A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America
I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change.
As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar.
How do you provide for yourself and your family?
Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?
Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492.
Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence.
Property and Greed
When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out.
One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity.
Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.
A Culture of Climate Apathy
Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it.
We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology.
I would like to start this piece off with a land acknowledgment, where I acknowledge the truth of who the lands of America truly belong to. The land in which I sit to write this article, as well as the ones occupied by those who reside in America once belonged to the many diverse communities that existed long before America got its name. Once prosperous, thriving lands belonging to these various indigenous communities, (to the Creeks and Choctaw, in my case), the lands of America were respected and honored by the relationship that these various tribal communities held sacred between themselves and their environment. It is in honor of their stewardship and resilience that I hope to shed light on some of the more gruesome, nefarious betrayals they have experienced at the hands of colonizers from the time their tribal ancestors witnessed the colonizers’ arrival to their lands in 1492.
Before the European colonizers arrived on this land, there existed a diverse group of tribal communities, over a thousand different ones just in the mainland we call America today. Now, these tribes have been reduced to no more than 574 federally recognized ones, with dwindling tribal membership numbers, a fact that can only be blamed on the federally sanctioned behaviors of the colonists. So much has been stolen from the diverse groups of indigenous people since the colonization of the North American lands first began. The original indigenous peoples had offered the newly-arriving colonists hospitality and taught them how to cultivate the lands of America and brave the New Frontiers. Yet, what they received in gratitude was bloodshed, tears, death, and betrayals. So many treaties and promises were broken. According to Howard Zinn, the famous author of the book, “A People’s History of the United States,” the various indigenous communities that existed in the Americas by the time the famous explorers landed in the Americas were anywhere between 25-75 million individuals. They had moved into these fertile lands 25,000 years ago, long before the explorers “founded” the Americas. For those interested in learning a truthful history of America, please check out his book. The book begins in 1492 and continues to examine historical events until contemporary times and phenomena such as the “War on Terrorism”.
There is so much information to be covered on this topic, and the more I researched, the more I found. I want to do this topic justice, and I cannot do so until the historical context has been put in place. Hence, this will be a two-part deep dive into the Native American lands, their cultural lifestyles, their relationship with the environment, and what this means for their existence in a capitalist, contemporary society. Part one will focus on the history of Native American lands, the process of treaties and loss, and the cruel, scheming ways of the federal government that attempted to indirectly, yet forcibly, steal lands away from Native Americans by targeting the youngest members of their tribes. Part two will focus on the Indian Child Welfare Act, the fight (and entities involved) in support and against it, how the environment plays a role, and the vast consequences of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter, both in terms of the welfare of these indigenous children, as well as the issue of tribal sovereignty. There is a lot to unpack here, so without further ado, let’s begin with a deeper understanding of the relationship that indigenous communities share with their lands.
It’s All About the Land; It Always Has Been
The European settlers had a problem with the Native Americans from the moment they landed in America. For one, they thought the indigenous way of life to be “savagery” and believed that the Native Americans needed to be “civilized”, something they believed only Europeans could teach them about. They found the gods and spirituality of the various indigenous cultures to be blasphemous and nonsensical, and many Europeans attempted to convert the Natives to Christianity, a more “proper” religious belief. Most of all, though, the Europeans and the indigenous communities had vastly different concepts of property and land ownership. To the settlers, who came from the feudal systems of Europe, land was a commodity, purchased and sold by individuals, and prosperity (and social status) was determined by who owned the most properties, and the most prosperous lands. They became lords and could employ the less fortunate to work under them, paying them a fraction of their profits, while keeping the rest for themselves. This was how things worked in Europe back home, and this is the system they brought with them when settling in the New World.
Native Americans, however, had a different lifestyle and concept of ownership. To them, the thought of owning a piece of land was bizarre, as they viewed the land to belong to the various energies and life forms that existed in the said land. The tribal lands of an indigenous community not only fed and nurtured the tribal members but also protected the tribe’s history and held the ancestral burials of their people. The indigenous communities had a spiritual and emotional connection with their tribal lands, one that cannot be sold to another, similar to how you cannot sell to someone else the relationship you hold with your family. Many (if not most), Native tribes even practiced animism, a belief system that accepts all living and non-living things (and natural phenomena) as being capable of having a life force (or soul). For Native Americans, land ownership was a foreign concept, and everyone that existed in their community held rights to the land their tribes lived on. In fact, when European settlers began purchasing lands from the Native Americans, the indigenous people believed they were only “leasing” the lands to the settlers, not giving up their rights to them. For the indigenous communities, the land was just as much a right of every human as sunlight, water, or air.
The Native Americans’ relationship with their lands was also threatening to the European lifestyle of land ownership and individualism. This struggle, between an individualistic view of community, versus the collective view of community, is, as they say, a “tale as old as time.” For Europeans, who believed individual merit and hard work to be the true characteristics of a successful individual, their success could only be displayed by the vastness of their empires, figuratively and physically. Hence, land ownership was a symbol of status and in a way, a testament of a person’s character. For Native Americans who focused on collective success rather than individually standing out, the strength of their tribe was a result of the part each individual tribal member played to ensure their success. This meant that everyone had a role, and if they played them right, everyone in the tribe benefited from the success. This was how tribes survived even as they warred against each other.
Treaties and Deals
Due to these differences between the indigenous communities and the European settlers, many struggles broke out between the two groups between 1492 and 1700. In an attempt to keep the peace between the settlers and the indigenous communities, the British Crown established the Proclamation of 1763, which awarded the colonists all the lands East of the Appalachian Mountains, and everything West was promised to the various different Native American populations that lived in those regions. This did not make the colonists happy, as they believed the King was preventing them from expanding their population, and it was one of the points they listed in the Declaration of Independence as a wrong that was done by the King. Many scholars claim that the Proclamation of 1793 led colonists to pursue a revolution against the crown. The diverse indigenous populations attempted to stay out of the Revolutionary War, as they believed it to be a family feud between the British King, and his colonial subjects. Yet, when they did take part in the War, their participation was diverse. Some joined the rebelling Americans, while others joined the forces of the monarchy. Still, others chose to remain neutral, not wanting to support either side of the struggle. Upon the loss of the Revolutionary War, as part of the treaty signed between Britain and the newly established United States, Britain had to give up all the lands they lay claim to in America, including many of the lands that were promised to the Native American tribes living West of the Appalachian Mountains. This happened without consent or discussion with the Native Americans who took residence in those parts. When the colonists came to take over much of the lands that were promised to the Native Americans through the Proclamation of 1763, they justified their brutality against the Native Americans by blaming them for supporting the British in the Revolutionary War, and when the Native Americans tried to fight back for their lands, the British were nowhere to be seen. This was yet another episode of betrayal experienced by the indigenous populations at the hands of the settlers and the British Crown. Yet, this was just the beginning; the atrocities and betrayals were far from over.
Following the Revolutionary War and the as a result of the resilience shown by the many indigenous communities protecting their lands, the United States decided to engage in creating treaties between the various indigenous tribes in an attempt to set boundaries to their lands, and “compensate” them for the lands taken from them. I have “compensate” in quotations because first of all, no amount of money or goods can compensate for lost lives, which is what many tribes experienced. Some tribes became extinct as a result. Second, these treaties were signed by members who did not have signatory authority to give permission to the lands on the side of many indigenous nations, and Congress seldom ratified the treaties that were signed on the part of the United States. This meant that this was more of a theatrical expression than anything else, and the United States continued to steal the lands of indigenous people. Thirdly, as discussed above, many indigenous people who did engage in treaty-making assumed they were simply “leasing” their lands to be used by the colonists, not selling their rights to it outright. So, there was miscommunication and misunderstandings as to what the treaties actually established. Finally, the United States Congress and Supreme Court established that the indigenous tribes were not capable of engaging in treaty-making, and as such, ended the whole process altogether in 1871, claiming that Congress had full control over “Native American Affairs.”
In an attempt to fasten the process of transferring lands from Native American tribes to the hands of the government, the United States passed the Dawes Act of 1887. Many of the treaties that were made between the US and the various nations included provisions in which tribes were expected to distribute their lands among their members so that lands were held by individuals rather than the tribal entities as a whole. For reasons explained earlier, the settlers were threatened by the communal lifestyles of the Native American tribes and believed that having individual members have rights over smaller portions of lands would make it easier for them to accept the European lifestyles and give up their “backward” ways. The Dawes Act forced these indigenous members to choose a parcel of land for themselves and their families (the size of the parcel of land was determined by the government), and any excess amount of land after this process would be sold to the government to be used by non-native residents and corporations alike. Millions of acres of land were stolen from various indigenous tribes as a result. This essentially acted as a way to separate the individual Native American member from their larger tribe and weaken their sense of community and tribal sovereignty as a whole.
Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States government has made about 374 treaties with various indigenous nations across the country. The United States has either violated or fully broken nearly all of these treaties they created as a promise of peacekeeping. Many of these treaties that the United States obtained in the first place were either coerced or done so by forcible means such as threatening starvation on the communities that refused to sign the treaties. Of the various treaties that were violated and broken, one that comes to mind clearly for anyone even slightly familiar with American History is the actions of then president Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although he negotiated treaties with various tribes in the Southeast in an attempt to get them to move West of the Mississippi River voluntarily, when he became president of the United States, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly removing almost 50,000 people from their homes. This forcible removal today would be recognized as a forceable deportation of a population, specifically as a crime against humanity. Under the United Nations Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this is one of the most heinous systematic crimes that has been committed throughout history. Jackson did this in an attempt to clear lands to cultivate cotton, which would lead to another atrocious event, the revamping of plantation slavery in the South.
History of the Forced Assimilation of Native American Children
Another tactic used by the government to acquire lands from the indigenous populations was through further treacherous means. Native American children were forcefully assimilated into American culture in an attempt to beat/torture their culture out of them. The existence of the Federal Indian Boarding School System was proof of this very thing. Recently, an internal investigation was conducted of the United States government’s treatment of Indigenous children following the incident in Canada, where they found over 215 unmarked graves at a school in 2021. This report, led by Deb Halland, the Secretary of Interior, highlighted many nefarious ways in which tribal lands were stolen from different indigenous nations and the atrocities that were forced upon the children from these nations.
To explore some of the details outlined in this report, (specifically from pages 20-40), the plans of forcible assimilation have been put in place since the days of George Washington. This plan to forcefully erase indigenous culture and assimilate the children into Western culture was seen as the “cheapest and safest way” to steal the tribal lands, ensure a less violent relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans, and transform the tribal economy so they would be prepared to live off of lesser and lesser parcels of land. They found a way to weaponize education in order to accomplish this task.
Elaborating on George Washington’s proposal, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, put forth a 2-step solution to acquire more lands for the colonists. First, he argued that Native Americans could be forcefully assimilated into European culture, where they could be discouraged to live out a nomadic lifestyle (which requires the use of vast areas of land) and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle similar to the colonists (which can be done with a few acres of land that are cultivated). Second, he proposed that the United States place indigenous populations in debt by encouraging their use of credits to purchase their goods. This, he presumed, would make them default on their debts, and when they were unable to pay back their loans, they would be forced to give up their lands as a result. This land acquired by the government would be sold to non-native settlers, and the profits from these land sales would be put back into the education programs for forceful assimilation of native children.
Sanctioned by the United States government, indigenous children were kidnapped from their homes, whether they wanted to go to boarding school or not (with or without parental permission), and placed in these schools that were located far away from their tribal lands. The plan was to erase the relationship these children had with their cultures, communities, and lands, and instead instill individualism in the children who they were attempting to assimilate in the hopes that they could break up the communal lands into individual parcels, making it easier to be ceased by the government and private entities alike. They called it the “Indian Problem”, which was the different lifestyle and relationship tribal members held with their land and their community. Thomas Jefferson’s two-part proposal was seen as a “key solution” to this “Indian problem.” If the Native American children were forced to become dependent on agricultural lifestyles, they assumed, they could be “civilized.” The government believed that if you separate the children from their families and their tribal connections at a very young age, what they were introduced to would be all they knew, and they would become strangers to the indigenous lifestyles. In turn, the government assumed, the children would not want to go back home and live on the reservations, but instead, would be much more likely to assimilate and live amongst the colonists.
As a result, indigenous families were broken apart, and indigenous children were placed with white families as part of the “outing system.” This meant that the children were forbidden to speak in their native languages and were required to speak English to communicate their needs. What’s worse, they were placed with children from other tribes, meaning that their common language of communication was English, and any children they would have would grow up learning English as their first language instead of the tribal languages of their ancestors.
To support the government in this endeavor, many churches were given legal power over reservations by the government. The military was called in to reinforce the orders of these religious institutions. Many times, the government paid these institutions if they operated a boarding school, paying them a sum for each child. The churches went along with it because they believed that the indigenous way of “paganism” kept them from becoming “civilized” and to fully do so, the indigenous children needed to accept Christianity. The government worked with churches from many denominations by funding them to build the Federal Indian Boarding School System.
Treatment of Indigenous children in these boarding school systems
The Federal Indian Boarding School System was problematic in so many ways. Not only did it forcefully assimilate indigenous children, but the system also took a militaristic approach to education, abusing and mistreating these children in the process. The living conditions at these Boarding schools were terrible. There was no access to basic health care needs, and diseases ran rampant across the schools. The children were malnourished, as they were provided with food and water of poor quality. There was an overcrowding issue, with many facilities forcing multiple children to share one bed as a result. There were not enough toilets to serve the number of children at each facility, and the toilets were not properly maintained.
The infrastructure in these facilities was so poor because they were not built specifically to house these children as facilities for education. Rather, these children were placed in abandoned government buildings or military forts to carry out their education. There was also the issue of child labor, where the children were expected to provide all the services required to run the facilities. This included looking after the livestock, chopping wood, making bricks, sewing garments to clothe the other children, working on the railway, cooking, and cleaning for the others in the facility, and so much more.
The children were expected to take care of themselves and the other children at the facilities. They were also tasked with work from various fields like carpentry, plumbing, blacksmithing, fertilizing, helping with the irrigation system, helping make furniture for use in the facilities (such as tables, chairs, and beds), and anything else that involved physical labor. These jobs the children were trained in would forever keep them at a lower socioeconomic level than their White counterparts. Here too they tried to instill the patriarchal norms of Western society, making sure to teach and employ young girls to work as assistants and cooks, while the young boys were expected to be farmers and industrial workers.
The Indigenous children were forcefully assimilated into American culture. They were told to stop practicing their faiths and were stopped from performing any spiritual and/or religious rituals. The children were expected to go by the English names they were given at the boarding school instead of their Native names given to them at birth. They were forced to cut their hair (which was sacred to many indigenous people as it represented their cultural identity), and were forbidden to wear their cultural clothes and instead were put in military garb.
Those who resisted the assimilation or tried to run away were caught and severely abused and punished. They were put in solitary, whipped, slapped, starved, and abused for fighting to retain their culture. Many of the older children at the facilities were forced to punish the younger children, further dividing the children, and destroying any opportunity the children may have had to band together to resist the assimilation forces. As a result of what the Federal Indian Boarding School System put these children through, there were over 50 marked and unmarked burial sites found. These burial sites had found over 500 indigenous children dead and counting, and these numbers are expected to rise to thousands more. Many indigenous children that survived these boarding schools are reported to have long-lasting impacts on their health and their lives. These children that grew up to be adults reported having higher risks for cancer, diabetes, and Tuberculosis. They experienced heightened mental health issues, and many remain in a lower socioeconomic class as a result.
Many believe this forcible assimilation program conducted by the federal government to be a cultural genocide, in which a state-sanctioned attempt at the erasure of an entire culture took place. The official definition of genocide as established by the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court reads as follows: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As per this definition, the acts carried out by the United States government against the children of various Native American tribes fulfill most, if not all these categories that define these acts to be considered genocidal. It is not a surprise that Native Americans have been killed by the federal government’s sanctions throughout history. There has been serious bodily harm and mental harm caused to members of these various indigenous groups throughout American history. The government deliberately placed young children in conditions of life that ensured their destruction as a member of the Native American tribe they each belonged to. The children within these facilities were not allowed to mingle with others from their own tribes, making it harder for them to retain and pass down their cultural identities, as well as procreate with members of their own tribe. Finally, they were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in these facilities and other non-native homes in an attempt to erase their cultural backgrounds. All these actions, as was discovered by the recent report we explored at length in this blog, were done so with the intent to destroy the rich cultures of the various Native American tribes. So, the forcible assimilation of Native American children can, without a doubt, be characterized as cultural genocide.
The main goal of this blog was to establish the historical context of what the various Native American tribes endured, as well as the intentions of the federal government in terms of their dealings with the different native nations present in America. Part two of this conversation will focus on a specific piece of legislation that has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the Indian Child Welfare Act. At face value, this legislation is simply an act that addresses the long, detailed history of Native American children and sets guidelines to ensure that proper regulations are put in place to prevent a repetition of history. Yet, it’s now been challenged, partly with the help of very shady moneyed interest, and its fate (and the overarching consequences as a result) were placed in the hands of the nine Supreme Court justices of the United States. We will explore more about this legislation and the case in the next blog.
The Olympics serve a global spotlight for the world’s best athletes. The tradition was born out of Ancient Greece over 3,000 years ago. After not being held for over a millennium, The Modern Olympics began once more in Athens, Greece in 1896, and have been held in alternating cities every four years since. The Winter Olympics began being held as a separate set of games in between each occurrence of the Summer Olympics in 1994.
The Olympics were famed not only for bringing the world’s most power athletes together for weeks of competition, but also for the prosperity they would bring to the host city. The Olympics bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists, and provide cities incentives to build state-of-the-art stadiums, creating new jobs locally. Despite this, the Olympics have also come under scrutiny in the last few years because they also bring major disadvantages to the host cities and nations.
These acts of forced removal have been called out by human rights activists as dangerous violations of human rights, but this is not the only way human rights affects the Olympic games and their respective host cities. The worldwide attention the Olympics receive every two years highlights not only the host city, but the host nation. The 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted once again by Beijing, have put China into hot water as international press have scrutinized China’s alleged human rights violations. So what has been going on in China?
China’s Crackdown on Dissent
News outlets across the globe were fascinated by China’s COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which began in early February. Using a massive amount of manpower and resources, China constructed an Olympic “bubble”, or quarantine zone which will house over 11,000 athletes from all over the world. The bubble consists of a “closed loop” of stadiums, conference centers, and over seventy hotels, and all athletes inside this bubble will have no contact with the wider Chinese population. The Chinese central government is taking precautions to absolute extremes, even warning citizens not to intervene if an Olympic vehicle is involved in a car crash while transporting athletes between facilities.
But China’s Olympic “bubble” serves a dual purpose – it also keeps Chinese human rights activists away from the games. Prominent human rights activist Hu Jia was placed under house arrest in order to keep him out of the public eye for the duration of the Winter games. In an interview with CNN, he wrote that “In China, people like me are called ‘domestic hostile forces’… that’s why they have to cut me off from the outside world”. Jia has been under house arrest since January 15.
But China’s recent rise in authoritarian behavior even predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Hong Kong experienced six months of intense antigovernmental protests, leading to the adoption of a new “National Security Law” on June 30 that was labelled by Human Rights Watch as “draconian”. Activists were deeply alarmed by the broad and sweeping language of the new legislation, which penalizes “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Under the National Security Law, even the use of common political phrases such as “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” have been outright banned, stifling free speech throughout China.
Perhaps most alarmingly, China has also come under international scrutiny for allegations of genocide and other crimes against humanity enacted against the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority ethnic group who mostly reside in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Activists have reported the presence of “re-education camps” which have allegedly been used to detain over one million Uyghurs in recent years, with hundreds of thousands more being sentenced to prison. Evidence has also been brought forth showing the Chinese government’s use of Uyghur people for forced labor, and some women have been forced to undergo sterilization. The re-education camps have also been reportedly rife with sexual violence against Uyghur women, as reported by survivors. Cultural genocide has also been reported, as several Uyghur religious practices have been banned in the region, and China has demolished Uyghur mosques and tombs.
As China continues to project power on the global stage through their economic successes, military prowess, and spotlight events such as the Olympics, it is important to remember that authoritarianism does not protect human rights. China, from a surface-level perspective, may be viewed as one of the biggest success stories of our modern age. Their economy is the second-largest in the world, and many in China are enjoying an amount of prosperity not seen in the regions in centuries. Their citizens, especially those who want a better future for China, are paying the price for this alleged “success”, as their rights to freedom and privacy are infringed daily by the robust Chinese surveillance state. Modern states should be based on robust human rights, and China will need to enact several heavy reforms to move away from their current authoritarianism. China can become one of the world’s leading powers in the 21st century, but they can only do so if they uphold the rights of their citizens.
This month the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum marks its 25th anniversary. This offers a chance to reflect on the mission and work of the Museum, and also an opportunity to look forward at how we will ensure the permanent relevance of Holocaust history for new generations, reach global audiences, and create more agents of change who will work to make the future better than the past. Working with partners like the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is vital in achieving this mission.
In the fall of 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which was charged with the responsibility to submit a report “with respect to the establishment and maintenance of an appropriate memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust.” One year later, the Commission concluded that the memorial could not be a static monument. Instead, it should be a “living memorial” with a strong educational component. The result was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an institution that is both a memorial to Holocaust victims and a museum that educates visitors, collects and preserves evidence, and produces leading research and scholarship. The Commission also issued a call to action, concluding that “A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past.” As such, in addition to honoring the memory of Holocaust victims, the mission of the Museum is to inspire leaders and citizens worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.
When the Museum was dedicated and opened to the public on April 22, 1993, its founding chairman Elie Wiesel told the crowd, “This Museum is not an answer. It is a question.” For the past 25 years, this is how the institution has approached its work: relentlessly exploring complex questions about history and human nature. We have designed programs and resources that not only ask what the Holocaust was, but delve deep into explorations of how and why it happened. Moreover, we aim to prompt people to recognize the importance of this history’s lessons about humankind and societies, and to take an active role in confronting divisions that threaten social cohesion.
It is a sad reality that in the near future, we will live in a time when there are no more eyewitnesses to the Holocaust alive to share their stories. It is more important than ever, therefore, to teach the next generation of emerging adults about the Holocaust as a way to ensure the lasting memory of the victims. As Wiesel says, “I believe firmly and profoundly that anyone who listens to a Witness becomes a Witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us. Until now, they’re doing it with us. At a certain point in time, they will do it for all of us.”
In that spirit, the Museum works with diverse audiences to demonstrate the importance of honoring the memory and exploring the universal lessons of the Holocaust, even if one doesn’t have a direct connection to the history. These audiences include judges, the military, law enforcement, youth, and faith communities.
As the next generation of thought-leaders and changemakers, college students have been an important audience for the Museum. To date, through a wide range of resources, traveling exhibits, seminars, lectures, conferences, and other programs, the Museum has engaged more than 630,000 college students, faculty, and local community members on 545 college and university campuses in 49 states across the United States.
American college students’ interests with the history of the Holocaust are different across the country. Their own background, upbringing, and educational experiences shape how they approach and understand the history of the Holocaust and its relevance to their own lives. As such, the Museum recently launched an initiative to put the history of the Holocaust into conversation with local or regional histories in the United States. This initiative enriches campus dialogue by provoking critical thinking about the history of antisemitism, racism, extrajudicial and state-sanctioned violence, and the power and limits of human agency in different historical contexts. By examining themes through the lens of multiple histories, the Museum connects with new audiences and works with partner campuses to educate students about the history of the Holocaust, model how to responsibly research and talk about different historical contexts, and facilitate informed dialogue about the lessons and contemporary relevance of those histories.
Over the past year, the Museum has been working with faculty and students at universities across the Southeast region on a series of programs that explore the histories of race and society in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. These programs are neither an equation of suffering nor meant to gloss over the uniqueness of each historical period. Instead, they bring communities together to explore what can be learned from studying the similarities, differences, and gray zones of these two histories.
In February 2018, the Museum, with the UAB Institute for Human Rights, organized a capstone event of this regional program: a two-day interdisciplinary symposium entitled Bystanders and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. In total, 401 people from 10 states — including 203 college students, 20 high school students, 47 faculty, staff, and teachers, and 131 local community members — gathered together to explore the complexity of these histories.
Through this symposium, history became a way to build common understandings, bring diverse communities together, and foster a sense of human solidarity. Although — or perhaps because — participants came from many different backgrounds, we understood that we were discussing more than just past events. Our conversations posed timeless questions: about relevance to our lives today, about the vulnerability of societies, about democratic values and human nature.
Attendees and presenters discussed how, when, and why ordinary people supported, complied with, ignored, or resisted racist policies in two very different systems of targeted oppression and racial violence. It takes a critical minority of determined leaders with the support of an acquiescent general population to introduce and establish state-sanctioned racism, antisemitism, and violence. The extreme examples of Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South show that the majority of the population in these two worlds witnessed the widespread persecution against a targeted minority and either actively or passively tolerated what they saw, thus enabling the continuation of persecution and raising pressing questions about the role of onlookers and the nature of complicity. Examining the role of ordinary people, therefore, provides us with a better understanding of how and why such atrocities like the Holocaust could happen. This focus also helps us to make a more intimate connection to the history since we often each think of ourselves as an “ordinary person,” rather than as a victim, perpetrator, or bystander.
Dr. Beverly Eileen Mitchell, Professor of Historical Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, delivered the symposium keynote address: “Racism and Antisemitism: Sibling Threats.” She argued that we cannot understand antisemitism and racism as separate prejudices that each affect only one particular group of people. History reveals that while the two may manifest uniquely, racism and antisemitism are children of the same father: white supremacy. “Lessons from history can shed light on what is happening in our own time, if we pay attention,” she says. A key lesson, Prof. Mitchell concluded, is that we all must actively confront discrimination, even when it does not affect us or our community directly, because hate against one group ultimately grows to affect us all. “We must remain vigilant. … There are no innocent bystanders where white supremacy is concerned.”
A highlight of the symposium was “Keeping the Memory Alive,” a session that featured a conversation between Riva Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father was lynched in Alabama in 1947. These two women shared their powerful stories about the dangers and personal impact of racial violence and genocide. Their testimony ensured that their memories would be carried on by others. “Don’t ever stop learning about the Holocaust,” Hirsch told the crowd. “Don’t ever stop talking about it. There are people who say that it never happened, but I’m here to tell you all that it happened to me. To you youngsters out there: our memory is in your hands.” But the women also issued a challenge, urging everyone to speak up when they see discrimination. “You can’t wait for someone else to do something,” McCall said. “All it takes is one person to change someone’s mind for the good. Be that one person.”
The women’s parting words reflect a guiding principle of our Museum’s work: when you learn about how and why the Holocaust happened, you now have a moral obligation to act on that knowledge and to confront hatred and promote human dignity.
As we honor the memory of Holocaust victims during the Museum’s 25th anniversary, we recommit our affirmation that the exploration of this dark history must illuminate lessons that can guide us in our mission. One important lesson is that, as individuals in a pluralistic society, we have a responsibility to each other, to defend against threats to social cohesion, and to protect democratic institutions. Second, the confluence of motivations, pressures, fears, and concerns of daily life means that moral choices are not always clear or easy, yet we must commit to making the moral choice. Our (in)actions have unintended consequences and reverberate further than we may realize. What you do matters.
And finally, one of the most important lessons is that the Holocaust was preventable. “That’s not just a statement of fact,” says Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “It is a challenge to all of us.” After the Holocaust, the world promised “Never Again.” But this promise cannot only apply to mass atrocities or genocide. It is up to each of us to make sure that “Never Again” is a challenge to combat discrimination, prejudice, and hatred before it evolves into violence. Never Again begins with you.
Dr. Jake Newsome is the Campus Outreach Program Officer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he is responsible for developing strategic outreach programs and resources for institutions of higher education throughout the United States. These programs take the lessons of the Holocaust beyond the Museum’s walls and inspire new generations of scholars, students, and leaders to engage with the history and contemporary relevance of the Holocaust. Dr. Newsome’s research focuses on Holocaust history, gender and sexuality, and memory studies.
**This is a repost. Please make plans to join us for a lecture and discussion with Dr. Wakar Uddin on Monday, Nov 13 at 630pm, in the Edge of Chaos.
Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.
“Now is the worst it has ever been. We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.” – interviewee from Pwint Hpuy Chaung commenting on the violence in the Rhakine, Myanmar
Ethnic cleansing. State-sponsored violence. Genocide. This is what the Muslim Rohingya and most scholars would call the egregious human rights violations carried out by the state over the last eleven months. Myanmar’s government disagrees. The village-burning, mass-murdering campaign has been a legitimate effort against militant Rohingya insurgents from their perspective. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that has suffered discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated state for years. A large population of Rohingya live in the Rhakine, an extremely poor area on the coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the ethnic majority considers the group to be illegal Bengali outsiders. The minority group has been denied citizenship for decades and has recently had restricted travel with the institution of state-sponsored “Muslim-free zones.” The decades of discrimination came to a head in last October, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar government began a colossal campaign to push Rohingya into Bangladesh through burning entire towns, executing villagers, destroying food supplies, and widespread sexual violence. Officials describe the campaign as targeting militant insurgents, yet vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly have been beaten, murdered, and raped at a wide level. Entire communities have been devastated through arson, executions, and looting. The violence has been strategic in an effort to drive out the Rohingya. The mixing of mud with village grain supplies forces surviving villagers to flee or starve.
Interviews with refugees from the region conducted by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report of atrocities like murders of newborn babies, massive gang rapes of girls as young as eleven, houses set on fire with entire families locked inside, and brutal beatings of pregnant women.
“In Kyet Yoe Pyin I saw the military killing a newborn baby of a distant relative … My relative could not come out [of her house] as she was in labour so they dragged her out and hit her stomach with a big stick. They killed the baby by stomping on it with their heavy boots. Then they burned the house.” -19 year old woman from Ngar Sar Kyu (OHCHR 2017)
Much of the violence is fueled by decades of religious and ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya, a majority Muslim population within a Buddhist state. When the October 9, 2016 attack occurred, religious tension reached a boiling point. As a part of the government’s reaction, state military officers have been committing heinous crimes against innocent Muslim individuals. Survivors report their attackers as saying, while raping or beating them, “What can your Allah do for you? See what we can do?” Women systematically dragged into holy places to be gang-raped by groups of soldiers. A long beard is a religious practice among the Rohingya; however, several religious leaders have been publicly humiliated by having their beards shaved or burned off with melting plastic. Holy Qurans have been gathered and burned, and numerous religious leaders are kidnapped and murdered. There is also the denial of families to perform religious ceremonies to mourn their dead.
“I was rounded up, along with 30 others villagers, who were mainly youngsters. They tied my hands behind with a rope. They burnt plastic and dropped melted plastic on my feet and neck. They also burnt my beard with burning plastic.” – Religious leader (OHCHR 2017).
Activists worldwide, including Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called the Myanmar government’s response to last October’s incident “grossly disproportionate”. Many specifically criticize Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her leadership during this period. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (Nobel Peace Prize 1991). Today, some see this as incredibly ironic, even labelling the atrocities of her administration as crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Harsh V. Pant suggests that while Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, does not control the military, “her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership as a prominent factor is why international forces have not yet intervened. Suu Kyi is a much-loved public figure, has garnered enough legitimacy to make the violence seem possibly justified. Suu Kyi’s struggle to gain democracy in Myanmar nearly a decade ago brought globally acclaimed; however, these new democratic processes have magnified prejudices of the public. Suu Kyi herself has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment at times. Peter Popham describes a 2013 interview conducted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the Nobel laureate was heard saying angrily, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” This statement is a strong indication that Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent legacy should be dismissed when considering the legitimacy of Myanmar’s claims.
The Myanmar government has recently blocked UN forces from entering the country to administer aid so refugee testimonies are the source of much of the information on the violence. Over half of the refugees report family members still missing after officers rounded up important male villagers–teachers, businesspersons, and religious leaders. Fifty-two percent of women reported experiencing sexually violence in some way – usually during public nude line-ups of female villagers, where officers grope, slap, and pinch the vulnerable women. Most reported occurrences of mass executions by knife or shooting, including babies, toddlers, children, women, and elderly people. OHCHR in January’s flash report is the source of the collected data and all the reports of violence cited earlier.
These issues have been ongoing since last October’s attack, but fighting began anew last month when Rohingya militants once again launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen security officers. The group that launched the attack call themselves ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Nearly three-hundred thousand Rohingya are currently fleeing this violence, but have faced obstacles every step of the way. The path to the Bangladesh border is treacherous already, weaving through mountains and jungles, but Myanmar security forces have added additional danger. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “Rohingyas [are] being indiscriminately killed and injured by military gunfire, even while fleeing, and helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades being used against the civilian population.” Amnesty International reports that Myanmar security forces have been putting land mines along the route of fleeing refugees. Even if the violence dies down and refugees attempt to return home, they will likely be denied entry back into Myanmar. The government has recently released a statement that any returnees are required to show proof of citizenship — something that has been denied to Rohingyas for decades.
The international response has been halfhearted at best. Entities like the United Nations and Amnesty International have collected information through interviews and satellite surveillance, yet, Myanmar still refuses to allow international aid. India, one of the most powerful countries in the region, has shown support to the Myanmar state by condemning ARSA and being hostile to Rohingya refugees. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to tiptoe around the matter by similarly condemning Rohingya violence but reminding Myanmar to “adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers.” In a situation of clear ethnic cleansing, politically delicate statements like these are insufficient.
Human rights violations at this level and scale are painful to read about and not become stricken with grief. However, we must keep in mind that hope is still alive—the world is in the process of becoming a better place, and awareness of these topics is vital to that change. To those who are reading this, remember to treat yourself kindly. When the horrors of the world make you feel hopeless, remember the good that still exists. Remember to take a break every so often to recharge. Whenever I feel like the world is just too bad to improve, I remind myself of this quote by Anne Frank: “I hold onto my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”
The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) will host a demonstration for Rohingyas outside the Hill Student Center on Saturday, September 16 at 12-1:30PM. The event is free and open to the public.
Many years ago, or so the story goes, a young, Kurdish man named Mem fell deeply in love with the Emir’s sister – a beautiful, young woman named Zin. This Emir, however, had in his service an ambitious young minister named Beko who coveted the affections of Zin for himself and, thus, set about conspiring to undermine his competition. Ultimately, his machinations proved to be successful, creating a tragic series of events that concluded in a similar vein to that of two far more famous, star-crossed lovers. Mem perished alone in the darkest corner of the Emir’s dungeon, and upon discovering this, Zin followed her lover into the afterlife.
At the funeral, the two lovers were buried side-by-side, but the grave was not yet full. Entranced by the beauty of Zin even in death, Beko leaned over her grave to stare, enraging the Emir:
The mausoleum of the two lovers still stands today in the city of Cizre, the point at which the borders of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet. Yet this story possesses a significance far greater than simple literary achievement. It is the recurring tale of the Kurdish people and their struggle for self-determination.
In this explicitly nationalist story, Mem is a metaphor for the Kurds, while Zin represents the Kurdish homeland. As much as they long for each other, however, there is always a Beko, a meddling outsider, a Turk, a Persian, an Arab who seeks to divide them. The empires of these outsiders may fall, but each plants, in its death throes, the seeds for a new thornbush that will once again deny Kurds self-determination. Ultimately, the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are merely the latest iteration of this thornbush.
Turkey and Iraq threaten Kurds over their independence referendum
Ultimately, this leads to the question of who to believe. Are the Kurds simply backwards, uneducated mountain people? Or do the Kurds constitute a distinct people who have been unfairly portrayed by their opponents?
There are three criteria by which one can evaluate this claim: (1) mutual intelligibility, or the ability of two people speaking two different languages to understand each other; (2) uniqueness in terms of letters, sounds, and words; and (3) recognition.
Following the First World War, the suffering experienced by the Kurds began in earnest. They were promised independence in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Sèvres. Ultimately, these promises came to naught as the Turks under Atatürk forced the allies to invalidate the treaty, which was replaced by the treaties of Lausanne and Ankara. These two treaties split the Kurdish populated regions among the newly created nations of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, effectively ending Kurdish hopes for a negotiated independence at this point in history.
Ultimately, this rampant discrimination pushed many Sunnis into the waiting arms of the Islamic States; however , the Kurds resisted such radicalization. Instead, they fought alongside the United States, as well the Iraqi central government that oppressed them, against the Islamic State. By all accounts, the Kurds suffered from the brunt of the fighting, retaking large portions of Iraq and capturing the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa in Syria.
It is in response to the previously mentioned discrimination, as well as their role in defeating the Islamic State, that Kurds decided that they are finally ready for an independent state of their own. The question now becomes, do they deserve it? The answer is an unequivocal yes for the following reasons:
1) The Kurds meet all of the criteria for nationhood and self-determination, including possessing their own distinct language and a common history.
2) The Kurds have been promised – through a variety of international agreements – independence for over a century. These promises should be honored in order to provide legitimacy to other international agreements on human rights, which also rely on their participants living up to their commitments.
Throughout their history, the Kurds suffered greatly, but with uncommon resilience and strength, on behalf of their ethnicity. With each passing decade, however, it seems to grow worse. For that reason, it is high time that the world intervene on their behalf. This should be done not only to stop impending bloodshed in the aftermath of the fall of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces, but in order to assist the Kurds in permanently removing the thornbush that stands between them and their beloved, and long overdue, homeland of Kurdistan.
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.
“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.
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:
US dropped 26k bombs on Middle East last year. KSA dropped 5k on Yemen, & Russia/Assad bombs Syria into dust.
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.
April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. The word genocide brings to mind the well-known horrors of the Holocaust, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia; yet, numerous atrocities that have gone unnoticed and unmentioned. I will focus on dehumanization, extermination, and denial for this blog to bring awareness by shedding light on and bearing witness to the history of the Bengali people. For clarity, dehumanization is defined as when one group denies the humanity of another group, extermination is the action of mass killing itself, and denial refers to the perpetrator’s effort to disprove that the genocide ever occurred.
During the 1970s, a genocide took place in present-day Bangladesh. Rough estimates approximate a death toll numbers of nearly 3 million. The systematic annihilation of the Bengali people by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War, targeted Hindu men, academics, and professionals, spared the women from murder, but subjected nearly 400,000 to rape and sexual enslavement.
Bangladesh, as a nation, did not exist prior to 1971 because it was part of an area called “East Pakistan”. The pursuit of independence for Pakistan came following India’s independence from Britain. At the time, religion and culture separated the East and West sections: West Pakistan was populated by mostly Muslim Punjabis, while East Pakistan was more diverse with a considerable population of Hindu Bengalis (Pai 2008). West Pakistan looked down upon their eastern neighbors, calling the area “a low-lying land of low-lying people” who “polluted” the area with non-Muslim values (Jones 2010). This is a clear demonstration of dehumanization which Stanton says “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder” by equating the victimized groups to vermin and filth. Lacking empathy for their disregarded neighbors, the people of West Pakistan abused their eastward neighbors economically and through lack of aid. West Pakistani elites, living and working in the political center of the country, siphoned most of the country’s revenue, initially generated by East Pakistan (Jaques 1999). Additionally, West Pakistan neglected to send adequate aid following the Bhola Cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan, and left close to 500,000 dead in 1970 (Pai 2008). The amalgamation of denied human rights contributed to the commencement of the Bengali independence movement. In response to the Bengali’s call to secede, West Pakistan developed Operation Searchlight.
Operation Searchlight is seen by many as the first step in the Bengali genocide (Pai 2008). Per the Bangladesh Genocide Archives, the operation, initiated on March 25, 1971, resulted in the death of between 5,000 and 100,000 Bengalis in a single night. Forces of the Pakistani Army targeted academics and Hindus, specifically murdering many Hindu university students and professors. The goal of the operation was to crush the Bengali nationalist movement through fear; however, the opposite occurred. Enraged at the actions of the Pakistan Army, Bangladesh declared its independence the following day (Whyte and Lin Yong 2010). Over several months, the Pakistani Army conducted mass killings of young, able-bodied Hindu men. According to R.J. Rummel, “the Pakistan army [sought] out those especially likely to join the resistance — young boys. Sweeps were conducted of young men who were never seen again. Bodies of youths would be found in fields, floating down rivers, or near army camps” (Carpenter 2016).
Men became primary targets (almost 80 percent male, as reported by the Bangladesh Genocide Archives). The abduction and subsequent rape of women by soldiers took place in camps for months. Many more were subject to “hit and run” rapes. Hit and run rape explains the brutality of forcing male family member–before their own death–view the rape of their female family member by soldiers (Pai 2008). The use of rape, as a weapon of war by Pakistani forces, violated 200,000-400,000 Bengali women during March and December 1971. The high number represents the complicity of religious leaders who openly supported the rape of Bengali women, referring to victims as “war booty” (D’Costa 2011).
Archer Blood, American ambassador to India, communicated the horrors to US officials. Unfortunately, the United States refused to respond because of Pakistan’s status as a Cold War ally. President Nixon, taking on a flippant and discriminatory attitude, regarded the genocide as a trivial matter, assuming a disinterested American public due to the race and religion of the victims. His belief that no one would care because the atrocities were happening to people of the Muslim faith (Mishra 2013), created an uninformed and disconnected America concerning the Bengali genocide of 1971.
“Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities… Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.” – Archer Blood, American ambassador to India
Pai (2008) suggests the Pakistani Army strategized the genocide into three phases over the course of 1971:
Operation Searchlight was the first phase as discussed earlier, which took place from late March to early May. It began as a massive murder campaign during the night of March 25, 1971. The indiscriminate use of heavy artillery in urban areas, particularly in Dhaka, killed many, including Hindu students at Dhaka University.
Search and Destroy was the second where Pakistani forces methodically slaughtered villages from May to October. This is the longest phase because this is when Bengali forces mobilized and began to fight back; rebel Bengali forces “used superior knowledge of the local terrain to deny the army a chance to dominate the countryside”. This was also the phase in which the Pakistan army targeted women to rape, abduct, and enslave.
“Scorched Earth” was the third phase beginning in early December, and targeted and killed 1,000 intellectuals and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers in Dhaka. The Pakistani Army surrendered to Indian forces days later, ending the genocide on December 16, 1971. Though Bangladesh established its initial independence directly following Operation Searchlight, the people of Bangladesh established themselves and their nation as a peaceful country, and began the reconciliation process.
The American government has never acknowledged the actions of the Pakistan Army as a genocide. Henry Kissinger characterized it as unwise and immoral, but never termed it to be genocidal. The horrible acts that occurred to the Bengali people was clearly a genocide under the terms of the UN Convention on the Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (CPPCG). The CPPCG defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Pai (2008) asserts, “That the genocide took place in a context of civil war, communal riots (which include instances where Bengalis did the killing) and counter-genocide, should neither mitigate nor detract us from the fundamental conclusion that casts the Pakistan army as guilty of perpetrating genocide.” To this day, Pakistan has continued to explicitly deny the occurrence of a genocide. Despite this, the atrocities that mark the journey to Bangladesh’s independence have not swayed the Bengali people; their rich culture and flourishing country provide clear evidence. Today, Bangladesh is a prosperous country, ranking 46th of 211 countries in terms of GDP. They are one of the largest contributors to UN Peacekeeping forces, and the Global Peace Index ranks them as the third most peaceful country in South Asia (behind Bhutan and Nepal).
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget.”Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Carpenter, R. Charli. ‘Innocent Women and Children’: Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians. Routledge, 2016. Print.
D’Costa, Bina. Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Jones, Adam (2010). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-48618-7.
Pai, Nitan. The 1971 East Pakistan Genocide – A Realist Perspective. International Crimes Strategy Forum, 2008. Print.
Weber, Jacques. “THE WAR OF BANGLADESH: View of France.” World Wars and Contemporary Conflicts, No 195.1999, pp. 69-96.
Whyte, Mariam, and Jui Lin Yong. Bangladesh. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2010. Print.
Genocide is the systematic destruction of peoples based on ethnicity, religion, nationality, or race. It is the culmination of human rights violations. There are numerous examples of genocide throughout history, some being more infamous than others. For example, Hitler and the Jewish Holocaust is probably the most well-known case of genocide in modern history. There are other cases that are not as well known, especially in our American culture where, historically, we tend to focus on the atrocities of others and ignore our own. One such case is Native American genocide by European colonists, and later, the United States government. The purpose of this blog is to objectively examine a few of cases of genocide against Native American peoples, by European settlers and the United States government, and understand why they occurred.
Thanksgiving, a traditional holiday in the United States, would not have been possible without the Algonquian tribes that befriended early English and Dutch settlers in the New World. In fact, many early 17th century European settlers died, in the first few years of colonization, due to starvation and disease. Turkey, pumpkin and Indian corn are three traditional foods of Thanksgiving were actually introduced to the Pilgrims by the Algonquians. Initially, some of these foods were foreign to the struggling European colonists. However, over the course of several years, the colonists learned how to survive in their new environment with the help of their Native American neighbors. The first Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest festival, with ninety-one “savages” in attendance, who gifted the Pilgrims with five freshly killed deer, as their contribution to the festivities. The Pilgrims were impressed with the deer, one noting that it would have taken them (the colonists) a week to hunt five deer, yet the “savages” accomplished this in one day (Heath 82). The Pilgrims viewed their Native American neighbors as “savages” due to ethnocentrism and a worldview based on natural law, or a natural hierarchy based on God’s design. This hierarchy is a Eurocentric philosophy placing the white man as superior and other races, such as, Black, Asian and Native American as inferior.
In the following years, as the alliance between the colonists at Plymouth and their Native American neighbors grew, social conflicts began to erupt. The death of Captain John Stone was the first misunderstanding between the Pequot, a neighboring tribe, and the Puritans. There was a failure in justice, as the Puritans saw it, as they wanted the Pequot responsible for Jones’ death to face English law, rather than allow the Pequot to administer justice themselves. Also, one must take into account how the Pequot were viewed by the Puritans as “savages”. This affected how the Puritans interpreted the actions of the Pequot and their place in God’s plan. These views were first reinforced through ignorance of medical knowledge. The pandemic of 1617-1619 killed many Puritans as well as Native Americans, and served to reinforce a worldview based on religious mysticism rather than objective knowledge. Neither the Puritans nor the Native Americans understood how disease was transmitted. This lack of knowledge made it difficult to comprehend their susceptibility, due to a compromised immune system, to foreign microorganisms. The Puritans being affected by the New World microorganisms and the Indians succumbing to European microorganisms brought by the colonists fostered distrust, accusation, and death (Cave 15).
The Puritan worldview consisted of two parties: God’s party being white; Satan’s party being dark, heathen and doomed. The New World was a spiritual battleground, and it is amazing that peace lasted as long as it did, with war being the primary vehicle of God’s deliverance and justice, in the Puritan mind. In short, the Pequot War was a war of misunderstandings and natural law, in which the Puritans were righteous and justified, while the Pequot were heathens, soldiers of Satan, and inhuman (Cave 18). The Pequot War lasted almost a year, from 1636 to 1637, with both parties being experienced warriors. In the end, the Pequot were defeated and this relatively short, small-scale conflict served to justify the killing of Native Americans by creating an image of untrustworthy savages that were plotting to destroy those doing God’s work in the New World. This became the bedrock of American frontier mythology (Cave 168).
The Pequot were not the last Native American tribe in New England to suffer what the Puritans believed to be divine mandated justice. The Narragansetts and the Wampanoags, once friends of the English in the early 17th century, both discovered, before the end of that century, that the Puritan conception of God’s providential plan for New England left no room to assert Native American autonomy. Such assertions were an offense to the Puritan sense of mission. As the population ratio between the English and the Native Americans in New England shifted in favor of the English, the Puritans authorities became increasingly overbearing in their dealings with their Native American counterparts. Puritan Indian policy, from its inception, was driven by the conviction that if Puritans remained faithful to their covenant with God, they were destined to replace the Indians as masters of New England. By the end of the 17th century, economic changes, such as the declining importance of the fur trade and the expansion of English agriculture and industry, effectively reduced the need for Indian commerce, further jeopardizing the status of Native American communities in New England (Cave 174).
The intolerance of Indian cultures reflected essential elements of the Puritan worldview as a struggle between heathen savagery and Christian civilization. Puritan ideology was founded on three premises, which later translated into vital elements of the mythology of the American West. The first was the image of the Native American as primitive, dark and of evil intent. The second was the portrayal of the Indian fighter as an agent of God and of progress, redeeming the land through righteous violence. And finally, the justification of the expropriation of Indian resources and the extinction of Indian sovereignty as security measures necessitated by their presumed savagery (Cave 176).
By the 19th century, this mythology began to reflect itself within Unites States governmental policy, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The United States went through a major reorientation in race relations during this time. The growing abolition movement led the way to the sectionalism of the Civil War and the consequent emancipation of the slaves. This dramatic transformation in racial policy did not include the Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles), who were considered “the most civilized tribes in America” because of their adoption of the agricultural system of their white neighbors, including the institution of black chattel slavery (McLoughlin xii). By 1838, the Cherokees were forcibly expelled from their ancestral homeland and relocated to the Oklahoma territory, by way of what is now known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee tried to prevent this and maintain their sovereign “nation” by adopting a constitution, based on that of the United States, to govern their own land under laws and elected officials. At the same time, the sovereign state of Georgia was attempting to abolish the Cherokee Nation and incorporate the Cherokee under their own laws. Andrew Jackson became president in 1828 and one of his first priorities was to resolve this issue.
Jackson, being a slave owner and a renowned Indian fighter of the Western frontier, sided with Georgia, supporting states’ rights to supersede treaty rights. The issue was brought before the Supreme Court twice, once in 1831 in Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia and again in 1832 in Worchester vs. Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall described the Cherokees as “a domestic, dependent nation” and he proclaimed the unconstitutionality of Georgia’s laws, asserting that federal authority overruled states’ rights regarding Indian treaties. However, Jackson had already persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that made it virtually impossible for any eastern tribe to escape ceding its land and moving to “Indian territory”, west of the Mississippi River (McLoughlin 2). It is worth noting that, in modern times, these acts would be violations of U.N. Charter, Article 1.2 which asserts, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”.
Thus, in 1838, the Cherokee were forced from their land and “escorted” west. The trip was estimated to take eighty days, but some of the contingents took almost twice as long due to inclement winter weather, unrelenting sickness because of exposure, and dangerous ice flows while crossing the Mississippi River. Before the Cherokee left on this epic trek, almost 1,500 had died from epidemics in the camps they were housed in; another 1600 died on the journey. As a result of their weakened condition, along with the absence of housing and food, many more died soon after reaching their destination. The United States government had guaranteed supplies for the Cherokee’s new home, for a year after their arrival, but rations were hired out to private contractors who made extra profits by providing less than they had agreed to supply. Oftentimes, what they did provide was rotten meat and moldy corn and flour (McLoughlin 7).
In current times, the Dakota Access Pipeline represents another affront to Native American sovereignty and further marginalization of Native American peoples; in this instance, the Sioux tribe located in Standing Rock, North Dakota. There are two primary issues the Sioux have against the pipeline: The pipeline will contaminate drinking water and damage sacred burial sites. Originally, the pipeline was designed to go through Bismarck, North Dakota but was rejected by the citizens there because they didn’t want to risk contaminating their drinking water. The ensuing Standing Rock protests that took place, after the pipeline was redirected through Sioux land, arguing they deserve the same rights and considerations as the citizens of Bismarck.
Throughout American history, the treatment of indigenous Native Americans has violated numerous articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These violations resulted in the loss of numerous Native American homelands, the Cherokee being only one example, and the genocide of numerous other smaller tribes since the beginning of European colonization. This is largely due to Eurocentric ideals, like the natural law of the Puritan worldview, which elevates the status of European peoples over that of indigenous, Native American peoples through a biased worldview. This mindset is so pervasive and powerful that it still prevails today, evidenced by modern films and television that paint Native American tribes as savage, ignorant and of ill intent toward the “white man”, and the policies of the current United States government. These governmental policies have resulted in the alienation and marginalization of Native American peoples throughout American history. These violations include the removal of Native Americans from their traditional homeland to reservations, oftentimes very far away from their ancestral lands, and in many cases, the genocide of Native American tribes altogether. The violations were masked in the form of “treaties” between indigenous tribes and the U.S. government, though these treaties were often a choice between the survival of a tribe or their complete and utter destruction. In short, the Native American tribes were never in a position, or held enough power, to ever guarantee a fair deal with the U.S. government in these negotiations. The result of this imbalance of power and lack of respect manifested itself in the form of genocide and the loss of human rights, and their homelands, for many indigenous peoples of North America.
Cave, A. A. (1996). The Pequot War. The University of Massachusetts Press.
Heath, D. B. (1963). A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Corinth Books, Inc.
McLoughlin, W. G. (1993). After the Trail of Tears. The University of North Carolina Press.
The nation and people of Tibet are hardly on anyone’s radar during most of the year because the atrocities here remain overshadowed by the happenings in other places like Syria or Sudan. Ven. Geshe Lhakdor, translator to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and directory of the library of Tibetan Works and Archives, lectured here last Tuesday. Using the Compassion in Exile DVDas the basis for this blog, I will shed light on the plight of Tibetans.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has systematically eradicated the people of Tibet since 1950. The invasion of Tibet by the PRC army, under the guise of liberation, took place in 1950 because of its natural resources, wealth, and geopolitical high ground; an invasion meant the doubling the land mass for the Chinese empire. Sixteen year-old Tenzin Gyatso assumed leadership responsibility of the Tibetan people, culture, and traditions as the 14th Dalai Lama. For eight years, he attempted to protect the Tibetan identity. However, in 1959, the intimidation tactics and brute force of the Chinese, overtake the land and push the Tibetans–known for their peaceful and gentle nature–to flee to India.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader and head of state of the Tibetan people. He is also a refugee. Living in exile in Dharamsala, India with millions of Tibetans desirous of the maintenance and preservation of their identity, he is the source of their hope. The flood of refugees continues into India where the people can practice religion, maintain culture, and glean from their cherished leader. A faithful followers says, “When His Holiness fled to India, it was as if the sun went down in Tibet… we were living in darkness.” His manner is one of humble laughter. His thoughts are on the consciousness; many believe he is the incarnation of compassion. He is a man seeking to fix thing. Tendzin Choegual, his younger brother, claims, “His Holiness has moral power, which the world used to have before but, right now it is overshadowed by political power. And whatever he does it is based on goodness of maximum number of human beings; so it’s based on altruism.” Michael C. Davis assigns peaceful resistors as a characteristic of the people and government. Tibetans, following the example of His Holiness, are nonviolent and compassionate people despite their oppressive struggle. He asserts the notion that many indigenous cultures, particularly Tibet, sustain periods of repression, resistance, and resilience as they pursue identity.
The PRC signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (DRIPS) in 2007. Articles 1-3 of DRIPS guarantees autonomy, self-determination, and the right to enjoy all human and fundamental freedoms. Tibet has a government in exile. An exiled government possesses the power of governing and leading, but has no authority to legitimacy because there is no territory over which to govern. For more than 50 years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama symbolizes resistance to an authoritarian regime. This nonviolent protest spawned a “conspiracy of silence” that generated rejection of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a political leader, for more than 30 years. The conspiracy of silence–fear of Chinese government backlash if/when recognizing the people, traditions, and culture of Tibetans—created a vacuum of turning a complicit blind-eye, allowing China to continue the human rights atrocities against the Tibetans. “Our only hope is to rely on the outside world, and people from free countries”, the Dalai Lama revealed.
US Foreign Policy has participated in the conspiracy of silence, yet a change seemed to arrive in the early 90s. During a 1991 visit to US Congress, the Dalai Lama pronounced, “Here I enjoy the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, and the freedom of movement. When I was about 15, I lost that freedom”; freedoms identified within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they are universal, inalienable, and indivisible. Kent Wiedemann of US State Department Head of the China desk, stated, “Official US policy has consistently regarded Tibet as a part of China, although an autonomous region within China. We have no evidence at this point that the Chinese government is engaged in any policies or any actions aimed at wiping out the Tibetans, or in short, reflecting apolicy of genocide, either against the Tibetan people themselves or against their culture.” When asked about self-determination for the Tibetan people, he stared blankly at the camera before smiling without an answer. No country possesses a policy of genocide. Genocide, as noted in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. When reflecting on genocide, most people know of and point to Rwanda, Cambodia, and the Holocaust. The filmmakers attribute genocide to the behaviors of the Chinese towards the Tibetans, while the international community has not. Ellen Bork, in her 2012 article, “Will Washington Take a Stand”, questions Washington’s commitment to the plight of the Tibetans because of its relationship with China. She argues that the past is a representation of the future when it comes to the US’ failure to champion Tibet against China.
Rhoda Howard-Hassmann stresses there are three key contributing elements in the complex subject of human rights: criticism within the field, identity politics and their expression, and the volatile nature of violations as a precursor to genocide. First, criticism is located, specifically, in the habit of denying the universality, indivisibility, and interdependent nature of human rights. Second, identity politics, particularly in terms of a Western versus non-Western dichotomy, utilizes time as the unseen factor to frame the past, the present, and the future. Lastly, genocide is a byproduct of the symptomatic human rights violations, compounded by criticism and inadequate remembrance of time. The combination of these components permits the complication of Western and non-Western human rights discourse to fail in recognizing rights as universal. This failure, she contends, leads to habitual and unaccountable violations, that if unchecked, have the potential to manifest in genocide.
“Each time I talk of what I saw in Tibet, I have to be in tears.” – Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Human rights violations began following the Dalai Lama’s visit with Chairman Mao Tse-tung in China, first in the form of religious prosecution. At 19, His Holiness argued for the fate of Tibet. Mao believed religion was poison and damage for the country, plaguing the population and potential material development. The Chinese sought to destroy religion through the destruction of monasteries, which were also schools and universities, libraries and hospitals. The goal was to abolish the depths of understanding that comes from training the mind. His Holiness affirms that Tibetan Buddhism is not simply about the religious aspect but the technique of training and settling the body and mind, as a method and tenet that can benefit humanity. One believer cries, “Although the Chinese say there is freedom of religion, they don’t allow us to practice our faith.” The practice of Tibetan Buddhism is safe outside of Tibet.
In the film, His Holiness cites two things–immeasurable human rights violations in the form of torture, beatings, and killings, and population transfer in the form of birth control—as most pressing for Tibetans. Imprisonment and torture is the judgment for Tibetans expressing a strong cultural identity. Rape is a weapon of intimidation against Tibetan women and girls, and sterilization as a means of forced birth control, including on women pregnant in their final trimester. Additionally, due to the decimation of monasteries, Tibetans parents, living in under occupation, often send their children over the Himalayas into India in order to have a chance at living in freedom and gaining an education. In an effort to continue cultural identity with a modern understanding of the world, school lectures consist of music, drama and philosophy, in addition to the rituals and religious ideals of Buddhism. It is a similar education path to His Holiness, who achieved his degree while leading a nation under occupation.
Fang Lizhi in a 1991 speech remarked that Tibetan culture continues to survive because of the resilience of the people, and a mutual respect “between fair-minded people” on a personal level, though not on a political one. “Even though many Tibetans see the Hans as being responsible for the destruction of Tibetan culture and religion, mutual respect is still strong on a personal level… we all want democracy. We both need democracy and human right if we are to find a way to live together peacefully, but something more is needed.” He continues by explaining the positives and negatives of nationalism, stating that commonality is located in a true comprehension of nationalism. Negative nationalism is suppressive, extremist, and leads to distrust and hatred, while positive nationalism is cohesive, cooperative, and leads to dialogue.
To Davis, the window for dialogue is closing on the Chinese. In March 2008, Tibetan demonstrators and rioters “offered a middle way” in the form of Tibetan Memorandum that sought negotiation for the restoration of independence and autonomy. An uninterested China refused to come to the table, arguing, “Tibet has always been an inseparable part of China”. Bork points out self-immolations have brought attention to the plight of Tibetans, providing a measure of symbolic and unwavering commitment to the restoration of Tibet. “China’s policies have provoked rather than crushed Tibetan resistance”, she proclaims.
Masahide Tsujimura states when His Holiness retired from politics in 2011, a unique expression describing the unity of polity and compassion was coined. Chos srid zung ‘brel has several definitions but ultimately boils down to the duality of religion politics manifest through compassion and nonviolence. “To the Dalai Lama, nonviolence and compassion are synonymous… Compassion is one of the most important concepts of Buddhism as a ‘religion’…[he] considers that compassion is common to all religions, and that everyone can be compassionate because no one wants to suffer. Compassion is also a ‘secular’ concept that implies mutual tolerance and respect for all faiths, as well as for those of no faith.” Tina Lauer points out political activism among second-generation Tibetans is seemingly second nature, some seeing it as a means for both preserving culture and identity, and cultivating commonality. Additionally, unlike their parents or grandparents, many second-generationers respect the Dalai Lama as a man—a political peacemaker like Mandela or Gandhi, rather than a ‘god’. The nonviolent ethic of Tibetans challenges the international narrative of normative strategic power-grabs without compromising their personal integrity,religious beliefs, and cultural identity.
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