How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.
The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.
The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.
Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.
Although one would not be remiss in thinking this scenario occurred in a modern-day United States in which nearly eighty million people visit Pornhub every day and the boundaries of cultural libertinism seem to be constantly extended, in actuality, it occurred in a new Netflix series – Babylon Berlin – accurately dramatizing the Weimar Republic of interwar Germany. Constructed atop the ruins of Imperial Germany in the aftermath of World War One, the Weimar Republic represented the first German experiment in mass democracy and classical liberalism, an ideology oriented around the idea that individuals inherently possess certain natural rights. With this newfound emphasis on the individual, many Germans – theoretically liberated from the emphasis on community and tradition promoted by the elites of Imperial Germany – began a decade-long process of transforming their country into a laboratory in which the social experiments of the twenty-first century originated (Moeller, 2009).
However, intertwined with more questionable experimentation – as detailed in Babylon Berlin – existed one of the first attempts to institutionalize human rights, even though such rights failed to achieve codification until the aftermath of World War II. The German League of Human Rights, although founded as early as 1914, advocated for freedom of speech for political dissidents, civil rights for sexual and ethnic minorities, and opposed the rising tide of anti-Semitism in interwar Germany (Wildenthal, 2008). Meanwhile, the controversial founder of the Institute for Sexual Research, Magnus Hirschfield, established the first gay-rights organization – the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – and pioneered arguments in favor of granting rights to individuals identifying as transgender (Lind, 2007). Even the Weimar Republic itself, almost completely dysfunctional due to political infighting and polarization, sought the establishment of group rights in order to protect German minorities separated from the Vaterland following partition after World War I (Mazower, 2004). Inspired by these events in the place of his birth, Henry Gerber emigrated to the United States where he sought to continue the struggle for human rights by founding one of its first human rights organizations, the Society for Human Rights.
Although the Weimar Republic initially achieved great progress in immunizing the national culture against human rights abuses, its other experiments – particularly those of a sexual nature – afflicted interwar German society in the manner of a deadly contagion. Even in a healthy body, a powerful contagion possesses the capacity to generate tremendous amounts of damage, however, interwar Germany did not constitute an ideal host – it suffered from two distinct deficiencies allowing the contagion to gain more strength than normally possible. From the beginning, the Weimar Republic, as the product of military defeat, failed to achieve widespread legitimacy in Germany (Peukert, 1993). This lack of legitimacy combined with the deleterious aftereffects of World War I:
Culturally, it discredited optimistic and progressive views of the future, and cast doubt upon liberal assumptions about natural human harmony. Socially, it spawned armies of restless veterans (and their younger brothers) looking for ways to express their anger and disillusion without heed for old-fashioned law or morality. Politically, it generated economic and social strains that exceeded the capacity of existing institutions – whether liberal or conservative – to resolve. (Paxton, 2005, p. 28)
Ultimately, these deficiencies proved the Weimar Republic, and its advances in human rights, ephemeral. However, the ideas of the Conservative Revolution demonstrated far greater resiliency – they continue to influence the global political scene through the rhetoric and ideology of both the European far right and political Islam.
A Conservative Yet Revolutionary Critique of Human Rights
Coming of age in this time of systemic failure, a group of German intellectuals and philosophers – later referred to as the German Conservative Revolution (Mohler, 1989) – developed much of the modern rhetoric against human rights and liberalism. At first glance, the term German Conservative Revolution appears incoherent; however, unlike traditional conservatives, these intellectuals did not seek to preserve the established order, nor did they simply seek to turn back the clocklike mere reactionaries. Instead, they sought to combine select elements of the past with acceptable aspects of the present in order to construct an alternate and, in their opinion, much improved modernity. As Göran Dahl notes, the movement appeared:
Conservative in that they wanted to save the nation and protect German culture, and revolutionary because they thought one had to be active and decisive in order to create a new order beyond liberalism, socialism, capitalism, individualism, and parliamentary democracy. The key difference between the leftist and rightest conceptions of revolution was that while the former called for a change in ‘structure’ – political, economic, and social conditions – the latter emphasized a need for a different consciousness, a spiritual reawakening of both heart and mind. (Dahl, 1996, p.26)
In this new order, human rights receive no role – indeed, they effectively cease to exist. Profoundly influenced by the political trends of their era – namely, Social Darwinism and Nationalism – the German Conservative Revolution awarded very little credence to the idea of a common humanity. Martin Heidegger, a leading member of the German Conservative Revolution and one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century (Barrett, 1990), contended that the term people “cannot mean humanity, but an organic collective sharing identical ‘cultural’ values” (Dahl, 1996). Likewise, Carl Schmitt posited a Manichean universe populated by a variety of different groups, each of which relates to the others by labeling them either as friends or enemies (Schmitt, 2007).
This idea of a fractured humanity became especially influential among those who served in the trenches along the Western Front during World War I. These individuals, such as Ernst Jünger and Helmut Franke, scoffed at “all the pacifist and international theories of humanity” (Woods, 1990). How could anyone, they ask, believe in a common humanity after witnessing a “jagged piece of iron [as it] bursts out of the dust and noise senselessly in front of staring gazes and knocks them down, tears them to pieces, obliterates them” (Woods, 1990)?
Despite their loss of faith in humanity, they did not perceive humans primarily as individuals either. In their experience, the individual soldier – alone and atomized – suffered from anomie, depression, and anxiety, dwelling on his own mortality in the shadow of artillery explosions and machine-gun fire. The individual rights championed by the Weimar Republic possessed little appeal for them. On the other hand, the soldier as a member of a unit received support, protection, and distraction from his war-weariness while in the company of his fellow infantrymen. Their service in the trenches crystallized within them the importance of their national community, their fellow ethnic Germans – as evidenced by their mantra that “suffering and dying is meaningless; suffering and dying for a grand idea is honorable; suffering and dying for the fatherland is sacred” (Woods, 1990). Upon their return to Germany, the returning soldiers hoped to create “a state based on the experience of the soldiers in the front line,” an organic collective rooted in tradition and sustained “by the values of comradeship, fraternity, and community which were learnt in the face of mortal danger” (Woods, 1990).
At a more abstract level, Heidegger argued that the individual only achieves “true being” – true existence – as part of “a mutual and collective project”united by a “mutual context of understanding” (Dahl, 1996). The ethnically homogenous nation represented the highest and most sacred of these projects, and a combination of shared ethnicity, language, religion, and other factors created mutual understanding between members of the nation. However, this shared understanding presumed hierarchy rather than equality – the ethnic German took precedence over the foreigner, those able to further the nation through reproduction took precedence over those who could not. To Heidegger, “there is no freedom outside of organic communities, no rational individuals beyond their boundaries, and if there is opposition, it must be crushed in the name of the true and great existence” (Dahl, 1996). The rights of the collective receive precedence over the rights of the individual, while the prescription for those who refuse to conform entails removal or elimination.
While conflict between collectives does not represent an inevitable outcome, the German Conservative Revolutionaries routinely single out one country for criticism: the United States. In their eyes, the United States represents:
The ultimate example of civilization without culture; rich and comfortable, materially advanced but soulless and artificial; assembled or at best constructed, not grown; mechanical not organic; technologically complex but without the spirituality and vitality of the rooted, human, national cultures of the Germans and other “authentic peoples.” (Lewis, 2004, p. 69)
Responsible for abstract human rights, consumerism, individualism, materialism, sexual libertinism and other undesirable aspects of modernity, the United States – in the eyes of its German critics – becomes the modern equivalent of the sinful and decadent city of Babylon.
The Modern Offspring of the Conservative Revolution
Eventually, the German Conservative Revolution succumbed to an even more radical movement, the NSDAP of Adolf Hitler, which appropriated and repackaged many of its ideas (Mohler, 1989) to appeal to the segments of Weimar Germany distraught by the cultural changes dramatized in Babylon Berlin. However, as Robert Paxton notes, the intellectuals of the German Conservative Revolution, “though sometimes considered the creators of fascism[,] actually account better for the space made available for fascism than they do for fascism itself” (Paxton, 2005).
At this point, some may ask themselves, “What does an early twentieth century political movement and its critique of human rights matter to a citizen of the twenty-first century?”
Mere decades after World War II, the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution began circulating throughout Western Europe once again. The Nouvelle Droite of France, in conjunction with its various sister movements in neighboring countries, exposed the European population to this German ideology through influential media organs, such as Le Figaro and Junge Freiheit (Bar-On, 2012). According to Tamir Bar-On, “the entire European extreme right-wing political spectrum from the Italian Lega Nord (Northern League – LN) to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Belgium have been influenced by” the Nouvelle Droite (Bar-On, 2012) and, thus, by extension the German Conservative Revolution. The spread of these ideas through the previously mentioned parties and media organs “helped engender the Pan-European cultural shift” (Bar-On, 2012) that made the current far-right populist wave a reality.
However, the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution did not halt at the frontiers of the European continent. The main ideologues of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – Ali Shariati, Ahmad Fardid, and Jalal Al-e Ahmad – employed these ideas increating the intellectual superstructure of the Islamic Republic (Mirsepassi, 2011). During the same time period, major Islamist politicians and philosophers in both Turkey (Aydin, 2006) and the Arab world (Tamimi, 2001) similarly adopted this rhetoric.
In the twenty-first century, the main opponents of classical liberalism and human rights constitute the European far right and Political Islamists, both of which employ the arguments of these German intellectuals. Therefore, understanding the appeal of the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution to these movements and their voters represents a matter of increasing importance for those dedicated to defending both liberalism and human rights.
To those cocooned for their entire existence within an era dominated by a liberalism seemingly possessing no viable opponents, the idea that many people around the globe view liberalism as artificial, oppressive, and even dehumanizing seems irrational – after all, Americans regularly hear the virtues of individualism, consumerism, secularism, and other aspects of liberalism. Yet, for others, the anti-liberal, anti-human rights ideas that originated with the German Conservative Revolution possess a concrete and thoroughly rational basis for belief. Young Germans, emerging from the brutal trench warfare of World War I, developed these ideas as a response to the tremendous social and cultural dislocation they experienced upon returning home to a Germany they barely recognized. In the twenty-first century, these ideas appear in response to similar contexts: a Middle East undergoing a rapid series of modernization, industrialization, foreign humiliation, secularization, and cultural experimentation (Mirsepassi, 2011; Lewis, 2004; Aydin, 2006); and a Europe suffering from post-industrialization, large numbers of migrants, and a crisis of identity (Murray, 2017).
As in the 1920s and 1930s, cultivating empathy for the “Other,” understanding these ideas and the conditions that spur their popularity, remains the fundamental challenge facing supporters of liberalism and human rights. Although the path often seems perilous and difficult, the active cultivation of this empathy represents the only meaningful path towards bridging the divides currently surfacing throughout the world.
Aydin, C. (2006). Between Occidentalism and the Global Left: Islamist Critiques of the West in Turkey. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, 26(3), 446-461.
Bar-On, T. (2012). Intellectual Right-Wing Extremism – Alain de Benoist’s Mazeway Resynthesis since 2000. In U. Backes & P. Moreau (Eds.), The Extreme Right in Europe: Current Trends and Perspectives (pp. 333-358). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Barrett, W. (1990). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Dahl, G. (1996). Will ‘The Other God’ Fail Again? On the Possible Return of the Conservative Revolution. Theory, Culture, & Society, 13(1), 25-50.
Lewis, B. (2004). The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York, NY: Random House.
Lind, A., & Brzuzy, S. (Eds.). (2007). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality (Vol. 2). Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Mazower, M. (2004, June). The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950. The Historical Journal, 47(2), 379-398.
Mirsepassi, A. (2011). Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment: Philosophies of Hope and Despair. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Moeller, R. G. (2009). The Nazi State and Germany Society. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Mohler, A. (1989). Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918-1932: Ein Handbuch. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
Murray, D. (2017). The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Paxton, R. (2005). The Anatomy of Fascism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Peukert, D. (1993). The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. (R. Deveson, Trans.). New York, NY: Hill & Wang
Schmitt, C. (2007). The Concept of the Political (Expanded ed.). (G. Schwab, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Tamimi, A. S. (2001). Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wildenthal, L. (2008, September). Human Rights Activism in Occupied and Early West Germany: The Case of the German League for Human Rights. The Journal of Modern History, 80(3), 515-556.
Woods, R. (1990, January). The Conservative Revolution and the First World War: Literature as Evidence in Historical Explanation. The Modern Language Review, 85(1), 77-91.
**This blog is a repost as we invite you to join us for a series of events with Violins of Hope Birmingham, April 11-14, 2018. The centerpiece of the project will be the Violins of Hope Concert at the Alys Stephens Center on April 14, 2018, featuring the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Music Director, Carlos Izcaray.
If identity were a sound, what would it sound like? For Jews, it sounds like the notes that rise from the striking of the bow across the tension of the strings on a violin. Elie Wiesel, in Night, writes of a brief encounter with Juliek, a dying violinist. This encounter, without full understanding of the context and the role of the violin in Jewish culture, may remain overlooked and misunderstood. It did for me until I began researching for this blog.
Violins, often heard in a piece of classical music, a genre that as Wang describes as “a special form of culture widely defined within an ideological and social sphere in people’s everyday life”, speak to the universal accessibility of music and the cultural complexity of creative expression within the social identity of Jewish people. “Always when people asked Isaac Stern why so many Jewish people are playing the violin, his answer was very simple: ‘It is the easiest instrument to pick it up and to run away!'” The embedding of music in Jewish tradition resulted from their persecution. Music provided a refuge and an outlet for emotional expression, whether pain or joy because music has the power to transcend.
A violinist is an essential figure within the sociocultural dynamic of Jewish high society. Gilman, highlighting the life of Albert Einstein, explains how the violin is “an emblem of the integration of the Jews into Western high culture… [and] links both personal and historical meanings.” Spotts insists that to the Nazis, “Theater, music, art, and literature were inherently ennobling, unless… practiced by the Jews.” Music for Einstein and other Jews allowed for the continuous expression and validation of individuality, in conjunction with and apart from religion. Conductor Franz Welser-Most maintains, “An instrument becomes part of the person which plays it. It’s the voice of that person comes through the instrument.” Violinists and their violins reinforced the humanity of all Jewish people, thereby undermining Nazi anti-Semitic ideology.
Albrecht considers art, including music, an institution. He identifies three characteristics of art: structure, function, and universality. The institution of art exists within the social structures of a society due to the ability of music to fulfill the human psychological need for creativity. While conceding that art is not a primary institution, one needed for the survival of society, he does suggest that it should no longer remain a secondary (or throwaway) institution either. Art should remain as important as religion, philosophy, and science. In other words, societies needs to recover the value of art by understanding its characteristics.
First, the structure of art is expressive and social, exposing what Parsons defines as “the paradigm of social interaction”. The paradigm of social interaction is the triad reciprocal relationship among the author, the critic, and the public based upon a supply and demand existence, or needs-based approach. For Parsons, human behavior consists of patterns of belief systems, which incorporate and appropriate objects, like violins, into the fabric of an individual or group experience based upon meaning. The repetition of the pattern creates a culture that, over time, produces a heritage. For Bortolotto, “Heritage is created …with authenticity understood as an important quality in the perpetuation of a sense of historical continuity and cultural ancestry.” Therefore, the social structure of art features this triadic interaction over a period and this historical interaction creates solidarity. Art is an essential link in the network of social and cultural relations.
Second, art satisfies curiosity, creates balance, and reduces stress. Spencer concludes that art permits “prolonged rest of the nerve-centers, which build up energy in excess of demands for immediate instrumental activities”, creating a satisfaction that comes from being a part of art through its creation or experience rather than simply participating in it. Weber equates art with ‘salvation’; not salvation as in eternal life but salvation that comes as a means of transcending one’s immediate situation or circumstance. Art allows for momentary escape; this quality contributes to the enrichment and augmentation of an individual and society.
Lastly, art is universal. Hoebel asserts, “Man could survive without art; yet man and art are inseparable.” Human beings are creative beings, yet the limitations of art classification detach the social and cultural significance of artwork or performance, whether it be resistance or propaganda. Take rap as an example. Martinez argues rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s utilizes lyrics and sounds as a form of expressing resistance to some cultural norms about music, and as propaganda when considering the urban decay of black communities, in direct contrast to white communities. In other words, regardless of classification, art, including music, possesses the power to influence, to give voice to the minority, and to symbolize resistance.
Amnon Weinstein is a violinmaker. More than 50 years ago, a customer brought him an old violin in need of restoration. Unplayed violins lose their sound and their spirit over time; therefore, a well-played instrument sounds richer and more open. Weinstein, over the course of the conversation, learned that the owner, a Holocaust survivor, “had played on the violin on the way to the gas chamber, but he survived because the Germans needed him for their death camp orchestra.” When the Nazis outlawed prayer, Jewish violinists played as a means of communion and defiance. “And just knowing that some of these people who have owned these instruments did not survive, but their personality is still within these instruments, I find that very moving”, acknowledges Welser-Most. The restoration of more than 30 Holocaust violins has become Weinstein’s method of harnessing the power of music to influence, returning voice to the minority, and to continually cultivating a resistance against the cruelty of the Holocaust and the silence that descended when the war concluded, by listening to the stories told by the violins.
This Sunday, September 17, 2pm at Temple Emanu-El, musicologist and author James A. Grymes will discuss his book, Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, and the work of Amnon Weinstein. Event organizer Sallie Downs, when asked what inspired her to bring the Violins of Hope story to Birmingham, replied:
I am free to bring them; and they are free to come. All musicians, regardless of who they are and what they believe, are free to play the instruments when they want and where they want, and they are free to play whatever music they wish to play. Jewish musicians didn’t have that opportunity. They did nothing wrong. They were persecuted and too many people didn’t believe it could happen and they stood by until it was out of control. With all the hate and evil we are witnessing in this country, and the ignorance and resignation with which it is viewed, I can’t stand by quietly and do nothing. G-d help me, if I ever find myself on the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence, like those who were tortured and murdered during the Holocaust for no good reason, I will never regret that I did nothing when I had the opportunity to do something. The power of music on the Violins of Hope is a call to action. The Violins are giving voice to the voiceless and providing us an opportunity to help them say “Never again will good people stand idly by and watch innocent life be desecrated. Never again will we allow the voices of the weak to be silenced.” Not here. Never again.
Violins of Hope is a bearer of intangible cultural heritage. By “establishing a relationship with the past by turning it into an authentic historical object”, Weinstein who restores the violins, and the musicians who play them, are “encouraging social practices that allow cultural objects and expressions to be produced and performed by community members”; thereby creating a living exhibition maintaining a focus on perpetuity.
The Symposium was intended to demonstrate the importance of civil society leaders galvanizing the general population to rebuff state-sanctioned racism, antisemitism, and violence. Dialogue brought forth by the symposium showed how, when, and why people supported, complied with, ignored, or resisted racist policies and violent practices in systems of intentional discrimination, oppression, and attacks on the basis of race and ethnicity.
On Thursday night, a panel entitled “Keeping the Memory Alive: Personal reflections on the Legacies of Racial Violence and Genocide” featured two speakers: Riva Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, who lost her father during an Alabaman lynching in 1947. This blog post focuses on my personal reflection of the panel and the conversation between the two powerful speakers.
I felt an immediate connection to Riva; she reminded me so much of my grandmother. Riva began by telling the story of how her family went on the run from the Nazis (she was seven years old at the time). It was not difficult to create vivid mental images, as Riva illustrated her story with extreme details. Rita’s horrors of that night continued to progress with the separation from her family and the beating of her mother when she fought to keep the family together.
I tried to think of what my life was like at seven year’s old, and I could not pinpoint a memorable moment of comparable fear and horror. The stark contrast in my and Riva’s experiences as children was upsetting and confusing. It was more difficult to think of what my life would be like if I were forcibly separated from my family at such a young age and painful to think of seeing my mother get beaten.
When Josephine spoke of her father – his characteristics such as being hardworking and selfless – I thought of my grandfather who is the same way. Josephine’s father was murdered when she was five years old. The terrible story of Josephine running to the end of their driveway with her mother and seeing the corpse of her father was heartbreaking. Josephine’s story continued with how her mother reported the murder to the local sheriff, only to have him reply that no justice will be served.
The loss of a loved one can be painfully impactful, and the loss of a parent can be devastating. I was never met with the loss of a loved one until my early teens and it certainly was not at the hands of a murderer. If I had lost a parent when I was younger, the fact that it would be handled effectively and efficiently is a light comfort, but that was not the case for Josephine or her family simply due to the color of their skin. It was incredibly difficult to hear first-hand about the failure of our police force in the pursuit of justice. How easy it was for the sheriff to shrug off the murder of one of his citizens made my skin crawl.
Each story was authentic and emotionally impactful in their own ways. It was a dialogue about suffering, not a comparison on who suffered the most. The stories built off of one another and showed the importance of personal stories when it comes to educating on dense topics.
The final message conveyed by the two speakers was, “Keep talking about it so that love will prosper and hate will lose.” It is important for us to continue the conversations about atrocities that have plagued our societies so that we can gain the necessary means to prevent them from happening again. We are destined to repeat our mistakes if we do not recognize and learn from them. It is our job to confront the denial that these events ever took place, to ensure that they never happen again, and denounce the hate that stems from it.
To see what other events we have coming up, visit our events page here.
In honor of the 50thAnniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Institute for Human Rights is publishing various outlooks on the life and contributions of Dr. King. This is the second entry in the series.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9
The Peacemaker Defined
When confronted by a system permitting injustice, denying universal human rights, and thwarting peace for marginalized groups, many of us are deeply unsettled. To fully understand the destruction humans have wrought on one another is to simultaneously accept one’s own capacity to perpetuate evil in the world. Humans are capable of peace and war, justice and violence. A critical question arises here: what compels an individual to choose peace in the face of adversity? What inspires an individual to rise above violence, utilizing an ethos of peace as both a means and an end? In short, how can we become peacemakers?
Informed from many interviews of indigenous persons weaving peace from conflict, Marc Gopin offers the following personal traits that embody the peacemaker:
A strong sense of ethnic roots that is combined paradoxically with universal love
An embrace of love and the way of the heart as the key to peace
A consistent desire to seek out shared values across the boundaries of groups
A desire for leadership through social network creation
Long-term engagement with adversaries and faith in the value of ongoing debate and slow and steady influence
In Bridges Across an Impossible Divide, Gopin (2012) is quick to add that any and all of us can be peacemakers – if we so choose. It boils down to choice: choosing how to move through conflict, choosing to leave the world better than we found it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Peacemaker
There is no doubt Dr. King ushered a new wholeness to American culture. His contributions to American society are legendary: leading the American Civil Rights Movement, raising collective American consciousness to address structural discrimination, and developing innovative strategies of nonviolent social protest still used throughout the globe. He taught a generation of civil and human rights footsoldiers, he constructed new theological language grounded in human equality, and he personally transformed the lives of those around him. He was a person of immense spiritual power– calling on his training as a man of the cloth to inform his philosophy and theology demanding racial equality in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the most prominent and revered peacemakers the world has ever seen.
Per Gopin’s definition, peacemaking describes not only works but also the personality of an individual. Being a peacemaker is not just directing policy change or charismatic leadership, but an ethos of resilient gentleness, and formidable commitment to the transformation of conflict to better the human experience. It is an understanding that peacemaking is not a vocation – it is a divine calling. Today, we remember that his faith and deeds literally transformed the soul of America. Dr. King was a true American peacemaker.
Gopin, M. (2012). Bridges across an impossible divide: The inner lives of Arab and Jewish peacemakers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
On Wednesday, February 28, the UAB Institute for Human Rights hosted Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child, to talk about her experiences working in war zones. During her conversation entitled “Where Do We Go from Here? Stories from the Frontlines of the World’s Major Crises”, Dr. Nutt covered topics from ranging from personal stories from her time in Somalia to gun violence statistics in the United States. You can read more about her background here.
The illicit and licit automatic weapons market is incredibly saturated in Somalia and the United States. In this post, I argue that this oversaturation and easy access creates a gateway for violence.
The talk began with Dr. Nutt explaining how she began working in warzones – she was a volunteer doctor assigned to work in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia. She was contracted by an organization who was unable to pay her more than one dollar for her services, yet she decided to go anyway. To this day, Dr. Nutt carries with her the four quarters she received as payment.
Living in Somalia, Dr. Nutt met many people who considered this crisis area as their home. She told the story of a woman named Edith, who was a single mother who came to Dr. Nutt for medical assistance. The first time Dr. Nutt met with Edith, she was told of when Edith attempted to take her newborn child to the medical facility that was down the road. On the way there, she was ambushed by a group of boys armed with firearms who would not let her pass until she paid them a toll even though she possessed no money. As a result of being denied access to the medical facility, Edith’s child died due to malnutrition.
After suffering the loss of her child, Edith asked, “Do people where you are from know what is happening? Do they know what we go through?” Dr. Nutt replied with “I am afraid not.” On the international black market, an AR-15 can be purchased for ten dollars or less apiece; this happens in Somalia and many other states, according to Dr. Nutt. The AR-15s found in Somalia are commonly made in the United States. Upon further research, Dr. Nutt revealed that other women in surrounding villages were blockaded from accessing medical facilities by young men wielding guns as well.
“Globally, we are currently spending about $249 per person on war; that is twelve times more than what we spend on humanitarian assistance across the world.”
Dr. Nutt told of another visit by Edith, immediately after Edith was subjected to an act of violence. Dr. Nutt was in her office with her phone, laptop, water, and other items an average American would consider a necessity. Edith pointed Dr. Nutt’s possessions and said, “all of this is for you. We die for nothing.”
Addressing the faults of a failed state is necessary. Ignoring these issues perpetuates cycles of violence we see in war-torn Somalia, which causes Edith and countless other people to lose their families and threatens their very existence. Education provides the tools to combat issues that threaten peace. With knowledge of what is happening in Somalia, we are indirectly fighting for Edith and the other Somali citizens that say they “die for nothing.”
“We begin to tip the balance in favor of peace when we question the institutions that infringe upon it.”
Dr. Nutt also presented on the massacre in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen high school students were murdered. She mentioned the gun used in the Parkland shooting was the same grade as the ones commonly used in Somalia to block access to health facilities. Bangalore and Messerli of the American Journal of Medicine argue that the easier it is to access firearms, the higher the chances of violence are. With the average price of an AR-15 being about ten dollars on the black market, it is safe to say that these firearms are easily accessible.
In Dr. Nutt’s recent post on the Parkland shooting titled “The Kids are not Alright,” she calls for legislative action within the United States by citing other nations’ gun control legislation:
“…every developed nation that has imposed stricter gun control in the wake of mass shootings saw a precipitous decline in mass shootings and other gun related deaths. In Australia mass shootings dropped by 93% percent after a successful government gun ‘buy-back’ program following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people slaughtered. In the United Kingdom, after strict gun control measures were introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 15 kindergartners, there has not been another mass shooting in the 22 years since. Gun homicides have dropped to one third of their former levels. In Canada, a country with looser gun laws than the UK but tighter controls relative to the United States, gun related homicides are 8 times less per capita than the country’s southern neighbours.”
We have seen the Parkland shooting survivors gather support across the nation and assemble at our nation’s capital. By calling for change, they are calling for their form of peace. This is not to say that all gun owners disrupt that peace, but a military grade assault rifle should not be available for purchase on the black market for ten dollars and should not be available to purchase at your local Wal-Mart.
Dr. Nutt concludes by stating, “It does not matter how much you give, it matters how you give.” In her post mentioned above, she says, “Political candidates who openly advocate for gun control need financial and volunteer support. And those who resist gun control measures should be actively and consistently opposed, until NRA endorsements and contributions are seen as politically toxic.”
Human rights education gives us the tools to prevent acts of violence and teaches us how to fight against it when we see it. Like the students of Parkland, it is our duty to fight for our peace both at home and abroad. By fighting against the oversaturation of guns and regulating the market here in the United States, we can hope that the number of guns circulating through the black market, and ultimately Somalia, will decrease. As human rights activists, it is our duty to fight for peace. So, where do we go from here? We go toward peace.
“Invest in peace, not war.”
To see more upcoming events hosted by the UAB Institute for Human Rights, please visit our events page here.
Disclaimer: emboldened quotations were provided by Dr. Samantha Nutt on the February 28, 2018 IHR Event.
**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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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