Disability is widely defined. Disability is typically thought of an impairment (though this term is quickly falling out of the common lexicon) of the physical, cognitive, intellectual, developmental, or other types of day-to-day functioning in an individual. This convention marked the 10th anniversary of the formal UN codification of the international rights of persons with disabilities, and this year’s programmatic focus was on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in decisions affecting their lives. In other words, persons with disabilities worked side-by-side with UN representatives and other officials to comment on the progress of their rights. UAB’s Institute for Human Rights, in conjunction with American University’s Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP), presented research and policy direction.
This was my first time to visit the UN. Actually, my first time in New York City. Working with the United Nations has been a dream of mine since I was a young boy. I have dreamed of seeing the member states’ flags waving in front of the tall Manhattan skyscraper, hearing dozens of languages and dialects spoken, and of contributing to the founding principles of human rights and international governance. From inside the UN, the world is a much more complex place than the dream I had as a child. I will elaborate further.
As a rapporteur, I notated the official dialogue between state parties on their progress in implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I heard and transcribed over 80 state parties’ efforts to include these persons in the local, regional, national, and international conversation on how to foster a more inclusive world for persons with mental and physical differences. The wording here is intentional because I am choosing not to see persons as ‘disabled’ but with features different from my own; thereby, reframing the perception and honoring their right as a human being first, rather than a disability.
In some cases, the effort was fantastic while others left must to be desired. Australia, in particular, has had tremendous success reaching out to persons with disabilities, especially in aboriginal tribes. NGOs publicly name other states whose efforts are praiseworthy. Public addresses, which are by nature political, served to motivate other ‘lacking’ states to imagine and implement faster, more effective, and more inclusive policies for persons with disabilities. The political game was on full display. Some states simply paid lip service to the CRPD. One state in particular, infamously known for blatant human rights violations bordering on genocide, implored the audience their commitment to human rights and their government’s special attention to persons with disabilities. States with an abhorrent human rights record, upon delivery of their ‘efforts to promote the rights of persons with disabilities’, received cold eye rolls and scoffs from other diplomats. In the official meetings of the State Parties, no love was lost between states who actually adhered to the Convention and states who only signed and ratified for political purposes. The political optics were on full display, and attentive audience members could typically discern authentic investment in the CRPD and inauthentic investment. This political game was in stark contrast to the side events present throughout the convention.
The official State Meetings of the CRPD take place simultaneously with presentations on specific issues to persons with disabilities and solutions created by NGOs, states, and members of civil society. These presentations, similar in execution and functioning to an academic research conference, disarmed the political machine of the UN in favor of real, boots-on-the-ground- efforts to include and empower persons with disabilities from across the globe. Throughout the three days the conference took place, I was awestruck by the tenacity and ingenuity of disabled and non-disabled persons alike in efforts to eradicate the ‘ability barrier’ throughout the world. I heard presentations on cities with universal design (built with accessibility for all persons with disabilities), e-participation in governance by persons previously unable to self-advocate for their rights, research that educates policymakers on the special needs of persons with disabilities, and the general promotion of human rights regardless of ability for all persons. Here, the political spectacle was negligible. These are real persons—with and without physically evident disabilities–working in all corners of the world to ensure “no one is left behind”. Any jadedness from the political spectacle of the official meeting of State Parties dissipates by the passion and ingenuity of all actors displaying their unique methods to ensure universal human rights for persons with disabilities. The breakout sessions were visionary and motivating, empowering and inspirational. The real action is located here, not in the lofty UN assembly meet rooms. The full expression of human rights finds protection and promotion by humans, not by institutions.
Moving forward, as a human rights student and peace advocate, I am still very much interested in a career with the UN. This experience though, assisting in conference presentations and serving as Court Rapporteur for official State Party meetings, left a few indelible impressions on me and changed by outlook and understanding of the UN. Prior to this UN trip, I placed absolute faith the UN system and its machinations. I believed the Conventions (on disabilities, women, children, etc.) enforced human rights. I believed the UN was a human rights ‘police force’ of sorts. I believed international governance was a smooth process and was fruitful in protecting human rights and promoting peace.
Now I understand people, not documents, protect human rights. International governance works when purveyor of rights–people–are vigilant and unrelenting in the protection of their dignity. For those who may not have the opportunity to self-advocate, such as persons with disabilities, we must not put words in their mouths or patronizingly speak for them. They can speak for themselves. We, the able-bodied population, must offer our louder megaphones to them to ensure their voices find expression. The UN works when we, the global community, work with institutions of all levels–local, regional, national, and international–to ensure “no one is left behind” in the pursuit of a world enshrining human dignity and respect. The UN is indeed an ideal but people have the real power. Realistic idealism, in this regard, may be the optimal method to promote and protect human rights. We, the people, owe it to all members of society to remain vigilant, purposeful, and passionate in our advocacy. The tireless self-advocacy of persons with disabilities at the 10th anniversary of the CRPD is a poignant reminder that apathy and indifference has no home in even the most marginalized populations. As a student of human rights and a global citizen at large, this experience changed me for the better.
Venezuela is not free. The Freedom in the World 2017 Profile rates their overall freedom status as Not Free with an aggregate score of 30/100. The most recent anti-government protests have persisted for eight weeks with a rising death toll of at least 60 as of Monday 29 May, as the far too often and routine clashes between protesters and police continue. Violence has heightened in recent days as the opposition marches for its four key demands:
removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the ruling on March 29th;
general elections in 2017 (rather than 2018);
creation of a “humanitarian channel” to allow the import of medication to counter severe shortages; and
release of all the “political prisoners”
Both the government and opposition accuse each other of sending armed groups to sow violence during demonstrations. President Maduro has even gone as far as to accuse the opposition of terrorism. Food and medicine shortages plague the citizens of Venezuela as they struggle to fight for their own freedom and basic human rights. Many sources say the country is on the brink of collapse.
Consistent political tension has existed in the country since the death of former leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) Hugo Chaves in 2013, when President Nicolas Maduro came to power. The election left the country split into Chavistas (followers of the socialist policies of the late President Chaves) and those who wish to see an end to the PSUV’s 18 years in power. Opposition members claim the PSUV has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy. In turn, Chavistas point the finger at the opposition for being elitists, who exploit poor Venezuelans for personal financial gain. Additionally, Chavistas allege that opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States, with whom Venezuela has had strained relations in recent years.
In early 2014, Venezuelan government began to respond to anti-government protests with brutal force. Security forces used excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. These forces tolerated and even, at times, collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that violently assaulted protesters. Those detained and held incommunicado on military bases for at least 48 hours before appearing before a judge. In some cases, detainees were subject to severe beating, electric shocks or burns, and forced to squat or kneel for hours.
Maduro, in July 2015, deployed over 80,000 members of security forces in “Operation People’s Liberation” (OLP) to confront “rising security concerns”. Following raids in low-income and immigrant communities by both police and military forces resulted in public accusations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations. The following February, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz announced that 245 people had been killed in OLP raids during 2015 in “incidents in which ‘members of various security forces participated’”. Government cited that “those killed died during ‘confrontations’ with armed criminals,” despite witness accounts in at least 20 cases that do not include any sort of confrontation.
Human Rights Watch World Report on Venezuela (HRW) reveals tensions have only increased as arbitrary prosecution of political opponents has become more frequent and forceful. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, is serving a 13-year sentence in military prison for his alleged role in inciting violence during a demonstration in Caracas in February 2014, despite the lack of any credible evidence linking him to a crime. Several others arrested arbitrarily in connection to anti-government protests in 2014, remain detained or under house arrest while awaiting trial. The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) detained dozens of individuals in 2016, citing they were planning, fomenting, or participating in violent anti-government actions, although many were, in fact, peaceful protests. Many detainees claim they were tortured or abused in custody. Detainees also report they were unable to speak with their families or attorneys for hours and/or days after their detaining. In many cases, much like Lopez’s, prosecutors failed to produces any plausible evidence associating charged persons with the crimes of which they were accused. Courts consider the possession of political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners, credible evidence in some cases.
HRW suggests Venezuela’s national distress heightened as “severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care”. In August 2016, a network of medical residents from public hospitals countrywide reported severe shortages of medicines in 76% of surveyed hospitals as compared to 67% the year before. Researchers found that infant and maternal mortality rates in 2016 were significantly higher than in previous years. Severe food shortages have made it extraordinarily problematic for many people to obtain adequate nutrition. Civil society groups and two Venezuelan universities conducted a survey in 2015 in which “87 percent of interviewees nationwide—most from low-income households—said they had difficulty purchasing food” and “[t]welve percent were eating two or fewer meals a day”.
The UN Human Rights Council scrutinized Venezuela’s human rights record in November 2016. Numerous states “urged Venezuela to cooperate with UN special procedures by addressing arbitrary detention, lack of judicial independence, and shortages of medicine and food; releasing persons detained for political reasons; respecting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; and ensuring that human rights defenders can conduct their work without reprisals”. Unfortunately, Venezuela has actively voted against the scrutiny of human rights violations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and has opposed resolutions associated with human rights abuses in North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Iran.
The Venezuelan government has downplayed the severity of the country’s current state of crisis. Efforts to alleviate shortages have not been successful and have limited efforts to obtain available international humanitarian assistance. Measures taken by the Venezuelan government to restrict international funding of non-governmental organizations, along with unsubstantiated accusations by government officials and supporters that human rights defenders are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, creates a hostile environment that restricts civil society groups from effectively promoting human rights. In early 2016, Maduro issued “a presidential decree that—in addition to declaring a ‘state of exception’ and granting himself the power to suspend rights—instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to suspend all agreements providing foreign funding to individuals or organizations when ‘it is presumed’ that such agreements ‘are used for political purposes or to destabilize the Republic’” (Venezuela, 2017). Maduro received two extensions to the state of exception – in September and in November.
A surprise announcement by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on March 29, 2017 was a key catalyst in sparking the current anti-government protest. The announcement disclosed that the Court would take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly–a ruling the opposition claimed would undermine the country’s separation of powers and push Venezuela one-step closer to a one-man, dictatorial rule under Maduro. The Court argued that the National Assembly had disregarded previous Court rulings and was therefore in contempt. Three days later, the Court reversed its ruling. This reversal, unfortunately, did not bring any relief to the overwhelming distrust of the Court by opposition members.
In early May 2017, discussion of creating a new constitution began as Maduro sought to make a move following the earlier days of the prolonged protest. The president has taken steps, including signing a document establishing the terms for electing the member of a “constituent assembly”, tasked with the drafting of a new constitution.
Citizens of Venezuela persist in their efforts to demand access to basic human rights and civil liberties. Doctors rallied in the ongoing protest to address their own frustration with the current crisis. Over a thousand health care workers and opposition sympathizers marched towards the health ministry in Caracas. Police fired tear gas to drive them back, in scenes all too familiar after weeks of unrest. One protester, a 50-year old surgeon, says, “One is always afraid to come out, but we will carry on doing it until there is a change”. Despite a belief that the opposition party is plotting a coup against him, President Maduro has called for a “march for peace”. Venezuelans and the world await his plans to bring peace to fruition.
Freedom in the World 2017: Venezuela Profile. (2017). Retrieved May 2017, from Freedom House:https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/venezuela (2017). Venezuela. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.
Venezuela Crisis: What is Behind the Turmoil. (2017, May 4). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877
Venezuela Leader Launches Constitution Overhaul. (2017, May 23). Retrieved May 2017, from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-leader-launches-constitution-overhaul-363182
Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally bt Health Care Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416
Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally by HealthCare Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved May 2017,from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416
Genocide is the systematic destruction of peoples based on ethnicity, religion, nationality, or race. It is the culmination of human rights violations. There are numerous examples of genocide throughout history, some being more infamous than others. For example, Hitler and the Jewish Holocaust is probably the most well-known case of genocide in modern history. There are other cases that are not as well known, especially in our American culture where, historically, we tend to focus on the atrocities of others and ignore our own. One such case is Native American genocide by European colonists, and later, the United States government. The purpose of this blog is to objectively examine a few of cases of genocide against Native American peoples, by European settlers and the United States government, and understand why they occurred.
Thanksgiving, a traditional holiday in the United States, would not have been possible without the Algonquian tribes that befriended early English and Dutch settlers in the New World. In fact, many early 17th century European settlers died, in the first few years of colonization, due to starvation and disease. Turkey, pumpkin and Indian corn are three traditional foods of Thanksgiving were actually introduced to the Pilgrims by the Algonquians. Initially, some of these foods were foreign to the struggling European colonists. However, over the course of several years, the colonists learned how to survive in their new environment with the help of their Native American neighbors. The first Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest festival, with ninety-one “savages” in attendance, who gifted the Pilgrims with five freshly killed deer, as their contribution to the festivities. The Pilgrims were impressed with the deer, one noting that it would have taken them (the colonists) a week to hunt five deer, yet the “savages” accomplished this in one day (Heath 82). The Pilgrims viewed their Native American neighbors as “savages” due to ethnocentrism and a worldview based on natural law, or a natural hierarchy based on God’s design. This hierarchy is a Eurocentric philosophy placing the white man as superior and other races, such as, Black, Asian and Native American as inferior.
In the following years, as the alliance between the colonists at Plymouth and their Native American neighbors grew, social conflicts began to erupt. The death of Captain John Stone was the first misunderstanding between the Pequot, a neighboring tribe, and the Puritans. There was a failure in justice, as the Puritans saw it, as they wanted the Pequot responsible for Jones’ death to face English law, rather than allow the Pequot to administer justice themselves. Also, one must take into account how the Pequot were viewed by the Puritans as “savages”. This affected how the Puritans interpreted the actions of the Pequot and their place in God’s plan. These views were first reinforced through ignorance of medical knowledge. The pandemic of 1617-1619 killed many Puritans as well as Native Americans, and served to reinforce a worldview based on religious mysticism rather than objective knowledge. Neither the Puritans nor the Native Americans understood how disease was transmitted. This lack of knowledge made it difficult to comprehend their susceptibility, due to a compromised immune system, to foreign microorganisms. The Puritans being affected by the New World microorganisms and the Indians succumbing to European microorganisms brought by the colonists fostered distrust, accusation, and death (Cave 15).
The Puritan worldview consisted of two parties: God’s party being white; Satan’s party being dark, heathen and doomed. The New World was a spiritual battleground, and it is amazing that peace lasted as long as it did, with war being the primary vehicle of God’s deliverance and justice, in the Puritan mind. In short, the Pequot War was a war of misunderstandings and natural law, in which the Puritans were righteous and justified, while the Pequot were heathens, soldiers of Satan, and inhuman (Cave 18). The Pequot War lasted almost a year, from 1636 to 1637, with both parties being experienced warriors. In the end, the Pequot were defeated and this relatively short, small-scale conflict served to justify the killing of Native Americans by creating an image of untrustworthy savages that were plotting to destroy those doing God’s work in the New World. This became the bedrock of American frontier mythology (Cave 168).
The Pequot were not the last Native American tribe in New England to suffer what the Puritans believed to be divine mandated justice. The Narragansetts and the Wampanoags, once friends of the English in the early 17th century, both discovered, before the end of that century, that the Puritan conception of God’s providential plan for New England left no room to assert Native American autonomy. Such assertions were an offense to the Puritan sense of mission. As the population ratio between the English and the Native Americans in New England shifted in favor of the English, the Puritans authorities became increasingly overbearing in their dealings with their Native American counterparts. Puritan Indian policy, from its inception, was driven by the conviction that if Puritans remained faithful to their covenant with God, they were destined to replace the Indians as masters of New England. By the end of the 17th century, economic changes, such as the declining importance of the fur trade and the expansion of English agriculture and industry, effectively reduced the need for Indian commerce, further jeopardizing the status of Native American communities in New England (Cave 174).
The intolerance of Indian cultures reflected essential elements of the Puritan worldview as a struggle between heathen savagery and Christian civilization. Puritan ideology was founded on three premises, which later translated into vital elements of the mythology of the American West. The first was the image of the Native American as primitive, dark and of evil intent. The second was the portrayal of the Indian fighter as an agent of God and of progress, redeeming the land through righteous violence. And finally, the justification of the expropriation of Indian resources and the extinction of Indian sovereignty as security measures necessitated by their presumed savagery (Cave 176).
By the 19th century, this mythology began to reflect itself within Unites States governmental policy, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The United States went through a major reorientation in race relations during this time. The growing abolition movement led the way to the sectionalism of the Civil War and the consequent emancipation of the slaves. This dramatic transformation in racial policy did not include the Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles), who were considered “the most civilized tribes in America” because of their adoption of the agricultural system of their white neighbors, including the institution of black chattel slavery (McLoughlin xii). By 1838, the Cherokees were forcibly expelled from their ancestral homeland and relocated to the Oklahoma territory, by way of what is now known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee tried to prevent this and maintain their sovereign “nation” by adopting a constitution, based on that of the United States, to govern their own land under laws and elected officials. At the same time, the sovereign state of Georgia was attempting to abolish the Cherokee Nation and incorporate the Cherokee under their own laws. Andrew Jackson became president in 1828 and one of his first priorities was to resolve this issue.
Jackson, being a slave owner and a renowned Indian fighter of the Western frontier, sided with Georgia, supporting states’ rights to supersede treaty rights. The issue was brought before the Supreme Court twice, once in 1831 in Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia and again in 1832 in Worchester vs. Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall described the Cherokees as “a domestic, dependent nation” and he proclaimed the unconstitutionality of Georgia’s laws, asserting that federal authority overruled states’ rights regarding Indian treaties. However, Jackson had already persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that made it virtually impossible for any eastern tribe to escape ceding its land and moving to “Indian territory”, west of the Mississippi River (McLoughlin 2). It is worth noting that, in modern times, these acts would be violations of U.N. Charter, Article 1.2 which asserts, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”.
Thus, in 1838, the Cherokee were forced from their land and “escorted” west. The trip was estimated to take eighty days, but some of the contingents took almost twice as long due to inclement winter weather, unrelenting sickness because of exposure, and dangerous ice flows while crossing the Mississippi River. Before the Cherokee left on this epic trek, almost 1,500 had died from epidemics in the camps they were housed in; another 1600 died on the journey. As a result of their weakened condition, along with the absence of housing and food, many more died soon after reaching their destination. The United States government had guaranteed supplies for the Cherokee’s new home, for a year after their arrival, but rations were hired out to private contractors who made extra profits by providing less than they had agreed to supply. Oftentimes, what they did provide was rotten meat and moldy corn and flour (McLoughlin 7).
In current times, the Dakota Access Pipeline represents another affront to Native American sovereignty and further marginalization of Native American peoples; in this instance, the Sioux tribe located in Standing Rock, North Dakota. There are two primary issues the Sioux have against the pipeline: The pipeline will contaminate drinking water and damage sacred burial sites. Originally, the pipeline was designed to go through Bismarck, North Dakota but was rejected by the citizens there because they didn’t want to risk contaminating their drinking water. The ensuing Standing Rock protests that took place, after the pipeline was redirected through Sioux land, arguing they deserve the same rights and considerations as the citizens of Bismarck.
Throughout American history, the treatment of indigenous Native Americans has violated numerous articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These violations resulted in the loss of numerous Native American homelands, the Cherokee being only one example, and the genocide of numerous other smaller tribes since the beginning of European colonization. This is largely due to Eurocentric ideals, like the natural law of the Puritan worldview, which elevates the status of European peoples over that of indigenous, Native American peoples through a biased worldview. This mindset is so pervasive and powerful that it still prevails today, evidenced by modern films and television that paint Native American tribes as savage, ignorant and of ill intent toward the “white man”, and the policies of the current United States government. These governmental policies have resulted in the alienation and marginalization of Native American peoples throughout American history. These violations include the removal of Native Americans from their traditional homeland to reservations, oftentimes very far away from their ancestral lands, and in many cases, the genocide of Native American tribes altogether. The violations were masked in the form of “treaties” between indigenous tribes and the U.S. government, though these treaties were often a choice between the survival of a tribe or their complete and utter destruction. In short, the Native American tribes were never in a position, or held enough power, to ever guarantee a fair deal with the U.S. government in these negotiations. The result of this imbalance of power and lack of respect manifested itself in the form of genocide and the loss of human rights, and their homelands, for many indigenous peoples of North America.
Cave, A. A. (1996). The Pequot War. The University of Massachusetts Press.
Heath, D. B. (1963). A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Corinth Books, Inc.
McLoughlin, W. G. (1993). After the Trail of Tears. The University of North Carolina Press.
One of the worst chemical attacks turned a rebel-held area in the north of Syria into a death zone. Bombs were dropped from war planes in the early morning of April 4, 2017 and the spread of poisonous gas started shortly thereafter. Close to 70 people died, with pictures of dying children and grieving relatives going around the world. The Syrian military accused insurgents, but it seems clear that only the Syrian government has the ability to carry these types of bombings. Shock and condemnation was the reaction of governments and the public around the world. Two days later, President Trump ordered airstrikes, his first military action while in office.
Why this outcry and action now? People have been dying in Syria for months and years – think Aleppo – and the response has been, for the most part, fairly limited. We have seen dying children and assaulted women, airstrikes on civilian areas, and death and suffering everywhere. I would argue there are three reasons for this strong response, both in the public and in the political realm.
The footage of the attacks themselves.
The violation of most important rules of international law.
A new administration in the White House.
Let me explain.
First and most obviously, it is the footage of children and older adults struggling to breathe, frothing at their mouths, and lying motionless in the mud as aid workers desperately try to help. It is the incredible grief by a father, who lost 22 members of his family in the attack, and who can be seen clutching the bodies of his 9-month-old twins. It is the level of individual suffering that most of us can relate to as human beings with families of our own, and the gruesomeness of the attack shakes us to the very core.
However, there is a second reason why this attack is cause for special consideration. The use of chemical weapons rises to the most serious violation of fundamental principles of international law: (1) the deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime against humanity, the “worst of worst crimes” and on par with genocide, and (2) the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in warfare is one of the most widely acknowledged and respected rules of the international law of war.
Crimes against humanity are deliberate, systematic attacks against civilians or a significant part of the civilian population. Crimes against humanity were first described and prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII and have since entered international criminal law as one of the major crimes for prosecution of individuals. While there is no international treaty specifically dealing with crimes against humanity, the Statute of the International Criminal Court lists mass murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, recruiting of child soldiers, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, mass rape, and political or racial repression (e.g., apartheid) as crimes that reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.
The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons has its origins in the late 19th century. Shortly after the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864 – the institution that oversees international humanitarian law, also known as the “law of war” – states decided to regulate and ban weapons that inflict excessive and unnecessary harm to the people affected by war (e.g., the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899). The horrific injuries sustained by soldiers from poisonous gas in WWI and experiences of both combatants and civilians in later conflicts (e.g., in Vietnam) accelerated these efforts, which resulted first in the Geneva Gas Protocol (1925) and then in the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of chemical weapons in all circumstances, which means in both international (meaning between states) and non-international war (any other type of conflict, including civil wars). Only 13 states have not signed either the Geneva Gas Protocol or the Chemical Weapons Convention (Syria is not one of them). The prohibition of chemical weapons is a universal norm, which means that it binds all parties to armed conflicts, whether state or non-state actors, as a rule of international customary law.
This ban of chemical weapons is strengthened by the fact that it is illegal under international humanitarian law to use weapons that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. So-called indiscriminate weapons are those that cannot be directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be limited. Similar to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, this rule is not only international custom, but has also been affirmed in various international treaties, including the statute of the International Criminal Court and the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. The UN General Assembly and other UN organs have supported this principle in multiple resolutions and the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world, reaffirmed the principle of distinguishing between civilian and military targets in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (ICJ, Nuclear Weapons case, Advisory Opinion). While there is no definite list of indiscriminate weapons, the ICRC generally cites chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, anti-personnel landmines, mines, poison, explosives discharged from balloons, cluster bombs, booby-traps, certain types of rockets and missiles, and environmental modification techniques.
In other words, the chemical attacks by the Syrian regime on its own population broke two fundamental rules of international law.
Third, we have a new administration in the White House whose policy towards Syria and the Middle East is most likely to be very different than the one of its predecessor (it is too early to tell for sure). President Trump expressed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way in which he views the Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. The decision to use airstrikes against Syria was made shortly thereafter. President Trump’s words, and in some way, his actions, remind us of President Obama’s reaction to the use of chemical gas against civilians in Syria in 2013. President Obama, who used the word “red line” in connection with the 2013 attack, also contemplated air strikes. However, in an unexpected turn around, Obama decided to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria. The proposed bill never received a floor vote because the Syrian government accepted a U.S.-Russian deal to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile and sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Conventions.
What does this mean? Were the airstrikes legal? What are the political consequences? From a legal point of view, the situation is complicated, but more easily explained. Under international law, the use of force against another state is illegal, unless it is in self-defense, authorized by the UN Security Council, or on the invitation of the state affected. Security Council authorization is unlikely to happen considering that Russia is a veto-power holding member of the Security Council and has made it clear that it does not see the need for a condemnation of the attack. The U.S. has not given any indication that the airstrikes were in self-defense. Syria has certainly not invited the U.S. to strike its airbase. So, in most interpretations of international law, the airstrikes are illegal. President Trump said in a press conference in the evening of April 6 that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” which could hint at a future justification of the airstrikes within framework of self-defense. There is some discussion over whether the unilateral use of force on behalf of civilians, also known as humanitarian intervention, should be seen as legitimate, if not legal. However, considering the situation in Syria and the U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State, Russia’s engagement, and the geopolitical situation, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to argue for a purely humanitarian justification of U.S. action. While the airstrikes authorized by President Trump were very limited – hitting a somewhat remote airbase – and no formal declaration of war has been made, Syria could very well see the airstrikes as an informal act of war.
Under U.S. law, the President may authorize military action for defense, but not for offensive wars. Offensive wars require congressional approval. Congressional approval was given for military action after the 9/11 attacks, which gives the President far reaching authority to combat terrorism. The Obama administration has interpreted this rule to include and authorize the fight against the Islamic State, and so far, the Trump administration seems to go along with this interpretation. Regardless, a war against Syria, a state, not a non-state actor, is a completely different beast. A war against Syria would most certainly need congressional approval, and members of Congress have already called for the administration to bring any future military action before Congress.
In terms of political consequences, it’s too early to tell if this was a one time engagement and what the Trump administration will do next. Russia’s involvement in Syria complicates matters as not only U.S.-Syrian relations, but also U.S.-Russian relations are at stake. Russia has reacted strongly and called the airstrikes a “significant blow to Russian-U.S. relations.” Either way, an in depth discussion of strategy will be important, especially considering that interventions tend to be much more complex and complicated endeavors than they first appear. America, as many countries before her, has learned this the hard way. And if we really want to help the “beautiful babies” in Syria, as President Trump claims, we need to open our borders to allow Syrian refugees to find safety.
However, while these discussions over legality and Russia-U.S. relations are certainly important, they are not sufficient. What we need to focus on is the question over what the consequences of military action will be. We cannot be distracted from what has to be the end goal: a political settlement of the conflict. Only a termination of violence and war will end the tremendous suffering of Syrian children, women, and men. Any military action has to be judged on whether it advances or hinders an end to the conflict.
The Significance of Following Asylum Seekers’ Stories, from a Human Rights Student’s Perspective
Over the past year I have had the opportunity to be involved, peripherally, in cases of Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the United States. The first case that Dr. Chris Kyle involved his students in was a woman fleeing Mexico with her very young children after an extortion attempt and death threats. My involvement was to research in ethnographies, books, and other sources to provide the woman with a claim to a “particular social group.” The assignment was to prove that this woman was targeted for persecution on account on her membership in a “particular social group”. Because drug cartel activities and government corruption produce victims indiscriminately, demonstrating membership in a particular social group is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of asylum claims for Mexican applicants. The argument I made placed the applicant in a PSG of ‘women whose husbands are migrant workers’. She was recognizably vulnerable in her community without the protection of an adult male in the household, as well as vulnerable to extortion due to possible remittances from her husband. (The woman and her children were granted asylum and this case set a precedent for this particular social group to be recognized in future asylum cases.)
This semester I have shadowed Dr. Kyle when he is asked to be an expert witness for asylum applicants, testifying to the credibility of their claims due to violence in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Much of what I have done this semester is to listen in to conversations between Dr. Kyle and immigration lawyers, research the obstacles that Mexican asylum seekers face, and explore the moral and legal arguments in human rights claims. It has been my experience while shadowing Dr. Kyle through a few asylum claims, that humanizing issues of asylum, immigration, and migration, is invaluable to understanding these issues in an academic setting. Having the opportunity to be involved even minimally in these asylum cases has been crucial to my perspective on human rights. For me, studying human rights isn’t about broadly philosophical, conceptual ideals. My experience with asylum cases over the past year has provided a more intimate understanding of human rights as the recognition of intrinsic human dignity and the use of law and institutions to affirm the value of human life.
When immigration lawyers ask for an expert witness to attest to a specific aspect of an asylum claim they send their client’s affidavit to the expert. Asylum seeker’s affidavits are essentially an outline of every trauma the claimant and their family have endured that could justify their need for asylum. In one particular case this semester the list of traumas I noted included the following: child sexual abuse, child molestation, rape, attempted gang rape, kidnapping, extortion, physical violence, death threats, torture, and PTSD. In this particular case the lawyer feels confident that the family will be granted asylum, but there are still uncertainties and possible complications in the legal argument on their behalf.
Reading each of these individual’s asylum claims has provoked me to question the ways in which we interpret and practice asylum law. Do we consider our moral responsibility to fellow humans often enough? Do we consider the ethical implications of political biases of immigration judges? Is the United States meeting its obligations under international law to accept and protect legitimate asylum seekers? My answer is consistently, no.
At one point during my research on international refugee laws and mobility rights, it became suddenly clear that who we ascribe human rights to is tied up in the symbolism of an object that societies have conjured as proof of humanness: documentation. In the United States, legal rights such as those provided through citizenship are paramount to our notion of humanity. Migrant workers are protected with certain rights… as long as they are documented as a migrant worker. Who is worthy of protection under the law? Who is worthy to work in order to shelter and feed their family? Being protected from harm and having the ability to provide for our families’ survival are human rights. Yet we ascribe value to a person based on the papers they carry, and devalue them based on the papers they don’t carry.
In the US, we use “undocumented” and “illegal” synonymously. Being “undocumented” is a crime worthy of prison detention and deportation to certain harm or death. Without “proper documentation”, people may be denied their rights, arbitrarily detained, and unprotected from abuse. Are we living in an era of human history where compassion is contingent on papers? Documentation is important for security matters, but it shouldn’t be the scale for whose life is valuable.
Kara is a graduate student in the UAB Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program. In the coming weeks, Dr. Kyle and Kara will host a lecture to discuss their work.
The nation and people of Tibet are hardly on anyone’s radar during most of the year because the atrocities here remain overshadowed by the happenings in other places like Syria or Sudan. Ven. Geshe Lhakdor, translator to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and directory of the library of Tibetan Works and Archives, lectured here last Tuesday. Using the Compassion in Exile DVDas the basis for this blog, I will shed light on the plight of Tibetans.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has systematically eradicated the people of Tibet since 1950. The invasion of Tibet by the PRC army, under the guise of liberation, took place in 1950 because of its natural resources, wealth, and geopolitical high ground; an invasion meant the doubling the land mass for the Chinese empire. Sixteen year-old Tenzin Gyatso assumed leadership responsibility of the Tibetan people, culture, and traditions as the 14th Dalai Lama. For eight years, he attempted to protect the Tibetan identity. However, in 1959, the intimidation tactics and brute force of the Chinese, overtake the land and push the Tibetans–known for their peaceful and gentle nature–to flee to India.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader and head of state of the Tibetan people. He is also a refugee. Living in exile in Dharamsala, India with millions of Tibetans desirous of the maintenance and preservation of their identity, he is the source of their hope. The flood of refugees continues into India where the people can practice religion, maintain culture, and glean from their cherished leader. A faithful followers says, “When His Holiness fled to India, it was as if the sun went down in Tibet… we were living in darkness.” His manner is one of humble laughter. His thoughts are on the consciousness; many believe he is the incarnation of compassion. He is a man seeking to fix thing. Tendzin Choegual, his younger brother, claims, “His Holiness has moral power, which the world used to have before but, right now it is overshadowed by political power. And whatever he does it is based on goodness of maximum number of human beings; so it’s based on altruism.” Michael C. Davis assigns peaceful resistors as a characteristic of the people and government. Tibetans, following the example of His Holiness, are nonviolent and compassionate people despite their oppressive struggle. He asserts the notion that many indigenous cultures, particularly Tibet, sustain periods of repression, resistance, and resilience as they pursue identity.
The PRC signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (DRIPS) in 2007. Articles 1-3 of DRIPS guarantees autonomy, self-determination, and the right to enjoy all human and fundamental freedoms. Tibet has a government in exile. An exiled government possesses the power of governing and leading, but has no authority to legitimacy because there is no territory over which to govern. For more than 50 years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama symbolizes resistance to an authoritarian regime. This nonviolent protest spawned a “conspiracy of silence” that generated rejection of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a political leader, for more than 30 years. The conspiracy of silence–fear of Chinese government backlash if/when recognizing the people, traditions, and culture of Tibetans—created a vacuum of turning a complicit blind-eye, allowing China to continue the human rights atrocities against the Tibetans. “Our only hope is to rely on the outside world, and people from free countries”, the Dalai Lama revealed.
US Foreign Policy has participated in the conspiracy of silence, yet a change seemed to arrive in the early 90s. During a 1991 visit to US Congress, the Dalai Lama pronounced, “Here I enjoy the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, and the freedom of movement. When I was about 15, I lost that freedom”; freedoms identified within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they are universal, inalienable, and indivisible. Kent Wiedemann of US State Department Head of the China desk, stated, “Official US policy has consistently regarded Tibet as a part of China, although an autonomous region within China. We have no evidence at this point that the Chinese government is engaged in any policies or any actions aimed at wiping out the Tibetans, or in short, reflecting apolicy of genocide, either against the Tibetan people themselves or against their culture.” When asked about self-determination for the Tibetan people, he stared blankly at the camera before smiling without an answer. No country possesses a policy of genocide. Genocide, as noted in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. When reflecting on genocide, most people know of and point to Rwanda, Cambodia, and the Holocaust. The filmmakers attribute genocide to the behaviors of the Chinese towards the Tibetans, while the international community has not. Ellen Bork, in her 2012 article, “Will Washington Take a Stand”, questions Washington’s commitment to the plight of the Tibetans because of its relationship with China. She argues that the past is a representation of the future when it comes to the US’ failure to champion Tibet against China.
Rhoda Howard-Hassmann stresses there are three key contributing elements in the complex subject of human rights: criticism within the field, identity politics and their expression, and the volatile nature of violations as a precursor to genocide. First, criticism is located, specifically, in the habit of denying the universality, indivisibility, and interdependent nature of human rights. Second, identity politics, particularly in terms of a Western versus non-Western dichotomy, utilizes time as the unseen factor to frame the past, the present, and the future. Lastly, genocide is a byproduct of the symptomatic human rights violations, compounded by criticism and inadequate remembrance of time. The combination of these components permits the complication of Western and non-Western human rights discourse to fail in recognizing rights as universal. This failure, she contends, leads to habitual and unaccountable violations, that if unchecked, have the potential to manifest in genocide.
“Each time I talk of what I saw in Tibet, I have to be in tears.” – Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Human rights violations began following the Dalai Lama’s visit with Chairman Mao Tse-tung in China, first in the form of religious prosecution. At 19, His Holiness argued for the fate of Tibet. Mao believed religion was poison and damage for the country, plaguing the population and potential material development. The Chinese sought to destroy religion through the destruction of monasteries, which were also schools and universities, libraries and hospitals. The goal was to abolish the depths of understanding that comes from training the mind. His Holiness affirms that Tibetan Buddhism is not simply about the religious aspect but the technique of training and settling the body and mind, as a method and tenet that can benefit humanity. One believer cries, “Although the Chinese say there is freedom of religion, they don’t allow us to practice our faith.” The practice of Tibetan Buddhism is safe outside of Tibet.
In the film, His Holiness cites two things–immeasurable human rights violations in the form of torture, beatings, and killings, and population transfer in the form of birth control—as most pressing for Tibetans. Imprisonment and torture is the judgment for Tibetans expressing a strong cultural identity. Rape is a weapon of intimidation against Tibetan women and girls, and sterilization as a means of forced birth control, including on women pregnant in their final trimester. Additionally, due to the decimation of monasteries, Tibetans parents, living in under occupation, often send their children over the Himalayas into India in order to have a chance at living in freedom and gaining an education. In an effort to continue cultural identity with a modern understanding of the world, school lectures consist of music, drama and philosophy, in addition to the rituals and religious ideals of Buddhism. It is a similar education path to His Holiness, who achieved his degree while leading a nation under occupation.
Fang Lizhi in a 1991 speech remarked that Tibetan culture continues to survive because of the resilience of the people, and a mutual respect “between fair-minded people” on a personal level, though not on a political one. “Even though many Tibetans see the Hans as being responsible for the destruction of Tibetan culture and religion, mutual respect is still strong on a personal level… we all want democracy. We both need democracy and human right if we are to find a way to live together peacefully, but something more is needed.” He continues by explaining the positives and negatives of nationalism, stating that commonality is located in a true comprehension of nationalism. Negative nationalism is suppressive, extremist, and leads to distrust and hatred, while positive nationalism is cohesive, cooperative, and leads to dialogue.
To Davis, the window for dialogue is closing on the Chinese. In March 2008, Tibetan demonstrators and rioters “offered a middle way” in the form of Tibetan Memorandum that sought negotiation for the restoration of independence and autonomy. An uninterested China refused to come to the table, arguing, “Tibet has always been an inseparable part of China”. Bork points out self-immolations have brought attention to the plight of Tibetans, providing a measure of symbolic and unwavering commitment to the restoration of Tibet. “China’s policies have provoked rather than crushed Tibetan resistance”, she proclaims.
Masahide Tsujimura states when His Holiness retired from politics in 2011, a unique expression describing the unity of polity and compassion was coined. Chos srid zung ‘brel has several definitions but ultimately boils down to the duality of religion politics manifest through compassion and nonviolence. “To the Dalai Lama, nonviolence and compassion are synonymous… Compassion is one of the most important concepts of Buddhism as a ‘religion’…[he] considers that compassion is common to all religions, and that everyone can be compassionate because no one wants to suffer. Compassion is also a ‘secular’ concept that implies mutual tolerance and respect for all faiths, as well as for those of no faith.” Tina Lauer points out political activism among second-generation Tibetans is seemingly second nature, some seeing it as a means for both preserving culture and identity, and cultivating commonality. Additionally, unlike their parents or grandparents, many second-generationers respect the Dalai Lama as a man—a political peacemaker like Mandela or Gandhi, rather than a ‘god’. The nonviolent ethic of Tibetans challenges the international narrative of normative strategic power-grabs without compromising their personal integrity,religious beliefs, and cultural identity.
A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”
There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.
The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.
An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.
The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.
There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.
The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.
This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.
The history of the HIV and AIDS epidemic started in illness, anxiety and mortality as the world encountered and handled a new and unidentified virus. It is commonly believed that HIV begun in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1920 transmitted from chimpanzees to humans. The original earliest case where a blood sample could confirm the infection of HIV was from a blood sample taken in 1959 from a man living in the Kinshasa region. Available records suggests that the rampant spread of HIV and contemporary epidemic started in the mid- to late 1970s. During the 1980s, the HIV pandemic spread across South America, North America, Australia, Africa and Europe. The progress and efforts made in the last 30 years to prevent the disability and mortality due to HIV have been enormous. Despite the tremendous improvements regarding HIV research and support, progress remains hindered by numerous challenges. Originally, HIV was identified and diagnosed in men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, and sexually active people such as sex workers. HIV was perceived and declared a disease only deviant people get because they engage in inappropriate behavior; therefore, HIV and people infected with HIV have been subjected to a corresponding negative social image. Research and education has aided in countering the negative association of HIV transmittance. The CDC explains HIV transmittance takes place via “only certain body fluids—blood, semen (cum), pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk—from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV.” People impacted by HIV, regardless of how it was transmitted, withstand constant stigmatization, discrimination and violations of their basic human rights. There is an inseparable link between human rights and HIV is now extensively acknowledged and accepted.
“Protecting, promoting, respecting and fulfilling people’s human rights is essential to ensure that they are able to access these services and enable an effective response to HIV and AIDS.”
Human rights treaties and laws play an essential role in protecting the rights of HIV positive populations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are all important documents that thoroughly elaborate the rights of all people, which include HIV positive individuals. Article 25 of the UDHR, Articles 10 – 12, and 14 of the CEDAW, and lastly Article 12 of the ICESCR all secure the human right of healthcare and the prevention, treatment and control of diseases. Finally, the ICESCR and the UDHR secures employment, cultural and community participation rights for individuals regardless of age, disabilities, illness, or any form of discrimination.
Human rights violations in the context of HIV
Access to health care services
In 2015, 36.7 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS, with the majority of HIV/AIDS positive individuals– 25.5 million – living in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, in 2017, only 46% of HIV positive adults and 49% of HIV positive children worldwide are receiving treatment, with large gaps in access to HIV testing and treatment in Africa and the Middle East. Individuals living in low-middle income locations face constant financial, social and logistical barriers to accessing diagnostic services and treatment. Some of the main obstacles individuals of lower income families’ face include the high costs of medical services, the lack of local and nearby health care facilities, and the inability to leave work to visit the doctor. vert Society asserts that stigma and discrimination from community and family influences the utilization of HIV healthcare services by HIV positive individuals. Additionally, the criminalization of HIV is also significantly affecting the access to HIV health care services. In 2014, 72 countries have implemented laws that allow HIV criminalization. Criminalization laws are usually either HIV specific, or either HIV is just one of the diseases covered by the law. HIV criminalization laws normalize, instigate and allow discrimination and stigma towards HIV positive individuals. HIV criminalization laws and socio-ecological barriers undermine HIV prevention efforts and do not decrease the rates of HIV.
Criminalization of men who have sex with men (MSM)
Currently, 76 countries around the world continue to criminalize same-sex conduct. Having these laws set up really discourages MSM and the public to get tested for HIV, transition into treatment, and disclose their information due to possible discrimination and arrest. A comparison between nations with anti-homosexuality laws and nations without such law shows considerably higher HIV prevalence rates among MSM in countries with anti-homosexuality laws compared to nations without such legislation. For example, Jamaica has strict anti-buggery laws but has a prevalence of HIV in over 30% of MSM, compared to Cuba that lacks anti-buggery and has a prevalence of HIV in less than 5% of MSM. These laws also make it particularly problematic for organizations providing sexual health and HIV services to reach men who have sex with men. Further research is needed to clarify the correlation between the criminalization of same-sex conduct and rates of HIV. The criminalization of MSM ultimately ignores the fact that HIV can be transmitted through various ways such as unintentional exposure, mother-to-child, and non-disclosure of HIV status which results in individuals not seeking health care services due to the fear of people assuming HIV was transmitted through a different route than how it was actually transmitted.
HIV disproportionately affects women and young girls because of unequal cultural, social, and economic standing in society. Gender based violence (GBV) is normalized in many societies. GBV such as rape, trafficking and early marriage makes it more difficult for women and adolescent girls to protect themselves against HIV. Women do not have power over sexual intercourse encounters. Women, in many cultures, are economically dependent on their male counterparts, making it increasingly difficult to choose their lifestyle choices. Additionally, due to the imbalanced gender power dynamic, women do not have control over family planning services, sex-based community rituals, or the choice to participate in safe sex. Studies reveal the impact of gender-based discrimination and HIV. According to one study, women living in Sub-Saharan Africa, on average have a 60% higher risk of HIV infection than their male counterparts. Another study analyzed the role of gender power imbalance on women’s ability to discuss self-protection against HIV/AIDS in Botswana and South Africa. Results concluded that “women with partners 10 or more years older than them, abused women, and those economically dependent on their partners who are less likely to suggest condom use to their partners. Gender power imbalance also influences men’s inclination towards refusing to use the suggested condom.” There is a great need to focus on women education, empowerment and self-confidence to suggest condoms, and lastly to educate and encourage men about safe sex. Gender inequalities towards women are addressed in the CEDAW; therefore, publicly and legislatively addressing the issues could significantly reduce HIV.
Millions of people have lost their lives fighting to make sure HIV positive people are able to live a long, healthy and quality filled lives. Even though we live in a country that does provide HIV healthcare services, the prevalence of HIV in the USA is still relatively high. The Human Rights Campaign reported in 2014 that Birmingham, Alabama had one of the highest rate of infection in the nation; however, the latest CDC report Birmingham is presently 12th, citing a myriad of reasons including a lack of sex education. We have and opportunity and need to stand up for each other, advocating for education and equality. There are various ways to get involved in advocating for human rights and HIV in our Birmingham community, including volunteering at local clinics: 1917 Clinic or Birmingham Aids Outreach. If you’re sexually active, you can help prevent the spread of HIV by knowing your status, getting tested, and talking openly about HIV. Constructive conversations aid in removing the stigma and fear attached to HIV because it becomes a part of the social discourse. An HIV/AIDS prognosis is a life changing event, not a life ending moment.
South Sudan, Somalia, Northeast Nigeria, and Yemen are currently experiencing what is being recognized as an international famine crisis. The lack of food in these countries has resulted in twenty million individuals suffering from extreme hunger, caused by agricultural and civil misfortunes. Starvation is expanding at an overwhelming speed; within the last three months, three million citizens from these regions are experiencing extreme food shortages. Famine has officially been declared in South Sudan, while the United Nations (UN) warns that the food shortages in Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia are only a few months away from reaching similar extremities. At this rate, these regions could face societal and economic challenges for an extraneous period. The UN has requested a total of $4.4 billion, in attempt to reverse famine in the affected countries. The purpose of this blog is to bring awareness to the global issue of starvation and famine, with regards to the collapse of civil structures and ecological factors that have severely influenced the rise of famine.
Famine refers to a wide-ranging and life-threatening food insufficiency in a specific region of the world. The issue can be created by drought, epidemics, population imbalances, inflation, and government instability. The UN determines an official famine crisis through evaluation of the food shortage margins. The official United Nations website mandates, “A famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are: at least 20 per cent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.” Natural and man-made catastrophes have worked hand-in-hand for the reasons behind the current famine issue. As political conflict and resource deprivation create an overpowering effect on a region’s agriculture and cost of food, individuals are stripped of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This declaration was created by fifty-six international representatives in 1948 as a universal agreement to essential human rights. The document was put into action only three years after the 1945 Vietnamese famine, which killed roughly two million citizens within six months. Article 25 of the UDHR states, “Everyone has 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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
YEMEN What was already the poorest Arab country is now considered to be experiencing one of the world’s worst hunger crises. Two-thirds of the Yemenis population are suffering with food insufficiency. Eighteen million individuals are facing severe food and water shortages in Yemen, and seven million of these deprived citizens are classified as starving. Conflict is to blame for Yemen’s nearing famine crisis. Yemen’s former president’s, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, failed attempts to provide adequate fuel subsidies to the Yemenis people resulted in the Houthis driving him out of the city of Aden. The clash between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and President Hadi’s soldiers has resulted in a violent civil war, and citizens’ food accessibility and resources have become targets. OXFAM, an international union for poverty assistance, has stated, “Ports, roads and bridges, along with warehouses, farms and markets have been regularly destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition, draining the country’s food stocks. The Houthi led de-facto authority on the other hand, is delaying the delivery of life-saving relief, and sometimes detaining aid workers. This, coupled with a flattened economy, has created an abyss of hunger and a serious threat of famine.”
SOMALIA Drought plays a prominent role in Somalia’s excessive hunger issue. Minimal rain fall has disrupted Somalia’s society three times in nearly twenty-five years. Nearly three million Somalian citizens are suffering from starvation, while 6.2 million citizens are experiencing food and water shortages. This drought has created a spiral of decline for the population’s malnourishment, physical health, and educational standing. An Islamic militant group, Al-Shabaab, has restricted Somalia’s access to resources after gaining political control of the country in 1991. The previous Somalian government, ruled by Mohammed Barre, was instructed to flee the capital, Mogadishu, after being overthrown by the terror group. During the conflict, the United States cut off their contributions to Somalia, due to the objection of Al-Shabaab. No official government has been established since Barre’s departure. For many years, the militants have blocked access to food and water resources and have required external contributors to pay ten thousand dollars, before allowing them to assist the citizens. The charge was lifted during Somalia’s 2011 food and drought crisis, but the general regulations of Al-Shabaab continue to affect Somalians’ resource abundance. This lack of food and water has caused severe consequences to the victimized citizens, resulting in cholera, measles, malaria, and other fatal diseases. Office for the Coordination of Human Rights recognizes the malnutrition of the Somalian children by stating that 185,000 children are in fatal condition and need of immediate aid. The rebellious leaders have displayed little to no concern with the victim’s current situation, presenting a correlation between Somalia’s political power and failed assistance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been made irrelevant to the countries’ current leaders, but Anthony Lake, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund’s Executive Director, asserts, “We are making a difference in the areas we can reach. With the World Food Programme and other partners, we are treating acutely malnourished children. We are vaccinating children against measles and polio. We are providing safe water and sanitation services. But this is nowhere close to enough. Without adequate resources and without safe access, we and our partners will be unable to reach children whose lives are at imminent risk.What is already a crisis can become a catastrophe.”
NIGERIA Northeast Nigeria’s 2.5 million food deprived individuals are experiencing food and water disadvantages, stemming from both extreme drought and political injustice. 100,000 Nigerian citizens are facing fatal consequences of undernourishment and are expected to die from starvation this year. Boko Haram, and Islamic insurgent group from the northeastern region, have spent seven years destroying agricultural resources in Northeast Nigeria and restricting access and assistance to the state of Borno. The radical group not only rid citizens of their right to food and well-being, but also committed violent crimes of kidnapping, suicide bombings, and militant attacks. Although access has improved since the Nigerian army cleared numerous villages in Borno of the militant group, many human rights established by the UDHR continue to be violated today. UNICEF released a statement that claims, “Fews Net, the famine early warning system that monitors food insecurity, said late last year that famine likely occurred in some previously inaccessible areas of Borno states, and that it is likely ongoing, and will continue, in other areas which remain beyond humanitarian reach.” Anthony Lake believes that the lack of food assistance is expected to impact the health of 400,00 children in Nigeria, leading to the possibility of fatality for one in every five kids. This translates to an incomprehensible 246 fatalities in children each day in only one of the famine-potential countries. The United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recognizes the detracted human rights of the Boko Haram victims by stating, “In newly accessible areas vulnerable host populations are in critical need of humanitarian interventions including food, water, sanitation, protection, education, shelter and health services.”
SOUTH SUDAN As of February 20, 2017, the world’s newest country has officially declared famine in several locations. The crisis encompasses 4.9 million citizens in need of food and water assistance, including one million individual’s reaching famine. South Sudan’s famine is man-made and could have potentially been avoided. Political opposition between South Sudan’s President Salva Kirr Mayardit and Former Vice President Riek Machar led to an eruption of violence between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 2003. The hostility spread past the political supporters to groups and communities throughout South Sudan. Agriculture has been disrupted by this civil war and by severe drought, leaving the majority of South Sudanese citizens with a life-threatening shortage food and water. The Sudanese government has not only created the chaos that has led to a famine catastrophe, but has failed to consider and abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With consideration of South Sudan’s short six-year span of independence, the country’s political and agricultural downfall has brought awareness of the current crisis across the globe. The United Nation’s Secretary, General Antonio Guterres claims, “Despite the alarm sounded by the United Nations and the international community over this crisis, the Government has yet to express any meaningful concern or take any tangible steps to address the plight of its people. On the contrary, what we hear most often are denials – a refusal by the leadership to even acknowledge the crisis or to fulfil its responsibilities to end it.”
United State’s Evolving Contributions The current amount of support going towards the United Nations request of $4.4 billion could take longer than originally anticipated. President Donald Trump has obstinately planned to minimize The United States government’s contributions to the sufferers of these countries, cutting the amount of foreign aid from the United Nation by nearly twenty-nine percent. He calls this “America First.”
The United States is expected to decrease the budgets for all international developments by approximately thirty-seven percent. These revised budget plans constructs a message that greatly contradicts the United States previous assistance, created to specifically minimize the issues of starvation and famine across the globe. Trump’s attempt to decrease funding costs is anticipated to target the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, originally created by the former senators Bob Dole and George McGovern in 2003. The program has gained a positive reputation for its provided assistance to multiple countries each year. This assistance is focused on agricultural needs, financial donations, and technical advancements. The priority of the McGovern-Dole is to distribute food aid to the countries most effected by hunger and food shortages. Trump’s proposition for eliminating funds for the McGovern-Dole Food has been established through the “America First” budget blueprint, stating that the program“lacks evidence that it is being effectively implemented to reduce food insecurity.” If this elimination is successful, $200 million dollars in food contributions will no longer be an option for the countries currently experiencing famine.
In comparison to the Trump administration, the Obama Administration assisted in United Nations starvation crisis by providing thirty-five million dollars worth of food to Sudan in May of 2016. Similarly, the US provided the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) with $125 million for food in the countries of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. The WFP “is the leading humanitarian organization fighting hunger worldwide, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience.” The United States contributed over three times more than any other country to the WFP in the year of 2015. The WFP raised a total $10,979,000,000, within the years of 2015 and 2016, from donors and funding sources in response to global hunger. The US set the bar high with the generous contributions of approximately $2,015,000,000 each year. Following behind are the United Kingdom, European Commission, and Germany, who’s individual contributions amounted to less than half of the United State’s total. While this amount continues to lead the donations across the world, the proposed cuts will undeniably affect today’s starving victims. Denying contributions and assistance to individuals and countries in need challenges the support to the UDHR.
Famines are preventable UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien has spoken of the extremity of the famine catastrophe currently impacting the globe. O’ Brien estimated the food shortages can be overturned by raising $4.4 billion by July in his statement to the United Nations Security Counsel. One thing O’Brien expresses passionately- preventibility.
“It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes.”
O’Brien’s travels and experiences among the victims of starvation bring about an alertness that is impossible to overlook. O’ Brien states, “For all three crises and North-Eastern Nigeria, an immediate injection of funds plus safe and unimpeded access are required to enable partners to avert a catastrophe; otherwise, many people will predictably die from hunger, livelihoods will be lost, and political gains that have been hard- won over the last few years will be reversed.” His plea for awareness and support based off of both his experiences and current data has been globally recognized by the world, but has lead to unexpected predicaments. Watch UN’s humanitarian chief communicate the issues being faced by the citizens of Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Northeast Nigeria.
Every Contribution Makes a Difference Inevitably, the internet has provided motivated individuals with an outlet for creating contributions for the United Nation’s multi-billion dollar request. Social media has provided increased awareness to the starvation crisis affecting the Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan. Celebrities including Ben Stiller, Colin Kaepernick, Casey Neistat, Juanpa Zarita, and Chakabars have raised over two million dollars to hep the cause occurring in victimized food shortage countries, specifically Somalia. This contribution began when Jerome Jarre, a French social media celebrity, identified Turkish Airlines as the only accessible commercial airline that flies to Somalia. Jarre utilized Twitter to promote his idea of filling a plane with food and water, and sending the supplies to the Somalians in need. His videos immediately caught the attention of Stiller, and within hours the topic was on Twitter’s Trending Topics. The campaign group’s original goal of one million dollars was reached in less than twenty-four hours of their social media. Turkish Airlines has expressed positive reactions to the campaign, as well. The airline company has announced their willingness to send 60 tons of humanitarian aid, and are expected to send out their first transfer of food on March 27. They have also announced their plan to continue the food transfer through as many commercial flights as needed. Read more information and get involved with the “Love Army For Somalia” GoFundMe page.
The celebrities’ motivation to provide assistance has been viewed as an inspiration around the globe. Our world is in an eye-opening and critical period of humanitarian need. Article 25 of the UDHR may have been overlooked by the government officials of South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Northeast Nigeria, but during times of crisis, our established human rights must be aided by each other.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to the origin of Islam, is an absolute monarchy with no formal written constitution. The Holy Book of Islam–the Quran–is what the country has announced as their constitution. Saudi basic laws of governance, social structures, and overall culture are all based strictly on and reinforced by Islamic law. Saudi government has a reputation for using Islamic laws to marginalize the rights of Saudi women. Saudi laws inhibit women freedoms such as the right to drive, the right to free choice of employment, the right to travel, etc. However, in the past ten years, Saudi has made progress in easing the restrictions on women. In 2005, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud ascended into the throne and restructured the importance and dynamic of women rights in the kingdom. King Abdullah is seen by many as a reformer, advocate for women rights, and modern. Under his rule from 2005 to 2015, late King Abdullah advocated for various women’s rights, specifically their civil political rights.
Women rights are embodied in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the legally binding Convention on the Elimination Against of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Saudi Arabia worked towards promoting gender equality and ratified the CEWAD in 2000. Unfortunately, the Kingdom placed a reservation upon the ratification process of the Convention stating, “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.” In other words, Saudi does not see itself obligated to comply with paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the Convention which states nations “shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children.” Even though the adoption of this Convention is in some sense incomplete and impartial, the acknowledgment of the Convention by the Saudi government, gives women legal protection to fall back on.
Progress: Civil Political Rights
Before 2003, the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia was only responsible for overseeing male education. There was an independent ministerial level department named the “General Presidency of Girls Education (GPGE),” which was in charge of overseeing female education from primary schools to university colleges in Saudi. In 2003, the GPGE department was terminated and merged into the Ministry of Education for pre-university programs and the Ministry of Higher Education for university level programs. This was a major step for the government in recognizing the importance of female education. King Abdullah took it a step further in 2009 by appointing Saudi’s first ever female minister. Nora Al Fayez was appointed as Saudi’s first female deputy education minister, in charge of a new section in the Ministry of Education in control of female education. Unfortunately in 2015, after the death of King Abdullah, Nora was removed from her position by the new appointed King Salman.
King Abdullah, in 2011, announced that he will allow women to run for municipal council positions, and give them the right to vote. On December 13, 2015, participation in government procedures became a reality for women during Saudi’s historic municipal elections for the very first time, as they were allowed to vote and run for municipal governmental positions. During the election more than 1,000 female candidates ran for a municipal council positions, and 100,000 women registered to vote compared to more than 1 million male voters. At least 18 female candidates won municipal council positions. The number of female voters were low due to multiple reasons: they are unfamiliar with the voting process thus did not participate, did not have rides to the voting booth, or were unaware of where to vote due to lack of information. Even though voting numbers were low, the fact that more than 100,000 women did vote proves that with the right campaigning and access to general information about voting rights for women, the turnout will increase in the future.
“I exercised my electoral right. We are optimistic about a bright future for women in our homeland.” – Najla Harir, Female Voter
The most noteworthy reform by King Abdullah was his royal decree to appoint 30 women to the 150 member advisory Shura Council. The Shura Council, also known as Saudi Consultative Council, is a group of 150 people which advise the king on certain social, economic, political issues by proposing laws and modifications, but cannot enforce any suggested laws. Women have never been appointed to this council prior to King Abdullah, so this action was a major statement towards the need for modernization. It also made it very clear that women and men have different needs, and women need to be the ones voicing their own concerns. King Abdullah verified that a women’s opinions and needs are just as important as men, and have a right to be heard.
The continuum of women breaking the glass ceiling in Saudi Arabia is causing a major social impact and a change in attitudes amongst Saudi women. Saudi women are starting to show solidarity for their rights by starting and promoting campaigns that protests against social inequality and discrimination towards women. The two most popular campaigns Saudi women supported and participated in are “Women2Drive” and “#IAmMyOwnGuardian.” #IAmMyOwnGuardian demands that the Saudi government abolish the male guardianship, and has rallied more than 14,000 signatures for their online petition which was delivered directly to the Saudi government. Women2Drive is another women rights movement started by Saudi women activists. This was a Facebook based campaign, started by Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif when she posted a video of herself driving a car in Saudi, trying to prove she is capable of doing so. She was detained and arrested eventually; however, she inspired other women to follow her resistance. On October 26, 2013, at least (if not more) 30 women took to the streets throughout Riyadh and Jeddah, driving themselves around the cities. Even though technically no change come out of those two protests, women have joined each other in solidarity for their rights. Most importantly, they have started a very important discussion amongst themselves regarding their human rights.
Despite the progress, there is still a long ways to go regarding women rights in Saudi Arabia. The CEDAW commends Saudi on the progress it has made towards gender equality, while strongly encouraging Saudi to continue implementing women’s rights. In 2008, the CEDAW released their concluding comments regarding the elimination of discrimination against women and how to more actively implement all the provisions of the Convention. The ultimate goal for women’s rights in Saudi addressed by the CEDAW and non-government organizations, like Humans Right Watch, is the abolishment of the current male-guardianship system in Saudi. Saudi requires every women in the country to have a male guardian–usually her father, husband, or son–who holds the legal power to make decisions for women. A Saudi women’s male guardian must grant her permission to participate in a range of daily activities, like getting a job, going to college, leaving the country, and even receiving healthcare. Women in Saudi, if unable to fully embody individual rights and make key decisions for themselves, will remain at a disadvantage if their national constitution and laws do not match the progress of the past ten years.
Saudi Arabia continues to make progress towards women rights in the Kingdom. More and more Saudi women are becoming activist and using their voices to fight for change. It is refreshing to know that women all over the world are also taking on the challenge and uniting together for a brighter future. Start encouraging and supporting each other. Show solidarity for the effort women are making to ensure their human rights are acknowledged and respected. Foster thoughtful discussions about women rights so we can confront our biases, instead of disregarding men and women who are different than us. As J.K. Rowling said “we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
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