The Silenced Women of the Rwandan Genocide and their Fight to be Heard

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

The Uncondemned Movie Poster

On Thursday, September 21, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights and UAB’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program hosted the screening of the documentary: The Uncondemned. The film explores the challenges and triumphs of a group of fledgling lawyers, investigators, and Rwandan women during a trial after the Rwandan Genocide. From their juridical victory, the legal definition of genocide was expanded to include acts of rape.

Background

Over the course of four months in the summer of 1994, roughly 800,000 Rwandan citizens were massacred in the east-central area of the country. The ethnic majority of Rwanda, the Hutu, murdered most of the Tutsi minority in an attempt of “ethnic cleansing” as a result of ethnic and religious tensions between the two groups. This decimation of the ethnic Tutsis became known as the Rwandan Genocide.

Skulls of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide lined up
Death – Rwandan Genocide

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu leader, was shot down by an unknown assailant. All the passengers on the plane crashed to their deaths, including the Burundian president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Rumors place blame on the extremist Hutus for the murder as part of a revolt against the power-share agreement Habyarimana agreed to sign in accordance with the Tutsis. Another argument blames the Tutsis in the crash, using the act of terrorism as an attempt to regain power in Rwanda. Almost immediately after the plane crash, the murder of the Tutsi people began. Extremist Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus by setting up roadblocks and raiding homes. Radio stations ran by the extremists were encouraging civilians to attack and kill their neighbors.

The church played a significant role in the division among the Hutu and Tutsi. Hutu pastors preached on how “the war should be brought to the Tutsi, because they will come to wipe us away.” The church taught to kill their Tutsi neighbors as they claimed the Bible designated the Tutsi as their mortal enemies. During the genocide, not even the churches were safe. Hutu militiamen raided them and murdered anyone seeking refuge there. Pastors often trapped those hiding in the churches and alerted the Hutus.

The genocide was as horrifying as it was dehumanizing. Not all Hutu fighters had access to guns or even machetes, and much of the genocide was conducted using simple weapons such as sharpened sticks, large rocks, and common household items such as forks and knives – making death slow and painful. According to the film, bodies could be found in every village and on every hill. Its simplicity and scope earned it the title as the “most efficient genocide in modern history.” The first reconnaissance mission conducted by the United Nations (UN) reported one thousand Tutsi were killed in twenty minutes when the investigators first arrived.

Tragically, women endured gender based violence during the genocide. The total number of rape survivors will never be known, however countless women testified to being raped during the genocide. Stories of rape, whether gang-raped or with objects, are consistently mentioned. If they were not killed after being raped, the women were sold into sex slavery or forced into marriage. Additionally, they were traded among groups of men for them to sexually abuse them. Once the men were “done” with them, their reproductive organs were gruesomely mutilated with machetes, knives, bare sticks, or even acid. After pleading with her rapists to kill her, one woman testified they responded: she was to be kept alive so she would “die of sadness.”

The film shows the use of rape as a psychological weapon to strip the humanity from more than just the individual Rwandan woman. The rapists wanted to both degrade larger groups of women the rape survivors were a part of and as a means to assert their superiority and population control. Throughout the history of armed conflict, women often become the targets of sexual violence– this is a common weapon used in larger crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Whether it comes in the form of physical abuse, rape, mutilation, or sex slavery, being a woman becomes a risk factor – no matter the age, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or any other characteristic outside of biology. Niarchos concludes rape is used to inflict terror and force cooperation, both on the female survivor and others in her close community. In Rwanda’s case, rape was used to humiliate Tutsi women and terrify the community as a whole; making the suffering of Tutsi women a violent means to the Hutus’ political end.

The UN declared rape as a war crime in 1919, however in cases prior to the Rwandan Genocide, rape was never prosecuted in this manner. In Resolution 1820 that was adopted by the Security Council at its 5916th meeting, of the UN Security Council noted “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) was the first time rape was pursued as a war crime and was the first tribunal enacted since World War II. The film, The Uncondemned, tells of the efforts taken by the UN to connect rape to genocide. The documentary focuses on the case the mayor of Taba, Jean Paul Akayesu, who was the first to face charges of inditement over genocide – including rape.

The team of lawyers sent by the UN was ambitious but inexperienced. Most were in their 30s, recently graduated from law school, and were taken to task by gathering intelligence to prosecute this case that was like none before it. More importantly, they deduced they must prosecute it in a way that laid the groundwork for future cases – setting legal precedence.

Woman praying in front of others.
Woman Praying – Rwanda by Brice Crozier

Doctor Odette Nyiramilimo of Le Bon Samaritain Clinic in Kigali was one of many doctors who said almost every woman and adolescent girl who survived the Rwandan Genocide was raped. As she examined victims immediately after the genocide, she asserted that at least two cases of rape were coming in each day to her clinic. As mentioned before, the exact number cannot be known, which is due to a number of factors such as the stigmatism that surrounds rape. Across the globe, rape survivors are shamed and seen as guilty for the violent crimes committed against them. Eisler asserts this is especially prominent in societies that value men over women. Fear of reprisal compromises the reporting of rape, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwandan survivors. Bernadette Muhimakazi, a Rwandan women’s rights activist in an interview with Human Rights Watch, states many of the women were afraid to say anything because they know who their perpetrators are. These women know exactly who killed their families and who violated them. In many cases, these women live in the same community as their perpetrators.

“Women here are scared to talk because it was their neighbors who raped them.”

– Bernadette Muhimakzai

Prior to the visibility the tribunal brought, rape was viewed as a negligible outcome of war. The testimonies of the Rwandan women changed this perception, and rape was legally billed as a true war crime. The team the UN pulled together to prosecute this case proved to be successful in their endeavors, and justice prevailed; Akayesu was convicted of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The film concludes with rape survivors coming forth to name their rapists. While their sense of inner peace may never be fully restored, the tribunal gave the women a sense of justice and vindication.

Why Peace? Because Dignity.

DAY OF PEACE. Source: jtimm, Creative Commons

The Institute for Human Rights, like many global NGO’s, aims to promote and protect human rights within our local, national, and international communities. Specific human rights issues have been explored on this blog, ranging from child marriage to the genocide in Myanmar. This is one approach to understanding human rights: picking apart the issues, analyzing human rights documents (such as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights), and working towards a world where human rights are universal and protected. Another way of conceptualizing human rights is through the lens of peace promotion. Whereas human rights are, typically, legal and political by nature, peace promotion calls upon a person’s moral and ethical faculties. While these concepts are similar in many ways (after all, laws are supposed to reflect the ethics of its society), ‘never the twain shall meet’ is more often the case. In preparation for the International Day of Peace – September 21st – this blog explores a central concept in both peace and human rights: human dignity. Human dignity, I argue, is why peace promotion is necessary for humanity and why its active promotion is ethically justified.

Dignity, Human Rights, and Peace

What is dignity? Many of us have a vague idea of what dignity means: self-worth, inherent value, spiritual or religious connotations, and the like. The operational definition of dignity in human rights and peace literature can be hazy as well; in fact, I have struggled to find a cohesive and comprehensive definition. Dignity seems to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ concept, used with substantially different connotations, in many academic and applied fields.

The origins of dignity, in the formerly legitimate social systems of aristocracy, utterly juxtapose today’s definition (Kleinig & Evans, 2013). The medieval concept of dignity came from a ranked / hierarchical social system; ‘dignitaries’, a person who possessed dignity, held higher socioeconomic status than those who did not possess ‘dignity’.  With dignity-from-rank came benefits: physical (in the form of land ownership) or metaphysical (with an endowment of gravitas). This conceptual framework of dignity shaped how the term was used in philosophy and other social sciences for many years, until the ideas of Immanuel Kant changed the relationship between dignity and ethical behavior. Sometimes, with the right idea and platform, words completely change their meaning within a society.

Moving away from the ‘ranked’ definition of dignity, Kant proposed a new form of dignity.  First and foremost, dignity is shared by all humankind (this universality is also a feature of the current definition of dignity in the world of human rights and peace; Kleinig & Evans, 2013). Although Kant wasn’t the first to universalize dignity (many historical antecedents are found in Stoic and Renaissance theology), the popularity of Kant’s philosophy broadcasted the idea into the public sphere in such a way that the idea was intractable (Kleinig & Evans, 2013). In short, Kant emphasized the role of ethical choice and moral behavior in dignity. Dignity, in Kant’s view, is not a nebulous status enjoyed by the upper echelon of society. It is instead the byproduct of both a person’s God-given (in Kant’s words) ability to create an ethical code of behavior and a person’s choice to live by the code he or she created.  Dignity is found in all persons because dignity reflects a skilled shared by us: our capacity to both make moral judgements and adhere to the rules we make. Through this example, we see how the concept of dignity experienced quite a stark transformation by going from an attribute only a select few possessed to an inherent potential all persons possess.

The story doesn’t end here, however. The definition of dignity is contested to this very day.  While the role and influence of human dignity in human rights documents is uncontested (‘dignity’ is mentioned in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example), some thinkers propose the usefulness of dignity has been lost (Schroeder, 2012; United Nations, 1948).  The vagueness of ‘human dignity’ increases the number of its applications, but Schroeder (2012) and other scholars claim the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality threatens the concept from within. They argue the dignity-based rights approach is fallible because the justification for rights comes not from human beings themselves, but from a philosophical virtue assigned to their experience. While the merits of this argument are important (one such example is the push for greater specificity in defining ‘dignity), the ubiquity of dignity in human rights literature makes the divorce of human rights and human dignity a herculean task. Dignity, with all its complications, is at the heart of human rights.

International Day of Peace

Moving away from the conceptual aspect of peace, let’s focus on a practical application. How can we identify normative values held by a society and whether these values are peaceful or not?  One way is to look at cultural events and how these events are celebrated. Let us look at  Independence Day as an example. On July 4th, many Americans attend cookouts, don red/white/blue attire, and a general attitude of patriotism is (hopefully) experienced by all Americans. By comparing the American independence celebration to other less extravagant independence day celebrations, we can make the assertion that America is an especially patriotic nation. Yet, what celebrations do we have for the concept of peace? We do not have a “Day of Kantian-Defined Human Dignity”, but we do have the International Day of Peace.

International Day of Peace is  a celebration of the international values of dignity, human rights, and peace. First established in 1981, the United Nations unanimously voted to make September 21st the International Day of Peace. The UN stated the reason behind Peace Day: “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples”. This is a day to reaffirm each person’s and each nation’s commitment to a peaceful way of life and to celebrate the strides made towards peace across the globe. The theme for 2017 International Day of Peace is “Together for Peace: Respect, Safety, and Dignity for All”. The UN created a short video for 2017 International Day of Peace which can be found here.

The IHR is celebrating the International Day of Peace with INTO UAB today from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Stern Library.  INTO UAB is hosting an International Day of Peace Food & Culture Festival. INTO UAB provides English-learning opportunities and education assistance for non-US students with aspirations to study at a UAB undergraduate or graduate program.

References

Kleinig, J. & Evans, N. G. (2013).  Human flourishing, human dignity, and human rights. Law and Philosophy, 32(5), 539-564.

Schroeder, D. (2012). Human rights and human dignity: An appeal to separate the conjoined twins. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 15(3), 323-335.

United Nations. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

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

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

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

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

The Real Cost to Transgender Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

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

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

 

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

A History of Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 29th Floor Perspective

 

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

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

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

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

Enter Daniela Bas.

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

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

On the floor. Photo by Ajanet Rountree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective changes everything because perspective is everything.

Venezuela: On the Brink of Collapse

a picture of a man walking in front of a burning car during a Venezuelan protest
Venezuela riot San Cristobal protest. Source: ビッグアップジャパン, Creative Commons.

Venezuela is not free. The Freedom in the World 2017 Profile rates their overall freedom status as Not Free with an aggregate score of 30/100. The most recent anti-government protests have persisted for eight weeks with a rising death toll of at least 60 as of Monday 29 May, as the far too often and routine clashes between protesters and police continue. Violence has heightened in recent days as the opposition marches for its four key demands:

  1. removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the ruling on March 29th;
  2. general elections in 2017 (rather than 2018);
  3. creation of a “humanitarian channel” to allow the import of medication to counter severe shortages; and
  4. release of all the “political prisoners”

Both the government and opposition accuse each other of sending armed groups to sow violence during demonstrations. President Maduro has even gone as far as to accuse the opposition of terrorism. Food and medicine shortages plague the citizens of Venezuela as they struggle to fight for their own freedom and basic human rights. Many sources say the country is on the brink of collapse.

Consistent political tension has existed in the country since the death of former leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) Hugo Chaves in 2013, when President Nicolas Maduro came to power. The election left the country split into Chavistas (followers of the socialist policies of the late President Chaves) and those who wish to see an end to the PSUV’s 18 years in power. Opposition members claim the PSUV has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy. In turn, Chavistas point the finger at the opposition for being elitists, who exploit poor Venezuelans for personal financial gain. Additionally, Chavistas allege that opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States, with whom Venezuela has had strained relations in recent years.

In early 2014, Venezuelan government began to respond to anti-government protests with brutal force. Security forces used excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. These forces tolerated and even, at times, collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that violently assaulted protesters. Those detained and held incommunicado on military bases for at least 48 hours before appearing before a judge. In some cases, detainees were subject to severe beating, electric shocks or burns, and forced to squat or kneel for hours.

Maduro, in July 2015, deployed over 80,000 members of security forces in “Operation People’s Liberation” (OLP) to confront “rising security concerns”. Following raids in low-income and immigrant communities by both police and military forces resulted in public accusations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations. The following February, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz announced that 245 people had been killed in OLP raids during 2015 in “incidents in which ‘members of various security forces participated’”. Government cited that “those killed died during ‘confrontations’ with armed criminals,” despite witness accounts in at least 20 cases that do not include any sort of confrontation.

a Venezeulan policeman at a protest
Policemen from the Bolivarian National Police watching protesters in Maracaibo. Source: Global Panorama, Creative Commons.

Human Rights Watch World Report on Venezuela (HRW) reveals tensions have only increased as arbitrary prosecution of political opponents has become more frequent and forceful. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, is serving a 13-year sentence in military prison for his alleged role in inciting violence during a demonstration in Caracas in February 2014, despite the lack of any credible evidence linking him to a crime. Several others arrested arbitrarily in connection to anti-government protests in 2014, remain detained or under house arrest while awaiting trial. The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) detained dozens of individuals in 2016, citing they were planning, fomenting, or participating in violent anti-government actions, although many were, in fact, peaceful protests. Many detainees claim they were tortured or abused in custody. Detainees also report they were unable to speak with their families or attorneys for hours and/or days after their detaining. In many cases, much like Lopez’s, prosecutors failed to produces any plausible evidence associating charged persons with the crimes of which they were accused. Courts consider the possession of political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners, credible evidence in some cases.

HRW suggests Venezuela’s national distress heightened as “severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care. In August 2016, a network of medical residents from public hospitals countrywide reported severe shortages of medicines in 76% of surveyed hospitals as compared to 67% the year before. Researchers found that infant and maternal mortality rates in 2016 were significantly higher than in previous years. Severe food shortages have made it extraordinarily problematic for many people to obtain adequate nutrition. Civil society groups and two Venezuelan universities conducted a survey in 2015 in which “87 percent of interviewees nationwide—most from low-income households—said they had difficulty purchasing food” and “[t]welve percent were eating two or fewer meals a day”.

The UN Human Rights Council scrutinized Venezuela’s human rights record in November 2016. Numerous states “urged Venezuela to cooperate with UN special procedures by addressing arbitrary detention, lack of judicial independence, and shortages of medicine and food; releasing persons detained for political reasons; respecting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; and ensuring that human rights defenders can conduct their work without reprisals”. Unfortunately, Venezuela has actively voted against the scrutiny of human rights violations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and has opposed resolutions associated with human rights abuses in North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Iran.

a picture of a Venezuelan protester
Venezuelan protest. Source: ビッグアップジャパン, Creative Commons.

The Venezuelan government has downplayed the severity of the country’s current state of crisis. Efforts to alleviate shortages have not been successful and have limited efforts to obtain available international humanitarian assistance. Measures taken by the Venezuelan government to restrict international funding of non-governmental organizations, along with unsubstantiated accusations by government officials and supporters that human rights defenders are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, creates a hostile environment that restricts civil society groups from effectively promoting human rights. In early 2016, Maduro issued “a presidential decree that—in addition to declaring a ‘state of exception’ and granting himself the power to suspend rights—instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to suspend all agreements providing foreign funding to individuals or organizations when ‘it is presumed’ that such agreements ‘are used for political purposes or to destabilize the Republic’” (Venezuela, 2017). Maduro received two extensions to the state of exception – in September and in November.

A surprise announcement by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on March 29, 2017 was a key catalyst in sparking the current anti-government protest. The announcement disclosed that the Court would take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly–a ruling the opposition claimed would undermine the country’s separation of powers and push Venezuela one-step closer to a one-man, dictatorial rule under Maduro. The Court argued that the National Assembly had disregarded previous Court rulings and was therefore in contempt. Three days later, the Court reversed its ruling. This reversal, unfortunately, did not bring any relief to the overwhelming distrust of the Court by opposition members.

In early May 2017, discussion of creating a new constitution began as Maduro sought to make a move following the earlier days of the prolonged protest. The president has taken steps, including signing a document establishing the terms for electing the member of a “constituent assembly”, tasked with the drafting of a new constitution.

Citizens of Venezuela persist in their efforts to demand access to basic human rights and civil liberties. Doctors rallied in the ongoing protest to address their own frustration with the current crisis. Over a thousand health care workers and opposition sympathizers marched towards the health ministry in Caracas. Police fired tear gas to drive them back, in scenes all too familiar after weeks of unrest. One protester, a 50-year old surgeon, says, “One is always afraid to come out, but we will carry on doing it until there is a change”. Despite a belief that the opposition party is plotting a coup against him, President Maduro has called for a “march for peace”. Venezuelans and the world await his plans to bring peace to fruition.

 

 

Works Cited

Freedom in the World 2017: Venezuela Profile. (2017). Retrieved May 2017, from Freedom House:https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/venezuela (2017). Venezuela. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.

Venezuela Crisis: What is Behind the Turmoil. (2017, May 4). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877

Venezuela Leader Launches Constitution Overhaul. (2017, May 23). Retrieved May 2017, from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-leader-launches-constitution-overhaul-363182

Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally bt Health Care Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416

Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally by HealthCare Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved May 2017,from TRT World:                                                                                        http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416

 

 

The Syrian War: a Needless, Unending Act of Violence

Photo of a White Helmet looking up to the sky, while the city behind him is in ruins
The White Helmets Documentary Cover, courtesy of Netflix

The Netflix documentary, The White Helmets, takes place in the midst of a war zone – on the ground, capturing the horrors of Syria during the present war. The Syrian War is extremely complex, but the documentary gives small amount of insight. The film is important because it peers into the horrifying life of Syrians, living in and through war. The airstrikes are horrifying to watch, taking the lives of innocent people in hospitals, schools, churches, and destroying families. Nowhere is safe in Syria. While the glimpses of children screaming for their parents, or begging them not to leave them in death are blood chilling and heartbreaking, it is impossible to take in all that happens and is happening. Enter The White Helmets, volunteer citizens who train and serve as first responders; normal men who held normal jobs, have families and seek peace while rescuing others. They search through homes and other buildings trying to locate survivors, facing the danger of another strike taking their lives while trying to save others. Since their beginning in 2013, the White Helmets have saved over 58,000 lives but lost more than 130 White Helmets. In light of all the strife their country faces, the White Helmets remain optimistic.

Photo of Qaboun, Damascus, where the city has been destoryed
Qaboun, where you will not find place to stand and take a picture. Source: Dimashqi Lens, Creative Commons.

“I am willing to sacrifice my soul for the sake of the people. This job is sacred.”

Why are the White Helmets necessary? They are necessary because there is no protection for Syrians civilians. No one is fighting for and defending them; the White Helmets are doing what they can to preserve life. Without them, the death tolls would be monumentally more. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has a right to life and security of person. This brings me to a two-pronged question. First, where is the justification for protesting Planned Parenthood in honor of “pro-life”, while remaining silent as war, as a result of political policy, decimates an entire country? The pro-life or right to life stance is described as being against abortion, or euthanasia, as those who are pro-life considers a fetus to be a human at fertilization. For those on the pro-life side of the abortion argument, a fetus possesses the same rights and protections as a human outside of the womb. This leads me to my second question: does pro-life apply only to the unborn? In other words, do the same rights apply outside of the womb as inside? Syrians are human beings. Under the pro-life position, they deserve the same protections as the unborn. However, the war in Syria provides evidence that this belief does not apply to all human beings. War and violence do not discriminate against gender, race, or age; they are two sides of the same coin. The infringement on the right to life applied to the unborn is the same infringement that should be applied to the lives of Syrians in a war zone or crossing the borders. It is seemingly the true definition of pro-life.

The impact of violence in the molding and shaping of a generation is, I believe, overlooked. On the one hand, children in Syria are able to tell the difference between a warplane and a normal aircraft, just by listening to them. They are growing up and associating much of the world with destruction, alienation, and isolation. For many, war is the only life they have known. The terrors of the Holocaust reveal, through research, that traumatic experiences are generational, meaning it transcends those experiencing the horrors and is passed down through DNA into future generations. It is theorized that generational trauma is responsible for the rapid growth in radicalism. The children who grew up seeing that the world is against them have been conditioned to be radical to feel like they have to fight to preserve themselves and survive. Therefore, it is of little surprise that if they grow up believing that some in the world despise their existence, they may feel the need to join together and fight back, in order to protect themselves. On the other, some children in America can hardly tell the difference in a helicopter and an airplane. Syrian children are found buried beneath the debris of buildings and are lucky if they are found; American children are found playing on a playground with their friends and are lucky if they find a four-leaf clover.

Governments create a façade of complete falsehood. They say they are doing something notable or acting in their country’s best interest but are killing citizens – other human beings – every day. These governments include our own in the US, along with several other first-world governments. Just two weeks ago, the US was responsible for performing an airstrike on Mosul. The attack resulted in killing over 100 civilians in the attempt to attack ISIS. In a statement issued from the US-led coalition, they said, “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.” At what point does one become the object of their vengeance or hate? We say that we are fighting terrorists, stamping every Muslim or Middle-Eastern with a scarlet letter of terrorism, shouting that they are the terrorists; yet, Syrians are not flying over our cities and dropping bombs on us.

“They say they are fighting ISIS, but they are targeting people.”

The horrors faced by the people of Syria transcend this documentary. Syrian civilians are not ISIS. ISIS is a child born of fear and hatred, oppression and violence; a factor in the loss of 200,000 lives. It is not a religion. The Islamic faith, taken in context, promotes peace and forgiveness, not murder and destruction. The fractured infrastructure of the cities, the tear-stained faces, and wailing of children over the parents and parents over their children reveal the unimaginable suffering. Earlier this month, a chemical attack on the province of Idlib has killed at least 70 civilians, mostly children. Following the Holocaust, nations declared “Never Again“, then there was Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, Kosovo, among others. And now Syria.

Photo of a sign reading: "#Aleppo Is Burning
#AleppoIsBurning. Source: Dimashqi Lens, Creative Commons.

The United Nations has declared that children possess their own set of rights. Originally drafted as a declaration under the League of Nations in 1924 and amended in 1959, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was codified in 1989. The CRC maintains the rights of children are universal, indivisible, and inalienable – the same as adults. Vanessa Pupavac states that the CRC gives children protective welfare rights as well as enabling rights. Both of these rights are infringed upon in Syria. Their welfare is threatened each day, and have no opportunities for escape or growth. The Convention recognizes children as autonomous rights holders; however, the meaning of their rights is problematic. They are seen as incompetent and unable to exercise their rights, forcing them to pay for the sins of extremists such as ISIS. The global model “seeks to empower the children but fails to recognize the rights of autonomous self-determination,” according to Pupavac. This goes against exactly what the Convention stands for by denying their autonomy.

Article 2 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts, “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom  and dignity.” Governments have failed to uphold this protection for the children of Syria, as facilities like hospitals and schools are destroyed. Article 6 of the CRC, State Parties must recognize that every child has the inherent right to life, and must ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child; while Article 9 states that “State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”. The requirements of these articles are not met for Syrians. A child with the inherent right to life is losing their life; children are found under the debris of buildings without a chance for survival; parents are being killed, leaving their children alone in a war-torn country. If children are seen as human beings by the United Nations, then the children who are suffering daily in Syria are experiencing an infringement of their collective rights.

To show exactly what happens when we infringe upon the rights of the children of Syria, CJ Werleman, columnist for the Middle East Eye, shared this tweet on April 8th:

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White Helmets accomplishes the first step into fighting against situations like this: bringing it to public attention. Civic responsibility is a social force that morally binds you to an act. Therefore, it is our civic responsibility to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for them themselves. While we may not be there physically, we can join their fight. We have seen that through diligence and passion, civil societies can change the world. Without movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the present day would be entirely different. The White Helmets, on their own, are a civil society, which is here defined as a group of people with similar interests acting together. These interests include protecting the lives of their spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and friends;  interests we all support. They are not fighting back, they are simply trying to preserve what little they still have.

As a part of a marginalized group that confronts the complexities of a loss of personal security as a results of threat or attack, due to fear-based hatred, I find that I can identify with the Syrians, in a small way. I am in no way placing a comparison; I simply recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere because all oppression is connected as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.points out.  We are all connected.

We can all be White Helmets.

The White Helmets’ website (https://www.whitehelmets.org/en) has an open letter to the UN for anyone to sign. If you are moved by this documentary, or just feel it necessary to support them, please go to the website and sign it. It reads:

“Barrel bombs – sometimes filled with chlorine – are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 85,228 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.” – Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.

MOAB: Blown Out of Proportion?

BY: Russ Hunter

a picture of the MOAB bomb
A Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon is prepared for testing at the Eglin Air Force Armament Center. The MOAB is a precision-guided munition weighing 21,500 pounds and will be dropped from a C-130 Hercules aircraft for the test. It will be the largest non-nuclear conventional weapon in existence. Source: National Museum of US Navy.

As the news of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, was used in Afghanistan this last week I was at first amused by the commentaries from spin doctors and political pundits from around the world. I found myself dismayed at the lack of understanding of what happens on a battlefield… then came the sensationalism some commentators within my circle were streaming out. I found the comments not only baffling but somewhat maddening. The comments have led me to write this blog. I will use my experience and training to try and explain some of the reasons I think the MOAB was used and why it may be the right tool for the job. I will do this by way of answering five questions that were posed to me.

1. What is the possible reasoning behind this decision? Many different theories are being pursued in the media (to include social media) regarding the reasons behind the dropping of the MOAB. They are that, theories. Some may even reach conspiracy level madness. My professional point of view as a career soldier is that a commander on the ground, who had authority, chose a tool that was best suited for the mission.

I have some concerns with the extreme points of view on both sides of the political spectrum. One side is saying that President Trump has allowed military leaders to assume control. President Trump did not abdicate his authority; he delegated. Those that have served in the military understand this. We also know why we delegate. It is called the span of control. One person is only able to supervise a very limited number of subordinates, that is why there is a chain-of-command. On the battlefield, there is nothing worse than someone who is not there, someone who has no situational awareness or the training and experience saying to a commander: ‘Don’t use that munition, it is not the right one.’ I defer to the battlefield commander in this instance.

The other side is joyfully extolling it as great and about damn time. To those I say, there is nothing great about dropping a massive bomb. The MOAB is a tool and professionals do not brag about how big their bomb is. Get out of the business of bragging and get to the business of bringing the fight to a close as quickly as possible within the limits of jus in bello.

I am sure the political implications are there. Does it send out messages: yes, of course it does. Coupled with the Tomahawk strikes in Syria it sends a very clear message. A message that this is not the same US military posture of the past. It sends a psychological message as well within the battle space and without, we have many tools, and we will use them. So, proceed with caution when you (the enemy) think of attacking X or using Y chemical.

2. The implications of this decision? The implications are multifaceted. I will concentrate on my training and experience. We have a munition that has, at first battlefield damage assessment (BDA), proven to be effective. It is a tool in the commander’s arsenal. The implications for the battlefield are that they will not have to do large area bombings to attain the same effect. The use of the MOAB may be a good thing. The more bombs in the air, the more chance one will miss the target area and harm civilians. The MOAB is proving effective on tunnels and bunkers within the blast area. This may lead the ‘enemy’ to decide that tunnels and bunkers are no longer a safe haven and move out of contested areas. I do caution those who think this will be a game changer in the battle front. We have had that thought before when we shelled an area with such saturation we thought the enemy would be ‘softened.’ That battle turned out to be one of the worst in the Pacific theater in WW II, Iwo Jima. More recently, let us not forget all the munitions dropped on the cave complexes of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and people thinking Osama bin Laden was dead in a cave.

3. The possible global security – as a human right – implications of this decision? I will hazard an opinion on this. The global security aspect may be the one area whereby using the MOAB may have done the most harm. Though the MOAB is a tactical weapon, the sensationalism surrounding its use causes me concern. The comparison to a nuclear weapon gives the impression that it is more destructive than it truly is. This comparison can raise fear in places like North Korea and Iran. I am afraid those who want to vilify the US and the West will use the sensationalized articles and soundbites from pundits within their propaganda machine. We have already seen the rise of tensions on the Korean peninsula and Iran’s recent unveiling of a new fighter jet with the accompanying rhetoric with its debut. The human right aspect to all of this I fear will be the loss of life.

4. Was this a violation of international law, given that there was no direct threat to the US? This one is easier to answer. There is no violation of international law. Afghanistan is a recognized conflict zone. The conflict is being waged under a coalition support force. This coalition has been granted through a status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the US and the Afghanistan government. The US/Afghanistan agreement is coupled with the SOFA agreement between NATO and the Afghanistan government. This legally allows NATO and the US to be there to assist the Afghanistan government against insurgents. The MOAB is not on the list of banned weapons; it is a conventional bomb. The two central jus in bello principles are satisfied: Discrimination and proportionality. Discrimination: Was it a legitimate target? Yes. Proportionality: Was the force morally appropriate? Yes. You may argue against this view but the commander weighed out what it would take in human lives to clear out this tunnel complex. The commander determined the MOAB as the best tool to save those lives under his command.

5. Is it possible this was a good decision? I think anything is possible. In this particular case, yes it was a good tactical decision as qualified by the combatant commander. As a strategic decision or a political decision; that warrants further consideration. As the rhetoric spins up and sabers are rattled, it can become problematic. The decision to use the MOAB may prove, in the end, not to have been a good decision outside of the combat zone (Question 3).

Once again I caution equating this weapon to more than it is. First off, it is a conventional weapon. Delivered by conventional means. It is not a banned weapon nor is it something that changes the strategic landscape. Bear with me here. To use this particular weapon, you have to have air superiority, control the skies. It is not self-propelled. It is not launched via a submarine. It is not an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). It is not radioactive. It is not chemical (as in banned chemical weapons). It is not a biological weapon. However, as long as the media sensationalizes and people do not educate themselves as to what this weapon is, a tactical weapon, we will have questions about its use and when is it a good decision to use it.

The last issue I wish to expound upon is this notion of the comparison of the MOAB to a nuclear weapon. Let me be blunt. Whoever does this type of comparison is disingenuous about what the differences are between a conventional bomb and a nuclear bomb. They are keeping to a political narrative, or they are ideologues who cannot see past their entrenched views. The comparison is by no means within a reasonable frame as comparable to a nuclear bomb.

Yes, it is a tool of war and no, I do not see it as a push of boundaries of nuclear and conventional bombs. The MOAB is around 11 tons of TNT while the Hiroshima nuclear bomb was 15,000-16,000 tons of TNT (equivalent – it was not a TNT bomb) or better understood as Hiroshima at 15-16 kilotons and MOAB at 0.1-0.2 kilotons. No radioactive material involved. I do understand the concern about the use of such weapons, but I feel we must not conflate the abilities. I have seen 500-pound bombs detonate and fully appreciate the destructive power that the MOAB represents but the MOAB is not close to a nuclear event, and it does not help the debate to misrepresent its destructive power.

The debate about the MOAB should be in two realms. First, is it a good tactical weapon that helps the combatant commander achieve his goals? Second, if it is a strategic decision to use a tactical weapon, then we should be debating why and what its function is. If it is not the right tactical weapon for use on a target and is not proportional but used to make a strategic point, then we need to debate the jus in bello principles. Now I ask a question to you the reader. Consider the just war theory principle of winning the war as quickly as possible, while adhering to jus in bello requirements. This principle requires us to ask: Why would you not use the MOAB as a tactical weapon if it can bring this prolonged war to a close?

 

Russ Hunter Expertise: Civil/Military Operations, Intelligence, WMD Operations
Russ is currently in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Otago. He holds a Master Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, a Post Grad Certificate from the University of Stirling, Scotland and is a graduate of the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy. He retired from the U.S. Army as a Sergeant Major in 2009 with over 24 years of distinguished military service in both Operations and Intelligence. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Richmond. The titles of Russ’ past lectures have been Drone Strikes: A Case for a Moral Response, Evolution of Unmanned Air Systems (Drones in the Sky), and Counterterrorism/Antiterrorism Strategy. He co-taught a Drone law course for law, paralegal and Masters students. Russ has multiple awards and citations both professional and academic.