The Rise in Anti-Asian Violence – An Event Recap

No More Hate
“No More Hate.” Source: Creative Commons

On Wednesday, March 31, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Peter Verbeek, Associate Professor in Anthropology and peace behavior scholar, to the Social Justice Café. Dr. Verbeek facilitated a discussion entitled “The Rise in Anti-Asian Violence.”

Dr. Verbeek began by recounting several of the vicious attacks leveled against Asian-Americans in recent weeks. Apparently stemming from the hateful rhetoric and blame-casting around the origins of the pandemic, the nature of the attacks on Asian-Americans listed by Dr. Verbeek included various forms of physical and verbal assault, discrimination, and homicide. After hearing of the horrid assaults that have been perpetrated against Asian-Americans there was an uncomfortable pause in conversation as participants digested the magnitude of the reality and the necessity of standing in solidarity against anti-Asian violence. Looking back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Preamble, which reads “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” Dr. Verbeek explained how these attacks constitute a violation of the basic human rights of persons of Asian-descent. He reminded participants that “peace is an ongoing process” and that while pursuing peace, we will constantly face challenges and uncomfortable situations.

Dr. Verbeek then began discussing the mass murder that occurred in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021. At this point, participants began to share their personal experiences with discrimination and racism. This particular part of the conversation was guided by participants of Asian descent that were extremely candid while sharing their experiences. Many of the stories shared during this segment were heartbreaking and utterly disturbing. One participant expressed how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their level of discomfort and fear of being in public spaces. The participant was more afraid of being attacked while being in a grocery store than they were of contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus. The participant also stated they have greatly altered the manner in which they travel in public by wearing heavy clothing, hats, and sunglasses in an attempt to be less noticeable. Hearing the firsthand experiences, fears, and obstacles faced by men and women of Asian descent was a somber but important lesson for all.

In discussing how to support the Asian-American community during this time, Dr. Verbeek commend the actions of UAB faculty, specifically citing Dr. Kecia M. Thomas’ call for unity and understanding following the mass murder in Atlanta. One participant questioned the power in mass statements calling for unity and how we, as a community, can conceptualize the idea of peace and unity and apply those principles. Dr. Verbeek acknowledged that anti-Asian hate and violence in the United States stems from the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The hatred and violence experienced by Asian people in the United States is not new and will continue to evolve. Dr. Verbeek found statements of solidarity to be valuable and a necessary tool used to introduce new audiences to the ancient history of white supremacy and oppression of minority communities in the United States.

Stop Asian Hate Protest Sign
Stop Asian Hate Protest Sign. Source: Shutterstock

While discussing mobilization and peaceful activism, a participant asked for advice on how they can better communicate and motivate those in their sphere of influence to become active and speak out against anti-Asian violence and discrimination. The participant’s request for advice was answered by a fellow participant. The advice included the tips to “first be gentle with yourself” then “be gentle with others” meaning, when engaging with others their level of understanding and outrage may not match yours, and this is ok. Be patient and understand that when introducing people to new ideas and concepts the gestation period will vary and to always be gentle with self-criticism. In conclusion, a participant offered a final call to action for all participants to continue to “educate, help organize, and raise awareness” and to continue to advocate for the protection of human rights domestically and globally.

Thank you, Dr. Verbeek and thank you everyone who participated in this eye-opening discussion. The Institute for Human Rights at UAB’s next event, “Pursuing Justice with Love and Power: A conversation with Brittany Packnett Cunningham,” will take place April 6, 2021 at 4:00PM (CT). Please join us and bring a friend!

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

Why Feminism Needs To Be An Anti-Racist Movement

March 8th was International Women’s Day. When I woke up that morning and started scrolling through Instagram, I saw all my friends and family recognizing the burdens that women face and celebrating their strength and existence. Then, I saw a post about Meghan Markle, a Black woman who is also the Duchess of Sussex, and the very racist comments that have surfaced after her interview with Oprah. A week later, on March 13, was the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Breonna Taylor’s family still hasn’t received justice for her murder. The sexist and racist language surrounding Taylor’s death was despicable. Last week in a mass shooting, six Asian American women were killed directly related to the anti-Asian rhetoric that’s been happening since the emergence of COVID-19 and the racism that’s been normalized towards Asian communities. The irony of the situation seemed inescapable in light of the celebratory month. Women are supposed to be uplifting other women, especially Black women. Malcolm X said that, “The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” and the past year has shown us that. Just like it’s shown us that it’s all women of color whose needs will be ignored and whose bodies will be violated. As a fellow woman of color and a feminist, I know I exist at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression: white supremacy and patriarchy. I believe that we can’t be feminist, unless we are also antiracist.

Source: Informed Images (flickr.com)

Feminist Theory

Mainstream feminist theory has been criticized for centering the needs of white women and largely ignoring the needs of women of color, or assuming that their needs are the same. This has led to White women speaking on behalf of all women, as if it’s a situation of one size fits all. It’s not. Similar to how the reproductive justice movement became based on the needs of middle-class white women, the idea of “sisterhood” within the feminist movement also catered to similar populations. Due to this, it’s not surprising that even though we have, Black, Indigenous, Mexican, and Asian feminists, their platforms and voices are often ignored and suppressed in preference to white women. Even when gender and race oppression are acknowledged and discussed, information pertaining to gender oppression is only highlighted from the perspective of white women. Racial oppression and systems of resistance are most often told from the perspective of men of color, further negating the very specific experiences of women of color.

Black women and women of color are not only told that they belong to lesser genders, but that they are of lesser races. The experiences of white women who have experienced oppression is unlike the experiences of women of color. There is no parallel, because the intersectionality of their identities compound on each other to equate a sum that is greater than oppression from any individual source. These experiences of discrimination are attributed to race, gender, class, or all three. Not only are women of color experiencing this unique combination, but they are also aware that they are being marginalized from multiple avenues; avenues that don’t oppress white women or other men of color.

Source: Yahoo Images (brewminate.com). Portrait of Maria Stewart-the first Black feminist abolitionist.

The anti-racism movement has been far more socio-politically active than the feminist movement. Black women were key figures during the abolitionist movement, fighting for womanhood denied to them as enslaved persons. While Black men were in the media spotlight, it was Black women who were running the show from behind the scenes of the civil rights era from raising funds, community and grassroots organizing, and mobilizing followers. As such they were key activists for antiracism, allowing them to secure their roles in the gender inequality movement. But the work of these Black women in the civil rights movement has been ignored and forgotten, in leu of men who often held sexist beliefs on gender norms and equality.

Feminism as an Antiracist Movement

Feminism needs to be an antiracist movement, because there is a need for a political movement that highlights the intersection of race and gender oppression. Yes, white women have been mistreated. Yes, they have faced oppression, but it’s important to recognize that for women of color, this discrimination and mistreatment is doubled and quadrupled. If we can free Black women, dismantle the patriarchy, and white supremacy, all women will be free. Only when we address white supremacy and systems of violence that benefit the white man, can we truly start to change the other related systems of power and oppression.

How can you help?

  • Continue to raise awareness and fight for Breonna Taylor.
  • Listen to the experiences of Black women and women of color around you. Come from a place of empathy. White women need to decenter and rid of themselves of the white savior complex. Their activism needs to happen because it’s the right thing to do.
  • Address the need for intersectionality when talking about race and feminism.

The Death Penalty is Inhumane

One of the best things that my 12th grade high school teacher encouraged me to do was to read and watch Just Mercy, a book written by Bryan Stevenson and a film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Both the film and book allowed me to greater understand the importance of confronting injustice, while also standing up for those wrongly convicted.

An image with the words "Just Mercy" and "Bryan Stevenson"

In the United States, about 43% of all executions have involved people of color, 55% currently awaiting the death penalty, all while only accounting for 27% of the general population. When comparing defendants, one fact to note is that “as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.” According to the ACLU, “a system racial bias in the application of the death penalty exists at both the state and federal level.”

But what exactly is the death penalty? What are the different forms of capital punishment and arguments for and against them?

What exactly is capital punishment?

Britannica defines capital punishment as the “execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense,” meaning that this type of punishment would be reserved for the most dangerous of criminals.

The death penalty has been present in societies for hundreds of centuries, dating all the way back to before the establishment of Hammurabi’s Code in 18th century BC. Hammurabi’s Code laid the foundation of the death penalty for 25 different crimes; placing emphasis on theft between two groups of people. Hammurabi’s Code also established punishment as equal to the crime committed, as known from historical references as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” These types of punishments were often cruel and included crucifixion, burial alive, impalement, and others.

Notable forms of Capital Punishment throughout History and Today

The Guillotine

The Guillotine, one of the older methods of execution, was introduced in France in 1792. This device fixes the head between two logs with a heavily weighted knife suspended a couple of feet in the air. This method of execution was introduced to make the process of execution “by means of a machine,” making it “as painless as possible.”

Notable figures executed by means of the guillotine as King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette for crimes against the French people.An image of a guillotine, with the blade and a basket where the head is supposed to be kept.

Hanging

Carried out in countries in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, hanging is defined as suspending someone in the air as a form of execution. Death either occurs through decapitation or through strangulation, depending on the length of the rope compared to the weight of the prisoner.

Lethal Injection

Lethal Injection consists of an anesthetic alongside chemicals used to paralyze the prisoner and stop the heart. This form of punishment exists in China and Vietnam.

Surprisingly, the United States also uses the lethal injection, with the most recent execution taking place on September 24th, 2020. “Christopher Vialva was sentenced to death for the 1999 murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley.” Vialva’s execution was the 1,526th in the United States since 1976, 10th in the federal system, and the 1,346th person executed by means of lethal injection.

Although the injection is designed to kill ‘quickly’ and ‘smoothly,’ inexperience on the part of prison staff has flawed the execution process. One case in particular is that of Dennis McGuire. Reports show that after the injection was administered to Dennis McGuire, he gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes; much longer than the time that previous injections have taken to execute someone, before dying.

Electrocution

Execution by electrocution occurs when a prisoner is strapped to an electric char with a “metal skullcap-shaped electrode” attached to their scalp or forehead. Following these actions, the prisoner receives a jolt of electricity up to 2000 volts for up t o30 seconds, until the prisoner is dead.

Electrocution is a method of execution carried out in the United States, with the first electrocution taking place at Auburn Prison in New York against someone who was convicted of murdering “with an axe.”

Why the Continuation of the Death Penalty Creates a Gray Area

Today, “more than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment.” Countries today that still have the death penalty range from countries with large populations under authoritarian rule, with the United States being the outlier as the only democracy with it in place.

An image of the world map highlighting countries that have abolished and retained the death penalty as of 2006.
Death Penalty Laws Over The World 2006.

According to the Embassy of the United States of America, capital punishment still exists due to the inability of the federal government to dictate laws to the states. Although the United States has been one of the foremost leaders in reforming capital punishment, other countries have had an easier time in abolishing it by “national governments imposing top-down reform because they decided the death penalty was no longer necessary or legitimate.” And since the Constitution allocates criminal law to the states, only they can repeal their own capital punishment laws. The Supreme Court is the only national-level body capable of declaring capital punishment unconstitutional.

Around the world, many consider implementing the death penalty a violation of human rights, especially those that require states to recognize the right to life, as shown through Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Life is a Human Right.” Although intended to curb violent crimes and atrocities committed by criminals, the loss of life through the death penalty violates “the right of life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” which the death penalty unfortunately promotes.

Although many international organizations and countries have abolished the death penalty, like many countries of the Global North save the United States, a case can arise where the death penalty is justified, shown through Bangladesh’s approval of the death penalty for rape. With a viral video showing a group of men sexually assaulting a woman, Bangladesh’s cabinet quickly approved “to incorporate the death penalty for all of the four types of rape defined under Bangladeshi law.” Though detracting from the real problem, that rapists are normal people and not animals, the passage of the death penalty seems just, since there has been a violent outrage at the lack of enforcement on sexual violence in this part of the world.

Moral arguments for the death penalty put quite simply, is the concept of retribution, where the killing of one person justifies the death of the killer. However, opponents of this notion would counteract that point with the fact that issuing capital punishment detracts from the moral message it conveys, alongside the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane.

Despite these arguments, the inhumane action that is the death penalty cannot go unchecked. With the death of Dennis McGuire, for instance, these processes are not clean and fraught with mistakes leading to the disgusting and horrific death of inmates.

“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century” – António Guterres

Overall, the “death penalty is not a useful instrument for combating crime.” Abolishing the death penalty in the United States can allow other countries to ensure the right to life for all people, while also ensuring that the absolute worst of punishments cannot be enforced differently based on a person’s status, color, race, or underlying distinctions.

“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” – Amnesty International

COVID-19 vaccine disparity in Israel and Palestine

Since the middle of November, COVID-19 cases have hit record-highs for the pandemic across the world. Countries around the world are pushing to get healthcare workers and the general population vaccinated to ease the burden of increased cases on health systems, economies, and citizens. The logistics of obtaining and delivering the vaccine have proved a slow, arduous task in many countries across the world. 

However, Israel has reported success in rapidly vaccinating health care workers and the general population. At the end of December and early January, Israel reported that it had administered vaccines to around 17% of the population. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel has secured enough vaccines to have all Israeli citizens vaccinated by March 16th of this year. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared, “We will be the first country to emerge from the coronavirus. We will vaccinate all relevant populations and anyone who wants to can be vaccinated.” He went on to say that Israel will be a “model-nation” for how to exit the coronavirus.

A man walks down the street during the Bnei-Brak Coronavirus shutdown in Israel
Source: Amir Appel, Flickr

A significant portion of Israel’s borders is made up of 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Israelis within the defined borders of the state number at 8 million, making Palestineans comprise 39% of the population. Israel occupies the West Bank, meaning most of the territory is under the control of the Israeli government. Gaza Strip has been blockaded, and the Israeli government controls all resources entering and exiting the area. However, Israel has no plans to vaccinate any Palestinians even though they are inoculating residents living in Jewish settlements in occupied territory. They sight the Oslo Peace Accords from the 1990s, saying that Palestine is responsible for their own healthcare. So far, the only Palestinians that have received any vaccines are those living in East Jerusalem, since they have Israeli residency and access to Israeli healthcare. 

A view of the West Bank, Palestine
Source: archer10 (Dennis), Creative Commons

Within Israeli territory, Palestinians have carried the higher burden of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita. Of the people who get COVID-19 in Palestine, 1.1% will die from the disease. In Israel, this number is 0.7% due to better access to higher quality healthcare. Israel has begun to give vaccines to medics, nurses, and doctors working in the 6 Palestinian hospitals, but they were not available until the past few weeks. Vaccines are still unavailable to Palestinians with high-risk health conditions and those over 65, even though all Israelis over 40 are now eligible. 

A woman gets her first COVID-19 vaccine
Source: Joint Base San Antonio Public Affairs, Flickr

The human rights body of the United Nations has released a statement saying that it is Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to provide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. There has been a huge inequality in vaccine distribution between Israel and Palestine, and the people of Palestine need vaccinations like those in the occupying power of Palestine. 

UPDATE (March 29, 2021):  According to BBC News, in early March, Israel decided to start offering the vaccine to the some 130,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem or coming to work in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In other parts of the West Bank and in Gaza, the situation continues to be very bleak – infections are rising, new restrictions are being imposed, and vaccination efforts have been much slower to start. The Palestinian authorities have begun administering vaccines supplied under the international Covax vaccine-sharing scheme, which is intended to help poorer countries access supplies, and the UAE has donated 20,000 doses of the Russian-made vaccine to residents of Gaza. There is some argument over who is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians, with Israel pointing to the specification in the Oslo Accords stating that “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West bank and Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side, including the health insurance system.” On the other hand, the United Nations issued a statement saying that according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel (the occupying power) is “responsible for providing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.” In any case, now that the vaccine is in greater supply, Israel has begun including Palestinians with work permits in the vaccine rollout.

Biden’s Human Rights Agenda – An Event Recap

Joe Biden
Source: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

On Tuesday, February 2, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Robert Blanton, Professor and Chair of the Political Science and Public Administration Department at UAB, to our second Social Justice Café of the semester. Dr. Blanton facilitated a discussion entitled “Biden’s Human Rights Agenda.”

Dr. Blanton initiated the conversation by stating that the 2020 election of Joe Biden is a “welcomed return to hypocrisy [as it pertains to human rights in the United States].” The return to hypocrisy represents the reality of political figures making promises, and then failing to turn those promises into human rights policy. The very notion that President Biden has presented a Human Rights Agenda is a staunch contrast when compared to his predecessor’s lack of clear and defined Human Rights protective goals. Dr. Blanton suggested that President Donald Trump was not a hypocrite in regard to his approach to Human Rights. President Trump simply didn’t make attempts to address Human Rights violations domestically or internationally.

In an interview with the New York Times, then former Vice-President Joe Biden stated, “When I am president human rights will at the core of US foreign policy”. Dr. Blanton finds the President’s continued foreign policy rhetoric surrounding international and domestic issues to be interesting, and he cautioned participants to pay close attention to how human rights violations will be addressed within President Biden’s first one hundred days in office. Following this statement participants began discussing specific Executive Orders signed by President Biden that are innately Human Rights focused. Participants discussed the outcome of the Bostock Case and how President Biden’s decision to reinforce this Supreme Court decision with an Executive Order is a promising sign of the President’s commitment to preserving Human and Civil Rights. The Bostock Case prohibited employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Participants then suggested other topics they felt needed further attention from the Biden Administration, such as systemic racism, xenophobia, and COVID-19 response.

Moving forward, one participant was curious if “legislation would be passed in relation to women’s rights to reproductive health?” This discussion centered around how we classify issues within the United States and how this classification affects the seriousness and legitimacy of an issue. The participants came to the conclusion that women’s reproductive rights could potentially receive more congressional and national support if it is framed as a domestic and international health issue rather than a human rights issue. Dr. Blanton was adamant that the manner in which we categorize issues is a major factor in whether or not those issues receive solutions.

When further discussing how policy is enacted within the United States, one participant noted that “local cities and NGO’s often make larger impacts in the fight for social justice. How important is it that we [American citizens] have a Presidential administration?” A large majority of participants appreciated this question; however, they agreed that within the confines of the United States Constitution the continued election of an executive president is necessary to the maintenance of the country as a whole. Some felt the issue of private prison regulation would be best handled by the executive office. In response Dr. Blanton stated, “Private prisons exhibit overt violations of human rights” and that he did not disagree that private prison regulation should have a place within President Biden’s Human Rights Agenda.

In his final remarks, Dr. Blanton offered this quote: “Presidents are victims of events.” His point was that Joe Biden’s presidency will be governed according to the trials and complications his administration will unquestionably face within the next four years. President Biden’s administration will have to make a conscious effort to not allow the events of the world to overshadow their Human Rights Agenda.

Thank you, Dr. Blanton, and thank you everyone who participated in this stimulating discussion.

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

 

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause. 

Prisoners of Conscience

Recently, upon landing at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, avowed critic of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 embezzlement charge. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that that trial had been politically motivated and resulted in an unfair conviction. The arrest came as no surprise; Navalny had made clear that he expected to be arrested when he returned home to Russia. Still, the Russian government’s blatant repression of one of their loudest critics inspired outrage and disappointment from around the world.

Photo of Alexei Navalny
Navalny in 2014. Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta. Wikimedia commons.

Navalny had been taken to hospital in Germany in after he became very ill aboard a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20th and nearly died. He was in a coma for over two weeks before making a remarkable recovery. The German government in September determined with “unequivocal proof” from toxicology tests that Navalny had been poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. In December, investigations by The Insider and Bellingcat with CNN and Der Spiegel implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service in the attempt on Navalny’s life. Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been a target for criticism by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation for years, called media reports that he had ordered Navalny’s poisoning a U.S. backed plot to discredit him. Putin suggested that Navalny was not important enough to be poisoned, adding “[i]f someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off.”

Amnesty International last week added Navalny to its list of prisoners of conscience as a result of his arrest. Commenting on his detention, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office director, said, “Aleksei Navalny’s arrest is further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him. His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest levels.”

Protests in response to Navalny’s arrest and the widespread corruption amongst Russian political leaders erupted January 22nd. As of when this was written, over three-thousand our-hundred protestors had been arrested, including Navalny’s wife, lawyers, and more than twenty-five known associates. Most are being held without charge. In Moscow, more than fifteen-thousand protestors gathered and endured temperatures as low as negative fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.

Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia
Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia. Associated Press / AP Photo / Dmitri Lovetsky. Fair use.

Prisoners of conscience are those who are imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views, as well as those under persecution for the nonviolent expression of conscientiously held beliefs. The term was coined in 1961 in an article The Forgotten Prisoners by Peter Benenson, a lawyer and activist who founded Amnesty International. Today, Amnesty International is actively campaigning for the release of around one-hundred fifty documented prisoners of conscience, although the number of people who meet the definition is certainly much higher than that. Amnesty International figures that there are “likely thousands more”. Currently, Russia, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Belarus have the highest number of known, documented prisoners of conscience, although information about political prisoners is sometimes heavily restricted, particularly in China and North Korea. It is likely that there are dozens, if not hundreds more prisoners of conscience in these countries alone.

Last year, Amnesty prisoner of conscience Rubén González was released after being held since 2018 on charges that he had “insulted” the armed forces in Venezuela. González had been acquitted in 2014 after a five year trial for organizing a strike. While he was imprisoned, he was the only civilian prisoner in the military wing of the La Pica prison in Monagas. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, criticized González’ conviction and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention characterized his imprisonment as arbitrary. Amnesty International’s campaign for González’ release is representative of their work across the globe, showing that international condemnation is an effective tool against the incarceration of prisoners of conscience.

In Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer who has twice been arrested for her campaigns both for opposition candidates and for women’s rights. In 2010, Sotoudeh was charged with spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. The Washington Post characterized the arrest as emblematic of “an intensifying crackdown on lawyers who defend influential opposition politicians, activists, and journalists.” During her first imprisonment, Sotoudeh staged three hunger strikes, with two of them lasting four weeks and seven weeks respectively. In 2018, Nasrin was arrested again, and charged with espionage, dissemination of propaganda, and disparaging the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. For this, she was sentenced to five years.

Accurate information about prisoners of conscience can be hard to come by, because the states that are more commonly imprisoning people for ‘thought crimes’ are also the states more likely to be highly suppressive of reports about their human rights abuses. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience range from absolutely none, reported by the Ministry of Interior, to thirty-thousand reported by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the BBC. In addition to their arbitrary detention of political activists, Saudi Arabia has also been heavily criticized by human rights bodies for their prolific use of capital punishment, including against people who were children when they were accused of crimes. In 2016, Ali Sa’eed al-Ribh was executed, despite the government admitting during trial that he was under the age of eighteen at the time of his alleged crimes. Because Saudi Arabia is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are legally required to ensure that no one under the age of eighteen at the time of a crime is sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release. Currently, several young Saudis are awaiting execution, including Ali al-Nimr, who was seventeen, Abdullah al-Zaher, who was sixteen, and Dawood al-Marhoon, who was seventeen when they were arrested. In addition, in 2017, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj’s death sentence was upheld on appeal for crimes committed when he was sixteen. All of their crimes relate to anti-government protests.

Photo of Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul. Creative Commons.

In 2018 and 2019, Saudi Arabia came down heavily on feminist activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018. al-Hathloul is known for her campaigns against the driving ban, and has been detained many times previously for offenses such as driving a car and appearing on camera with her face and hair uncovered. For the first several months of her detention, she was not allowed to contact her family or lawyer. al-Hathloul was subjected to beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, and sexual abuse. During her first trial in March of 2019, she was charged with “promoting women’s rights, calling for the end of the male guardianship system, and contacting international organizations and foreign media.” Saudi Arabia has, over the last decade or so, made some purely performative and milquetoast changes to their repressive policies. In 2017, King Salman decreed that women be allowed access to some government services without the consent of a male guardian. The case of al-Hathloul and others show without a doubt that nothing substantive has changed. Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most repressive powers in the world — for women, for activists, for critics of the regime. All of this from a country that we, in the United States, continue to support economically and diplomatically. And, for the last four years, have only become closer with.

The plight of prisoners of conscience around the world should be a priority for any freedom loving people and all freedom loving states. Amnesty International continues to do important work to bring awareness to and win freedom for political and ideological prisoners. Hopefully, governments that believe in liberty will start to hold each other accountable and unite against states who do not. Until the last prisoner of conscience is freed.

Further reading:

Who Are Prisoners of Conscience?

List of Designated Prisoners of Conscience

 

“On the Pursuit of Equity” – An Event Recap

Ajanet Rountree
Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On Tuesday, January 19, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Ajanet Rountree, UAB Alumna and Ph.D. student at George Mason University, to our first Social Justice Café of the new year. As part of the King Week activities coordinated by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Ajanet hosted a discussion on “Dr. Kings Perception of Equity”, where she led participants in a conversation about several lesser-known but very important excerpts from Dr. King’s writings.

Dr. King is often misquoted and a large portion of his speeches and writings are excluded when discussing the rich complexity that exists within Dr. Kings work. Ajanet was meticulous in her selection of excerpts from Dr. Kings sermons, interviews, and literary works to be discussed during the Social Justice Café.

In response to Dr. King’s notion that  The real problem is that through our scientific genius weve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius weve failed to make of it a brotherhood.”Ajanet asked participants to evaluate how they define and establish brotherhood within their personal lives. During the initial discussion participants were also asked to think about the things they value and surprisingly, none of the participants seemed to list brotherhood as one of their primary values. Ajanet then directed participants back to the original quote and reiterated that Dr. King was a staunch advocate of brotherhood. He believed without brotherhood the American people will not be able to truly unify and heal.

Moving forward, Ajanet shifted the focus of the conversation to Dr. Kings views on freedom. Ajanet asked participants to articulate their definition of freedom and how those definitions fit within current American culture. At this point in the conversation, Ajanet introduced Dr. Kings interpretation of freedom in America and the reality that there exists two separate Americas. Dr. King said, This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” While discussing the existence of two Americas, participants began to discuss the events that took place at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Ajanet concurred that the attack on the United States Capital was an exact dramatization of the existence of two Americas.

The lack of unity, understanding, and brotherhood that Dr. King warned about has caused a widening of a major subdivide within American culture. Ajanet used the words of Dr. King to express the importance of pushing legislation that protects the lives and rights of minority citizens. According to Dr. King, The law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.” Sadly, the presence of love for ones brother and safety often do not exist within the same space.

The final topic of dissection within the Social Justice Café was how the participants can engage in dismantling the asymmetry that exists within America. The discussion began with Ajanet displaying two questions: What will it take for whites to relinquish power?” and Is that an aspect of personal freedom and collective justice?” The conversation around the second question was interestingly skewed amongst the participants. Some felt the dismantling of American asymmetry is a personal responsibility of the individual and should not be addressed through the lens of collective justice. Ajanet concluded by offering some final sentiments, namely that when examining the thoughts of Dr. King, it is imperative that we understand that Dr. King fully supported the unification of the American people, and that Dr. King envisioned a harmonious society built with equity and justice.

Thank you Ajanet and thank you to everyone who participated in this stimulating discussion. The next Social Justice Cafe will take place on Tuesday, February 2 at 4:00PM (CT), and we will be discussing Biden’s human rights agenda. Please join us next time and bring a friend!

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis Rages On

by Mariana Orozco, UAB student

In March 2016, The European Union and Turkey made an agreement stating Turkey would keep all asylum seekers who arrived on the Greece border in return for billions of dollars. This deal has put many asylum seekers at risk due to the dangerous environment in Turkey. However, this continues to be accepted and there are no signs of change in the future due to Greece’s incomplete assessment of Turkey as a safe third country. In February 2020, Turkey retracted their statement, saying they would not stop refugees going into Europe. Turkey is the country with the most refugees – 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Since the Syrian government started bombarding their citizens with air strikes, no other European country has tried to host Syrian citizens. When Turkey finally opened its borders into other European countries, the asylum seekers were met by armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets, and razor wires. Turkey opened its borders to force the European nations to stop ignoring the crisis in Syria. If the international community does not step in more unarmed civilians will continue to face violence in Syria, and the situation in Turkey will worsen.

Photo of makeshift tent at refugee campsite in Turkey
“Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey” by Fabio Sola Penna; Source: Creative Commons

What is the status in Turkey?

Turkey has been home to over 3.7 million refugees, providing them with free public services, health care, and gainful employment; there are many obstacles Syrian refugees have to go through to get these. For example, Turkey adopted a work permit in 2016, but they must be requested by employers, who are often unwilling to cover the costs and face the administrative hurdles of hiring a refugee. As a result, most refugees work in low-paying jobs, such as jobs in small textile workshops and construction.

Furthermore, Turkey does not sign off on international refugee law. Therefore, they do not allow many refugees to obtain legal status. Many Turkish authorities also force the refugees to go back to Syria, leading them to want to flee to a safer place regardless of the conditions, such as Greece. 

Greece’s Response to Turkey Opening Borders

Greece has broken European Union and international law. The government is suspending the registration of any asylum claims and deporting anyone for any reason something that goes against Geneva’s Convention on Refugees. The core principle states that a “refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”  Close to 40,0000 migrants are being held in camps with short food supply, poor sanitation, and tensions with locals. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency did urge Greece to address its overcrowding and precarious conditions, not much has improved. Once refugees arrive, they are not allowed to leave until their asylum requests are processed, leading to the 90,000 cases backlog.

Image of a refugee camp in turkey; dozens of makeshifts tents on a field
“Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey” by Fabio Sola Penna; Source: Creative Commons

What about the rest of the European Union?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned NATO allies and European allies that if they “do not share the burned with us, we will open the gates” . President of the European Commission described Greece as Europe’s shield in migrant crisis. They also proposed financial and material support to prevent people from entering Greece, because once they do they will continue to spread in Europe.

What should Happen next?

Europe should take a new approach to safeguarding the human rights of refugees and start sharing the responsibility for allowing them to live in dignity and peace. Many of the people leaving their countries do it out of desperation, and European governments need to ensure asylum seekers have fair procedures. Also, they must control border control and unlawful acts by authorities. Instead of hoping that the problem goes away by having migrants go to different places, the European Union needs to address the reasons why people are fleeing Syria.

Poland’s Rise in Populism

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) became the majority in the Polish Parliament alongside the presidency for the first time since 2007. The Law and Justice Party is a right-winged populist party that has faced ongoing controversy and scandals since its formation in 2001. The Law and Justice Party began as a center-right party with an emphasis on Christianity.  The party began forming coalitions with far-right parties in 2007, which positioned its ideology closer towards nationalism and populism. During the last few years support dwindled for the PiS; however, their messages calling for family unity and Christian values have appealed to deeply religious sectors of the country. A country that is trending towards nationalism and populism risks violating the rights of those that the nation deems as “other”. By establishing a national identity, particularly around religion, they are also establishing those that do not belong to the national identity. This carries the risk of isolating and ostracizing individuals.

Protestors march for LGBTQ rights in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

The Polish identity is tied very closely to Catholic beliefs and practices. Around 87% of Polish people  identify as Roman Catholic. In Poland Catholic values are taught in public schools, over ⅓ of Polish citizens attend church regularly, and the Polish government has an intense working relationship with the Catholic Church. Public ceremonies are often held with the blessings of priests, and church officials often act as a lobby group having access to large amounts of public funding. Priests in the countryside of Poland often campaign for members of the more conservative party who support legislation that aligns with the ideals of the Catholic Church. This close relationship is criticized because of the archaic and often divisive legislation that the Church tends to support. The Catholic Church’s alignment with the government will inevitably ostracize those who are not Catholic as well as those who live their life in a way that the Catholic Church condemns. The issue is at a governmental level, this allows for discriminatory policy to be passed.

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

The support of the Catholic Church was paramount in the Law and Justice Party candidate winning the 2020 Presidential election. President Duda, the PiS candidate, narrowly won re-election after a very divisive campaign against the progressive Mayor of Warsaw.  President Duda exploited negative rhetoric citing LGBT ideology as being more destructive than Communism. Poland’s history of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation accompanied with this rhetoric led to the success of President Duda in the 2020 Presidential election. PiS members and Catholic Clergymen asserted LGBT values as being in opposition to family values and sought to associate the LGBT community with pedophilia. President Duda’s narrow win ignited mass unrest spreading throughout Polish cities as progressives viewed his win as a step back for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.

President Duda of Poland meets with President Trump of the United States (Source: Creative Commons)

LGBTQ Free Zones

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric did not begin in the 2020 Polish elections. Over 100 towns and regions around Poland have declared themselves LGBTQ Free Zones since 2018. These declarations are largely symbolic; however, they have further divided the country and suppressed the LGBT community. LGBTQ free resolutions have been pushed by the Catholic Church and politicians across Poland. Protests against these zones have resulted in mass countermarches of right-wing Poles that have ended in violence. The LGBTQ community has continued to face oppression from their government and these zones just serve as a way to further disenfranchise them.

“Stop Financing LGBT+” Sign hanging outside a building in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

Access to Abortion

Along with the anti-LGBT legislation, Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of strict regulation of abortion. Poland previously had regulations only allowing abortion access to victims of rape, incest, preservation of the mother’s life, and if the baby has fetal defects. Legal battles erupted in 2019 by the Law and Justice Party to ban abortions in the event of fetal defect. Judges nominated by PiS members ruled in favor of a ban of all abortions due to fetal defects, which account for approximately 98% of all Polish abortions. The decision led to outcry across Poland inspiring protests in almost every major city.

 What is the future of Poland?

The future of Poland is unknown, and it is clear the Polish government has become increasingly populist and nationalistic. Public figures are using rhetoric that divides the general population from “western elites” and activists within their country that seek to strive towards more encompassing human rights. Polish activists are fearful of future legislation that will further violate human rights. International human rights activists, the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have all attempted to pressure Parliament to pass legislation showing outward support of the LGBTQ community. Polish officials responded claiming LGBTQ people have equal rights in the country and organizations should instead focus energy on Christian discrimination taking place internationally. As part of the international community, we can demonstrate our support for the people of Poland by staying up to date on what is happening there. It is also important to create dialogue around the issues in Poland which can include everything from social media posts to organizing events that bring awareness to the situation.