The Economic and Social Impacts of Climate Change

The United States has been plagued with natural disasters in the past few months. With Hurricane Harvey in August, Hurricane Irma in September, and Hurricane Maria hitting US territory Puerto Rico last week, recovery will be a long process. Unfortunately, the damage comes not just from hurricanes. On the West Coast and southeast Alaska, wildfires run rampant. Outside of the US, Central America has been under a tsunami advisory; landslides and droughts in Africa; monsoons in South Asia; floods in China, and the list goes on.

Photo of the earth from outerspace
earth. Source: Medrawtchina, Creative Commons

Why is this happening? The answer to this question can be summed up in two words: climate change. NASA defines climate change as gradual changes in a region’s regular weather pattern over many years. Examples of these changes can be temperatures being higher or lower than what is normal in the area, or it can be an increase or decrease in annual precipitation. Climate change is not a sudden change in weather, such as a sunny day turning into a cloudy day in a matter of hours. The biggest factor is the rise in the globe’s temperature. Since 1970, the global temperature has risen around 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit each decade. While 0.3 does not seem like a big change, imagine your body’s internal temperature rising 0.3 degrees every ten days. Your body would go into shock trying to adjust, which is essentially what is happening with our planet. Small changes in the globe’s climate have large impacts.

Scientific evidence shows that climate change is real and happening, and the earth’s climate is warming. As a result, the ocean’s temperature is also rising. A hurricane’s strength depends on three factors: water temperature, wind shear, and moisture in the atmosphere. According to Vox, “Warmer water and atmospheric moisture give the system energy. A low wind shear — i.e., sharp changes in wind directions as you go higher and higher in the atmosphere — keeps a hurricane from dissipating.” In an interview with Vox, meteorologist Klozbach claimed that he found the Atlantic Ocean, where Irma formed, is two degrees warmer than the ocean usually is this time of year. The strength of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria are substantially impacted by changes in the climate, as they too originated in abnormally warm waters.

As another result of the earth’s temperature rising, scientists have concluded that wildfires are “occurring about five times more often than in 1970…burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer.” Wildfires can be caused by humans unintentionally by dropping a cigarette, or by natural causes such as lightening. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, every state in the western US has seen an increase in numbers of annual wildfires. The duration of the fires and their intensity are also a result of climate change. Because the earth’s temperature is rising, the soil becomes drier, droughts occur, therefore making chances of a wildfire increase.

What are other consequences of climate change? Aside from the damage to communities, mass displacement, or even death in extreme cases such as the 1,200 deaths caused by the monsoons in Asia, there are other long-lasting effects as well. After Hurricane Harvey flooded a large portion of southeast Texas with a record-breaking 51.88 inches, there were over 150,000 jobs created that were dedicated to post-flooding clean up and construction. However, the trio of climate change-powered hurricanes have potentially destroyed job growth for September and October by taking out over 80,000 payrolls. In addition to that, CSNBC Market Insider claims the damage caused by Hurricane Maria is predicted to keep citizens of the territory jobless until November. According to Diane Swonk, CEO of DS Economics, “We’re creating an average 175,000 jobs a month … The problem is it looks like the hurricane disruption will overwhelm those job gains in September to get them close to zero, and we’ll likely see a negative reading in October because of the sheer number of people that were affected in Puerto Rico. We really have a humanitarian crisis there.” As a usual result of hurricanes, gas prices shot up. Forbes reported that Texas had the highest gas prices it had seen since 2014 at almost $5 per gallon in Fort Worth.

Storage building photographed with Hurricane Irma in the background
Spent Hurricane Irma outside. Source: Concrete Connection, Creative Commons

Wildfires can also have positive and negative economic effects. Similar to the hurricane clean-up crews, the beneficial effects come either from rebuilding after a wildfire or fire suppression. Counter to that, Diaz found in a study conducted in 2003 that California had lost over $43 million in wildfire expenses that year. It was also estimated that about 5,000 fire-related jobless claims were filed in the same year. Due to the wildfires this year, parts of Texas have lost roughly $21 million in agricultural costs – without accounting for costs of damages on equipment. Wildfires also contaminate water supplies and produce air pollution. The largest concern with the drinking water supply is sediment filling reservoirs or basins, and sediment going into the air supply can result in long-term damage to lungs.

Arguably, the most important impact of these disasters is the social impact. When Hurricane Irma was destined to hit Florida, 6.3 million people were told to evacuate. Roughly 800,000 Texans have filed claims for help in after Hurricane Harvey. Over six states have seen damages to their agriculture because of wildfire damage. These cases of displacement and infrastructure damage can also have psychological effects. Thompson asserts that people show high levels of “anxiety, stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more signs of depression” when displaced after a natural disaster. Food security is also a factor in measuring the social impact. With damages to agriculture, this should come as no surprise. While the US is effected by droughts and agricultural damages, in less developed countries, such as the seventeen countries in Africa that have suffered from drought this year, food security is a much larger issue.

Photo of a flower being grown in a bottle cap
Recycling. Source: Marian Kloon, Creative Commons

The true question is: where do we go from here? Earlier this year, President of the United States Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement to combat climate change and reduce the United States’ pollution: the Paris Climate Accords. While the climate changes due to natural causes, without proper attention to the environment, scientist have warned that the earth’s temperature will continue to grow at an accelerating rate due to human activity. With one of the world’s leaders pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, that intangible threat is encouraged to be a tangible reality. Some US states have pledged to continue practicing proper environmental safety techniques. However, without a legal force coercing large factories to control their pollution emission, the US will become a large factor in contributing to the acceleration of climate change. It is our job to take care of the earth in any way that we can. If you would like to know how you can help slow down climate change, refer to Prevent Climate Change’s website.

American Citizens Affected By Hurricane Maria

Over the month of September, the island of Puerto Rico experienced two traumatic hurricanes: Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. The eye of Hurricane Irma, a category five hurricane, hit north of the Island on September 7, 2017. Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane to hit the island, left 1 million people without power. Shortly after Irma, Puerto Rico (PR) was ravaged again by another devastating hurricane. Hurricane Maria made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, resulting in a complete power outage in the island. 60,000 people were without electricity by the time Maria hit the island. Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló explained to CNN the island’s power grid is “a little bit old, mishandled and weak,” thus grid could take months to repair. Stemming from Puerto Rico’s power catastrophe, which especially strained the island’s power authority, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) filed for bankruptcy last July after racking up a $9 billion dollar debt. Not only did PREPA file for bankruptcy, so did Puerto Rico in May 2017.  Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy is the biggest municipal bankruptcy ever filed in United States history, owing the US more than $70 billion, thereby complicating officials ability to borrow money for public use. Post natural disaster recovery is reliant on money and resources, and without adequate funding and focused government management, rebuilding the island’s power system will be strained at best. The Puerto Rican economy and infrastructure was already struggling, and the impact of Hurricane Maria will exacerbate the issue further.

A picture of the American and Puerto Rican Flag
Todos Somos Boricua!. Source: Thomas Cizauskas, creative commons.

Even though Puerto Rico is not an American state or located on the mainland, PR is an American territory. Legally, a US territory has “the status of commonwealth, a legal and political status that is above a territory but still below a state.”  In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted U.S. Citizenship to Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico on or after April 25, 1898. Puerto Rican US citizens are entitled to the same inalienable rights as mainland US citizens. Puerto Rican US citizens are also entitled to equal FEMA federal government response to natural disasters. Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million US citizens and, without power, millions of Americans will not have access to clean water, medical supplies, food, and basic public health services.

Food and Water

Currently, food and water supplies are at emergency levels throughout Puerto Rico. According to FEMA, 42% of the people on the island do not have access to potable water. Potable water is safe to drink and use for food preparation, without risk of health problems. The loss of power resulted in a lack of access to clean water to bathe, cook, or flush toilets since water cannot be pumped into resident’s homes. Limited clean water sources result in a substantial public health crisis. Without clean water, individuals are prone to malnutrition, and poor hygiene and sanitation; this amplifies the spread of communicable diseases across the entire island. Specifically, the CDC highlights proper water, hygiene and sanitation has the “potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths globally.”

As for food, 85% of the island’s food is imported from neighboring countries, like the Dominican Republic. Extreme infrastructural damage by Hurricane Maria massively disrupted the territory’s typical food imports. Maria additionally decimated Puerto Rico’s agriculture sectorresulting in a depletion of 80% of the crop value and local food production in Puerto Rico. The destruction of food imports and local food production is predicted to dramatically increase the cost of food itself and dramatically increase food shortages. These consequences will likely result in increased malnutrition of PR citizens, thereby increasing related illnesses and their effects, such as stunting and wasting throughout the island.  Recently, President Trump temporarily waive the Jones Act which “requires goods shipped between American ports to be carried out exclusively by ships built primarily in the United States, and to have U.S. citizens as its owners and crews.” Governer Richardo Rosello of Puerto Rico requested the act be waived, as the Act hinder disaster relief efforts post Hurricane Maria. Lack of power and crumbled infrastructure continue to make the distribution of food and humanitarian aid a challenge and pressing human rights issue.

a picture of water bottles
III MEF Marines prepare to provide assistance following tsunami in Japan. Source: DVIDSHUB, creative commons.

Health Care

“Just about every interaction with the health system now involves electricity, from calling a hospital for help to accessing electronic medical records and powering lifesaving equipment like hemodialysis machines or ventilators”

– Jullia Belluz, Vox

Puerto Rico’s health care infrastructure is devastated. Without an operational electrical grid, hospitals utilize gas-powered electric generators for energy. However, continuous diesel fuel shortages and lack water have ruthlessly weakened the capacity to treat patients throughout dozens of hospitals on the island. Likewise, numerus citizens injured during the hurricane have yet to be treated by health care professionals. Vulnerable populations, including: 1) children, 2) the elderly, and 3) persons with disabilities 4) life threatening health conditions, are at more severe risk for injury and death. Vulnerable populations such as the elderly and newborns require greater medical attention than the general population. Lack of power and hospital infrastructure becomes life threatening to patients needing live saving medical treatment.

Right to Adequate Health

The entire loss of power throughout the island exacerbates the intensity of Puerto Rico’s state of emergency. In our technologically advanced society, power is used in almost every aspect of our lives, especially in the US bureaucracy. Power helps us achieve our right to adequate health, explicitly defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is necessary Puerto Rico finds a timely solution to the territory’s failed power grid. The longer the communities live without power, the prospect of healthy and safe living environments remains grim. A complication furthering the aforementioned crises is the US’s congressional response to Hurricane Maria, which has been exceedingly disproportionate as compared to FEMA’s response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the president signed a $15 billion Harvey relief fund to help victims.  However, for victims of Hurricane Irma, more than 20 days have passed since the initial hit on Puerto Rico. Two weeks later Hurricane Maria hit the island, and still Congress has failed to propose a spending budget for post-disaster relief. US officials claim they are waiting for greater insight into the full assessment of damage on Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria completely infringed on the rights of US citizens. The effects of Maria are going to negatively interfere with a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights explained in the UDHR. Food, water, and health care are all required to maintain adequate health. Delayed financial response by congress to Hurricane Maria will continue to perpetuate poverty throughout the region.  Future PR recovery initiatives need to focus on rebuilding the island’s economy, and power grid infrastructure. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and are entitled to the same protection as all citizens; however, all people’s human rights should be protected regardless of citizenship.

Silence = Death: ACT UP

The basis of this blog is How to Survive a Plague. The story and all direct quotes are from this documentary.

a sign from the 30th anniversary of ACT UP rally
01a.Start.March.ActUp.NYC.30March2017. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.

“We’re in a PLAGUE”, shouts Larry Kramer.

A plague to an outsider looks differently to an insider, particularly one who battles symptoms every day. The plague Kramer shouts of is HIV/AIDS and its decimation of the homosexual community. Until I watched this documentary, I had not considered AIDS a plague because its label was an epidemic or pandemic. My perspective on the topic was limited by my understanding of another’s plight. My first recollection of learning about HIV/AIDS happened in the early 1990s when Ryan White, a hemophiliac, died and Magic Johnson, a heterosexual basketball player, made his announcement. I still remember how as a middle-schooler, I rationalized the knowledge someone a few years older than myself died while also anticipating the death of one of my favorite basketball players. At the time, I had no idea the millions who succumbed to AIDS would die after a lack of treatment for the disease; nor did I know of the group of radical activists shaking up the government and scientific community with demands for intervention. The individuals of ACT UP, through the coalescence of anger and non-violent direct action, took the on the burden of the dying community. How to Survive a Plague chronicles the 10-year fight for antiretrovirual medications (ARV) needed to both save the lives of those living with the disease and help end the AIDS crisis in the US.    

Greenwich Village in New York City was the epicenter of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. During its initial outbreak, the virus was widely considered a ‘homosexual’ disease. Hospitals offered no treatments and turned the dying away, placing blame and responsibility for the epidemic squarely on the victims’ shoulders. AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) began “fighting for their lives, patients and their advocates took matters into their own hands.” The activists, labelled fascists rather than concerned citizens, began locally – at NY City Hall in 1987, six years into the pandemic.

Peter Staley, a bond trader on Wall Street at the time, insisted, “I’m going to die from this. This isn’t going to be cured” because without government trials or treatments at that point in time, all hope seemed lost. Hope arrived in a scientist named Iris Long, who offered her time to explain and teach members of ACT UP the ins and outs of the scientific community, arming them with medication and funding information. Survival became dependent upon knowledge of what needed to go into the body; therefore, forming the Treatment and Data Committee (T&D). The goal of T&D remained reading medical journal articles as a means of raising awareness while arming the members with terms and ideas for advocacy. The first medical treatment offered was AZT.

AZT, for many infected including Staley, proved more harmful than helpful. First, it cost $1000 per year. Second, it was not widely available. Third, side effects were unbearable in some cases. Lastly, it did not prevent any opportunistic infections from attacking an already weakened immune system. Robert Rafsky questioned, “What does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they are human? A decent society does not put people out to let them die because they have done a human thing.” By 1988, over 800,000 people worldwide died of AIDS-related complications. For members of ACT UP, there was a direct correlation between the loss of American lives to AIDS and the government’s failure to make medications accessibly affordable and safe. Overseas markets had accessible medications, but Americans bought medication on the black market—the “buyers’ club”, a desperate means of saving their lives while protesting government agencies. The buyers’ club stored and sold medications not approved by the US FDA, and provided information about HIV/AIDS related infections, including opportunistic infections.

The US FDA tested and marketed ARVs at a significantly slower rate than Europe—7 to 10 years versus 9 months respectively. While the FDA sat on their power to make, test, and market medications, deceased patients gathered into garbage bags and refused by funeral parlors; disregarded and denied dignity, even in death. In 1989, hope arrived again through a partnership with Bristol Myers and NIH as activists used platforms to bridge the gap between science and themselves by reaffirming the same goal: saving lives. NIH increased research priorities and allowed activists to participate in panels regarding trials and treatments. By 1992, the death toll worldwide was more 3,300,000 and a small sample of ARVs was ready to trial in the US.

The goal of ARVs is to suppress and halt the progression of the virus. In the 1992 trial, researchers found that over the course of a week, suppression of the virus occurred but did not remain in most patients. Fortunately, in one participant dubbed “Patient 143”, viral load suppression stabilized over time. Despite this small victory, 1993-95 became the most difficult for the activists. Internal splintering of ACT UP created a division of priorities which resulted in the founding of the Treatment Action Group (TAG). George H.W. Bush argued a change in lifestyle and behavior could stop the threat/spread of AIDS, yet he failed to conclude that it is irrational to believe that others should change their behavior, specifically LGBTQ community, without him changing his response to their requests, demands, and deaths. Additionally, Europe confirmed the ineffectiveness of the ARVs that were accessible at the time. This setback meant a reframing, restructuring, and reanalysis of the AIDS research scientific process.

TAG activists, together with the scientific community, focused on the possibility of a triple drug combination rather than a single drug solution. In 1995-96, the Lazarus effect began to take place in patients after 30 days on the medications. The antiretroviral therapy (ART) combinations arrived too late for millions including Ryan White; however, they sustain and give life to millions of others including Magic Johnson. The decision of ACT UP activists spawned justice for humanity, not just the LGBTQ community. Staley summarizes, “…just so many good people [died]… like any war, you wonder why you came home.”

This Wednesday, October 4 at Birmingham Museum of Art, 6pm, ACT UP activist Peter Staley will participate in panel discussion “30 Years of Acting Up”. The panel is a part of the One in Our Blood exhibition taking place around the city, including AEIVA and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

 

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.

It’s Not Just Irma and Harvey: Deadly Floods Affect Millions Around the World

map_of_southeast_asia. Source: ANHCANEM88, creative commons.

These past few weeks have been a very vulnerable time for our global community. Media has been predominately focusing on the countries and victims affected by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Jose, however nature’s violent outcry stormed communities all over the world- not just the hurricanes in the West. Powerful monsoons struck South Asia, affecting more than 41 million people throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. In Karachi, Pakistan, devastating monsoon floods abruptly invaded communities preparing to celebrate an Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha. Lastly, Typhoon Hato swept into the cities of Macau and Hong Kong, causing thousands of people to flee their homes.

After all of these natural disasters transpired, one concept became very clear: Mother Nature does not discriminate. Natural disasters affect the rich and poor, high income countries and low income countries, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities. Regions struck by these disasters are left with substantial amounts of infrastructural, property, and environmental damage. As a result, victims of these disaster experience traumatic consequences, such as internal displacement and food insecurity. Growing up, I believe I was too young and just overall uninformed to really comprehend what natural disasters entail, and why they are so devastating. However, now being an adult, it’s obvious to me that the reason why natural disasters are so devastating is because post-disaster damage completely compromise the dignity of human rights detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Disasters interfere with a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights emphasized through 17, Article 22-27 of the UDHR. Articles 22-27 of the UDHR focus on establishing social security through people’s right to education, employment, adequate living conditions, cultural life, and leisure. Likewise, Article 17 of the UDHR establishes that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Unfortunately, after a natural disaster, these rights are undeniably negatively affected.

Hurricane Katrina LA7. Source: News Muse, Creative Commons.

Right to Work

The right to work and employment is severely hindered after natural disasters due unimaginable infrastructural damage. In 2005, the US experienced public health tragedy when Hurricane Katrina devastated millions along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released numerous reports on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on employment and unemployment. These statistics state: “approximately 38 percent of business establishments in Louisiana and Mississippi were within a 100-mile corridor of the path of Hurricane Katrina’s center.” From August 2005 until June 2006, Louisiana unemployment rates soared from 5.8% pre-hurricane to 12.1% post-Hurricane Katrina. In Mississippi, unemployment rates climbed from 6.8% in 2004 before the hurricane to 10.4% after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone has the right to work to “ensur[e] for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”; this is ultimately difficult to achieve when opportunities for employment have literally been washed away. In the Caribbean regions, hit hardest by hurricane Irma, tourism one of the largest revenue-builders and an important source of income for many families. Specifically in Anguilla, a territory hit by Hurricane Irma, tourism contributed to 57% of the island’s GDP in 2016. Generally, travel and tourism alone contributed to about 15% of the Caribbean region’s total GDP. For the Caribbean victims of Irma, the disruption of the tourism industry is a disruption to a family’s livelihood. Natural disaster victims living in rural regions such as India, Nepal, and Bangladesh face continuous threat to work when their agriculture and crop land get destroyed and the becomes unprofitable.

Right to Adequate Living

The most noticeable human right that natural disasters discernibly jeopardize is the right to “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…” For many survivors after natural disasters, ‘adequate living’ is no longer a reality. What happens when a family’s home is demolished in the wake of disasters such as these? Tragically, millions of people become internally displaced within their countries. The United Nations reports that about 851,000 people are displaced in India, 352,738 Nepalese are displaced from their homes, and lastly 696,169 people have been displaced in Bangladesh since the monsoons. Food insecurity also becomes an urgent need to address throughout regions affected by these disasters. Within two days after the floods, Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NEKSAP), issued a first assessment of the damage. Results exposed that 70% of flood-affected areas are moderately food insecure or worse. Of that 70%, 42% of those regions are highly and severely food insecure.

Right to Education

Natural disasters also impede on one’s right to an education due to the damage sustained by schools and educational infrastructure. Human loss to education systems, comprising the loss of school administration personal, teachers, and education policy makers, affects the institution’s ability to deliver a quality education. UN reports affirm that in Bangladesh, 2,292 primary and community schools suffered substantial water damage. In Nepal, 1,958 schools have been ruined, thereby impacting the education of 253,605 children. In India, nearly one million students’ education have been disrupted when floods damaged 15,455 schools. Damage to schools not only undercut education in the short term, but threaten long-term educational goals as well. USAID explains “the normal processes of educational planning break down during an emergency, weakening the overall system and creating future problems in the development of an inclusive educational system.”

“Famine”. Source: Jennifer Boyer, Creative Commons

What’s next?

These events have got a lot of people asking why these disasters even occurred in the first place. Well, science indicates that climate change has become a major catalyst to such drastic weather related disasters witnessed throughout the past couple of weeks. As NASA explains “changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.” With rising temperatures and a predicted increase in weather-related disasters, maybe the United Nations and our government should start to consider changing the definition of an internally displaced person (IDP) or a refugee to include people fleeing from natural disasters. The UN definition of a refugee is a person who , “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” Just like people running away from armed conflict, victims of weather-related disasters are also trying to escape harsh realities, including inadequate living conditions, food insecurity, no economic opportunities, and violence. A modern day example of weather-related disasters is the famine spreading across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya caused by intensified droughts.

“We have moved four times in the last four months. We were trying to follow the rain – moving according to where the rains were supposed to come. But they haven’t. If the rains don’t come, none of us will survive”

– Farhia Mohamad Geedi, Oxfam

Just like Farhia and her family, 10.7 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and are facing sever hunger. If their governments are not able to provide them with a feasible and effective solution, they have no other choice but to leave, or die. With a predicted increase in weather-related disasters such as drought and floods, more people will be living in extremely life-threatening  environments that will force them to leave their home. The destruction of the consecutive water disaster have been very tragic, but there is hope for the future. Countries have begun to recognize that “their shared burden of climate-related disasters can only be lifted by universal action to address the causes of climate change.” 175 countries from all over the world have signed onto the Paris Agreement, which will focus on keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius. We as a global community have already made such positive impact by acknowledging we have a problem, now it’s time to hold ourselves accountable for progress.

 

Additional resource: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

 

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 2: Costs to the American Transgender Community

A bathroom sign titled "All Gender"
Asheville’s response to NC Bathroom Bill. Source: Bradley Griffin, Creative Commons.

On July 26th, 2017 President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

The Real Cost to Transgender Americans

Transgender individuals, many of whom already face daily harassment and discrimination for their gender identity, have been shown to actively avoid situations where hostile confrontations may arise.  In 2016, after a political storm erupted out of North Carolina and the then-governor Pat McCrory’s “Bathroom Bill”, a landmark study on the lives of 27,715 transgender persons documented several startling changes that occurred in the lives of transgender persons.  These include:

  • 59% of transgender persons avoiding bathrooms for feared confrontations
  • 12% report being harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted
  • 31% avoiding eating or drinking to avoid needing to use public restrooms
  • 8% contracting a kidney or urinary tract infection as a potential consequence for avoiding the use of public restrooms

Similar studies also document the prolonged and repeated stress endured by transgender individuals, when using public restrooms, after the “Bathroom Bill” was proposed.  Situations in which their minority status is negatively highlighted or emphasized, such as the use of public restrooms, are loaded events for transgender individuals. Until recently, the link between a culture of antagonism towards issues related to transgender individuals and the subjective experiences of these individuals themselves has been suspected but unsupported. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined the gravest mental health crisis experienced by transgender persons: suicide.

Transgender individuals, as compared to the general public, are 14 times more likely to think about committing suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide.  This horrifying trend holds in countries outside of the United States, and these rates may even be higher in transgender adolescents.  With this new data and analysis, the role of culture, across 2 different theoretical models, was shown to significantly impact the rate of suicide ideation in transgender individuals.  Suicide ideation was significantly predicted by factors such as victimization (specific attacks on an individual for their status as transgender), rejection (social reluctance to engage with transgender individuals), and non-affirmation (the active reminding of a transgender individual their gender identity is not accepted or validated).  To restate the findings, transgender individuals were more likely to seriously contemplate suicide, or wantonly envision a future in which they are not alive, if surrounded by a culture characterized by isolation, discrimination, and outright antagonism.  An important caveat remains: researchers will never be able to interview transgender individuals who have completed the act of suicide.  The ‘edge point’, or the final motive impelling a transgender individual to successfully end their own life, can be hinted at but will never be known with absolute certainty.  However, combining previous research on the statistical likelihood of suicide and suicidal ideation in transgender individuals, coupled with the recently supported theory that culture is a major implicator in the suicide risk of transgender individuals, presents the concerned public with startling information.  For these victimized individuals, a culture of transphobia can exacerbate a predisposition for suicide, potentially resulting in a public health crisis with deadly results.

a spray painted sign of Trans Lives Matter
Source: Dimitra Linardou, Creative Commons

Culture, according to Riane Eisler, is in constant flux.  People choose both their internal response to the forces of culture around them and their externally exertion of control over culture in future interactions with others.  According to Eisler’s Cultural Transformation Theory, a culture of transphobia (the ignorance, fear, or outright hatred of transgender individuals) can change to a culture of empathy, partnership, and mutual understanding.  Likewise, a culture of tentative acceptance can be quickly reversed to one of arbitrary discrimination and empowered domination.  One way a pro-social Eislierian cultural transformation for transgender persons can occur is through the creation, maintenance, and protection of human rights for transgender individuals (Eisler, 1988).  In the United States, transgender rights have a high degree on variance, mostly along state or jurisdiction lines (a graph displaying specific issues related to transgender rights in the US can be found here).  The scant federal rulings on the rights of transgender persons have involved only a few aspects of life for transgender persons, including discrimination in the workplace, marriage equality, and conversion therapy.  The rights of trans persons are still in flux, and the Trump Administration may indeed roll back these protections as their time in governance continues.  Rollbacks of trans rights might, as is supported by Testa et al.’s and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s research, create a public health crisis for transgender persons.  Creating a culture accepting of and empathic to the needs of transgender persons must include comprehensive human rights legislation protecting this vulnerable group without fear of retraction from a hostile administration, such as the Trump administration.

President Trump, under the guise of “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, attempted to used his public platform to instill a culture of blatant disregard for the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and protection of freedom offered by transgender persons who volunteered, volunteer, and may yet volunteer to serve in the United States Armed Forces.  The costs he associated with transgender persons serving in the military are non-issues, and a sober analysis of his proposed logic illuminates a stunning disconnect from the actual militaristic consequences of allowing transgender persons to serve in the US Armed Forces.  The literature, including both personal and academic accounts, reveals a population within America severely prone to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in the aftermath of public controversies regarding a fundamental part of their very identity.  The oppression of the transgender community has been shown to have far-reaching and oftentimes permanent consequences for trans persons- such as suicide.  The cost to the trans community from attacks such as these far outweigh the illusory costs to the Trump Administration in allowing trans persons to live a life unencumbered by blatant discrimination.

 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or self-harm, here are resources to contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (press 1 if you are a US military veteran in crisis): 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project (youth service): 1-866-488-7386

GLBT National Help Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

 

Call 911 if you believe there is an immediate threat to your and / or someone else’s physical safety and wellbeing.

 

References

Eisler, R. (1988).  The Chalice and the Blade.  San Fransico: Harper.

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 1: Costs to President Trump

President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following on July 26, 2017:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

President Trump shrugs at a political rally
Source: Curt Johnson, Creative Commons

A History of Inclusion

The service of members of the LGBTQIA community in the US military has remained a highly contentious and passionately-fought issue on all sides of the political (and gender) spectrum.  The battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces first involved inclusion along ethnic lines, then involving lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and more recently the rights of transgender persons to openly serve.

On July 26th, 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed into effect Executive Order 9981: Establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.  The order essentially desegregated the United States Armed Forces, stating “… there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin”.  President Trump’s tweet banning the service of transgender American soldiers comes on the 69th anniversary of President Truman’s executive order.  This Executive Order jumpstarted the battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces, first included ethnic lines, then sexual orientation, and finally gender identity.

President Bill Clinton, in October of 1993, executed a new law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, and Don’t Harass”, though it’s commonly referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT).  DADT reversed the long-standing statutory ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the United States military. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals had long served in the US military with their sexuality largely kept secret.  DADT was first met by suspicion and hostility from many politicians and military personnel alike, citing fears of ‘undermining morale’ if gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were permitted to serve in any capacity.  Again, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals had long served the US military, but not to the explicit knowledge of their commanding officers or fellow servicemen and servicewomen.

President Barack Obama, in December of 2010, after both the House of Representatives and US Senate successfully voted to repeal the practice, signed into law a full reversal on DADT. The practice of forbidding gay, lesbian, and bisexual service-members to be ‘out’ about their sexuality and serve in the US military was effectively over.

Throughout the battles fought for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to openly serve in the military, transgender individuals were explicitly told they must ‘pass’ as their biological sex if they wished to serve in the US military.  Transgender persons have myriad ways of expressing their sexual orientation, including: dressing in accordance with their gender identification, changing their name, hormone treatment, and medical procedures that alter their body to conform with their gender identity.  So far as the military was concerned, transgender individuals could be threatened with discharge for an enlistment violation if they did not ‘pass’ as their sex assigned at birth.  That is, until June of 2016, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban on transgender individuals from openly serving.  In his public statement on the reversal, Carter explains:

“Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.  We have to have access to 100% of America’s population for our all-volunteer force to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified – and to retain them.”

Taking our lead from Carter, Obama, Clinton, and Truman, a question remains if military service is a civil right, civil liberty, or both.  The distinction between these terms can be found here.  Under current US federal law and military policy, American citizens over the age of 18 of sound body and mind can volunteer to serve in the US Armed Forces.  As it relates to transgender persons, the civil right to serve in the military without discrimination and the civil liberty to openly serve have been supported by legal precedents.  If President Trump’s blanket ban is codified in policy, any resulting legal action will clarify how civil rights and liberties are applied in the case of transgender Americans wishing to serve.

Trump’s Argument

President Trump’s transgender military ban was conveyed to the public via tweet, and tweets are not legally binding nor are they official US policy (though they have been ruled legal stream of consciousness).  The day after Trump tweeted on the issue, the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford stated the Department of Defense was not changing policy on the President’s tweets alone- an official policy directive must be issued.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, update the media on the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2017. Source: Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Creative Commons

The President’s tweets may indeed be a precursor to an executive order (such as the case with President Truman and military desegregation), a bill-turned-law (Presidents Clinton and Obama with the creation and repeal of DADT), a policy change (Secretary Carter and the service of openly transgender soldiers), some other legally binding option, or it may remain what it is today: a tweet.  The likelihood of the president issuing a policy directive is arguably uncertain.  However, based on the information the American public has on President Trump’s proposed transgender military ban, we can make an educated analysis of his arguments for a ban.  A thorough and exhaustive examination of his full public statement (341 characters, not including spaces) reveals two justifications the president offers for his transgender military ban: “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption that transgender in the military would entail”.

In 2016, the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank offering research and analysis in operational strategy related to the US Armed Forces, published a report titled Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly; the full text can be read here.  This report, commissioned in response to growing questions about the reality of allowing transgender individuals to openly serve in the military, assessed: 1) the health care needs of transgender individuals, 2) the population size of transgender individuals in the US military, 3) the likelihood & potential costs of gender-related healthcare services to the US military, and 4) the ‘potential readiness’ of the US military to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This report helped inform Secretary Carter’s decision to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This widely-respected and cited report directly addresses both of President Trump’s justifications for banning military service of transgender individuals: medical costs and “disruptions” to unit cohesion.

The medical cost President Trump is likely alluding to is the extension of healthcare coverage to transgender individuals in the US Armed Forces to cover gender-transition related treatment.  As previously stated, this includes procedures such as hormone treatment, surgeries such as hair removal or breast implantation, and gender reassignment surgery.  Given the ongoing and bitterly contentious debate in the US Congress on Obamacare repeal / reform, President’s Trump’s focus on costs accrued from health does make sense, given the current political climate.  Politicking aside, the RAND Corporation did indeed find an increase in costs to the military in extending healthcare to include gender-transition related treatments.  Using cost estimates based off public employers, private employers, and treatments likely to occur in transgender persons in the military, allowing the health extension would cost the military between $2.4million and $8.4million per year (by comparison, the US military spends $84million / year in treatment for erectile dysfunction for US servicemen- 10x the amount of gender-transition related treatment). The US military currently spends $6.2billion per year in healthcare-related costs.  Therefore, allowing transgender soldiers to have access to gender-transition related treatment would see a 0.13% or 0.0013 yearly increase in the US Armed Forces healthcare budget.  These specific estimates can be found between pages 33-37 of the RAND Report.  To put this in further perspective, one of President Trump’s foundational arguments against the military service of transgender individuals is an unwillingness to spend a potential $2.4m-$8.4m / year, for individuals committed to protecting the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, in healthcare procedures that are entirely optional and may or may not be utilized.  For the president, these “medical costs” are simply too high.

Protesters hold a sign in front of the White House stating "Trans people are not a distraction"
2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

President Trump’s second and final argument against the military service of transgender individuals is the “disruption” they present to their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  This very argument has been used before, most notably in the follow-up to President Obama’s repeal of DADT.  Critics of the repeal feared if other members in the unit found out an individual was lesbian, gay, or bisexual, this would inhibit unit bonding, and therefore negatively impact unit cohesion and situational readiness.  This argument has long been dismantled, and data indicate this trend holds for transgender individuals serving in the military as well.  In fact, individuals with negative attitudes towards transgender individuals are more likely to change those attitudes towards a positive outlook, given more interactions with a transgender person.  This specific instance of Mere Exposure Effect (or as social psychologists would say, “Familiarity Principle”) has been found in militaries across the world, including in the US.  The RAND Report summarizes these studies (pages 39-47), stating the presence of one or more transgender individual in a military unit has no significant impact on cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.  “[D]isruption that transgender in the military would entail”, cited by President Trump as a reason for the transgender military ban, is simply not supported by the evidence.

Reaction to President Trump’s tweet was mostly surprise. While conservative circles welcomed the move, news outlets, advocacy groups, members of the US Armed Forces and private citizens have all expressed their ire, frustration, and disbelief at the transgender military ban.  What is more disturbing than this sudden announcement are the potential effects of President Trump’s statement on the lives of transgendered Americans.  It serves as an illustration of discrimination and oppression of transgender people in general.  This attack and other attacks like it, while disguised in seemingly innocuous rationale such as “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, do real and tangible damage to transgender persons. Reaching equality for transgender persons has just become more difficult.

Moving Towards Environmental Justice: The Flint Water Crisis & Structural Racialization

the Flint Michigan Water Plant
Flint Water Crisis is ongoing. Source: George Thomas, Creative Commons

“Nothing that has been uncovered to date suggests that anyone intended to poison the people of Flint” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint report was authored in response to the growing cries from community members, government officials, victims, and bystanders concerned with the abject lack of proper response to Flint water crisis which began roughly at the middle of 2014.  The Flint Water Crisis, nationally and internationally infamous for the beleaguered and dangerous handling by all levels of government, has been documented, historicized, lectured upon, and dissected from news publishers, academics institutions, watchdog groups, government organizations, and everyone in between.  The bottom line is government officials cut costs in water sanitation and pipe replacements, the consequences of which sparked a full-blown state of emergency, and finally culminated in the deaths of Flint citizens from Legionnaire’s disease and other complications from the consumption of unclean water; those implicated range from District Water Supervisor Busch to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.  The failings in Flint, as argued by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, extend far beyond the ineptitude of handfuls of government officials and their lack of planning or preparedness.  The requisite conditions necessary for a crisis of this magnitude festered many years ago, perhaps as far back as the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Flint’s problems are institutional and systemic, and unfortunately, it took a catastrophe to bring these issues to the surface.

Structural racialization is understood as the tendency for social groups to “organize around structures that produce discriminatory results… without themselves possessing any personal animus” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  In other words, an individual can actively contribute to community systems that result in suppression without actually harboring ill will to the victims of suppression themselves.  Ignorance/implicit bias, according to john a. powell (2010), is the primary driver behind structural racialization and its horrifying consequences.  Implicit bias–directly linked to structural racialization–sustains the longevity of the structures which cause discrimination, and these structures are kept alive only if the contributors to the structures are unaware of the malevolent consequences of the structures themselves (powell, 2010).  In the case of Flint, structural racialization began many years before the water crisis, and these implicit, racial structures ensured destruction from the crisis unfairly affected largely black, poor, politically unconnected individuals in the Flint area (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Using the term ‘structural racialization’ to describe a public health catastrophe, such as the Flint Water Crisis, offers no binding legal or moral prescription.  There is no way to sue a ‘structure’ for unfair or discriminatory harm.  The structure, in these cases, is reciprocally determined by every individual who unknowingly benefits from the structure and does not actively fight against the structure’s survival (powell, 2010).  The case of Flint is rife with example.  Contribution to underlying power structures such as these begins with implicit bias- it is the first stronghold keeping the structure in place.  Implicit bias, by definition, is unseen and unfelt. In this case, the denizens of Flint and the surrounding areas had no awareness of their complicity in structural racialization.  Without this awareness, there can be no hope to fight it.

Beyond the psychology of the issue is the legalistic support of structural racialization. In Flint, this involves segregated housing. The 1900-1930s saw a time of deeply-seated racist and discriminatory housing market practices that forcibly shepherded blacks and poorer whites into select neighborhoods in Flint.  These were effectively ‘ghettos’ and ensured black renters and homeowners were segregated from whites (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Fast forward to present day: the neighborhoods hit hardest by the Water Crisis are neighborhoods that historically have belonged to poor and black renters and homeowners.  Racist business practices in the Jim Crow era exacerbated the loss and destruction felt by black and poor Flint citizens in the present day.

A woman holds water bottles filled with contaminated water in Flint
Flint Water Crisis. Source: Renee B, Creative Commons.

This is not to say the black community in Flint is the only one to feel the deleterious effects of the water crisis.  This public health emergency does not discriminate along ethnic lines. The discriminatory practices that trapped black Flint citizens holds that honor alone.  In 2017, a full three years after the crisis began, clean water is still an issue in Flint.  What do we tell the citizens of Flint?  How can they take civic action to expedite the process of returning to ‘normal’ life post-crisis?  Diana Francis, noted peacemaker and democracy advocate, espouses the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’.  This notion contends people–everyday concerned citizens–are the impetus of action in situational injustice.  Indeed, the recent criminal charges brought against Flint city administrators and politicians show a ‘top-down’ approach to this crisis is both unrealistic and ineffective.  For Francis, the true heroes in this story are citizens affected by and emphatic to the crisis.  Examining the normative response to Flint reveals a public willing to undertake protest and direct action, and a public expecting a direct confrontation with the individuals and systemic structures responsible for this crisis.  Here are some examples: a music festival raising awareness and money for the victims of Flint, national groups donating time and energy to provide resources to disenfranchised Fint citizens, whistleblowers risking their livlihoods to make the crisis public, and academics donating their skills to investigating the crisis itself.  These civil society actors may hold the key to eliminating the effects of the Flint water crisis and eradicating the conditions that precipitated the crisis in the first place.  Of course, this empowered response is not an assumed reaction.

In the face of a fully-fledged public health emergency, many citizens in Flint did not feel any semblance of trust in their elected officials to mitigate the crisis without state- or national-level intervention.  Without this trust, the citizens may have felt unable or ineffective to act against the discriminatory power structures in Flint.  This problem, unlike replacing pipes, cannot be ameliorated by federal funding or outside medical intervention.  Addressing this collective distrust will involve some form of cultural transformation.  These deeper fixes must involve the access to elected officials the general public has and the public’s ability to provide continuous feedback to these officials.  At several times in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017), citizens of Flint (of all ethnicities) went on the record saying their concerns regarding water safety went unaddressed due to many factors, such as:

1) no knowledge of how to reach elected officials,

2) feeling their complaints were ‘unheard’ or ‘unseen’ to those who could help the situation,

3) fear of retaliation if undocumented immigrants or individuals with criminal records came forward with concerns, and

4) willful neglect on the part of government officials who simply did not feel accountable for the plights of minorities (involving both ethnicity and socioeconomic status) in the Flint area.

Two protesters hold signs decrying the lack of clean water in Flint
January 19, 2016 Lansing Protest against Gov Snyder regarding Flint Water Crisis. Source: nic antaya, Creative Commons

Moving forward, how can both human rights advocates and ordinary citizens protect rights equally in all corners of the globe and also address the grievances of individuals in Flint?  A shift towards environmental justice may be the answer.  This term means two things. First, all persons, regardless of identifying characteristics (ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income level, etc.) have the right to enjoy the environment equally. Second, the responsibility of civic participation in the protection and maintenance of the environment belongs to all persons (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Environmental justice takes its cue from Third Generation Human Rights (aka right to the environment) and adds the necessary ingredient of civic participation.  As I have stated previously on this blog, human rights are protected by “people, not documents”.  Given the second caveat of environmental justice, what happens if ordinary people have no avenue to address a public health hazard?  A crisis like Flint erupts.  What conditions predicate an inability to make these addresses?  This post contends a key condition is structural racialization.  Addressing the massive failures apparent in the Flint Water Crisis moves far beyond faulty equipment and the Flint city administration’s glacial response time.  Addressing this egregious human rights violation requires analysis going back at least a century in order to fully understand the complex interaction between history and the present.  Furthermore, the only long-term, stable solution to this issue is to equip the citizens of Flint with inexperienced political power and know-how.  This may include any of the following: a free, fair, and frequent election process; a truly representative (i.e. ethnicity, socio-economic status) local administration; a political mechanism by which citizens can openly voice public health concerns; and funding available in case large-scale crises such as these emerge.  Environmental justice in Flint, Michigan will only be achieved when the insidious structures barring unfettered access to a clean environment and free critique of those hindering this access are dismantled in their entirety.

 

Sources:

Powell, j. a. (2010).  Structural racialization and the geography of opportunity.  Online lecture. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2010_0611_tfn_sm_growth_training.pdf

Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flinthttps://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcr/VFlintCrisisRep-F-Edited3-13-17_554317_7.pdf

My experience at the CoSP10

by MIRANDA GRAY

a picture of the inside of the UN General Assembly Hall
Inside of the UN General Assembly Hall. Photo by Tyler Goodwin

As I reported to the United Nations for my first day of actual volunteering, I felt enwrapped by excitement, anticipation and fear. Working at the United Nations had been a goal of mine for years, and after a tour of the UN just a couple of months before, I left telling myself that my long nights of studying and research for my masters in the anthropology of peace and human rights would be worth it. That May morning, when I walked into the UN, with a purpose, not just as a visitor, I felt important and like I was on my way to making it. At the end of the experience, however, I had other career goals in mind.

Personally, one of the most memorable parts of the whole experience came on that first morning, when my coworker and fellow graduate student, Ajanet Rountree, made me march onto the floor of the General Assembly Hall to find the volunteer coordinator, Fred Doulton. The security guard told me when I walked in that I strictly was to stay off the floor, as those spots were reserved for state representatives and UN workers. Ajanet spotted Fred, and her confidence led me to where I needed to be. Stepping onto the plush green floors of the General Assembly was electrifying; I simultaneously felt like somebody, as tour groups walked across the upper floor, and nobody, as I walked past ambassadors and other state representatives. I am particularly thankful for that moment and the ability to witness such an intricate and important session.

During the opening session when states stated their progress since the last conference, I became aware of the many moving pieces and challenges states must grapple with in advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities. Lack of awareness and resources as well as increased social exclusion have all impeded progress in protecting and ensuring rights of persons with disabilities. Many nations implored the other members of the conference for more concrete data on persons with disabilities in order to better tailor advocacy measures to persons with disabilities. However, the second session I took notes on truly opened my eyes to the other pieces of the advocacy puzzle, in addition to states, and tempered my opinion of a United Nations career as the ultimate goal for a human rights worker.

My second volunteer session incorporated statements given by several nongovernmental organizations. These organizations seemed to have specific goals and methods of implementation that might drastically improve lives of persons with disabilities. I realized that a great deal of the accomplishments that states reported on were often directly because of the work of NGOs. I previously thought of work with NGos as stepping stones to the ultimate career with the United Nations. And while working at the United Nations is still a career goal of mine, I have come to realize that meaningful necessary work is not a stepping stone, but rather the ultimate career in and of itself. When I heard NGO workers talk about the most important aspects of rights of persons with disabilities, I left feeling personally challenged to advocate for others in an inclusive manner that promotes full participation and addresses the impact of multiple discriminators on persons with disabilities, specifically women and children. I realized that day that no matter the name on the door, doing good work for people would always be admirable.

Before volunteering at the United Nations’ Conference of State Parties on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I do not think rights of persons with disabilities were at the forefront of my mind of imminently pressing human rights issues.  My previous studies have mostly focused on the rights of persons in areas of conflict, and those studies more specifically have been focused on the right to life. But following my experience volunteering at the Conference of State Parties on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I left having learned that any study on human rights violations should be inclusive of the particular violations persons with disabilities face. I left feeling a call to action, to advocate for persons with disabilities by listening to persons with disabilities, hearing their opinions, and acting accordingly. As I returned to UAB and Birmingham, I operate with a heightened sense of the lack of accessibility in our city, and I feel equipped with the drive and tools afforded me through my week at the UN to do something about it.

 

A 29th Floor Perspective

 

1st Ave from the 29th Floor of the UN
1st Ave from the 29th Floor of the UN. Photo by Ajanet Rountree.

The United Nations (UN) Conference on State Parties (CoSP10) experience began on the 29th floor for me. I say this because I lived in New York City and toured the UN on a couple of occasions. Additionally, living a life that is inclusive of persons with disabilities is in my wheelhouse. A friend and mentor utilizes crutches to help him walk because an accident, when he was younger, took the full use of his legs. Cancer took the use of B’s legs when she was a baby, and a motorcycle accident left my uncle paralyzed from the waist, making them both wheelchair users. I lead with all of this to say that making room in my world for persons with disabilities is something I have done for decades. My familiarity, in a sense, is akin to the knowledge gained by a couple of tours of the UN lobby and gift shop. Therefore, walking into CoSP10, I was prepared or so I thought.

I had never been on the 29th floor. The perspective is much different up there.

The Division of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is located on the 29th floor of the UN. The DESA team is responsible for both the economic and social affairs of persons with disabilities for all the UN member states as directly related to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). They write and disseminate policies and ideas to the member states as suggested modes of implementation. Each policy and suggestion lies within the UN mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which is an extension of the 1945 UN Charter. SDGs are the 17 goals all member states, through collaboration, seek to achieve by 2020 as a means of ensuring “no one is left behind” while honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and CRPD. Sitting in the conference room, I am inspired by the opportunity but not fully awake to what is about to take place.

Enter Daniela Bas.

Bas is the DESA director. During her chat with us, she disclosed a couple of points that stand out to me. First, the UN, as an employing entity, is beginning to put into action many of the policies and measures, tasked to member states for implementation. Most specifically, employing persons with disabilities in key leadership positions of which she is one. Second, the UN is an organization led by human beings seeking to do the right thing. With full acknowledgment, she reminds that the UN is not perfect but that the process of coalescing 196 backgrounds, traditions, religious affiliations, and attitudes to make significant strides at securing human rights and making the world more peaceful, is an accomplishment. Lastly, when compared to men and boys, and those who are able-bodied, discrimination against women and girls with disabilities doubles, and even triples if they belong to a minority race or class in their country. This last point, triple discrimination for women and girls with disabilities will become a recurring theme in the conference for me. The harsh reality of this fact remains an echo in my soul to this moment.

Confrontation with another person’s truth requires an adjustment to what is known through experience and education, and assumed through familiarity.

On the floor. Photo by Ajanet Rountree

I study and view life and the world with a gendered perspective in mind. I look for the role of women, our impact on families and societies, and our visibility and invisibility when it comes to equality. I am aware of the trials of living life at intersections. Intersectionality complicates because discrimination is complicated. I believe there is a temptation to separate the intersections so to obtain a solid understanding; however, it is in the attempt to separate that understanding is lost. Gaining a complete understanding of the dynamics of discrimination requires a holistic not segmented perspective.

Girls, irrespective of ability, are not as valuable or visible in many societies as boys are. Nora Fyles, head of the UN Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) Secretariat, asserts invisibility is the fundamental barrier to education for girls with disabilities. She confirms this assertion when explaining the search for partnership on the gendered perspective education project by stating that 1/350 companies had a focus on girls with disabilities. For Bas, the failure to identify girls and women with disabilities is a failure to acknowledge their existence. Subsequently, if they do not exist, how can we expect them to hear their need? She suggests addressing crosscutting barriers. Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), in partnership with the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNGEI, hosted a side-event where they released their findings regarding a lack of inclusive education opportunities for girls with disabilities. Still Left Behind: Pathways to Inclusive Education for Girls with Disabilities sheds light on the present barriers girls, specifically those with disabilities, experience when seeking an education.

Article 26 of the UDHR lists education as a human right. Bas believes if knowledge is power, and power comes from education, the fact that 50% of women with a disability complete primary school and 20% obtain employment, reflects social and economic inequality. Ola Abu Al-Ghaib of LCD emphasizes policies, cultural norms, and attitudes about persons with disabilities perpetuate crosscutting barriers for girls with disabilities to receive an education. She concludes that schools are a mirror of society. In the absence of gendered sensitivity, boys advance and girls do not. Every failed attempt to address and correct the issue is a disservice to girls generally, and girls with disabilities, specifically.

It is imperative to remember that the spectrum of disability is multifaceted. Most people recognize developmental and physical disabilities like Downs Syndrome, Autism, visual and hearing impairment, and wheelchair users, but fail to consider albinism and cognitive disabilities as part of the mainstream disability narrative. Bulgaria is focusing on implementing Article 12 of CRPD regarding legal capacity. Legal consultant and lawyer, Marieta Dimitrova explains that under Bulgarian law, only reasonable persons have the right to independence; therefore, persons with cognitive disabilities receive the “unable” descriptor under assumption they are unable to reason and understand, thereby placing them under a guardian. Guardianship removes the right to participate in decisions regarding quality of life, which is a deprivation of liberty. She resolves that although full implementation into law awaits, stakeholders are seeking renewal in the new government because pilot projects have proven that an enjoyment of legal capacity in practice yields lower risk of abuse, changed attitude within communities, personal autonomy and flexibility.

Not all disabilities result from birth or accidents. War and armed conflict factor into 20% of individuals maimed while living in and fleeing from violence. A lack of medical access leave 90% of maimed individuals permanently disabled. Stephane from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) submits that for refugees with disabilities, access to essential services can be difficult on the journey and in camps, but also for those who are unable to flee. He infers a “double disability” inflicted upon refugees with disabilities: first as a refugee, and second as a person with a disability. Human Rights Watch advocates that refugee camps produce a humiliating and degrading existence for persons with physical disabilities because the “tricks” employed prior to arrival in the camps, are no longer applicable as wheelchairs sink in the mud and crutches break on rocky grounds. The Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) reports the underrepresentation of women and girls is significant when receiving information and access to assistance.

In a refugee simulation seminar, LASA informed that on the ground, confusion is high given that humanitarian organizations do not consult with each other, making communication difficult and non-supportive. For families with a person with a disability, nonexistence communication means a prevalence to fall victim to violence and harassment. Jakob Lund of UN Women divulges that humanitarian aid can be ineffective for women with disabilities, while Sharon with OHCHR suggests a clear dichotomy between the rights of the able-bodied and the rights of persons with disabilities holds central to the ineffectiveness. At the core of a lack of communication and accessibility is invisibility. Stephane concludes that there is an obvious need for a necessary and systematic retraining specific to educating others on how to see the invisible.

a picture of Chinatown, NYC and Brooklyn Bridge
Chinatown, NYC, and Brooklyn Bridge. Source: Madhu Nair, Creative Commons

The process of inclusion and equality relates directly to the decision to acknowledge a person’s existence. Retraining the mind to see any human being with a physical disability takes decisive action so I put myself to the test. First, I thought of all the famous women with a physical disability I could think of, and arrived at about six, including Heather Whitestone and Bethany Hamilton. I then googled celebrity women with disabilities which yielded a Huffington Post piece that identified Marlee Matlin, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller, and Sudha Chandran as 4/10 “majorly successful people with disabilities”. I had Marlee Matlin and Helen Keller. What is more interesting is that I arrived at seven when naming men with physical disabilities. Here is the point: society is not inclusive of persons with disabilities if we have to strain our brains to remember the last time we sat next to, opened the door for, ate a meal with, or saw on the television/movie screen/church platform a person who did not look like us physically.

Perspective changes everything because perspective is everything.