A Wonderful World Withering Away: Crude Oil, Cruelty, and the Climate Crisis

I wanted to include a visual image of how much impact oil spills can have.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an oil spill over a body of water that caused a fire to break out.

As gas prices continue to skyrocket in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, many people are feeling the impacts of our global reliance on nonrenewable resources and reconsidering the pros and cons of our collective consumption of these natural resources. Many nations are worried about how their access to natural resources is closely related to the foreign relations and policies they support. Others, like Germany, see this as an opportunity to relieve their dependency on nonrenewable resources as a whole, and to transform their societies to use greener, more sustainable, renewable resources, such as solar and wind energy. As climate change continues to be a growing threat to the future of humanity, transitioning our societies and our infrastructure to support and even incentivize the use of renewable resources can serve the purpose of not only combating climate change but can also create new job opportunities worldwide. To comprehend the need to shift to a more sustainable society, we need to focus on the details of the oil development process. This includes the development, transportation, and distribution of the oil products, and how oil wastes are managed. Examining these issues more carefully can help us better understand how these processes impact the environment around us. The oil and gas industry is responsible for countless environmental and human rights violations, and their practices and international influence have horrifying consequences. It is crucial, now more than ever, to realize just how dependent we are on this resource, how that dependency can lead us to make flawed foreign policy decisions, and why that can have irreversible consequences on the future of mankind.

Crude Oil and the Environment

Crude Oil Extraction and Development

I wanted to provide an image of some of the technology used in oil extraction
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the oil development infrastructures, like the oil rig in this image.

The process of developing and refining oil is a complex one, in which the crude oil is separated into many different products throughout the process. Crude oil is separated into gasoline, diesel, petroleum, jet fuel, and even propane gas, to name a few. To explain a complex process simply, oil development infrastructures are built near sites rich with natural oil and gas, and this infrastructure drills the resources out of the ground in an extraction process. The extraction process, after the initial extraction of the resources, also includes the practice of fracking. The process of fracking includes the use of fracking fluid, made up of water, sand, and chemicals, which are injected back down the drilled site forcefully, in order to extract any remaining amounts of oil and gas hidden inside of rocks. The extracted oil, known as crude oil, is then processed in various ways to refine the crude oil into petroleum products. Crude oil goes under a distillation process, where it is heated up in a furnace and distilled in a tower that separates the various products based on varying temperatures and density and is treated in special vacuum units and cracking units to deliver the final set of products. The special vacuums help separate the various products based on temperature and density, and the cracking units alter the molecular weight of hydrogen atoms to form the final products. Each barrel of crude oil can produce about half a barrel of gasoline, a quarter of a barrel of diesel fuel, a tenth of a barrel of jet fuel, and the rest can be refined to be used as other petroleum products.

In this part of the oil development process, one of the most environmentally impactful practices is the process of fracking. This process has harmed both the environment and its residents, and in this way, can have long-term consequences. It includes the possibility of fracking fluids leaking into groundwater, or surface water, and polluting these sources with cancer-causing chemicals. Also, the process of fracking alone requires tremendous amounts of water to extract the last bits of oil and gas trapped inside rocks. In this way, fracking is not only polluting the underground and above water sources, it is also using the remaining clean water for the fracking itself. Since the rise of fracking practices over the past few decades, even American residents who live in places such as Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with health concerns and having access to clean water due to fracking practices in their community. These are all consequences of simply one part of the oil development process. Once the oil is developed, how is the waste from the process managed?

Managing the Waste from the Oil Development Process

I wanted to visually portray some of the real consequences of irresponsible disposal of waste.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of an unlined sludge pit, where the wastes from the oil development process are being stored without a barrier between the waste and the soil. This can lead to polluted groundwaters and aquifers, as well as cause soil pollution.

Following the extraction and refinement of the crude oil, the wastes that are derived from this process, which is a mixture of water, minerals, chemicals, oil waste, and the toxins released from the process, are required to be treated, stored, and disposed of in specified ways outlined by regulatory legislations. These requirements maintain that the oil waste referred to as sludge, is to be treated so that hazardous chemicals are removed from the sludge, stored in safe areas, (such as above-ground pits that are lined to prevent the wastes from seeping into the soil or the groundwater), and disposed of in secure, underground landfills with specific disposal instructions.

Failure to adhere to the safe disposal of these hazardous wastes can cause environmental, physical, and social harm. Even during the disposal process, including treatment of hazardous waste, storage of the sludge, and safe disposal of this waste, pose incredible risks to both the environment and the health of both the employees and the local residents exposed to this waste. Hazardous waste is generally treated through various methods, like incinerating the waste, which leads to greater air pollution in nearby areas. These chemicals in the air can then be breathed in by employees, or can even be carried to nearby civilian populations, increasing the risks of respiratory illnesses among its citizens. As with the case in Ecuador, (explained below), some oil and gas companies have been reported to store these wastes in unlined pits, and incinerate them in the open, instead of in an enclosed, controlled environment. These corrupt practices further cause respiratory issues for local residents in the area.

Water is also used throughout the oil development process, and because it contains chemicals and toxins that have mixed in with these products, the leftover sludge is supposed to be treated and disposed of with extreme caution at the end of the process. In order to do this, massive pits are dug up and lined in the ground, where the sludge is stored until it can be treated and disposed of. Not doing so can endanger the surrounding environment, as the sludge can leak into the ground, polluting the soil and rendering it infertile for plant growth. It can also seep into nearby streams and rivers, polluting drinking water used by local populations and the area’s species alike. Similarly, although many nations have strict laws on the books requiring oil companies to store waste in lined pits, many wind up storing the sludge in unlined pits, polluting the nearby waters, and leaking oil sludge into the soil. This not only impacts the ecosystem that depends on the soil and the nearby water sources but also prevents the polluted soil from being used for agriculture, impacting the local food security.

I wanted to showcase how oil spills impact wildlife and marine life.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a pelican covered in oil. This is an example of what happens to the wildlife that encounters oil spills.

Additionally, people who use those streams for recreational purposes, end up developing skin rashes, cancer, and other health issues. When disposing of hazardous waste, if it is not done properly, or if the waste begins to seep into the earth, it can continue to accumulate and pollute our lands and waters. Furthermore, because of the longevity of these hazardous chemicals, if they contaminate our groundwaters or aquifers, they can be very hard to treat, and the water can stay contaminated indefinitely. These chemicals can even accumulate in the species that use these waters for nourishment, and as a result, bioaccumulate inside humans through the web of consumption. Throughout the process of treating, storing, and disposing of the sludge, oil companies attempt to extract and reuse as much of the exploitable oil from the process, attempting to recycle as much of the resource as possible. Even though this process of recycling the resource is less wasteful, it still ends up adding pollutants into the atmosphere and environment and impacting the lives of all the organisms sharing the land and its resources. Although we have been exposed to the countless impacts oil development, and oil waste treatment have on the environment and its life forms,   the transportation of oil poses risks that are equally horrifying.

Oil Transportation and Distribution

I wanted to include this image to show how dangerous it can be for the local residents if there are leaking pipelines. The massive lengths of these pipelines increase the damage their leaks can do.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image showcasing how long and disruptive pipelines can be to the environment, and some of the potential hazards from defective pipelines

The dangers that come from the irresponsible handling of oil and gas do not only pertain to the development of the oil products, or the disposal of their waste. The oil can pose grave dangers to the environment through the process of transporting refined goods, either by land or across the seas. Pipelines have been constructed to transport oil domestically and they run along hundreds of miles of populated land putting the residents near these pipelines at risk. Many protests have broken out against the building of new pipelines. One such example is the protests that broke out against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to be built over the Ogalala Aquifer, a source of water for residential and agricultural use that serves millions of Americans living in nearby states. Many people opposed the pipeline being built because of the danger of oil spills polluting one of the main sources of drinking water for people in this area. These pipelines can also cut across the migration routes used by many species that reside in those areas, injuring, or even killing many organisms that travel these routes and further jeopardizing the biodiversity of the impacted areas. Biodiversity is an essential element to the survival of all life forms on Earth. Each organism plays an important role, (no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to us), to maintain the functionality of various ecosystems. Part of the dangers posed by this threat to biodiversity comes from the fear of losing keystone species, ones that play a fundamental role in the existence of certain ecosystems. Without these players, the entire ecosystem can be altered in disastrous ways, and this would in turn lead to more loss of biodiversity, feeding into a positive feedback loop that helps accelerate the climate crisis.

Furthermore, there are many dangers posed by shipments of oil across large bodies of water, including the possibility of oil spills occurring in the middle of the ocean or large bodies of water, destroying marine biodiversity. Oil spills are not only damaging marine life but are also tremendously difficult to clean up on large bodies of water. This has been a constant issue that the oil industry has struggled with. Some of these massive spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have left the impacted communities with immense consequences. The Exxon Valdez spill was responsible for spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, destroying countless species of fish and marine wildlife, and polluting the waters, impacting the livelihood of the local communities whose economies depended on the marine wildlife. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, was caused by the fracturing of a weak core inside the oil rig. This fracture released natural gas into the rig, and caused an explosion, allowing for the leakage of oil into the gulf. Approximately 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the waters, marking this event as one of the biggest oil spills in American history. Along with the environmental impacts that both these spills brought about, the process used to clean up the oil spill also uses many chemicals that can lead to a number of health issues, including cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, respiratory issues, and even food poisoning from consuming contaminated seafood and wildlife. These health issues impact not only the people that live near these spill sites but also the workers who are part of the clean-up team, inhaling the fumes and toxins from the cleanup process.

I wanted to include this image to showcase just how intense the clean-up process can be after encountering an oil spill.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a clean-up crew, dealing with the aftermath of an oil spill

Environmental Racism and Big Oil

Environmental Racism

After learning about how oil is produced, distributed, and the ways in which oil waste is disposed of, it is equally important to examine who is largely impacted by these practices. As with many other industries that have practices that cause pollution, oil companies have long been accused of being negligent and careless when operating in disenfranchised areas, whether it be domestic, or international. In America, oil infrastructures and waste disposal sites are generally located in impoverished areas, and these areas are largely occupied by people of color, especially African Americans, and Native Americans. African Americans have historically been forced into impoverished and polluted spaces, and forced to work the most dangerous or strenuous jobs. The targeting of Native Americans by these industries is especially cruel due to their spiritual bond with the environment and its many wonders, and their cultural dependence on the environment as a whole. In a similar fashion, on the international stage, the disproportionate exposure from the oil infrastructures seems to be more prominent in poverty-stricken nations, and because the oil companies operating in poor nations have a greater political and economic influence over the governments and their people, they are able to evade the strict environmental regulation policies, endangering the planet, and its people in the process.

The reality of environmental racism in the oil industry, and its negligent practices, may be influenced by historical tones of colonialism and imperialism. Ecuador is one such nation that has been exposed to environmental racism, and one that has been fighting for environmental justice from the recklessness of the oil industry for over twenty years. Ecuadorians have been struggling to hold Chevron accountable for its faulty oil infrastructure, and the consequences to the environment and the local residents as a result of its operations. Commonly referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” the oil development process in Ecuador has had environmental and health impacts that are magnificently larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. During its operation in Ecuador, Texaco, (and Chevron, through its ownership), has been responsible for spilling over 17 billion gallons of oil into Ecuadorian lands, and over 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the local sources of water. The Ecuadorians addressed many of the health issues that were caused by the operation of the oil infrastructure and brought attention to the corrupt practices of Chevron. The Ecuadorians argued that Texaco, (which was bought by Chevron in 2001), had dumped their toxic wastes into unlined landfills and water sources both above and below the surface. Over 900 unlined pits were discovered through the investigation process of the class-action lawsuit filed against Chevron. At times, when the pits were overflowing, the oil company would just spread excess amounts of crude oil wastes onto the roads traversed by locals. Additionally, they argued that Texaco had violated their right to live on their ancestral lands, forcing them to migrate away from the water sources that were crucial for their survival. Furthermore, Texaco’s practices polluted their soils and waterways, endangering their food sources, and destroying the biodiversity of the environment. The Ecuadorians filed a class lawsuit against Chevron, arguing that Chevron had lied about its remediation attempts, (where the environmental damages are addressed and reversed), insisting that Chevron had just covered over large unlined pits with mounds of soil instead of properly treating the wastes. This lawsuit as investigated and processed in Ecuador recognized the pain and suffering of its Ecuadorian plaintiffs and rewarded them with a $9.5 billion settlement from Chevron. Instead of paying this settlement, Chevron has continually tried to downplay its egregious acts and has been attempting to shift the attention from the Ecuadorian lawsuit, to propose unfounded claims of corruption during the trial process in Ecuadorian courts. Chevron’s response to this lawsuit has been a massive overreach of corporate influence over the judicial process, in which they have been attempting to control the outcome of the lawsuit against them. Chevron’s latest attempts at influencing this outcome have been to harass human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who worked on the Ecuadorian case against Chevron.

The Ecuadorian case is just one example out of many that exist around the world. Poorer nations are exploited for their resources and their cheap labor, and exposed to harmful chemicals and the pollution of their air, waters, and lands, slowly killing off the inhabitants of the Global South, or leaving them behind with multiple health issues and contaminated resources. These negligent actions are impacting the immediate areas of oil development but also wrecking the livelihood of its inhabitants nearby. Although the impacts of the oil industry’s practices are so widespread, because of its scope and political influence on the global stage, Big Oil continues to exploit vulnerable populations without much regulation or accountability.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how easily freshwater sources and groundwater sources can be polluted by the process of extracting, transporting, and irresponsibly disposing of oil sludge.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a river polluted from an oil spill

Big Oil and its Impact on International Affairs

Big Oil, referring to the massive influence the oil and gas industry has worldwide, is largely responsible for the public belief that oil and gas are necessary resources for human survival, and as a result, holds a great deal of influence over policies both domestic and abroad. There are many reasons behind Big Oil’s power, and its massive wealth (and its access to resources as a result), allow the industry access to political leaders (and policy decisions) throughout the world. Some of these oil companies have more money than the financial capabilities of entire nations. For example, according to Business Insider, Chevron, alone, has enough wealth to rank as the 46th largest nation in the world. They have more wealth than the GDP of the Czech Republic.

Along with this massive wealth, comes an immense amount of political power, especially since these oil companies have access to markets worldwide, and rely on the vulnerabilities of Global South nations as a cheap labor source. Big Oil companies are usually multi-national companies, where they have access to global markets, and due to the sale of highly valued resources such as oil and gas, these companies also have immense influence over how regulatory laws are created in economically vulnerable nations. In exchange for the host nation’s connection to the global market and an increase in job opportunities, these companies, like other multi-national companies, employ locals for a cheaper labor force, under loosely regulated conditions, to maximize profits. In this way, nations with harsher environmental regulations, predominantly Western nations, and even within them, communities with more environmental oversight (predominantly wealthier communities), are less vulnerable to the predatory ways of Big Oil.

To maintain this global influence, Big Oil has helped launch and has funded campaigns against climate change. Many of the think tanks that propose “evidence” to debunk climate science is funded by Big Oil. These climate deniers have transformed the climate issue from an existential crisis that requires global cooperation to a controversial issue, delaying the much-needed global actions to stop climate change from destroying the planet. In this way, big oil controls the geopolitical policies among nations, and because of the global dependence on these resources, Big Oil has immense control over the climate discourse and the global struggle against climate change.

What Can We Do?: Releasing Big Oil’s Global Stronghold

There are various levels at which this issue can be addressed. Globally, all nations need to shift from an economy that depends on nonrenewable energy sources, to one that is more sustainable and greener. This means transforming our infrastructure to support renewable sources of energy, preserving what little biodiversity we have left, and engaging in a global remediation project to possibly reverse some of the effects of climate change. On the international stage, the United Nations needs to establish a system that is in charge of regulating multi-national corporations and holding them accountable for instances of human rights violations, such as exploitation and environmental racism, and propose an environmental rights charter in the same way we have charters on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), like Amazon Watch, are bringing attention to the exploitations and environmental degradations of the Amazonian Rainforest, and its impact on the local residents. Supporting such organizations can be a start. We can also pressure our representatives and political leaders to vote on greener legislation and denounce subsidizing oil companies. Additionally, we can urge our lawmakers to help shift the society and economy to support a more sustainable future. This can only be done by holding policymakers accountable for their campaign donations, urging them to refuse campaign funding from Big Oil companies, which can influence their loyalties on policy positions. We also need to be in favor of bettering our infrastructure and public transportation systems. Doing so would allow us to be less reliant on oil and gas for private consumption while improving our public transportation systems to provide better access to all those living on the outskirts. On the state and local levels, we can pressure our school boards to include teaching environmental science in the core curriculums. Doing so would introduce younger generations to living more sustainable lives, and in the process, establish the global realities and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. There also needs to be more discussion about instances of environmental racism and how best to combat it with social policies. Finally, if you want to make personal changes to your lifestyle instead, you can do your part by paying attention to what’s going on around you. You can stand up for the plight of those who are being forced to deal with environmental racism by educating your friends and family. Also, you can make incremental changes to your behavior to transition your lifestyle into a greener, sustainable one.

 

Worldwide consequences of the Russian occupation of Ukraine

I wanted to include this image to portray some of the realities of what Ukrainians are facing.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine being attacked

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has devastated both nations, with the people of Ukraine struggling to defend their homes against the more advanced Russian military, the people of Russia struggling financially in the face of global sanctions, and has spread anxiety to many nations of the possibilities of another world war, or even worse, the escalation into nuclear warfare. While there is a lot of coverage regarding the many attempts at diplomacy, the bombings and other military attacks on Ukraine, and the reactions of both Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, as well as Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, there are many consequences of this crisis that need to be brought to attention. It is important to focus on the impact of this crisis on the civilian populations of both nations and equally important for people to recognize that this crisis, along with similar crises around the world, is further fueling the climate crisis, even without the threats of nuclear warfare dangerously being dangled as an option. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces of resistance are essentially complex; on one side, ordinary Ukrainian citizens should be honored for their bravery and resistance at defending their nation from foreign invasion, but on the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that the Ukrainian military also includes the Azov Battalion, the neo-Nazi Special Operations unit in the Ukrainian National Guard. These are some delicate times, and transparency can help increase the trust among nations. Just the same, in the wake of this crisis, the world should not ignore the other brutalities taking place globally, many of which have participated in egregious violations of human rights. Finally, it is pertinent that people be aware of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia and hold them accountable.

The Human Impact

I included this image to show how the same location from the previous image looked prior to being bombed.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine’s nightlife to capture its beauty before Russia’s invasion

While this crisis is a result of drastic measures taken by Putin and as a response to Putin’s aggressions, Zelensky, the civilian populations are the ones that are most impacted by it. On the one side of the conflict, Russian civilians are facing tremendous economic struggles, as sanctions are being placed on Russia from countries throughout the world. Among those who placed sanctions against Russia were the European Union, Australia, Japan, and even the famously neutral Switzerland. The European Union promised to cause “maximum impact” on Russia’s economy, some states like Japan and Australia chose to sanction the oligarchs and their luxury goods, and the United States sanctions included a freeze on Putin’s assets. With that being said, it is important to analyze how these sanctions can harm everyday Russian citizens. Civilians are lining up at ATMs and banks to withdraw their cash as stocks are plunging and the Russian currency, the Ruble, lost its value by 25%. Many Russian-made products are being boycotted around the world, and even Russian participation in events like the Paralympics is being banned. Russian citizens are unable to access their money through Google Pay and Apple Pay, as both have been suspended in Russia. For fear of Russian propaganda, the United States has even banned Russian media outlets from having access to the American people. Furthermore, even amidst these sanctions and economic uncertainties, Russian civilians have risked their lives to protest against their leader and the Ukrainian invasion in large numbers. When the invasion first began, 2,000 Russian protesters against the war got arrested by the Russian police. Almost two weeks into this invasion, as the protests continue to take place, as many as 4,300protesters have been arrested. Shockingly, many of the Russian soldiers sent to invade Ukraine have been reported abandoning their posts, fleeing or voluntarily surrendering to the Ukrainian forces, admitting that they were not even aware they were being sent into combat. These Russian soldiers, many of whom are inexperienced, young adults, are being forced to fight or be assassinated by their officers for abandoning their military posts during active wartime.

Nevertheless, as a result of Putin’s aggression, on the other side of this conflict, Ukrainians are being forced to deal with the devastations of war, and the people of Ukraine are fully invested in the defense of their nation. Ordinary citizens are being taught how to make Molotov cocktails, civilians are coming together to help each other meet their basic needs and anyone capable of fighting is being recruited to join the Ukrainian defense forces. Unfortunately, Ukraine has banned 18 to 60-year-old men from leaving the nation and forcing them to join the fight. This wartime crisis has also led to a massive refugee crisis as women and children and people of other nations are trying to escape the conflict zones. This refugee crisis has its own issues, with reported instances of discrimination against refugees from the Global South fleeing Ukraine. These reports focus on the mistreatment, harassment, and restriction of the refugees from leaving Ukraine to seek safety. Additionally, while the global solidarity to support Ukrainian refugees is admirable and should be commended, many critics have argued that Ukrainian refugees have been better received from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in general, while refugees from the Middle East or other Global South nations have not been treated with the same courtesy. These are some valid points to consider, and the refugee crisis is only going to be amplified as a result of the many consequences of climate change.

Warfare and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to insist on how important climate change really is.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the world in black, engulfed in a fiery background. The world is on fire and steps need to be taken to combat climate change.

Climate change continues to impact the world during this crisis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates just how fragile our current climate crisis seems to be, exclaiming that anthropogenic (caused by humans) climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters, and warming up the globe around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The planet is already experiencing irreversible changes, the IPCC warns, and if actions are not taken to limit emissions and combat the climate crisis, the future of humanity is at risk. Additionally, another finding was reported about the Amazon Rainforest, (popularly dubbed the “Lungs of our Planet”), being unable to recuperate as quickly as it should due to heavy logging and massive fires it has experienced just over a couple of decades. These shocking revelations should be taken seriously, as this development will lead to more conflicts over land and resources. As people around the world are beginning to experience the calamities of climate change, nuclear warfare would maximize its destructions. With Russia being a nuclear state, tensions are surmounting globally, as nations continue to condemn Putin’s aggressions, and call for a ceasefire. Putting aside the possibilities of nuclear warfare, regular warfare amplifies the climate crisis in many ways.

First and foremost, warfare and military operations have a direct correlation to climate change in that they use massive amounts of fossil fuels to operate their machines and weapons, and militaries are among the largest producers of carbon across the world. This means that not only do militaries and their operations consume massive amounts of fossil fuels, but they are also among the biggest polluters in the world. Militaries worldwide need to decrease their carbon footprints and engage in more diplomatic strategies instead of engaging in warfare. We need to focus on international efforts to combat climate change and transform our economies and infrastructures into sustainable ones that rely on renewable resources. With this in mind, Germany addressed the energy crisis in Europe by suggesting that there needs to be a shift to a more sustainable economy, away from the influences of Russia, with the intentions of also fighting against climate change while becoming economically independent from Russian resources.

Furthermore, Russia, on the first day of its invasion against Ukraine, captured the site of the nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. While many argue that this was a strategic move to provide Russian troops a shortcut into Kyiv through Belarus, (Russia’s allies), others argue that the capturing of Chernobyl was meant to send a message to the West to not interfere. Still, others believe that the capture of Chernobyl held historic relevance, as many believe that the incident at Chernobyl led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever may be the case, it is unclear what Putin’s plans for Chernobyl are, and as an area that is filled with radioactive, nuclear waste, people’s concerns with Putin’s possession of Chernobyl seem valid. If not contained and treated with caution, the nuclear waste being stored at Chernobyl can cause irreversible damages to both the environment and nearby populations for decades. Recently, there have been reports of Russian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia Ukrainian nuclear power plant which caught on fire, increasing the risks of a disaster ten times as bad as Chernobyl was. While we are still unclear as to the details of this report, we do know that Russia has captured it, and at the very least, wants to hinder Ukraine’s source of energy. Ukraine depends on nuclear energy for its electricity, and this plant produced 20% of the nation’s energy. At best, this was a strategic move on Russia’s part, yet some have even suggested that if Putin is so irresponsible with his attacks on a nuclear power plant, how much restraint might he show with regards to using nuclear weapons if he feels pushed into a corner.

Finally, as was explored during the Cold War, nuclear weapons themselves have dramatic consequences on the planet as a whole and have the power of ending humanity. This was one of the major epiphanies that led to the de-escalation of the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that to use nuclear weapons against each other would be “mutually assured destruction.” While many argue that Putin’s instructions to ready Russia’s nuclear weapons is a form of intimidation targeted on the West, these threats can carry out unimaginable consequences if acted upon. With increasing pressures from all sides, including the global sanctions, and the massive resistance from Ukraine, Putin’s incentives are becoming unclear as this conflict continues to unfold.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how complex nuclear plants are and why this plant needs to be approached with extreme caution and an understanding of nuclear power.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl.

The Complexities of the Ukrainian Crisis

There has been a backlash by some that the world was not this enraged when similar invasions and occupations occurred in Palestine, Syria, or during several of the Middle Eastern conflicts that have devastated the people of that region. Still, others have dismissed this argument, stating that what makes this crisis especially relevant globally is its threats of nuclear warfare. Others, however, argue that the global support of Ukraine is in part due to their being a population of white Christians. To support this argument, they point to many instances in Western media coverage of the Ukrainian invasion that has suggested this exact idea. A CBS reporter cried on a news segment, “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is relatively civilized, relatively European….” Even a Ukrainian prosecutor was caught saying “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” This is important to note because Ukraine’s military has a Special Operations Unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is made up of far-right neo-Nazis, sporting Nazi regalia and symbols of White Supremacy. Putin’s many excuses for invading Ukraine included the need to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, referring to Ukraine’s empowering of the Azov Battalion’s rise to military and political prominence in the country. The Azov Battalion came under fire in 2016 for committing human rights violations and war crimes, detailing reports of abuse and terrorism against the civilians of the Donbas region in separatist Ukraine. With that being said, Putin’s excuse of wanting to terrorize an entire nation for the sake of his opposition to one particular group of Ukrainians is not justified, and people argue that his motivations are much more insidious than that. With the Ukrainian crisis being such a complex and nuanced issue, much of the world is focused on the conflict, a reality that many nations are taking advantage of to benefit their own national interests.

Other Aggressions still taking place around the world

I wanted to include this image to showcase that other brutalities continue to take place around the world, and deserve just as much global attention as the conflict in Ukraine
Source: Yahoo Images; A woman holding a Palestinian flag, as Israeli forces continue to occupy Palestinian land.

While the world’s attention is captured by the Ukraine-Russian crisis, some countries are taking advantage of a distracted world to commit their own atrocities. For one, Palestine continues to be colonized by Israel, a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years now. While Israelis are showing solidarity for Ukrainians from occupied Palestinian lands, they are oblivious to the hypocrisy of their actions and refuse to recognize their role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Just a few days ago, Israeli forces attacked and killed Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, and they continue to terrorize the Palestinians in an attempt to force them out of their homes.

In another part of the world, the United States, while calling for peace in Ukraine, proceeded to bomb Somalia in the past week. A conflict that the United States has been a part of for fifteen years now, American forces claim that their intended targets are the militant groups in Somalia. Yet, according to Amnesty International, the US African Command admitted to having killed civilian populations with one of its many airstrikes conducted over Galgaduud in 2018. In fact, they claim that the only reason the US even admitted to the civilian casualties in Somalia was due to extensive research on the part of Amnesty International.

The Ukrainian conflict also has Taiwan on the edge of its seats, as many are focusing on the US response to the Ukrainian invasion to measure the reactions that the US might have if China were to invade Taiwan. Many Taiwanese officials are contemplating Russia and China’s close relationship and are worried about what a successive Russian invasion of Ukraine might mean for their own development with China. The Chinese government is already engaging in misinformation/disinformation campaigns against Taiwan, and many Taiwanese claims that China has also been conducting cyberattacks in Taiwan and military drills around the island.

Resistance and Accountability

I wanted to use this image to showcase Ukrainian resistance agains the Russian invasion
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a man in the motion of throwing a Molotov cocktail

Ukrainians, much to Putin’s dismay, have been successfully defending their nation and holding off Russian forces for over a week now. In response to its successful resistance, Ukraine’s forces claim that the Russian bombings have been targeting civilian buildings and taking the lives of innocent civilians, among them at least fourteen children. As videos of the Ukrainian invasion surface on social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Twitter, many experts are suggesting that the Russians are engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun an investigation into these possibilities. The ICC is focusing not only on recent attacks against Ukraine but seem to also include past Russian aggression against Ukraine in their investigation. These crimes include the violation of the Geneva Convention, the bombing of civilian infrastructures, and even Russia’s use of vacuum bombs, (otherwise known as thermobaric bombs), which are bombs intended to suck the oxygen out of the air in its surroundings and convert it into a pressurized explosion. Although the vacuum bombs have been used in various places since the 1970s, (by Russia against Chechnya in 1990, by the Syrian government in 2016, and even by the United States in 2017 against Afghanistan), experts warn that these weapons can be extremely lethal and destructive in densely populated areas. Along with the above-mentioned violations against human rights, Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian nuclear power plant is added to the list of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia, and it continues to grow as the invasion persists.

Even with these threats and unprovoked aggression from Russia, Ukrainians have been more resistant than Putin had planned. Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to defend their nation, and their enormous bravery is inspiring to witness. This sense of solidarity among the Ukrainian people is, many believe, a direct result of President Zelensky’s own courage and his choice to fight alongside his people instead of fleeing to safety. This action alone has emboldened the Ukrainian morale, and everyone is attempting to do their part in this conflict. People are helping each other out with humanitarian needs like securing food and shelter, and civilians are constructing Molotov cocktails to throw at the incoming Russian forces to stall their advances. Zelensky even released Ukraine’s prisoners and armed them, urging them to fight and defend the nation.  These instances of Ukrainian resistance and unity among other nations of the world give us hope that they have a chance at winning global support against this crisis and bringing about peace and stability in the Ukrainian regions under attack. Considering the real threat of another world war unfolding before our very own eyes, it is important now more than ever, that we approach this conflict as objectively as possible. In order to do so, we have to employ different approaches that we have never before attempted and think outside of the box. With their efforts at resisting the invasion, Ukrainians have inspired me to believe that we as humans might be able to come together globally and perhaps tackle the climate crisis as well and protect our planet in the same manner the Ukrainians are defending their own homes before it’s too late.

International Women’s Day Speaker: Dr. Marisa Richmond – An Event Recap

Dr. Marisa Richmond
Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On Tuesday, March 7, in celebration of International Women’s Day, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB in partnership with the Department of Political Science and Public Administration and Women’s and Gendered Studies welcomed Dr. Marisa Richmond. Dr. Richmond facilitated a discussion on the Women’s Rights Movement.

Dr. Richmond, a trans woman of color and adjunct professor at Middle Tennessee State University, began her lecture by providing a brief synopsis of how International Women’s Day originated within the Communist and Socialist Movements. Dr. Richmond drew inspiration from Abigail Adams as she recounted the words of the former First Lady when she urged her husband, John Adams to “remember the ladies” in a letter she wrote to him on March 31, 1776. Abigail Adams letter was a reminder for her husband as he prepared for the Continental Congress. Dr. Richmond echoed Abigail Adams sentiments throughout her lecture as she continually reminded the audience to “remember the ladies” and participate in all efforts that encourage inclusiveness and diversity.

Dr. Richmond then spoke about divisions within the women’s rights movement and the failure to include women of color and trans women. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution officially granted the right to vote to African American men, but this caused a large rift within the Women’s Rights Movement. Leaders of the feminist movement such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were emphatic in their belief that African American men did not deserve the right to vote before white women. This division within the original women’s suffrage movement lead to the creation of differing women’s rights organizations and even led to strife within those organizations. An event participant asked Dr. Richmond, “How can the inner fragmentation within the Women’s Rights Movement be overcome?” Dr. Richmond responded that we must embrace diversity and appreciate all the positive opportunities presented by adopting diversity principles. The current efforts to exclude trans women and girls from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender in states like Iowa and South Dakota is an example of how divisions within movements will/can occur. Failure of one party to recognize the legitimacy of another is the bedrock of so many domestic and international conflicts of the past and of today.

An event participant then asked, “How can trans youth begin a career in politics?” Dr. Richmond responded by telling them to “Get involved in a campaign!” Dr. Richmond then stressed the importance of local elections such as for positions on the school boards and judges. Dr. Richmond got involved in her first campaign at the age of 12 when her best friend’s mother was running for mayor. Dr. Richmond also added that “if they can pay you, they will and at the very least they’ll feed you.” As a follow up, another participant then asked Dr. Richmond, “How can we address public policy makers with our concerns?” Dr. Richmond responded, “It depends on the policy. I like to bring my personal experience and background into discussions about education. However, something like healthcare, I bring research and documentations. We must focus on taking care of people. I also like to quote the Constitution ‘equal protection under the law.’ If you love the Constitution, we cannot ignore what it says.”

After a hearty discussion varying from women’s rights to public policy the resounding message within Dr. Richmond’s lecture was to “remember the ladies” and always choose knowledge over ignorance.

Thank you, Dr. Richmond and thank you everyone who participated in this wonderful discussion. Our next event, My Right to Live: Rights and Reporting in Long-Term Care will be held on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at 12pm. We will be discussing the rights of residents living in long-term care facilities with Sheree Head, Ombudsman Representative with the Jefferson County Area Agency on Aging. Everyone is welcome. Register here!

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

A Wonderful World Withering Away: A Global Fashion Emergency

I wanted to include this image to portray what we have to loose if we don't fight to stop climate change.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a beautiful sunrise over the mountains and trees

A note about Environmental Justice

Pretty blue skies, fluffy white clouds, majestic mountains breaking through the clouds, birds chirping in the morning fog, the wind blowing your hair gently as you breathe in the fresh, clean air, looking out at the rising sun with its golden rays illuminating the landscape. This is the Earth you and I are used to, and at times, we, as human beings, take it for granted. Yet, we seldom think about the realities and consequences behind our lifestyles, and we seem to think that this planet with all its vast resources will be around forever. Recent studies have projected that this is not going to be the case; in 2019, the UN urged that we only had “11 years left to prevent irreversible damage,” at a general assembly meeting on climate and sustainable development.

I have now been researching and learning about the current climate crisis we live in for at least a couple of years, and I feel that environmental racism and the right to environmental justice are topics more people should be aware of. The uniqueness of this planet and all of its species should be preserved and protected for our future generations. For all the human rights issues we are trying to tackle both domestically and globally, without a clean planet and a sustainable future to live in, things are only going to get drastically worse. Issues that we deal with today like conflicts over borders and resources will be amplified due to the climate crisis. The environment impacts every part of our lives, no matter where we live, and if we don’t act now, the future of humanity is at risk.

About a month ago, UAB hosted a panel discussion with fashionista, author, and activist Aja Barber, where she talked about how fast fashion and our consumer culture have impacted our environment and how the fashion industry exploits the most vulnerable people around the world. She recently wrote a book deliberating the intersectionality between the concepts of fast fashion, climate change, and colonialism, and after having a profoundly insightful discussion with her, I decided that I should do more to bring attention to the many ways our planet is being exploited by industries of all kinds.

So, in an attempt to bring more attention to the ongoing environmental crisis, I will be writing a series on topics related to environmental justice for the next few blogs, where I will be focusing on practices of environmental racism and the fight for environmental justice throughout the world. While this blog, focusing on fast fashion and climate change, will be the first in the series, I will also be writing about other industries (such as the oil industry and Big Tech), that have exploited both the planet’s resources and its people.

Fashion Through the Ages

I wanted to include this image to showcase that these horrid conditions existed in the US, along with child labor, until regulations were passed, outlawing child labor and improving working conditions.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a young girl working in a textile factory. Pictures like this taken by Lewis Hine helped make the case for child labor laws.

Before we dig deep into the realities of fast fashion today, we must understand the historical context behind fashion as a whole. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, clothes were produced by hand, and with painstaking details that showcased the skillsets of the talented local seamstresses. These clothes were produced inside the home by the women (or the female servants) and in some cases, at small local workshops. Many of the rich fabrics like silk and satin were very expensive, and as a result, these fabrics could only be afforded by wealthy families. The access to fashion that we see today is largely indebted to the Industrial Revolution, which brought about new inventions that mechanized the process of making garments, which led to the rise in industries of fashion, like the textile industry. Although clothing manufacturing became easier and cheaper for mass consumption, the modern consumer culture was not introduced until the 1920s, when the American economy shifted to produce goods based on the demands of the market and it wasn’t until the 1960s, when the American middle-class was growing and demands for affordable goods increased, that the trends of fast fashion developed into the behemoth we know today. At this time, Americans were fighting for better working conditions, better wages, and to end child labor, and the exploitive nature of the massive industries was exposed by muckrakers and other activists. Corporations and industries, including the textile industry, were competing with a growing demand for cheap goods and wanted to continue to make their profits while refusing to compromise on their labor practices. So instead, they began the process of moving their manufacturing industries overseas, to nations in the Global South, to continue to sell their products at a low price while exploiting their workers abroad. Many of these textile factories exist in places like India, Bangladesh, China, and nations in Africa. As recently as 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia is being sought as the new frontier for textile manufacturing. As the fashion industry encourages more fluctuations in the trends and styles of today, we as consumers continue to indirectly help perpetuate the industry’s exploitative behaviors with our purchasing habits. Before we examine the colossal impacts of fast fashion on the environment, we must take a closer look at some of the working conditions in these textile factories. Understanding the process of handling these fabrics and chemicals can help us comprehend the consequences to the workers’ health and the environmental consequences as a whole.

Textile Industries and Human Rights Violations Abroad

I wanted to include this image to showcase the low wages that textile workers receive for their work, while the products they produce sell for prices almost 100 times more than their wages. These profits end up in the pockets of the company leaders.
Source: Yahoo Images; Two young women wearing similar outfits holding signs, one with a sign that says, “I made this for $0.60”, and the other holding a sign that reads, “I bought this for $50.”

The industries of America that moved their businesses to other “developing” nations did so with clear intentions. While America had established labor laws that regulated worker safety in these factories and had passed a federal minimum wage, corporations decided to set up shop in countries that were struggling economically and had no real power to speak out against their practices. Textile companies, like other corporations, are forever looking for cheap labor, in order to sell their products for cheaper, competitive prices, and as a result, take advantage of the most vulnerable populations of the world. Knowing that they will work any job, no matter how taxing, no matter how dangerous it is, corporations that have factories in other nations will impose their expectations on the people, and if they get any opposition or are presented with unwanted regulations by the host nation, they just close up shop and move to another equally vulnerable country. This gives the corporations an immense amount of power over their workers, and as a result, puts the employees at the mercy of their employers.

I wanted to showcase some of the working conditions of garment workers.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting garment workers at sewing machines.

The garment workers working in these textile industries are forced to work long hours (14-16 hours a day), in a toxic environment (both physically and psychologically), and get paid wages that are so low, that it is impossible to survive with these incomes. They seldom get any days off, and if the workers miss a day, they are easily replaced with another desperate worker in places with high unemployment rates. Garment workers also have to breathe in toxic chemicals they use to treat and dye the clothing, with poorly built buildings with little to no ventilation. Additionally, they are under the constant anxiety of being injured, either on the equipment or from accidental fires. Furthermore, the employees are seldom given timed lunch breaks, and many are forced to work without water or bathroom breaks. Even heartbreaking is the fact that in many of these host countries, child labor has not been outlawed. Many children end up working in these textile manufacturing factories, especially young girls. Unions are either unheard of or inaccessible to these workers, who are either threatened with their jobs or even face violence at the hands of their employers. Such working conditions not only lead to immense physical and psychological stress but can also cause a variety of health concerns, including respiratory issues and musculoskeletal disorders. These working conditions violate some of the most basic rights of the workers, as industries continue to exploit their employees for their own profit. However, their actions impact more than just their employees; they also contribute to the ongoing climate crisis.

Environmental Consequences

I wanted to use this image to showcase the various types of pollution that results as a consequence of the textile industry.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image demonstrating some of the environmental impacts of industry.

As abysmal as the working conditions at many of these textile factories can be, they have equally atrocious environmental practices as well. The textile industry uses immense amounts of water in the process of producing clothing. This accounts for the growing process of cotton and other fabrics, as well as the water required in the actual production of the clothing. One person can basically have enough water to drink for over two years for the amount of water that goes into making one t-shirt. Many fabrics have microfibers in them, and over the years, washing these clothes can deliver microplastics into the oceans. Additionally, the toxic chemicals used to treat and dye the clothing is carelessly disposed of into rivers and streams, many of which are used by locals as drinking and cooking water, further adding to the health risks to the locals. This also has economic impacts, as locals are unable to use the polluted water for agricultural purposes, and the fishing industry is also severely impacted. People are also unable to use the polluted waters for recreational use, as swimming in polluted water can cause skin irritation and illness. Furthermore, the clothing industry is responsible for emitting 10% of the global carbon emissions each year.

Regretfully, these gross exploitations of humans and resources alike are even more wasteful than many are aware of. Devastatingly, around 85% of garments produced end up in landfills or destroyed. Many of these items are products that were never sold. Even more heartbreaking, the fabrics used to make over half of these clothes are nonrecyclable and end up adding to our growing plastic waste. Recently, when preparing for my interview with Aja Barber, I was made aware of the massive piles of clothes laid out in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where clothing both old and new, litter the landscape.

What Can Be Done About This?

I wanted to include this image to show that young people are taking climate change seriously, and are attempting to bring more attention to the crisis as a whole.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of some protesters against environmental pollution

On an international level, there needs to be an additional convention at the United Nations that is created to oversee the working conditions as well as the environmental impacts of multinational companies and industries that have businesses in more than one nation. This convention should be in charge of regulation and an avenue for workers to report any violations and seek help while working for these multi-national companies. It should also protect the environmental rights of the impacted locals. Unfortunately, this is out of reach for ordinary citizens, as this solution requires coordination and cooperation from multiple players on the global stage. On a more national level, we can pressure our politicians and government officials to denounce these exploitative practices and regulate overseas businesses through permits and contracts. We can also educate our peers and community members about the impact that their fashion choices are having on both the people who make their clothes as well as the environment as a whole.

There are also a few things that we as consumers have the power to do on a personal level. We can shop for functionality and use rather than shopping for each occasion. One simple rule you can use is the Thirty Wears Challenge. Ask yourself, “am I going to wear this piece of clothing at least thirty times?” If the answer is yes, buy it; if it’s no, put it back on the rack. Another thing you can do is go shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. These are clothes that you are recycling, from one person’s closet to yours, instead of buying new clothes every time you shop. If enough people do this, you can also participate in boycotting fast fashion trends, and instead incentivize the fashion industry to produce clothing that lasts, instead of making clothing that is cheap and easily damaged. Another thing you can do at home is if you have any clothes that are torn a little, but if sown back together, can be work, you should try to learn to make simple stitches. Learning to mend your own clothes can prevent you from having to purchase more clothes, saving you money, and you might even end up doing it as a hobby! Finally, you can purchase clothing from local designers instead of supporting massive fast-fashion corporations. Incorporating some of these sustainable practices into your shopping routines can influence the fashion industry to incorporate more ethical labor and environmental practices.

Russia’s Attack on the Ukraine: Why You Should Care

After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.

Map of Ukraine with Russian attacks on 2/24/22.
Source: New York Times, 02/24/2022.

 

While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.

Impact on Geopolitics and the International Order

Most importantly, this is the first time since World War II that we are seeing what will likely shape up to be a full-blown international war in Europe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine puts the international order generated at the end of World War II at risk and shakes the very foundations of international relations. The invasion violates international law and denies principles and tenets established by the United Nations Charter, namely the concept of collective security, the maintenance of international peace through multilateralism and institutions, and the outlawing of the use of force in international relations. The war also threatens to destabilize Europe and undermines the order established after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. This has the potential for severe and long-term consequences for Eastern European countries that were formerly under Soviet influence.

From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.

Soldiers in Ukraine
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.

The Human Rights Perspective

From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.

Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.

Meeting of the UN Security Council.
Meeting of the Security Council. Source: Nagpur Today.

It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation  – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.

Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.

What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice for the World Day of Social Justice

 

People in shape of a justice scale
Source: Yahoo Images


Yesterday, February 20th, 2022, marked the 14th annual global observance of the World Day of Social Justice, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly on June 8th, 2008. Since 2009, the day has marked a celebration that reflects on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all through employment, social protection, and social dialogue, in addition to fundamental principles and rights at work, according to this article from Baker College. Social justice is defined as the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights, and opportunities. Social justice is also referred to as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The UN General Assembly has also conveyed their recognition of social development and social justice as a crucial aspect of peace among nations worldwide. 

What are Human Rights? 

Human rights are commonly referred to as rights everyone has just because they are human. These rights are specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an international document laying out 30 fundamental rights and freedoms of all human beings. Examples of these include the right to life without discrimination, slavery, or torture, in addition to explaining that all humans are equal before the law and that the law protects all human rights. The UDHR was drafted by representatives of various demographics and backgrounds and is considered a milestone in human rights history. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948, as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” 

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice 

Women protesting injustice
Source: Yahoo Images

To better understand the concept of social justice, the definition has been broken into four core principles: access, equity, participation, and human rights. These four principles apply to issues such as: 

  • Reproductive Rights 
  • Access to good education 
  • Employment Discrimination 
  • Voting Discrimination 
  • Disability Discrimination 
  • And many others

Since human rights is one pillar of social justice, a “just” society is impossible within the absence of security for all human rights. 

Although their meanings are different, the concepts of human rights and social justice are often correlated closely, especially in academia and political debates. Here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences’s Political Science Department, a concentration of study in human rights and social justice is offered within the political science major, like many other institutions worldwide. Outside of academia, the general public often groups human rights and social justice together in regard to their stance on politics. Unfortunately, many social injustices and human rights issues have become controversial topics in America, further polarizing the U.S. political climate, especially within group rights (minorities rights, rights of people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.). Understanding the relationship between human rights and social justice can bring about a more unified approach to how these issues are perceived and addressed. 

Ways to Celebrate the World Day of Social Justice 

Woman with sign: "We will not be silenced"
Source: Yahoo Images

Becoming an advocate for social justice in society can happen at any time, but with the current celebration of the World Day of Social Justice, it is a great time to start. Celebrating this day can be done by taking the time to examine your own beliefs and values to increase your self-awareness regarding the way you view injustices in society and your level of sympathy for those who are currently facing a human rights crisis. From there, examine what you are doing to help and what you can be doing. Furthermore, researching a few injustices in society that interest you or sharing your experiences of enduring discrimination in your own life can shed light on the importance of this day and the constant work to be done to create a “just” society across the globe. If you choose to celebrate this day by donating monetarily, here is a list of organizations accepting donations: 

Pegasus: A Frightening Era of Digital Surveillance

Imagine a secret company tapping every word you say and email you read, all because someone decided you are a threat. It may seem draconian and futuristic, but this is the reality of human rights activists around the world under a mysterious spyware called Pegasus. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Pegasus is an international symbol of decreasing privacy, invasion of privacy restrictions, and increasing digital surveillance of citizens by their governments.  

Pegasus, named after the Trojan horse, is a malware created by an Israeli cybersecurity company known as the NSO group. The spyware was initially intended as a global weapon against terrorism and crime. Normally, most malware infects a device through an email or link containing the software, but Pegasus requires no action on the receiver’s device to become embedded in the device’s systems. Through the “iMessage zero click” exploit, Pegasus is automatically downloaded onto the target’s iPhone. Only a digital security lab has the resources to detect Pegasus on a device, because the program itself does not cause any disruptions to a device’s function.  

Pegasus spyware can access GPS location, calls, texts, contacts, emails, and more dangerously, encrypted and private data such as passwords. Attackers can gain access to a device’s microphone and camera, as well, which opens the door to unauthorized agencies recording audio or video without the owner’s knowledge. The first use of Pegasus was traced to 2013 and has since impacted over 45 countries, but international investigations only began a few years ago. Earlier in 2021, an international collaboration of news media including Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International launched The Pegasus Project to investigate, country by country, the impact of Pegasus use. Evidence has shown that governments use Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and public officials although every country accused has denied the allegation or insisted that it was necessary.  

Painted image of a CCTV camera on a white background
Black CCTV camera stamped on white paint on a concrete wall; Source: Upsplash

India 

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is accused of using Pegasus to illegally spy on people they classify as “Anti-India” or having an anti-government agenda.  

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project found over 300 Indian phone numbers including those of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers being tracked by the surveillance software. Four years earlier, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is protected under the Constitution. Despite the legal provision, the Indian government has used excuses of national security and protection when confronted with allegation of using the notorious spyware. This year, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to investigate the data produced by the Pegasus Project and determine whether the government did use Pegasus to spy on citizens and thus, violated the law.  

The Indian government has expanded the umbrella of legal surveillance since the passing of the 1885 Telegraph Act and 2000 Information Technology Act, rendering any word of restricting unauthorized surveillance from them laughable. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for enforcing the 2021 Information Technology Rules, but the legislation has increased the hunt for human rights activists and news outlets that criticize the government’s actions. Initially passed to prevent social media misuse, the rules act as an access card to control streaming sites, social media services, and online news sources that are crucial for citizens to become aware of accurate, although incriminating, investigative reports. 

Journalists sitting down and taking notes at a press conference
Journalists in search of the truth are targeted by governments. Source: Upsplash

Middle East 

Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, and Turkey show similar patterns of digital repression over the last couple of decades. The UAE is already known for having the most surveillance over its people in the world. By claiming the invasive surveillance efforts for national security, the Emirati government tracked conversations of its residents, Qatari officials, members of the Saudi Royal Family, and other opponents. In 2016, a human rights activist from the UAE, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted with Pegasus in 2016 before his arrest in 2017 and subsequent 10-year jail sentence. Fellow activists and scholars have sufficient evidence to suggest that governmental surveillance caused his illegal arrest. 

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a progressive journalist from Saudi Arabia, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel and went into hiding in 2017 after the government threatened him. From Turkey, he wrote articles chastising his home government. After his death, Pegasus was allegedly used to keep tabs on his son, fiancé, and other affiliations without their consent.  

Palestine 

Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization, found Pegasus on the phones of 6 Palestinian activists that began in July 2020. The activists belonged to human rights and civil society organizations such as Defense for Children’s International – Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Work Committees in Israel of which 6 have been declared terrorist organizations despite lacking credible evidence supporting the designation.  

Most Israeli surveillance laws do not apply to security companies and give them free reign to use the NSO’s spyware. In 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for invading the popular international messaging platform WhatsApp on 1400 devices. And on November 23rd, Apple sued the NSO Group in California Court for violating a federal anti-hacking law by providing dangerous software to spy on their Apple customers. Despite the obvious unethical nature of spyware, the Israeli government fully licenses Pegasus and is a client of NSO Group. Experts speculate whether the Israel had a role in the hackings around the world, which may be considered an international crime if proven.  

Zoom of a computer screen with green and white lines of code
Source: Upsplash

El Salvador 

The Pegasus Project also uncovered illegal surveillance of investigative journalists in El Salvador, a region in Central America torn apart by frequent gang wars and corruption. Citizen Lab and Access Now forensically analyzed phones from reporters at El Faro and GatoEncerrado, media outlets that have been facing the brunt of President Nayib Bukele’s wrath in the race to retain his position. Evidence gathered by journalists and human rights organizations suggest that Bukele negotiated deals with El Salvador’s deadliest gangs in return for political advantage. Some individual’s phones were hacked over an extended period while others were infected intermittently when the media houses were investigating corruption in Bukele’s administration.  

In 2021, the Biden Administration officially blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser known surveillance company, Candiru, as well. This severs each company’s access to hardware necessary for maintaining servers and outsourcing the software. 

Access to accurate information, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and privacy is crucial to maintaining autonomy and a fundamental human right. Backsliding democracies and military states are re-instituting citizen surveillance digitally – endangering the lives of millions that are fighting for the future of their people. To contribute to cybersecurity labs and human rights organizations working to increase legislation against digital surveillance, please donate to the Citizen Lab (https://engage.utoronto.ca/site/SPageServer?pagename=donate#/department/91) and Frontline Defenders (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/donors). 

Additional Information related to recent digital surveillance and human rights violations: 

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/unsafe-anywhere_-women-human-rights-defenders-speak-out-about-pegasus-attacks_en.pdf 

If you would like to learn more about the people the Pegasus Project, follow the link below https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/#/  

 

America: The Land of the Hungry

To portray what food security means to those experiencing food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a caregiver and child surrounded with sunflowers, standing in a garden. There are words that run along the image describing what food security means to the people in this community.

As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.

Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.

Food Deserts

I included this image to showcase the precooked meals that are frozen and a convenient meal choice for hard working Americans.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the frozen foods aisle in a grocery store

So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.

Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.

Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.

The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.

Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts

I wanted to showcase how prevalent food insecurity is, and how it is concentrated a lot more in the South.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the United States from a 2017 analysis of food insecurity in America

If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.

Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor

I wanted to include this image to portray how expensive buying fresh produce can really be.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture showcasing the various produce selections at a grocery store with prices depicted next to each item

If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.

Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.

Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.

Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid

I included this image to bring attention to the existence of food pantries and their part in combatting food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture outside of a food pantry in Baltimore

Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.

Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.

Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.

There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.

How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse

The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.

What Can We Do About It?

I decided to include this image to showcase how community gardens can help in the fight against food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A man standing with a shovel inside of a community garden filled with growing vegetables and plants.

There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.

While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.

Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.

Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.

The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Celebrity Perpetrators

Girl with text "The Truth about Sex Trafficking"
Source: Yahoo Images

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.  

Who is most at risk? 

Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.  

Trafficking in the Pandemic  

In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications.  The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.” 

Celebrity Sex Traffickers  

Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly
Source: Yahoo Images

American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety. 

Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources. 

The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly 

people protest outside with #MuteRKelly signs
Source: Yahoo Images

Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.  

Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison. 

Learn more about supporting possible sex trafficking victims and how to receive help by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.