I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.
Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.
The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.
Freedom of Speech
The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.
Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.
Chile is a Spanish-speaking country located to the west of Argentina in South America. Its ribbon-like shape allows it to be a part of many different climates, from the Atacama Desert to the North to the snowy Alpine climate to the South. According to the BBC Country Profile, Chile’s population amounts to about 17.9 million people, with 6.7 million people living in Santiago, its capital city.
Chile is a free country. The Freedom in the World 2019 Profile rates Chile as Free with a score of 94 out of 100. According to the report, Chile’s Freedom Rating, Political Rights, and Civil Liberties are rated as most free due to its growing civil rights efforts that emerged after its transition to a democracy in 1990. So, why are there high-scale protests currently spanning the country? High costs and economic inequality are largely to blame.
Inequality, especially in terms of income and wealth, has significant influence on human rights. Without access to money or a stable income, many are restricted in access to healthcare, education, food, and other commodities and services that every person should be able to access. The lack of access to these goods violates the 25th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Due to the ubiquity of poverty worldwide, this demonstrates that much of the world still has a long way to go until universal human rights are achieved. Inequality also distances the poor from proper services, such as some form of education, proper shelter, and access to water, which creates conflict between disadvantaged and affluent communities. By denying these universal human rights, countries are willing to perpetuate (extreme) inequality, which restricts access to fundamental needs that ensure equitable and sustainable living conditions.
According to an article posted by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, focus on economic inequality remains silent despite its major ramifications on the lives of people across the world. The article questions why the human rights community is relatively silent on an issue that challenges what human rights stands for in the first place and how the community can advance policies such as fiscal reforms, wage protections and social protection floors. While it is true these reforms and actions may help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, some of the larger scale benefits these programs can fund are financial literacy and incentives for self-governance.
According to Vox, Chile’s president’s approval rating had dipped below 14 percent, a historic number when looking at the amount of people who are livid and fighting peacefully for change. Such disapproval comes as Chile plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November, where President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping will be visiting to negotiate a trade deal, and the UN Climate Change Conference occurring in December. A solution proposed by Shivani Ekkanath in an opinion piece of the Borgen Magazine lays along the lines of cracking down on bureaucracy, fixing the misallocation of funds, ending corruption, etc. in order to lift the economic burden of poverty and other kinks in the economic system.
Based on what has occurred in Chile thus far, it appears the rise in metro prices by 30 pesos was simply the tip of the iceberg. Growing economic inequality combined with more business-friendly practices has caused more workers and everyday Chileans to suffer and be unable to work toward a promising future for themselves and their families. And, as seen when with economic inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor simply brings into light how it is both a cause and a consequence of violations of human rights such as access to care, education, and housing. Current protests like these help us understand that even countries regarded as stable are not always what they seem unless one looks at the lives of everyday people. Thus, we must focus on social and economic stability by employing a human rights perspective through the view of the common Chilean rather than a perspective at a state-wide level. Chile is an excellent example of people fighting for fairness in society peacefully, where progressive fiscal reforms should be utilized and promoted, rather than solely looking to appeal businesses.
The Kashmir region in South Asia, once known as the “Heaven on Earth”, has been under dispute since 1948. Recently, human rights abuses have escalated as a result of the Indian government stripping the autonomy of Kashmiris through the removal of Article 370. For more than two months people have been detained in their homes under a curfew with limited access to the outside world. The responses to this crisis have been mixed, and this post unpacks some of the different reactions around the world.
Experts appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council expressed their concerns over the government-imposed curfew, communication shutdown, use of force by troops, movement restrictions, and the arrest of political leaders and human rights defenders in the region. They reminded the Indian authorities that the restrictions imposed by them were against the “fundamental norms of necessity and proportionality” and violated Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ensures the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The communication blackout and restrictions on peaceful gatherings were deemed inconsistent with their basic rights. Additionally, the use of live ammunition on unarmed protestors could violate the right to life and is permissible “only as last resort and to protect life” according to the experts. The situation was referred to as a “collective punishment” for civilians without the pretext of any breach and the Indian government was urged to lift the brutal curfew as reported by the Council.
One of the most notable instances where the Kashmir issue was brought up was the 74th session of United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City last month. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Turkish President Tayyab Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan were the ones to raise the Kashmir issue on the world stage. PM Khan exceeded his allowed time to speak for Kashmir and urged the UN to take action. He demanded that India lift the inhumane curfew and reminded the world and the UN of their responsibility to take action against the ongoing violence against innocent civilians. He also warned that
“When a nuclear-armed country fights to the end, it will have consequences far beyond the borders. It will have consequences for the world. That’s not a threat, it’s a fair worry. Where are we headed? I’ve come here because this is a test for the United Nations. You guaranteed the right to determination of the people of Kashmir. You have a responsibility.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided any mention of the atrocities and his government’s actions in Kashmir during his speech while thousands of people protested outside the UNGA. The protestors included a wide range of South Asian organizations and carried banners opposing the “military occupation” of Kashmir and “disenfranchisement of seven million Kashmiris”. They chanted slogans demanding Azaadi meaning “freedom” for the victims. In addition to the people of South Asian descent, the protest also included concerned North Americans and organizations like Black Lives Matter, Jewish Voice for Peace NYC, Hindus for Human Rights, India Civil Watch, and the Indian American Muslim Council.
Amnesty International also launched a Let Kashmir Speak petition asking the Indian govt to put humanity first and let the people of Kashmir speak by lifting the communications blackout. Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International said that “The people of Jammu and Kashmir should not be treated as pawns in a political crisis, and the international community must come together to call for their human rights to be respected.” Amnesty also tweeted that “the unilateral decision by Government of India to revoke Jammu & Kashmir’s special status without consulting J&K stakeholders, amidst a clampdown on civil liberties & communications blackout is likely to increase the risk of further human rights violations & inflame tensions.”
While responses by the UN and international organizations have remained limited, people have continued to mobilize to bring attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Recently Times Square in New York City, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world, highlighted the Kashmir issue by slogans saying, “Restore Human Rights”, “Stand with Kashmir”, and “Free Kashmir” at the end of September. Reports suggest that it was sponsored by the collective effort of the Pakistani community in the United States.
Grassroots mobilization is also occurring within Birmingham locally, among residents of Kashmiri origin and those having families in the blocked territory. They conducted an awareness and fundraiser dinner in partnership with the Birmingham Islamic society this Sunday to explain the crisis in Kashmir and to collect funds to lobby against the Indian government’s violence. The description of the event stated that
“The ongoing crisis in Kashmir has barely received any media coverage although it’s currently one of the worst massacres in the world. Not only is the Indian Government responsible for over 100,000 Kashmiri people murdered and over 10,000 Kashmiri women raped, but they have implemented a blackout on all of Kashmir preventing people from using internet and phones to contact the outside world. This event will provide you with more awareness as well as collect any funds, if you can, to lobby.”
At UAB, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is raising money for the Kashmir cause at their annual Fastathon. According to the organization, “This year, the MSA is raising money for the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir. For every pledge to fast, people in the community will donate money for the cause. Kashmir valley, Jammu and Kashmir is an ‘open air prison’. As soon as this lockdown ends, there will be an immense and immediate humanitarian need. Pledge to fast for a day and help us feed, provide medical supplies, and raise awareness for the Kashmiri refugees”. They have also been conducting bake sales to raise funds for Kashmir relief in the past few weeks outside the Mervyn H. Sterne library.
People around the world have been showing their support for Kashmiris according to their own resources and levels of influence. Unfortunately, the situation has not been improved and millions of people are still being held hostage in their homes and neighborhoods. World authorities, powers, and humanitarian organizations need to take action against these human rights violations and project their voice to a larger, global audience in order to mobilize relief efforts. The world needs to recognize the gravity of the crisis and its consequences to take immediate and appropriate action.
On 15 August 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a travel ban on two US Congresswomen, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.His decision was a surprising reversal from a mere month ago, when both PM Netanyahu and Israeli’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, confirmed that Reps. Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”While the final catalyst for this reversal is credited to the machinations of US President Donald Trump, the primary cause for the travel ban, according to PM Netanyahu, is Reps. Tlaib’s and Omar’s support for the transnational Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a concerted effort to compel the State of Israel to revolutionize how it works with Palestinians within and around Israel’s borders.This post aims to unpack the historical and cultural context of the BDS Movement, analyze the fault lines within the BDS Movement, and suggest ways for BDS to mend these divides while sharpening its effectiveness in advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.
Originating the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) Movement
From 31 August to 7 September 2001, the United Nations held the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR, also called the Durban Conference, as it was held in Durban, South Africa), billed as “providing an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.”Within this anti-racist, anti-apartheid ethos, world leaders sought to locate and eradicate large-scale structures bolstering racist ideology and marginalizing populations based off racial and ethnic identity.Almost all states at the WCAR were in total agreement that Zionism, the political movement to establish and protect a wholly-Jewish nation, was indeed racist.Many actors arguing against the ideology of Zionism claimed that, although the Jewish people have the right to create their own state, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people (Palestinians) rendered the current form of Zionism a racist ideology.It was at the Durban Conference that BDS finds its intellectual roots, as many Middle East / North African states (specifically, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen) agreed to utterly isolate Israel (economically, intellectually, culturally, politically) until Israel revolutionized its relationship with indigenous Palestinians.Of course, calls for isolationism, itself a remnant of how the world treated South African during its apartheid practices, were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks against the US a mere four days after the Durban Conference ended. It was also at the Durban Conference that the “Red-Green” alliance was formed between radical leftist and Islamist groups, collectively impugning Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians.
The intellectual seeds of BDS were planted, and two years later, the world would see the harvest.On 8 December 2003, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli-built wall surrounding East Jerusalem, seeking to ascertain if the wall constituted a breach of international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).The ICJ (relying on oral and written testimony from over 50 UN Member States, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union – amongst others) declared the wall bisecting Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements (displacing indigenous Palestinians) indeed violated international humanitarian law.The ICJ concluded their opinion, stating Israel should (a) cease construction on the wall and dismantle structures within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, (b) respect the right of the Palestinian people’s right to Self Determination (read this article for more information), and (c) pay reparations for costs incurred to the Palestinian people; furthermore, the ICJ contended that all State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should ensure Israel complies with this advisory opinion.While the advisory opinion alone was relatively toothless on the international stage (as, again, the US and Israel refused to comply with these stipulations), the ICJ’s decision kickstarted the eventual BDS movement two years later.
On 9 July 2005, over 150 Palestinian Civil Society Organizations (representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel) signed an open letter to global civil society actors declaring their intent to boycott Israeli products, divesting business activities from working with Israel, and sanctioning groups continuing to aid the Israeli State.The letter argues, in light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the ICJ’s recommendation, settlements extending into East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (see this article for a map of Palestine land loss since 1946) triggered the need for a transnational, nonviolent movement aimed at compelling the State of Israel to abide by the ICJ’s recommendation.The letter, echoing the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1960s – 1990s, contends that all persons of conscience (including Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish faith worldwide) have a moral obligation to pressure those in power (e.g., business leaders, political decision-makers, and other persons of high influence) to forcefully condemn Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinian populations.The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement of the State of Israel are as follows:
Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
Per the BDS official website, the Movement boasts several consequences of its ongoing efforts, including:
A 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014
Israeli weapon manfacturers complaining of an export crisis due to “less desire for Israeli=made products”.
Refusals from major artists (such as Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Faithless, Lauryn Hill, Brian, Eno, and Elvis Costello).
A formal recognition from the State of Israel that the BDS Movement presents a strategic threat to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Since its publication, the BDS movement has largely gained the most traction on college campuses (long understood to be a bastion of political activism).Simultaneously, the BDS Movement has been associated with radical anti-Zionism, bordering on anti-Semitism.This association has been the fodder of many political and civil society leaders and has crippled the efficacy of Palestinian Rights activists.
Critiques of BDS
Critiques of the BDS Movement fall into three broad categories: (1) issues surrounding its founder and leader, Omar Barghouti; (2) BDS’s opposition to the internationally-accepted Two-State Solution; and (3) accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and subsequent promotion of violence.
The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty… If ever the ethos of “a responsibility to protect”, recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of “humanitarian intervention” is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering.(p. 36)
Beyond the problematization of BDS’s Founder, other cultural and political forces call into question the endgame of the BDS Movement.Former US Ambassador to Israel (2011 – 2017), Daniel B. Shapiro, recently argued in The Atlantic the BDS Movement “advocates the end of Israel, rather than the establishment of two states, and assigns as responsibility for the conflict, in all its historical complexity, to Israel alone”.Other critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League (an international Jewish NGO) has formally classified the BDS Movement as antisemitic.Australian politicians have noted pro-BDS protests feature acts of violence; British academics voted against Israeli boycotts, noting these boycotts constrict peaceful dialogue between Israeli intellectual leaders and the rest of the world; and American politicians note that BDS can empower antisemitism and undermine the lives and livelihoods of young Israeli scientists. Furthermore, symbolic of many global academics’ ambivalence towards the BDS Movement, philosopher Judith Butler suggests a third path: collaborating with intellectual and cultural Israelis without accepting funding from the Israeli State. This move, Butler suggests, sidesteps the thorny issue of discrimination on the basis of nationality (e.g., refusing to work with Israeli academics simply wholly due to their Israeli citizenship) while still eschewing affiliation with the Israeli government.
Considering the complexity of the BDS Movement, with its goal of unshackling indigenous Palestinians and its questionable methods and leadership, I now pose the question: what lessons can transformational solidarity movements teach BDS, allowing it to deftly address its many criticisms and simultaneously bolster its efficacy to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians?
Embracing Complexity within Transformational Solidarity Movements
Dr. Anne Garland Mahler, in her text From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity, alludes to an ideal form of solidarity movements; this form is defined by qualities such as transnationalism (e.g., a widening of solidarity membership to include sympathizers of many, seemingly incongruous nationalisms – such as Palestinian and Israeli), transracial (e.g., not only including diversity ethnicities, such as Jewish and Arab, but an antiracist alignment of said ethnicities), anti-neoliberal (e.g., rejecting the ‘built-in’ nature of inequalities along dimensions related to socioeconomic status, level of education, political access, and health), and horizontalist (e.g., eschewing rigid hierarchies of authority within an organization).While her original analysis centers around the Tricontinental Solidarity Movement, a Cuban-borne political movement attempting to interlock methods and goals of liberation found within Asian, African, and Latin American peoples, leaders of the BDS Movement would do well to heed her call.
The BDS Movement, at base, aims to transform the lives of Palestinians – the endgame is to reduce violence, promote negative and positive peace, and provide the conditions within life that allow an individual and a people the resources and structures required to build harmony, enjoy prosperity, promote health, and protect equity.Transformational movements fixate not only on the immediate tragedies of war and conflict, but they additionally fixate on the long-term situations giving rise to sustainable peace.Mahler correctly locates a critical juncture within this equation – transformational movements must ally themselves with other, perhaps seemingly disparate, movements also aspiring for liberation.This relational space of ally-ship is precisely where the BDS Movement should aim to stride.These allies (and partners in transformational struggles) may include prominent Arab-Jewish transracial and Israeli-Palestinian transnational organizations.These potential allies also include Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (facilitating intentional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian groups), the Children of Abraham (emphasizing the spiritual and religious dimensions required of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes), the Alliance of Middle East Peace (a political lobbying coalition proposing legislation promoting peace in the MENA region), and Peace Oil (an for-profit company promoting economic interdependency between Arabs and Israelis).Alliances between BDS and these organizations may increase accountability for ‘bad actors’ within the BDS Movement, demonstrate cooperation between Arab and Israelis (rather than domination or antagonism), and sidestep the maligned efforts of ‘spoilers’ within peacebuilding processes.
From a peace and human rights perspective, the BDS Movement should aspire to be one of solidarity – meaning its membership, supporters, and leaders coalesce their methods of transformation within three domains: (1) electoral democracy, (2) opposition, and (3) dialogue.Specifically, global sympathizers of the BDS Movement should consider continuously voting for candidates and measures ultimately empowering peacebuilding between Israel and Palestine, utilizing nonviolent methods of protesting anti-peace individuals and organizations (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are obvious examples here – what is missing is a clear focus on the definitive spoilers of peace) and finally, engaging in good-faith, long-term dialogue within their own ranks and between the BDS Movement and other allies and potential adversaries.
On Thanksgiving evening, while many of us were still enjoying or recovering from a day of family and feasting, Emantic Bradford Senior – who is currently battling cancer – was waiting for his son EJ to come help him with his chemo medicine. “He was my best friend,” Senior says, “and my nurse. He treated me like I was his kid.” As EJ got ready to leave his father’s house that night, Senior, as he always did, asked his son if he needed any money. EJ was on his way to join eager Black Friday shoppers at the Galleria in Hoover. Late that night, Senior’s stepson woke him up. “You talked to EJ?” he asked. “Not since he left the house,” Senior responded, rousing himself. He showed Senior his phone, opened to a video posted on Facebook depicting a chaotic scene at the Galleria, shoppers running and screaming in panic. At this point, the Hoover Police Department had released a statement that there had been an altercation at the shopping mall around 10:00 PM and that police had shot and killed the instigator as he fled the scene. We’re “very, very proud” of the response of our officers, the statement said, for “engaging the subject and taking out the threat.” It was 12:30 AM. Emantic Bradford Junior – EJ – had been dead for two and a half hours at this point, but this would not be confirmed to the family until the next morning. Seeing the social media reports, Senior immediately called the Hoover PD to ask if the police had killed his son. “We’ll call you back in 10 minutes,” they told him. Ten minutes went by, no phone call. Senior called back. Again, “Someone will have to call you back.” This went on for a while until Senior finally demanded to know if that was his son – lying lifeless and uncovered on the cold, white floor – in the photos on Facebook. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give you any information at this time. You’ll have to call the county.” In frustration and terror, Senior calls the county police – he is put on hold, transferred, put on hold again, until finally a man gets on the line and confirms that yes, EJ is dead. Several hours go by, and the Hoover PD releases another statement: we got the wrong guy.
EJ had been shot and killed by a police officer who wrongfully assumed that he was the person instigating violence at the mall that night. In the precious hours between the police department applauding the officer’s “heroic” actions for stopping a violent crime and admitting that EJ “very likely wasn’t the shooter,” EJ’s image was misconstrued and misrepresented in the news and on social media – at first, to fit the profile of a killer, and later, as someone who made some bad choices that resulted in his untimely death. There was a desperation to prove that this situation was different, that it was an isolated incident, and that it did not serve as an example of police brutality against people of color. A narrative about EJ’s life and the circumstances of his death was planted, one that justified the officer’s actions and placed the blame on EJ himself. And this is where we end up:
EJ had a gun.
Right…and Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Eric Garner was hustling cigarettes. How could we know that Tamir Rice was holding a plastic toy and not a real gun? And maybe the most egregious justification of all: Michael Brown “looked like a demon.” There is always some way to extract the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers from the systemic problem of police brutality. There is always something we can point to and say well, this had nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with…fill-in-the-blank.
But let’s be clear: EJ wasn’t shot because he was carrying a gun (which he was licensed to own and trained to use). EJ was not perceived as a “good guy with a gun.” EJ didn’t brandish a weapon in the sense of acting threateningly with it. He didn’t have to – he was the weapon. And the words of Claudia Rankine ring in our ears:
“Because white men can’t
Police their imagination
Black men are dying”
The unnamed officer didn’t regard EJ as a person in that moment but as a black man with a gun, which in his imagination and under Alabama law, justified three shots to the back, ending EJ’s life. But we can’t help but wonder – to appropriate Matthew McConaughey’s powerful line in A Time to Kill – what would have happened if EJ were white. Even mass shooters – who are nearly always white – are often apprehended by police officers without being harmed. When they do die, it’s usually because they take their own lives. For example, after he opened fire on unsuspecting worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, police chased Dylan Roof through two states before they caught him and took him to Burger King to get something to eat. Travis Reinking had a history of mental illness, had threatened violence multiple times, his many firearms had been confiscated – and then returned – before he walked into a Waffle House and shot four people. “He just didn’t seem like a violent person,” one coworker said of Reinking, joining with others who insisted that he was “intelligent and polite.” Reinking fled the scene, and officers chased him into the woods before he was apprehended unharmed. At a movie theater in Aurora, police mistook James Eagen Holmes for a fellow officer because of “the tactical clothing he was wearing.” In other words, he looked like them. But one look at EJ Bradford, and that was it. A black man holding a gun, standing near the victim…bang, bang, bang.
I imagine that police officer didn’t walk into that shopping mall that night intending to kill a black man. The nature of the situation forced him to make a snap judgement, and according to the official report, it took about three seconds to assess the situation, identify EJ as the target, and take him out. And it wasn’t until his family started demanding answers that they even questioned whether or not they had gotten the right guy. Ultimately, it was concluded that the officer “reasonably exercised his official powers, duties, or functions” when he fired those shots. And in a legal sense, it’s hard to argue with that. But we need some context here – there is a larger problem that must be addressed.
The lives of black people in the United States have been and continue to be conditioned and defined by violence – structural, institutionalized, everyday violence and brutal retaliation by the state and other groups against their demands to be seen and heard and regarded as human. Black bodies are weaponized in the popular imagination, associated with crime and danger, and the full participation of black people in society is subjugated by a collective consciousness that centralizes whiteness and systematically excludes people of color. The truth is that compared to white people, people of color are disproportionately killed by police officers in the United States. This is not because all white police officers are explicitly racist but because of where we hold space for black bodies in our broader cultural ethos. What gives police brutality its life force is the same thing that makes it harder for black people to buy houses, get into college and acquire health insurance. This refined yet insidious form of racism resides deep in our collective consciousness, and it engenders the unspoken but deeply felt sentiment that non-whites are threatening and dangerous, that we need the state to protect us from them.
And where does this come from? When slavery ended, the South (and eventually the rest of the country) adopted slightly more palatable systems of subjugation and discrimination against the newly freed citizenship. The preservation of the white male patriarchy depended on one thing – fear. As long as white people continued to be terrified of black people, white supremacy reigned unimpeded. Over time, laws ensuring civil rights and protections for people of color were slowly updated and selectively enforced. To be sure, these were victories. Progress, however, is not a zero-sum game. As overt ideals and expressions of racism were put asunder on paper, they didn’t go away. Instead, they burrowed down deep inside of our subconscious. On the surface, we developed new ways of explaining the unequal distribution of resources and power and opportunity without ever outwardly implicating skin pigmentation. We relegated black people to conditions of poverty, denied all but a few access to the middle class, and then blamed those left behind for bringing about their own woes. We associated violence in black communities not with poverty and lack of access but with blackness itself. We moved black bodies from the plantation to the prison system, once again denying them their freedom, but this time blaming them for it. Not all of them, of course, but enough to sustain the image and the fear.
Shop owners at the Galleria will tell you that there is a “black” side and a “white” side of the mall. Where do you think the police presence was concentrated that night? When it comes to spaces occupied by black bodies, the police force tends to emphasize the “force” over the policing. And yet…“You just don’t bring guns into a crowded mall,” the Hoover mayor admonished in his statement about the wrongful killing. How ironic. Okay, Mr. Mayor, tell that to the NRA. Better yet, if that’s such an obvious unspoken rule, try to make it a law in Alabama and see how far you get. At the very least, say what you mean: if you’re black, don’t carry a gun into a shopping mall. Because for people of color, certain constitutional rights must be qualified.
This is refined racism: when white people hear of the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers, we latch on to some element of the story that distracts us from the color of the victim’s skin and emphasizes some other factor that explains the officers’ actions. Rather than trying to understand what it means to be a black person in this country, to confront our own implicit biases and to acknowledge our complicity in upholding a racist social order, we look for something, anything, to assure ourselves that this was an isolated and unavoidable incident (at least on the part of the officer). In doing so, we sustain the devaluation of black bodies and black minds and justify the power of the state to marginalize people of color, to treat them as an inconvenience and to perceive them as a threat that needs to be neutralized by whatever means necessary. In situations like this, that is where our minds naturally go. We make our excuses, we qualify our apologies, we blame the victim. The story gets whitewashed. And just like that, Trayvon’s death, Philando Castille’s death, EJ’s death are their own faults.
So how do we change this reality? It is going to take more than providing courses to police officers on racial sensitivity and limiting the use of force. If we truly want to live in a world where the state treats people of all skin tones equally, white people must police their imaginations. We must actively work to decentralize whiteness, aggressively refute the narrative that people of color pose a threat to our society, and unequivocally demand that they be protected rather than forcibly policed. The political justice system won’t change until our collective consciousness changes, until we break ourselves of false equivalencies and false associations around blackness, until we recognize what the enduring legacy of slavery and centuries of subjugation and oppression have done to individuals and families and communities, until we give the black man a chance to be the good guy. We are all stakeholders in this process; if we’re going to move forward as a society, we have to do it together.
The Galleria reopened at six o’clock the next morning, as scheduled, because consumer capitalism can’t be bothered by the death of a black man. The Christmas shopping season went ahead full stride, while Emantic Bradford Senior was left to mourn the death of his son, to contend with his disease alone, to wallow in the pain of never again getting to hear his son call him ‘daddy.’ After two months of investigation, the Attorney General of Alabama ruled that the nameless officer who shot and killed EJ was “justified” in doing so. Under Alabama law, no crime was committed. But EJ’s mama, April Pipkins, leaves us with an important question: “If this happened to your child, would you still call it justice?”
When someone close to me questioned the importance of my marching with White Birminghamians For Black Lives, I wrote this poem as a response. I proudly carry a sign, “White Silence Breeds Injustice,” every Friday from 4:30-6:30 at Kelly Ingram Park. Everyone is welcome.
“WHITE SILENCE BREEDS INJUSTICE,”
Words I hold in my hands
For those whose hands are shackled
Or too full with work
And growing healthy babies.
Can our voices speak as theirs
Or do we dilute their words?
Can I ally with Dreamers,
Insulated by my birthright?
Can I represent the poor
With no balance on my Visa?
Can I fight for women’s rights
And parent three white males?
What makes a marcher relevant?
What deems a march impactful?
Pussy hats and Trump attacks
And “Free Melania” placards?
If I echo, “Me Too,” and state,
“No Hate, No Fear,”
Are these the stuff of change?
If we few insist on marching,
Does our weekly selfie morph
Into a media laughingstock?
Distractors, subtractors from the core?
Interlopers, intruders on could-be passion?
Or just subnormative?
Can we convey, “Black Lives Matter”
As a smattering of whites?
Are we a joke gone viral
In our efforts to protest
For those we cannot protect?
Can we sense Black pain
Enough to hail its power
Over all Americans?
When two or three are gathered
In the name of Social Justice,
Do we frustrate the huddled masses
Or does good emanate from the act?
“Yes,” I say ground is gained
By our meager footsteps.
Our rallying imprimatur leaves
Permanence in its wake,
For white silence breeds injustice.
Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life. She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe. Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership. She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.
This is the first school shooting I remember. All these years later, I still remember what I thought once I saw the photos: “How did this happen? Surely this is a random tragedy that will never happen again.” The writing of this blog comes just over five weeks on the memory side of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida and on the same day as the Great Mills High School shooting in southern Maryland. The shooting at Heath High School is a distance memory, eclipsed by Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, and Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Many conversations and references, in recent weeks, center on the complicated nature of the gun control debate in the United States (US) due to the Parkland shooting and uncharacteristic demands of the teenage survivors. This blog does not directly address those conversations or references. There are many sides to the issue and other blog writers this week gave voice to some of those issues. Therefore, this blog explores the peculiar request of the teenage survivors, which is, seemingly lost among the defense of the Second Amendment.
The right to life.
It seems peculiar that children are demanding adults to protect their lives, to look out for their best interest, specifically when many in the US pride themselves on their pro-life stance. They champion every bill, legislative act, or protest which positions them as the protector of the “rights of the unborn”. As protectors of the unborn, they label women who choose to have abortions and the medical practitioners who perform the abortions as murderers. Some pro-life advocates stand outside Planned Parenthood centers, shouting vile, hurtful words and phrases at patrons and workers. They object to numerous women’s rights issues. All this occurs because of their belief in protecting the innocent, unborn baby who deserves the right to live.
Where are the pro-life advocates joining the protests initiated by the Parkland students who are demanding the protection of their right to life? These children lost their innocence when their classmate murdered their friends and teachers in hallways and classrooms on Valentine’s Day. Many pro-life advocates are standing on the sidelines, protecting their Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms. Yet, at what point did adults abdicate their responsibility to protect the lives of children to protect their rights to own weapons? Does the “pro-life” label still apply when there is a willful and complicit allegiance to a hobby and lobbying group than to children?
Perhaps a reclassification needs to occur wherein we label pro-birth rather than pro-life.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts, “A child means every human being below the age of eighteen years… [and] in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” When the best interest of the child is the primary consideration, how has the brutal transformation of schools and universities continued? It seems implausible that for the last 20 years, parents across the US have sent their children to school with hopes and dreams for the future, only to have to bury their 5-18-year-old days later. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports “children are learning there is no safe place in America.”
When No Place is Safe and Those Who Can/Should Help, Don’t
The US is the ONLY member of the United Nations to not ratified the CRC.
The cliché ‘no parent should have to bury their child’ seems redundant considering needless tragedies of gun violence. Its redundancy comes from the very real reality that pictures and videos from schools, universities, and playgrounds, as well as the rhetorical thoughts and prayers of government officials has yielded minimal results. Unlike natural disasters like tornados and earthquakes, controlling the impacts of gun violence is possible as evidenced in Australia, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Therefore, it is the normalization of violence in the US which continually isolates us from the rest of the world. Data reveals the hypocrisy of the ill-spoken narrative that children are the future of this country. CDF reveals
Children are forced to witness tragic mass shootings that occur with regularity in public spaces including schools, churches, concert venues, community centers, nightclubs and movie theaters.
Since 1963, the number of children and teens killed with guns on American soil was more than three times higher than the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostiles in wars abroad. Nearly 180,000 children and teens died from guns in the U.S. between 1963 and 2015.
With less than 5% of the global population, American civilians own 310 million guns (35-50%) of the global civilian gun-ownership, whereas the US military and law enforcement possess nearly 4 million. The US spends considerably more on defense than on early childhood and education, than every other country with smaller federal budgets.
Children are not a priority in the US.
Who’s doing the shooting?
Brown et al. analyzed two cases, identified four characteristics, and concluded “school violence is a somewhat distinct form of aggression that should not be viewed through standard lens.” The typical mass shooter is a white male who exacts revenge on those he deems dishonored him in some way. Research identifies this cultural phenomenon as “culture of honor”. In a culture of honor, people favor the death penalty, more tolerant of expressions of aggression as a response to threats/insults, and conflate a high degree of connection with status or reputation. This culture fuels the overall feeling of slight through a lack of interpersonal conflict resolution skills. The culture of honor creates a cultural standard wherein brutality becomes the recommended response to a perceived affront to one’s dignity or reputation; thus, a misguided sense of justice.
This misguided sense of justice positions whites as unapologetic for the behavior of shooters. Mingus and Zopf studied four mass shootings: two with white shooters (Columbine High School and Northern Illinois) and two with non-white shooters (VA Tech and Fort Hood). Using “Racial Formations” by Omi and Winant as a key text on racial projections, Mingus and Zopf assert, “The historical significance of race is important in understanding the way in which race affects any interpretation of shooting rampages.” They find that white privilege allows for the addition of race as a factor when identifying the “abhorrent behavior of non-whites” and the subtraction of race when redirecting “focus away from whites as a distinct population by pathologizing their aberrant behavior”. They conclude that non-whites groups often advocate for themselves as a means of not facing retaliation, even offering an apology in the VA Tech tragedy, whereas being white means never having to say you are sorry.
“If they’re old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot”
Reports occur daily of the ‘perceived threat of children’ when confronted by white people who feel a threat to their power or status. These reports extend beyond the scope of school shootings, and the requests to “stop killing us” commenced long before the Parkland shooting. The #NeverAgain movement includes the voices of the seemingly voiceless by including students from Chicago, Newtown, and 11-year-old Naomi Walder of Alexandria, VA. Walder, who highlights the deaths of Black girls forgotten by the media, organized her classmates during the National Walkout Day.
Political satirist and late-show comedy host Trevor Noah challenged the notion leveled by Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson after last week’s student walkout campaign. During a segment, Carlson questioned the validity of students making demands of lawmakers regarding guns by stating, “They’re not citizens; they’re children.” What’s interesting is that children are too young to make demands for gun control but not to find themselves in adult prison or forced into child marriage. Noah responded brilliantly stating, “…if kids are old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot.” When processing the numbers provided by the CDF, it is time someone said something.
7,768 children and teens were killed in the US to gun violence during 2013-2015
113 children under five (5) died from guns in 2016, compared to 65 law enforcement officers killed by guns in the line of duty. Guns were used in criminal acts to kill 62 law enforcement officers while three (3) were killed in gun accidents.
In 2016, 43% of gun deaths were among Black children and teens, although they made up only 14% of all children and teens.
1,335 Black children and teens were killed by guns in 2016, one every 6 hours and 34 minutes.
The gun death rate for Black children and teens was nearly 4x that of White children and teens and more than 8x that of Asian and Pacific Islander children and teens.
Most gun deaths among Black children and teens were by homicide. Most deaths by White children and teens were by suicide.
Guns are more often used to cause harm than in self-protection. A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide 3x higher, suicide 3-5x higher, and accidental death 4x higher. For each time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defense, there are 11 completed and attempted gun suicides, seven criminal assaults and homicides with a gun, and four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.
More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun.
Given the fact adults consistently prove children are not a priority in this country, children have made an opportunity to make themselves a priority.
Today, millions of children and adults domestically and internationally, participated in the #NeverAgain movement by joining the March for Our Lives protest. The campaign is not to initiate a disarmament; however, it is to reinstate the ban on assault rifles like AR-15 used in several mass shootings, including Las Vegas and Orlando. Additional demands include an expansion of background checks and a rise of the minimum age to purchase. At the core of the demands and the purpose of the protest lies a peculiar request for the most important human right: the right to live.
A right to a life without fear and terror.
A right to a life where adults apologize for hurting, neglecting, and not prioritizing children who are reliant upon them.
A right to a life without the trauma of relieving the horrors of running to save myself.
A right to a life that does not include witnessing my friends and teachers die before my eyes.
A right to a life by enjoying the full scope of childhood and adolescence which includes mistakes that should not end life because of a perceived threat
A right to a life because adults believe that I and my future are worth fighting for… just as they do for the unborn.
How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.
The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.
The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.
Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.
Ultimately, the differing perspectives of the Islamic Republic and the West demonstrate a crucial question facing the human rights community: Are human rights, in fact, universal? Or, do they differ based on history, culture, and other factors?
At its very essence, the Western conception of human rights contends such rights apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, or creed. But what if a society rejects core aspects of this conception? If a large enough segment of the human population expresses opposition to many of these rights, can the Western conception of human rights legitimately be referred to as “human” rights? Indeed, at its core, the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran represents a struggle between two, often-contradictory, worldviews.
From the very beginning, therefore, the Islamic Revolution represented a categorical rejection of Western values by the people of Iran. Although the majority of the revolution occurred relatively peacefully, protestors regularly assaulted symbols of Western culture, such as alcohol stores and movie theaters. This opposition to Western modernity continues in the Islamic Republic to the current day, according to Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidsaless, who observe:
On the other, the moderate viewpoint, as championed by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, believes in a world organized along the idea that societies and cultures should remain separate, but ultimately equal, based on qualities such as mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs. However, unlike the conservative school of thought, the Reformists do not perceive the necessity of conflict between cultures – instead, they stress emphasizing commonalities in order to minimize conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic societies.
Ultimately, these arguments weaken the underlying assumption that human rights are universal. Critics of this viewpoint suggest the universality of human rights emerges from the various international documents that codify such rights. Yet this ignores the fact that Westerners – specifically, the Western liberal political elite – overwhelmingly participated in the drafting of these documents. Furthermore, the conception of these documents served an explicitly political purpose – buttressing the post-war, liberal world order as conceived by President Roosevelt and American planners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights played a direct role in crafting the appearance of universality for the Western conception of human rights.
Only once the intra-civilizational divides on values and human rights reach a sufficient conclusion can inter-civilizational divides hope to receive adequate attention and a truly universal human rights regime formulated. Ultimately, the implementation of this human rights regime could serve as a veritable Peace of Westphalia for human rights.
Venezuela is not free. The Freedom in the World 2017 Profile rates their overall freedom status as Not Free with an aggregate score of 30/100. The most recent anti-government protests have persisted for eight weeks with a rising death toll of at least 60 as of Monday 29 May, as the far too often and routine clashes between protesters and police continue. Violence has heightened in recent days as the opposition marches for its four key demands:
removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the ruling on March 29th;
general elections in 2017 (rather than 2018);
creation of a “humanitarian channel” to allow the import of medication to counter severe shortages; and
release of all the “political prisoners”
Both the government and opposition accuse each other of sending armed groups to sow violence during demonstrations. President Maduro has even gone as far as to accuse the opposition of terrorism. Food and medicine shortages plague the citizens of Venezuela as they struggle to fight for their own freedom and basic human rights. Many sources say the country is on the brink of collapse.
Consistent political tension has existed in the country since the death of former leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) Hugo Chaves in 2013, when President Nicolas Maduro came to power. The election left the country split into Chavistas (followers of the socialist policies of the late President Chaves) and those who wish to see an end to the PSUV’s 18 years in power. Opposition members claim the PSUV has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy. In turn, Chavistas point the finger at the opposition for being elitists, who exploit poor Venezuelans for personal financial gain. Additionally, Chavistas allege that opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States, with whom Venezuela has had strained relations in recent years.
In early 2014, Venezuelan government began to respond to anti-government protests with brutal force. Security forces used excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. These forces tolerated and even, at times, collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that violently assaulted protesters. Those detained and held incommunicado on military bases for at least 48 hours before appearing before a judge. In some cases, detainees were subject to severe beating, electric shocks or burns, and forced to squat or kneel for hours.
Maduro, in July 2015, deployed over 80,000 members of security forces in “Operation People’s Liberation” (OLP) to confront “rising security concerns”. Following raids in low-income and immigrant communities by both police and military forces resulted in public accusations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations. The following February, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz announced that 245 people had been killed in OLP raids during 2015 in “incidents in which ‘members of various security forces participated’”. Government cited that “those killed died during ‘confrontations’ with armed criminals,” despite witness accounts in at least 20 cases that do not include any sort of confrontation.
Human Rights Watch World Report on Venezuela (HRW) reveals tensions have only increased as arbitrary prosecution of political opponents has become more frequent and forceful. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, is serving a 13-year sentence in military prison for his alleged role in inciting violence during a demonstration in Caracas in February 2014, despite the lack of any credible evidence linking him to a crime. Several others arrested arbitrarily in connection to anti-government protests in 2014, remain detained or under house arrest while awaiting trial. The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) detained dozens of individuals in 2016, citing they were planning, fomenting, or participating in violent anti-government actions, although many were, in fact, peaceful protests. Many detainees claim they were tortured or abused in custody. Detainees also report they were unable to speak with their families or attorneys for hours and/or days after their detaining. In many cases, much like Lopez’s, prosecutors failed to produces any plausible evidence associating charged persons with the crimes of which they were accused. Courts consider the possession of political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners, credible evidence in some cases.
HRW suggests Venezuela’s national distress heightened as “severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care”. In August 2016, a network of medical residents from public hospitals countrywide reported severe shortages of medicines in 76% of surveyed hospitals as compared to 67% the year before. Researchers found that infant and maternal mortality rates in 2016 were significantly higher than in previous years. Severe food shortages have made it extraordinarily problematic for many people to obtain adequate nutrition. Civil society groups and two Venezuelan universities conducted a survey in 2015 in which “87 percent of interviewees nationwide—most from low-income households—said they had difficulty purchasing food” and “[t]welve percent were eating two or fewer meals a day”.
The UN Human Rights Council scrutinized Venezuela’s human rights record in November 2016. Numerous states “urged Venezuela to cooperate with UN special procedures by addressing arbitrary detention, lack of judicial independence, and shortages of medicine and food; releasing persons detained for political reasons; respecting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; and ensuring that human rights defenders can conduct their work without reprisals”. Unfortunately, Venezuela has actively voted against the scrutiny of human rights violations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and has opposed resolutions associated with human rights abuses in North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Iran.
The Venezuelan government has downplayed the severity of the country’s current state of crisis. Efforts to alleviate shortages have not been successful and have limited efforts to obtain available international humanitarian assistance. Measures taken by the Venezuelan government to restrict international funding of non-governmental organizations, along with unsubstantiated accusations by government officials and supporters that human rights defenders are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, creates a hostile environment that restricts civil society groups from effectively promoting human rights. In early 2016, Maduro issued “a presidential decree that—in addition to declaring a ‘state of exception’ and granting himself the power to suspend rights—instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to suspend all agreements providing foreign funding to individuals or organizations when ‘it is presumed’ that such agreements ‘are used for political purposes or to destabilize the Republic’” (Venezuela, 2017). Maduro received two extensions to the state of exception – in September and in November.
A surprise announcement by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on March 29, 2017 was a key catalyst in sparking the current anti-government protest. The announcement disclosed that the Court would take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly–a ruling the opposition claimed would undermine the country’s separation of powers and push Venezuela one-step closer to a one-man, dictatorial rule under Maduro. The Court argued that the National Assembly had disregarded previous Court rulings and was therefore in contempt. Three days later, the Court reversed its ruling. This reversal, unfortunately, did not bring any relief to the overwhelming distrust of the Court by opposition members.
In early May 2017, discussion of creating a new constitution began as Maduro sought to make a move following the earlier days of the prolonged protest. The president has taken steps, including signing a document establishing the terms for electing the member of a “constituent assembly”, tasked with the drafting of a new constitution.
Citizens of Venezuela persist in their efforts to demand access to basic human rights and civil liberties. Doctors rallied in the ongoing protest to address their own frustration with the current crisis. Over a thousand health care workers and opposition sympathizers marched towards the health ministry in Caracas. Police fired tear gas to drive them back, in scenes all too familiar after weeks of unrest. One protester, a 50-year old surgeon, says, “One is always afraid to come out, but we will carry on doing it until there is a change”. Despite a belief that the opposition party is plotting a coup against him, President Maduro has called for a “march for peace”. Venezuelans and the world await his plans to bring peace to fruition.
Freedom in the World 2017: Venezuela Profile. (2017). Retrieved May 2017, from Freedom House:https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/venezuela (2017). Venezuela. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.
Venezuela Crisis: What is Behind the Turmoil. (2017, May 4). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877
Venezuela Leader Launches Constitution Overhaul. (2017, May 23). Retrieved May 2017, from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-leader-launches-constitution-overhaul-363182
Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally bt Health Care Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416
Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally by HealthCare Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved May 2017,from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416
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