and East Europe. Human rights advocates and citizens alike questioned how and what kind of redress should occur in the wake of widespread and systematic violence. Fears over disrupting political changes by pursuing indictments of former leaders were salient: how could justice exist without compromising democratization? 

Thus, “transitions to democracy” and “justice” intersected and involved multiple processes to be sensitive to these concerns during a critical period in the country.

These processes are: 

  • Criminal Prosecutions: judicial investigations
  • Truth Commissions: ad hoc commissions of inquiry established in, and authorized by, states for the primary purposes of investigating and reporting on key periods of recent past abuse. 
  • Amnesty: a pardon granted to perpetrators, usually granted to those who comply with truth commissions and offer testimonies
  • Purges, lustrations, and security reforms: (1) removal of known collaborators of oppression from office and state institutions, (2) process of vetting personnel in state institutions, (3) transformation in state institutions involved in repression, like the military, police, judiciary
  • Reparations: state-sponsored initiatives that aim at repairing, on a massive scale, the consequences of past abuse experienced by certain classes of victims, including material and symbolic benefits
  • Gender Justice: focusing on the intersections of human rights abuse and gender during a period of repression, fact-finding initiatives to establish the nature of gendered abuses
  • Memorialization: museums, memorials, and other means of preserving the public memory of victims and raising moral consciousness about past abuse

Ultimately, TJ is a context-specific process that crucially (and historically) is led by the nation where the violations happened.

Specific attempts at transitional justice: the good and bad

Bolivia

Days after the restoration to democracy in 1982, the government created the National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances. No reports or prosecutions were produced. In 1986, prosecutions began against the former military leader, General García Meza, and some of his officers. The trial was not complete until 1993, by which point Meza had gone into hiding to avoid a 30-year sentence for torture and murder. Notably, this court case rejected pardons for those convicted of crimes against humanity. 

Uruguay

After a 12-year military rule in 1985, the new government avoided truth commissions. Instead, President Sanguinetti issued a pardon (1986) to all soldiers and officers of the previous regime, with no distinction as to those who followed orders and those who gave them. He claimed this was the ‘safest path’ but ‘not a moral decision,’ highlighting that TJ attempts are not pursued in every situation. This is often a result of corruption and officials often rely on a dialogue of ‘national reconciliation by granting large amnesties but failing to pursue any other TJ processes, essentially dismissing victims’ realities.  Victims were denied any form of reparation and violators remain in high office in the police and military. An official Commission for Peace was established in 2000 under President Jorge Batlle with the official report released in April 2003 confirming that the military dictatorship was involved in some of the disappearances. 

Chile

This history of Chile’s dictatorship and eventual prosecutorial redress can be read about in my next blog. Part of the reason for the near-decade gap between the restoration of democracy (1990) and Pinochet’s arrest (1998) was due to Pinochet’s change of the constitution during military rule. Not only did he pardon himself and his torturers in 1978, but he enshrined legal protections from purges and lustration attempts. Nonetheless, Chile has engaged in memorialization and reparations in the cases of successful prosecution of former DINA police. 

El Salvador: 

A Commission on the Truth of El Salvador was established in 1991, led by three international jurists and staffed and financed by the United Nations. While only fully investigating 33 disappearances out of the reported 22,000, the commission did identify 40 individuals connected to the armed forces and involved in crimes against humanity. Additionally, the Commission was able to confirm the El Mozote massacre, where nearly 1,000 villagers were killed by US-trained and equipped Salvadoran army members. The Commission also called on the Supreme Court to retire, which they declined. René Ponce was named general and ordered the execution of 6 Jesuit priests (one the then head of the Human Rights Institute). Due to Ponce’s involvement in the peace negotiations and settlement with FMLN, his prosecution was never attempted. The report from the truth commission was rejected and the then-president offered a blanket amnesty for all political crimes which the Supreme Court upheld (1995). After 20 years, no other transitional justice attempts have been implemented. 

Haiti:

Haiti suffered massive human rights violations under the Duvalier reign between 1957 to 1986. Over 40,000 Haitians were killed and it wasn’t until 1990 that democracy was established with the election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Soon after, he was ousted by General Raoul Cedras, showing just how volatile transitions toward democracy can be. Under Cedras, hundreds were killed by the paramilitary group Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), funded in part by the CIA. Democracy was restored in 1994 and power returned to Aristide but at the cost of blanket amnesty for all rapes, murders, and political killings. He went on to establish a National Commission for Truth and Justice which in February 1996 urged for the prosecution of individuals who committed crimes against humanity by an international tribunal. There has been no tribunal and no prosecutions, and to this day impunity is chronic

Argentina: 

Spray painted image of a general with crossed-out eyes on a wall. The words “More than 30,000 reasons for popular justice. Never again look the other way" are painted beside the images.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images, Colin Snider; Graffiti of General Jorge Videla with the phrases “More than 30,000 reasons for popular justice. Never again look the other way.”

Argentina took the most extensive approach of the states discussed so far. In 1983 after the defeat of the military in the Falklands Wars, President Raoul Alfonsín annulled the amnesty the military had given themselves. He also set up the Commission on the Disappeared which produced the report Nunca Más (Never Again) which was a national bestseller – fulfilling some forms of memorialization. The evidence the commission gathered was used to prosecute 5 of the most senior members of the military junta, but when indictments began on less senior officers the military revolted in 1987. Trials ceased to end the conflict but Alfonsín refused to give any pardons. His successor Carlos Menem was the one to pardon ex-president Videla and others on grounds of “national reconciliation.” In spite of Menem’s undermining, human rights groups and families of the disappeared renewed the vigor for criminal accountability in 2003, and as of 2010, more than 800 face criminal charges and 200 have been sentenced. 

South Africa:

When one thinks of “truth and reconciliation” or “truth commissions,” the most likely example to come to mind is South Africa. After the end of apartheid (a crime against humanity) in 1994, the new democratic government formed the unique tripartite Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It had three responsibilities: (1) record the apartheid era for memory, (2) make recommendations for reparations, and (3) grant amnesty to individuals based on application and only in limited circumstances. 

This was a revolutionary step for transitional justice and helped citizens come to terms with the violent and discriminatory apartheid. In spite of the success of this TRC, no prosecutions have ever been mounted and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International fear the TRC suggestions are not being fully implemented. 

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the commission was chaired by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose ceaseless human rights efforts have helped define the role of TRCs as both forward and backward-looking. In his words, “True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.” 

United States: 

For an in-depth examination of the transitional justice movement in the United States, please read Maya Crocker’s blog here

Conclusion

Without addressing the seeds which sprouted violence, the threat of their reoccurrence cannot be escaped. This means acknowledgment, and hardest of all, forgiveness. While a generation suffered, hatred should not be allowed to pass down and threaten long-lasting peace.

This is not easy, but if you believe in human rights, affirming the realities of victims and perpetrators and all those in between is crucial. As Desmond Tutu says, We must not only speak about forgiveness and reconciliation, we must act on these principles.” 

This post draws a lot of information from the book Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice by Geoffrey Robertson, originally published in 1999 with multiple editions given the continuous development of human rights. I will be utilizing information from a 1999 edition, and thus, certain information on the results of transitional justice attempts will have developed more in the last two decades. If you are interested in obtaining a copy for yourself, the latest edition was updated in 2013 and includes additional sections on Iraq, Guantanamo, the Obama administration’s use of drone warfare, the Charles Taylor conviction, and the trials of Mladic, Karadzic, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. 

A book cover, there is no background, only a bold white title against black. 
Figure 3: Source: Target; Cover of the aforementioned book.

Geoffery Robertson is an internationally acclaimed lawyer and human rights advocate who has served as a UN war crimes judge and founded Doughty Street Chambers in London, a leading human rights law practice. In his book, he deconstructs international human rights law, beginning with the foundational philosophy of rights dialogue (natural rights, social contract, Enlightenment) and moving through the defining events of 20th-century human rights law formation. His book is written in a non-legalese, prose-like style and is a strong starting point for learning a breadth of information about the very complex processes behind prosecutions (and more often why they don’t happen). 

If this interests you, read Robertson’s book or check out more blogs from IHR below:

  • What is the International Criminal Court and Why Should I Care?
  • The Age of Human Rights?
  • Relativism’s Implications on Universal Human Rights
  • A Bright Future – Recent Human Rights Victories 
  • Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China
  • Covenants Without the Sword: International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and Sexual Violence

United States: The Case for Transitional Justice

“Statue of Lady Justice” Source: Jernej Furman via Flickr

Note from the Author: This blog was written to accompany the Social Justice Café Transitional Justice: Here & Now hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00pm CST. At this event we will discuss a brief history of Transitional Justice in the United States and hold an open discussion about what it could look like in the home city of the Institute, Birmingham Alabama. You can find out more information and join the virtual event here. In this post, we will explore transitional justice in the United States. We will have another post on the international context of transitional justice. 

Transitional justice is a field of international justice that “aims to provide recognition to victims, enhance the trust of individuals in State institutions, reinforce respect for human rights and promote the rule of law, as a step towards reconciliation and the prevention of new violations” (OHCHR). Often referred to as TJ, transitional justice is a system of multiple mechanisms and processes that attempt to create stability and ensure justice and remedies for victims of oppression and human rights transgressions. Some of the most commonly used mechanisms of TJ are truth commissions (TCs), reparations, and trials of perpetrators.

In practice, transitional justice has often been restricted to nations following active conflict or repressive authoritarian regimes, otherwise known as transitional time periods. This traditional understanding of transitional justice is beginning to evolve as stable, established democracies like Canada and South Korea implement TJ mechanisms such as truth commissions and reparations to address and amend state-sponsored abuses of certain groups. As it evolves the international gaze has once again turned to the United States and the uncomfortable discussion about the historical and ongoing oppressions. This article intends to establish the historical basis of transitional justice in the United States and recent developments to encourage a conversation about acknowledgement, fact-finding, reparations, and justice in the land of the free.

Section 1: Historical Examples of Transitional Justice in the United States

With an international spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States in 2020 came an increase in conversations about reparations to African Americans for the abuses of slavery, segregation, police brutality, prison labor, exclusion from housing and education and other forms of state-sponsored oppression that have proliferated for centuries. The discussion about the harms the American government has caused to Indigenous tribes, Alaskan Natives and people of Hawai’i, and other marginalized groups has been a matter of public discourse for decades. While the word reparations saturated international media, little attention was given to what reparations would truly look like, could look like, and examples of when the United States have provided reparations before. 

While the spotlight of this discussion about reparations is often on monetary forms, such as property, cash or pensions, transitional justice recognizes that reparations can and should come in many different guises in order to provide a more holistic and healing process for victims. Reparations are deeply context-specific, and should be tailored to the needs of the victim, nation, and individual circumstance. However, examples of other forms of reparations and TJ include official acknowledgements and apologies, funding of research to uncover facts and educate the public on the truth, providing education and/or healthcare to victims and their families, and preserving historical sights and monuments. Ultimately, they should be determined by and catered to the people involved. 

I have included both a brief infographic timeline and a more detailed look at a few examples of government-led transitional justice mechanisms in the United States below. It is important to note that, as many of these instances occurred prior to our modern definitions of transitional justice and reparations, this timeline encompasses cases of compensation which, under similar circumstances today, would likely be considered reparations, but were not explicitly intended as such at the time. The same goes for fact finding commissions that are analogous modern Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, though they lack that title. I have excluded instances of payments or acknowledgements being issued following a lawsuit through our judicial system, as well as instances of TJ being led by non-governmental entities like community organizations, charities or other non-governmental institutions.

Infographic by Maya Crocker for the Institute of Human Rights. Source: https://guides.library.umass.edu/reparations
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, in 1967. It was established to serve the purpose of a fact-finding mechanism akin to a Truth Commission today. The goal of the commission was to identify the causes of the violent race riots of 1967. While widely ignored, the Kerner Commission found that the root of the unrest were unequal economic opportunities, racism, and police brutality against minority racial groups in America. 
  • Following concentrated efforts from interest groups and international attention, the United States federal government committed to two massive examples of explicit transitional justice mechanisms in the 1980s for Japanese Americans that were interned by Executive Order 9066 during World War II. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the  Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) into law, establishing a clear transitional justice mechanism (truth commission) at the national level. The CWRIC published the full report of their findings in February of 1983, and momentum from the commission persisted with the recommendations which were published in June 1983. The recommendations included an official apology, pardons for those convicted of violations of the executive order or during detainment, and the establishment of a federally funded foundation for research and education on the incident. 
  • Shortly after the results of the CWRIC circulated across the nation, the United States Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided all eligible interned individuals with a one time payment of $20,000 in reparations as well as official acknowledgement and apology from the United States. In addition, all individuals who were convicted of disobeying the executive order or violating rules while interned were officially pardoned.
  • In response to the massive Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, many subnational level truth commissions and reparations programs were initiated, including those in the State of California, Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina. As the national conversation continues, we may see an increase of examples of transitional justice at work in United States communities.
“Freedom?” Source: Nicu Buculei via Flickr

Section 2: You, us, and the future of transitional justice in the United States

Whether in Europe, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, or the Americas, civil society plays a key role in the transitional justice sphere. Civil society actors are civilian organizations which can be activist groups, media, charities, non-profit organizations, educational groups and schools, or just citizens interacting with policy. Most recent transitional justice measures that have been implemented in the past few years in the United States have been on the subnational level. They are occurring as a result of citizens’ calls for action, constant attention on the need for transitional justice, and the everyday acts of discussing transitional justice. 

Birmingham, Alabama is a historic city for human rights, civil rights and civic action. Civil society here, in this city, has influenced national change through the Civil Rights Movement as well as citywide changes like the removal of confederate statues in public parks and the preservation of historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement like the Greyhound Bus Station and 16th Street Baptist Church. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB fosters an educational environment where you can see civil society at work, and hosts Social Justice Cafes on the second Wednesday of every month during the school year at 4:00pm CST. We will be hosting our last Social Justice Café of the semester, Transitional Justice: Here & Now on Wednesday, November 30th to discuss what transitional justice should look like in American cities like Birmingham. You can find out how to join these open discussions, and become a civil society actor yourself, and attend more free educational events from the Institute of Human Rights here

Demonstrations in Chad: Violent Suppression of Free Speech

Protestors burning things in a demonstration in the streets of Chad.
Source Yahoo Images

On October 21st, the thunderous crack of tear gas grenades echoed throughout the streets of Chad as palls of black smoke billowed into the horizon. The security forces in Chad’s two largest cities, Moundou and N’Djamena, indiscriminately opened fire onto an anti-government protest. About 50 people were killed and nearly 300 injured in violence that broke out in response to the delaying of the country’s transition towards civilian rule. Hundreds of protestors took to the streets to demand a quicker transition to democratic rule. They were met with internal law enforcement using tear gas and firing live ammunition to disperse the protest. Protesters threw stones; some unverified photos showed a few individuals with knives, but no evidence was found to indicate that protesters carried guns. It began with demonstrators advancing despite police releasing tear gas. However, once the police opened fire, demonstrators were forced to flee, with some helping to carry away the injured and dead. Saleh Kebzabo, the prime minister, announced the death toll at a news conference, explaining that the security forces acted in self-defense. 

Former President Idriss Deby walking in front of Chad's military forces.
Source Yahoo Images

Chad’s political background 

In April 2021, President Idriss Deby died after three decades of iron-fisted rule, sparking a period of political turmoil in the vast, military-run Central African nation of Chad. Mahamat Idriss Deby, his son, seized power shortly after the coup and promised that elections would take place after an 18month transitional period. However, on October 1st, he postponed the democratic elections by 2 years. October 21st would have marked the end of the initially agreed 18-month transition period, which is why oppositional groups decided to hold the protest that day. The military junta serves to incite the underlying political challenges facing Chad. With a rise in extremist violence and deep social problems, Chad has recently seen a series of coups d’états. 

Demonstrators raise fists in defiance of Chad government
Source Yahoo Images

Global Responses 

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemns the repression of demonstrations that led to deaths in Chad. Ms. Shamdasani, spokesperson for OHCHR stated that Defense and security forces must refrain from the use of force against peaceful protesters and ensure that force is not used unless strictly necessary and, if so, in full compliance with the principles of legality, precaution, and proportionality.Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, concurs, “People should be able to peacefully protest government policy without being shot at or killed.” The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its Chadian organizations, the Chadian League for Human Rights (LTDH) and the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH) have called for an immediate end to the violent repression of the demonstrations taking place in N’Djamena, Sarh, Doba, Koumra, Abeche and Moundou by the defense and security forces. No longer can the impunity enjoyed by the Chadian transitional regime endure.  

Human Rights Violations 

What is going in Chad is a violation of human rights that threatens all of us. The preservation of human rights is imperative since these rights protect vulnerable groups as well as help fight against unjust cultural and religious practices that infringe on the rights of individual citizens. As a society that treasures the sanctity of human rights, we have a duty to be watchdogs that safeguard these rights so that all rights, including ours, are protected. Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to free speech. Violence against unarmed protesters is not tolerable. Access to the democratic election process is the cornerstone of modern state governance. By deciding who governs, elections give citizens a voice in their government in the most fundamental way. Protecting voter rights preserves the integrity of the election, and therefore legitimizes government. A government without legitimacy is a failed state that cannot accomplish anything. Chad has a responsibility to its citizens to protect and respect their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of opinion. Although conflict has been a regular feature since the country’s independence, these protests are the culmination of the current mixture of internal volatility and factionalism. Anyone who lives in the free world and values their liberty should be concerned for their own rights. It is important for Chad’s international partners to support civil society so that they can reduce violence risks and promote human rights. The deadly aftermath should serve as a harrowing reminder that our own human rights are in jeopardy if this situation is not remedied. 

 

Constitutional Changes in Chile

The streets of Santiago were filled with the sounds of horns on September 4th. The vote for a new constitution had finally taken place, after three years of sustained protests, and four decades after the dictator Pinochet first replaced the constitution. The people had spoken, and the social contract between the state and the citizens was transformed.

Calls for a new constitution fueled by social movements

Fig. 1: Source: Yahoo Images; Nearly one million protesters during estadillo social. An aerial view of Plaza Italia and streets filled with hundreds of people, one large Chilean flag held over the heads of some.

On October 18th, 2019, thousands of protesters flooded the streets of the capital city, Santiago, Chile. Originally, protests began over frustrations with a rise in the price of metro tickets but quickly compounded with inequality in the state. According to a Foreign Policy article on Chile’s constitutional overhaul, the massive protests were led by students, workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and left-leaning progressives. They expressed frustrations over a lack of socioeconomic mobility, unresponsive government and institutions, and a disconnected political class. In some instances, these demonstrations included torching metro stations and tearing down statues of Spanish colonizers. To read more in-depth on the protests, read this blog.

While these protests paralyzed the capital and country for weeks, the protests demanding change resonated outside the urban center and spread across the nation. In central Santiago, Plaza Baquedano has been the place of social protest for decades, and three years on, protesters continue to use this symbolic place to voice dissent on social inequalities.

Fig. 2: Source: Yahoo Images, John Treat; Protesters in Plaza Baquedano demanding a new constitution, December 2019. A crowd of people holding aloft indigenous flags, Chilean flags, and signs.

Known as the Estallido Social, or social explosion, the protests signaled a major development in the attitudes of citizens in the state. Protests eventually culminated in a 12-point agreement for social peace and a new constitution. In the eyes of many protesters, numerous contemporary problems traced back to the constitution ratified in 1980 under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The citizens of Chile have expressed the need for a new constitution in order to value citizen participation. The constitution written under Pinochet leans toward a conservative interpretation and does not include any formal avenues for citizens to participate. While the Magna Carta has been changed in minimal ways since a return to democracy in 1990, the opposition claim that the constitution should be considered illegitimate since it was instituted under a dictator.

Constitutional change under dictatorial rule

On the 11th of September 1973, democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup. He was given an ultimatum — to resign from his position or be detained by the Chilean armed forces.

To better understand this consequential moment, we need to understand the context of economic and political factors that had Chile on the brink of a civil war. A few times during his presidency between 1970 and 1973, Allende had made reference to President Balmaceda (1886-91), a previous executive whose conflict with the legislature led to a civil war. Allende refused to become “another Balmaceda” but also claimed he would not be forced from office alive.

In 1971, Allende began nationalizing companies, mainly copper and telephone, both previously owned by foreign US corporations. As a result, Chile stopped receiving aid from the US, and subsequently, the World Bank, the Export-Import Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank ceased aid as well. By 1973, inflation, labor strikes, and food shortages were uncontrollable as imports had risen while exports plummeted in the face of plummeting copper prices. Soon after, General Pinochet Ugarte, chief of the armed forces, became the dictator of Chile in a violent coup that resulted in Allende’s death.

The constitution was formally rewritten in 1980 to solidify Pinochet’s regime politically and economically. In the new constitution, Pinochet protected private property to such an extent that Chile became the only country in the world to privatize water. Moreover, the constitution concentrated power in the president, from budgetary decisions to law-making. As a result, the executive in Chile remains among the world’s most powerful governing executives.

In the next two decades, thousands of people would be tortured, executed, or forcibly disappeared under General Pinochet’s repressive authoritarian rule. According to Amnesty International, the number of officially recognized disappeared or killed is 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and the survivors of political imprisonment and torture is around 40,000 people. After Chile returned to democracy, Pinochet was charged under universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

The writing of a new constitution

After protests continued and swelled to 1 million people, the government decided in mid-November 2019 that a large concession needed to be made. A referendum was set with two questions: Should Chile replace the 1980 constitution, and if so, who should write it?

In October 2020, 78 percent of the voting population favored a new constitution, with the highest participation since the end of mandatory voting in 2012. Moreover, citizens overwhelmingly supported the new drafting by everyday citizens.

Fig. 3: Source: Yahoo Images; Elisa Loncon. A woman wearing indigenous Mapuche clothing waving.

Elisa Loncon, a member of the Mapuche indigenous group, was selected as the president of the constitutional assembly. From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the constitutional process in Chile is the first to include an equal portion of women and men, and also includes the indigenous groups historically discriminated against.

“For the first time in our history, Chileans from all walks of life and from all political factions are participating in a democratic dialogue,” Loncon said.

Not only had the social protests begun a sweeping institutional change in the country focused on the economic and political rights of people, but this moment also signaled a significant expression of self-determination.

The process has received help from the UN Human Rights Regional Office for South America which has provided accessible documents, webinars, and publications on the international framework for human rights.

The resulting constitution embodies the standards of human rights law, with rights focused on indigenous people, women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and the environment. Also, the new constitution ensures adequate housing, the establishment of a national healthcare system, employment benefits, and mandatory gender parity in the private and public sectors. This new charter represents a sweeping array of human rights, from civil and political to economic, social, and cultural.

Valentina Contreras, the Chilean representative of the Global Initiative for Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, said “Human rights are the common thread of the constitutional process.”

Rejection and steps forward

The vote for the new constitution was this September 4th, 2022. After two years of drafting the new constitution, 62 percent of Chileans voted against the new Magna Carta and only 38 percent for it.

The National Public Radio reported on the results of the plebiscite. While most states normally rewrite their constitutions during or shortly after the democratic transition, Chile remains an outlier. Additionally, most new constitutions are short, but in this case, the proposed Magna Carta was 388 articles long and considered “confusing” according to Claudio Fuentes, a Santiago political analyst.

This aided a large disinformation campaign launched by more conservative and centrist citizens, claiming the proposed constitution would disarm the police and confiscate people’s private homes. Still, other citizens saw the draft as a product of anger and tension, identifying the new text strongly with the violent protests that had originally spurred its creation.

This represents a loss not only for the constitutional assembly but a commitment to a broad range of human rights. However, as Gabriel Boric, the current president of Chile stated, “You have to listen to the voice of the people.” Extensive social protests first began the move to redefine the social contract between citizens and government, and now democratic procedures have determined the continuance of this process.

This process is not over, Chileans are still waiting on a new constitution. Centrist-left and right-wing politicians have expressed interest in working with the government on the next draft.

Ultimately, while Chileans voted against the proposed constitution, this remains a poignant moment for human rights. Firstly, the level of dialogue on such topics from people of varied backgrounds and historically discriminated groups remains unprecedented in Chile and illustrates the unfettered self-determination of a people. From people organizing and demonstrating their rights to cooperation between radically different political parties, the constitutional assembly remained committed to a document based on human rights.

Students have once again begun protesting at metro stations in response to the rejection. This dialogue will not stop with the constitutional committee, instead, it has and continues to be embodied by the protesters who sparked the original rewrite.

Eugenics: How the Remnants of a Bygone Theory Threaten Personal Liberty Over a Century Later

by Sumaira Quraishi 

Trigger warnings: rape, invasive medical procedures, and medical malpractice.

Often, the Supreme Court of the United States is seen as a paragon of the American legal system and the national values it strives to uphold. At least, it used to be. While trust in the sanctity of the Supreme Court has recently been broken over controversial political issues, the Supreme Court is no stranger to making unfavorable and borderline unconstitutional rulings in cases brought before the justices at the time. While this is to be expected, with the court switching from conservative to liberal-dominant every so often, some cases seem to concern unalienable human rights that have been denied by the court, as expected of a supposed higher authority that is ultimately, and always will be, a product of its time. In 1927, Carrie Buck learned just how fallible the highest court in the American legal system could be when infiltrated with an ideology eventually perpetuated by the Nazi party during World War I. 

Image shows Jewish prisoners in their barracks at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.
Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Birth of Eugenics

Surprisingly, and perhaps horrifyingly, eugenics was not the child of oppressive or violent regimes, but the culmination of centuries of scientific research and racism woven together and spread through communities worldwide during the early 20th century. Eugenics was a theory created to exterminate certain people who were not considered mentally fit, genetically clean, or conventionally attractive. The ones who decided the people that fit into these categories usually were ones in positions of power or influence in society: doctors, politicians, and scientists. Favored methods for perpetuating eugenics were forced sterilization, societal segregation, and social exclusion, all of which seem to be methods straight out of the time of slavery where eugenicists drew inspiration and justification for eugenics. 

In the modern age, there is a laser-like focus on women’s rights to not have a child, and while this pursuit of maintaining women’s rights is justified, for many vulnerable men and women today the fight for the right to have a child is just as in need of attention. An old theory about the superiority of white, able-bodied people may seem like one to be thrown into the history books and mentioned alongside other conventionally shunned snippets of history in the modern discourse, however, eugenics never truly went away. 

Eugenics Still Lingers

Overshadowing lives today as a phantom of the eugenics school of thought, a forgotten Supreme Court case in 1927 named Buck v. Bell led to the codification of sterilizing those deemed “feeble-minded” and genetically inferior by people in positions of power into law. Carrie Buck was a woman who resided in a mental institution and became pregnant after being raped, resulting in staff at the asylum taking acute notice of Buck. Doctors and directors at the asylum were firmly entrenched in the eugenics culture sweeping across America and firmly believed Buck should not be allowed to carry to term. These men took the stand that Buck should be forcibly sterilized to prevent her genes from being passed on, and the Supreme Court was in full agreement, with the justification for the ruling against Buck being that she had a history of mental illness back to one of her grandmothers and being sterilized would protect the goodness of society by keeping “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” people from reproducing. 

Image shows the Supreme Court building from the front.
The Supreme Court Building. Source: Yahoo Images.

Not only is Buck v. Bell an appalling ruling that trod on the constitutional rights of Buck, but it also opened the door for forced sterilization procedures to continue without secrecy and, chillingly, has never been overturned. An old legal case from the 1920s may seem like something to be stored away in textbooks and forgotten, yet, eugenics practices in the form of forced sterilizations are happening today

In California between 2006 and 2010, almost 150 women in two different prisons were given hysterectomies without their consent or legal documentation authorized by the state, with 100 suspected cases of sterilization dating back to 1997 uncovered as well. Furthermore, in 2017 a Tennessee judge offered to reduce prison sentences by 30 days for any inmate who signed up to receive a birth control implant or a vasectomy. The latest case of eugenics rearing its head in American practices was in 2020 when it was revealed that hysterectomies were being performed illegally on women in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. These cases are not the only ones concerning the continued use of forced sterilizations to prevent incarcerated or institutionalized individuals from having the right to choose to have a child, with many more subject to the archaic practice who have yet to have their story told. These practices are considered morally reprehensible by the general public but can trace their roots to eugenic procedures approved by the Supreme Court in a case that was challenged but never overturned, and some laws approving the use of sterilizations are still in existence in states such as Virginia. 

Image shows an empty cell area of a prison.
Prison. Source: Yahoo Images.

What Can Be Done

Fighting a system that has failed a large portion of the American population, and pushing for a Supreme Court ruling to be overturned when the nation’s political climate seems fit to burst with elections on the horizon can seem incredibly intimidating. These thoughts are not unfounded, but what government bodies forget is that their power comes from their people and constituents. Harmful practices can be challenged with public favor and fervor. Staying informed on what influences modern atrocities like Buck v. Bell and knowing that the majority of the population supports upholding the 14th Amendment protecting civil liberties keeps people motivated to improve the lives of their fellow Americans. Leaving Buck v. Bell as a precedent in U.S. law allows for unprotected groups of individuals who are incarcerated or institutionalized to be at heightened risk of human rights abuse, and while forced sterilization is morally reprehensible, the law does not currently outline sterilization as illegal since the Supreme Court ruling remains standing. Reaching out to local or state politicians is an option for those who want to appeal hurtful laws, and a less intimidating option is to join advocacy groups whose views align with your own. 

For more information on another situation involving eugenic practices ruining the lives of nonincarcerated individuals, the case of a fertility doctor who artificially inseminated dozens of his clients with his sperm and remains free from jail can be found here.

Why our criminal justice system is working so well

 

Source: Yahoo Image, KQED

The justice system is working perfectly. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. 

The withholding of information by prosecutors violating the Brady Rule, the failure to investigate other potential suspects, and a lawyer who failed to follow a potential alibi are some ways that the justice system convicted Adnan Syed of the murder of Hae Min Lee. Adnan spent 23 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His sentence was recently vacated, and DNA evidence exonerated him. AFTER MORE THAN TWO DECADES! What went wrong? The jury believed that he was guilty, which means that the jury was convinced that he murdered her. So how come he is now walking free after 23 years? 

First, let’s look at Maryland’s Attorney General Marilyn Mosby and what she had to say. In her press release, she stated that since the prosecutors failed to turn over evidence for two other suspects which could have changed the course of the trial, the Brady Rule was violated. So what is this Brady Rule that keeps coming up? This rule goes back to the case Brady v. Maryland in which the Supreme Court “requires that prosecutors fully disclose to the accused all exculpatory evidence in their possession. There is also the fact that there was a DNA sample that wasn’t tested until very recently. The third and most important thing is that the prosecution’s evidence relied on two things, one being their ‘key witness’ Jay Wilds and the other being the cell phone data that backed up Jay’s confession of helping Adnan bury Hae’s body. While AT&T published a notice – during the trial – that incoming calls are not reliable information to pin a location, the prosecution still used this as evidence, stating that even if the witness lied, the data doesn’t. This is now considered controversial evidence as the data isn’t truly reliable. Other than the cell phone data and Jay’s testimony, the prosecutors had nothing. With all of that presented to Baltimore City Judge Melissa Phinn by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the Sentencing Review Unit, Judge Phinn granted the motion to vacate the conviction of Adnan Syed. The judge gave the state of Maryland the option of proceeding with a new trial within 30 days of such ruling (the 30 days has since passed and he is now presumed innocent due to the DNA testing that was FINALLY done). 

Source: Yahoo Image, Picryl

All this happened due to the publicity from the hit podcast “Serial” and the help of other criminal justice reforms that happened in Baltimore. After 23 years, Adnan is free. But what about the cases that do not get public attention through a podcast or other publicity for that matter? How many others, just like Adnan, are convicted due to the violation of the Brady rule? Or for simply not investigating other potential suspects? A new study done by the National Registry of Exonerations states that of wrongful convictions in 2020, 54% were due to “misconduct by the government”, 34% due to misconduct by the police, and 30% due to misconduct by prosecutors. According to Georgia’s Innocence Project, 1 out of 20 criminal cases “results in a wrongful conviction”. This goes against the advice of one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin: “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.”

Why are we neglecting this advice? Many lives are being stolen due to wrongful conviction of crimes that are small yet heavily punished or thrown into prison as a result of these shortcuts the Justice system takes. Often these injustice acts are directed towards black and brown individuals where America is the leading prison population due to the country’s way of approaching punishment which “often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects minorities, and inflicts overly harsh sentences”. America, unlike other countries, uses prison as a “one-size-fits-all solution to crime”, which means America prosecutes people who are not a public safety problem and often punish those people in a harsher and more damaging way than is truly justified. When did this start? Mass incarceration has been a huge problem in America since the civil war, however, we saw a huge rise in the prison population in the 1970s after Nixon’s “war on drugs” campaign which mostly targeted black individuals. This campaign used both fear and “racial rhetoric” in order to further this ‘movement.’ Under Nixon, we saw a rise in the prison population, however, under Reagan, it was an explosion. When Reagan took office “the total prison population was 329,000” and when he left the population was at 627,000 which is double the starting number. To put it more in perspective, according to the Brennan Center in 2003, for every 100,000 residents, 710 would be incarcerated, and according to the Vera report in 2015, 55% of incarcerated people are either black or brown. This all goes back to the loophole in the 13th Amendment “which abolished slavery and indentured servitude except as a punishment for a crime”, which took effect after the civil war and till now. So there is a a root problem, which is why the justice system is not broken in any way. It was created to harshly convict black and brown individuals. Evidence of such is the data collected in 2010 Prison Policy Initiative study which stated that for every 100,000 residents, 2,306 black individuals are incarcerated versus the 450 white individuals incarcerated. 

Now that we established the existence of such issue, what can we so about it? Discussions are taking place and changes too; after the death of George Floyd, many people voiced out their concerns, this pushed “the Center for American Progress, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation” to “virtually [gather] 1,000 advocates, researchers, artists, and practitioners for the Innovations Conference, a multiday exploration of what it means to reimagine public safety and shrink the footprint of the justice system.” There is a problem within the roots of the justice system, hence the need to “work to root out the systemic racism ingrained in the criminal justice system” that has affected people of color. This can be established, by starting with ending unnecessarily harsh punishments; for example, “Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug charges than their white counterparts”. Another approach can be taken, by rooting out any racial inequality within the justice system; for example, California passed multiple bills “that will address discriminatory practices within jury selection, prohibit prosecutors from seeking convictions or sentences on the basis of defendants’ race or ethnicity, and lay the groundwork for reparations for the Black community”, and by removing the barriers that affect individuals with a criminal record as it disqualifies these people from “voting, obtaining business or occupational licenses, accessing employment and housing, receiving public assistance, and participating in other key elements of civic life”. Another way of helping is by investing in programs such as “child care and education, access to affordable housing, and other supportive services” since they are proven to create strong and safe neighborhoods. As individuals, we can help by voting, spreading awareness, and simply by putting these issues on the table for discussion. Barriers are destroyed through discussion. 

Relativism’s Implications on Universal Human Rights

(source: yahoo images)

If you consider yourself to be a supporter of human rights and all of its technicalities, then you are surely aware of the document that formally brought forth legislation about human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations by a vote of 48-0-8 on December 10, 1948. 

Per its name, the main goal of the Declaration was to universalize human rights and to ensure that every human, no matter where in the world, has the same basic human rights. 

This inherent goal of the Declaration (its aim of universal human rights), has been a source of debate in the philosophical realm for quite some time. This blog will bring forth one particular view relating to the debate, as well as its implications. 

Relativism

(source: yahoo images)

In the realm of philosophy, there exists a concept of relativism. (Or, more specifically, cultural relativism; in this blog, I shall be using these terms synonymously.)

Rather than plainly stating what relativism is, I am going to show you one of the many ways the concept was devised. 

The Earth is big. On our big Earth, there are seven continents. Throughout these seven continents, there are hundreds of states and nations. In these states and nations, billions of people exist. Most of the people within these nations align with a specific cultural identity. Whether it be American, French, Japanese, or Swiss, all humans have a unique cultural identity.  

Moreover, cultures have different forms of expressions. One culture is not necessarily like another (for what is right in one culture could very much be wrong in another). 

Therefore, there is no possible way that an objective set of rules could ever exist. What is correct is relative to the culture and society of where that expression is happening.  

If you followed along and agreed with all of the statements just made, then you are stepping into the realm of relativism. 

More on Relativism

(source: yahoo images)

Relativism is the view that what is “right” and “wrong” is solely dependent on one’s culture. What is correct in the United States could very much be wrong in another nation.

A finite example of this is gratuity, or “tipping,” after a meal in a restaurant.  In the United States, it is acceptable to tip your server after a meal at a restaurant. In Japan, this would be disrespectful. 

In the eyes of relativism, both of these customs are correct. Moreover, they are equally correct—one is not more “right” than the other. 

Additionally, cultural relativism not only says that cultural customs are equally correct but the moral codes of every culture is equally correct also. In other words, no culture is better than another—no culture is more correct. 

However, this characteristic of cultural relativism brings forth another one of its characteristics: there is no such thing as moral progress. 

To say that something has “progressed” is to say that it has become better, meaning that before its progression, it was flawed. This goes against cultural relativism because relativism states that every culture is inherently correct—there is no need to progress. Therefore, rather than saying a culture has “progressed,” relativists say that a culture has simply changed its ways and its moral code. (This is different from progression because it does not imply a culture has advanced for the better due to some arbitrary standard.) 

Cultural relativism, at least at first, might be an appealing outlook on life. After all, who are we to tell different cultures what is right and what is wrong? Every culture and society should be allowed to have their own rules and social norms. It sounds immoral to enforce the United State’s social norms onto other nations.

Relativism’s Implications on Human Rights

(source: yahoo images)

The big implication that follows from relativism (as it relates to human rights) can be broken down as follows: (i) if cultural relativism is correct, every culture is equal and correct; (ii) if every culture is equal and correct, no culture has authority or agency over another; (iii) enforcing universal human rights would not align with all cultures in the world; (iv) if no culture/society has the agency to tell another what to do, and enforcing universal human rights would require telling other cultures what to do, universal human rights cannot exist.

Despite this argument coming to the conclusion that universal human rights cannot exist, we all are very much aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—something that does indeed exist. However, we must note that the argument above does not apply to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

This is due to the fact that the Declaration holds no legal obligation as it is solely a declaration, not a treaty. Nations are not forced to follow it. Instead, they are encouraged to follow it. (However, this is not to say that the Declaration is not followed.)

Therefore, the argument that universal human rights cannot exist still stands. However, the argument’s basis is founded on  the premise that relativism is true and correct—and that might not be the case. 

Universalism

(source: yahoo images)

Before we carry on with our discussion of relativism, I would like to point out another view: universalism. As it relates to politics, universalism, unlike relativism, states that universal human rights can and should exist. 

Universalism is the direct opposite to relativism in the world of politics. It claims that social norms across all cultures are fundamentally similar, hence why it would be possible to universalize (and legislate) human rights. 

Objections to Relativism

(source: yahoo images)

Having now formulated a basic understanding of relativism (as well as its counter: universalism), we can now move on ahead and consider some of the theory’s big objections.

First, let us consider the objection of “no cultural progress”. The lack of cultural progress in relativism, as aforementioned, is formulated from the basis that all cultures are equally correct, with no culture being “better” or “worse.” Due to this, no culture can progress as it would imply it was not “good” in the past. Rather than progressing, a culture merely changed its practices and moral codes.

Therefore, under relativism, one would not be able to say that modern-day Germany is better than Nazi Germany, even though we know it is. Relativism would suggest that moral code of Nazi Germany is just as correct as the moral code of modern Germany; one is not better than the other.

Moreover, under relativism, one could not say that the abolishment of slavery was progress for the United States; we merely changed our ways. 

This, as one would obviously assume, is a big pill to swallow. Most would agree that modern-day Germany and the modern-day USA are better than they were many years ago. However, to say this would be to reject relativism, thereby stating that some cultures and social norms indeed are better than others. 

Another objection to relativism comes from the fact that most people align with multiple different cultures. For example, everyone in the United States lives under the cultural code of the United States. However, we also follow cultural norms that are more local—such as the cultural codes of what city/state we live in. In cases like these, relativism gives no true guidelines on what one should do. 

A famous example of this objection comes from the case Wisconsin vs. Yoder. This case was between the state of Wisconsin and an Amish family that lived in Wisconsin. 

In Wisconsin, legislation requires that every family sends their children to get educated until the age of 16. However, Amish customs say that no child needs education after 8th grade. Thus, a dilemma formulated between one culture and another—the culture of Wisconsin and the culture of the Amish. 

In the end, the Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in favor of the Amish family, citing the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights. 

This however, is just one example of conflicting cultural social norms. What is one supposed to do when their culture does not align with another culture they are a part of? Relativism does not say.

Besides the two mentioned objections to relativism, many more exist. Therefore, it is quite clear that relativism is not a perfect theory nor a perfect view of life. However, despite the objections to the view, many have still aligned with the theory.

Conclusion

(source: yahoo images)

As there are many attractions and objections to relativism, one is, perhaps, able to see why the concept of universal human rights has been a heated source of debate. 

Whether or not there will  ever be a treaty formulated that legally binds nations into following basic human rights is unknown. However, what we do know is that this issue is not one that is as obvious as people might believe at first. 

Perhaps, in the future, if there is diplomatic debate on this topic, a treaty could very well be created. This treaty will ensure that no human ever on this planet gets mistreated. However, until that day, we solely have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a very good starting point for a treaty on human rights. 

Hurricanes: How Climate Change Has Made Them More Intense and More Frequent

I wanted to include this image to showcase how magnificent a hurricane storm really is.
Source: Photo by NASA found on Public Domain on Yahoo Images; An image from space of what a hurricane looks like, especially in its size and severity.

Hurricanes have been a natural disaster that Americans have been aware of for quite a while. They are, however, getting to be more frequent, and unfortunately more intense. They have devastated communities like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Caribbeans after Hurricane Sandy, and even Puerto Rico five years ago as a result of Hurricane Maria. Well, how do Hurricanes happen in the first place, why are they so damaging, and what is contributing to their intensity and frequency today? Hurricanes generally form over oceanic waters, when the warmth from the ocean water, paired with vertical winds, and the cool, moist air coming from surrounding areas come together in a dangerous mix. The warm water and the moisture in the air combine with the cool air, sucking in the air, and releasing it into the moisture, which then forms rain clouds and thunderstorms, with high winds that perpetuate the cycle. This impressive natural disaster is a powerful one, with wind speeds reaching over 70 mph, and can conduct enough electricity to power the world a few hundred times over.

The El Niño and La Niña

I wanted to include this image to showcase how dangerous being caught in a hurricane can be for individuals, property, and even the surrounding environment.
Source: Yahoo Images; an image showcasing how the heavy winds can uproot trees and blow ocean water inland, flooding the communities the storm impacts

While hurricanes are powerful by themselves, certain occurrences in the environment can impact their severity and frequency. Among these factors are the phenomenon known as El Niño and La Niña, where the normal patterns of the climate are disrupted, impacting trade routes, regional weather systems, and the ecosystem as a whole. These phenomena also impact the hurricane seasons, including where they may impact, and how intense they may be. Under the El Niño conditions, hurricanes are experienced largely in the central and eastern Pacific regions, while during the La Niña, effects are felt in the Atlantic region near Florida and Puerto Rico. Typically, La Niña conditions may mean the possibility of more hurricanes, because the winds during the La Niña are more stable, (as opposed to the sudden changes in wind direction or severity), leaving the storm in better conditions to expand and develop.

Economically speaking, these developments can also impact international trade. Some hurricane seasons are so deadly, many trade routes near the path of the hurricanes are filled with docking spaces for vessels to take shelter during storms. Many companies are taking massive risks moving products during these storms, as their goods can get destroyed by the storm, or get lost in the sea due to changing winds and intensity of the storm. This could prove costly for both businesses and consumers, especially adding to the stress of the already existing supply chain crisis.

Hurricanes and the Danger to Human Lives

I wanted to include this image to show how dirty the stormwater can be, making it dangerous for use and consumption
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of how dirty and contaminated the stormwater can be. This is harmful to use and consume, and special precautions need to be taken before handling the stormwater.

As intimidating and incredible as hurricanes sound, they also come with many health hazards and massively disrupt the way of life for the communities impacted by them. For one, hurricanes bring with them massive storms and high winds, oftentimes killing many people from their impact. If people manage to shelter from the storms, the resulting floods from the heavy rains can claim homes, properties, pets, and lives, as people struggle to literally, stay afloat. Even as this goes on, the community’s infrastructure is attacked, including roads, bridges, the power grid, and the water supply, as well as institutions such as banks, hospitals, and universities, to name a few.

Many of these institutions and infrastructure are essential for survival, meaning that people may remain stranded or stuck in a part of the region deemed dangerous simply because they no longer have access to travel across the roads and bridges the storm claimed. This also means that people of the impacted communities have to deal with the wet, cold temperatures while not having access to power or heat. Having no access to banks and hospitals means that you may not be able to withdraw much-needed funds or go to the hospital because it’s flooded or their equipment can no longer be used. Add onto this the issue of water supply, then suddenly the impact of the storm produces a failing society. These are issues that may take weeks or months even, to fix and get back to “normal” conditions.

Hurricanes are especially damaging because they bring in strong storm surges, which are walls of ocean water pushed onto shore because of the high winds, both of which are powerful enough to knock buildings over and destroy the standing infrastructures. Hurricanes can also cause storm waters, which are runoffs with contaminants that are picked up by the storm along the way, and which can include sediments, debris, fertilizers, fuels, and even sewage from nearby sewage infrastructures that have been damaged.

This can be dangerous to use and consume, and many official statements are posted following hurricanes urging people not to consume these waters, and the best practices to employ to decontaminate the waters before use.  Hurricanes simply existing are majorly impacting people’s right to movement, freedom, safety, life, clean water, and so many more basic necessities. However, there is also an added layer of racism in this mix, mainly in areas of how hurricanes from different regions are responded to, the consequences of climate change, and how this continues to expand the developmental gap between nations of the Global North and the Global South.

Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Double Standards?

I wanted to showcase how hurricanes can plunge communities underwater, and how long it would take for them to get back to anything resembling normalcy.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the realities of the aftermath of a hurricane or tropical storm. Many communities are flooded, with people facing homelessness, and many resources are unavailable due to the destruction caused by the storm.

Unfortunately, the growing severity of the storms means that the communities impacted by them are having to not only brace against the storms but build their infrastructures to withstand the next round of storms. With the frequency of storms increasing, this also means that instead of a once-in-a-lifetime storm, these communities are experiencing storms of similar intensities every few years. Hurricanes form under conditions of warm water mixing with moisture and vertical winds, so the rising ocean temperatures (resulting from global warming) are naturally going to lead to conditions where hurricanes are more probable.

Among other things, climate change can impact not only intensify the storms, and the resulting consequences from them, that these communities deal with on a seasonal basis but also lead to the rising sea and ocean levels that will submerge many communities under water within the near future if climate change is left unaddressed. This will also contribute to the many other issues that will come out of climate change’s intensity, including the increasing number of climate refugees, the expanding food shortages, and the many conflicts that experts say will break out as a result of boundary disputes.

To make matters worse, although the storms do not discriminate where they make landfall, the responses to the storms have been different depending on the storm’s target. This was very clear in how the media and many Americans reacted to the two hurricanes that hit Florida and Puerto Rico within less than a couple of weeks of each other. Despite both regions being part of the United States, (Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory), Florida received more assistance and coverage when Hurricane Ian made landfall than Puerto Rico did following Hurricane Fiona. Fiona’s destruction was in addition to Puerto Rico’s recent recovery from Hurricane Maria’s impacts only five years ago. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is the government’s response to natural disasters, awarded Puerto Rico $456 million following the destruction of Hurricane Fiona. This may seem like a lot, but FEMA awarded $1.2 billion to Florida in response to Hurricane Ian’s impacts.

Although the efforts of FEMA in response to Hurricane Fiona are considered by many to be an improvement from their responses during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria five years ago, the island of Puerto Rico continues to struggle with poor infrastructure and dwindling supplies. While it is fantastic that such support was given to Floridians struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, many of whom are people in the elderly age demographic, Puerto Ricans are terrified that their struggles will be brushed aside to make room for Florida’s recovery from Hurricane Ian. President Biden has promised that this will not be the case, and on his visit to Puerto Rico in early October, has even promised additional funds for their recovery endeavors. This funding, however, (a proposal of $60 million), is still nowhere near the required funds to rebuild an entire society for the second time within a decade.

I wanted to include this image to point out the severity of this issue. 2030 is not that far away, and to think so many places could be underwater in under ten years!
Source: Yahoo Images; As sea levels begin to rise, more and more places are going to experience extreme weather, and many places will go underwater by the year 2030 if climate change is not addressed properly.

Additionally, although climate change is a global phenomenon, many of the communities impacted by it are those who are already experiencing marginalization, and this adds another layer to the climate crisis. There have been cries about how climate change is anthropogenic, (meaning it is an impact of human activities), and how the industrialized West has been contributing to climate change for centuries while the developing nations are experiencing the consequences of the activities of the industrialized West. This inequitable reality not only transfers the consequences of the West’s actions but also, the increase in climate awareness and environmental consciousness are used as arguments to prevent developing nations from using the same type of infrastructures required to compete with the economies of the industrialized West effectively and efficiently.

While this sentiment is definitely understandable, the push should be toward shifting policies to develop green infrastructures and help these nations transform their energy to incorporate renewable resources instead of chastising them for trying to develop their societies using the same techniques used by the West that brought the world to this stage in the first place. Blaming the developing nations while the industrialized ones continue to pollute is both hypocritical, and further destabilizes the economies of the developing nations, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation and the following lack of accountability that was founded and perfected during colonial times. When addressing climate change issues, these are some nuances to keep in mind; if climate policies are passed without considering the inequalities between how climate change impacts the developing nations differently than the industrialized nations, the wealth and inequality gap will continue to increase between the Global South and Global North.

Finally, with the increasing severity of hurricanes and the rising sea levels due to climate change, many cities around the world would be underwater as soon as 2030. These cities include Venice, Italy; Kolkata, India; Basra, Iraq; Bangkok, Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and even several cities in the US, including Miami, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana. This will take with it the homes of the people who live there, and the immense history that can be found in these places today. It will instead plunge many people into food insecurity, forcing many to become climate refugees and increasing hostilities between the members of these communities and their inland counterparts to fight for survival.

So, What Can Be Done?

I wanted to include this info graph because contrary to many popular beliefs that we are doomed, we do have things we could implements as a planet to combat climate change and become more sustainable in the future.
Source: Yahoo Images; This infographic expands on five types of renewable sources that can be used in place of the fossil fuels used today. These include solar, wind, biofuel, hydropower, and geothermal energy sources.

With the increasing severity of hurricanes, added to the ongoing climate crisis, many people around the world are experiencing both the worst and unfortunately the mildest (when compared to future possibilities of the climate crisis) impacts from these natural disasters. One of the many things that can be done on a global level is to continue to pressure every nation to convert their energy systems to support renewable resources and shift away from the fossil fuels that continue to exacerbate the climate crisis. This includes shifting away from oil, coal, and carbon, to incorporating solar, wind, and hydro-powered energy systems. Countries can implement green infrastructure and slowly attempt to return the environment to pre-pollution levels, (which may take hundreds of years to accomplish if started now).

At the domestic level, climate protections can be added, expanding the overall number of protected lands, and making acts such as deforestation and pollution illegal. Additionally, industries that impact the environment can be regulated for their business practices and their carbon footprints, and industries that use water systems can be further regulated for their practices of waste disposal, making sure the waterways are not polluted by their use of the resources. Furthermore, great effort needs to be taken to ensure that communities most impacted by climate change are included in conversations about policies and aid. Finally, on a more personal level, becoming more knowledgeable about the climate, and educating yourself and others to be more environmentally conscious can help shift the societal mind frame, resulting in the push for better policies addressing climate change as a whole.