“I had everything until the murderer came,” Riva Hirsch begins, clutching a microphone between two pale hands. “We weren’t rich, but we had a ball and a doll and a dog… There was no discrimination. We loved.”
Sitting in a sterile events space around circular tables, we watch as a map appears on the projector screen to helpfully show us exactly where seven-year-old Riva lived before that day: an area of Ukraine that used to be Russia. She isn’t sure where exactly she was taken. “A better place,” was all the Nazis told her as she boarded a train overflowing with corpses.
“Did you see any towns on the train ride?” the moderator of the talk asks.
“Piles and piles of dead bodies–that I saw. Children. Grown-ups. Babies. But not towns.”
A microphone fails, its battery dead. Some shuffling and chuckling, then Riva’s microphone is handed to the other guest speaker, Josephine Bolling McCall, from Lowndes County, Alabama. “Bloody Lowndes”, it used to be called because of all the murders.
“We thought someone was killing cows,” she tells us, describing the sound of her father’s lynching. His children found him lying in a ditch with his eyes open, shot several times. “The definition of lynching is not about the noose around your neck. It’s about the group of people. At the time, three people made a lynching”
The room releases a deep hum of a surprise.
Her father was rich for a black man, owning a storefront, some land, and several shipping trucks. The night of his murder, Josephine’s brother scrawled down the car tag number of the white men he saw driving away in the dirt outside their store. “The sheriff wasn’t interested. Lowndes County planned my father’s murder and planned to make it look like it wasn’t a lynching, because the county would be held responsible. Most of the blacks were afraid to talk. There was no mercy there.”
The two women trade their lone microphone back and forth, standing tall when it is their turn to speak with the kind of straight-backed poise that has been lost over the generations. Both look dressed for a nice evening out, their hair in big, loose curls around their shoulders, Riva’s white and Josephine’s dark brown, like their skin. Riva talks fast, with an Eastern European accent, her voice booming through the sedate hall. Josephine, by contrast, talks Southern slow and soft enough that we lean forward to catch her words. Riva speaks as if the horrors she witnessed happened only yesterday. Josephine speaks as if they happen to her every day.
“I was lying more dead than alive,” Riva says of her condition when the German man who smuggled her out of the camp to a convent. “Me as a little Jewish girl, I had never seen a nun. But I survived through them.”
“I decided it was time to get some recognition,” Josephine told us about publishing a book about her search to discover what really happened to her father. “They made my book required reading at Northeastern University.”
The moderator asks them what one lesson would they want us to take away.
“The intention was to terrorize,” Josephine says. “Terrorism is what they got… We must continue the discussion, but as it says in Hebrews 13:1, ‘Let brotherly love continue’.”
“Make sure to educate our students,” Riva answers, her voice reaching a fever pitch. “Because the future is in your hands to let the world never, ever let it happen again.”
The room is silent when her words stop ringing through the high ceiling, but in our ears, the shouts of Charlottesville echo. We clap to drown them out.
Mary Elizabeth Chambliss is a graduate English student specializing in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a CRM Administrator in UAB’s Enrollment Operations. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology in 2015.
Human beings often use words without understanding their full semantics or definition. Torture is one of those words. The reality of torture, in its actual definition and context, will remain an unknown experience for majority of humanity. Torture, for some, is part of their new normal. The purpose of this blog is to look briefly at the human rights violation of torture through the lens of cultural relativism and moral universalism.
A similar story
In 1994, 19-year-old American Michael Fay lived in Singapore. He made international headlines when a conviction of vandalism and sentencing to six lashes by caning became his punishment. Caning is a part of the corporal punishment system in Singapore. Most recently, a Saudi diplomat received caning lashes for molestation. At the time of Fay’s arrest, President Clinton described the punishment as too harsh, and the Singaporean government reduced the lashes to four. Fay received his lashes and returned home. I mention Fay as an entry point for Otto Warmbier.
I followed Warmbier’s case when it began in January 2016. He was a student from the University of Virginia, sentenced by the North Korean government to 15 years of hard labor over offensive behavior while on a backpacking tour in the country. The accusation brought against him of trying to steal a sign from the hotel where he was staying, resulted in an immediate conviction, considering the action as a “hostile act” and attempt to hurt the working class of Koreans by undermining solidarity. Theft in the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), regardless of object or size, often results in a public execution or beatings in prison camps and schoolyards as a means for deterring future behaviors. He is an enemy of the state.
Amnesty International notes North Korea’s propensity for arbitrary arrests and detentions. The US State department, at the time of his arrest, called for his immediate release, stating the punishment is “unduly harsh” and if he had been in any other country, the incident would not have resulted in this treatment or conviction. Warmbier, after 18 months as a prisoner in North Korea, died on June 19 in Ohio, following a “humanitarian gesture” of release by the North Koreans.
My initial interest in Otto was his reasoning/logic for travelling to the totalitarian “hermit kingdom” without knowledge of the culture. Yes, due to the fact, he is an American citizen, an appeal for his release and return was a correct gesture by the State Department at the time. However, if he was released in January 2016, what would he or anyone else have learned from that exchange? As Americans, we have cultivated and bought into an American exceptionalism ideology that often highlights our ignorance of international cultural norms and behaviors, thereby positioning us with the short end of the stick. Our American exceptionalism repetitively accuses other countries of torturous treatment of prisoners and other Americans, yet we somehow fail to see the plank in our own eye.
The men in both cases were accused, convicted, sentenced, and received punishment in accordance of the laws in the nations where they were guests. The US government described both punishments as torturous or unfair treatment. Many comments and explanations made and given spoke of the men’s character; however, no one mentioned about their knowledge of the culture of the country’s they visited (lived in, in Fay’s case) or the choice each man made that resulted in a behavior that was punishable by law. Perhaps these men are innocent of the crimes; only they know.
Sally Engle Merry suggests the misunderstanding over culture and human rights narrows to whether the application of rights is culturally relative or universal. She asserts that “Rights are understood as a uniquely Western idea… Culture, on the other hand, is understood as homogenous, integrated system of belief and values attached to a relatively small and isolated group of people. It was this conception of culture which spawned relativism as a moral perspective. Cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences – of mutual respect.” She concedes our understanding of culture informs our knowledge of rights. The notion of human rights found their basis in the identification and protection of civil and political rights, as determined by cultures willing to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since 1948, human rights have expanded, and continue to expand, to include the global collective of humanity, framed and spoken in “the preeminent global language of social justice. The changes correlate with some fluid elements of national cultures like McDonaldization, the use of smartphones and social media; changing and adapting to global influences like globalization. In other words, globalization and the application of human rights are determined by and dependent upon the pliable features of a national culture. PRK remains a significant outlier because of national sovereignty.
In “Human Rights along the Grapevine”, Mark Goodale agrees with Merry using a clarifying caveat. He points out that the writers of the UDHR did so with an “anti-internationalism” delegation in mind. To Roosevelt, the understanding and implementation of the UDHR for citizens in countries closed to creating laws that protected human rights, “a curious grapevine” would bring to pass the information about the new normative system. As individuals learned about their human rights, they could initiate a change in culture, from the bottom-up, which cultivates a new national culture that honors the universality of human rights, through the respect and honoring of human rights on a national level first. He suggests the UDHR provides a standard by which global humanity can identity and measure the protection or violation of human rights under specific governments, particularly regarding repression and subjugation. It is important to know that the UDHR does not and cannot override national sovereignty. National sovereignty reigns supreme when it comes to what takes place within the borders of a country. Do human rights require acceptance on an individual country basis—culturally relative–or should they find recognition and protection through global application? Returning to the Warmbier case, let us look at the accusation of the torture by the US.
Torture: Pot meet kettle
Torture, for Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson, is the most significant human rights violation because it not only violates the individual but also instills a system of fear within a society, removing a sense of security. Several international law, covenants, conventions and declarations conclude that torture is a direct violation of a person’s rights and dignity. Article Five of the UDHR states, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article Two of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) reads, “Each state party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The United States is a state party to the CAT, yet even in the declaration of agreement, there is a stipulation that invokes national sovereignty:
That the United States considers itself bound by the obligation under article 16 to prevent `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, only insofar as the term `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States
It is tempting to think totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are uniquely guilty of torturous actions. Bobby Sands of Ireland as well as former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), and the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib are reminders that democratic governments, including the US, can also perpetrate human rights violations. Let us briefly discuss Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as examples of how America treats enemies of the state and prisoners of war based upon the conditions the government stated within the CAT.
“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture…” Ahmed Errachidi
Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson observe that for the Nazis, the removal of Jews to concentration camps brought about an ‘out of sight, out of minds’ perspective to the population. Apuzzo, Fink, and Risen assert the denial of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” positions the US as an entity that contradicts its values by employing tactics that stand in direct opposition to those values. In their article, they present the case that the US frequently conducts arbitrary arrests based upon nonexistent or flimsy evidence. Arrests regularly fails to provide due process to those in custody, flagrantly participates in behaviors where the lines remain blurred as “amounted to torture or succeeded in extracting intelligence”, and discard prisoners without explanation or charges to return to their home countries and families as shells of who they once were.
Gitmo is synonymous with the torture of prisoners by the US. Testimonies of former prisoners, interrogators, physicians, and medical and government documentation speak to the humiliating and abusive tactics utilized by American soldiers and CIA personnel to obtain “information” which could be used to capture and prosecute additional enemies of the state. However, as mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview, torture may not result in the victim providing useful information. The prisoner simply says what is necessary to end the suffering.
Former President George W. Bush determined waterboarding, a technique that stimulates the feeling of drowning and induces stress, does not constituting torture. President Obama in 2009 disagreed, banned its use by the US, and sought to close Gitmo during his presidency. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump promised to reinstate waterboarding and torturous acts, stating, “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The collection of stories in the NY Times piece is consistent with the photographs from Abu Ghraib. The photos taken by American soldiers reveal the dishonoring, degrading, and torturous action inflicted upon prisoners of war in American custody. Given our treatment of prisoners, whether actual enemies of the state or someone arrested due to mistaken identity, America has little credibility when attempting to call out PRK on torture.
The line between cultural relativism and universality is thin. The United States, as active perpetrators of torture and degrading punishment including waterboarding, stands cheek-to-cheek with the country it seeks to name and shame into submission. The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier challenges the authority of national sovereignty and cultural relativism in the light of human rights and their universal application. The call to protect human rights is an all or nothing call; there is no in-between. To stand on the values of truth, justice, and law for one person, one area or country, you must stand for it for all persons, areas or countries.
Jung Gwang Il sits in front of a room of twenty people with his translator and colleague, Henry Song. He begins to tell his tale, beginning with his birth in China.
Persecuted for their beliefs in China, Jung’s family fled to North Korea in the 1960’s when he was only seven years old. As an adult, Jung was in the North Korean military for ten years, and then found work with a trade company. The 1990s, when Jung was working as a businessman, was a particularly hard time for North Koreans. Following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, the country experienced four years of famine and despair. Jung recalls seeing “twenty fresh bodies killed by starvation every day,” during this period, known by North Koreans as the Arduous March. Seeking extra revenue in such a difficult time, many traders looked for money in any avenue they could find. These business wanderings ultimately lead to Jung’s arrest and imprisonment, as unapproved foreign dealings were taboo. In 1999, Jung was reported by a colleague for meeting with South Korean businessmen and was subsequently arrested for suspected espionage.
Jung, following his arrest, underwent a ten-month period of water, electric, and pigeon torture. He went from 170 pounds to 80 pounds during these months and was unable to walk without clutching a wall. After ten months of enduring constant torture, Jung finally falsely confessed to espionage simply so that the torture would stop. He was then sent to an infamous prison camp known as No. 15, or Yodok concentration camp. Jung says that there were around seven-hundred other political prisoners, some imprisoned for offenses as contacting Christianity or criticizing the regime. He recalled one inmate whose offense was accidentally ripping a newspaper with Kim Jong-Il’s face on it—which was reported by his wife to the authorities.
Life at the camps were not very different than the initial months of torture, according to Jung. Inmates were forced to work sixteen hour days with only one daily meal of 600 grams of ground corn (equivalent to around 2.5 cups). This small portion of food was only awarded if an inmate finished their work quota; many did not, and consequently died of starvation. Jung believes he buried as many as three hundred prisoners himself during his three years at Yodok. This comes with a heavy emotional toll— every time Jung speaks of the horrors at Yodok, he says he can never sleep the following night because of the nightmares.
On April 12, 2003, Jung was released. Although he only spent three years in the camp (a relatively light sentence in American prison) Jung says it was “hell on Earth that felt like an eternity.” Twelve days after his release, Jung fled to a series of countries. After swimming to China through the Tumen River, Jung traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and finally settled in South Korea. It was in South Korea that Jung realized he could never forget the faces of the inmates in Yodok, and vowed to become an activist in their names. He wrote a comprehensive list of everyone and everything he could remember, which was later used as evidence in United Nations resolutions against North Korean human rights violations. His activism did not stop there; he wanted to deliver news and information to the North Koreans to inspire social change and revolt. To achieve this, Jung formed a non-governmental organization entitled No Chain, inspired by the idea of breaking the chain that binds the North Korean people. No Chain specializes in sending information-packed CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and micro SD cards to the North Koreans via drones. Predominantly using micro SDs, they are disguised with brand-new packaging but are filled with movies, documentaries, South Korean dramas, k-pop, and other forms of media. No Chain initially used a human network, but now uses drones after Kim Jung-Un ordered guards to shoot civilians crossing the river on sight in 2014. North Korea is trying to cover up their efforts by labeling Jung as a “terrorist” and “human scum,” claiming he uses his helicopter drones to destroy statues of present and past leaders.
Today, the goals of No Chain are to gain help in their efforts to disseminate information to the North Korean people. Jung and Song have been traveling to universities and festivals across the world to share Jung’s story along with No Chain’s platform. Jung urges students to send in personal video messages and any other media they possibly can to send to North Korean youth. In regards to the real threat of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jung advises “not to fear,” because information dissemination is what the regime is most afraid of. If their mission is successful, Jung hopes the North Koreans will be able to wake up and subdue the dictatorial regime and end the nuclear threat. Jung ends the speech with a rallying cry: “UAB, help us!”
Cruel and unusual punishment is a human rights issue we don’t hear enough about. It is illegal according to our US Constitution and the Eighth Amendment and a grave human rights violation according to international treaties and documents. For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The Convention on the Protection of against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Treatment or Punishment describes what actions constitute to be labeled as torture, the government and law enforcement’s responsibility to prohibit the use of torture or inhuman treatment through training and a concern for law and order, and the rights a person has if they were to be tortured by the state.
Imagine that you are being detained and questioned because it is believed that you may be involved in illegal drug activity. Your questioning consists of electro-shock, beatings, rape, and other forms of sexual assault. Would you consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Most would think so. Sadly, it is not unusual in many countries around the world. Mexico is only one case study.
Amnesty International reports that the government of Mexico is currently committing torturous acts on women who have been accused of participating in illegal drug activity or organized crime. There are at least one hundred women who have come forward and spoken about their experienced abuse by law enforcement at every level: local, state, and federal- including the Army and Navy. Each of these women have reported experiencing some kind of torture whether that be psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or both (usually both). It was reported that seventy-two women were “sexually abused during or hours after their arrest.” Thirty-three of those women stated that they were raped.
In 2013, Mónica was 26 when she was “gang raped by six municipal police officers, received electro-shock to her genitals, was suffocated with a plastic bag, was dragged across the floor by her hair, and had her head plunged into a bucket of water in the city of Torreón, where she also witnessed the torturous death of her husband.” She watched as her husband was being tortured by “beatings with metal studded whips and the skin on his legs being peeled off with a knife…” When the couple and Mónica’s brother were being transported to the Attorney General’s office, she watched her husband take his last breath of life. She was later flown to Mexico City and taken to the Deputy Attorney General on Organized Crime. Mónica told Amnesty International that she was forced to “sign a confession stating that she was a part of a drug cartel,” notwithstanding the fact that it is a non-admissible confession in court if torture was involved according to Mexican law.
Torture and harsh interrogation tactics are common practice in Mexico’s investigations of drug-related organized crime.
Why did she receive such despicable treatment? I think the police of Mexico are trying to send the message that they are actively pursuing the drug trafficking problem the country faces. They are using women like Mónica who are of lower socioeconomic status because they are perceived as the “weakest link in the trafficking chain and are seen as ‘easy targets’ to arrest.” These women also are more susceptible to not being able to pay for even a halfway decent defense attorney. This means that not only are they vulnerable to arrest, but also vulnerable to police brutality. This isn’t the first time Mexico has been “caught in the act” of committing illegal arrests and mistreating those who are arrested. In fact, Amnesty International reported that since 1991 there have been thousands of complaints associated with the ill-treatment and torture of those who have been arrested, yet only fifteen of these cases resulted in federal criminal convictions, including the case of General Manuel de Jesus Moreno Aviña.
Back in 2008, the Mexican Army took on an immense responsibility to put a stop to organized crime and drug cartel activity. General Aviña was accused of torturing and murdering José Heriberto Rojas Lemus. Lemus “was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.” The court sentence read that it’s possible Lemus died from multiple cardiac arrests due to the shocks, yet the military doctor was ordered to write on the death certificate that Lemus overdosed. Another case involves a video that has surfaced of a woman being tortured by a female federal officer and two army soldiers through suffocation. The Department of Defense has stated that “these events occurred on February 4, 2015 in Ajuchitan, a small mountain town in southern Guerrero state.” The Mexican army has announced that the two soldiers involved are currently in a military prison awaiting trial, but there has been no word on whether the federal officer will face charges or not. What is different about these cases is that since they involved military personnel, the military justice system took control. As Raul Benitez, a security specialist and political science professor, explains it, “the military justice system tends to be very strict in such cases, because (the soldiers in the video) are casting the institution in a bad light.” Civilian prosecutors aren’t so swift in taking these cases on.
So, if cases of torture like these were investigated, why are a significant majority of them not? The torture case that occurred in Ajuchitan in 2015 is considered “special” because it was easy to investigate due to the fact that all the evidence needed is in a video rather than just simply accusations of torture coming from prisoners. Torture and harsh interrogations are prevalent in Mexico’s investigations. Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and supported other human rights documents dealing with torture and arbitrary arrest and is thus in violation of these international human rights treaties. The reports are out from Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, but reports are the only way thus far that Mexico can be held accountable globally. So my question is: what do we do now?
Mexico is breaking its obligations under international law by illegally detaining and torturing people.
Mexico wants to give the appearance that they are in compliance with international law as they pursue and prosecute organized crime/ drug cartel activity that has plagued the country for years. However, when reports and videos surface that show exactly who they are harassing, arresting, detaining, and torturing Mexico was hard pressed to justify its actions. In my opinion, they don’t want to go after the real gangs and drug lords because money talks. Corruption is widespread – in fact, drug cartels paid around $100 million A MONTH to police officers nationwide to turn their heads they other way. Part of the problem is the very low pay of police officers (just over 20 percent earns less than 1,000 pesos ($79) a month, while 60.9 percent earns no more than 4,000 pesos ($317) monthly. To fulfill its obligations towards the U.S. and expectations by the international community, Mexican authorities often target women and men of lower economic status who don’t have the funds to pay bribes to law enforcement officials or the network to be kept out of jail. This begins the cycle of violence described above, which will be very hard to break as long as corruption within Mexico’s federal, state, and local governments continues. Fundamental reform of Mexico’s militarized police force, law enforcement, and the judicial system as well changes on socio-economic policy are needed to end unrest and diminish the power of organized crime and drug cartels.
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