Covenants without the sword: International humanitarian law (IHL) and sexual violence

by LISA SHARLACH, PhD

Miss Jiuliancheng and the Russian soldier (Kyûrenjô no heiki). Source: LOC Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 2009630462.

**Trigger warning: this blog speaks about sexual violence against women.

How do we stop sexual violence in civil war?  My goal is not to offer a comparative assessment of various tactics to stop war rape.  Instead, I look at the ineffectiveness of one particular tactic – law, both domestic and international.  In the mid-1600s, Thomas Hobbes wrote that “covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”.  Unfortunately, even today, international law and, to a large degree, domestic law on rape in conflict have not had the backing of the proverbial sword of justice.  No legal code condones rape, whether in war or peace. Regardless, as I demonstrate in the book manuscript I am completing, the international community and individual states’ willingness to prosecute the crimes has been lacking.  The end result has been near-complete impunity for wartime rapists.

This topic is not one limited to academia.  The London Summit of 2014 increased popular awareness of the problem of wartime rape.  Grassroots activists and transnational human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have amassed country-specific information on sexual violence and, in their words, “demanding accountability” from governments.  These are positive steps, but insufficient.  Condemnation alone has not stopped mass rape.  For example, newspaper and television stories, human rights watchdog organizations’ reports, and U.N. General Assembly resolutions all condemned the political use of rape by ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s.  However, none of this prevented Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries from using similar rape warfare tactics against ethnic Albanian women and girls in Kosovo in 1999.

The book I am finishing focuses on few case studies of mass rape:  Bangladesh; Cambodia;  Guatemala;  Peru;  Bosnia-Herzegovina;  Rwanda;  and India. (Rapists may, of course, target anyone, but the preponderance of these attacks have been upon women and girls).  I assess patterns and the scope of rape in these conflicts, and the miniscule numbers of convictions that courts and tribunals were able to secure for the rapists thereafter.  That only an infinitesimal fraction of rapes in the conflicts were ever prosecuted, much less convicted, sends a message to combatants today that they, too, most likely will be able to rape, if they so desire, without fear of punishment.

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Rwanda have tried or are trying sexual violence through international tribunals and/or truth commissions; the process has been expensive and ineffective.  In these countries’ civil wars combined, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, rapes took place.  Only a couple of hundred sexual violence cases ever actually appeared before an international tribunal in all these countries combined, and the numbers of convictions is, of course, even lower.  The total number of rapes or other episodes of sexual violence in these countries that went to any sort of trial at all is approximately seven thousand.   The vast majority of these appeared in Rwanda’s informal gacaca courts, and a sizeable number were tried in the national courts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.   The percentage of the seven thousand or so trials that resulted in conviction of the rapist is unknown.  When there are only a few thousand convictions for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of rapes, the unintended message sent by the tribunals to militants around the world is that they can almost certainly rape – and get away with it.

This finding is likely to make one despair of the value of international law in convicting wartime rape.  Unfortunately, the lesson learned from the case studies concerning the efficacy of national courts in this regard is that they are no better.  In India, Peru, and Guatemala, advocates have used the national court system to try to win justice for survivors of mass rape.  Guatemala and Peru have each convicted two of the men determined to have raped in those countries’ protracted, Cold War-era “dirty wars.” In India, only a few men have been found guilty of rape during the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat.  (Throngs of Hindu-nationalist men gang-raped hundreds of Muslim women, most of whom they burned to death immediately thereafter.  Their incineration, a Hindu funerary ritual, precluded a Muslim burial – and also destroyed forensic evidence, which in India is necessary to prosecute most instances of rape. The only Hindu women similarly attacked had Muslim husbands).  In sum, one may count on one’s hands the total number of men found guilty of raping during the riots in Gujarat, India and the wars in Guatemala and Peru combined, even though these instances of mass rape transpired at least fifteen and most often not quite forty years ago.

At present, legal covenants, whether domestic or international, are clearly an ineffective deterrent to rape in conflict.  The question of what might be a better deterrent is a subject open for much-needed discussion.  It is likely that Thomas Hobbes would suggest that “the sword,” or military might, is required, as law – words on paper – is meaningless without it.

In some instances of genocide or gross ethnic/racial inequality, such as during apartheid in South Africa, international actors have, in conjunction with domestic forces, deemed a violation of the norm of sovereignty to be warranted.  Third party governments, coalitions, or armies have intervened and stopped the killing, and, in the case of South Africa, pressured the white oligarchy to give up its monopoly on political power. Why should instances of gross sexual inequality – resulting in mental trauma, bodily injury and even death — matter less?

In recent history, there has been no international intervention intended specifically to protect women’s human rights, although mass rape has been used by governments as additional legitimization for a military campaign that was already underway for other reasons.  An example is President George W. Bush’s frequent allusion to Saddam’s alleged “rape rooms” as one justification for the U.S. invasion.  We do not know that these “rape rooms” ever existed; Bush ceased referring to them after the photographs of sexual violence at occupied Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became public.  We are all familiar with the rape accompanying the wars in Syria and in South Sudan;  with the kidnappings and sexual slavery perpetrated by ISIL and by Boko Haram;  and with the daily femicides, or sexualized murders, of women in Central America for which almost no one is ever charged, much less convicted.  And, to date, world leaders seem helpless to stop such increasingly open and aggressive sexual violence.  As long as the international community demurs that violence against women is of little consequence, a cultural practice, a matter of course or of nature, an unfortunate side-effect of ethnic rivalry, a domestic rather than an international problem, not a threat to our vital security interests, or a private affair, then the use of rape as a political weapon is likely to continue and perhaps even to increase.

 

 

Lisa Sharlach is an Associate Professor of Government and the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, in political science. The focus of her research is the intersection of ethnicity, gender, and political violence.

Iran and the Conflict Over Human Rights

An Iranian propaganda poster in Tehran.
Teheren_US_Embassy_propaganda_statue_of_liberty. Source: Phillip Maiwald, Creative Commons

Throughout his work, the Iranian poet and academic Hasan Honarmandi vividly illustrated the predominant Iranian view of the West in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In his poem The West is Fast Asleep, Honarmandi claimed “[f]rom the land of glitter all happiness has left / Chains abound, but of faith it is bereft / Naught but numbers fill the Western brain / For joy without anxiety you’ll search in vain / […] No longer has the West a message to convey.” Yet in his own life, the poet failed to take heed of his own message, succumbing to the mind-numbing alienation and atomization he associated with Western modernity. After moving to Paris to continue his studies, Honarmandi, “who never married and lived in a small apartment”, “committed suicide by ingesting sleeping pills and drinking cognac,” forever doomed to slumber in the West.

With the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on the first of February 1979, Iranians believed they successfully defeated the symptoms of modernity to which Honarmandi surrendered. Although many rose up against the monarchical regime of the Shah in protest of its “corruption, repression, despotism, and the plight of the disenfranchised,” the vast majority of the millions of ordinary Iranians from every walk of life that greeted Khomeini upon his return rose up in opposition to the same concepts of modernity condemned by Honarmandi:

The grassroots of society […] opposed the Shah’s Westernization programs, which contrasted sharply with Islamic values. […] Ayatollah Khomeini highlighted the cultural decadence and spectacularly mobilized the masses by a reinterpretation of Shi’a theology fused with anti-Americanism.

As the Shah fled from country to country after the collapse of his regime, Khomeini victoriously proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which would exist in a “permanent state of revolutionary fervor” deemed necessary to ward off “cultural imperialism and […] ‘ethnocide’ at the hands of their Western adversaries.” Khomeini ultimately received his wish, although presumably not in the manner in which he originally intended. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran continually suffers from protests, such as those in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and now in 2017-2018. In all of these instances, the Iranian government employed physical force – ranging from rubber bullets and water cannons to armed militias and counter-protestors – against its domestic detractors, often resulting in deaths and always drawing swift condemnation from its Western peers. However, where the West observes a government violating its citizens’ human rights, the Iranian leadership and its supporters genuinely believe “some Western countries intended to impose on other societies their own social ethical decline, to which they themselves confess, within the attractive package of human rights.”

Ultimately, the differing perspectives of the Islamic Republic and the West demonstrate a crucial question facing the human rights community: Are human rights, in fact, universal? Or, do they differ based on history, culture, and other factors?

Iranian women protest against the Shah.
Iranian_Revolution_Women. Source: Khabar, Public Domain

“No longer has the West a message to convey”

At its very essence, the Western conception of human rights contends such rights apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, or creed. But what if a society rejects core aspects of this conception? If a large enough segment of the human population expresses opposition to many of these rights, can the Western conception of human rights legitimately be referred to as “human” rights? Indeed, at its core, the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran represents a struggle between two, often-contradictory, worldviews.

In the years prior to 1979, the West – in the eyes of many Iranians – sought to impose its worldview on Iran through the Shah, who, for all intents and purposes, served as a Western puppet. Their White Revolution promoted the abolition of the veil, suffrage for women, Western-style judicial and education systems, and neoliberal economic reforms, among other supposed hallmarks of modernity. As noted by Ali Mirsepassi, this resulted in:

ideas of “home,” or being and belonging, [having] very strong resonance in Iran during the rapid modernization program imposed dictatorially by the Shah, and greatly helped to shape the “nativist” philosophy of the revolution in terms of both a “spiritual” sensibility and a defense of “local” culture against universalism grounded in a […] “return” to a “pure source” of being or “authentic” identity.

From the very beginning, therefore, the Islamic Revolution represented a categorical rejection of Western values by the people of Iran. Although the majority of the revolution occurred relatively peacefully, protestors regularly assaulted symbols of Western culture, such as alcohol stores and movie theaters. This opposition to Western modernity continues in the Islamic Republic to the current day, according to Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidsaless, who observe:

Within Iran, there is a debate […] on how to address the issue of human rights. There are some who adamantly believe that the West seeks to impose their own version of human rights at the expense of Islamic values. Proponents of this view are reluctant to accommodate a Western interpretation of human rights and will not succumb to pressure – specifically on issues such as hijab (the wearing of a scarf or veil) and corporal punishment. Another school of thought recognizes the innate differences between Islamic and Western values. […] The focus is on seeking to understand and accommodate such cultural variety.

On one hand, the conservative viewpoint, espoused by figures such as Supreme Leader Khamenei, essentially subscribes to the clash of civilizations theory, contending culturally and ethnically distinct civilizations (i.e. the West, Asia, the Middle East, and so on) will naturally conflict with one another as globalization brings these civilizations into greater contact with one another during the twenty-first century. This political faction, known as the Principalists, view Western Modernity and Islam in terms of an irreconcilable dichotomy – one can possess their “variant and traditional familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, and national identities/attachments” or one can possess “the tediously monotonous materialism of the present age.”

On the other, the moderate viewpoint, as championed by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, believes in a world organized along the idea that societies and cultures should remain separate, but ultimately equal, based on qualities such as mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs. However, unlike the conservative school of thought, the Reformists do not perceive the necessity of conflict between cultures – instead, they stress emphasizing commonalities in order to minimize conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic societies.

Despite their nominal opposition to one another, these Iranian schools agree on a crucial point – both reject the universal conception of human rights as “the Trojan horse of the powerful West.” Indeed, “every political faction in Iran, including moderates,” believes that the West employs human rights, economic sanctions, and other elements of its soft power “either to change the nezam’s identity and impose Western values, or to completely topple it and replace it with a puppet state.”

A rally supportive of the Iranian regime.
Qom_rallies_2018. Source: Mohammad Ali Marizad, Creative Commons

“The West which itself is helpless now, in a torture test”

While the Islam of the Iranian Revolution seeks to “export the revolution” throughout the Middle East, Western liberalism seeks to force its values – including its particular conception of human rights – on the rest of the world. Countries must possess liberal democracy – the choices of the voters, without which democracy does not exist, do not matter if they choose illiberal democracy. The constant attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic illustrate this fact, as does Western support for the military coup against President Morsi of Egypt and European Union threats to sanction Poland over its judicial reforms. Countries must accept the Western conception of human rights or potentially risk a politically motivated, “humanitarian” intervention.

Both Western liberalism and the Islamic Republic – despite their apparent antagonism – exhibit a similar drive towards universalizing their values; however, they also possess drastically different conceptions of values and the world. Different values necessarily result in different conceptions of human rights, especially when “both sides also claim to be champions of universal values, justice, equality, and dignity.”

Ultimately, these arguments weaken the underlying assumption that human rights are universal. Critics of this viewpoint suggest the universality of human rights emerges from the various international documents that codify such rights. Yet this ignores the fact that Westerners – specifically, the Western liberal political elite – overwhelmingly participated in the drafting of these documents. Furthermore, the conception of these documents served an explicitly political purpose – buttressing the post-war, liberal world order as conceived by President Roosevelt and American planners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights played a direct role in crafting the appearance of universality for the Western conception of human rights.

Throughout history, political systems and values developed slowly – city-by-city, region-by-region, and nation-by-nation– over the course of several thousand years. The true radicalism of the modern, Western-conceived human rights regime lies in its attempt to ignore this fact, imposing its rules on the entirety of the globe in barely seven decades. Seeing as many countries only recently received independence from the last Western attempt to impose its values on the world, it should not surprise that many possess little appetite for this latest iteration of Western universalism.

The solution lies in what Guillaume Faye refers to as the “Autarky of Great Spaces” and Samuel Huntington denoted as “civilizations.” Rather than jumping directly from the nation to the globe, this solution calls for the implementation of human rights regimes at the level of civilizational blocs (i.e., Europe, Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, etc.) as an intermediate step. As observable in the Western culture wars and the Iranian-Saudi proxy wars throughout the Middle East, even within civilizations – “defined by common objective elements, such as a language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” – there exist significant divides; therefore, the attempt to engineer a universal, human rights philosophy without intermediary steps towards practical implementation and the negotiation of wide cultural differences represents putting the cart significantly before the horse.

The term “autarky” refers to the idea that “only those things that cannot be produced domestically [by a country] are imported.” Although Faye, as well as most others, employs it in a purely economic sense, autarky also makes sense in terms of values and culture. Different civilizations possess similar core values, yet differ on the implementation and applicability of these values– hence, the clash of civilizations over these values as globalization increases contact between them. Ultimately, these should serve as the basis for the human rights regime of each civilization or Great Space.

For the conflict between the West and Iran, such a human rights philosophy promises to reduce conflict for various reasons:

1) This regime acknowledges human diversity, both in opinion and in culture. Thus, both the West and Iran receive independence in crafting their own, culturally relevant human rights systems.

2) The principles of mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs – often specifically demanded by Iran and other non-Western nations – serve as key components. Emphasizing these principles also addresses non-Western concerns regarding the selectivity the West displays in terms of its use and endorsement of humanitarian intervention.

Only once the intra-civilizational divides on values and human rights reach a sufficient conclusion can inter-civilizational divides hope to receive adequate attention and a truly universal human rights regime formulated. Ultimately, the implementation of this human rights regime could serve as a veritable Peace of Westphalia for human rights.

Bacha Posh: The Resilient Girls of Afghanistan

Three curly haired Afghan kids look up to the camera
Afghanistan Kids. Source: Army Amber, Creative Commons

Afghanistan has been embroiled in numerous civil wars and regime changes as global powers like Britain, Russia, and the United States have attempted to each bring their own version of peace and governance to the country for the past 150 years. The international community’s involvement has made little progress in quelling the violence during this time span, despite attempts at installing kings, providing assistance, backing rebels, and imposing sanctions. In some ways, the international community has instead reaped the consequence of empowering extremist groups like the Taliban, who have used the money and weapons funneled to the country for the original purpose of fighting the Soviets to stage a takeover of their own once the Soviets withdrew. With this climate as a backdrop, many of the stories from the region told in the West are often focused on soldiers and battles taking place in Afghanistan’s arid desert, with men from the Afghan government, extremist groups, and foreign armies fighting vigilantly for their homeland, whichever land that may be. When the focus shifts, Afghan women take center stage as the West’s fascination with their sheet-like garment–the burka–brings out calls for liberation of the oppressed group; however, on rare occasions, a story of the resilience and resistance of Afghan women pierces through our media landscape and introduces us to a new facet of the human experience.

Inspired by her visit to Pakistani refugee camps and encounters with many Afghan women in 1996, Deborah Ellis wrote a book about an Afghan girl who dons the persona of a boy to provide for her family. An adaption of Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner was released in select theaters in November. Based on the book published in 2000, the narrative follows an 11-year-old girl named Parvana who lives with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. After her father’s imprisonment because of Taliban’s disdain for his western education, her mother and school teacher disguise her as a boy so she can work and become the sole breadwinner in the family, bringing in an income for the household of six. Audiences worldwide are now able to watch Parvana’s journey on the silver screen, but with the revelation that a portion of girls do dress as boys in Afghanistan, many questions arise. What happens if they are caught? How is cross dressing allowed by the families? Do the girls transition to being boys forever? If this is a more common occurrence than previously thought, why doesn’t the international community recognize this subversion being undertaken?

Jenny Nordberg steps in to dive deeper into the subject. Author of the 2014 book The Underground Girls of Kabul: in Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, she spent months tracking down and interviewing families across the country who had a bacha posh, or a girl “dressed up as a boy” in the Dari language. Through her research, she creates the “only original non-fiction work on the practice of bacha posh”, bringing to light the ways in which women in a hostile environment have innovated and found ways to survive under incredible circumstances. Both the fictional tale in The Breadwinner and the real-life stories of bacha posh in The Underground Girls of Kabul bear striking similarities in themes, but combined they also highlight how the experience of each girl is unique to her own personal circumstances.

War

One constant held across both accounts is the presence of war and the Taliban. For the bacha posh, physical and environmental factors force their adaptation. In both the story and in the in-person interviews, Afghan parents reminisce about the brief period of peace in their youth when they freely roamed the streets in their garment of choice without fear during the Soviet rule. It was only when the Taliban took control that the practice of girls dressing as boys became necessary, as the schooling of girls became illegal and all women who had reached puberty were ordered to wear a burka, be accompanied by a male escort, and stay inside. If a woman is caught outside without an escort and a burka, she risks assault and death. This threat drove the decision of Parvana’s family in The Breadwinner, for without the father figure her family was left without a male, and this lead to her mother and siblings being trapped in the house with no way to earn money or buy food at the market. By making Parvana a boy, even at 11, she was able to escort her family members and secure a job reading and writing letters for illiterate men that passed her by on the street.

 

A line of Taliban soldiers stand beside a table handing in their weapons
Former Taliban fighters return arms. Source: Resolute Support Media, Creative Commons

Society

Yet if girls were unable to navigate the street on their own, doesn’t dressing a girl as a boy increase the risk to her safety if she is found out? Many experts Nordberg consulted when she first began her project dismissed the possibility of the bacha posh’s existence as it seemed to run contrary to the Western view of conservative Islamic societies. In a community in which the roles of males and females are so well defined, it is hard to believe that someone crossing from one role to another would not be in the greatest of violations. Shukria Siddiqui, a bacha posh until she was 20, interviewed 15 years later, clarifies this contradiction by giving an example from when she was challenged by three Mujahideen soldiers at her home when she was 17. The soldiers called out for the rumored girl who dressed like a boy, and when she went to her door to answer one of the men stated “Okay, you look like a boy, and you are completely like a boy, so we will call you a boy.”

The soldier’s statement is the stance that most Afghans, male and female, religious and nonreligious, take when confronted with a bacha posh. In The Breadwinner, Parvana lived in constant fear of being found out by those around her, but Nordberg observes that as long as the status quo of the roles remain, meaning boys complete tasks outside the home and women complete the tasks inside the home, there is nothing provoking about a bacha posh’s actions. In their eyes, the child is still conforming to societal norms, unlike if they were to stay a girl and complete traditionally male tasks. As long as the child switches back at an appropriate age to be married, around their late teens, in order to continue fulfilling their role, all is well. This sentiment is also echoed by the majority of families interviewed who raised a bacha posh. They transform their daughter to become a boy anywhere between birth and 10 years old, but as the bacha posh begins to show signs of puberty, they switch them back to assume their female identity with little problem. Only in two rare types of cases did Nordberg find that the transition back caused lasting difficulties for the girl and her family: when the girl exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, and when the transition back to being a girl occurs later in life.

Psychology

Defined by the American Psychiatric Association,

“Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.”

The common term associated with someone who experiences gender dysphoria and identifies with another gender is transgender, however,

“Gender dysphoria is not the same as gender nonconformity, which refers to behaviors not matching the gender norms or stereotypes of the gender assigned at birth. Examples of gender nonconformity (also referred to as gender expansiveness or gender creativity) include girls behaving and dressing in ways more socially expected of boys or occasional cross-dressing in adult men.”

The majority of girls Nordberg spoke with fell into the category of being gender nonconforming; comfortable with being a girl even if they took on traditionally male roles. Yet Zahra, a 17-year-old bacha posh, felt the opposite. Transformed into a bacha posh at birth, she fully embraced the idea of being a boy, reveling in her male friendships and shunning interactions with girls as it was not considered manly to interact with the other sex. After working for several years, Zahra’s mother suggested that she transition back, but this caused Zahra great psychological distress. Zahra refused to change back, and feeling appalled by her now changing body she confessed to Nordberg that should she get the chance she would undergo an operation to permanently transition herself into a boy. This was outside of the norm even for a bacha posh, but it does fit into what would be diagnosed in the West as gender dysphoria. While Nordberg was unable to draw a conclusion as to whether the original bacha posh transition influenced Zahra or if the two happened in tandem, it was an important case to demonstrate that while the majority of bacha posh are not gender dysphoric, there may be gender dysphoric bacha posh.

The other case when the transition out of being a bacha posh is rendered more difficult is when the girl transitions back later in life. In Shukria’s case, she was transitioned back at 20 just before her wedding, set up by her family. She accepted this arrangement and went through with it, but she quickly found that she lacked many of the skills that women her same age were already competent in; cooking, cleaning, and recognizing non-verbal cues from other women were all difficult to pick up. It was as if her brain had settled into the male pattern of behavior and found it difficult to let go. Her steps were too long, her voice was too loud, and she found it hard to relate to idle gossip and conversations around childrearing. Yet, it is important to emphasis that all the problems she encountered stem from social, not biological, norms. When Nordberg asked Shukria if she could teach her, the Swedish born New York based reporter, how to become a man, Shukria look her over and said she was already a man due to her Western mannerisms. To Shukria, the basis of being male or female in Afghanistan was not in biology, and as Shaheed, another woman interviewed who remains a bacha posh at 30, describes, the difference is in freedom, and that “between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea.” 

Malala sits and speaks with David Cameron at a conference about Syria
David Cameron meets with Malala Yousafzai at the Syria Conference. Source: UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons

Heroines

The women in The Underground Girls of Kabul and The Breadwinner all demonstrate this spirit of defiance and freedom, and historically they are no exception. Much like the stories of Joan of Arc and Mulan, Afghanistan also holds a woman folk hero in high regard. During a fight against British troops in 1880 when the Afghan army was close to defeat, a woman rushed out, rallied the troops, and used her veil as flag to lead them to victory. While killed in battle, the memory of the warrior Malalai lives on to inspire both Afghan girls and boys to be strong in the face of adversity. Both Parvana and the bacha posh Nordberg spoke with bring to mind Malalai to give them strength when their own resolve begins to waiver, and even the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is named after Malalai. In 2009 at the age of 12, Malala began blogging for the BBC about her life under Taliban leadership as she was forced out of school. She continued writing for three years until, after rising to prominence for her activism for girls’ education, she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban in an attempt to silence her. Malala survived, and after her miraculous recovery and continued activism she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, making her the youngest person to ever become a Nobel Laureate. Even if their life is dominated by religious leaders, threatened by the Taliban, and restrained due to cultural norms, these women cling to the stories of their collective past in the hopes that one day, they too may be recognized as courageous and valuable in the eyes of their society.

Libya, Slavery Revisited

a statue, entitled Emancipation, of Lincoln standing over a kneeling freed slave
Emancipation statue at Lincoln Park. Source: David, Creative Commons.

A video of a slave trade in Libya presently circulates the international circuit, eliciting pleas from the international community to the UN, and the UN Security Council to Libyan government to do something to end the “heinous abuses of human rights.” Questions of the video’s validity arose when Libyan officials, based on President Trump’s go-to slogan, discredited the report as “fake news” because it is a product of a CNN investigation. However, in April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) exposed the slave markets after staff based in Niger and Libya gathered testimonies of these markets. The trafficked individuals are migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Gambia seeking passage through Libya to Europe. “Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border. There they become commodities to be bought, sold, and discarded when they have no more value.” In other words, the video confirms what the humanity already knows: human beings are trafficked and disposed of by other human beings. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons is an all-encompassing term for the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of another for the purposes of commercial sex exploitation, labor trafficking, and organ trafficking. This blog focuses on labor trafficking, which includes domestic/manual forced migrant labor, and speaks to three issues surrounding this labor trafficking case: the international attention, the commonplaceness, and the international complicity.

The rawness of the video, in many ways, conjures images of American colonial and antebellum days gone by—when Africans were sold in markets and public squares to the highest bidder, thereby becoming property and labor on soil that was not their own. Given the fact slavery in the United States occurred nearly 400 years ago, why is this scene garnering international attention and creating a stir? First, the video provides undeniable evidence of the dehumanizing condition of slavery and the audacity of traffickers and traders. Second, it is a stack reminder that slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation in the US, never ended in many other regions of the world, including Libya. Lastly, it is challenges the notion of who is valuable and worth saving, and who civil society may continue to turn its back on.

It is essential to distinguish between indentured servitude and slavery. An indentured servant enters into an agreement with full acknowledgment of unpaid labor for a fixed and agreed-upon timeframe. William Mathews voluntarily made himself the servant of Thomas Windover in 1718 for the period of seven years. For his part, Windover agreed to teach, feed, clothe, and provide lodging to Mathews, who upon his release would receive “a sufficient new suit of apparel, four shirts, and two necklets [scarves].” Slavery, on the other hand, was and is about exploitation and “every sort of injustice…and debasement.” The written account of Olaudah Equiano and his family describes the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment of being “torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain… Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty”. The essential difference here is the presence or absence of choice.

Choice is the thin line separating the inferior from superior, poverty and enough, and animals and human beings. Choice, whether from individual, societal, or government level–influences how we perceive. Bales, in his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, offers two views of slavery: old and new. Both possess a dehumanizing element. However, old slavery prided itself on ownership and maintenance of “property”; new slavery focuses on bodies for profits. Ownership takes a backseat to the profit margin. This new slavery relies on the disposability of human beings. This reliance enables Bales to assert slavery never ended; it simply evolved. Slavery, at its core, is the theft of life. The theft of one life indirectly affects another.

Traffickers sell sex slaves on the black market, underground, and on the dark web. Bonded labor is often intergenerational in places like Pakistan and India, thus, children oftentimes are born into slavery. Migrant workers build soccer stadiums in Qatar and Brazil for FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, respectively, after fleeing poverty in their home countries. Unpaid or slightly paid workers, specifically children, sew garments for major fashion brands, grind coffee beans for industry leaders, and pick cocoa beans for chocolate bars sold in America. The major issue with labor trafficking lies in the complexity of the supply and demand chain, and the complicity of local and national government officials.

book00 slavery project. Immokalee — Jose Solano shows the record book he is keeping that marks the hours he goes to work and the hours that he actually gets paid for in Immokalee. He, like many other migrant workers, said that they go to work early in the morning but then wait for hours before they can pick tomatoes yet they are only paid for the hours they pick. Source: Moody College of Communications, Creative Commons.

Per Free the Slaves website, of the estimated 40 million enslaved persons worldwide, 50% are forced laborers. ABC used last spring’s television show, American Crime, to bring some aspects of labor trafficking to light. The mini-series revealed the interconnectedness of an American tomato farming family and the illegal migrants they employed. In a poignant scene, a fire conflagrates the property, killing several enslaved workers trapped inside. A real-life similar incident occurred in July 2017, whereby nine migrants died in a semi-trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. Many quickly jump to the assertion that ‘they should have done it the legal way’ and ‘they are taking away American jobs’ or ‘should not seek refuge in the EU’, yet what often happens is we fail to examine the backstory and interconnections.

Libyan Arab Spring occurred in February 2011. The death of leader Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi in October 2011 by NATO forces left a vacuum for the rise of the Islamic State. Several failed attempts for parliamentary elections, crumbling infrastructure, thousands of internally displaced citizens (IDPs), and limited resources coalesce to create the perfect storm for the rise and perpetuation of trafficking in persons. Additionally, continental intrastate conflicts and civil unrest result in large migrations of IDPs and refugees desperate for a semblance of normalcy and peace. The proclivity of new slavery, unlike old slavery, is not race or religion but on “weakness, gullibility, and deprivation”. Put another way, the subjection of the trafficked is the misapplication of trust in an uncontrolled situation. Nikki Haley, in the 2017 TIPS Report, concludes that the impact of trafficking in persons is cross-cultural, leaving no country “immune from this crisis.” The slave markets of Libya are not the first occurrence and they will not be the last; however, the video makes them known.

After a month of awareness and contained outrage, where do we sit on the elimination of slave markets in Libya, specifically? The UN released a statement condemning the markets while noting Libyans have launched an investigation, and encouraging inter-regional cooperation. Amnesty International (AI) named and shamed EU governments–particularly Italy—for their collusion and complicity in creating and maintaining a system of abuse. AI discloses the three-pronged policy of containment consists of provision of assistance to run detention centers, coordination with Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return fleeing refugees, and cooperation with leaders on the ground to halt the smuggling of seekers by increasing border controls. The Italian government, a state party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, pays to refuse refugees and asylum seekers and knowingly returns them to a foreign land for detention and torture. Libya is not a state party; therefore, signing the Convention and implementing asylum law as suggested by Dalhuisen will constitute a step in the right direction, when Libya establishes a functioning government.

The fight to end human trafficking is a global civil society (GCS) responsibility. Glasius believes GCS is a voluntary, social contract based association with others who desire to reach and include humanity to think and participate in the world as global citizens, not simply national citizens. How can one participate in GCS? First, employing social media platforms as advocacy tools. Second, reading the TIPS report and following international entities like the UN and AI will keep you informed of changes in international government strategies and shortcomings for prosecution, protection, and prevention of human trafficking. Third, shop and buy products that are fair trade by understanding the relationship between the supply and demand. Fourth, dig deep and ask questions. Lastly, look up, become aware and watch your surroundings because you, like Shelia Fedrick, could rescue a trafficked person.

We Don’t Listen to Arabs (But We Should)

“Instead of approaching problems with humility, we approach them with hubris”, began Dr. James “Jim” Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. When it comes to the Arab world, Zogby proclaimed, the hubris characteristic of American foreign policy and subsequent ‘humanitarian’ intervention blinds us to the goals and fears of the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region. Zogby’s prescription for hubris is simple: “Listening”.

Dr. James Zogby addresses the UAB and Birmingham community.
Dr. James Zogby. Source: Nicholas Sherwood

Dr. James Zogby addressed the UAB and Birmingham community on Tuesday, November 14th at UAB’s Alumni House. His lecture, titled “What We Don’t Know (But Need to Know) About the Arab World Today”, drew on his personal and professional experiences in diverse capacities in the US and in the Arab worlds alike. Notable roles Zogby has played include: political researcher / pollster in the MENA region, collegiate instructor of social research and public policy, professional advocate for human rights for Arabs, advisor for multiple US presidential candidates, and a member on the US Council on Foreign Relations. Beyond his professional accomplishments, Zogby is also the son of an immigrant from Lebanon. His ties to the Arab world are professional, personal, and deeply profound.

Zogby’s theme throughout his address was the pressing need to see the Arab world not as an abstract concept but as an area of the world that represents people with their own culture, political ideas, religious beliefs, and social and economic concerns. Americans must understand the Arab world is comprised of people sharing universal human concerns: worries related to their employment, their children’s future, and healthcare. By imagining the Arab world as a world separate from our own, we dehumanize Arabs and detach them from the shared human experience. This dehumanization can and does have grave consequences.

The War in Iraq, according to Zogby was a colossal mistake that “made enemies out of people that could otherwise be our friends – because we don’t understand Arabs”. An example, says Zogby, is the Bush’s Administration’s claim the US would be ‘greeted as liberators’.  Zogby’s extensive polling in the MENA region asked Arabs what they felt about the invasion and how these feelings impacted their view of America. Many Arabs he polled viewed the foreign troops as occupiers, not liberators, and thus Arab support for US foreign policies (not just concerning the MENA region) plummeted. However, Zogby qualified, this resentment towards U.S. policy must not be conflated with a resentment towards American ideals. Ideals such as democracy, freedom, and equality are supported by Arabs. It is the execution and implementation of these ideals, Zogby stated in his address, that forced the wedge between the US and the Arab world. This wedge exists today. And the distance it created is widening still.

Without sincerely listening to the stories of another, we risk of imposing our own beliefs and goals on the other. That’s why Zogby prescribes listening to and studying the Arab world as the first step to overcoming the gap between the Arab and the Western world. How do we do this? Zogby detailed an old habit of his, whenever he travels abroad. The first thing he does when arriving in a new locale is to buy up several local newspapers to read during his stay. The big stories, the international and national topics, Zogby says, anyone can learn about in the big-name newspapers and publications, even in publications abroad. But what of the smaller stories? The local and personal experiences tangibly impacting the lives of locals in their respective communities? These are the stories that reflect what’s actually on people’s minds in their day-to-day lived. It’s these small stories, Zogby explains, that help us understand the subjective, though in many ways universal, experiences of people we would otherwise have no access to. After buying and reading the local newspapers, Zogby talks with the people he meets on his journeys. Taking the time to immerse yourself in the minutiae of a new community, not just abstract geopolitical conflicts, offers insight and builds empathy. Without cultural empathy and the understanding that follows, Americans (or any people for that matter) cannot hope to speak or act on behalf any other people – including Arabs.

Dr. James Zogby with members of the the Insitute for Human Rights and Birmingham Islamic Society.
Zogby, the IHR, and members of the Birmingham Islamic Society. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

Another barrier to understanding Arabs, Zogby posits, is American culture. Some aspects of American culture perpetuate damaging stereotypes concerning Arabs and correlate the whole of the Arab world with ignorance, violence, and anti-Western ideals. This abject dismissal of Arab culture as worthy of understanding in its own right begins with the American public education system and is reinforced through the media and political apparatuses the American public later consumes as adults. Zogby recalls his American grade school social studies classes as a child, remembering the brief entry on Arab history and culture in relation to the rest of the world. This entry summarized Arab culture as a Sheik sitting on a camel in front of the pyramids. This has particular emotional salience for him; again, Zogby is the son of Lebanese immigrants. The Arab entry, he recalled, lacked any mention of the history-altering contributions offered by the Arab people; these include the Arabic language, scientific discoveries, Islam, and architecture.

The American education system imprints foundational appraisals of other cultures onto American children; the erasure of the Arab world and its historical significance only serves to minimize the experiences of Arabs to American children. In Zogby’s case, as is the case for millions of other American children, Arab dehumanization is done to Arab American children about their own culture and heritage. Another factor impacting the dehumanization of Arabs is the prevalence of the American media industry to hyper-focus on political and religious violence of the MENA region without mention of the prosocial peacemaking attempts undertaken by many Muslim organizations and Arab governments. “Terrorists make the news”, Zogby claims, “Arab doctors don’t. We look for what’s shocking. The vast majority of Arabs who live in peace simply aren’t shocking, and they certainly aren’t good for ratings.” This mischaracterization is further emboldened by the American political system. A shocking anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias permeates many American politicians and their policy agendas. This bias, if unchecked, will further demonize not only Arabs within the Arab world but also Americans descended from Arab cultures as well. This cultural bias against Arabs affects not only Americans living within the system, but also Arabs living without the system. Anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigration American policies and norms are used to inspire Arabs (and other global citizens) to unfairly characterize the US as well. Willful ignorance of the lives of Arabs threatens not only American ideals of freedom and equality, but it also threatens US national security. It is America’s moral obligation to herself and her global neighbors to reverse course and listen to Arab voices. By listening, we hear their stories, their needs, and their fears. By listening, arbitrary and damaging cultural boundaries are rendered meaningless.

Zogby’s life’s work is defined by his role as a boundary-crosser. Although a practicing Catholic, Zogby holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Temple University. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Zogby dove early and deeply into the world of American politics. His professional and personal identities reject the notion of boundaries. This seems to be Zogby’s mantra and fundamental guidance for his work – to overcome the boundaries dividing humanity and to take a deep look at ourselves and how we approach intercultural communication and bridge-building. Zogby has certainly listened to the Arab world. America must follow suit.

Partnership & Peace: Riane Eisler Visits UAB

Disclosure: The author is currently enrolled in Professor Eisler’s UAB course, “Cultural Transformation Theory” through the Department of Anthropology. Some statements in this post result from class session discussions and personal interactions between Professor Eisler and Nicholas Sherwood.

Riane Eisler signs "The Power of Partnership". Source: Nicholas Sherwood

Riane Eisler is a peacemaker. She is an attorney. A researcher. A mother. A grandmother. She is also a Holocaust survivor. On October 26th 2017, UAB’s Department of Anthropology and Institute for Human Rights hosted Eisler to deliver a keynote address to the annual Peace and Justice Studies Association conference held in Birmingham, Alabama. Eisler’s address to the UAB, PJSA, and Birmingham communities served as a call-to-arms for the audience members to embrace a complex and nuanced understanding of peace-through-partnership. Eisler posited the normative value of peace can only be internalized and implemented once a systemic understanding of peace has been embraced by intellectuals, activists, and advocates alike.

Eisler’s analytic framework is housed within the intellectual school of systems theory. In her case, a systemic approach to culture makes room for the total sum of human interactions, from the micro intrapersonal level, the intermediary levels, to the the macro transnational level. This interdisciplinary approach encourages integrative research from many fields of study to understand cultures themselves and how to transform cultures of domination towards cultures of partnership. To study partnership and dominator societies, Eisler and other researchers affiliated with the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) utilize a vast array of academic disciplines, including biology, functional neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and political science. Eisler’s most prolific work, The Chalice and the Blade, marked the beginning of her scholarly oeuvre, and first introduced Cultural Transformation Theory (CTT) to the world-at-large.  The central concept of CTT is the “partnership-domination” continuum, whereby any given culture may be ranked according to specific identifying markers: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and cultural narratives / language. A culture’s placement is influenced many factors. However, a fundamental differential between these two absolute points is the relative equality (or lack thereof) of both primordial halves of humanity: male and female.

Cultures with gender inequality lean towards a domination orientation, whereas cultures with gender egalitarian values lean more towards a partnership orientation.  Furthermore, dominator societies are also marked by authoritarian ranking in all social relations (from the family level to the international level) and a high degree of accepted abuse and violence (again, from the familial to the international levels; Eisler, 1987). By contrast, partnership societies are noticeable by gender equality, egalitarian and democratic relations (from the family to the national level), and a low degree of built-in violence (Eisler, 1987). To orient a culture towards partnership and peace, four cornerstones of society must be addressed: 1) family / childhood relations, 2) gender relations, 3) economic relations, and 4) narratives / language (Eisler, 2017). Observing how a culture embodies these cornerstones offers the culture’s placement on the “partnership-domination” continuum, and any attempt to transform a cultures towards partnership must simultaneously attend to these four markers of a society’s norms and values.

Riane Eisler delivers the keynote address to PJSA 2017. Source: Nicholas Sherwood

First, family and childhood relations. Eisler’s book The Power of Partnership (Eisler, 2002), explores key relationships in every person’s life and how these relationships fundamentally orient an individual towards patterns of behavior aligning with partnership- or domination-based behaviors. For any individual, family and childhood relations set the template for relationships for the rest of her or his life. As children grow, they consciously and unconsciously adopt the behaviors they learn from their parents and family members. Values held by a family, such as embracing diversity or quashing the questioning of authority figures, can and do impact the socialization of a child.

Partnership societies typically socialize children to be empathic of others, tolerant of diversity, and explore the world with curiosity instead of fear (Rando, 2010). By contrast, dominator societies instill in children an unquestioning loyalty towards authority figures (typically the patriarch of the family), suspicion of Otherness, and a generalized fear of acting dis-concordantly with the norms of society. To create peace from the bottom-up, families must socialize their children to understand diversity is a ‘given’ of the human condition, empathy is a powerful tool to be used for good, and respect for authority may also mean resisting abusive or unfair treatment.

Eisler’s second cornerstone, gender relations, explores how cultures treat the fundamental difference between two halves of humanity: male and female. In dominator societies, conventionally feminine traits (such as caring and nurturing) relegated as being ‘lesser to’ conventionally masculine traits (such as aggression and violence; Eisler, 1987). Partnership societies tend to view genders as equal in right and measure (Eisler, 1987). This question of gender equality, according to Eisler, is critical to understanding how society views Otherness. Gender identity and expression are among the first identifiers a person assesses when meeting someone else, and how a society ranks (or chooses not to rank) this difference is critical to understanding conflict and peace within culture. Why do some cultures actively repress one gender in favor of another? Are rigid stereotypes socialized and expected in men and women? And what does this gendered system of ranking mean for other kinds of relationships? Eisler believes peace is impossible without taking a critical look at gender disparity across all cultures and societies.

The Real Wealth of Nations (Eisler, 2007) explores Eisler’s third cornerstone, economic relations. For a culture to move towards or sustain a partnership orientation, their economic system (whether socialist, capitalist, etc.) must promote caring policies that reward consumers and producers alike to engage in industries that promote our innate human capacities, such as creativity, care-giving, and sustainable development (Eisler, 2007). Economic systems featuring rampant inequality between classes, the devaluation of caring work (such as caring for the elderly, traditional “house work”, and the empowerment of marginalized populations), and mechanisms of suppression are dominator-based.

Caring economics, a partnership approach, features the reward of caring work not only by capital, but also policies such as: paid maternity / paternity leave, universal healthcare, educational standards, and just treatment of employees in any job sector. The benefits of moving towards a caring economic system are mighty, including: gender equality in public and private sectors, reports of higher life satisfaction, higher profit margins for for-profit companies, higher customer satisfaction, and higher GDP; Eisler uses the successes of Scandanavian countries to support her economic hypothesis (Eisler, 2007). Companies that have adopted a partnership-orientation in their business model include: First Tennessee National Corporation, New Age Transportation, Johnson & Johnson, and Berrett-Koehler (Eisler, 2007).

Finally, with respect to the partnership-domination continuum, the particular narratives of a culture offers insight into the normative ideals enshrined in a society. Myths such as the “Original Sin”, a narrative common to many religions, espouse a dark view of human nature that features an underlying belief in a fatal flaw (or flaws) inherent to all members of humanity. Idioms such as “survival of the fittest” imply the human condition is typically competitive and warlike. These two examples belong to the domination paradigm of culture. Rewriting cultural narratives that sanctify norms such as love, acceptance, and mutual aid would reorient a society towards partnership. Anthropologists have long attempted to glean lessons from the myths and symbols found in societies; these same lessons can and should be applied in a modern context. Repeated stories become narratives. These narratives can become myths. While no myth deserves to be destroyed, as cultural erasure is a gross human rights violation, a reframing and re-contextualizing of dominator myths will serve to move a society towards peace.

An Eislerian peace process entails a cultural shift towards partnership values, with emphasis on four cornerstones of society: family / childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and narratives / language. Her systemic approach to peace promotion covers broad swaths of the human condition, and requires a working-through at all levels of society, from the macro, to the micro, and between. Eisler’s insights provide a new and necessary approach to peace promotion: peace is systemic.

Peace requires a conceptual breadth that transcends typical disciplinary lanes. Finally, to orient a society towards peaceful partnership will require a reconfiguration of the most basic elements of a society, from interpersonal relations to the global political system. Given our human potentials for domination and partnership alike, the choice to create and sustain peace is firmly ours to make.

References

Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Eisler, R. (2002). The Power of Partnership. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Eisler, R. (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations. San Fransisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Eisler, R. (2017). Building a caring democracy: Four cornerstones for an integrated progressive agenda. Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, 4(1).

Rando, L. M. (2010). Caring & Connected Parenting. Pacific Grove, CA: The Center for Partnership Studies.

Crisis in Myanmar: Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya

**This is a repost. Please make plans to join us for a lecture and discussion with Dr. Wakar Uddin on Monday, Nov 13 at 630pm, in the Edge of Chaos.

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma.
Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Creative Commons.

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

“Now is the worst it has ever been. We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.” – interviewee from Pwint Hpuy Chaung commenting on the violence in the Rhakine, Myanmar

Ethnic cleansing. State-sponsored violence. Genocide. This is what the Muslim Rohingya and most scholars would call the egregious human rights violations carried out by the state over the last eleven months. Myanmar’s government disagrees. The village-burning, mass-murdering campaign has been a legitimate effort against militant Rohingya insurgents from their perspective. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that has suffered discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated state for years. A large population of Rohingya live in the Rhakine, an extremely poor area on the coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the ethnic majority considers the group to be illegal Bengali outsiders. The minority group has been denied citizenship for decades and has recently had restricted travel with the institution of state-sponsored “Muslim-free zones.” The decades of discrimination came to a head in last October, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar government began a colossal campaign to push Rohingya into Bangladesh through burning entire towns, executing villagers, destroying food supplies, and widespread sexual violence. Officials describe the campaign as targeting militant insurgents, yet vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly have been beaten, murdered, and raped at a wide level. Entire communities have been devastated through arson, executions, and looting. The violence has been strategic in an effort to drive out the Rohingya. The mixing of mud with village grain supplies forces surviving villagers to flee or starve.

Interviews with refugees from the region conducted by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report of atrocities like murders of newborn babies, massive gang rapes of girls as young as eleven, houses set on fire with entire families locked inside, and brutal beatings of pregnant women.

“In Kyet Yoe Pyin I saw the military killing a newborn baby of a distant relative … My relative could not come out [of her house] as she was in labour so they dragged her out and hit her stomach with a big stick. They killed the baby by stomping on it with their heavy boots. Then they burned the house.” -19 year old woman from Ngar Sar Kyu (OHCHR 2017)

Much of the violence is fueled by decades of religious and ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya, a majority Muslim population within a Buddhist state. When the October 9, 2016 attack occurred, religious tension reached a boiling point. As a part of the government’s reaction, state military officers have been committing heinous crimes against innocent Muslim individuals. Survivors report their attackers as saying, while raping or beating them, “What can your Allah do for you? See what we can do?” Women systematically dragged into holy places to be gang-raped by groups of soldiers. A long beard is a religious practice among the Rohingya; however, several religious leaders have been publicly humiliated by having their beards shaved or burned off with melting plastic. Holy Qurans have been gathered and burned, and numerous religious leaders are kidnapped and murdered. There is also the denial of families to perform religious ceremonies to mourn their dead.

“I was rounded up, along with 30 others villagers, who were mainly youngsters. They tied my hands behind with a rope. They burnt plastic and dropped melted plastic on my feet and neck. They also burnt my beard with burning plastic.” – Religious leader (OHCHR 2017).

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: Global Media Sharing, Creative Commons

Activists worldwide, including Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called the Myanmar government’s response to last October’s incident “grossly disproportionate”. Many specifically criticize Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her leadership during this period. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (Nobel Peace Prize 1991). Today, some see this as incredibly ironic, even labelling the atrocities of her administration as crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Harsh V. Pant suggests that while Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, does not control the military, “her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover”.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership as a prominent factor is why international forces have not yet intervened. Suu Kyi is a much-loved public figure, has garnered enough legitimacy to make the violence seem possibly justified. Suu Kyi’s struggle to gain democracy in Myanmar nearly a decade ago brought globally acclaimed; however, these new democratic processes have magnified prejudices of the public. Suu Kyi herself has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment at times. Peter Popham describes a 2013 interview conducted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the Nobel laureate was heard saying angrily, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” This statement is a strong indication that Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent legacy should be dismissed when considering the legitimacy of Myanmar’s claims.

The Myanmar government has recently blocked UN forces from entering the country to administer aid so refugee testimonies are the source of much of the information on the violence. Over half of the refugees report family members still missing after officers rounded up important male villagers–teachers, businesspersons, and religious leaders. Fifty-two percent of women reported experiencing sexually violence in some way – usually during public nude line-ups of female villagers, where officers grope, slap, and pinch the vulnerable women. Most reported occurrences of mass executions by knife or shooting, including babies, toddlers, children, women, and elderly people. OHCHR in January’s flash report is the source of the collected data and all the reports of violence cited earlier.

Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes
Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes. Source: US Department of State, Creative Commons. Source:

These issues have been ongoing since last October’s attack, but fighting began anew last month when Rohingya militants once again launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen security officers. The group that launched the attack call themselves ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Nearly three-hundred thousand Rohingya are currently fleeing this violence, but have faced obstacles every step of the way. The path to the Bangladesh border is treacherous already, weaving through mountains and jungles, but Myanmar security forces have added additional danger. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “Rohingyas [are] being indiscriminately killed and injured by military gunfire, even while fleeing, and helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades being used against the civilian population.” Amnesty International reports that Myanmar security forces have been putting land mines along the route of fleeing refugees. Even if the violence dies down and refugees attempt to return home, they will likely be denied entry back into Myanmar. The government has recently released a statement that any returnees are required to show proof of citizenship — something that has been denied to Rohingyas for decades.

The international response has been halfhearted at best. Entities like the United Nations and Amnesty International have collected information through interviews and satellite surveillance, yet, Myanmar still refuses to allow international aid. India, one of the most powerful countries in the region, has shown support to the Myanmar state by condemning ARSA and being hostile to Rohingya refugees. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to tiptoe around the matter by similarly condemning Rohingya violence but reminding Myanmar to “adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers.” In a situation of clear ethnic cleansing, politically delicate statements like these are insufficient.

Human rights violations at this level and scale are painful to read about and not become stricken with grief. However, we must keep in mind that hope is still alive—the world is in the process of becoming a better place, and awareness of these topics is vital to that change. To those who are reading this, remember to treat yourself kindly. When the horrors of the world make you feel hopeless, remember the good that still exists. Remember to take a break every so often to recharge. Whenever I feel like the world is just too bad to improve, I remind myself of this quote by Anne Frank: “I hold onto my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”

The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) will host a demonstration for Rohingyas outside the Hill Student Center on Saturday, September 16 at 12-1:30PM. The event is free and open to the public. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refugees: Peace of Mind

The Storm Refugees – Tribute To The Victims Of The Harvey Storm. Source: Daniel Arrhakis. Creative Commons.


“Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers,”

-Garca Machel, UNICEF

Global unrest and armed conflict are becoming more common, intense, and destructive. Today, wars are fought from apartment windows, in the streets of villages and suburbs, and where differences between soldiers and civilians immediately vanish. Present day warfare is frequently less a matter of war between opposing armies and soldiers than bloodshed between military and civilians in the same country.

In 2014, there were 42 armed conflict, resulting in 180,000 deaths worldwide. Civilian death tolls in wartime increased from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s. War and armed conflict is one of the most traumatic experiences any human can endure, and the brunt of this trauma is felt by civilians- most especially children.  In 2015 alone, some 75 million children were born into zones of active conflict. As of May 2016, one in every nine children is raised in an active zone of conflict. Two hundred and fifty million young people live in war zones, with the number refugees at its most prominent since World War II. Currently, there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, and half of them children.

For refugees, the events leading up to relocation (notably war and persecution), the long and unsafe process of relocation, settlements in refugee camps, and overall disregard for human rights, takes a major emotional and mental toll. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few of many problems refugee children experience. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. Equally, a society’s mental health is essential for the enjoyment of basic human rights. Addressing the psychological needs of victims of armed conflict is essential for the prosperity of war-battered children’s future.

The Relationship between Mental Health and Human Rights
Armed conflict affects all aspects of childhood development – physical, mental, and emotional. Armed conflict destroys homes, fragments communities, and breaks down trust among people, thereby undermining the very foundations of most children’s lives. The psychological effects of loss, grief, violence, and fear a child experiences due to violence and human right violations must also be considered.

Throughout the process of becoming a refugees, the three main stages in which people experience traumatic and violent experiences include: 1) the country of origin, 2) the journey to safety, and 3) settlement in a host country. The interrelationship between human rights and mental health are recognized in various universal human right conventions and resolutions. Numerous legislative measures exists for mental health, but two main conventions that address the situations refugees experience include: 1) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and 2) The Convention on the Rights of a Child. These two conventions specially address mental health pertaining to violence.

UNHCR Tent. Source: Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Creative Commons.

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: 1987
This Convention is significant towards the promotion of mental health as a human right because “torture,” any act that creates severe pain or suffering, can be both physical and mental. This convention is particularly relevant to refugees because they are more vulnerable and susceptible to mental and physical torture.  The short video documentary released by the UNHCR provided refugees and migrants to tell their own stories of kidnap and torture during their journeys to Europe. The stories told by survivors are emotionally distressing but highlights the realities refugees continuously experience.

The Convention on the Rights of a Child: 1990
The Convention on the Rights of a Child is the first legally binding international instrument to integrate the full array of human rights. This convention is also an important document for mental health. The CRC explicitly highlights the significance of both the physical and psychological wellbeing of a child. This convention is particularly important because it addresses the relationship of affect armed conflict on mental health. First, Article 38 of the Convention highlights state parties’ obligation under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, and shall “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.” International humanitarian law is a set of rules which aim, for humanitarian purposes, to minimize and protect persons from the effects of armed conflict. Second, Article 39 of the Convention states “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect,… torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts.” For children refugees, the Convention on the Rights of a Child is an imperative document for the security of their right to mental health, and mental health services.

Barriers to Accessing Health Care Services
The process of becoming a refugee takes a tremendous emotional and mental toll on all refugees. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders are just few psychological diagnoses given to refugee children. The fundamental right to mental health care is addressed in various international standards, such as the Convention of the Rights of the Child, however, there continues to be numerous barriers preventing access to these services. There has been an unparalleled surge in the number of refugees worldwide, the majority of which are placed in low‐income countries with restricted assets in mental health care. Currently, responsibility for mental health support to refugees is divided between a network of agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), government, and nonprofit organizations. Yet, the reality is that most refugees with mental health problems will never receive appropriate services. Cultural barriers, such as language, persistently affect a refugee’s capability to utilize mental health series. A study examining health care barriers of post-settlement refugees reveals language is the most impeding cultural barrier to accessing healthcare. Refugees and mental health service providers often do not speak the same language, making successful communication during healthcare visits less effective. Language barriers affect every level of the healthcare system, from making an appointment to filling a prescription. A lack of multilingual interpreters for refugees and health care providers weakens the healthcare system, making miscommunication about diagnoses and treatments possibilities common. Lastly, stigma surrounding mental health is another barrier to health services. Refugees often feel the words “mental health issues” should be reserved for individuals with extreme learning disabilities, and do not understand mental health problems can be conditions like depression and anxiety.

Psychopathologies due to trauma are very powerful, however, recovery is possible. In Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, she discusses her theory of recovery. She states recovery happens in three stages: 1) establishment of safety, 2) remembrance and mourning, 3) re-connection with ordinary life.

Stage 1: Safety
Trauma diminishes the victims’ sense of control, power, and overall feeling of safety. The first stage of treatment focuses establishing a survivor’s sense of safety in their own bodies, with their relations with other people, in their environment, and even their emotions. Self-care is also an important focus point during this stage. The purpose of this stage is to get victims to believe they can take protect and take care of themselves, and they deserve to recover.

Stage 2: Remembrance and Mourning
The second stage of Herman’s recovery theory highlights the choice to confront trauma of the past rests within the trauma survivor. It’s important for victims to talk about their goals and dreams before the trauma happened so they can reestablish a sense of connection with the past.  That second stage begins by reconstructing the trauma beginning with a review of the victim’s life before the horrors and situations leading up to the trauma. This second step is to reconstruct the traumatic event as a recitation of fact. The goal of this step is to put the traumatic event into words, and come to terms with it. Testimonies are ways for survivors to get justice, feel acknowledged, and find their voice.

Stage 3: Reconnecting
In the final stage, the victim focuses on reconnecting with oneself and the recreation of an ideal self that visits old hopes and dreams. The third stage also focuses on emotionally and mentally reconnecting with other people and social reintergration. By this stage the victim should have the capacity to feel trust in others. A small but influential minority of individuals revolutionize the meaning of their trauma and tragedy, and make it the foundation for social change.

Peace. Source: John Flannery. Creative Commons.

A Peaceful Future 
Even though human rights activists are not psychological clinicians, we can still contribute to the success of these stages. At present, more than half of the refugee children population are children. Despite the violence these children have experienced, refugee children are the foundation and hope for a peaceful future. However, for that to happen, refugee children need to find peace in themselves. Respecting human rights is essential to society’s overall mental health. As activists we need to advocate for refuges and children who don’t have a voice. Activists for human and mental health rights should start focusing their goals on ensuring their communities and hospitals contain mental health care provisions. As activists, we can lobby for more accessible mental health services throughout our health care system, join and volunteer at non-profit organizations, and advocate for the rights of refugees. As Herman Melville states, “we cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”

 

The Long-Term Risks of Depleted Uranium Outweigh Military Necessity for the Weaponry

 

30mm-DU-penetrator. source: wikemedia creative commons

The public knowledge about the U.S. military deployment of nearly 10,000 depleted uranium rounds (DU) in 2003 from jets and tanks remains virtually unknown. There is an estimation that the US fired 300,000 rounds during the first Gulf War conflict in 1991, without releasing knowledge or evidence of testing to inform of potential health hazards of new munitions. The only mistake deadlier than firing this overabundance of DU weaponry is the denial of it, and failing to acknowledge the hazards posed to civilians. American and British occupation forces have forbidden the release of statistics related to civilian casualties after the occupation of Iraq. Additionally, they refused to clean up contaminated areas, and deny international agencies and Iraqi researchers the right to conduct full DU related exploration programs.

Despite American and British disclosure that they used around 400 tonnes of DU munitions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the United Nations Environment Program believes that the total may be nearer 1000 tonnes. Persistent and consistent reports from medical staff across Iraq have associated this legacy from the conflict with increased rates of certain cancers and congenital birth defects. The extent to which DU may be associated with these health problems is still unclear as the conditions since 2003 have not been conducive to studying civilian exposure and health outcomes. When looking at some of the major battles that took place during the operations in Najaf, Basrah, Al Samawa, Karbala and Nasiriyah, involving platforms armed with DU, Dutch Peace Corps PAX has established with certainty that DU was used in populated areas and against armored and non-armored targets.

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) campaign to eradicate DU stockpiles within countries who purchased DU munitions and DU capable weaponry, define and clarify DU and its potential risks to civilians and military personnel:

Depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic heavy metal and the main by-product of uranium enrichment. It is the substance left over when most of the highly radioactive isotopes of uranium are removed for use as nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons. DU possesses the same chemical toxicity properties as uranium, although its radiological toxicity is less. Due to its high density, which is about twice that of lead, DU has been used in munitions designed to penetrate armor plate. It can also be used to reinforce military vehicles, such as tanks. Munitions containing DU explode upon impact and release uranium oxide dust.”

The radiological toxicity of DU is less than uranium so the concern for human exposure should be uranium oxide dust. Keith Baverstock explains what happens when DU oxides, “When uranium weapons explode, their massive blasts produce gray or black clouds of uranium oxide dust particles. These float for miles, people breathe them, and the dust lodges in their lungs.” In other words, the lung is most susceptible to DU and in the topographical context of Iraq, where much of the country is defined by flat desert, winds blowing DU particles along with the dust is particularly dangerous. Winds may blow particles from combat sites into civilian inhabited areas, contaminating water and people. Even if only a small demographic of civilians is contaminated in a particular area, the half-life of a DU particle lodged inside alveoli is 3.85 years; emitting radiation directly to the tissue.

DU debris left behind in destroyed tanks of buildings poses a threat towards peacekeepers, civilians, and military personnel years after the conflict has ended. Many abandoned vehicles still litter the Iraqi countryside as silent reminders of the invasions within towns, villages, and cities. These carcasses are fun locations for kids to play in; and civilians come close to these contaminated objects daily in order to get to work, retrieve water and many other simple daily activities. These tanks are sometimes towed away towards scrapping sites without proper decontamination procedures, leading to further potential hazards when the metal is stripped and used for the construction of manufacturing goods.

Pregnant women and their offspring are particularly susceptible to DU toxicity as an unborn within the embryo of a mother rapidly produces new cells, providing the perfect environment for genetic defects. As certain small uranium particles are soluble in the human lungs, they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, pass through the lymph nodes and other parts of the body before excreted in urine. Uranium accumulates in bones, irradiating the bone marrow, potentially inducing leukemia, while building up in organs causing the breakdown of certain biological faculties as well as developing cancers.

The U.S. military and WHO have conducted research in Iraq to determine how malignant DU is and what sort of dangers it poses to civilians. Their conclusions determined that the potential toxic hazard is far too low to warrant cleanup action. These claims come in direct confrontation with independent studies performed by PAX conducted thorough studies within laboratories and fieldwork in contaminated locations where DU was fired; their findings determined sites and recovered physical DU evidence that proved contrary to American studies.

A New Breed of Munitions

“It is a superior weapon, superior armor. It is a munition that we will continue to use if the need is there to attack armor.” Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, US Department of Defense.”

Conflict is often the mother of invention. Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaigns toward the Kurdish people of northern Iraq in 1991 lead to the largest coalition of nations. Both Gulf wars produced horrific weaponry on a scale not seen since WW2, capable of precipitating public health and human rights violations years after deployment. The US Department of Defense, in 2003, praised a new breed of munition first deployed in Iraq–the depleted uranium round. These weapons hailed for their tank and bunker busting abilities; 68% denser than lead and upon impact, known to spontaneously combust leaving charred remains of the unfortunate targets. Armor plating on tanks and other armored combat vehicles use DU.

The advantages of DU munitions are clear, and key countries including the United States, Great Britain, France, China, Russia, and Pakistan produce and stockpile them. Many more former Soviet satellite states currently possess tanks in their arsenal capable of utilizing DU; however, it is unknown whether DU is a component of their arsenal is unknown. Many governments, including the European Parliament and Latin American parliament, started passing legislation banning radioactive weaponry from purchase, production, or use. The Kingdom of the Netherland is a key player in bringing transparency on the issue of depleted uranium. Organizations and individuals such as the Dutch peace corps, PAX, and the committee’s chair, British MEP Struan Stevenson of the conservative ECR group stated that there was a “demonstrable case for a strong and robust resolution calling on member states like the United Kingdom and France to stop using DU”. Led by Stevenson, a group of MEPs from across both Europe and the political spectrum have also submitted questions to the EU’s foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton to ask what the European Commission has been doing to encourage the development of a common position on DU within the EU. They also call on the EU to demonstrate leadership on the DU issue. The questions remained unanswered at the time of writing, although pressure to reach consensus is rising with the new reports of spiking cancer rates and birth defects around Iraq.

The Deformed Babies of Fallujah, Iraq

The U.S. military supported by British forces, set the city of Fallujah as the stage of incredibly intense urban warfare in 2004, with intentions of deposing opposition forces within the city. The second occurrence of military operations in November and December 2004 dubbed ‘Phantom Fury’: the most brutal operation since the official end of major combat operations in 2003. The aftermath left in Fallujah was astonishing with 60% of buildings destroyed or damaged, and the population of the city at 30%-50% of pre-war levels. The physical damage the city has sustained is not what is most disturbing.

Since 2009, credible media reports from Fallujah released reports of high rates of congenital birth defects in the city to the world’s attention. Iraqi medical personnel acknowledge the health risks of DU despite the lack of a direct link between DU and rising birth defects in Fallujah. Doctors have called for further follow up research on DU and cancer patients in Iraq. The U.S. has denied usage of DU rounds in Operation Phantom Fury while they maintained the claim that no records had been kept since 2004. However, in 2005, two DU-contaminated tanks found within Fallujah, possibly destroyed by A-10 thunderbolts according to an interview with an expert from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Baghdad. Two other DU capable platforms utilized during the combat of Phantom Fury–the Abrams tank and the Bradley armored fighting vehicle (AFV).

Moving to Secure a Healthier Future

PAX estimates that there are more than 300 sites in Iraq contaminated by DU, which will cost at least $30m to clean up. Iraqi authorities are hard pressed to mobilize an effective cleanup effort and the calls for contamination containment in Fallujah have not been properly answered by the Iraqi government. Sampled hair from women with malformed babies in Fallujah tested positive for enriched uranium. The damage inflicted upon genetic code is proving to develop tremendous strain on the population of Falluja both mentally and physically as generations to come may be thinned out by fatal birth defects.

Due their economic superiority and contribution of deploying DU, the US and Great Britain should step forward with the funds and equipment necessary to conduct long-term research and contamination containment alongside Iraqi medical personnel. The ethical issues of toxic weaponry are clear. Militaries should discontinue the usage of DU weaponry or stockpiling under the notion that the usefulness of these weapons outweigh the potential harm caused to civilians. Human rights, specifically that right to life and safe environment, should take precedence over military needs. Children dying after only a few weeks after birth due to a country’s military actions years ago is a blatant breach of UDHR Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person.

The issue of DU is not confined to DU alone. It also resonates within a broader spectrum of illegal weapon usage like gasses, weapons of mass destruction etc. Awareness of the suffering of those in Iraq is necessary so we, as an international community, may mold the peaceful and just world we envision.

 

The Matter of Belonging

a picture of the Grand Canyon. It is a UNESCO site
Grand Canyon. Source: Alan Eng, Creative Commons

The United States formally withdrew from UNESCO last Thursday, followed shortly by Israel. The decision, called “a brave and moral decision” by Binyamin Netanyahu, hinders on what the Trump administration labels “anti-Israel bias”, a claim that seemingly stems from the recent designation of Hebron as a World Heritage Site. This is not the first time the US has withdrawn support from the organization. During the Reagan administration, the withdrawal occurred over “mismanagement and political implications”; the US rejoined in 2003 under Bush, but commenced withdrawing financial dues under Obama in 2011 when the organization included Palestine as a member. The Israel and US alliance began during the Truman presidency, around 1948. The purpose of this blog is not to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict debate but to elucidate the power of collaborative relationship as an aspect of peace at the global level.

The purpose of UNESCO is to contribute to international peace and security through the cross-cultural collaboration of education, science, and culture, in accordance with the UN Chapter. The Constitution was signed into agreement in 1945, and came into force after twenty countries ratified it in 1946. UNESCO’s mandate lies in the removal of ignorance, mistrust, and suspicion from the minds of humanity, given that “wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” War, they assert, is propagated through ignorance, prejudice, and inequality; thus, denying democratic principles including “dignity, equality, and mutual respect” to all. Peace requires solidarity of humanity, both intellectually and morally.

Lines Drawn The ‘creation’ of the Green Line resulted in the 1949 Armistice and the lines of demarcation for Israel and her neighbors, specifically Jordan, and the designation of the West Bank. Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel “annexed the eastern part of the city and its holy sites”; annexation did not include parts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem (the birthplace of Jesus), or Hebron (the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Judeo-Christian faith). Citizens of Israel and Palestine live on both sides of the Green Line. Palestine remains stateless, considering the requirements of Treaty of Westphalia, yet in 2011, the UN agency granted membership to the Palestinian Authority despite the full international recognition as a nation-state. Obama, in a May 2011 address, concluded a two state solution based upon the 1967 lines, presented the most viable option for peace in the region:

“What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows — a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace… We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.  The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

Given that Obama’s speech took place in May and the withdrawal funds from UNESCO in November, it appears all signs point to a divided Obama administration. However, the legislation to withdraw American funds from any UN agency, admitting Palestine as a full member, has origins in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies.

a picture of the Sydney Opera House. It is a UNESCO site
Sydney Opera House. Source: Steve Collis, Creative Commons

A physical symbol of the UNESCO mandate materializes in the classification of world cultural/heritage sites. The designation of cultural sites in Israel began in 2001 and Palestine in 2012. In 2016, two Jewish sites in Jerusalem, geographically located in the West Bank, proved contentious for Israel and UNESCO. As a diplomatic entity, UNESCO introduced and regarded the sites by exclusive Arabic names, drawing the ire of Israel, who ascertained the move as “attempts to deny our heritage, distort history, and disconnect Jewish people from our capital and homeland”. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, neither of the Temple Mount locations are on the established or tentative list. Thereby positing the question aimed at the accusation of bias – where is the evidence of bias when it comes to UNESCO and the establishment of heritage sites?

“Anti-Israel bias” Netanyahu, during his 2011 speech to the US joint Congress, declared Israel and the US “stand together to defend democracy… to advance peace…and to fight terrorism”. He continued with an acknowledgement of the right to protest, the demand for dignity, and the desire for liberty. If coupling this speech with the decision to withdraw, the US-Israel alliance takes on an ‘us vs them’ mentality when considering the collaborative nature of the UN family of agencies. Therefore, what is the value of peace, liberty, and justice for all when two nations position themselves against the rest of the world?

It is a matter of social control versus social solidarity, or a matter of isolation versus belonging. Irina Bokova stated regret over the decisions by acknowledging the withdrawals are a “loss for multilateralism”. Robarchek asserts the problem with social control lies in the emphasis on control rather than the social. He concludes, “…the willingness to give society’s interests precedence over one’s own wishes and impulses is largely rooted in individuals’ relationship to the community”. In terms of US-Israel relations with other nations, UNESCO, and other UN agencies: the US and Israel determined their parts are greater than the whole. US-Israel allowed their own interest to trump the superordinate interest of the community (the world, in this instance), thereby, discarding democracy and peace because of unresolved conflict. Fry suggests ‘us vs them’ contributes to intergroup hostility because of a failure to cultivate a common identity. He proposes peace has two essential variables: interdependence and cooperation. Interdependence and cooperation bring about peace through the development of values that inform behaviors.

Calhoun hypothesizes the practicality of belonging is problematic for some because “intense group commitments and claims to group rights can threaten individual liberties…” and an individualist democracy does not hold value in belonging and denies its importance. He implies belonging is imperative to the fulfillment of “multilayered, multilateral polities” so democracies flourish rather than become empires. Put another way, belonging keeps democracies from getting too big for their britches. The US and Israel, both possessing strengths and weakness, conflated financial investment as responsibility and a single alliance as partnership. They fail to recognize that “neglect[ing] social solidarity… neglecting social bases of their own efficacy, while others are all too aware of the limits of their individual capacity are clearly in need of collective support in relation to the challenges the world throws at them.” It is imperative for the US and Israel to recognize their fates are interconnected with other nations. The days of selfish thinking and isolationist behavior are gone as the world is uniting around a common identity with a common goal, and the US and Israel are the odd ones out.

Belonging matters.