As we approach 2020 and the end of this decade, we come across several lists of important happenings, milestones, and statistics in various disciplines across the world. As for human rights, it is important to reflect where we stand on the provision and fight for human rights and highlight the important issues that emerged during this decade.
On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center. During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world. Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks. You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical? As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences.
Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology. One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind. Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system. There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind. This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.”
After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions. One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning. In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask. From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.
In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence. Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community. While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them. Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.
On November 7, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Alexandra Zapruder, author and member of the founding staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. She discussed her first book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, and answered questions about her work. Throughout her lecture, Zapruder highlighted the variety of insights we can gain from the diaries of teenagers/young adults who experienced the Holocaust.
While Anne Frank is certainly the most well-known authors of such a diary, there is much to be learned from the other young authors whose diaries have been found in the last few decades. Zapruder described these diaries as being both historical and literary fragments, giving us a window into the past and helping us better understand human experiences from different perspectives of the time.
Zapruder described having to grapple with the legacy of Anne Frank’s diary and how it shapes the reception of the other diaries that are found. For example, people often associated Frank’s writing with a hopeful view of humanity. It is often discussed with language that relates to redemption and optimism that is rarely used when discussing the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust on their own. This does not, however, reflect every young writer’s writing during this time. Zapruder noted that, no matter how great a writer is, it does not make sense to expect their writing to represent all perspectives in a common experience when people are so different. Reading other diaries from the Holocaust requires setting aside the preconceived notions we have from learning about Anne Frank’s diary in the past.
One young writer that Zapruder spoke about during her lecture was Klaus Langer, a child of a fairly well-to-do family in Essen, Germany. She read an entry from his diary that was written on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. His diary entries were generally records of what happened in his day-to-day life as he and his family made efforts to leave Nazi Germany, and this entry was no different. Langer described walking down the street through the wreckage after everything that happened, walking on glass splinters. Though that day in history had not been named “Kristallnacht” yet, the significance of the shatter glass is clear in his writing. When reading this entry, Zapruder recognized that, when you are writing in a diary about the day-to-day, you capture nuances you might miss later, things that would be easy to forget in future recollections.
Another writer that Zapruder discussed was Elsa Binder, a 21-year-old girl who lived with her parents in Poland. Zapruder described Binder as someone who could be sarcastic and had an edge. In Binder’s diary, Zapruder found a strong example of an unexpected common theme among the diaries: the passage of time. There were certainly themes that had been expected, such as desperation, hope, hunger, and displacement, but the passage of time was addressed to a surprising degree in nearly all of the diaries. Zapruder found many entries detailing life before the war, the traumatic break from normal life, and waiting liberation as time passed. Birthdays and holidays were noted regularly, even when the world was in chaos.
Perhaps the most striking thing that Zapruder addressed during her lecture was the way that these works resonate with young people. Though the experiences of most American teenagers are far different from those who lived during the Holocaust, many of the things that young people experience today connect to the themes found in the diary, from hope for the future to fear to desperation. Children face many human rights issues, such as school shootings, gun violence, and violence against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Like many of the young writers that Zapruder discussed during her lecture, many of the children of today are desperate for a better future. It is vital that adults step up and become better advocates for that future and for the human rights of children and adolescents.
When I first heard the report that President Trump was working to try to buy Greenland, I was so taken aback that I checked to make sure I was not listening to an article put out by the satirical news outlet, The Onion. Sure enough, I was listening to my NPR podcast and the President attempting to buy another country could in no way be described as fake news. A little more research into this interesting political maneuver revealed the true intentions behind the President’s financial offer to Denmark. Geopolitics are suddenly playing a massive role in climate change as countries prepare for a world with significantly higher sea levels than we are currently experiencing. This is unfortunate as major powers are focusing on investing money and resources on being prepared for the after effects of climate change instead of focusing on fixing the crisis itself. Greenland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle gives the country who owns it, currently Denmark, a claim to the continental shelf that runs under Arctic ice and thus a stake in the trade route that will be unveiled as the ice continues to melt. Ownership of Greenland would allow the United States to gain an important leg up in the race to control the Arctic.
It is indisputable that the planet is progressively getting warmer, and that humans are a direct cause of the continued warming. Green house gasses and carbon emissions produced by the world’s top producing countries directly contribute to a decrease in the expanse of ice caps and in an increase in ocean levels around the world. Average global sea level has a pattern of rising and falling over the centuries of Earth’s existence. The most recent global sea level rise, the one we are experiencing now, has proven to be significantly more rapid than past circumstances. Scientists have noted that should the current rise in sea levels continue, continental coastlines will become drastically different. World leaders do have an incentive to ignore the serious ramifications of the melting arctic ice caps in favor of the possibility of new trade routes over the top of the world. Once the ice caps melt, it could be possible for ships to travel through the Arctic without the need for ice-breaking machines.
The new trade route in question is the Northern Sea route, a route already used during the summer months but that many trade dependent nations are hoping will be open year-round. It extends from the Barents Sea (Russia’s border with Norway) to the Bering Strait (between Serbia and Alaska). Current shipping lanes require ships to start from the Mediterranean, continue through the Suez Canal, and finish through the Red Sea. With this current route, ships travel over 13,049 miles over the course of approximately 48 days. The Northern Sea Route would reduce the transit time for ships by 10 to 15 days.
It is becoming increasingly clear to major power countries that border the Arctic ice caps, such as the United States, Canada, and Russia, how strategically important control over the developing trade route could be. As of yet, Russia has been the fastest actor. Russia has the most stake in the Arctic Circle, despite the United States and Canada having claim to a large portion of the Arctic. The superpower went as far as to plant a titanium flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, on the North Pole in 2007. More recently, Russia has been maintaining multiple military bases within the Arctic Circle that include over 50 ice-breaking machines. Along with the increased military presence of Russia in the Arctic, the civilian presence has increased. Nearly two million Russians live in large cities created in Russia’s Arctic territory. In comparison, the United States maintains a singular airfield in the Arctic, on land that technically belongs to Greenland, and the largest United States town of Utqiaġvik houses a population of a little more than 4,000. President Trump’s attempt to obtain the island of Greenland as part of the United States shows the US beginning to counteract Russian presence in the Arctic. Tensions are slowly rising, and many analysts have reason to believe that a major conflict over territory and control of a consistently melting Arctic could arise in the next decade.
It is clear that these nations have been paying attention to the melting ice caps but none of the countries’ representatives have presented an adequate plan for counteracting the issue. In 2015, 195 world powers signed the Paris Agreement, the goal of which was to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels instead of the forecasted 2 C. During this 2015 conference, the United States promised to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, Russia did not ratify the agreement, and Canada promised to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions below that of 2005 levels: 30 per cent below by 2030. Canada and the United States made bold commitments and led the way for other countries to do the same.
However, these commitments have not been fulfilled. In the United States in 2018, emissions rose to an estimated 3.4 percent. A country that was once considered a leader and role model in the fight against climate change has all but withdrawn from the fight. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has even announced plans to officially abandon the Paris Agreement and has simultaneously removed carbon-reducing regulations set in place by the previous administration. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has recently announced that not only is the country on track to meet this goal, but will also undoubtedly exceed it. The claim has brought hope to many environmental activists that Canada could replace the United States as a leader in fighting the climate crisis. However, reports from within Canada dispute Trudeau’s predictions. The Environment and Climate Change Canada’s January 2019 projection has predicted that with current and upcoming climate policies, Canada will barely reach 19 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Russia’s response to the climate crisis has been lackluster at best and the Climate Action Tracker rates Russia’s target emissions at the lowest rating, “Critically Insufficient.” In September of 2019 the United Nations held a Climate Conference in New York where world leaders re-evaluated prior commitments and could choose to update their emission goals. Canada pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This is an admirable goal, but leaders have not yet put forth a plan to achieve the emissions rate. The United States was largely silent in the discussions and did not provide any new promises to reduce emissions. Surprisingly, Russia agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement at the 2019 Climate Conference.
The United States, Canada, and Russia are countries that have a very large sphere of influence and it is disheartening to witness these superpowers focus energy and resources on exploiting a disastrous effect of climate change instead of working towards preventing and ending the warming of the planet. Should the ice caps melt fully, yes, a new trade route would be opened, but millions of people would be affected by the rising waters. The human habitat would be drastically affected along coastlines; more than a hundred million people live along coastlines or within range of the newly predicted coastline and many people live on the decreasing ice caps themselves.
In the race to establish territory in the Arctic, conflicts between very powerful nations could arise and citizens of the world are largely being left out of the conversation. Should the ice caps continue to melt at the rate that supporters of the new trade route are hoping for, the people who call the ice caps their home will be left with limited options and the countries who are laying claim to the Arctic are not providing any options for them. Arctic bordering countries like Russia, the United States, and Canada recognize the opportunity to gain political, economic, and strategic advantages over other major powers. The conflict that is arising from this recognition is another effect of climate change and should violence erupt in the North, the citizens of all of the included countries as well as separate countries could be affected. It is easy to acknowledge how rising water resulting from ever warming ice caps could contribute to loss of land and increased flooding. However, it is important to recognize how global warming will affect human rights in other ways, such as increased reasons for conflict between major powers around the world. President Trump offering to buy Greenland is an evident sign of a growing issue across the world, validating the concern that global warming can and will negatively impact human rights in more ways than usually understood.
A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”
There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.
The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.
An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.
The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.
There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.
The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.
This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.
Ambassador Ahmet Shala, former Minster of Economy and Finance in the government of Kosovo, recently visited the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights to speak with faculty and students about minority rights in the Balkan Peninsula, current economic development in Kosovo, as well as efforts to modernize the country.
The Republic of Kosovo is located in South Eastern Europe nestled among a group of nations, which were part of former Yugoslavia. In 1990, economic disparities in Yugoslavia led to increased tensions in the ethnically diverse territory. As the economy declined, Croats, Bosniaks, Slovenes, Albanians, Montenegrins and Macedonians began to promote ideas of ethnic nationalism. Croatia and Slovenia were the first to seek a split from the union, followed closely by a brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later Kosovo. This series of wars for independence spanned nearly a decade and as Human Rights Watch reports many human rights violations were committed, in addition to the ethnic cleansing of several groups, which left thousands of civilians dead.
After years of Serbian crackdowns in Kosovo, NATO intervention led to the small territory’s liberation and recognition as a United Nations protectorate from 1999-2008. Finally in 2008, Kosovo declared independence and today is recognized by 110 countries as a sovereign state. The road to independence was littered with atrocities and war crimes based on ethnicity. According to Ambassador Shala, “the different groups in Yugoslavia did not feel as if they were citizens. Slavic people are different from Albanians, which was the key feeling for minorities.” Ambassador Shala added that the resulting Yugoslav wars became “Apartheid on the heart of Europe.” From the onset of the conflict, many ethnic Albanians were fired from their jobs, not allowed to attend school or university, and thousands were either killed or imprisoned.
Although, the situation improved under the UN protectorate, according to Ambassador Shala, the UN administration was incompatible with the needs of the Kosovars. Ambassador Shala commented, “There were UN soldiers on the ground from other countries that had no idea about the needs of the people” and “there was no sustainable vision for the future and no real goals, which led to increased anxiety and frustration.”
After independence, the leaders of the Republic of Kosovo have made tremendous strides in determining the future of the country. From its inception, the idea has been that Kosovo would be a true democratic society, which embraces its multicultural identity and provides equal rights to all citizens. Today, the country seeks to create partnerships with its neighbors, fully integrate into the international community and become a member of NATO, the European Union, as well as the United Nations. The country is well on its way to succeeding at its stated goals. In 2013, the country had an estimated population of 1.86 million and according to economists as of 2015, Kosovo had a GDP (ppp) of 9140.10 billion USD. There are still some hurdles to cross, namely, not all NATO countries have recognized Kosovo as a nation; this has not stopped the ambitions of the young nation. In a recent interview with EURACTIV, the Brussels based EU policy driven news outlet, Kosovar Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj explains how important it is for Kosovo to become a member of both the EU and NATO. Hoxhaj states, “being an EU member is the best way to modernise [sic] politics, the economy and society. For us, it is a modernising [sic] agenda that will allow us to compete with others in the region and to grow.”
Leymah Gbowee is one of my human rights heroines. I first heard of her work in my peace studies class. We watched the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which chronicles the cessation of the second Liberian Civil War and the power of nonviolent protests in pursuit of peace. Gbowee and the women of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace organized peace talks between African leaders and rebel warlords in order to see peace come to a nation upended by more than 14 years of violent war. After hearing her speak on campus a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to educate myself on how Liberia has decidedly made steps towards the creation and maintenance of peace—how the citizens and the government acknowledge and confront a destructive history while establishing a constructive present, building for an improved future.
When thinking of peace, one may think of marijuana smoking hippies and flower children in the middle of a New York field, or a society without war. The latter is a fair but incomplete description of peace. Anthropologist Margaret Mead concluded that “warfare is just an invention…The ordeal [warfare] did not just go out because people thought it unjust or wrong; it went out because a method more congruent with the institutions and feelings of the period was invented… We can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention” (Barash 23). Peace is the better invention.
Peace is an alternative to war but it is complex.
There are factors that have to be considered in addition to the curbing of physical violence. Dr. Douglas Fry asserts that although violence makes headlines, it is actually a minute part of social life. It is the focus on aggression which allows it to become the central narrative. “Human potential for peace is underappreciated, whereas violence and warfare are emphasized, and thus naturalized. Naturalizing war and violence can help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if war is seen as natural, then there is little point in trying to prevent, reduce, or abolish it. Consequently, the acceptance of war as a social institution facilitates its continuance.” He proposes that there is a potential for human beings—and as a direct result, societies–to live at peace and in peace.
What does war and peace have to do with the current state of Liberia? Everything. From 1989-2003, the country had been overrun by warlords, child soldiers, and internally displaced people (IDP). War and civil unrest had leveled communities built upon “togetherness and sharing”. Yet, this nation, located on the southwestern coast of Africa, that is home to 4.5 million people has been in a state of peace for the past 13 years. The government of Liberia is underwriting a Liberian rebirth under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The historic 2005 election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was the first of its kind on the continent of Africa. Gwendolyn Mikell writes that from a Liberian perspective, the vote in favor of Johnson Sirleaf was rooted in the fact that she was not a man. “Societies have needed women to help transition them from socialism to democracy or from conflict to peace. African publics claim that women are more responsive to people’s needs, and that women make better politicians.” Liberians believed that male presidents brought war and violence; therefore, a woman would be needed to make things right. In and out of politics for more than 30 years, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was imprisoned for criticizing President Samuel Doe’s administration, found political asylum in the US during the years of the Liberian civil war, and worked as director of the Africa Bureau of the UN Development Program.
What has a Liberian renaissance looked like over the past 13 years? It has been a slow process of reconciling two Liberias, according to Ruthie Ackerman. “The answer may lie in demonstrating that the government’s top priorities are justice and accountability.” The lifestyle of a life without war provides a peace that is not fully resolved, a term called ‘negative peace’, because the roots of the issues causing the conflict have not been addressed. The antithesis of negative peace is positive peace. In pursuing positive peace, the desire for a lack of violence is the starting point. Positive peace confronts the hidden symptoms of societal structural violence. Johan Galtung coined the term ‘structural violence’ as a description of violence where social institutions (church, government, employment, schools, etc) fail to meet the needs of its citizens, perpetuating social injustice based upon race, age, gender, class, nationalism, etc. David Barash states that
“when human beings suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves freely, to organize peacefully, or to participate in their own governance, a kind of violence is occurring, even if bullets or clubs are not being used. Structural violence is another way [kind] of identifying oppression, and positive peace would be a situation in which structural violence and oppression are minimized.”
In Liberia, the identification of the oppression and process of rectifying and removing it has been the foundation of Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency. She correlates the decline and abrupt end of growth of her country with decades of war, the corrupted power of a few, and a closed political system, resulting in Liberia becoming one of the poorest countries in the world. “The entire nation had been virtually deprived of basic services and infrastructure such as roads, clean water, electric power, and solid waste disposal.” Poverty, though improving, continues to plague the nation, particularly Monrovia, the capital. The Guardian reports that Monrovia is the poorest city in the world. Basic necessities like water, electricity, healthcare and transport are still not up to par. Ebola devastated the country last year, and the diamond industry remains a cause of interstate and international disparity. Despite challenges and setbacks, the efforts of the Johnson-Sirleaf government to initiate reform have been recognized globally.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that human beings have equal and inalienable rights to
- Life, liberty and security of person in Article 3
- A standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services in Article 25
- Education… elementary education shall be compulsory in Article 26
- Work with just and favorable condition and without discrimination in Article 23
In 2007, President Johnson-Sirleaf introduced three issues of policy that her government would correct: national peace and security, investment in education and healthcare, and revitalization of the economy and infrastructure by creating jobs in agriculture and trade.
The government of Liberia created a model for peace and was able to implement it.
“Our policies must respond to the deep wounds of our civil war, and enhance national governance while quickly introducing measures of structural reform and reconstruction”, said President Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006. According to the Global Peace Index, which measures the peacefulness of countries based upon 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators, Liberia ranks 72/163 countries; whereas, the United States is ranked 103/163. In fact, since 2008 (which is how far the index reviews) Liberia has been viewed as more peaceful than the US. Fry points out that societal shifts from violence to peacefulness takes years and generations, and though a society was once violent, the past does not discount their ability to become and remain peaceful in the future.
The government of Liberia is working to improve and administer healthcare for more of its citizens. Kerry A. Dolan summarizes that within the next four years, the government is working to deliver healthcare to citizens living the rural areas as they put into service community health assistants. “The CHAs will be paid $60 a month… will be supervised by nurses and physician assistants. The primary goals of the programs are to reduce maternal and child mortality and build a resilient health care system.” Additionally, the program will create thousands of jobs; tremendous progress for a country that once had 50 doctors for 4 million people. Dr. Raj Panjabi of Last Mile Health trusts that the effort will prevent local outbreaks from becoming global epidemics.
The government of Liberia is conducting a reconstruction of its educational system. In 2013, all 25,000 high school graduates failed to pass the state university entrance exam. Aagon Tingba deems that proceeding with a controversial partnership between the private sector and public education is the best option for the children of Liberia. “Critics say the government should be responsible for our own schools, but in Liberia we simply don’t have the resources to do it ourselves. That is the reality. Liberian children deserve more. Doing nothing was not an option.” The decision is needed specifically for primary school students and teachers. The Liberian government is piloting this education program that will provide training, support, accountability, and resources to a system in need of improvement. “In some [secondary] schools, children [are] being taught basic fractions by teachers who are barely literate”, says Sheldon Yett of UNICEF.
The government of Liberia is empowering women and girls by placing them in the foreground. Leymah Gbowee calls attention to the lack of expression given to the female experience, particularly as a survivor of war, in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers. She discloses that women are always in the background as though our lives are an appendix to the main narrative. “If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted as pathetic…victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and that image sells. During the war, almost no one reported the other reality of women’s lives. And how we created strength in sisterhood.” Mikell confirms that President Johnson-Sirleaf has placed female leadership over the rehabilitation of female victims and child soldiers, and the citizens have elected women to parliament and other political office.
So what does supplying healthcare and education, eradicating poverty, and giving voice to the female experience have to do with the uncovering of structural violence in order to create and maintain positive peace while living without war? Everything. Graham Kemp characterizes a peaceful society as one that has diagnosticated and cultivated ideas, mores, value systems and cultural institutions which stimulate cultural interactions and developments towards the minimization of violence and the promotion of peace. Human rights violations are symptomatic of a failed shared value system. A peaceful culture and society is not a utopian existence. It is, however, a recognition of a personal and communal decision to enhance the wellbeing of another. President Johnson Sirleaf’s belief that poverty and corruption are parasitic lead to the establishment of a transparent government. The overhaul of the educational system prepare the process of removing poverty as an obstacle in the road to achievement, making leadership and employment opportunities possible, thus eliminating a potential creation of a vacuum where violence and war might build.
On September 22, 2016 in her address to the UN General Assembly, President Johnson-Sirleaf declared that after 13 years of institution and consolidation of peacebuilding, security, and governance strategies, the Liberian government had taken full responsibility for the agency of the future advancement of the country. The hand-off took place on June 30, 2016. The Liberian Congress on September 29, 2016, with the backing of UN Women and other agencies, voted and passed the Equal Representation and Participation Act, a significant bill of inclusion. The bill is praised by government officials as “guaranteeing the participation of women and other marginalized members of the population in shaping the country’s progress.” The ‘special constituencies’–lower than originally proposed due to budget constraints–authorizes five seats for women, one seat for a youth representative, and one for a person with disabilities within the legislative body.
Liberia is an example that by openly addressing past mistakes, pinpointing and communicating a new narrative on cultural core values, the capacity for the formulation and execution of solutions that will empower the future begins to occur.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dalia Mogahed, Research Director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). She delivered a powerful speech at UAB’s Hill University Center about an issue that has plagued American society for many years, Islamophobia.
Islamophobia, as Dalia Mogahed defines it, is “anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination based on an irrational hatred and fear of Islam”. According to a new report generated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, over $200 million dollars is spent annually to perpetuate this fear, which is evidenced by the tone and volume of reporting about Muslims. Nearly 80% of the media coverage about Islam is negative portraying Muslims as more dangerous than countries armed with nuclear weapons, drug addiction, or diseases such as cancer. As Americans, it is important that we seek out facts and form our own opinions rather than bending to the bias of others. Prejudice of any kind is a problem that affects all Americans by threatening our safety and way of life.
According to an ISPU report, Islamophobia is a gateway to other types of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, human rights violations, and anti-rights legislation. For example, Mogahed mentions the recently released Community Brief “Manufacturing Bigotry”. In that study, researchers find that legislators who promote Islamophobic agendas are 80% more likely to support anti-foreign legislation, voter identification mandates, and limitations on immigration and oppose women’s rights, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage – all laws empowering groups marginalized in the political process. She points out that
“fear erodes freedom, which is the foundation of our democracy”
and makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudices.
Each of these limiting ideas makes all Americans less safe. In fact, according to a recent report generated by Freedom house, the perpetuation of Islamaphobia aids the rise of terrorist rhetoric and opens the door for extremist ideology. One example Mogahed provided is a recruitment tape released by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. In this clip, terrorists use an audio excerpt from one of presidential nominee Donald Trumps rants to push their Islamist views and label American society as racist.
What can we as Americans do about this and how can we protect our freedom and ideals? Mogahed states that we need to educate ourselves and replace our fears with facts. According to Martin Scott, author of the journal “Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan”, nearly a century ago this same scenario presented itself, but it was Catholicism that was the recipient of discrimination and prejudice perpetuated by groups like the True Americans and Ku Klux Klan.
Today, we need to understand who American Muslims are and how they help shape the diversity of our nation. American Muslims are not only Arab. In fact most are African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. According to Mogahed, Muslims are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians, and contrary to popular belief those that attend the masjid or “mosque” are the most likely to be engaged in community and civic activities, not radical Islam.
American Muslims, on the whole, retain strong simultaneous American and Muslim identities and want to work to protect the American way of life.
Therefore, it is our duty to help Muslims protect their identity by not associating every Muslim with ISIS or other radical Islamist factions. If we learn about Islam and get to know the Muslims in our community we will see that they are normal people who are more disgusted with radical Islamic ideology than anyone else because they are the group that is most affected by the actions of radical Islamist groups. I have traveled across the globe and met many Muslims along the journey. They would all agree that there is nothing worse than the killing of innocent people and any individual who condones these acts of violence does not represent normative Islam and its values. To protect our American way of life we have to move past the unfair framing of all Muslims as terrorists. Mogahed advises that we need to create strong diverse coalitions that protect human rights, and religious freedoms to build a stronger more pluralistic America. We have to challenge bigotry by calling out prejudices when we see them. At the same time, we need to not be afraid to call out anti-Muslim bias in media coverage, not shy away from having difficult conversations challenging prejudice, preach outside the choir and vote for government representatives who will uphold American values as opposed to letting fear dictate policy.
Twelve months ago I interviewed for the position of Director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights (IHR).
Nine months ago I was offered the position.
Six months ago I arrived in Birmingham with an idea of what I wanted to do, not knowing anyone or having a concrete plan of how to implement my ideas.
And this is the UAB IHR’s first blog post. It’s been a whirlwind!
The IHR was initiated by Robert Palazzo, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and key faculty members in 2013 to provide a framework for Birmingham’s human and civil rights activities and to connect the city’s historical significance in the struggle for civil rights to national and international collaborative initiatives. In June 2014, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees approved the Institute, which is housed in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. A search for its Director started. And here I am.
I thought long and hard about how to position the IHR not only within Birmingham and UAB, but also within the wider academic community. It seems there are three types of institutes for human rights:
- the one at the law school, focusing on the law making process, adjudication, and domestic or international implementation of human rights law;
- the policy-oriented institute, advocating and lobbying for human rights in government institutions; and
- the interdisciplinary center that either examines specific rights (e.g., social and economic rights) or a specific areas of human rights (e.g., human trafficking, transitional justice, or women’s rights).
The first two options didn’t seem to be a good fit for UAB, which left the last option. I concluded I needed to learn more about UAB and Birmingham to make an informed decision on how to position the IHR.
Over the course of the past several months, I’ve met with close to 100 organizations and units at UAB, in the Birmingham area, and beyond that engage in human rights work. I reached out to institutions focusing on alleviating poverty, addressing women’s issues, educating on human rights or human rights related issues, dealing with victims of violence and human trafficking, and focusing on social justice issues and civil rights. It was an interesting experience that taught me a lot about the community that I’ve come to live in. I realized that by connecting with the work that’s already being done in this city and around this state, the IHR could serve as a solid link between the university and its surroundings, providing a framework for human and civil rights.
I’m a social scientist by trade – I have a joint appointment in the Department of Government and Department of Anthropology at UAB. I’ve always been interested in studying the way vulnerable or underrepresented populations – minorities, refugees, women, children, or persons with disabilities – advocate for and claim their human rights and how they deal with and monitor human rights violations in their own communities. The pattern of their struggles often remains the same – marginalization, poverty, violence, and a whole myriad of human rights violations.
The IHR will specifically focus on these struggles worldwide. It serves as a platform for interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration to study the bottom up approach to human rights and highlight the way in which marginalized and vulnerable groups assert their human rights. The focus on the social movement associated with human rights is embodied in the Institute’s icon, which represents the movement taking over the world.
The IHR’s goal is
to bring Birmingham to the world and the world to Birmingham
focusing specifically on human rights in an international perspective. It engages in three specific areas:
- education, mainly focused on UAB students, but also beyond;
- research, at the IHR but also in collaborating with other research institutions, government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs; and
- practical action and outreach, namely engagement with the local community, practitioners, and by integrating applied approaches.
This blog is thus a crucial part of fulfilling the IHR’s mission. It will serve as a way to educate a wider audience on international human rights issues, as a forum for reflection and discussion, and as a way to promote our events. The IHR research and events team will post weekly updates.
I hope you will check back often and engage with us on the blog, social media, and in person. We can’t wait to open up a whole new world of human rights and show you how you can get involved, learn from your ideas, and collaborate and interact.