The Ukraine Crisis – IHR Event Recap

War continues to embroil Ukraine as Russian forces advance through the country. Putin’s assurances of only attacking military sites are belied by the mounting civilian casualties in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian individuals have picked up arms for the first time, putting up a valiant stand against the aggressors, while other are seeking safety in neighboring countries. The sanctions levied on Russia and their leadership are likely to have an impact on the country, although they have not yet significantly influenced the current Russian offense. There is, however, a constraint in terms of resources for the Russian troops. For more information regarding this issue, visit Dr. Tina Reuter’s blog post for the Institute for Human Right.

In light of these developments, the UAB Institute for Human Rights (IHR) and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration (PSPA) held an expert panel on March 3rd. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Robert Blanton, the Chair of the Department of PSPA at UAB. The panel was comprised of Dr.Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the UAB IHR and associate professor in the Department of PSPA as well as the Anthropology Department; Dr.George Liber, retired professor from the History Department at UAB; Scotty Colson, coordinator at the Jimmie Hale Mission and Alabama’s Honorary Consul for Ukraine; Dr. Renato Corbetta, associate professor in the Department of PSPA and Director of the UAB International Studies Program; and Dr. Peter Verbeek, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Director of the graduate program in Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. Panelists discussed the past, present, and future of the Ukraine crisis and consideration of the implications for the people of Ukraine, international relations, and world peace.

Graphic for the Ukraine Crisis Event, with a light blue background and white text reading, "Virtual Panel Discussion. The Ukraine Crisis. Implications for Geopolitics and Human Rights."
The Ukraine Crisis Panel Discussion took place on March 3rd, 2022.

Historical Context

Dr. Liber began the conversation by providing a historical background for the current crisis. Ukraine has been an independent country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and a majority of its people have supported a pro-democratic position including, but not limited to, free elections. Putin, in contrast, leads Russia as an authoritarian dictator, controlling the parliament, courts, and state media. Civil liberties have taken a toll under his leadership as the government goes as far as to reshape public opinion through its influence. Putin has always struggled to recognized Ukraine as an independent state and aims to restore Russia to its former power. Two significant events have led to the recent escalation. The first was the removal of the pro-Russian government from office in 2014, and the subsequent appointment of a more democratic leadership. In response, Russia annexed Crimea with the help of pro-Russian annexationists in Eastern Europe. The conflict between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists created great turmoil at the time. The second event that prompted the recent attack by Russia, according to Dr.Liber, was the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which signaled to Putin that the US may be hesitant to engage their military forces at the time of conflict.

The Situation on the Ground

Scotty Colson followed this historical summary with a description of the current situation in Ukraine. He recounted his interactions with former participants in the Open World Program, which is a government funded program that offers young Ukrainian leaders the opportunity to travel to the US and exchange ideas on key global issues with their counterparts. Mr.Colson relays the experiences of participants of this program who visited Birmingham and who are currently in the center of the war in Ukraine. One individual, a lawyer who advocates for the democratization of Ukraine, took up an AK47 despite his lack of experience handling firearms. He now mans a barricade in Ukraine after his regular work hours. Another individual that Colson interacted with was an entrepreneur who created programs to help people receive first aid. He is currently one of the leaders in providing emergency care for war torn areas. Another individual stands guard with a machine gun outside an airport. Colson also mentioned that advocates from other countries are being removed from social media platforms in Russia. He emphasized the connection we have with these individuals, and others, in Ukraine, as they were inspired by Birmingham’s history to lead civil reform in their own country.

Humanitarian Consequences

Dr. Reuter detailed the human rights implications of the conflict. Undoubtedly, there has been an increase in human rights violations, including the right to life and civilian integrity. The air strikes and heavy artillery are in direct breach of international law, prompting an investigation by the International Criminal Court. The number of casualties is uncertain, with the. However, since the UN Office of the High Commissions for Human Rights only counts deaths that they can verify, the numbers reported by them are likely to be an underrepresentation. Moreover, the most concerning development in Dr. Reuter’s opinion is Putin’s remarks during his conversation with president Macron, in which he showed no sign of relenting. At the time of the panel discussion, approximately 160,000 people were displaced, and this number was expected to climb to several millions. Some individuals had to wait for up to 60 hours in in freezing weather before being allowed to enter Poland.

Despite this, the overwhelming attitude towards Ukrainian refugees has been one of warmth and acceptance: the European Union (EU) is set to grant Ukrainian refugees with permission to live and work in the EU, while receiving education and healthcare, for a year. While Dr. Reuter appreciates this response, she points to the problematic contrast in attitudes towards the refugees from Ukraine as opposed to refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who have not been received as positively. Another significant challenge is the delivery of humanitarian aid, particularly since the war conditions have made it more unsafe for aid workers. At the time of the panel discussion, Russia tentatively agreed to arrange for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians and deliver aid safely. However, since then, there have been reports of air strikes impacting these corridors and other civilian buildings as well, including a maternity ward.

Interventions by the International Community

Dr. Corbetta discussed the possible options for the international community to intervene in the situation at hand. The reason for the hesitancy of western powers in deploying troops is the risk of escalation into nuclear warfare. The escalation may not necessarily be due to a strategic attack but even just an accident by the troops stationed in the area. This is known as the stability paradox – conventional forces cannot be used because it might lead to the use of nuclear weapons, but the potential disastrous consequences of nuclear weapons will encourage the use of conventional warfare instead. Dr. Corbetta believes Putin is attempting to make it seem as if Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons in order to prevent the stationing of conventional troops.

Sanctions are one of the other ways the west will be able to influence the situation in Ukraine. Although the sanctions imposed thus far have been strong, they take act slowly. It is important that the sanctions are increased progressively rather than levying all of the most severe sanctions at once in order to maintain leverage. Hence, the gradual nature of the impact of sanctions gives Putin time to cause further damage in Ukraine. China plays a key role in the success of sanctions as well. Dr. Corbetta says that Putin will count on China to become their key economic partner to reduce the burden of the sanctions. China at the time had not chosen sides, waiting to see the reaction from the West and the precedent that will be set for Taiwan. Another intervention is to have negotiations between Ukraine and Russia with the United Nations present to mediate. This may be particularly likely if the Russian advance is not very successful in the future, although Putin has not been keen on negotiations until now. Mediation can take a more direct form as well, with a neutral group placing troops in between the two countries to prevent conflict.

The image shows a soldier holding a gun. The Ukrainian flag is raised in the background.
“Ukraine Crisis” by theglobalpanorama is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Path to Peace

Dr. Verbeek was asked to speak about the prospects of peace and how to achieve it. He began by distinguishing the two components to peace. The first is negative peace, or the cessation of violence, while the second is positive peace, which goes beyond that to tackle social injustice that prevent the attainment of peace. Dr. Verbeek also cautioned against being quick to take sides and encouraged everyone to consider the human experience on both sides in addition to the actions of the leaders. He gave the example of a Russian soldier’s text message exchange with his parents, who wanted to send their son a package only to find out he was deployed in Ukraine. The soldier, distraught, told his parents that they were promised a warm welcome from the Ukrainians. Similarly, on the other side, it is important to ensure that refugees who are under assault are able to safely exit the country. Moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Russia has ratified, should be invoked to reduce the suffering of children stuck in the middle of the war. Dr. Verbeek also believes it is time to reassess the necessity of NATO, as it was devised to combat the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. While some say it is needed for the situation in Iraq, it is worth considering if the way we have been doing things is the best way to continue moving forward.

With regards to sanctions, Dr. Verbeek mentioned that punishment is not very effective according to behavioral science. He believes more emphasis should be placed on negotiations, with the UN or western countries present to aid in coming to a compromise. There are currently talks underway in Belarus, and it is crucial that these continue. Thinking creatively and differently than in the past is necessary to find a solution to the crisis. As Dr. Verbeek put it, “it is very important for people to talk. As long as the guns are going, and people are not talking, peace will be far away.”

Other Key Points

When asked what Putin’s overarching goal may be, Dr. Corbetta mentioned that it would be difficult to say with certainty. His intention may be to restore Russia to its status in the past when the Soviet Union still existed. He also may not want Russia to take a back seat in the increasingly important US-China relationship. Colson added that Putin’s may be more financially motivated, aiming to take control of resources in the north and simultaneously undermining and dividing the Western powers. An example of such a resource is oil, which Putin may be able to leverage to exert influence over countries dependent on oil. In terms of the implications for international relations, Dr. Verbeek highlights the importance of not only addressing the current loss of lives but also paving the path for global cooperation in the future, a necessary prerequisite to addressing  existential crises such as global warming.

When asked about the United Nations Security Council’s role in diffusing the conflict, Dr. Reuter answered by first stating that the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s actions was a positive sign. However, the influence of the Security Council is limited by Russia’s veto power. The Security Council, having been established after WWII, may not accurately represent the distribution of power in today’s world. Dr. Verbeek believes that it is time to reconceptualize the way in which the UN operates. In addition to this, Dr. Liber brought up the point that the outcome of the Ukraine crisis will have implications for nuclear disarmament as well. After being pressured by the US and other world powers, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal towards the end of the twentieth century and sought a guarantee for its national sovereignty in return. In light of the invasion of Ukraine, other countries may hesitate to proceed with nuclear disarmament out of fear for their national security.

Is there reason for hope? The answer from the panelists is a resounding yes. Dr. Reuter believes that the dissenting voices in Russia that are creating pressure from within is indeed a case for hope. In addition to that, the possibility for a corridor to supply humanitarian aid is a positive development. There are numerous organizations that are providing humanitarian relief to Ukrainians, and a detailed list can be found in an IHR Blog post written by Dr.Reuter. Dr. Corbetta sees the cohesiveness of the western countries as a reason for hope, particularly if this can be translated to other global issues. Moreover, the invasion of Ukraine is not rolling out as smoothly as Putin would have liked, which may dampen further efforts. This conflict has also made people realize that environmental issues overlap with security concerns – becoming less dependent on fossil fuels will reduce the influence that Russia has over western countries in case such a conflict arises in the future. Dr. Verbeek also finds It reassuring that many UN members stand in agreement that Russia’s actions are wrong. He believes the UN can be reformed to more fairly distribute power and create safeguards to prevent such a crisis, and all its disastrous consequences, from occurring again. For more thoughts from Dr. Verbeek on the conclusion of this war and a more peaceful future, visit his IHR blog post.

 

Worldwide consequences of the Russian occupation of Ukraine

I wanted to include this image to portray some of the realities of what Ukrainians are facing.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine being attacked

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has devastated both nations, with the people of Ukraine struggling to defend their homes against the more advanced Russian military, the people of Russia struggling financially in the face of global sanctions, and has spread anxiety to many nations of the possibilities of another world war, or even worse, the escalation into nuclear warfare. While there is a lot of coverage regarding the many attempts at diplomacy, the bombings and other military attacks on Ukraine, and the reactions of both Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, as well as Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, there are many consequences of this crisis that need to be brought to attention. It is important to focus on the impact of this crisis on the civilian populations of both nations and equally important for people to recognize that this crisis, along with similar crises around the world, is further fueling the climate crisis, even without the threats of nuclear warfare dangerously being dangled as an option. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces of resistance are essentially complex; on one side, ordinary Ukrainian citizens should be honored for their bravery and resistance at defending their nation from foreign invasion, but on the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that the Ukrainian military also includes the Azov Battalion, the neo-Nazi Special Operations unit in the Ukrainian National Guard. These are some delicate times, and transparency can help increase the trust among nations. Just the same, in the wake of this crisis, the world should not ignore the other brutalities taking place globally, many of which have participated in egregious violations of human rights. Finally, it is pertinent that people be aware of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia and hold them accountable.

The Human Impact

I included this image to show how the same location from the previous image looked prior to being bombed.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine’s nightlife to capture its beauty before Russia’s invasion

While this crisis is a result of drastic measures taken by Putin and as a response to Putin’s aggressions, Zelensky, the civilian populations are the ones that are most impacted by it. On the one side of the conflict, Russian civilians are facing tremendous economic struggles, as sanctions are being placed on Russia from countries throughout the world. Among those who placed sanctions against Russia were the European Union, Australia, Japan, and even the famously neutral Switzerland. The European Union promised to cause “maximum impact” on Russia’s economy, some states like Japan and Australia chose to sanction the oligarchs and their luxury goods, and the United States sanctions included a freeze on Putin’s assets. With that being said, it is important to analyze how these sanctions can harm everyday Russian citizens. Civilians are lining up at ATMs and banks to withdraw their cash as stocks are plunging and the Russian currency, the Ruble, lost its value by 25%. Many Russian-made products are being boycotted around the world, and even Russian participation in events like the Paralympics is being banned. Russian citizens are unable to access their money through Google Pay and Apple Pay, as both have been suspended in Russia. For fear of Russian propaganda, the United States has even banned Russian media outlets from having access to the American people. Furthermore, even amidst these sanctions and economic uncertainties, Russian civilians have risked their lives to protest against their leader and the Ukrainian invasion in large numbers. When the invasion first began, 2,000 Russian protesters against the war got arrested by the Russian police. Almost two weeks into this invasion, as the protests continue to take place, as many as 4,300protesters have been arrested. Shockingly, many of the Russian soldiers sent to invade Ukraine have been reported abandoning their posts, fleeing or voluntarily surrendering to the Ukrainian forces, admitting that they were not even aware they were being sent into combat. These Russian soldiers, many of whom are inexperienced, young adults, are being forced to fight or be assassinated by their officers for abandoning their military posts during active wartime.

Nevertheless, as a result of Putin’s aggression, on the other side of this conflict, Ukrainians are being forced to deal with the devastations of war, and the people of Ukraine are fully invested in the defense of their nation. Ordinary citizens are being taught how to make Molotov cocktails, civilians are coming together to help each other meet their basic needs and anyone capable of fighting is being recruited to join the Ukrainian defense forces. Unfortunately, Ukraine has banned 18 to 60-year-old men from leaving the nation and forcing them to join the fight. This wartime crisis has also led to a massive refugee crisis as women and children and people of other nations are trying to escape the conflict zones. This refugee crisis has its own issues, with reported instances of discrimination against refugees from the Global South fleeing Ukraine. These reports focus on the mistreatment, harassment, and restriction of the refugees from leaving Ukraine to seek safety. Additionally, while the global solidarity to support Ukrainian refugees is admirable and should be commended, many critics have argued that Ukrainian refugees have been better received from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in general, while refugees from the Middle East or other Global South nations have not been treated with the same courtesy. These are some valid points to consider, and the refugee crisis is only going to be amplified as a result of the many consequences of climate change.

Warfare and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to insist on how important climate change really is.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the world in black, engulfed in a fiery background. The world is on fire and steps need to be taken to combat climate change.

Climate change continues to impact the world during this crisis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates just how fragile our current climate crisis seems to be, exclaiming that anthropogenic (caused by humans) climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters, and warming up the globe around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The planet is already experiencing irreversible changes, the IPCC warns, and if actions are not taken to limit emissions and combat the climate crisis, the future of humanity is at risk. Additionally, another finding was reported about the Amazon Rainforest, (popularly dubbed the “Lungs of our Planet”), being unable to recuperate as quickly as it should due to heavy logging and massive fires it has experienced just over a couple of decades. These shocking revelations should be taken seriously, as this development will lead to more conflicts over land and resources. As people around the world are beginning to experience the calamities of climate change, nuclear warfare would maximize its destructions. With Russia being a nuclear state, tensions are surmounting globally, as nations continue to condemn Putin’s aggressions, and call for a ceasefire. Putting aside the possibilities of nuclear warfare, regular warfare amplifies the climate crisis in many ways.

First and foremost, warfare and military operations have a direct correlation to climate change in that they use massive amounts of fossil fuels to operate their machines and weapons, and militaries are among the largest producers of carbon across the world. This means that not only do militaries and their operations consume massive amounts of fossil fuels, but they are also among the biggest polluters in the world. Militaries worldwide need to decrease their carbon footprints and engage in more diplomatic strategies instead of engaging in warfare. We need to focus on international efforts to combat climate change and transform our economies and infrastructures into sustainable ones that rely on renewable resources. With this in mind, Germany addressed the energy crisis in Europe by suggesting that there needs to be a shift to a more sustainable economy, away from the influences of Russia, with the intentions of also fighting against climate change while becoming economically independent from Russian resources.

Furthermore, Russia, on the first day of its invasion against Ukraine, captured the site of the nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. While many argue that this was a strategic move to provide Russian troops a shortcut into Kyiv through Belarus, (Russia’s allies), others argue that the capturing of Chernobyl was meant to send a message to the West to not interfere. Still, others believe that the capture of Chernobyl held historic relevance, as many believe that the incident at Chernobyl led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever may be the case, it is unclear what Putin’s plans for Chernobyl are, and as an area that is filled with radioactive, nuclear waste, people’s concerns with Putin’s possession of Chernobyl seem valid. If not contained and treated with caution, the nuclear waste being stored at Chernobyl can cause irreversible damages to both the environment and nearby populations for decades. Recently, there have been reports of Russian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia Ukrainian nuclear power plant which caught on fire, increasing the risks of a disaster ten times as bad as Chernobyl was. While we are still unclear as to the details of this report, we do know that Russia has captured it, and at the very least, wants to hinder Ukraine’s source of energy. Ukraine depends on nuclear energy for its electricity, and this plant produced 20% of the nation’s energy. At best, this was a strategic move on Russia’s part, yet some have even suggested that if Putin is so irresponsible with his attacks on a nuclear power plant, how much restraint might he show with regards to using nuclear weapons if he feels pushed into a corner.

Finally, as was explored during the Cold War, nuclear weapons themselves have dramatic consequences on the planet as a whole and have the power of ending humanity. This was one of the major epiphanies that led to the de-escalation of the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that to use nuclear weapons against each other would be “mutually assured destruction.” While many argue that Putin’s instructions to ready Russia’s nuclear weapons is a form of intimidation targeted on the West, these threats can carry out unimaginable consequences if acted upon. With increasing pressures from all sides, including the global sanctions, and the massive resistance from Ukraine, Putin’s incentives are becoming unclear as this conflict continues to unfold.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how complex nuclear plants are and why this plant needs to be approached with extreme caution and an understanding of nuclear power.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl.

The Complexities of the Ukrainian Crisis

There has been a backlash by some that the world was not this enraged when similar invasions and occupations occurred in Palestine, Syria, or during several of the Middle Eastern conflicts that have devastated the people of that region. Still, others have dismissed this argument, stating that what makes this crisis especially relevant globally is its threats of nuclear warfare. Others, however, argue that the global support of Ukraine is in part due to their being a population of white Christians. To support this argument, they point to many instances in Western media coverage of the Ukrainian invasion that has suggested this exact idea. A CBS reporter cried on a news segment, “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is relatively civilized, relatively European….” Even a Ukrainian prosecutor was caught saying “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” This is important to note because Ukraine’s military has a Special Operations Unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is made up of far-right neo-Nazis, sporting Nazi regalia and symbols of White Supremacy. Putin’s many excuses for invading Ukraine included the need to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, referring to Ukraine’s empowering of the Azov Battalion’s rise to military and political prominence in the country. The Azov Battalion came under fire in 2016 for committing human rights violations and war crimes, detailing reports of abuse and terrorism against the civilians of the Donbas region in separatist Ukraine. With that being said, Putin’s excuse of wanting to terrorize an entire nation for the sake of his opposition to one particular group of Ukrainians is not justified, and people argue that his motivations are much more insidious than that. With the Ukrainian crisis being such a complex and nuanced issue, much of the world is focused on the conflict, a reality that many nations are taking advantage of to benefit their own national interests.

Other Aggressions still taking place around the world

I wanted to include this image to showcase that other brutalities continue to take place around the world, and deserve just as much global attention as the conflict in Ukraine
Source: Yahoo Images; A woman holding a Palestinian flag, as Israeli forces continue to occupy Palestinian land.

While the world’s attention is captured by the Ukraine-Russian crisis, some countries are taking advantage of a distracted world to commit their own atrocities. For one, Palestine continues to be colonized by Israel, a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years now. While Israelis are showing solidarity for Ukrainians from occupied Palestinian lands, they are oblivious to the hypocrisy of their actions and refuse to recognize their role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Just a few days ago, Israeli forces attacked and killed Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, and they continue to terrorize the Palestinians in an attempt to force them out of their homes.

In another part of the world, the United States, while calling for peace in Ukraine, proceeded to bomb Somalia in the past week. A conflict that the United States has been a part of for fifteen years now, American forces claim that their intended targets are the militant groups in Somalia. Yet, according to Amnesty International, the US African Command admitted to having killed civilian populations with one of its many airstrikes conducted over Galgaduud in 2018. In fact, they claim that the only reason the US even admitted to the civilian casualties in Somalia was due to extensive research on the part of Amnesty International.

The Ukrainian conflict also has Taiwan on the edge of its seats, as many are focusing on the US response to the Ukrainian invasion to measure the reactions that the US might have if China were to invade Taiwan. Many Taiwanese officials are contemplating Russia and China’s close relationship and are worried about what a successive Russian invasion of Ukraine might mean for their own development with China. The Chinese government is already engaging in misinformation/disinformation campaigns against Taiwan, and many Taiwanese claims that China has also been conducting cyberattacks in Taiwan and military drills around the island.

Resistance and Accountability

I wanted to use this image to showcase Ukrainian resistance agains the Russian invasion
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a man in the motion of throwing a Molotov cocktail

Ukrainians, much to Putin’s dismay, have been successfully defending their nation and holding off Russian forces for over a week now. In response to its successful resistance, Ukraine’s forces claim that the Russian bombings have been targeting civilian buildings and taking the lives of innocent civilians, among them at least fourteen children. As videos of the Ukrainian invasion surface on social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Twitter, many experts are suggesting that the Russians are engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun an investigation into these possibilities. The ICC is focusing not only on recent attacks against Ukraine but seem to also include past Russian aggression against Ukraine in their investigation. These crimes include the violation of the Geneva Convention, the bombing of civilian infrastructures, and even Russia’s use of vacuum bombs, (otherwise known as thermobaric bombs), which are bombs intended to suck the oxygen out of the air in its surroundings and convert it into a pressurized explosion. Although the vacuum bombs have been used in various places since the 1970s, (by Russia against Chechnya in 1990, by the Syrian government in 2016, and even by the United States in 2017 against Afghanistan), experts warn that these weapons can be extremely lethal and destructive in densely populated areas. Along with the above-mentioned violations against human rights, Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian nuclear power plant is added to the list of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia, and it continues to grow as the invasion persists.

Even with these threats and unprovoked aggression from Russia, Ukrainians have been more resistant than Putin had planned. Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to defend their nation, and their enormous bravery is inspiring to witness. This sense of solidarity among the Ukrainian people is, many believe, a direct result of President Zelensky’s own courage and his choice to fight alongside his people instead of fleeing to safety. This action alone has emboldened the Ukrainian morale, and everyone is attempting to do their part in this conflict. People are helping each other out with humanitarian needs like securing food and shelter, and civilians are constructing Molotov cocktails to throw at the incoming Russian forces to stall their advances. Zelensky even released Ukraine’s prisoners and armed them, urging them to fight and defend the nation.  These instances of Ukrainian resistance and unity among other nations of the world give us hope that they have a chance at winning global support against this crisis and bringing about peace and stability in the Ukrainian regions under attack. Considering the real threat of another world war unfolding before our very own eyes, it is important now more than ever, that we approach this conflict as objectively as possible. In order to do so, we have to employ different approaches that we have never before attempted and think outside of the box. With their efforts at resisting the invasion, Ukrainians have inspired me to believe that we as humans might be able to come together globally and perhaps tackle the climate crisis as well and protect our planet in the same manner the Ukrainians are defending their own homes before it’s too late.

How to Help Refugees and Displaced People in Ukraine

Ukrainian refugee girl
Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression. Photo taken in Przemyśl, Poland 27/02/2022 Source: Mirek Pruchnicki, Creative Commons

As a follow up to our panel discussion (recording will be posted shortly), we want to make the list of organizations available that support people fleeing from the violence in Ukraine. Beyond donating to the organizations listed below, you can also contact your representatives in Congress and share accurate information. Please see the resources at the end of my earlier blog postinformation and organizations put together by Ukrainian journalists, and this resource guide put together by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for people traveling in the conflict zone.

Here is the list of humanitarian organizations:

For Medical Support

General humanitarian help

  • Mercy Corps: humanitarian assistance
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross  or the Ukrainian Red Cross Society:  support food-producing initiatives and infrastructure repair (including water-pumping stations), as well as rebuilding damaged homes, and providing aid to hospitals, schools, mental health facilities and community centers
  • International Rescue Committee: Refugee aid, including food, hygiene and medical supplies, and other emergency resources for refugees, and there isn’t a way to earmark funds specifically for Ukraine on its website
  • World Central Kitchen: delivers warm meals to refugees and displaced people at various Ukraine border crossings
  • Global Empowerment Mission: emergency aid and travel assistance, operates a temporary travel and aid center in Medyka, Poland on the Ukrainian border.
  • Vostock SOS: Ukrainian-based humanitarian aid organization partnering with a German-Swiss nonprofit Libereco to help evacuate Ukrainian refugees out of the country

Children and other vulnerable groups

  • Voices of Children: Ukrainian organization providing psychological and psychosocial support to children
  • Save the Children: provides education, food etc. to children since 2014, provides protective services for unaccompanied minors who flee the country or are internally displaced
  • UNICEF: health, nutrition, HIV prevention, education, safe drinking water, sanitation and protection for children and families. You can earmark your donation specifically to its efforts in Ukraine on the donation page.
  • CARE: supports women and children in the fight against global poverty, Ukraine Crisis Fund

MAKE SURE TO SPECIFY THAT YOUR GIFT GO TOWARD RELIEF IN UKRAINE. Otherwise, money might go towards general causes, including operational budget. DON’T donate to the first crowd funding initiative you see, always vet the organizations carefully.

Please email us at ihr@uab.edu if you have additional vetted resources that could be added to this list or if you notice a broken link. We will update it over the coming days and weeks.  Thank you!

 

Russia’s Attack on the Ukraine: Why You Should Care

After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.

Map of Ukraine with Russian attacks on 2/24/22.
Source: New York Times, 02/24/2022.

 

While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.

Impact on Geopolitics and the International Order

Most importantly, this is the first time since World War II that we are seeing what will likely shape up to be a full-blown international war in Europe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine puts the international order generated at the end of World War II at risk and shakes the very foundations of international relations. The invasion violates international law and denies principles and tenets established by the United Nations Charter, namely the concept of collective security, the maintenance of international peace through multilateralism and institutions, and the outlawing of the use of force in international relations. The war also threatens to destabilize Europe and undermines the order established after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. This has the potential for severe and long-term consequences for Eastern European countries that were formerly under Soviet influence.

From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.

Soldiers in Ukraine
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.

The Human Rights Perspective

From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.

Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.

Meeting of the UN Security Council.
Meeting of the Security Council. Source: Nagpur Today.

It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation  – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.

Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.

What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?

International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

In 1977, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) declared November 29th as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. On this day, the UN holds an annual meeting containing the UN General Assembly and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. This day promotes an opportunity for the international community to recognize the conditions of Palestine. Last year in 2020, the UN committee launched an exhibit focusing on the wall built along the occupied territory of Palestine. This wall is a landmark of significance for thousands of Palestinians as it holds as a symbol of solidarity and resilience. The wall contains poems and different forms of art from many Palestinian artists. This wall has been ruled to be illegal by the international court of justice, yet it holds much significance regarding the fight for Palestinian freedom. 

International Day of Solidarity with Palestine Flyer
Solidarity With Palestine: Yahoo Images

Significance of the Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People: 

The declaration of this day was and continues to be a meaningful step to recognizing the injustices occurring in Palestine. This day serves as a general reminder to the UN and the rest of the world that there are still growing factors that continue to implement misery and suffering among Palestinian people. This year, the UN held the observance at the headquarters in Geneva. During the meeting, the conflicts that occurred this past year were highlighted and spoken about. Such as the expansions of illegal settlements, demolition of Palestinian homes and structures, and the occurring violence caused by the Israeli government and army. In May, Israeli settlers and army forces marched into a Palestinian neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, and removed many Palestinians out of their homes. At the General Assembly meeting, Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian activist and journalist from Sheikh Jarrah, gave a speech describing the day the Israeli Jewish Settlers took half of his home. Last year, at the 2020 observance, the Secretary-General of the UN, stated: “we must also do all we can to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people.” The recognition of suffering and the occupation, although small, is a big step in fighting for human rights injustices across the globe. The day of solidarity also calls on the critical humanitarian and development needs of Palestinian refugees, especially during the times of the pandemic and the growing conflict.

 

Mohammed el Kurd giving a speech at the UN.
International solidarity with Palestine November 29, 2021. Yahoo Images

An Update on Palestine: 

The current conditions of Palestine continue to worsen as time passes by. More individuals are being displaced, more homes are being demolished, and the fight for freedom still continues. Although November 29th provides awareness and brings light to the question of Palestine, it is essential to recognize that every day these events occur. Palestinians are still living under occupied territories with restricted movement. This past year served as a reminder for the Israeli-Palestine conflicts such as the Nakba, also known as the catastrophe. In the spring, many homes in Palestine were demolished and given to Israeli settlers, which was a repeat of events that occurred in 1948 and 1967 in Palestine. Protests occurred all around the world, standing against the settlements and in support of the Palestinian liberation. As the obstacles for Palestinian liberation continue to worsen, the fight for freedom continues around the world.

 

Protests in East Jerusalem against the illegal settlements
May 2021 Protest in Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine. Yahoo Images

Human Rights Support for Palestine: 

Although the war has been occurring since 1948, there have been acknowledgments worldwide in support of Palestinian human rights. Past U.S. legislation includes H.R. 2407, introduced by representative McCollum in 2019, promoting human rights for Palestinian children living under the occupation. This bill also addresses the most significant factor allowing Israel to continue its injustices: U.S. funding for the Israeli military. The bill calls on the U.S. to cease all funding due to the indirect support that violates international human rights law. Unfortunately, this bill did not make it out of the House of Representatives. However, the bill has been reintroduced, and Rep. McCollum continues to support it along with the introduction of an additional H.R. Bill 2590. This bill directly addresses the U.S. funding and alliance with Israel in efforts to stop the aid of military detentions of Palestinian children. U.S. taxpayer money should not be used to support international human rights violations. With the rise in support by various groups, political organizations, and advocacy groups, it has a higher chance of passing and becoming law. In addition, Palestinian awareness being recognized through congressional bills and days such as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, there is great promise in the future of this bill.

What’s Next: 

November 29th serves as an important reminder to the international community that the Palestinian struggle still exists, but it is not where our support should end. The topic of Palestinian liberation needs to be spoken about more and recognized. It is imperative to continue educating oneself and others about the Palestinian struggle and its history. A human injustice that occurred in 1948 still exists today and has worsened in aspects. Acknowledgment and bringing it to the attention of members of our government is critical. 

For more information, check out these links:

To learn more about the events that occurred in Palestine this past year and the reality of what many Palestinians go through daily watch Mohammed El Kurd’s speech given this year.

To learn more about the history of Palestine and Israel: Check out this interactive link explaining the history.

Violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

In the northernmost part of Ethiopia, there is a region composed of an ethnic minority called the Tigrayans that oppose increasing the power of the central government. This region has 7 million ethnic Tigrayans, which is 7% of Ethiopia’s population, and they have a significant influence on national affairs. The conflict between the government of Ethiopia and Tigray has been growing since the current Prime Minister took power in 2018. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants to unify the country by increasing the power of the federal government and taking power away from autonomous regions like Tigray. 

Prior to Abiy taking office, the regional government called Tigray People’s Liberation Front had a lot more authority. TPLF had been in power for more than three decades until they were forced to step down by protestors. President Abiy created a political party that united several ethnic minorities to form the Prosperity Party. TPLF decided to not become a part of this party and remain in control of the Tigray region. After this decision was made, key Tigray leaders were taken out of power due to accusations of corruption. The Ethiopian government also delayed elections in 2020, which the leaders of Tigray opposed. In resistance to Abiy’s government trying to take away their autonomous power, Tigray held regional elections in September 2020. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the left in Tshwane, South Africa
GovernmentZA

In response to the regional elections, the federal government declared them illegitimate and cut funding to the region in October. Ethnic tensions in Ethiopia have been a problem since the military junta overthrew the centuries-old monarchy in 1974. The TPLF and another political party representing the Oromo people pushed against the junta because they perceived the takeover as a domination of the Amhara people and language. Since then, violence has occurred as tensions rise between different ethnic groups. In July 2020, accusations of ethnic cleansing against Oromo youth were made when groups targeted Amhara and Gurage people in the Oromia region. Most ethnic groups in Ethiopia have faced violence from other groups or exclusion by the central government depending on which political party was in power.

The situation in Tigray escalated to violence in November 2020, when TPLF laid siege to a key Ethiopian military base at Sero. In response to the attack by mortar and tanks, the Ethiopian government launched an offensive against the Tigray region. By the end of November, the federal government’s forces had retaken Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray. In the aftermath of the conflict, accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans have been made against the government of Ethiopia and their Eritrean allies. The most notable figure to bring this light has been the leader of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael. In an interview in February, Gebremichael called for an independent probe into the alleged killings, rapes, and torture. 

A protest in Addis Ababa against the TLPF when they were in power in 2014
Gadaa.com

The US State Department has released credible reports and accounts that support claims of ethnic cleansing and other human rights abuses. Reports include indiscriminate shelling on civilians by the Ethiopian government and looting by soldiers after Tigrayans fled the area. The abuse allegations are not limited to the government of Ethiopia. Eyewitnesses report that Eritrean soldiers fired on a crowd of Tigrayans leaving Maryam Dengelat church in Dengelat, a village in the east of the Tigray region. CNN also spoke to doctors that are reporting sexual violence used as a weapon against women in the area.

The conflict has led to tens of thousands of Tigrayans fleeing as refugees into neighboring Sudan. Thousands are believed to have been killed, though numbers are only estimates since human rights organizations are unable to get into the area due to fighting. One Ethiopian official said around 2.2 million people have fled their homes. In the past few weeks, journalists have finally been able to get into the region to release witness accounts and situation reports. In recent decades, Ethiopia has been a close ally of the United States and a stable presence in the Horn of Africa. Analysts worry that the recent human rights abuses and conflict may upset this status and make Ethiopia a source of instability.

People from the Trigray region of Ethiopia
Rod Waddington

Reports of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Tigray are just the most recent reports of violence against minorities in Ethiopia. The linguistic and religious makeup of the country makes it one of the most diverse in the region. Minority Rights Group International keeps a world directory based on census data, and Ethiopia consists of over 90 distinct ethnic groups that speak 80 different languages. The country is 43.5% Orthodox Christian and 33.9% Muslim, with the remainder following Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and traditional religions. The largest ethnic groups include the Oromo at 34.9% of the population, Amhara at 27.9%, and Tigray at 7.3%. The unique makeup of groups with different beliefs creates a difficult terrain for the government in power to navigate and future cooperation against violence is necessary to end the hate against minority groups.

An Overview of the Insurgency in Cabo Delgado

The country of Mozambique, a nation of 29.5 million in sub-Saharan Africa, is currently facing increasingly alarming violence at the hands of Islamist extremists. The violence has affected countless lives and is coming to the attention of international peace-keeping bodies, with the Human Rights Chief declaring a “desperate” situation in Mozambique as calls for intervention by Mozambique’s government grow by the day.

Cabo Delgado is located in Northeastern Mozambique, shown here. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Background

Beginning in 2017, Islamic groups intent on establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa have terrorized the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique. The population of Mozambique is extremely young, with about 45% of citizens being under fifteen years of age, and a median age of just seventeen. As Islamic groups began to move into the region, many exploited the high rate of poverty to recruit young people to their cause. These militant groups have brought destruction to Mozambique, killing an estimated 2,000 people in three short years and causing a refugee crisis as over 430,000 have been forced to flee their homes and begin their life again, only adding to massive rates of poverty present in the region currently.

Increasing Horror

The violence of the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has reached new heights of horror in 2020. In April, it was reported that over 50 young people were murdered by insurgent groups for refusing to join their cause. Beginning on October 31, insurgents beheaded dozens in a series of attacks on the Muidumbe District. Survivors who returned reported dead bodies and buildings that burned for several days, completely uprooting the lives of many who called the Muidumbe District home. While the increasingly more violent attacks have drawn attention from international bodies, including the president of Zimbabwe, the situation continues unfold as more lives are stolen.

The violence even has grown to the neighboring country of Tanzania, where 175 houses were burned down in an attack on the border village of Ktaya. The violence in Tanzania can be traced back to earlier in October, when more than 20 were beheaded in another attack on Ktaya. The expansion of attacks into Tanzania led to a more coordinated effort by Tanzania to become involved in containing the insurgency.

Despite mobilization efforts by Mozambique’s government, backed by a coalition consisting of South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Russia, the ISIS-backed insurgency groups continue to lay siege to Cabo Delgado, with many fearing an all-out civil war breaking out in the region.

The current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has caused hundreds of thousands to seek refugee status, with many travelling by boat. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Potential Motives

While the insurgents in Mozambique claim their ultimate goal is establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa, it should be noted that region is also home to $60 billion in natural gas developments. Many of the recruits of these terrorist groups are also promised a better life, a message that preys on the impoverished youth of the nation and the region.

Theocratic states are also inherently incompatible with the promises of the modern human rights movement. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its promise of freedom of religion:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The methods of these insurgent groups use to establish power are also extremely problematic, leading directly to loss of life, destruction of property, loss of cultural identity, and violent intimidation that denies the people of Cabo Delgado their basic human rights on a daily basis.

The attacks have also led to the abandonment of many promising economic opportunities that Mozambique’s central government hoped would lead to poverty reduction in Cabo Delgado, which has lagged behind the rest of Mozambique in terms of economic development and poverty reduction. Norwegian fertilizer company Yara pulled out of a contract with the Mozambiquan government to make fertilizer from Cabo Delgado natural gas, mainly out of fear that the insurgency would lead to an inability for Mozambique to provide the gas at a stable cost. The region’s poverty rate has not been improved by the insurgent groups despite their promise to thousands of youths who joined a cause for increased economic mobility. Instead, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has only led to senseless violence, destruction, and worsened Mozambique’s position to grow into a healthy economy in the 21st century.

A Promising Future?

The calls for international intervention in Mozambique have begun to grow as the violence increases daily. As well as the President of Zimbabwe and the United Nations Human Rights Chief, both the British Foreign Secretary and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a heightened level of concern for the situation after news of the October 31 beheadings began to spread worldwide.

During an October visit to Cabo Delgado by Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, a man in the audience put in quite plainly in his urge to the president, saying “We want the war to stop.”

There have been signs that perhaps the insurgent groups are beginning to lose the war of attrition occurring in Cabo Delgado. On November 19, The Muidumbe District, which had been occupied by the insurgent groups, was retaken by over 1,000 Mozambiquan troops, killing 16 militants in the process.

Positive developments in Cabo Delgado can continue to occur if Mozambique’s central government is provided the adequate support and resources from international peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations. A statement by the Organization for World Peace critiqued the practice of simply condemning violence and called for more direct international support, saying:

“Though the UN’s condemnations of violence and appeals for humanitarian and investigative action are significant, the organization must carry out this action itself while motivating states and international courts to follow suit. The UN must also provide necessary assistance to Mozambican security forces while ensuring that this assistance is not abused to propagate more violence. This collective action will harness all the investigative legitimacy and humanitarian resources of the international community to uproot the militants and secure long-lasting peace.”

The citizens of Cabo Delgado deserve peace after years of violence. The region has enormous untapped potential for economic and cultural growth that has been stifled by the ongoing insurgency. No human being should have their life or home stolen by violence.

Mounting Peril: COVID-19 in Mexico

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) expands throughout the United States (U.S.), its impact has rapidly reached vulnerable communities south of the border. As the 10th most populous country in the world, Mexico is beginning to experience an influx in COVID-19 cases and, especially, deaths which has exacerbated many inequalities throughout the country. This blog addresses Mexico’s relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has influenced human rights issues concerning gender-based violence, indigenous peoples, organized crime, and immigration.

As of late-August, approximately 580,000 Mexicans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 62,000 have died from the virus. Mexico’s capital of Mexico City is currently the country’s epicenter with over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. North of the capital, Guanajuato is nearing 30,000 confirmed cases as the second-largest hotspot, while the northern border state of Nuevo León has nearly 28,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, on the Gulf side, Tabasco and Veracruz are each nearing 28,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, the southern border state of Chiapas, which has a large indigenous population, presumably has the lowest death rate (<1 death per 100,000 cases) which ignites concern about access to COVID-19 resources throughout this treacherous nation.

Gender-Based Violence

Mexico is on track to set an annual record for number of homicides since national statistics were first recorded in 1997. Femicide, which is the murder of women and girls due to their gender, has increased by over 30%. In the first half of 2020, there were 489 recorded femicides throughout Mexico. Much of this violence is attributed to the increased confinement of families since the arrival of COVID-19. For Mexican women, these atrocities are often the result of domestic abuse and drug gang activity which have both been on the rise. Regardless of how and why these acts are committed, it is plain to see that the vulnerability of women in Mexico has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), has been notorious for downplaying the country’s proliferation of gender-based violence. Despite an 80% increase in shelter calls and 50% increase in shelter admittance by women and children since the start of the pandemic, AMLO has insisted 90% of domestic violence calls have been “false”. As part of the COVID-19 austerity response, AMLO has slashed funds for women’s shelters and audaciously reduced the budget of the National Institute of Women by 75%. This all comes after the country’s largest ever women’s strike back in March, which AMLO suggested was a right-wing plot designed to compromise his presidency. AMLO has consistently scapegoated a loss in family “values” as the reason for the country’s endless failures while he promotes fiscal austerity during a global crisis.

Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

In Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, many indigenous peoples are skeptical about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is largely attributed to their constant mistrust of the Mexican government which views state power as an enemy of the people. As such, conspiracies have emerged such as medical personnel killing people at hospitals and anti-dengue spray spreading COVID-19, the latter inspiring some indigenous peoples to burn several vehicles and attack the home of local authorities. Nevertheless, Mexico has confirmed over 4,000 cases and 600 deaths of indigenous peoples throughout the country. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) suggests fostering better relationships with traditional practitioners can help limit the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous populations. Additionally, community surveillance efforts and communication through local language, symbols, and images will better protect Mexico’s indigenous populations.

Recently, 15 people at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the indigenous municipality of Huazantlán del Río, Oaxaca were ambushed and murdered. The victims were attacked after holding a protest over a local proposed wind farm, while the perpetrators are presumed to be members of the Gualterio Escandón crime organization, which aims to control the region to traffic undocumented immigrants and store stolen fuel. In 2012, members of the Ikoots indigenous group blocked construction of this area because they claimed it would undermine their rights to subsistence. This unprecedented event has garnered national attention from AMLO and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) as they seek to initiate a thorough investigation. As demonstrated, existing land disputes have been further complicated by the presence of COVID-19 and have thus drawn Mexico’s indigenous peoples into a corner of urgency.

Organized Crime

Over the past 50 years, more than 73,000 people have been reported missing throughout Mexico, although 71,000 of these cases have occurred since 2006. Frequently targeted groups are men ages 18-25 who likely have a connection with organized crime and women ages 12-18 who are likely forced in sex trafficking. This proliferation in missing persons is largely attributed to the uptick in organized crime and drug traffic-related violence that has plagued the country. Searches for missing persons have been stalled since the arrival of COVID-19 which counters the federal government’s accountability, namely AMLO’s campaign promise to find missing persons. AMLO insists that the government countering the drug cartels with violence, like Mexico’s past administrations, is not the answer. However, many analysts argue his intelligence-based approach has emboldened criminal groups, namely with homicides, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, with many Mexicans unable to work and put food on the table, drug cartels are stepping up to fill the void. The Sinaloa cartel, which is one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups and suppliers of Fentanyl and heroin, has been using their safe houses to assemble aid packages marked with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s liking. Although this tactic has long been used by the drug cartels to grow local support, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to further use impoverished Mexicans as a social shield. These acts of ‘narco-philanthropy’, which is one of the many weapons employed by the drug cartels, has enraged AMLO who has relentlessly defended his administration’s response to COVID-19. This irony reveals how growing incompetence from Mexico’s government has left its people vulnerable to not only the pandemic of a generation but more drug cartel activity.

Immigration

With the U.S. government extending its border closures into late-August, tensions mount for the migrants who seek a better life in the U.S. In addition, with a growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, California, and Texas, governors from Mexico’s northern border states have demonstrated reluctance to let Americans enter the country. These reciprocal efforts have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants, namely from Haiti, to seek asylum. As a result, the Mexico-U.S. border town of Tijuana has become a stalemate for 4,000 Haitian migrants in addition to another 4,000-5,000 in the Guatemala-Mexico border town of Tapachula. This has contributed to an economic crisis where there is no work available and people face the risk of being promptly deported, effectively nullifying their treacherous journey to Mexico.

Many undocumented migrants are afraid to visit Mexico’s hospitals due to fears of being detained which would introduce harsh living conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19. Across from Brownsville, Texas, in the Matamoros tent encampment, aggressive isolation efforts were enacted after it was discovered that a deported Mexican citizen had COVID-19. To curtail to risk of COVID-19, the mostly asylum seekers are now expected to sleep only three-feet apart, head-to-toe. On the other hand, some Mexican nationals are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border into El Paso, in addition to Southern California, under the travel restrictions loophole pertaining to medical needs. This influx is largely attributed to the lack of resources, such as oxygen and physical space, seen in many Mexican hospitals. As such, COVID-19 resource limitations are endured by both asylum seekers and medical migrants.

Woman sitting in front of a poster that includes pictures of femicide victims.
DRG Photo Contest Winner. Source: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in Mexico

As shown, issues notoriously attached to Mexico, namely femicide, indigenous autonomy, organized crime, and immigration, have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Femicide has grown due to a culture of misogyny that has proliferated during the lockdown. Indigenous communities have developed more distrust for the federal government, particularly as it relates to public health and land rights. Organized crime groups have extended their reign of terror on the Mexican people by weaponizing the effects of COVID-19. Immigrants, mainly from Central America and the Caribbean, are not only running from their dreadful past but also face the challenging prospects of a world with COVID-19.

As a global influence, Mexico fosters the responsibility to uphold international standards related to women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights. Despite each of these issues having their own unique human rights prescription, they could all be improved by a more responsive government. This has rarely been the case for AMLO who has consistently minimized the urgency, and sometimes existence, of human rights issues in Mexico. Furthermore, austerity measures provoked by COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Mexico’s most vulnerable populations because they exacerbate existing inequalities and serve as a basis for future conflict, insecurity, and violence. One of the most important ways the Mexican government can limit these inequalities is by properly addressing the war on drugs which includes closing institutional grey areas that foster crime, strengthening law enforcement, and ensuring policies carry over into future administrations. All the while, the U.S. must address its role in Mexico’s drug and arms trade. Confronting these growing concerns from both sides of border is the only way Mexico while encounter a peaceful, prosperous future.

Impact of Covid-19 in Conflict Zones

A photo of 3 medical professionals in masks and white suits carrying testing machines in war-torn Syria
Medical professionals in war-torn Syria fear the worst after first case reported. Source: Yahoo Images

“Wash your hands.” “Avoid close contact with others.” “Stay home.” These are the CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself against the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. For those of us fortunate enough to have clean water and soap and space and a home, that is helpful advice and easy enough to follow, even if it is somewhat of a disruption to our normal lives. Unfortunately, these recommendations are completely irrelevant to the millions of people across the globe who live in conflict zones and refugee camps where fresh water is scarce, sanitary facilities are lacking, and the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by war and continuous violence. In places where day to day survival is already a key concern, the novel coronavirus poses a new kind of threat, one that the struggling healthcare systems in these countries is not prepared to take on. 

While the U.S. government and media have focused on individual vulnerabilities, such as age and underlying respiratory conditions, very little has been done to address social and structural vulnerabilities, including limited access to basic services, health care, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Overcrowded refugee camps are a virus’ dream – they provide conditions in which the virus can spread rapidly and easily. Individuals living in these places are already prone to respiratory problems due to air pollution and living in close quarters. Unsanitary conditions and lack of housing, food, and clean water exacerbate the risk of contracting an infectious disease, and the lack of access to basic health care makes fighting any kind of infection difficult. The coronavirus is highly contagious and has a very high global mortality rate, even in places where social distancing and healthcare are accessible, and this rate will likely be significantly higher in conflict zones where large numbers of displaced people live. Preventing the virus from entering these spaces is the only hope, but as Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross, has said, “this is uncharted territory,” and it is unclear how effective containment strategies will be in reality (or if they are even possible in certain places).

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 126 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 70 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, mostly due to violence. COVID-19 is adding a new layer of uncertainty and fear to the already precarious and vulnerable status of these individuals and families. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement programs, and many governments worldwide have stopped the intake of refugees who are fleeing violence and food insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in war-torn areas in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Ninevah, a displaced persons camp in Iraq, as well as in several African countries, including war-torn Libya, Cameroon, and the Congo. This post considers how this global pandemic will likely impact people living in three particularly dangerous and vulnerable countries in the Middle East and West Africa: Syria, Yemen, and Burkina Faso. 

Syria

Nine years into the seemingly endless civil war in Syria, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities razed to the ground and half of the country’s entire population displaced. Targeted attacks have left Syria’s once thriving public health care system in shambles. Hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged to the point of not functioning. Medicine and medical supplies are limited, healthcare workers are few, and travel to the still-operational clinics and hospitals is out of the question for many of the sick and suffering. Of particular concern is the refugee camp in Idlib, a town in the northwestern province near Turkey, where many displaced individuals now live. The conditions of the camp are dire – there is limited access to soap and water and overcrowding makes social distancing impossible – so self-protecting is a major challenge.

Syria reported its first case of coronavirus a few days ago, from a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, a country that is backing the Syrian government in the civil war and where Shia pilgrims frequently travel. There are now five confirmed cases (the actual number is suspected to be much higher), and there is growing fear that the virus is spreading unimpeded throughout the northwest, where there is limited capacity to test and monitor the situation, but experts have warned that “if the disease starts, it will spread massively.” Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that COVID-19 could “decimate refugee communities.” Containment is the only hope, but the shortage of supplies, including test kits, makes this unlikely. 

A young Yemeni man sits atop the rubble with his face in his palm grieving the destruction of his home
Source: Yahoo Images

Yemen

The United Nations has labeled the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed yet in Yemen, but the country is bracing for a devastating catastrophe if and when the virus arrives. Since the U.S.-backed war in Yemen began five years ago, Saudi and Emirati coalitions have leveled 120 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country. These attacks, including airstrikes, ground-launched mortar and rockets, and attempts to occupy hospitals and clinics, have led to widespread disruptions in access and service to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women, children, and persons with disability. With a mere 51% of the country’s health centers operational, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Even if people in this area can get to a hospital, many hospitals don’t have electricity, rendering a ventilator — a potentially life-saving device for people suffering the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — out of the question. The decimated healthcare infrastructure is unable to control preventable disease (there was a cholera outbreak a few years ago) and is completely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Both the Houthi rebel group (aligned with Iran) and the government recognize the threat the virus poses and are implementing precautionary measures, such as closing schools and halting flights into the area. However, both sides are amping up their rhetoric and are posed to blame the other if and when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed. The United States, for its part, has cut off emergency aid to Yemen, citing the Houthi’s interference in the distribution of supplies and services to starving Yemenis (likely a Saudi-directed approach), but humanitarian officials have warned that this decision will create major funding gaps in efforts to provide hand soap and medicine to clinics and to staff health centers with trained healthcare workers. Yemen’s basic healthcare programs are heavily reliant on foreign aid – about 8 out of 10 Yeminis rely on some form of aid. Eliminating this source of funding could mean suffering and death for millions of displaced persons in Yemen. 

Burkina Faso

On March 18, Burkina Faso, the impoverished West African country of 20 million people, registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A week and a half later, that number leapt to146 cases, with hundreds more suspected, making it the hardest hit West African country so far. This tiny, conflict-scarred country is no stranger to hardships, including poverty, drought, rampant hunger, and militia-led coups. In 2019, clashes between government forces and militia groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. This escalation of violence has led to the closure of 135 health centers in the country, and an additional 140 have reduced their services, leaving 1.5 million Burkinabe in dire need of humanitarian health assistance. With a healthcare system that has been ravaged by war, a mere three facilities in the country are able to carry out the tests, and only a few hundred test kits have been provided. As part of the government’s response, Malian refugees once displaced into Burkina Faso are being forced back into Mali, where ongoing violence inhibits humanitarian and medical access to affected populations. COVID-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation — it is feared that an outbreak would see fatality rates of ten times higher than the global average. “These populations are already very vulnerable to diseases that are otherwise easy to treat,” says Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, “but that’s not the case when they have no access to water or proper sanitation or health care.” She adds, “We could watch entire populations vanish.”

Bumper sticker that says "All people are created equal members of One Human Family"
Source: Yahoo Images

Against a common enemy?

Rarely does a disaster – natural or otherwise – affect the entire world. The coronavirus is a different story, unlike anything we have witnessed in the modern age. It is exposing the fragility of even the most advanced economic, technological, social and medical systems, and it poses a grave threat to humans the world over. The virus doesn’t discriminate on the basis of status or religion or skin color or any of the other things that divide us or give us cause to fight each other. It travels across borders and between enemies, and the more people it infects, the greater the risk for everyone. Just like the virus, the distribution of basic human rights must not be qualified on the basis of anything other than humanity. Turning a blind eye to the suffering and inadequate conditions of the world’s most vulnerable populations only facilitates the spread of the virus. In a practical sense, limiting the spread of the virus in refugee camps and conflict zones in Yemen and Syria and West Africa is just as important as it is in wealthy countries if the goal is to eliminate the virus and end this global pandemic. That requires distributing resources and investing in large-scale infrastructure improvements in places where people are not able to follow the protocols for containment under the current conditions. As we scramble to make enough surgical-grade masks for healthcare workers in the United States to wear, we need to be concerned with sending as many as possible to medical facilities in places around the world that are under-served and over-taxed, including displaced persons camps. We cannot hope to protect ourselves if we refuse to protect our fellow humans, no matter the distance or cultural difference between us. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called this “the true fight of our lives,” insisting that we put aside our differences, which now seem small and inconsequential, and turn our aggression toward a common enemy. “That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

Diamonds: A Symbol of Love and Conflict

Two young diamond miners.
Blood Diamonds. Source: Brian Harrington Spier, Creative Commons.

While I do not soon foresee a diamond in my future, I have been able to witness the happiness a diamond ring brings to the lives of other people. A diamond ring represents love and commitment, and nothing can be purer than that. Imagine my surprise when I learned in my economics class that a significant number of diamonds, called blood or conflict diamonds, can be linked to horrific suffering and bloodshed. A good number of these conflict diamonds can be traced back to one company: De Beers.

De Beers diamond company was founded in the 1800s by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. Before 2000, the goal of De Beers was to effectively and efficiently buy as much of the world’s supply of diamonds as possible so as to be able to determine the price and guarantee price stability. This tactic earned the company the nickname “the custodian” of the diamond industry. In 2000, De Beers controlled around 65 percent of all diamond production, while in 2001 De Beers marketed two-thirds of all the rough diamonds in the world and produced nearly half of the world’s supply of diamonds from their mine. The company employed strategic marketing tactics to maintain their power and growth worldwide, effectively influencing the perception of diamonds to what it is today. For example, the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever,” was coined in a De Beers ad campaign. De Beers influenced the choice of a diamond as the centerpiece for an engagement ring and even the price of the ring to be two months’ salary. The Washington Post described De Beers as “a global cartel controlling mining, distribution, and pricing.”

For a company that produces a product to signify love, such as an engagement ring, De Beers has left a significant amount of bloodshed and controversy in its wake. The company has been banned from operating or selling inside the United States borders since 1996 over a price-fixing case. In the 1990s, De Beers bought billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds from conflict ridden areas in Africa, which in turn provided the means for rebel groups to obtain weapons and supplies on the black market. In the mid to late 1900s, De Beers benefited from the South African apartheid because the system of black repression ensured cheap labor for the mines, protecting the company from being hurt by the diamond boycotts sweeping the world at that time. The company became scorned as more and more information regarding conflict diamonds and De Beers’ blatant disregard for the harm conflict diamonds can cause became public.

Two diamond rings
Rings. Source: ilovebutter, Creative Commons.

The definition of conflict diamonds, as written by the United Nations, is as follows: “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” Armed groups use the revenue from exploiting diamond mines and diamond workers to fund their personal agendas. Despite the diamond business being an $81.4 billion a year industry, the towns that house the diamond mines do not reflect the wealth that lies below. Many parents choose to send their children to work in the diamond mines in order to earn a meager salary, determined on a diamond-by-diamond basis, instead of sending the children to school. The difficulty that evolves from attempting to eliminate conflict diamonds is that the diamonds traded by rebel groups are physically indistinguishable from the diamonds traded by legitimate groups. Because of the long process a diamond goes through before it reaches the jeweler, it is very difficult to determine the original source of the diamond.

In 2000, De Beers put out a statement guaranteeing that their diamonds did not originate from conflict zones in Africa and promised that their purchasing of diamonds did not fuel any conflicts in Angola and Congo. The statement was met with mixed reviews, some welcoming the initiative the company was taking, and some believing that De Beers would be unable to control the smuggling system that crisscrosses across the continent of Africa. Since the initial statement in 2000, De Beers’ statements have been very contradictory, stating at one point that it would be easy to find the origin of the diamonds and yet continually releasing statements saying that it is impossible to distinguish the origin of the diamonds that they buy. Since 2000, some independent diamond dealers have not only claimed to sell diamond bunches that they bought from rebel groups to De Beers, but also that De Beers was aware of the origin of the diamonds. Currently on their website, De Beers boasts that 100% of their diamonds are conflict free. However, the company only cites the Kimberley Process, a process they helped to create, in regards to this certification.

De Beers’ promises have rested on determining the origin of the diamonds. It has already been stated but is worth reiterating that determining the origin of diamonds has been much disputed as diamonds are handled in groups, making the process of discovering the origin of a diamond very difficult. In 2003, a process named the Kimberley Process was established by the main actors in the diamond industry, including De Beers. The Kimberley Process is so named for the town where De Beers diamond company was founded, highlighting the influence the company had in the establishment of the process. It is an international certification process with the goal of distinguishing conflict-free diamonds from those diamonds associated with a conflict. The Process was created from a meeting in 2000 in Kimberley, South Africa, where the biggest diamond producers and buyers in the world met to address the growing threat of a consumer boycott. Consumers were becoming more aware of the influence the sale of diamonds had in funding to civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone and were threatening to forgo buying diamonds all together. In 2003, 52 governments and international advocacy groups ratified the Process, creating a system of certifications issued by the country of origin that must accompany any shipment of diamonds. If a country was unable to prove that their diamonds were separate from any conflict, said country could be cast out of the international diamond trade. The Process did marginally reduce the number of conflict diamonds in the market, but the process is ridden with loopholes. It is unable to stop the international sale of the majority of diamonds mined in conflict ridden zones and diamond mining even outside of a conflict zone is terrible work with many of the miners being school-aged minors.

Diamond mine in Australia
World’s Largest Diamond Mine. Source: Soundog, Creative Commons.

Many argue that the Kimberley Process is not only laced with loopholes, but it also does not go far enough. For example, the Process does not disqualify diamonds mined in an area with human rights abuses. Also, the definition of conflict used in the creation of the Process is so narrow that it excludes many situations that would generally be considered a conflict. The definition used is, “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” An instance where the definition stated in the Kimberley Process failed occurred in 2008. The army of the government of Zimbabwe seized a diamond mine within Zimbabwe’s borders and proceeded to kill and rape hundreds of miners. Because the army represented a legitimate government, this instance is not considered to be against the Kimberley Process. The Kimberley Process did implement a ban on the Central African Republic when it was discovered that the mining of diamonds helped to fund a genocide of thousands since 2013. However, the UN estimates that $24 million worth of diamonds have been smuggled out of the country since the ban.

While a true fair-trade system would ban diamonds mined in a conflict ridden area and allow consumers to purchase diamonds that could improve the life of artisan workers, ultimately there is no way of truly knowing whether the diamond you buy is in somehow linked to a conflict. The Human Rights Watch has come up with a list of strategies that may help diamond companies fulfill their obligation of “identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for their own impact on human rights throughout their supply chain.” Such strategies include: 1. Establishing a policy regarding the supply chain that is included in the contracts with suppliers 2. Creating a ‘chain of custody’ by requiring documentation for each step along the supply chain 3. Assessing thoroughly and respond promptly to human rights risks at all stages of the supply chain 4. Employing independent, third-party examiners 5. Becoming public with the names of suppliers 6. Sourcing responsibly and being wary of large-scale mining operations. The diamond industry has a long way to go but with established organizations calling out companies like De Beers, loopholes in certification processes can be closed and ultimately conflict diamonds may be eliminated.